How the British Conquered India

British conquests in India began with the battle of Plassey in June 1757 because the nawab Siraj-ud-daula had taken Calcutta and looted the British trading warehouses there. Then he imprisoned 146 British men and women in a prison cell designed to hold 6 prisoners of which only 21-23 emerged alive the next morning. The incident is known in history as 'The Black Hole of Calcutta." 

This incident forced the British to fight Siraj-ud-daula, which ended in their victory at the Battle of Plassey, resulting in their ruling Indian territory for the first time after 150 years of their trading presence in India. The British often had to fight in India with armies six to twenty times their number, because soldiers were often needed in other parts of the Empire around the world.

The book notes all the battles fought by the British in India and describes many in detail, with the intrigues of the different warring parties. These include the battle of Plassey, the battle of Buxar, the Carnatic wars, the Mysore Maratha wars, the Anglo-Mysore wars, the Anglo-Maratha wars, the Anglo-Burmese wars, the Anglo-Afghan wars, the Gurkha war, subjugation of the Emirs of Sindh,  the two Sikh wars, and the 1857 Sepoy Mutiny, also known as India's First War of Independence (there was no second war of independence). 

Here are excerpts from the book on the Battle of Plassey.


The Battle of Plassey

After the death of Alivardi Khan, the nawab of Bengal, Bihar, and Orissa, his grandson Siraj-ud-daula, at age twenty-three, became the next nawab. He accused the English of having taken advantage of Alivardi Khan’s illness to strengthen their military fortifications in Calcutta. He feared that the Europeans might turn Bengal upside down as they had recently done in the Deccan and the Carnatic regions.   

The accusation was not completely accurate. The British had mounted some guns along the riverfront to defend themselves against French ships if they came up the Hoogly River, whereas any attack by Indian rulers would come by land, and the English had built no defenses against that possibility. Though the English had been able to convince Alivardi Khan, Siraj-ud-daula was not convinced. Moreover, there was common talk at the capital, Murshidabad, that the vast wealth of the English could be easily captured.

  As soon as Siraj-ud-daula became nawab, he marched against his cousin, the governor of Purnia, whom he suspected of plotting against him. But he turned back to his capital and instead seized the English factory (a compound containing warehouses and residences) at Kasimbazar on June 4, 1756. Then he marched on Calcutta and captured it on June 20, 1756, after three days of fighting. Europeans were rounded up and the prisoners, numbering around 146, were shut up in a military prison known as “the black hole”—a space eighteen feet by less than fifteen feet—designed to hold at most six prisoners. The temperature reached 104 degrees Fahrenheit (about 40 degrees Celsius). The next day, only twenty-one to twenty-three of them emerged alive, the rest having been trampled to death or suffocated.  

The news of the capture of Kasimbazar and the atrocity, which became known as “the Black Hole of Calcutta” reached Madras piecemeal by August 16, 1756. The atrocity had to be avenged. Robert Clive was sent from Madras with Admiral Watson to retake Calcutta. With eight hundred Europeans and one thousand sepoys (Indian soldiers serving with the British), he retook Calcutta on January 2, 1757. By this time, news of the Seven Years’ War in Europe, in which the English and the French were on opposite sides, had reached India. The French factory at Chandernagore was attacked by Admiral Watson, which surrendered on March 23, 1757. The French fled and were sheltered by Siraj-ud-daula, which was cause for further conflict.  

The English position was far from secure even though Clive and Watson had retaken Calcutta, and after negotiations, Siraj-ud-daula had restored English privileges. The French could arrive anytime in great force from the Deccan and take Madras. Or the English would have to give up Bengal to defend Madras, and Siraj-ud-daula could retake Calcutta.  

Siraj-ud-daula (A Muslim) had alienated many prominent Hindus in his province, including Jagat Seths, a family of Hindu bankers that had greatly helped in the establishment of his predecessor, Alivardi Khan. Because of Siraj-ud-daula’s ill temper and indulgent lifestyle, many feared for their lives when called into his presence...They all conspired to overthrow Siraj-ud-daula.  

 The extent of assistance from the conspirators was uncertain. At best, the English expected that in the battle, the conspirators would remain neutral. If the conspiracy was successful, they would reap the benefits. If not, they would continue their relationship with the nawab... Siraj-ud-daula was probably informed of the conspiracy but was too irresolute to take advantage of the information. 

  Siraj-ud-daula moved his army of fifty thousand, including thirty-five thousand foot soldiers and fifteen thousand cavalry, mostly skilled Pathans from the northwest, to the village of Plassey. They took fifty-three cannon and were assisted by forty or fifty French who had survived Chandernagore under Jacques Law.  On his side, Clive had 150 sailors from Admiral Watson’s squadron with 800 of his Europeans, 2,100 Indian sepoys, 8 six-pounder guns, and 2 howitzers.  

By 8:00 a.m. on June 23, 1757, both armies were in place at Plassey. The French fired first. The English returned fire but pulled back to the edge of a mango grove for cover after half an hour, as they could not afford too many casualties. Encouraged by the English move, Siraj-ud-daula’s guns moved closer and kept firing. After three hours of cannonade, the monsoon opened up with heavy rain for a full hour. Did God intervene in the battle? The English were used to campaigning under the impact of the monsoon rains and had brought tarpaulins to cover their guns, whereas Siraj-ud-daula’s men had not. The English covered their ammunition to keep it dry, whereas the rain ruined Siraj-ud-daula’s ammunition, rendering it unusable.  

Thinking that the English guns must have suffered the same fate, Siraj-ud-daula’s one loyal general, Mir Madan, attacked. But the English guns opened up. Mir Madan was severely wounded and was carried back to Siraj-ud-daula, where he died. Meanwhile, Siraj-ud-daula’s other two commanders, Rai Durlabh and Mir Jafar, and his cavalry remained inactive. Siraj-ud-daula then realized that the story of a plot against him was true, and on the advice of his betrayers, he ordered a withdrawal. After informing the French of the conspiracy and counseling them to flee, Siraj-ud-daula fled on a camel with two thousand horsemen as an escort to his capital, Murshidabad.   

The commanders then began to withdraw from the camp, though the French refused to retreat and continued fighting. On seeing the camp withdrawing, Major Kirkpatrick advanced with his men, though Clive had resolved to make a night attack. Once the advance started, it was impossible to check it, and Clive acquiesced. Though Siraj-ud-daula’s generals had conspired against him, the soldiers were not in on the conspiracy and continued fighting. Their casualties mounted due to the English guns, and by the evening, all resistance had ebbed away. The French also retreated, and the English were in possession of the camp.  A few days later, Siraj-ud-daula was executed by Mohammad Ali Beg under the orders of Mir Jafar’s son, Mir Miran, and Mir Jafar became the nawab.