Following a telephone discussion with LSP about the value of sepoys (native troops), and because it was a November siege, I settled on this to blog about today


Robert Clive

Robert Clive, the one-time clerk in the British East India Company, was besieged in the citadel of Arcot by a vastly superior French and Indian force; under Raza Sahib, son of the Nawab (semi-autonomous Muslim prince, under the Mughals) of the Carnatic. Clive’s force was comprised of a mere 200 British and 300 Sepoy (Indian) troops; against which Raza had some 7,420 ( 2,000 native regular troops, 5,000 irregulars, 120 French infantry, a battery of French guns, and 300 native cavalry).

The siege lasted for only a few weeks, but even so Clive’s force was reduced by disease and casualties to a mere 120 British and 200 Sepoys. Despite this, Clive conducted an active defense; sallying out and destroying the French battery and temporarily scattering Raza’s native troops. Throughout the siege, the native troops showed no ability to stand-up to British Redcoats in a fight.

As a relief force gathered, Raza decided to storm the fort. He offered Clive inducements to surrender. Clive answered coldly that his (Raza’s) father was a usurper, his army a rabble, and that he should think twice before he sent such cravens into a breach defended by English soldiers!

The following day, November 14 (a Muslim festival) Raza’s forces assaulted the fort in mass.

The enemy advanced, driving before them elephants whose foreheads were armed with iron plates. It was expected that the gates would yield to the shock of those living battering-rams. But the huge beasts no sooner felt the English musket-balls, than they turned round and rushed furiously away, trampling on the multitude which had urged them forward. A raft was launched on the water which filled one part of the ditch. Clive, perceiving that the gunners at that post did not understand their business, took the management of a piece of artillery himself, and cleared the raft in a few minutes.

Where the moat was dry the assailants mounted with great boldness, but the British fire was heavy and well directed that they made no progress. The rear ranks of the British kept the front ranks well supplied with a constant succession of loaded muskets, and every shot told upon the living mass below. After these desperate assaults the besiegers retired behind the ditch.

The struggle lasted about an hour. Four hundred of the assailants fell, while the defenders lost only five or six men. The besieged passed an anxious night, looking for a renewal or the attack. But when day broke the enemy were no more to be seen. Under cover of fire, Raza Sahib had raised the siege and withdrawn his army to Vellore, leaving behind several guns and a large quantity of ammunition.

Arcot had lasting consequences. Clive and the British triumph against overwhelming odds created a lasting legend among the Indians of British invincibility.

Indian soldiers soon began enlisting (“taking the salt”) in large numbers in “John Company’s” army. The British would soon establish a powerful army that would go on to conquer India; an army of valiant and loyal Sepoys serving under British officers. Clive would go on to greater successes, culminating in the Battle of Plassey six years later.

Modern Indians don’t have much respect for Clive, or his ambition and military success in bringing British Trade to India through the East India Company. You can make of it what you will. He was clearly a man of his time. Some called him a racist, sure of British superiority. If he hadn’t been that, and would have faltered, the French and Indians would have overrun him at Arcot. He wouldn’t have gone on to open India for the John Company.

I had a talk with a fighter pilot friend with significant combat stick time and we agreed that in our respective professions, if you didn’t KNOW you were the best, you’d end up dead. I suspect that the same could be said of Clive.


  1. Kipling said it well once again about the bravery and loyalty of Sepoys. The Grave of the Hundred Head comes to mind.

    • They made a pile of their trophies,
      High as tall man’s chin,
      Head upon head distorted,
      Set in a sightless grin,
      Anger and pain and terror,
      Stamped on the scorched skin.

      Subadar Prag Tewarri
      Put the head of the Boh
      On the top of the mound of triumph,
      The head of his son below —
      With the sword and the peacock-banner
      That the world might behold and know.

      • There’s a widow in sleepy Chester
        Who weeps for her only son;
        There’s a grave on the Pabeng River,
        A grave that the Burmans shun;
        And there’s Subadar Prag Tewarri
        Who tells how the work was done.

        A bit rugged for today’s English Literature professors.

        • You know, if the communists, pajama boys/bun boys and mutants want to push matters, those English Lit. professors may come to appreciate Brother Kipling’s words more fully.

          Nobody wants to play hard. Nobody sane.

          But it doesn’t mean that it won’t happen.

          • Umpteenth repetition of the return to the Feminian Sandstones.
            We’ve seem to have hit every paragraph and event in that particular work. Some think moving forward to the last stanza somehow qualifies as progress…sigh.

          • Frank refers to The Gods of the Copybook Headings. In the poem the feminian sandstones are a geological stratum representing a former age in which sexual mores declined as ours have, and that the price to pay for this is extremely steep.

            I received an e-mail about caste in India. I am not an expert, but will lay it out as best I can. Correct me as you are moved to do so. I may be over simplifying. Some assert that the British influenced the way caste is viewed in India. I think that unlikely. It’s too enmeshed in the way Hinduism is practiced and understood in our times to be separable from it.

            Anthropology of Caste:

            The claim is not, Dirks (2001) has stressed, that the British invented caste ex nihilo, but that they conceptually and administratively redefined it. Once formed and conceptualized within multiple, local logics—military, agrarian, mercantile, and (in the signal case of the Brahmin) religious—all of which were intrinsically political, caste was now subsumed under a single, allegedly apolitical, specifically Hindu, and pan-Indian social order. Defining caste religiously—as the ritual essence of a newly imagined Hindu community—made outsiders of Muslims and undermined real communities of allied Hindu and Muslim játis. Dalits, conversely, were proclaimed (ritually disadvantaged) Hindus in the 1871 census, and were soon embraced as such by Hindu nationalists and reformers like Gandhi, who saw their inclusion within Hinduism as vital to national strength. Equally significant, however, was the fact that geographically disparate Dalit játis had even been brought together into a single, officially recognized category. For in the 1920s they too would begin to assert an autonomous political identity, under the leadership of Dalit statesman B. R. Ambedkar, and to reject the Gandhian claim that their interests lay with the Hindu community and caste elites.

            When the British left India, Hindu feudal society arguably became worse for Dalits. Hindus control all the means of production, all the branches of government – the Dalit Panther manifesto is illuminating here – so I don’t think it’s as easy as saying caste is something that was externally implanted and therefore can be removed.

            I’d be interested to know how a village in India managed to divorce themselves from the caste system because they would’ve had to completely reorganize their production system, their land ownership their marriage customs, and I’m all for political optimism but I haven’t heard of any pocket of Hindu society doing such a thing.

            There is a persistence of caste despite years of attempted reform. A friend of mine, an Indian (35 or so), born in the US to parents who have lived most of their lives in the US just had an arranged marriage – its hard not to locate the blame in the continuance of Hindu ideology and practices while separating the (evil) British Raj.

            I also know a number of Chinese and Vietnamese men and women whose parents arranged marriages for them, and they are neither Hindu nor are they connected strongly to China or Vietnam. Culture is very difficult to change – and who says that it should?

  2. My father was a CBI vet with a gift for learning languages. He spoke the local dialect of the Assam region and had a high regard for the locals but not the British. Wish he wa still alive so I could ask him why.

    His other languages were peon Spanish and Navajo.

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