The soldiers looked at their young captain with awe. They had not expected the twenty-six year old Clive to capture the fortress of Arcot, but he had defied all odds and managed it. He was now standing on top of the ramparts, surveying the fort’s defenses.
Robert Clive was a scribe, a writing clerk who kept records. He had been kicked out of the house for being ‘naughty’ as a child. He joined the East India Company and was sent to the Fort St. George at Madras to copy texts and tally accounts. But then, destiny had other plans for him.
Muhammad Ali, the Nawab of Arcot and a British ally, was hiding in Trichy. Arcot, was captured by Chand Sahib, a French ally. The French army marched out of Pondicherry, to lay siege to the Rock Fortress at Trichy and dispose off the Nawab for good. The Nawab begged the British governor at Madras for help. Trichy was far away. Pondicherry was closer. Help would not reach there in time to counter the French army.
Clive, the governor’s scribe, suggested that they attack Arcot and distract the French, instead of sending the British army to Trichy. The governor appointed the young scribe as a captain and sent him to Arcot with a mere 100 soldiers, 120 sepoys and 3 guns.
The small numbers and the lack of heavy artillery meant that Clive’s company could move quickly. He made his troops do forced marches. The garrison at Arcot scattered when the Clive made a surprise attack at night. Clive captured Arcot without losing a single man.
The Arcot fortress was weak. The walls were low, the towers crumbling and the moat dry at places. The mile long wall was too large to be defended by the feeble British force. The governor of Madras promised two artillery guns, but they would take time to arrive. Clive sent most of his force to escort the artillery guns.
Chand Sahib and his army turned back from their march to Trichy to recapture Arcot. Chand Sahib’s 2000 men attacked the fortress to claim it back. With a mere 70 men and darkness for cover, Clive managed to repulse the attack and hold on to the fort. Chand Sahib’s army fled the next day when the artillery guns and Clives’s remaining men finally arrived from Madras.
Clive’s ploy worked in distracting the French from Trichy. The French army turned towards Arcot. Chand Sahib’s scattered men joined the advancing army. Chand Sahib’s son, Raza Sahib lead the army. Clive and his 300 men set to task, strengthening the Fort.
A 4000 men strong Indo-French army lay siege to the Fort. At night, Clive made a daring move. He attacked the siege and tried to steal the French canons. The plan almost backfired. Clive barely escaped with his life and lost 15 men in the misadventure.
Clive made no mistakes thereafter. The small British company successfully repulsed the siege for 50 days. A Maratha captain, Morari Rao, was impressed with the British bravery and promised to send them help in return for payment. The payment got delayed in the English bureaucracy. When Raza Sahib heard about the Maratha captain’s offer, he offered Clive terms and promised him a gift if he surrendered. Clive declined. The attackers fell upon the fortress with renewed frenzy, but the British held strong. Raza Sahib’s men fell by tens and dozens at the hands of the British. Chand Sahib’s elephants ran amok in the gunfire, trampling down his own men. The attackers gave up and retreated. They had lost hundreds of men while Clive lost only four. Cheer rang though the British contingent.
The French defeat at Arcot signaled the decline of the French presence on India and the rise of the British. The British reinstated Muhammad Ali as the Nawab of Carnatic. The Treaty of Paris signed at the end of the Battle of Arcot gave the British right to most of the Indian territories.
The siege of Arcot made Clive famous throughout England. A British scribe with a handful of men had repulsed an attack by the French army. Clive was presented a sword by the British Prime Minister. His military career took off from that point.
Ten years later, Clive returned back to India and lead the British to victory in the battle of Plassey. That established the military supremacy of the East India company in India. And hence, we speak English.
Arcot is now a small town on the Chennai-Banglore highway. Quiet and rustic, scattered with mosques and minarets. People stop over here on the highway for its famous Arcot biryani. The Fortress of Arcot has all but disappeared except for it gates, a mosque, a bathing pond and a lonely canon.
Known as Delhi gate, the broad gate stands at the outskirts of the town. The dry bed of the river Palar lies across it. A forgotten stone plate mentions that it was once a part of Clive’s fortifications.The ground around it is scattered with fallen structures, paying tribute to the fact, that they were the reason we speak English today, and not French.
A few hundred meters from the Delhi gate are the remnants of a bathing pond. Fondly called Raja-Rani pond by the locals. Nearby a forgotten mosque and a canon stand testimony to time.
– Audrin Lenin