Clive: The Life and Death of a British Emperor

Clive: The Life and Death of a British Emperor

by Robert Harvey

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The real-life story of Robert Clive would be judged as wildly implausible if it came from the pen of a novelist.

Clive of India was one of the most extraordinary and colorful figures Britain ever produced. The founder of Britain's Indian empire, he was also Britain's first great guerrilla fighter by the age of twenty-seven, conqueror of Bengal at thirty-one, and avenging angel of righteousness against the greed of his own fellow-countrymen at forty-one. In his later life Parliament brought him under painful scrutiny and he ended up one of the most hated men in Britain. He died violently under still-mysterious circumstances just before his fiftieth birthday.

The story of Clive can be viewed on several levels: as a spirited military adventure by a man who defied death many times, who withstood the greatest siege in British military history, and conspired to force one of the most absolute and cruellest monarchs on earth off his throne; as the morality tale of a penniless young man who became the sole ruler of a huge empire, ended up as one of the richest men in Britain and was then brought to account and driven to despair; or as the story of a plundering early poacher-turned-gamekeeper who sought to establish a moral and legal order amidst slaughter and greed.

Clive today lies buried in an unknown grave in an obscure corner of rural Shropshire, a reflection of the controversy he aroused in his lifetime and that still surrounds his legacy and the manner of his death. In this lively and revealing study Robert Harvey illuminates Clive's life's journey from the green fields surrounding Market Drayton through his adventures in India, his drive to success and self-destruction, to his vicious and premature death, by suicide or murder.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781466878624
Publisher: St. Martin's Publishing Group
Publication date: 08/19/2014
Sold by: Macmillan
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 416
File size: 518 KB

About the Author

Robert Harvey is a former British MP who spent nine years on the foreign staff of The Economist, where he became assistant editor. He is the author of several books, including Clive: The Life and Death of a British Emperor. He lives in Powys, Wales and London.

Robert Harvey is a former British MP who spent nine years on the foreign staff of The Economist, where he became assistant editor. He is the author of several books, including Clive: The Life and Death of a British Emperor. He lives in Powys, Wales and London.

Read an Excerpt


The Life and Death of a British Emperor

By Robert Harvey

St. Martin's Press

Copyright © 1998 Robert Harvey
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4668-7862-4


Burial at Dusk

A moody, grey-grim, prematurely frosty evening in late November in the mid-eighteenth century, in one of the most obscure parts of central England. The buttress-hedged, snow-covered dirt-tracks are devoid of traffic, the window-coverings of the farmers' and artisans' cottages in place to keep in the warmth of the blazing, smoky fires and expel the ferocity of the cold. It is dusk, and the last light is fading. Anxious faces can be seen occasionally peeping from the windows. Ploughmen returning home, the odd venturesome older child, are outside, watching the road from the safety of thickets and copses of trees.

Some noble carriages have already passed up to the church. Some of the more confident and wealthy members of the farming community have walked there to pay their last respects.

Through the murk the sparking clatter of wheels on the rough stones of the lane can be heard approaching. The hidden watchers stiffen. Horses' hooves pound into earshot; there is not one carriage, but several, as though a small army were riding into battle. Those farthest down the lane first witness the spectral procession through the dusk. A huge carriage, draped entirely in black, is at its head. The carriage denotes a man of immense power and wealth. Behind follows a succession of seven or eight carriages, the ones at the front equally splendid, funereal, spectral, the last bearing servants in livery.

It is a terrifying sight for remote country folk, the passage of a black prince and his retainers to his funeral after nightfall. This was the burial, in Macaulay's phrase, of a 'great wicked lord who had ordered the walls around his house to be made so thick in order to keep out the devil'.

* * *

The thundering black carriages sped past the gawping onlookers like ghostly apparitions. Further on, they slowed and adopted a more respectful pace. As the procession clattered along the road, through the encroaching darkness, the glint and polish of magnificent coaches and liverymen dressed in black must have seemed awesome to the silent, hidden watchers.

Finally, the procession reached the very slight rise on which the then very humble church of Moreton Saye was perched, and the coaches disgorged their occupants, the women in the ample veils and black finery of loud mourning, the men stiffened in respect. The servants, with their black costumes and impassive faces, looked like the outriders of death. The huge wooden coffin was borne in, defying ecclesiastical regulations that burials must not take place after dusk.

Gloom, sadness and secrecy pervaded. It was a burial in a hurry, and in shame; ostensibly that of a suicide who by canon law could not be buried in the consecrated ground of a graveyard, never mind in church itself. The funeral was solemn, subdued, punctuated by the sobbing of some of the women present and the silent grief of the men.

When the coffin was laid in its vault, the secret, private mourners of the night departed in all their sepulchral finery. It was left to the gravediggers and stonemasons to cover the resting place, and then pave it over. No stone was erected over it, no tomb constructed, no memorial inscribed, no name carved. The floor was restored as it was, as though no one lay there.

As a strong-willed, troublesome boy, the deceased had worshipped in this simple chapel, in the family pew. The ancient rough-hewn silver communion cup and fine wooden balcony, erected in 1634, offset the building's rudeness. Fourteen years after the burial, in 1788, it was to be renovated in the Wren style into a respectable eighteenth-century edifice – by the standards of a provincial church. Nearly a hundred years later fine box pews were added. A tiny plaque was placed on the wall to the right facing the altar – not above the grave, but within the presbytery. It read: 'Sacred to the Memory of Robert Lord Clive KB buried within the walls of this church. Primus in Indis.' That is all the memorial that remains.

This century, a parquet floor was laid by workmen who discovered bones about two-thirds of the way up the aisle on the right. It is believed they were Clive's, and were laid to rest again. Yet this spectral apparition of the night, buried like Mozart in haste and secrecy (although, unlike the composer, at great expense), in an anonymous grave, was one of Britain's greatest and richest sons, far more deserving of a tomb in Westminster Abbey than most that rest there.

* * *

The great crags and moss-coloured granite bleakness of mid Wales give way as they reach England to lower hills sliced by deep wooded trenches in the east, at last spending themselves in the gentler ridges and valleys of western Shropshire. There, two uplands stand out: the Stiperstones, a series of angular rocks supposed to have been a medieval gathering place for witches; and the pencil-precise escarpment of Wenlock Edge. Where these two meet overlooks a broad, fertile plain dominated by the small market town of Bishop's Castle. On the English side of this there lies a valley dominated by a large, graceful, classical eighteenth-century country house set back behind a lake in extensive parkland.

There, more than 220 years ago, as the November evening drew in while fires fought to keep at bay the encroaching winter cold, a man was seated alone, having taken his leave of his family for the day. He wore the dress of a very wealthy nobleman, the most expensive silk shirt, gold-embroidered coat and black waistcoat that money could buy. He was of middle height and medium build, with a face rendered haggard by sickness. The features were uneven: pinched, slightly skewed, bushy browed and large nosed, he was not a handsome man.

But the stern expression, weathered and darkened by long exposure under a foreign sun, set him apart from the general run of wealthy country magnates. It was a proud, anguished face, the eyes decisive and piercing, the mouth curiously vulnerable, yet set in fierce determination. To modern eyes, the mixture of sensitivity and command conveyed by his portraits recalls that of Winston Churchill. He was about to turn 50. He remained possessed of the vigour of his prime. As so often these past months, he was silent and shrouded in his thoughts. None dared interrupt him.

Few encountering this taciturn squire in the windy gloom of an English country evening would have suspected that he had once been a continental emperor, a man who had built up, from almost nothing, a dominion to rival those of Alexander the Great, Augustus Caesar, Genghis Khan and Tamerlane. His achievement had been far greater than those of the Spanish conquistadors. He had overcome a people ten times as numerous as Cortés did in Mexico, confronting huge armies equipped with primitive artillery, firearms, horses and elephants belonging to one of the greatest and most advanced civilisations in the world. By contrast, the Aztecs had no firearms and regarded men on horseback as supernatural monsters.

After securing a continent by the time he was only 35, this remarkable man had set down the administrative foundations of an empire that was to last two centuries. An even greater – although perhaps impossible – challenge beckoned. The government in London was considering appointing him to command the British forces resisting the uprising of the American colonists.

No feat, it seemed, was beyond him. If anyone could save America for Britain, it was surely Robert Clive. That summer, the East India Company's tea had been thrown into Boston Harbour. But with his withering perspicacity and realism, Clive believed that American independence was inevitable. Two years earlier he had written, with some exaggeration, 'that the Americans will sooner or later master all the Spanish possessions and make Cape Horn the boundary of their empire is beyond a doubt'.

Clive was a restless man, given to pacing up and down the magnificent drawing room, with its splendid ceilings, at Walcot. He gazed out as the light faded that autumn evening upon the spectre of the great oaks and ashes in the extensive parkland that fell away below the house as they shed the final glory of their red and brown leaves.

Nature put on its finest display of colour as death approached and the skeletons of the winter trees beckoned. To Clive the approach of English winter, the receding light of evening along the Welsh borders, the pervasive grey skies, green parkland and damp meadows seemed very different to the heat and dust of southern India. Yet there was a touch of Bengal here, in the subtle play of light through cloud and suffocating greenery. Only the chill in the air was in cold contrast to the suffocating humidity of the Ganges basin.

He was proud of his huge estate at Walcot. He had bought the estate from Charles Walcot, a young MP, heir to a deeply indebted father, for the staggering price of some £90,000 ten years before. Unusually – for Clive, impoverished in youth, was careful with his money – he had got the worse of the deal. In the ten years he had owned it he had employed Sir William Chambers, one of the most celebrated architects of his generation, to enlarge it, adding a simple yet impressive Doric portico to the east front, to create a new entrance; the previous one had been on the north side. Elegant sash windows were introduced; and the ceilings of the main rooms had been decorated with friezes of bows and arrows as well as musical instruments.

An exotic lake was laid out in the formal gardens he had designed. Behind Walcot, Clive had begun an extensive arboretum as a gift to posterity which he relished planning and walking about in. The house was large, yet its design was classical simplicity itself: the new porch gave on to a beautifully proportioned hall with a magnificent staircase. To the left the drawing room beckoned, to the right the dining room. Outside, no excessive fripperies or adornments spoilt the symmetry of the façade. Built to human proportions, Walcot was light, straightforward and comfortable, set under a hill that dominated the surrounding landscape. The tiny hamlet of Lydbury North, mostly lived in by estate workers, trailed wisps of chimney smoke across the centre of this vast panorama.

It was one of three great houses, and a number of smaller ones, owned by one of the first men in English history who had risen from genteel poverty to awesome wealth through his own efforts without benefit of inheritance or royal patronage. Clive was by now certainly one of the richest men in England, with a fortune estimated conservatively at £1 million (around £400 million at today's prices).

Clive was to be reviled and sneered at for his nouveau riche love of ostentation and luxury. Yet his taste in houses could hardly be described as loud or vulgar. While no expense was spared on the interiors – yet for the most part they were within the bounds of good taste – his residences were more notable for subdued charm and elegance along classical lines than showiness.

Claremont, when completed, was compact, beautifully proportioned, ostentatious only in its enormous columns. Walcot, much older, was more streamlined still. Oakly, more modest, was full of charm. His Berkeley Square house was no palace, but the dwelling of a London gentleman. When he refurbished Styche Hall, his ancestral home, he did so with restraint, turning a very unassuming Elizabethan country pile into a fine Georgian one.

It was in October 1774, as he had helped to direct major alterations to Oakly in a downpour by a steep slope overlooking the swollen River Teme, that he had caught a bad cold and catarrh, precipitating an attack of his old illness, which in turn seems to have rendered Clive's sensitive mind defenseless. An intellect that was usually courageous, optimistic and creative in outlook was now at the mercy of every demon of regret and disappointment throughout an extraordinary life. Here, in his last evening in Walcot, they would have come rushing at him like the dancing patterns of the shadows from the flames of the great fire on the hearth.


Rebel without a Cause

Robert Clive was born in an unmemorable house, Styche Hall, near the village of Moreton Saye close to the town of Market Drayton some 25 miles east of Walcot and 35 miles from Oakly in his beloved Shropshire on 29 September 1725.

Shropshire is one of England's loveliest counties, a concentration of lush green farmland through which little lanes wind like streams up to unexpected, remote, solitary farms and hamlets. Unlike the western part of the county, where Clive was to live later, his birthplace was in one of the flatter parts of the country, characterised by occasional slight rises in an area crisscrossed by hedges and fields.

Clive's life was to be surrounded by myths, and two were present even at his birth: that he came of humble stock; and that his formative years were spent in Shropshire. In fact the family, although by no means aristocratic, was from a respectable country gentry background. Not rich, the Clives were not poor. When only two years old the child ceased to live at Styche Hall, and was transferred to more comfortable and cosmopolitan surroundings.

The Clive family was probably named after the village of Clive, north of Shrewsbury. Its origins are recorded as going back to at least the twelfth century, when Henry II, slayer of Thomas à Becket, was on the throne. In the 1500s Sir George Clive was a considerable government official, knighted for his service, while the boy's grandfather, Robert Clive, was a noted and feared commander of the parliamentary forces in the following century.

Almost certainly, Clive's father, Richard, was fiercely committed to the anti-Jacobite, pro-parliament forces, and was committed to the Hanoverian king in later years, as were most, although by no means all, of the minor country gentry. Richard Clive was a man of unbendingly forceful views, stubborn, obstinate and probably a difficult father although – again contrary to legend, which has it that he was ashamed of his son in his teens – devoted to Robert in a kind of chivvying, hectoring fashion. He was also said to be irascible and fond of drink. Clive's mother, on the other hand, was sensitive.

In common with many poorer gentry, Richard found it difficult to stoop to the business of making money, something his limited circumstances made necessary. His income from renting land was a comfortable £500 a year, but he borrowed heavily on the estate to support his lifestyle and large family. He qualified as a lawyer, and moved to London to practise there when Clive was an infant.

The boy was his firstborn. Before he was three he was taken under the guardianship of his mother's sister, Elizabeth (born a Gaskell, of a respectable Manchester gentry family), and her husband, Daniel Bayley, who had only one son, while his father struggled to make ends meet in London. Contrary to myth again, Clive's early years were happy and spoilt. Soon after his third birthday, he fell seriously ill with a fever but through tender nursing recovered and one day descended to the parlour talkative and 'very merry and as good as it is possible'. The kindness of the household shines through: according to one account, his uncle remarked, 'with reluctance Bob this afternoon suffered his Aunt Bay to go to chapel'.

Clive as a young child was from the first a mixture of talkative precociousness, sensitivity and frequent alternation between cheerfulness and a fast and furious temper. He adored fighting and was very close to his cousin. At the age of six, his uncle commented with concern that 'he is out of measure addicted to fighting', which gave his temper 'a fierceness and imperiousness that he flies out on every trifling occasion; for this reason I do what I can to suppress the hero that I may help forward the more valuable qualities of meekness, benevolence and patience'.

The Bayleys' house, Hope Hall, was more comfortable than Styche, and Manchester at that time was a very pleasant small town inhabited by 'reserved and purse-proud' people compared with the 'free and open' inhabitants of the nearby port of Liverpool. At the age of nine, tragedy struck: Clive's surrogate mother, the gentle 'Aunt May' died, and his distraught uncle proved unable to look after the boy. Clive was sent for a while to his father's small lodgings in London. Soon afterwards the family returned to Styche.

* * *

Clive now lived in less comfortable surroundings; his father was not rich, and the eldest boy had to share with several other children. The house was of no great size, although adequate: it was a small Elizabethan country house, set on a hill, with a central block and two modest timbered wings. This he shared, eventually, with no fewer than five girls (two of his sisters died in infancy), and a baby boy who was only two when he left home (one brother was born four years later and his four other brothers died in infancy).

As the eldest, and only boy, in the household for most of his youth, he was almost certainly overindulged and surrounded by feminine influences, which helped further to develop his sensitive and egotistical nature. Yet from about this time can be dated his increasingly sullen and rebellious personality, which may have been prompted by the move from his doting uncle and aunt, where he was the centre of attention, to a household filled with others under the considerably less sentimental tutelage of his gruff and opinionated father. His mother, by contrast, appears to have been even-tempered and hard-working.


Excerpted from Clive by Robert Harvey. Copyright © 1998 Robert Harvey. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


Title Page,
Copyright Notice,
Book One: Born a Soldier, 1725–1756,
1. Burial at Dusk,
2. Rebel without a Cause,
3. Coromandel,
4. Dupleix,
5. The Return of the French,
6. Arcot,
7. The Chase,
8. The Siege of Trichinopoly,
9. The Fall of Dupleix,
10. Clive Superstar,
Book Two: Emperor, 1756–1764,
11. Bengal,
12. The Black Hole,
13. To the Hugli,
14. The Battle of Calcutta,
15. The Deceivers,
16. Plassey,
17. The Nawab's Baubles,
18. Emperor of Bengal,
19. The First Couple,
20. The Innocent,
Book Three: Statesman, 1764–1771,
21. The Cesspit,
22. Statesman at Last,
23. The Plutocrat,
24. Typhoon,
Book Four: The Fall, 1771–1774,
25. The Last Battle,
26. The Legacy,
Also by Robert Harvey,

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