ROBERT CLIVE: Letter to William Pitt on India (1759)

A military man, Robert Clive was a strong administrator and empire builder, eventually becoming the main representative of the British East India Company in India. Two years prior to the writing of this letter, Clive had triumphantly led 3,000 British soldiers against a Mughal-led army that was ten times as large at the Battle of Plassey. This battle was instrumental in establishing English power in India.

The letter reproduced here was addressed to William Pitt, often referred to as Pitt the Elder, who was the British Prime Minister. Clive discusses several issues of geo-political and economic interest that concerned a British government that was increasingly interested in imperial matters.

Points to Ponder:

--. Does Clive's interests reflect political or economic concerns, or both?
--. Does the author imply that the take-over of India will be easy? Why or why not?
--. What global political or economic concerns appear in this document?

The close attention you bestow on the affairs of the British nation in general has induced me to trouble yo with a few particulars relative to India, and to lay before you an exact account of the revenues of this country, the genuineness whereof you may depend upon, as it has been faithfully extracted from the Minister's books.

The great revolution that has been effected here by the success of the English arms, and the vast advantages gained to the Company [British East India Company] by a treaty concluded in consequence thereof, have, I observe, in some measure, engaged the public attention; but much more may yet in time be done, if the Company will exert themselves in the manner the importance of their present possessions and future prospects deserves. I have represented to them in the strongest terms the expediency of sending out and keeping up constantly such a force as will enable them to embrace the first opportunity of further aggrandizing themselves; and I dare pronounce, from a thorough knowledge of this country's government, and of the genius of the people, acquired by two years' application and experience, that such an opportunity will soon offer. The reigning Subah [provincial governor of the Mughal Empire], whom the victory at Plassey invested with the sovereignty of these provinces, still, it is true, retains his attachment to us, and probably, while he has no other support, will continue to do so; but Muslims are so little influenced by gratitude, that should be ever think it his interest to break with us, the obligations he owes us would prove no restraint: and this is very evident from his having lately removed his Prime Minister, and cut off two or three principal officers, all attached to our interest, and who had a share in his elevation. Moreover, he is advanced in years; and his son is so cruel, worthless a young fellow, and so apparently an enemy to the English, that it will be almost unsafe trusting him with the succession. So small a body as two thousand Europeans will secure us against any apprehensions from either the one or the other; and, in case of their daring to be troublesome, enable the Company to take the sovereignty upon themselves.

There will be the less difficulty in bringing about such an event, as the natives themselves have no attachment whatever to particular princes; and as, under the present Government, they have no security for their lives or properties, they would rejoice in so happy an exchange as that of a mild for a despotic Government: and there is little room to doubt our easily obtaining the Mughal's grant in confirmation thereof, provided we agreed to pay him the stipulated allotment out of the revenues, viz. fifty lacs [i.e. 5 million rupees] annually. This has, of late years, been very ill-paid, owing to the distractions in the heart of the Mughal Empire, which have disabled that court from attending to their concerns in the distant provinces: and the Vizier has actually wrote to me, desiring I would engage the [Subah] to make the payments agreeable to the former usage. . . . That this would be agreeable to the Mughal can hardly be questioned, as it would be so much to his interest to have there countries under the dominion of a nation famed for their good faith, rather than in the hands of people who, a long experience has convinced him, never will pay him his proportion of the revenues, unless awed into it by the fear of the Imperial army marching to force them thereto.

But so large a sovereignty may possibly be an object too extensive for a mercantile Company; and it is to be feared they are not of themselves able, without the nation's assistance, to maintain so wide a dominion. I have therefore presumed, Sir, to represent this matter to you, and submit it to your consideration, whether the exectuion of a design, that may hereafter be still carried to greater lengths, be worthy of the Government's taking it into hand. I flatter myself I have made it pretty clear to you, that there will be little or no difficulty in obtaining the absolute possession of these rich kingdoms; and that with the Mughal's own consent, on condition of paying him less than a fifth of the revenues thereof. Now I leave you to judge, whether an income yearly of upwards of two millions sterling, with the possession of three provinces abounding in the most valuable productions of nature and of art, be an object deserving the public attention; and whether it be worth the nation's while to take the proper measures to secure such an acquisition, an acquisition which, under the management of so able and disinterested a minister, would prove a source of immense wealth to the kingdom, and might in time be appropriated in part as a fund towards diminishing the heavy load of debt under which we at present labor. Add to these advantages the influence we shall thereby acquire over the several European nations engaged in the commerce here, which these could no longer carry on but through our indulgence, and under such limitations as we should think fit to prescribe. It is well worthy of consideration, that this project may be brought about without draining the mother country, as has been too much the case with our possessions in America. A small force from home will be sufficient, as we always make sure of any number we please of black troops, who, being both much better paid and treated by us than by the country's powers, will very readily enter into our service. . . .

The greatest part of the troops belonging to this establishment are now employed in an expedition against the French in Deccan; and, by the accounts lately received from thence, I have great hopes we shall succeed in extirpating them from the province of Golconda [in central India], where they have reigned lords paramount so long, and from whence they have drawn their principal resources during the troubles upon the coast. . . .

May the zeal and the vigorous measures, projected from the services of the nation, which have so eminently distinguised your ministry, be crowned with all the success they deserve, is the most fervent wish of him who is, with the greatest respect,


Your most devoted humble servant,

[Signed] Robert Clive


7th January, 1759

Source: John Malcolm, The Life of Robert, Lord Clive (London: John Murray, 1836), 2: 119-125.

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