From A Peace Proposal To A Hurried Attack: The Events That Led To The Battle Of Plassey

In the book, Sudeep Chakravarti looks at why the Battle of Plassey remains such a fascinating story even today.
Siraj Ud Daulah's artillery on its movable platform. 
Siraj Ud Daulah's artillery on its movable platform. 

News of the attack on Hugli on 10 and 11 January had spurred an ‘exasperated’ Siraj to move quickly, Orme writes in an unparalleled account of this stage of the conflict. Siraj marched again for Calcutta, bringing with him loyalists as well as disaffected generals and officials like Mir Jafar and Rai Durlabh—by some accounts, to keep them close.

Nearly all historians and chroniclers liberally refer to Orme for descriptions of the battle over Calcutta, as they do for so much of the Carnatic Wars and some aspects of the battle at Plassey. This work is no exception. Although some critics disparage him as a Company historian, Orme’s aggregation of information and records, eyewitness accounts of key Company-and-Crown players, and narrative ability remain admirable by any era’s yardstick. (Unless otherwise indicated the quoted material in this chapter is from Orme’s account.)

Now the Seths and Umachand were both caught in a bind. The situation was delicate. Even as they chafed under Siraj’s domination, they couldn’t be seen to be against him—certainly to appear as ‘friends to the English’, as Orme puts it. So, they played the double game. The Seths asked their trusted agent Ranjit Rai to ‘attend’ Siraj and at the same time, ‘ordered him to correspond with Colonel Clive’.

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For his part Umachand, both a merchant and wealthy landlord in Calcutta, wanted to recoup his losses on account of the siege of Calcutta the previous June. In order to do so he maintained links with the British, as we have seen, and also found it profitable to travel to visit Murshidabad, where he cosied up to Mohanlal, Siraj’s confidante. He managed to regain some of the property confiscated after the siege. Beholden to both Siraj and the Company, he had every interest in ‘promoting the pacification’.

Meanwhile, the British, now reinforced and rejuvenated, with Clive and Watson both at hand, prepared for Siraj. A fortified camp was established, with several outposts, a kilometre-and-a-half north of Calcutta, and less than a kilometre inland from the Hugli. The large lake and adjoining marshes to the east of the ‘Morattoe’ Ditch (eastern suburbs of the present day), ensured that Siraj’s army would have to pass this camp. Artillery was boosted by the arrival of the Marlborough—the ship that sprang a leak after leaving Madras—which brought several dozen cannon and more troops.

As the British prepared to meet him, one part of Siraj’s army began to cross the river north of the destroyed settlement of Hugli on 30 January, while the rest continued south, on the eastern bank. There was some concern among the British that the French would join Siraj as the force on the west bank passed Chandannagar, but the French still maintained the decorum of neutrality of the Ganges, even with news of the war in Europe having reached Bengal. They also declined military assistance to Siraj (a dynamic we shall shortly discuss in the chapter ‘The French Connection’). They did this, Orme observes, even though it was certainly in their interest to have done the opposite ‘without delay’.

But Clive fretted, as was typical with him in uncertain situations: ‘...he despaired of victory,’ Orme continues. Even with British reinforcements Siraj still had the numbers.

Clive wrote to Siraj the same day proposing peace—an initiative of Ranjit Rai. ‘The Nabob answered with expressions of cordiality; but continued his march.’

A flurry of messages continued between the two parties carried, among others, by Khwaja Petrus. There was a brief lull on 2 February as Siraj took stock, and appeared as if he would receive representatives. That went nowhere. On the following morning his van was seen in ‘full march’ towards Calcutta, framed by the flames of villages it had passed. Then his forces split as they approached the ambush Clive had prepared for them—the fortified camp. One branch took a road on a rise, the other carried on to the corridor British forces had planned. ‘Colonel Clive, perhaps not imprudently, unwilling to divide his force, and equally so to break off the negotiation with the Nabob, suffered the troops in sight to pass unmolested,’ relates Orme, ‘who spread themselves without the Morattoe ditch, and a body of their Louchees, or plunderers, who are armed with clubs, passed into the company’s territory about noon, and attacked the houses of the natives in the northern part of the town.’ It was similar to the approach of the previous June—the only possible overland approach for attacking Calcutta, with water bodies and marshes to the east and British naval firepower dominating the Hugli. Company forces met them at Perring’s redoubt, and in the skirmish that followed, several of the Bengal soldiers were killed and about fifty taken prisoner. This stopped Siraj’s attack.

But his army continued to fill the plains north of the city, and to the east and southeast of the British advance camp. It’s here that part of Siraj’s forces then entrenched itself in a garden. This ‘insult’ provoked Clive into an attack with a large number of his troops. But the Bengal troops had nine cannon which began their fire. Cavalry lined up on either side of the garden. Clive saw it was ‘hazardous’ and ‘restrained the action to a cannonade’. It continued for an hour.
Both sides drew some blood, but Clive withdrew to make his camp before dark.

Robert Clive at the Battle of Plassey in Bengal, 23rd June 1757. 
Robert Clive at the Battle of Plassey in Bengal, 23rd June 1757. 

On the morning of 4 February, the main body of Siraj’s troops followed the corridors that the van had taken a day earlier. Siraj himself was still several kilometres to the rear. He sent a letter inviting British representatives for a parley—a gesture the British expected would be made two days earlier—at Nababganj, a village to the north, deep inside the territory his troops controlled. ‘...Mr. Walsh and Mr. Scrafton were immediately sent,’ writes Orme.

When they arrived, however, they discovered Siraj had already moved elsewhere. They followed a stream of his army to finally reach his ‘quarters’ in the evening to discover that the nawab was much closer than anyone expected: Siraj had set up camp at a garden belonging to Umachand which the 3 February log of Captain Alexander Mcleod, captain of the Marlborough, records as ‘Hamel Johns Gardens’—within the Company’s territory, south of the Maratha Ditch. Siraj had surprised Clive twice in two days.

Orme gives a dramatic account of the moment Walsh and Scrafton were brought to Siraj’s camp:

Here they were introduced by Rungeet Roy to the prime minister Roydoolub, who suspecting that they intended to assassinate the Nabob, desired to examine whether they had pistols concealed, and then insisted that they should quit their swords; but finding that they would not submit to this humiliation, he conducted them to the Durbar, where the Nabob was sitting in full state, accompanied by all his principal officers: many others of inferior degree, such as were of the largest stature, and bore the greatest marks of ferocity in their countenances, had likewise been selected to attend on this occasion; who, to appear still more terrible, were dressed in thick stuffed garments, with enormous turbans, and during the audience sat scowling at the deputies [Walsh and Scrafton], as if they only waited the signal to murder them.

The two envoys pointed out to Siraj that he had entered the Company’s territory even as he was ‘amusing Colonel Clive with offers of peace’. Orme picks up the story:

...after which they delivered a paper containing their proposals, which the Nabob read, and having whispered to some of his officers, desired the deputies to confer with the Duan, and dismissed the assembly. As the deputies were going out, Omichund, who had been present at the audience, advised them to take care of themselves; adding, with a very significant look, that the Nabob’s cannon was not yet come up. The deputies suspecting that the Nabob intended to detain them prisoners, ordered their attendants to extinguish their lights; and instead of going to the tent of the Duan, hastened along the high road within the Morattoe ditch to Perring’s redoubt, and from thence to the camp.

This decided the matter for Clive. He would attack early next morning, the 5th of February.

Excerpted with permission from Plassey: The Battle that Changed the Course of Indian History by Sudeep Chakravarti, Aleph Book Company.