Whilst writing a book on tracing ancestors in British India, I explored the character and actions of one of the most notorious Britons in India, Robert Clive (1725-1774). Later he became Baron Clive of Plassey but was popularly known as ‘the conqueror of India’, or simply ‘Clive of India’. Clive is central to the history of British involvement in India for, without him, it is unlikely that the British East India Company (EIC) would ever have gained the power that they did.
Throughout the eighteenth century Britain waged war with age-old enemy, France. The conflict spread beyond Europe, affecting EIC trade in India. Clive, the son of a Shropshire squire, rose to prominence in India after he defeated a French-Indian force at the siege of Arcot in 1751. The Indians nicknamed him Sabit Jang, Steady in War.
Clive was appointed Governor of Bengal on two occasions: once from 1757-60 and secondly in 1765. The first time was after he had defeated the Nawab of Bengal, Siraj ud Daula, at the Battle of Plassey (Palashi) in June 1757. This battle is regarded as the turning point in Indian history: the time when the British changed from being traders in India to becoming landowners and rulers. The battle was fought in response to the Nawab’s attacks on EIC factories and their base in Calcutta in 1756. During these attacks, the Nawab was assisted by the French.
It was at the EIC’s trading post at Calcutta, Fort William, that the Nawab’s armies captured between sixty and one hundred and fifty British prisoners, imprisoned them in a tiny cell and left many of them to suffocate to death. The size of the cell and the number of Britons who died is disputed by historians, but the incident became remembered as the legend of the Black Hole of Calcutta. Clive drew from the horrified reaction of Britain to this incident to justify his consequent aggression.
As a man, he is remembered for his military prowess, cunning and greed. Clive had showed his cunning prior to the Battle of Plassey, when he persuaded Siraj ud Doula’s rival and uncle, Mir Jafar, to defect to the British side. He was also accused of corruption: despite defending his actions, he committed suicide in London shortly afterwards.
It was from Mir Jafar that Clive was given £234,000 (equivalent to £34 million today). Despite this, during his second term as Governor of Bengal, Clive reduced the Bengali treasury by some 5 million dollars. Clive also put up rents in Bengal, leading to famines and displacement. The Bengal famine of 1769-70 particularly increased antipathy against nabobs like him: Walpole wrote, ‘What think you of the famine in Bengal, in which three million perished, being caused by a monopoly of provisions, by the servants of the East India Company?’ (Walpole Letters, V, 378)
The nabobs of the Georgian age, men like Clive and Thomas Pitt, were senior officials in India who took vast riches back to Britain. The Age of Enlightenment was opening eighteenth century minds and encouraging an intellectual curiosity in all cultures and philosophies, including those in India. Amongst the nabobs this curiosity manifested itself in collecting Asian art and antiquities. During 1760-1830 many great collections were formed in India, notably that of the later impeached Governor General Warren Hastings (1732-1818). The nabobs preferred collecting miniature paintings and small, but valuable, items of furniture. These were easy to transport around India and back to Britain, where they would be displayed in the grand setting of magnificent stately homes. Some collectors even brought foodstuffs: when the Indian treasures of Thomas Alexander Cobb (1788-1836) of the 37th Native Infantry were sold after his death, several of the mango and guava jellies and chutneys he had brought back sold for more than some of his paintings (Christie’s 24 & 26 May 1837).
Robert Clive brought many of his Indian treasures to Claremont, his great house near Esher in Surrey. However, a large part of what is on display at Powis Castle today was brought to Wales by Robert’s eldest son, Edward, 2nd Lord Clive (1754-1839). In 1784, Edward married Lady Henrietta Antonia Herbert (1758-1830), daughter of the Earl of Powis. Later, in 1798, Edward became Governor of Madras and was thus well-placed to receive and bring back his own treasures. Lady Clive kept extensive diaries during their time in Madras, which reveal her own passion for collecting and give an insight into the history of the objects.
One of the most dramatic events that occurred during Edward’s governorship was the defeat and death of Tipu Sultan, the Tiger of Mysore, in 1799. Following this, the spoils of his treasury were divided between the soldiers, apportioned according to rank. Colonel Arthur Wellesley (later the Duke of Wellington) was ordered by his older brother, the Governor-General, Lord Mornington, to ‘preserve the most significant contents of Tipu’s palace’. Mornington then presented a small part of the Sultan’s throne to Lady Clive – a bejewelled tiger’s head from the arm rest, covered in rubies, emeralds and diamonds. This and other items from the Sultan’s palace at Seringapatam made their way back with Lady Clive to Britain. It was on her way home in 1801 that Lady Clive was told of the death of her brother, the Earl of Powis, who was unmarried with no heir. After this, Powis Castle was inherited by Lady Clive’s husband, Edward. He became Earl of Powis in 1804, after his own return to Britain, and the Castle became home to the Clive Collection.
Besides paintings, this collectionof ‘Indian Jewels, Curiosities, Arms etc.’ includes ‘India’s indigenous traditions’ such as bronze gods; ‘objects signalling the preoccupations and life styles of India’s nobility’ such as the ‘paraphernalia of the aristocracy with whom Clive came into contact’ like Mughal fly-whisks and Robert Clive’s jewelled hookahs; and ‘European-style furniture’. Many items of armoury and weaponry are also featured, including the sword of Tipu Sultan and the iron tusk defences of elephants. The remaining pieces of the enormous elephant armour are held in the Royal Armouries in Leeds http://www.royalarmouries.org/about-us/
Source: Mildred Archer, Christopher Rowell, Robert Skelton, Treasures from India: The Clive Collection at Powis Castle (The National Trust, 1987)