Sunday, January 15, 2017

Book Review 378: Clive of India

CLIVE OF INDIA, by Mark Bence-Jones. 377 pages, illustrated. Constable paperback

In 1707 the last man to control a really powerful Muslim army died. This was Aurangzeb, Great Mogul. Within 50 years, Robert Clive at the head of an absurdly small army — in modern terms, a company of Europeans and 2 battalions of sepoys — overthrew what was left of the Mogul’s empire and inaugurated the British Raj.

He didn’t mean to.

Mark Bnce-Jones’ forthrightly opinionated biography “Clive of India” describes how Clive, a young man sent out to work in the rag trade, was thrust into a fluid situation and made the most of it. His experience was slight: a few years working around Mysore, where he learned something about managing Indians, primarily the value of an imposing confidence.

He had no military training and operated entirely on the principle of overawing opponents. For that reason he avoided encounters with the French or Dutch.

Despite his genius for manipulating Indians, he knew very little about Indian customs and cared for them not at all, learning only pidgen and a bit of Tamil. No Persian, which was the language of the Muslim rulers. Bence-Jones makes the point that he had a concentrated course in dealing with the southern Indians, as a trader and by sleeping with the women, but that did not prepare him for the different culture of Bengal. Nevertheless, he managed his way through the murderous, treacherous intrigues of Bengal, Oudh and Delhi with only minor setbacks.

His guiding precept was to deal honestly with the Indians. Not fairly; at times he was brutal. But he adhered (mostly) to agreements.

The most amazing of the many amazing aspects of his short career  — only about 12 years of military and government activity in all — was that he did it while having to depend upon translators. These men seem to have been loyal and honest — more loyal and a lot more honest than some of the East India Company employees Clive had to deal with in India and back in England.

Clive outmaneuvered his English foes as adroitly as he had the Indians. He was more successful than his successor Warren Hastings though Hastings was, in Bence-Jones’ judgment (which he never hesitates to give) the better administrator.

Bence-Jones grew up in India and uses his intimate knowledge of the place to correct errors and misconceptions from library-bound historians. Clive was one of the most controversial Englishmen and remains so. Bence-Jones attempts to expunge some of the legends and outright distortions that cling to his memory among English people.

These will be obscure to American readers but Clive occupies a position in English national memory akin to that of George Custer in America’s. Everyone has absorbed a lot about the men, whether they cared or not, most of it inaccurate.

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