Saturday, 4 March 2017

Quick Thinking in the Heat of Battle

     Robert Clive! He was one of the heroes we learnt about in primary school, the way Americans learnt about George Washington. At least, we did in my day. If the current generation has failed to do so, then they are to be pitied, for they have lost an essential part of their history and heritage. Sent over to India at the age of seventeen, most likely to get him out of his father's hair, it was hoped that, after five years of living on a miniscule wage, he would be allowed to indulge in private trade, and thus grow rich. But it didn't work out that way. After just a few years, he found himself in the crosswires of the French plan to destroy the British coastal trading posts. Without any military experience, he enlisted in the army, and soon became a man of destiny. This is one minor episode in his rise.
     In the campaign to relieve Trichinopoly, he occupied two Hindu temples on opposite sides of the road, then blocked the road by defensive works. After some to-ing and fro-ing, a French detachment arrived at midnight, with forty British deserters in their van. An Irishman announced to the sentries that they were the reinforcements expected from Clive's superior, Lawrence, so the sentries let them in. They began firing their muskets, a shot from which killed a native servant asleep by Clive's side. I shall now let the story be taken up by R.J. Minney in Clive of India (1931).
     Clive dashed out in his night-shirt. He found some sepoys [Indian soldiers] engaged in firing, and assuming them to be his men, commanded them to stop. To induce obedience he struck the defiant. At this, one of the men rushed upon him, slashing him with a knife in two places.
     Incensed by the insubordination, Clive chased the man right across the camp until, to his dismay, he found himself surrounded by Frenchmen. In a flash the entire position became clear. He realized at last what had happened. And his swift mind leapt to an instant solution. Calm, composed, Clive pretended that he had really come to offer them terms. He explained that the smaller temple, of which they seemed to have possession, was completely surrounded by his army, which in the darkness they could not see. He warned them that unless they surrendered immediately they would all be cut to pieces. Clive's tone was impressive and convincing. Some of the Frenchmen surrendered. The others ran into the temple to inform the rest of their plight.
     Now began a bloody struggle which lasted till daybreak.
     Then Clive, limp with loss of blood and fatigue, put his arms about the shoulders of two sergeants, and, thus supported, went into the enemy's porch to offer them the terms of surrender.
     He was met by one of the English deserters, an officer. The man hurled foul abuse at Clive and threatened to shoot him. But Clive remained unmoved. The officer raised his musket and fired. He missed Clive, but both the sergeants on whom Clive leaned were killed. Fearing a massacre at this breach of military ethics, the French instantly surrendered.
     Years later, during the Dutch invasion of Bengal, Clive was busy playing whist when a servant entered, saluted, and delivered a note from his officer in the fort at Chandernagore. The Dutch were approaching, it announced. Bearing in mind that their countries were officially at peace - indeed, allies against the French - should he attack when he had the chance? Calling for a quill, Clive scrawled at the bottom of the note: "Dear Forde - Fight 'em immediately. I will send an Order in Council tomorrow."
    Then, with an aplomb like that of Drake at the apocryphal game of bowls, he went back to the card game!
    In later years, however, he was broken in body and mind, and was unable to respond to the King's final request. It would have been interesting to see what would have happened if he had, for the commission was to fight the rebels in America!
    One thing is not in dispute: without Clive there would not have been an Indian Empire, just as without Washington there would not have been a United States. It is another example of what I have written about before: that often history is just a matter of chance. In this case, it was the chance that just the right person appeared at the right time. It was also the chance that he survived. If he had been killed in that encounter before Trichinopoly, or if he had not survived several other near misses, history would have been much different.
    A few years before, when he was a lowly, poorly paid pen-pusher in a tedious foreign clime, he decided it would be a good idea to blow his brains out. Putting a pistol to his head, he squeezed the trigger and . . . nothing happened. He checked the weapon, made sure it was functional, and again put it to his head. Still nothing happened. He was examining it again when a co-worker entered the room. Abruptly, Clive thrust the pistol at him and told him to fire it out of the window. Somewhat bemused, his friend did as instructed. There was a flash and a bang, and a bullet tossed sand several inches into the air. An astonished Clive relieved him of the weapon and returned it to its drawer.
    "I have twice," he said, "snapped that pistol to my own head. It seems that fate must be reserving me for some purpose."

1 comment:

  1. To me it demonstrates that the "Great Man" theory of history, so roundly condemned and mocked by the deconstructors and revisers of history and how it is written, is not without merit, and should still be given consideration.