In the north quarter of the city of Trichinopoli a lofty temple-crowned rock rises sheer to a height of nearly 250 feet. From its summit the eye may command an extensive view of the vast plain below, which stretches in an unbroken line to the distant horizon, and here one August evening, in the year of Dupleix's triumph, a young English officer stood gazing reflectively at the strange spectacle which lay beneath him. All around the encircling ramparts, their tents stretching far away into the distance, lay encamped a mighty host. The last glowing rays of the setting sun sparkled and danced upon the polished steel of their arms and accoutrements, forming, as it were, a giant ring of fire about the beleaguered city. Muhammad Ali—the last hope of the English, who still acclaimed him Nabob of the Carnatic,—crouched despairingly within the walls of Trichinopoli; outside the victorious troops of Dupleix and Chanda Sáhib waited, eagerly expectant, to complete their grim conquest.
Robert Clive, for he it was who stood thus solitary, saw these things with a troubled mind. A few days before he had, with true British pluck, led a small band of reinforcements into the city, passing through the enemy's lines under cover of night, and bringing upon themselves a sharp tussle with the French before at length they reached their goal. But even with these, he knew the town could not hope to hold out long. The garrison, sulky and disheartened, placed no reliance in their commander. The officers frivolled away their time in petty squabbling. Energy and enterprise had they none. The enemy, far out-numbering them, pressed the siege vigorously. Something indeed desperate must be done if the situation were to be saved.
A few days later Clive stood before the Governor of Fort St. David. With characteristic daring he had again picked his way through the tents of the enemy, and fleeing to the English Presidency, brought with him a vivid account of the sorry plight in which Trichinopoli was placed. Mr. Saunders, a man of strong common sense, listened moodily to the recital. Trichinopoli must be saved—there was no doubt about that. British prestige—such as it was—would be ruined if it fell. But how was it to be done? What miracle should preserve it from the hands of the triumphant Dupleix? Governor and Council scratched their heads in sore perplexity.
Then it was Clive stepped into the breach. With eager tongue he unfolded his brilliant scheme, while his audience listened in mute amazement. "Impossible!" cried they at first. Then it began to dawn on them that after all there might be something in what this young man was saying. It was desperate, they agreed, but still—there was just a chance of success. Anyway, they could not suggest anything better. Governor Saunders leapt to his feet and wrung the young officer's hand. "It can be done," he roared, "and, egad, sir, you are the man to do it!
For Clive proposed to carry the war into the enemy's country with a vengeance. "No use," he cried, "to sit moping and wailing here! See," and he placed his finger on the map of India, "here is Arcot, chief city of the Carnatic. Chanda Sáhib, in massing his forces around Trichinopoli, has left this vital spot but ill-protected. A spirited attack on it, and it is ours. And once ours—" Clive paused and looked around him, "Chanda Sáhib will have to abandon his siege to get it back again.
Such, in effect, were his words. And Governor Saunders, recognising their wisdom, swept Fort St. David and Madras almost bare of soldiers to provide an efficient force the expedition. Even then, it numbered only three hundred Sepoys and two hundred Europeans, with three light field-pieces. Of the eight officers, six had yet to undergo their baptism of fire; of these, four—fired by the example of Clive—had only recently laid down the pen to buckle on the sword.
Nothing daunted, the little force set out on the 26th August 1751 to win immortal fame. Four days later they halted ten miles from their goal to learn that the fort was held by eleven hundred men. Still they pushed forward. A thunderstorm broke out in all its tropical fury. Deafening peals of thunder crashed in their ears, dazzling sheets of lightning played round and about them, torrents of rain soaked them to the skin, but still they strode resolutely onwards. Native spies beheld them and fled to the fort in terror. "These English are invincible," they cried, "not even the lightning can stop them!"
Clive marching through the city, under the curious gaze of ten thousand spectators, found the fort bereft of defenders. The garrison had fled to the hills in fear and trembling. Arcot had fallen—and without a blow!
But to capture the fort was one thing: to keep it another. Clive lost no time in preparing for the siege he knew must follow. Provisions were bought and stored, the guns put in order, and the defences strengthened. Then, the enemy still tarrying, Clive sallied forth to look for them. He found the fugitive garrison, now some three thousand strong, encamped close to the town. In their possession was a large and antiquated field-piece, which they fired while Clive's men were yet some distance away. But they killed nothing more terrible than a camel, and the Europeans, charging at the double, sent them running helter-skelter to the hills. The young commander returned to his stronghold in triumph, for while many English bullets had found their billets in the flying foe, he himself had not lost a man.
It was not long before Clive's prediction was fulfilled. As soon as Chanda Sáhib heard of the fall of his capital, he detached a force of four thousand men from Trichinopoli to go to its rescue. Swelled in its march to upwards of ten thousand, including one hundred and fifty Frenchmen from Pondicherry, the army entered Arcot on October 8. The townsmen, who had been somewhat conciliated by Clive's considerate treatment of them, remained neutral, and sat down to enjoy the curious spectacle of two contending forces struggling for the possession of their city, caring, for their part, little, if at all, as to which side should ultimately prove victorious.
The fort which Clive so valiantly held with his handful of men was situated near the centre of the town. The surrounding walls, over a mile in circumference, were crumbling away. The ramparts were too narrow to admit of guns being mounted on them. The parapets were low, the flanking towers for the most part in ruins. The moat which encircled it was easily fordable, parts of it indeed being either dried up or choked with rubbish. It might be thought that so weakly fortified a place would fall at once before the overwhelming forces of Chanda Sáhib. But that would be not to know the spirit of those defending it.
For fifty long days the tiny garrison held out with unflinching heroism. Night and day they were begirdled with fire. The rattle of musketry, the hissing of shot and shell, sounded ceaselessly in their ears. Time after time the enemy made a desperate assault upon the walls: time after time, Clive with sleepless vigilance, checked and repulsed them. The devotion and esteem in which the gallant defenders held their young captain were wonderful in the extreme. It is related that when provisions ran short and rations grew painfully meagre, the faithful Sepoys came to Clive with a suggestion; Let the grain be given to the Europeans, said they, since they require more nourishment than natives of Asia. For themselves, they would be content to subsist upon the water in which the rice had been boiled. "History," says Macaulay, "contains no more touching instance of military fidelity."
It was while making an inspection of the fort that Clive found, one day, a vast and wonderful piece of cannon. This, it was elicited, was a relic of the mighty Aurangzebe—one of the little toys he had employed to batter down the southern strongholds. One thousand yoke of oxen (so said tradition) had been required to draw this mammoth achievement of the gunsmith's art from Delhi to its present resting-place. Clive determined to make use of it. One of the fortress towers was strengthened and raised, and upon this, with herculean effort, the iron monster was hoisted. Then the muzzle was trained so as to command the Nabob's palace, and the garrison prepared to enjoy a little excitement.
Each day the principal officers of the besieging force were accustomed to hold a, council of war at the palace. And so, all unconscious of the surprise in store for them, the morrow found these baffled warriors busily devising fresh stratagems to make the fortress their own. The English watched them assemble with cheerful anticipation. Then they loaded their precious weapon. A stone ball weighing seventy-two pounds and thirty pounds of powder completed the charge, and to this a long train was attached. The fuse was lit and the gunners retreated to a discreet distance. Presently there was a tremendous bang. Right through the middle of the council chamber the gigantic missile crashed, scaring the astonished tacticians out of their wits. "Allah," they cried in alarm, "what new devilry are these English up to?"
Clive thought it would be a pity to discount such an effect by undue repetition. So it was decided to fire the cannon once a day only, at the hour the enemy forgathered to evolve their martial schemes. But on the fourth day a more than usually terrific explosion rent the air. The garrison held their breath and wondered what had happened. Slowly the smoke dispersed and an anxious throng gathered around the resting-place of their glorious relic. But rub their eyes and stare as they might, not a vestige of it was to be seen. Aurangzebe's popgun had been blown into a thousand fragments!
Meantime the authorities at Madras were turning anxious eyes towards the Nabob's capital. A small expedition that had been sent to its relief had failed, but another, and much larger one, was in course of preparation. Could Clive hold out till help arrived?—that was the question on everybody's lips. But assistance was to come from another quarter. A Maráthá chieftain named Morari Rao had been hired to help the cause of Muhammad Ali. So far he had been a passive spectator of the contest, waiting to see which side would win before he threw himself into the fray. Clive's brilliant defence of Arcot, however, aroused him to both admiration and surprise. "Why, these English can fight after all!" he exclaimed in astonishment. "Since they have shown spirit enough to help themselves, I will lead my troops to their assistance."
On the 20th November Morari Rao and his daring horsemen appeared outside Arcot. The British saw them through their glasses and cried joyfully that the long-looked-for relief had at last arrived. But the Maráthás were not strong enough to attack in force. They swept like a whirlwind round the city and intercepting and capturing some of the enemy's supplies, disappeared amid a cloud of dust on the horizon.
Rezza Sáhib, who commanded the investing troops, saw he must bestir himself if he wished to capture the fort. He tried to bribe Clive, but his advances were rejected with scorn. "Your father is an usurper and your army a rabble," cried the young Englishman haughtily. "You will do well to think twice before you send such poltroons into a breach defended by English soldiers!"
So it was decided to carry the fort by storm; November 25 was selected for the attack. On this day fell a great religious festival on which all devout Moslems work themselves up into a frenzy of fanatical fervour. "Whoever dies fighting the infidels on the feast of Hosein," they declare, "passes at once through the gates of Paradise into the garden of the Houris." Clive heard of their design through his spies, and laboured night and day to make ready for them. Then, worn out by his efforts, he flung himself on to his couch to sleep the sleep of exhaustion.
The first faint streaks of dawn were showing in the eastern sky when loud and clear the bugles rang out the shrill note of alarm. The attack had begun. Clive was awakened instantly and hurried to his post. It was a sight sufficient to make the most resolute quail that met the young commander's eye. From every side vast multitudes of men were rushing headlong towards the fort. It looked as though nothing could stop that furious charge. Their senses inflamed with stimulating drugs and their minds filled with the fierce lust of killing—drunk, in short, with the drunkenness that a combination of religious frenzy and fiery potions can alone produce—the Moslems were converted for the moment into raging devils. Before them they drove a troop of heavily armoured elephants to batter down the gates with their steel-clad foreheads. But here their weapons were turned against themselves. These huge beasts liked not at all the sting of English musket-balls and, screaming with terror, they turned tail and crashed a disastrous course through the closely-packed masses of the enemy.
The garrison met the charge with unflinching courage. A never-failing hail of musketry met their assailants as they strove to win the breach. Hand grenades and shells were hurled over the parapet to spread destruction among the surging crowds beneath. Field-pieces mowed down their ranks and strewed the ground with dead and dying, but as each division was checked and scattered, another quickly formed to renew the fierce attack.
In the midst of the turmoil Clive suddenly espied a large raft making for a weak spot in the defences. "Sink them, men!" he roared, but the gunners were flurried and their shots went wide. Nearer and nearer the raft approached and still it and its seventy occupants sailed scatheless through the storm of shot and shell. It was a time for instant action, and Clive himself sprang to a gun. Amid the tense excitement of the moment he alone was calm and cool, and into the midst of the closely-packed crew he sent his cannon-balls with unerring aim. The danger was soon past. A few seconds later found the raft forsaken and its unfortunate navigators struggling for their lives in the water. So the fight went on.
An attack so fierce could not be kept up long, and within an hour the enemy had spent their strength. Four hundred had perished before the walls, while Clive's losses were insignificant. A truce of two hours was called while the enemy buried their dead, and then from the shelter of the houses the bombardment was renewed. At two o'clock next morning the firing suddenly ceased. The garrison braced up their flagging energies. Were the natives going to attack them under cover of darkness? Can you not imagine with what anxiety they peered out into the blackness of the night, expecting every moment to be surrounded by a crowd of ferocious bloodthirsty fanatics. Slowly the hours rolled away, night turned to dawn, and still nothing happened. Suddenly a whisper flew about from mouth to mouth. Rezza Sáhib had retired suddenly from the city, leaving treasure-chest, artillery, and ammunition behind him! Then what a cheer went up from two hundred lusty throats. For Arcot was saved, the siege was over, and the roll of undying fame was richer by the names of its heroic defenders.
Clive himself sprang to a gun.
On the evening of the same day Captain Kilpatrick marched into the city with the long-expected reinforcements from Madras. But what use would they have been had the fortress fallen before the Moslems' furious onslaught?
Looking back over the records of our Indian Empire this master-stroke of Clive's stands out vividly as a turning-point in its history. For this was no ordinary martial exploit; the results were wide and far-reaching. To Dupleix it was the first check in his hitherto triumphant career. To the British it came as a much-needed tonic to stimulate them to further effort. More, it gave them a leader who could really lead, a commander whom all were proud to serve under, a compatriot whom the natives could admire and respect. The bronzed fighters of the Deccan began to revise their estimates of British prowess. They realised that the French were not such wonderful fellows after all, and that the British, or at any rate a section of them, were not altogether lacking in warlike courage and enterprise.
Henceforward the tide of success flowed with the English. Trichinopoli was relieved, and the French commander forced to surrender himself and his troops into the hands of Stringer Lawrence. His ally, the valiant Chanda Sáhib, met with an ignominious end. Struck down by the knife of the assassin, his dead body was sent as a present to Muhammad Ali, who chuckled with delight when he beheld the mutilated corpse of his old enemy. The Nabob's hatred extended even to the grave. Shortly afterwards there was a strange procession in Trichinopoli. A band of hooting natives led a camel in solemn state five times around the city walls. And strapped to the camel's neck was the severed head of the fallen warrior.
Clive had taken an active part in the campaign. It was he who overturned Dupleix's triumphal column and razed the city to the ground. But from no small or spiteful motive. The monument stood as an emblem of French power and magnificence. Its destruction was merely a token of the altered position of affairs. And the native mind, ever fond of signs and symbols, was exceedingly impressed by these portents of England's increasing greatness.
It was Clive also who, marching carelessly along a road one moonlit night, led his troops straight into a cunningly concealed ambush. But Clive had a faculty for getting into awkward places and extricating himself by the sheer force of his genius. Danger was as the breath of his nostrils, and the sorrier the plight, the greater his enjoyment. On this occasion a battery of nine guns, posted in a mango grove about two hundred and fifty yards to the right of the road, suddenly poured a destructive fire into his exposed troops. Farther ahead a large body of native cavalry was waiting to cut the little column into pieces. Clive told off a small detachment to keep these at bay and ordered the rest of his men to take shelter in a water-course on the left side of the road.
Two hours went by. All this time a duel had been taking place between the opposing artillery. Now Clive's guns were almost silenced by the superior fire of the enemy. At intervals the native horsemen charged fiercely down upon the English baggage, each time to be repulsed by the gallantry of its defenders. Clive saw he must either capture the concealed battery or beat a retreat. A scout brought him news that the French had posted no sentinels at the back of the grove—they were all eagerly watching the fight from the front. Here was an opportunity, and Clive seized it by sending a force of two hundred Europeans and four hundred Sepoys to take the battery in the rear. They marched off silently and secretly, unseen by the enemy. Nearer and nearer they approached the mango grove. Now they were within thirty yards, and still the Frenchmen plied their guns, all unaware of their advance. Suddenly a sharp volley of musketry took the gunners by surprise. They fled in terror, leaving their guns behind them. When morning broke the British found they had gained a great victory. But success demands a heavy toll, and seventy of Clive's men fought their last fight that night.
A few months later Clive had another escape from wholesale destruction. Tired out by a long day in the field, he lay down to rest in a small village, near the entrance gateway of the temple. Midnight came and found Clive sleeping soundly, while all around the European and native soldiers were wrapped in heavy slumber. The sentries paced drowsily to and fro. A French detachment, including forty English deserters and seven hundred Sepoys, stole silently up to the village. "Halt! Who goes there?" muttered a sentinel sleepily. "Friends—a relief force from Lawrence," was the whispered reply. "Pass friends, and all's well!" and the wearied soldier again nodded over his musket. A minute or two passed in complete silence while the enemy filed softly into the village. Then the camp was lit up with flashes of musketry as volley after volley was poured into the midst of the sleeping soldiers. Clive was awakened by the spattering of bullets about his bed. A man lying next to him was shot dead. A box at the foot of his cot was smashed into pieces. Then fell on his astonished ears the groans of the wounded and dying, the rattle of musketry, the clatter of arms, and the alarmed cries of the awakened soldiers.
Clive thought the firing came from his own men who had been startled by a false alarm. Leaping out of bed, he sprang towards a party of French Sepoys and beating down their guns with his hands, roundly abused them for what he supposed to be their stupidity. A native officer aimed a savage blow at him. Clive ran in and received the blow from the hilt upon his shoulder. Then realising his mistake he went off to find his own men. Six Frenchmen surrounded him and summoned him to surrender; but badly wounded as he was, Clive rose splendidly to the occasion. "You are surrounded," he cried, "lay down your arms, for escape is impossible!" The French gasped with astonishment and surrendered forthwith.
In Clive's force were some of Morari Rio's Maráthás. These fierce warriors were delighted to get to such close quarters with the French Sepoys, and scattered them in all directions. They declared afterwards that they had killed every one of them; but possibly their natural enthusiasm led them to mistake the will for the deed. The remaining Frenchmen and the English deserters were soon forced to yield ground. At length they all bolted into the temple, which they barricaded to resist attack. Clive was in no hurry to disturb this wasps' nest. The enemy could do no harm where they were. So field-pieces were brought up to command the entrance of the temple, and Clive and his men sat down to await developments.
Dawn broke to find them still vigilantly guarding the building. The French commander realised that he was in a trap and made a gallant attempt to cut his way out at the point of the sword. It was an effort born of despair, for he must have known his position to be hopeless. As soon as the Frenchmen showed themselves a hail of bullets swept them to the ground; their brave leader fell mortally wounded, and those who escaped unhurt hurried back into shelter. Clive advanced to the porch to offer terms. Sick with fatigue, and fainting from loss of blood, he stood swaying unsteadily about, supported on either side by a sergeant. An Irish deserter came forward and hurled a torrent of foul-mouthed abuse at his head; then, raising his musket, he fired straight at the wounded man. Luckily for Clive, he was leaning forward at the time and so escaped the assassin's bullet. With the unfortunate sergeants, however, it was otherwise. The ball pierced them both and they fell dying to the ground. Such an act of treachery horrified the more scrupulous Frenchmen and they surrendered without further ado.
Clive returned to England shortly afterwards, broken in health, but rich in glory and honours. The East India Company could not make too much of him. They entertained him at banquets, they praised him in flowery orations, they toasted him as "General" Clive. "As a token of their esteem and of their sense of his singular services" they presented him with a diamond-hilted sword. But Clive did not allow the flattery he received to blunt his sense of modesty and good taste. He refused to accept it unless his old leader Stringer Lawrence were similarly honoured. To this the Company gladly consented. Thus Clive became the most popular figure of the hour. But of all the compliments he received, it is possible that the one he valued most came from his own father. "Why!" exclaimed the old gentleman in grudging astonishment, "I do believe the booby has some sense after all!"
Contrast the enthusiastic reception of Clive with the fate of unhappy Dupleix. The great king-maker was struggling desperately against overwhelming odds. He saw his wonderful schemes dashed to the ground, his dreams of empire vanishing into nothingness. In vain he strove to build up anew the French power. His health, his vast riches, the wealth of his great intellect, all were lavished in the attempt. But the French Company neither understood nor appreciated him. They were traders—nothing more. They cared nothing for the glory of empire, for the triumphal acquisitions of the sword, for the honours of eastern titles. So long as the Company paid good dividends they were well content, but now these were falling fast. And so the cleverest Frenchman of his time was recalled in ignominy and disgrace. At home he was flouted and laughed at. His requests for the repayment of money he had spent in the Company's service were treated with derision and scorn. He was denounced as an impostor and a liar. Poor Dupleix! He sank deeper and deeper into the miseries of poverty and despair. "My services," he cried bitterly three days before his death, "are treated as fables; my demand is denounced as ridiculous; I am treated as the vilest of mankind; I am in the most deplorable indigence."
So he died—a man who would have given France an empire. One wonders if during his last wretched moments he ever bestowed a thought on La Bourdonnais whom he had sent to a similar end.