The Man Absent for His Own Trial
Condemnation Without Representation
Major General Robert Clive suffers the same unfortunate tragedy that plagues the entirety of controversial men in history whose legacies have been publicly captured in the form of a statue. The tragedy that I am referring to involves the removal or relocation of these statues, due to the historical nature and actions of those men who the statues are representative of, without these men being present to defend their actions. What kind of argument can be made in favor of tearing down these historical monuments? Is it fair to hold a man in contempt for doing what was once legal, but is now in violation of the law? Where are the lines drawn in the context of public history and who draws them? What is public history? These are all important questions to ask when considering whether or not these statues should be removed from the public; we will consider them all and apply them to what we know about Major General Robert Clive.
First: What is Public History?
Public history in its entirety encompasses a broad spectrum of representations of the past and examines them under a lens that emphasizes their present context. Public history can be a museum, a document, a history book, a podcast or a place. It is our lending of scrutiny to the transitional process that is moving our knowledge of history from its origins to our present lives. In this particular case, we will be discussing the statue of Major General Robert Clive, also known as Clive of India.
Who was Robert Clive?
Robert Clive was an Englishman born in 1725; he was the oldest of thirteen brothers and sisters and was notorious for his ill-mannered temper. A troublemaker, Clive was eventually sent off to India to work for the British East India Company or EIC, who served as the primary administrative trade agency between the British Empire and India. Clive arrived in India during a peculiar time, when power was changing hands and shifting from the Mughal Empire to fractured Indian conglomerates and their respective colonial influences from Europe – namely Great Britain and France. This would leave a vacuum and window of opportunity for Clive and the EIC to sink their nails into the resources and power that India had to offer. Clive was indispensable in his role of ultimately delivering Bengal and India to the British East India Company, a move that would change the course of the world and spark backlash until this very day in light of his selfish interests and colonial motives.
Clive’s Journey – from Riches to More Riches
To add to the growingly ambitious climate in India, the EIC was competing for economic and colonial control with, you guessed it, the French – more specifically the French East India Company (FEIC). In 1744 hostilities reached a breaking point; the British attacked the French. During a counterattack by the French within the following year, Robert Clive was captured and imprisoned by his European rivals after refusing to surrender to them. He would later sneak out disguised as an Indian and travel 50 miles back to the nearest British post to rejoin the EIC. It was here that due to witness testimony of Clive’s courage and valor during battle, British Major Lawrence would assign the now Lieutenant Clive to command about 730 troops who were comprised of both British soldiers and Indian mercenaries for an upcoming assault on an Indian stronghold whose sympathies were with the French. This would mark the start of Clive’s earned reputation as an exceptional military strategist and soldier.
The “Heaven-Born General”
Fort Deikottai, Tanjore
It is an understatement to say that Clive was a natural-born commander and military strategist. It would take quite a bit of time to outline the extensive details surrounding each battle that he took part in, but during his first with the rank of Lieutenant, Clive demonstrated his commitment to the men that served with him. He had been told by his superior officer (Major Lawrence) that a full frontal assault led by Clive on an Indian fort in Tanjore would serve as a diversion to allow the Major to flank the forces from the side and rear. However, Clive lost contact with 700 of his 730 troops on his way to battle, leaving him with a small group of 30. Regardless of this, Clive charged forward into the fray, upholding his end of the bargain in the battle plans.
Ironically enough, the forces at the fort in Tanjore saw a group of only thirty men and decided to abandon the fort to decimate them, which allowed for Major Lawrence to easily cut them down. Clive and only a handful of others survived the ordeal, with Major Lawrence showing up just barely in time to rescue them. However, if all 730 troops had been there, the siege may have been more difficult, as the entire Indian force may not have ridden out to meet Clive on the front. Call it luck or tactical expertise, but one thing is certain, Clive is a man of his word regardless of circumstance or futility.
Did Clive take part in this act of valor because of his own selfish interests and ambitions or because of his commitment to his men? Should Clive still be remembered in a sense of heroism for this act, when he was leading an assault on a foreign entity whose land and resource he meant to seize? These are important questions to ask when considering the context of Clive’s public history and remembrance; we will discuss them further later.
The Siege of Arcot
The Siege of Arcot is one of three events highlighted on the statue of Robert Clive. This siege is arguably Clive’s most impressive military feat. It is not 1751 and the EIC has had funds cut, their men are unprepared and not battle-hardened. The French have invested sizeable resources in their forces and influence throughout India. For this reason, Clive’s commander refuses to attack a French fort and disobeys orders. Clive gets permission to march 500 men through egregious winds and rains to initiate a surprise siege to the fort of Arcot. The men at Arcot are so intimidated when they hear a British force is marching through hell to siege Arcot that they abandon their posts, expecting a massive force.
Clive arrives at Arcot to an abandoned fort, he takes it without resistance. By this time, the Indian influence at the time sends his son, Raza, with 4,000 men to take Arcot back. They set up camp outside of the fort. By this time, Clive has sent 200 of his 500 men back to a British stronghold for fear that the Indian power would attempt to backdoor it instead, leaving Clive with only 300 to defend Arcot. Clive, being an absolute madman, decides during a stormy night to raid the camps with less than a tenth of the men that his opposition has at his disposal. For a time, Raza retreats in confusion and fear, thinking that the small force that aggressed them was larger than it was. This buys time for Clive, until eventually an all-out siege is laid upon Arcot. This siege takes place over the period of a month, where Raza suffers the loss of over 300 men, while Clive loses only six, refusing to surrender the fort. Eventually peace agreements are made between the EIC and French (and thus the Indian powers as well). This is where the title, “Heaven-Born General,” was coined for General Clive.
We must then ask ourselves again, can a distinction be made between Clive’s brilliance in combat and securing of British interests or does his colonial conquest paint him as a villain? Is there moral ambiguity? Can he be forgiven of what he would later be guilty of in India due to what was accepted in the context of the time? Let us finish his story so that we can answer these questions.
The Battle of Plessey
Clive’s final militaristic triumph was hardly a feat of battle, though it is one of the three plaques that are inscribed on his statue and recognized as one of his most notable achievements. This is because his victory in the Battle of Plessey essentially led to his acquisition of Bengal in India and its passing from an autocratic entity to a subordinate of the EIC – perhaps the most controversial of all things that Clive did in his time. The Battle of Plessey was again between French and British soldiers, with Indian forces on either side, only this time the French had outnumbered the British by a whopping 20:1 ratio. Clive knew he could not simply defeat the French in traditional warfare, so he struck a deal with an Indian General on the side of the French-Indian army, who commanded about 75% of the French and Indian forces. Unorthodox for Clive, he won the day with a backhanded agreement, eventually acquiring Bengal for the East India Company, taking a sizable profit for himself.
The Aftermath in India
India following its colonialization by the EIC spiraled into chaos, famine and corruption. India’s treasury faced massive debt to British entities that consisted of the EIC, General Clive and the British colonies. This debt could not have piled up at a worse time, as India was experiencing a famine that was taking Indian lives in the hundreds of thousands. Political corruption was occurring on a large scale, with collusion and exploitation taking place in the higher levels of government that would result in unrealistic taxation and exploitation of the Indian peoples.
Clive, who had returned home following the acquisition of India and Bengal, heard about the distress that had come about following his conquest. As a last ditch effort to stabilize India, he returned and implemented laws that would attempt to mend the political corruption that plagued the country, but was unsuccessful in his efforts. Upon returning home he was questioned by the EIC, asking if the share of profit he took from India was justified or if he was overstepping his boundaries with respect to the EIC. By the end of his trial he responded, “Take my fortune, but save my honour.”
‘Consider the situation in which the Victory of Plassey had placed on me. A great Prince was dependent upon my pleasure; an opulent city lay at my mercy; its richest bankers bid against each other for my smiles; I walked through vaults which were thrown open to me alone, piled on either hand with gold and jewels! By God, Mr. Chairman, at this moment I stand astonished at my own moderation.’ -Robert Clive
What Does the Clive Monument Represent Today?
Who, When and Where?
Who: Sir William Forwood, George Curzon and John Tweed
Where: King Charles’ Street – Whitehall, London
We cannot hope to presently understand public history without first knowing who it came from, where it came from and from the time period in whence it came. These details are important in evaluating the motives and historical context in which statues are erected. A highlighting feature of public history is the ability for its meaning to evolve and change over time in the minds of those who behold it. For example, the statue of a colonial ruler located in British India in 1780 would be regarded much differently by the public than if it were erected in 1900’s India. The location of the monument would also influence how it is regarded by the public; it would be vastly different if it were in Great Britain instead. Furthermore, public opinion on the statue may shift with the passing years. What was once a point of pride for the average British citizen in the early 1900’s might become a reflective thought on the colonial nature of 18th century Great Britain.
The Politician, the Messenger and the Sculptor
It takes two to tango, but it takes three to get the approval, funding and sculptural talent to erect a monument honoring the man who led the vanguard in the 18th century British colonial conquest of India, by means of the East India Company, that would later lead to widespread controversy, criticism and scrutiny among other things. Three is definitely the way to go. Have no fear! This is why discourse is so relevant in public history, so that we can learn from it and boggle our minds with stimulating questions.
It was on the 8th of February in 1907 that Sir William would send a letter to a small mainstream newspaper you may have heard of, The Times, pointing out that monuments had never been made in honor of Major General Robert Clive. He requested a movement that would fund such an endeavor, that which a conservative politician by the name of George Curzon heard and reverberated, eventually securing funding for the Clive Memorial Fund. John Tweed was then hired to work, his sculpture would be finished and unveiled in 1912 outside of the Gwydyr House in Whitehall, London. It was then moved to King Charles’ Street in 1916 next to what was once the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, which was also located in Whitehall London.
George Curzon is perhaps the most notable of these three figures due to his position as a statesman and his previous ties to Indian colonialism. He served as India’s viceroy from 1899 to 1905, later becoming the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs. It is worth noting that his colleagues, even those who aligned with him politically, regarded him as overly aggressive and passionate with regard to his colonial ambition in India.
It is not well documented on why exactly the statue was moved from the Gwydyr House in Whitehall to just outside of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, but the Foreign and Commonwealth Office quite obviously shares a connection to the imperialist control that Britain had in India at the time. The Gwydyr House was a privately owned establishment that would eventually be handed over to the British government to use for administrative purposes, including the Commission for Slave Compensation.
What Story Does It Tell?
The statue itself features a few bronze plaques that depict and describe what the statue’s sponsor deemed Clive’s three most noteworthy accomplishments. The first being the Siege of Arcot, the second being the Battle of Plassey and the third being The Treaty of Allahabad (giving Britain the legal means to tax India). It has come under a series of criticisms and complaints, with some calling Clive a, “colonial villain,” and, “Clive, not of India.” Some call for the statue’s removal, others call for it to be moved to a more appropriate location, rather than towering over the pedestrians on King Charles Street. One person points out that nowhere on this plaque are the Indians represented or mentioned. This is thought of as offensive to their history, as they played a large part in these transpiring events and suffered greatly as a result of it. In other words, it is a false narrative history.
Decolonization and a Multicultural Society
The social climate and attitude towards the statue in Great Britain during the precolonial and post colonial years must have been unarguably different. Following the climax of World War II and Britain’s relinquishing of their imperial control over India, it would be reasonable to assume that the general attitude regarding the statue may have changed as time passed following this occurrence. For Indians living in Britain during times of imperialism, it may have been a reminder of a dark history. It may have simply been a point of interest, perhaps even a point of feeled oppression. Following India’s emergence as an independent country, however, the British attitude towards the statue may have also altered. People may have felt pride at first glance, which may have soured to resentment or distaste for Indian foreigners living in Britain. Perhaps they reflected on the past and recognized the controversy in the actions taken by the British government overseas. Now, we are talking about statues being removed in what has become a widespread movement. This is what should be especially considered when thinking about the questions surrounding what Clive’s monument means today.
Should It Be Removed?
This question’s answer is difficult to answer, because it is the property of the British Government, giving them legal ownership over its expression and manifestation. One aspect of public history that makes it controversial in nature is the subjectivity that lies within each individual’s interpretation of it. Some Indians may find the statue to be offensive, some many not. Some British find that it makes them proud, on account of how courageous and ambitious General Clive was. Some British might find it to be glorious when considering Clive’s military prowess, while also feeling shame for his deliverance of India. At the end of the day, not every single person can be satisfied by what is done with the statue, but that is not to say that there shouldn’t be a push for the British government to represent Clive’s past with as much accuracy as possible, so that public opinion can be formed more on truth than narrative. Public pressure should be placed upon the British government to do just that.
Was General Clive a Good Man?
This is again a subjective question. I think that the point of public history in the context of statues is not to judge the lives of historical figures and then evaluate whether or not they were ultimately, “good or bad,” but rather to understand and make sense of their past experiences on an individual basis and take away knowledge that might lead to progress in society as a whole. No man or woman in history is perfect, even the act of erecting a statue is in and of itself a piece of history. The statues representation changes and evolves with time and from person to person. What is most important is awareness of what public history is and what it should be used for.
It is the responsibility of the educators of society to promote systems that encourage free-thinking, skepticism and the ability to form logically based conclusions. From then on, property is property. If the British government owns it, they may do as they please with it. That being said, the public should push, at the bare minimum, to have any information on the public icon to be as close to the truth as possible or else no information at all. The public is responsible for finding truth on their own and calling out institutions that mean to mask the truth by way of their own narratives. The internet is both dangerous and resourceful, it can provide knowledge and it can corrupt knowledge. This is why it is up to the educators of society to help develop the tools that can decipher the truth from narratives, this is the only way for public history to be universally effective as a societal practice and norm.
Bibliography and Further Reading
Chrisholm, Hugh, editor. “Clive, Lord.” The Encyclopaedia Britannica: a Dictionary of Arts, Sciences, Literature and General Information, 11th ed., vol. 5-6, Encyclopaedia Britannica Co., Ltd., 1901, pp. 534–534.
“CLIVE, Robert (1725-74), of Styche Hall, nr. Market Drayton, Salop; subsequently of Walcot Park, Salop; Claremont, Surr.; and Oakley Park, Salop”. History of Parliament Online. Retrieved 8 September 2017.
Dalrymple, William (4 March 2015). “The East India Company: The original corporate raiders”. The Guardian. Retrieved 6 June 2015.
Gibbs, Vicary (Editor) (1912). The Complete Peerage, Volume III. St Catherine’s Press.
H.E. Busteed, Echoes from Old Calcutta (Calcutta), 1908, pp.30–56.
Harvey, Robert. Clive: The life and Death of a British Emperor. Hodder and Stoughton, 1998.
Orme, Robert (1861). A History of the Military Transactions of the British Nation in Indostan from the year MDCCXLV. II. Madras: Athenaeum Press. OCLC 46390406.
- J. Marshall (1987). Bengal, The British Bridgehead: Eastern India 1740-1828. Cambridge University Press. ISBN978-0-521-25330-7.
Sir William Wilson Hunter (1886). The Indian Empire: Its Peoples, History, and Products. Trübner & Company. Retrieved 11 July 2012.