Gateway to the Classics: Our Empire Story by H. E. Marshall
Our Empire Story by  H. E. Marshall

The Siege of Arcot

It seemed now as if Dupleix would sweep all before him and that France should be supreme in India. Against him were only a few hundred Britons in Fort St. David, but the little fort held out against attack after attack. At last came the news that at home peace had been signed between France and Britain, that fighting must cease, and that by the treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle Madras was given back to Britain.

Thus after five years of fighting things seemed to be exactly as they had been at the beginning. But there was this difference, the French and the British, instead of trading peacefully side by side, had now become deadly enemies. Each was eager to banish the other from India. And from now too, the Europeans were no longer merely traders. They had begun to make their power felt by the Indian princes. Now, instead of being somewhat despised and looked down upon, the Europeans were looked up to, and in their quarrels with each other, the native princes became eager to have European help. They had learned what European soldiers could do. The native princes were nearly always fighting. Now a very bitter quarrel began and as the French and the British took different sides, they were soon fighting as badly as before, although France and Britain were at peace. They were therefore not supposed to be fighting against each other, but only helping the native princes.

The part of India over which Anwaru-Din ruled was called the Carnatic, and his capital was Arcot. The Lord of the Deccan, another part of India, was Anwaru-Din's overlord. In 1748 the Lord of the Deccan died. At once his sons and relatives began to fight for the crown, and Dupleix resolved to help one of these relatives called Muzaffar Jang and his friend Chanda Sahib. Anwaru-Din was on the other side, and in a great battle he was killed, his army was scattered and his son, Mohammed Ali, fled to the British for protection.

With the help of the French, Muzaffar Jang was at length proclaimed Lord of the Deccan, and Chanda Sahib Nawab of the Carnatic. A great durbar or meeting was held, to which all the nobles of the Deccan gathered to honour their new lord. And amid the brilliant throng was Dupleix, dressed in a gorgeous Mohammedan robe. It was he who sat in the place of greatest honour. It was upon him that the honours and powers were heaped. He was made governor of all the land south of the river Kristna, he was given the title of Commander of Seven Thousand Horses, he was allowed to carry the ensign of the fish among his standards, this being considered one of the greatest honours in India, it was he indeed who was the true ruler of Deccan. Near the town of Gingi a monument was raised in his honour. Upon it in French, Persian, Malabar, and Hindustani was written the story of his greatness. And round it grew up a town called Dupleix-Fathabad, or the place of the victory of Dupleix.

In a few months the French, from being simple traders, had become the greatest power in the land, and the British looked on helplessly. In all that wide land they possessed only Madras and Fort St. David. Mohammed Ali was their only friend, and he was now besieged by the French and by the army of Chanda Sahib. For Dupleix had made up his mind to destroy Mohammed Ali. He felt that French rule in the Deccan was not safe or sure so long as he lived. The British, on the other hand, had made up their minds to protect him as their only hope of checking French power.

So to the help of Mohammed Ali they sent all the soldiers they could. Among them went Robert Clive.

Robert Clive had come out to India as a clerk or writer in the service of the Company. He did not like his work and he was very unhappy in it. He was never meant to be a clerk, but was a born soldier. Since the taking of Madras by La Bourdonnais, Clive has seen some fighting. He had been made an ensign, but when the fighting was over he had to go back to his hated desk. Now again officers were needed, and Clive was given the rank of captain and sent to Trichinopoli where Mohammed Ali was besieged.

But Clive had no sooner arrived at Trichinopoli than he saw that there was little to be done there. He saw that it would be far better to attack the capital, Arcot, which had been left almost unguarded. So he hurried back to Madras, told the president what he thought, and begged for soldiers.

The president saw that Clive's plan was worth trying, and he gave him all the soldiers that he could spare, keeping only a hundred men to guard Madras and fifty for Fort St. David. So with two hundred British and three hundred Sepoys, as the native soldiers were now called, the young captain was soon hurrying along the road to Arcot.

He had need of haste he knew, if his going was to be of any use. So when a fearful storm of thunder and lightning and rain overtook them, he still marched on. When the Indian spies who were watching saw this, they were filled with terror and admiration for the leader who was not afraid even of the "voice of heaven." They fled to Arcot with the tale, and so frightened the garrison there that they rushed from the fort leaving guns and ammunition behind them. Thus without needing to fire a shot, clive and his men marched into the town between lines of admiring, wondering Indians, and took possession of the fort.

But Clive knew that he could not hope to be long left in possession undisturbed. So he gathered food, strengthened the fort, and made ready in every way he could to stand a siege. Hearing, too, that the runaway garrison were still lurking near, he marched out one night and attacked them, killing many and scattering the rest to the hills beyond, without losing a single man himself.

Soon the news of the taking of Arcot reached Trichinopoli. And, just as Clive had hoped and expected, Chanda Sahib sent back many of his soldiers to recover his capital from the British. In this way he weakened his chance of taking Trichinopoli, for he had not enough soldiers to besiege both places properly at once.

Soon an army of ten thousand men, French and Indian, came marching to surround the handful of daring Britons. They made no doubt of crushing them very quickly. The town of Arcot had neither walls nor moat to protect it. Round the fort itself the moat had been long neglected. In places it was dried up or bridged over, and the handful of British soldiers shut up there were led by a clerk of twenty-five.

But the fort held out week after week. Side by side Briton and Indian fought, catching something of the spirit of splendid daring and patient courage which filled their leader. Food grew scarce. There was little but rice left, and not enough of that. And now the sepoys showed the stuff they were made of. They came to Clive, not to grumble, but to tell him that they could live on the water that the rice was boiled in, and that the British soldiers might have all the rice itself.

So week by week the little garrison, Indian and Briton, stood shoulder to shoulder, and worked and fought together. At length the enemy made a breach in the wall, and their leader sent a message asking him to surrender. But Clive replied with scorn. He had no thought of giving in.

The Indian leader then determined to make a last grand attack on the fort. He chose the 24th of November, which is a great Mohammedan feast day. It is said that the soul of any good Mohammedan who dies fighting on that day will be carried straight to paradise. All night riotous sounds came from the Indian camp where the men were working themselves into a fury of religious zeal. They prepared for battle by making themselves mad with a kind of drug called bhang. And when morning came they were reckless of death, eager for the joys of paradise. With wild prayers and feasting they had become so frantic that they knew not what they did.

But Clive had been warned by spies, and he, too, made ready for the attack. All night he worked, and at last, towards morning, utterly worn out, he threw himself upon his bed, dressed as he was, to try and snatch a few hours' rest.

With the first streak of dawn the alarm was given. Clive started from his bed. All was in readiness. Every man was at his post.

The stars had faded in the pale sky, and in the cool, dim light a sea of dark-faced fanatics surged and howled round the fort, their white turbans tossing like foaming crested waves on dark water. Armoured elephants, wearing iron plates upon their foreheads, with which to batter down the gates, led the way. On came the seething mass with mad, triumphant yells.

Suddenly, from the walls, the sharp crack of musketry rang out. It was unexpected; it was sharp and hot. For every spare musket in the fort was ready loaded, and men lay behind the shooters handing loaded guns to them as quickly as might be. The oncoming wave reeled. Stung to madness the elephants turned. In wild terror they broke through the crowding ranks behind them, trampling many to death.

It was not only the gates which were attacked. Where the moat was dry, the besiegers swarmed thick and fast. But the fire from the fort was sharp and steady, and man after man went down. Part of the half-ruined moat was still full of water, and here the besiegers launched a heavily laden raft. The defenders fired upon it again and again, but each time they missed it. It had nearly crossed the ditch when Clive, noticing how badly the gunners were aiming, took one of the guns himself. He aimed coolly and well, hit the raft and overturned it. In a minute the water was full of wounded, struggling, drowning men. The few who could swim made for the bank and escaped.

For an hour the fight lasted. Then the enemy fled, leaving four hundred dead and dying round the walls. Of the defenders, four only were killed and two wounded.

Now and again during the day the firing was renewed, but at last it ceased. The night passed in silence, and when the next morning dawned the enemy's camp was empty. They had fled in the darkness leaving their guns and ammunition behind. The siege, which had lasted seven weeks, was at an end.

The siege of Arcot was the turning point of British fortunes in India. From there Clive marched out to win battle after battle. Many a time he led his men with reckless almost careless daring. But he seemed to bear a charmed life. Again and again by daring he won. Again and again his genius and his bravery carried him through the greatest of dangers.

All this time the French and the British were only supposed to be helping the native rulers. But the real struggle was not between two Indian princes, but between France and Britain, between Clive and Dupleix. They were both great men, but Dupleix was a statesman, not a soldier. He had to trust to others to carry out his plans and orders. And the French generals were old and stupid, while against them they had a "heaven born general" young and eager.


"Clive fired one of the guns himself."

Soon it was the British, not the French, who were all-powerful in the Carnatic. The French nawab, Chanda Sahib, was killed, and the British nawab, Mohammed Ali, was put in his place.

Then Clive, weary of war, and much in need of rest, sailed home. He had set out for India a poor and rather despised boy. He came home a hero and conqueror of world-wide fame. Wherever he went he was fêted and cheered. The directors of the Company called him "General" Clive although he was really only a captain. They loaded him with thanks, and presented him with a sword, the hilt of which was set with diamonds.

Meanwhile Dupleix, Clive's great rival, struggled on trying to win back for France what had been lost. But he got little help or encouragement from home. His king did not care and did not understand what a great kingdom Dupleix had won, and with proper help might have been able to keep for him,—a kingdom larger than the whole of France itself. So at last Dupleix was called home in disgrace. For a few years he lived miserably, and at last died forsaken. Three days before he died he wrote, "I have given my youth, my fortune, my life, to enrich my country in Asia. My services are treated as fables, and I as the vilest of mankind." La Bourdonnais too had been disgraced and imprisoned, and died in misery.

They were not the last men who were to earn world-wide fame in India, and discrace at home.

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