Monday, November 20, 2006

(Robber) Baron Clive of Plassey

On June 23, 1757, Robert Clive, a Lieutenant Colonel in the King's Army, led the East India Company's troops to victory against Nawab Siraj-ud-Daulah at Palashi . It was less a battle and more of a skirmish, what with the English having ensured the non-participation of about two-thirds of Siraj-ud-Daulah's army through a conspiracy. In the immediate aftermath of the victory, Clive arm-twisted his puppet Mir Jafar into paying huge sums of money to the British. He helped himself to about 20,80,000 rupees, an amount that is quoted in several places as £234,000.

I have always been frustrated at not being able to fathom the scale of the looting. Here are some indicators of scale that I have come across recently:
  • According to this account of historical money and prices in the 18th century, the upper limit of a nobleman's annual income was about £25,000. Clive's take from Palashi was nearly ten times the annual income of perhaps the richest people in England.
  • This House of Commons Library research paper tells us that the 1750 £ was worth about 150 times the 2005 £. This means that Clive's earnings amounted to £35.1 million, when expressed in modern terms. I suspect that this would be hard to beat in terms of remuneration for a day's work.
The total amount that the British extracted from the Murshidabad treasury was about £3 million. That would work out to £450 million today.


Anonymous Shunya said...

The numbers are interesting. But if you compare Clive’s remuneration on June 23rd with the modern CEO’s gain on the day his company goes IPO, it doesn’t seem that huge, does it? Like Clive, the CEO also typically builds up to that momentous day over many months and years of careful scheming and plotting.

As an aside, I can’t say I have much sympathy for the nawab, nor do I wish the events had turned out any other way. It was yet another instance of crooks colliding with crooks in the time-honored manner of wars and conquests. Far from the freedom fighter, martyr, and hapless victim of the British that he is made out to be by modern nationalistic historians, Saraj-ud-Daulah was more of a ruthless, arrogant, and cruel man focused on his own empire-building. Still, 1757 presents an interesting “what-if” of history: what if Mir Jafar had not betrayed Siraj-ud-Daulah and the British had been decimated and driven out of Bengal?

11/21/2006 7:28 AM  
Blogger MManoj said...

VP - your point about the scale of the loot is well taken (no pun intended :-) ). But the 150 multiplier for the price index from the House of Commons paper is interesting. I am no American tobacco jury, but even a 3% rate of compounding works out to be 1991 over 257 years by which time 3 million would have turned to 5973 million. In any case, I dare say the consumption baskets of the nawab's and the Clive's of this world would have probably been atypical ones. Wine, women and song perhaps? :-)

11/26/2006 6:56 PM  
Blogger VP said...


As they say, compound interest can be a bitch. Choose the long-term average inflation to be 2% and you come pretty close to the factor of 150 over about 250 years.

Your point is good though: an inflation rate of 2% seems rather low for such a long period, especially considering that much of it was before the era of any macro-economic management whatsoever.

11/27/2006 11:33 AM  
Anonymous Dukhiram said...

Per John Keay in A History Of India, Clive & Co. disbursed £1.25 million from the Bengal treasury, of which Clive, in taking only £400000, remarked upon his own 'moderation.'

To Shunya's remark, Siraj appears from all accounts to have been, well, a bit of a loose cannon, but his predecessor Alvardi Khan used the treasury for a number of public works, and his army was paid for fending off annual raids from the Bhonsles of Nagpur. In general, the Nawabs of Bengal from Murshid Quli Khan on are remarked upon for 'good government' (Keay again.) After the Bengal treasury was looted, the Company devolved tax collection to Calcutta, and attempted a number of 'interventionist experiments, often disasterous and always oppressive.'

However, to put some perspective on 'loot', Alauddin Khalji and Malik Kafur made 7 raids into South India. Ziauddin Barani, who witnessed the return to the capital of one of these expedition, reports the campaign's haul at 612 elephants, 20000 horses, 96000 maunds of gold, and countless boxes of jewels and pearls. The 96000 maunds of gold are about 241 tonnes. In rough approximation, Alauddin took away by the tonne; only enough was left by the time Clive arrived for the latter to take away by the pound. The folks in charge today scrape by siphoning only ounces of gold from the old accumulated ag surplus.

12/28/2006 8:53 PM  
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