Why The Battle of Plassey Is Noteworthy even if you don’t care about Indian History….Hidden History
June 23, 1757 is the date marking the “…..decisive British East India Company victory over the Nawab of Bengal and his French allies, establishing Company rule in South Asia which expanded over much of the Indies for the next hundred years.” Many Americans may not find this particular date or occasion noteworthy, but there may be more to the event than first meets the eye. In short, the conquest by the British of most of what we now know as the country of India may have been motivated by factors not generally taught in our history books. In the following few paragraphs I intend to present my thesis as to what may have been a, if not the, major factor which motivated the British to expend blood and treasure in pursuit of the “Great Game”. The facts are not in question, but I leave it to the reader to determine the validity of my conclusions.
I begin with the assumption that the reader has at least some knowledge of world history, even if that knowledge is primarily limited to a cursory understanding of certain general trends which are woven together to provide an apparently seamless narrative purportedly explaining the underlying causes and effects of various specific events. The intent of this article is to provide an alternative explanation as to the causes of a number of events which occurred during the 18th, 19th, and even 20th, Centuries. This article actually represents a condensed version of a more lengthy article in progress which itself was originally envisioned as a short article looking at poppy cultivation in present day Afghanistan.
As I began to look at the history of the poppy in Afghanistan, and its’ obvious relationship to opium production and drug trafficking, I realized that I had to widen my focus, both geographically and historically. This readjustment in focus led me to take a more intense look at the so-called “Opium Wars” of the late 19th Century, which primarily featured the forces of the British Empire being in conflict with those of the Emperor of China. The eventual victory of the British over the “isolationist”, “xenophobic”, and somewhat arrogant forces of the Chinese resulted in the “opening up of China” to a wide variety of influences from numerous other countries which were primarily located in the West.
Obviously British interests were prime beneficiaries of the two Opium Wars, but let’s not forget that the term “gunboat diplomacy” was coined to describe the deployment of US military forces to China by President T. Roosevelt in an effort to “protect the interests of the United States”. My recollection of the general theme being supported in history class is somewhat reflected in how I describe the events in the previous paragraph. It was a theme which suggested that the Chinese were being completely unreasonable, and that, all things considered, the West had done the Chinese people a favor by bringing them the more modern values of the “enlightened” West. The name of the war(s) being what they were always suggested a seamier side, but “all’s well that ends well”, and the West continued to have widespread influence in China right up until the defeat of the Western orientated government by Mao in the aftermath of WWII.
Although I am not one to denigrate the accomplishments of the Western powers, or even those of the British Empire, I would suggest that the influence of the drug trade on world events seems to be given short shrift when one does more than simply scratch the surface. Back in the 18th Century, and before the advent of the Opium Wars, the Chinese were actually quite willing to sell all manner of goods to any and all merchants who wished to buy them. There was one little problem, from the perspective of the buyers, and that was the fact that the Chinese were only willing to part with their goods on the condition that those goods were paid for in silver. Unfortunately for those in the West, this resulted in a huge transfer of “real” wealth from the West to the East, as the Chinese were trading renewable goods such as silk and tea for what was becoming an increasingly difficult, and expensive, method of payment, the aforementioned silver. This was not a situation which the Western Countries were willing to accept for very long, and the British, among others, came up with a solution. The solution was, in effect, to get into the drug business.
At the time of the Battle of Plessey any direct influence by foreign interests on the various Indian principalities was generally confined to those areas along the coast, whether that be on the east or the west. Although India certainly had goods which were of interest to those in the West, a major motive for maintaining a presence in India was to facilitate the trade with China. The water route had proved to be less expensive than the old overland “Silk Road”, and had also, not coincidently, broken the previous stranglehold on the trade held by Venice, and other Italian city-states, as a result of their advantageous geographic location which resulted in them becoming the terminus of the overland route, a lucrative business to say the least. In any event, it is within this historical context that we must attempt to answer address the question of why the Battle of Plessey, which was to eventually have such far-reaching consequences which we continue to experience today, occurred in the first place.
The reason, to put it simply, was to solidify control of the poppy crop, which was introduced to the area by Arab traders as a result of the expansion of the Moghul Empire. Although I fully admit that many accounts tell a different tale, I would suggest that none of those accounts suggest anything rebutting the conclusions which I have drawn. One can easily find evidence of the exponential growth in the amount of land designated for the cultivation of the poppy in the area of Bengal, as well as the surrounding areas as they too became dominated by the British Raj. One need hardly note that there was a corresponding increase in the production of opium.
In essence, what I find most interesting, and really quite amazing, is the inextricable connection between the opium trade and the rise of the British Empire. Fortunes were made, and lost, by the aristocracies of various nations, including those close to the British Royal family, and, arguably, the royal family itself. There is no doubt that the world would be quite a different place without the opium trade. Not to ignore other events and countries, but if we focus our attention on the histories of China, India, and Great Britain (including its’ empire), it is of note that India and China are the two most populous countries on the planet, and that the British Empire was one of the greatest in the history of the world and whose influence continues to be felt today. If one considers that revenues related to opium production represented at least 15% of the total British colonial revenues in 1938, one can easily guess at the status it once held within the highest reaches of the government. A possible related question might be to ask what residual status it occupies in today’s world, but that is the subject for another article, which ironically provided the genesis for this one.
The Battle of Plessey thus, in my opinion, might be considered one of the most important battles in the ongoing quest to control the drug trade. The effects of that one British victory, predicated, in my view, on the perception of those involved on the need to control the drug trade can hardly be fathomed. It is an event whose consequences can already be seen and which not only stretch across the centuries, but continue to influence the world of every person alive today. Is it any wonder that a drug whose legacy is so incredibly diverse would continue to thrive and be a part of the political and economic landscape of today?
Thank you for your interest.