British rule in India is conventionally described as having begun in 1757. On June 23rd of that year, at the Battle of Plassey, a small village and mango grove between Calcutta and Murshidabad, the forces of the East India Company under Robert Clive defeated the army of Siraj-ud-daulah, the Nawab of Bengal. The “battle” lasted no more than a few hours, and indeed the outcome of the battle had been decided long before the soldiers came to the battlefield. The aspirant to the Nawab’s throne, Mir Jafar, was induced to throw in his lot with Clive, and by far the greater number of the Nawab’s soldiers were bribed to throw away their weapons, surrender prematurely, and even turn their arms against their own army. Jawaharlal Nehru, in The Discovery of India (1946), justly describes Clive as having won the battle “by promoting treason and forgery”, and pointedly notes that British rule in India had “an unsavoury beginning and something of that bitter taste has clung to it ever since.”

Clive thought of the battle as the climax to his career, a striking testimony to the extraordinary shallowness of his character, while his enemies, whose judgment modernizing Indians are still inclined to accept, attributed Clive’s success to the “faint- heartedness” of “the effeminate and luxurious Asiatics”. In one fundamental respect, the battle of Plassey signified the state of things to come: few British victories were achieved without the use of bribes, and few promises made by the British were ever kept. No doubt it was these traits of “honor” and “fair play” to which Thomas Macaulay was alluding when he wrote with his usual pomposity, “No oath which superstition can devise, no hostage however precious, inspires a hundredth part of the confidence which is produced by the “yea, yea” and “nay, nay,” of a British envoy.”