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The baron and the laird

  • Published at 12:05 am July 16th, 2016
  • Last updated at 01:49 am August 1st, 2016
The baron and the laird

Robert Clive and Hector Munro, two men who built for themselves a formidable record of military achievement, might well be regarded as those who, after a century and a half of English activity on north-east India, secured the foundations of the British Empire that grew out of the lands around the Ganges and its delta; lands that are now those of Bangladesh.

One of the most significant characters in the mid-18th century drama that unfolded, as the British secured their control over the vital lands of Bengal, Bihar, and Orissa -- a major source of both their supplies of gunpowder, and all the wealth accruing from manufacturing and trade -- was, unquestionably, Hector Munro, Laird of Novar.

The other, of course, was Robert Clive, who became the 1st Baron Clive, Lord Clive.

Born in 1726, in his family’s lands in Ross Shire, Scotland, Munro was commissioned into a highland regiment, Loudon’s Highlanders, in 1747. He was under the patronage of the Duchess of Gordon, who he had rescued from a coaching misadventure. A minor aristocrat himself, such distinguished patronage was helpful then -- as even now -- in Britain.

Through that influence, when the highland regiment in which he was then commissioned, the 89th Foot Regiment, sailed to India in 1760, leaving behind the 17-year-old fourth duke of Gordon, whose mother was Munro’s patron, and who had been anxious to go but was forbidden by the King (presumably at the behest of his mother), Munro held the rank of major.

The role of his regiment was as a mobile support force to others, especially those of the East India Company, as the Company’s influence spread. First, to overcome the constant attempts by the French and their allies to take control of the Indian territories, and, also, to overcome the resistance of local rulers.

Such men as Clive and Munro were the builders of Empires. In a more ancient, smaller world, these lands of Bangladesh bred, surely, their own such adventurers

In 1764, following a number of defeats of the Company and British forces by the resistance of the Mughal imperial forces and their allies, he found himself as “commander in chief” of the Royal British forces in India. He was commanding the British forces, which also included those of the East India Company, at Buxar, near Patna.

His first task on assuming command was that of overcoming a mutiny by local troops in his own forces. He achieved that in a brutal fashion, which may have owed something to his experience of Scottish warfare in the suppression of the 1745 Jacobite Rebellion, and the aftermath of the final Battle of Culloden.

The aftermath of that battle for the English and Scottish crowns was followed by as much brutality as the battle itself. The Hanoverian regime -- which had been somewhat generous in the aftermath of the earlier, 1715 Rebellion in the same cause -- had learned that generosity in victory is not always rewarded.

His victory at Buxar laid the foundations for the opportunity that Robert Clive (who had led the British forces in the 1757 battle of Plassey, overcoming the forces loyal to Sirajud Daulah, the Nawab of Bengal) gladly seized, moving into “negotiation” with the defeated Mughal Emperor Shah Alam ll, and effectively securing control of the vital and valuable territories of Bengal, Orissa, and Bihar.

These territories were the various sources of many of the most vital and valuable of local commodities, including the all important saltpetre for gunpowder, together with diamonds, fabrics, spices, fragrances, and agricultural products.

The Mughals themselves had built much of their own power and wealth upon those resources.

Munro, following a spell in England -- including becoming an Inverness Member of Parliament -- returned in 1778 for a highly successful spell of activity, defeating both the French at Pondicherry, and the famous Hyder Ali (although previously defeated by the father of the more famous son, Tipu Sultan).

There is no real evidence that Munro made the kind of fortune in India that others, such as Clive, managed. But he lived a further 23 years, to die at the age of 79, unlike his early contemporary, Robert Clive, the First Baron Clive “Clive of India.”

Clive had been born a year earlier than Munro, in 1725. His somewhat disturbed childhood probably marked him from an early age as having the potential to become an adventurous soldier with strong leadership qualities, and greedy for wealth.

The India he found, on arrival at the age of 19, was already in thrall to the Mughal regime. As the Kishoreganj born historian  Nirad C Chaudhuri has suggested, it was also the subject of “destructiveness of the Marathas and Afghans,” and the “greed of the high caste Hindus.”

Indeed, contemporary journals seem to bear out such a contention in their observations. The Mughals in Bengal themselves may have, almost, amounted to a challenge to the adventurous, and acquisitive, Clive.

The treasure collected from governance of the three provinces of Bengal, Bihar, and Orissa by the viceroy Shaista Khan, and taken back with him on his recall to Delhi, is estimated in  modern values as billions, if not upward towards a trillion pounds sterling. It certainly required a substantial flotilla of barges to carry the gold, silver, gems, and coins that he had succeeded in squeezing from the poorest farmer, to the wealthiest merchant.

Perhaps he took that as a measure of success. And fairly successful, both on his own behalf, that of East India Company investors, king and country, he certainly was!

Whilst he served his time as a clerk, as all such arrivals of East India Company association, it was very apparent that his military skills were rapidly recognised by the Company. Perhaps his youthful follies, which included organising a “mafia-like” protection racket in the town where a part of his schooling took place, along with his clear qualities of leadership, stood him in good stead.

This is not to forget the thousands of young adventurers from these lands who left their homes to sail the oceans, and even making their own small ‘conquests,’ by settling in foreign lands, opening businesses, and even joining the ruling elites

His military achievements, and his powers of negotiation and organisation, spoke for themselves. Clearly, he was a versatile, high achiever.

He was, without doubt, one of the key figures of a period in which Britain became, historians now observe, “rulers of the world” through both naval and military success. Both together, the prerequisite of global domination.

He ranks with the duke of Marlborough and wolfe of Quebec in the gallery of those who laid those foundations of empire.

From his refusal to “sit out” the French occupation of Madras at the opening of the First Carnatic War, the Indian theatre of the War of Austrian Succession, in which British and French were savagely opposed, until his final departure from India in 1767, and death at the comparatively early (even for those days) age of 49, his was an astonishing record of achievement against both European and local forces.

For better or worse, he and Hector Munro stand out amongst those who built the military, as did Admiral Pocock, who laid the naval foundations for Britain being an empire that arguably commenced its life in and around the lands that are now those of Bangladesh; shaping, too, those of India and Pakistan, today.

Such men as Clive and Munro were the builders of empires. In a more ancient, smaller world, these lands of Bangladesh bred, surely, their own such adventurers.

If “Datis,” the chief of the Gangaridai, who makes his appearance in the civil war on the shores of the Black Sea in the 3rd century BCE rewrite of the Homeric legend of Jason and the Golden Fleece, by Apollonius of Rhodes, ever existed, he would, surely, have been such a man. And if he never did exist, it may be instructive that Apollonius felt the need to invent him!

So, too, would the men of whom Virgil, the great Roman poet, wrote in the last century BCE, as “men of Gangaridai,” whose victory in Asia Minor as mercenaries in the Roman Army, he would celebrate in ivory and gold.

Qualities, no doubt that some -- especially victims and failures -- would view with horror. But there is plenty of evidence that young Bangladeshis themselves have, throughout history, been more than capable of both conquest and defence, and of accumulating wealth. A custom that is rarely practiced with the admiration of others.

And this is not to forget the thousands of young adventurers from these lands who left their homes to sail the oceans, and even making their own small “conquests,” by settling in foreign lands, opening businesses, and even joining the ruling elites, in such as the UK parliament, today ... a more “civilised” form of conquest, perhaps.