When historians – or basically just about anyone – talks about George Washington, it generally revolves around one particular event – the American War of Independence. Washington’s command of the Continental forces and their victory over the British Crown saw the establishment of the United States of America and saw Washington appointed as that new nation’s first President, indeed being hailed as “the Father of his Country”.
In fact his actions helped to usher in a whole new age in global history. So generally, though he does currently faces criticism for owning slaves, history views Washington in a very positive light.
In contrast to Washington’s reputation is that of the British East India Company. Seems random I know but bear with me.
The EIC, as it is known as for short, is now a byword for vicious capitalism and exploitation. Peddling everything from tea to slaves, spices to opium, at its height the EIC controlled half the planet’s trade and had a private military twice the size of the British army. With this the company would instigate wars to force the Chinese to buy their narcotics and conquered India.
It’s fair to say, history judges the EIC, and the subsequent British Raj in India, harshly.
Which is funny, because it was Washington’s actions that are arguably responsible for the British colonisation of India in the first place.
Allow me to explain.
In the 1750s, the British and French were competing for domination of the Ohio River Valley, an area that now encompasses parts of Ohio, West Virginia, Indiana, Kentucky and Pennsylvania. Trouble had been brewing for a while as both sides and their respective Native American allies periodically came into contact, normally facing off without conflict but it was the classic case of two competing powers butting up against each other.
Both sides started to fortify their respective land claims, which inevitably the other side refused to acknowledge, and things came to a head in August 1753 when the Governor of Virginia, Robert Dinwiddie, received orders from London to clear out the French from the Ohio valley. And the man Dinwiddie chose for the job was a 21-year old local lad who held the rank of major in the Virginian militia – one George Washington.
Initially, Washington was tasked with delivering a message to the French that they were considered in violation of existing treaties and that they should abandon their new fortifications and leave. This he did, and the French sent a message back with him which in diplomatic language essentially said “non”.
Washington – now at the grand age of 22 – was then promoted to Lieutenant Colonel and dispatched once again, this time with a party of soldiers and instructions to complete a fort at the Forks of the Ohio, a site that is now modern-day Pittsburgh. He also had instructions to act defensively but, should he encounter any problems with anyone who impeded his orders, had the authority that: “in Case of resistance to make Prisoners of or kill and destroy them”.
Washington set out in April 1754 with around 180 locally recruited militia and Native American allies, only to find out that the French had beaten him to the punch and had arrived with a much larger force and seized the fort that had been under construction.
The British set up camp at an area known as the Great Meadows and both sides, becoming aware of one another, began to dance around each other with scouting parties, trying to assess the other parties intentions.
So, what happened was probably inevitable.
On the 27th of May 1754 Washington received word that a party of French soldiers were somewhere in the vicinity, and he dispatched his own troops out in groups to locate them. Early on the 28th his own platoon – made up of thirty-three militia and twelve Mingo Native American allies, came across a French encampment.
What then occurred – the Battle of Jumonville Glen – is still subject to debate.
According to the French, they had dispatched the small group of around forty soldiers under the command of Joseph Coulon de Jumonville to issue the British with the same message as Washington had delivered the year before – you are on our territory, please withdraw.
However Washington stated for the record afterwards that upon coming upon the French they scrambled for their guns, at which point the young commander fired upon them, as did his men.
After a brief skirmish ten Frenchmen were dead, including Jumonville, and some twenty captured. Again, there is argument still about who killed who and what happened when, but all that really matters for us is that this action really set things off.
In terms of American history, this was the opening salvo of what is known as the French and Indian War. This raged on until 1763, and ultimately led to the almost complete dissolution of the French foothold in North America, with Britain becoming the undisputed master of the region…for a brief period at least.
But this war itself sparked off a vast conflagration – the Seven Year’s War. In 1756, Britain declared war on France proper, moving the conflict not just out of North America, but onto a global level. The war was, quite frankly, World War One Alpha and by the end of it Britain was well on its way to becoming the global hegemon that would dominate the nineteenth century.
And George Washington got a fair bit of the blame.
As the writer and politician Horace Walpole summed it up:
“A volley fired by a young Virginian in the backwoods of America set the world on fire.”
This wasn’t helped that about five weeks after the incident Washington was besieged in his small fort and had to surrender to Jumonville’s brother. In the manner of such things, Washington was permitted march off with his men and arms so as to avoid unnecessary bloodshed. Not so good was that the article of surrender he signed was written in French, which Washington couldn’t read, and held a clause admitting to his wrongdoing in the fight and to his having “assassinated” Jumonville and his men.
Naturally, the French made great play on this and Washington had to repeatedly deny any such thing had occurred.
There is even a school of thought that his part in all this basically cost him any chance of a commission in the British Army in the subsequent war, despite the fact he would go on to prove an adept commander. This in turn fuels speculation about what might have been had he actually got commissioned and whether he would then have led the Continental Army.
Interesting thought but regardless, ultimately the tradecraft he learnt fighting the war would prove invaluable a few decades later during the American Revolution.
But what has this got to do with India, and how did Washington’s shot ultimately create the British Raj?
Well, in the eighteenth century, the EIC wasn’t all that keen on conquest. What they were interested in, to the exclusion of everything else, was profit.
For the majority of their existence in India, which had started in 1600, the company had tried to stay on the right side of the local rulers of India, principally the fabulously wealthy and immensely powerful Mughal Empire. One rather reckless and stupid attempt was made to use military force to bully better trading rights from the Mughal’s in 1686, but this ultimately led to a complete defeat and the company was only able to retain its position in India after EIC officials literally groveled to the Mughal emperor and paid a huge indemnity.
But the first half of the eighteenth century saw the start of the decline of the Mughal empire as it was beset by dynastic and secular upheavals, as well as pressures from the Persians and the Maratha’s who often launched campaigns into the weakening empire aimed at stripping as much wealth from it as possible.
And it was here that the EIC had to start playing a more militaristic role. Not for conquest, however, but to counter the influence of their main rival for Indian trade – the French East India Company.
From 1744 onward both corporations sought to further their influence by backing various contenders for regional and imperial power, aiding their respective candidates for the Mughal throne and therefore making them two amongst the myriad of factions involved. In many ways these wars in India – the Carnatic Wars – were proxy wars between Britain and France, but for the two respective East India Company’s, business came first. They expected to be paid handsomely in trading rights, new territory and cold, hard cash for supplying the new European weapons and training they provided that was proving a huge force multiplier on Indian battlefields.
But although the respective company’s would fight when necessary, it was recognised as a risky business. The British EIC learnt this lesson the hard way when in 1746 they lost Madras, their most valuable trading post on the subcontinent at the time to a French attack.
So while war might sometimes be necessary to protect or expand their investments, it could be very bad for business and that made the EIC nervous. They had money to make and the while they had to acknowledge the impact that the European political scene could have on their bottom lines, it does seem they often considered it a bit of a nuisance.
When news of George Washington’s action hit the headlines in London and Paris, especially the fact that he had “admitted” to assassinating the unfortunate Jumonville which in turn really got the French public riled up and spoiling for a fight, well, I think we can safely say that the Board of the EIC realised that things were going to get difficult. They predicted correctly that the war in the American colonies was likely to spread elsewhere, including to their trading ports and factories in India.
And then in November 1755 they got even more unwelcome news, seeming to confirm their fears.
A report from one of their spies in France stated that at a port in Brittany, Northern France, a convoy composed of six warships and five French East Indian merchantmen had been seen taking on three thousand troops, cannon and supplies.[i] The Board of the EIC was also aware that another four ships with similar loads had departed shortly before and, understandably, the destination of these vessels became of great concern.
As it was, these ships turned out to be destined for other places, but the Directors decided that it would be prudent to warn the governors of their respective trading posts in Madras, Bombay and Calcutta of the situation and that they should make preparations to defend themselves by reinforcing their fortifications.
But they also issued an additional instruction to the senior company administrator in Calcutta, Roger Drake, that he should engage with the local ruler, Aliverdi Khan, the Nawab of Bengal, to make sure he used his power and influence to make sure that no outbreak of hostilities occurred in the region.
Aliverdi Khan was a wise and canny man and had effectively made himself the independent ruler of Bengal, the richest province of India, and was powerful enough that he had managed to stop conflict occurring between the European colonial powers in his province, which had confined their fighting to Western India far from his domain.[ii] And one of the keys for enforcing this policy was not allowing the Europeans to fortify their trading cities to any great extent. For British Calcutta, this meant the fort was small and ill equipped, and the city itself, which was a rapidly expanding entrepot that was becoming the jewel in the EIC’s trading empire, was only protected by a wide ditch that served to deter raiders but little else.
Unfortunately, Aliverdi Khan’s health was not good, and Roger Drake and his French opposite evidently thought that they would be prudent in assuming that their European rival would make an aggressive move against them and so began to fortify their respective domains. But though the Nawab was old and his constitution was declining, he was not going to let such a challenge to his power go unchecked and sent instructions to the trade posts that they should dismantle their defences as he had always guaranteed their protection and their actions violated previous agreements on the issue.
The histories are mixed on how the French dealt with this. Some say that they complied with the order. Others state that they got around the problem by offering bribes to the Nawab’s representatives and sending flowery assurances.[iii]
Whichever it was, it worked, and they were left alone.
Roger Drake, however, in a move I would charitably describe as crass, but in reality more like stupidity, refused point blank.
This was not received well and things really came to a head in April 1756 when the Nawab died and was replaced by his grandson Siraj-ud-Daulah. And he, if I’m being charitable, doesn’t sound like he was a very nice man. Admittedly, hardly rare in rulers in those day, but it didn’t make him popular with the great and powerful in his court. In fact, many of the wealthy citizens of Bengal quite rightly feared him.
The new Nawab also really didn’t like the British, so Drake’s obstinacy couldn’t have come at a worse time.
Unfortunately for him, he – and the warnings from the Company’s Directors in London – were prescient. In May 1756 Britain and France went to war with each other and an attack by the French on Calcutta seemed to be more than a possibility, but a certainty.
But in fact Drake didn’t really have to worry about the French because he had well and truly infuriated the new Nawab, who marched on Calcutta with an army of 30,000 men. Drake in contrast had 515 soldiers and militia, though it appears only about 250 of them could actually be considered as “fighting men”.[iv]
Understandably, Calcutta didn’t last long, holding out for four days until surrendering on the 20th of June 1756. This led to a rather unfortunate event that some of you may heard of – the Black Hole of Calcutta. This was a jail cell in Calcutta fort, which measured 14 by 18 feet (4.3 m × 5.5 m) and which had one tiny window for ventilation. Into this was crammed quite a number of prisoners that night, made up of the surviving British and Indian sepoy prisoners.
The figures of how many exactly were imprisoned there on that fateful night are very much disputed, but most historians agree that, whether they cite a higher or lower figure, most of the prisoners died from the ordeal, suffocating in the crush. In fact, the only figure of import to this story is the one given by one purported survivor of the Black Hole, which would be widely circulated and believed at the time. He said that into the Hole one hundred and forty-six prisoners were shoved, and only twenty-three survived to the next morning.
Now the French had been really angry when they heard about Jumonville. When the British heard about Calcutta and the Black Hole, they were furious.
But for the EIC, the loss of Calcutta wasn’t so much a human tragedy, it was a financial one. Calcutta had grown from a swampy tidal village with an English trading post into one of the EIC’s most important and lucrative positions, effectively a centre of global commerce. Its loss threatened to crash the EIC’s share price if swift action wasn’t taken to restore the situation.
But fortunately for the company, they had just the man for the job. They had already dispatched one Robert Clive to Madras with instructions to deal with any French military actions in India. And because most Members of Parliament were stockholders in the EIC, and therefore had a vested interest in protecting the company’s trade, he had been accompanied by a substantial force from the actual British Army and a fleet of Royal Navy warships.
Clive had started his career with the EIC in 1746 as essentially a glorified admin assistant, but during the Carnatic Wars had proven a very capable military commander. So, when he heard of the fall of Calcutta, he set in motion the wheels that would not just see the town returned to EIC control, but the whole State of Bengal come under effective British subjugation.
On 2nd of January 1757 Clive’s forces retook Calcutta and then a month later engaged the army of Siraj-ud-Daulah.
Again, it would seem on paper to be pretty straight forward. The Nawab had an estimated 60,000 men in his army, Clive had less than two thousand.
But here a combination of boldness and the superiority of European military methods proved decisive and the British and EIC force routed the Bengal army. The defeat led to the Nawab signing a peace treaty, but this ultimately spelt his end as elements in his own court who hated him because he was a bit of a psychopath, conspired with the British to provoke him once again into conflict so that they could dethrone him.
And Clive, who also sound like he fits the “psychopath” category, saw an opportunity to make tonnes of money out of it. Literally.
The excuse was the need to seize the French trading posts in Bengal, principally the town of Chandernagore, because of that whole global war thing going on. This once again set the Nawab off and it all coalesced with the Battle of Plassey, which occurred on the 23rd of June, 1757. This saw the EIC and British forces once again rout the Nawab’s army, mainly after he was betrayed by one of his key generals who switched sides during the battle.
But more importantly it firmly established the EIC as the king maker in Bengal and set the company on a more aggressive path where money was made more from domination and military strength than straight up trade. Basically, the EIC became more like a vast protection racket, and this led to things like the Famine in Bengal of 1770 that saw millions die, basically because of the avarice of Company employees, and the proper cementing of the EIC’s reputation as the complete bastards they are regarded as today.
This all eventually saw the EIC become, through war and machination, the predominant power on the subcontinent, becoming the defacto ruler of a vast domain.
Until, that is, they caused enough upset to kick off the Great Rebellion in 1857, after which the British government thought it a grand idea if they took control off the hands of those grubby merchants who obviously couldn’t be trusted with such responsibility, thus creating the British Raj and giving Queen Victoria the title of “Empress of India”.
So, there you have it.
A young American officer got into a skirmish out in the boondocks of Pennsylvania, killed a few Frenchmen and triggered a full-on war in North America and, ultimately, everywhere.
This in turn got the directors of the EIC all worried, so they told their guys in India to take precautions against French attack, which they did in such a ham-fisted way that they upset one of the local lords who promptly attacked them and killed a bunch of folks in an infamously bad way.
That then resulted in him getting his butt kicked by the EIC’s military man – with help from ambitious locals – and they won a battle so decisively that it completely changed the balance of power in India.
Clive and the EIC made so much cash that they decided that: “You know what? We should run this place”, and so the stage was set for the EIC to effectively conquer India, which in turn led to the British government nicking it off them when they got the chance.
And that is how George Washington created the British Raj – the jewel of the British Empire.
Funny thing history.
And with that thought I will add one final footnote on this affair to send you on your way.
After the Battle of Plassey, Clive was apparently giving four giant tortoises as a gift. One of these, Adwaita, saw out its master, and the empire that was created indirectly by his legacy, finally dying in Kolkata, as it is now known, in 2006.
I guess life is easy, when all you have to worry about is when the next lettuce will arrive.
The Anarchy: The Relentless Rise of the East India Company – William Dalrymple
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[i] Dalrymple, William. The Anarchy; The Relentless Rise of the East India Company; Bloomsbury (London), p.59
[ii] Ibid p.62
[iii] Ibid p.86
[iv] Ibid p.100