With Clive in India

He Conquered Bengal, drove the French from India and built a civil service. But was he a savior or plunderer?

"By god, Mr. Chairman, at this moment I stand astonished at my own moderation." The year is 1773. The place, the House of Commons, London. The speaker is Robert, Lord Clive of India (1725-1774). At the peak of his military fame, in 1757, Clive had been the stunning—though vastly outmanned—victor at the Battle of Plassey, which drove the French out of Bengal and placed the jewel of India atop the British crown. At the end of his career, he left British India with a firmly British-style civil service administration that would endure until India achieved independence in 1947.

This son of a minor Shropshire squire had it all—estates, land, houses, jewels, gold, art, shares, and cash, buckets of it. The wonder was that he had not come home from India with more. But jealousy created powerful enemies who sought to bring him down through accusations that he had benefited illegally during his time in India. In the end, Parliament resolved that "Robert, Lord Clive did, at the same time, render great and meritorious services to his country." He was vindicated, though the stress of it all had broken his heart. Eighteen months later, in 1774, Clive was dead.

In the intervening 226 years, few have questioned Clive's bravery, power or pluck. But the question remains: Was Clive British India's savior or plunderer, its founder or a mere profiteer?

In the end, what saved Clive's reputation was that he created in Bengal a Pax Britannica. Moreover, Plassey was the beginning of the end of French influence on the subcontinent. Without any doubt, Clive in India laid the foundation for the vast British empire that was to follow.

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