Robert Clive (1725-1774)

William Dalrymple wrote in The Guardian of 11.6.20:

“When Robert Clive, who established British rule in India, died by his own hand in 1774, he was widely reviled as one of the most hated men in England.

His body was buried in a secret night-time ceremony, in an unmarked grave, without a plaque. Clive left no suicide note, but Samuel Johnson reflected the widespread view as to his motives: Clive “had acquired his fortune by such crimes that his consciousness of them impelled him to cut his own throat”.

Clive’s death followed soon after two whistleblowers had revealed the scale of the devastation and asset-stripping of Bengal under his rule…

Today Clive’s statue stands outside the Foreign Office at the very centre of British government, just behind Downing Street. Yet clearly this is not a man we should be honouring today. If at the time many thought the statue should never have been erected, now, as we stand at this crucial crossroads after the toppling of Edward Colston, the moment has definitely come for it to be sent to a museum. There it can be used to instruct future generations about the darkest chapters of the British past.

It is not just that this statue stands as a daily challenge to every British person whose grandparents came from the former colonies. Perhaps more damagingly still, its presence outside the Foreign Office encourages dangerous neo-imperial fantasies among the descendants of the colonisers.

In Britain, study of the empire is still largely absent from the history curriculum. This still tends to go from the Tudors to the Nazis, Henry to Hitler, with a brief visit to William Wilberforce and Florence Nightingale along the way. We are thus given the impression that the British were always on the side of the angels. We remain almost entirely ignorant about the long history of atrocities and exploitation that accompanied the building of our colonial system. Now, more than ever, we badly need to understand what is common knowledge elsewhere: that for much of history we were an aggressively racist and expansionist force responsible for violence, injustice and war crimes on every continent.

We also need to know how far the British, every bit as much as the Germans, helped codify a system of scientific racism, creating a hierarchy of race that put white Caucasians at the top and blacks, “wandering Jews” and Indian Muslims at the bottom. Yet while the Germans have faced up to the darkest periods of their past, and are taught about it unvarnished in their schools, we have not even made a start to this process. Instead, while we understand that the Belgian and German empires were deeply sinister, the Raj, we like to believe, was like some enormous rose-tinted Merchant Ivory film writ large over the plains of Hindustan, all parasols and Simla tea parties, friendly elephants and handsome, croquet-playing maharajahs…”

From: An Economic History of the English Garden (2019), by Roderick Floud:

“…(Clive) returned to England worth at least £668 million (£400,000); he bought more estates, including Claremont in Surrey. It cost him £41.7 million (£25,000) and he then spent over £50 million (£31,612) on a new house and gardens there, designed by (Capability) Brown and Henry Holland Junior. Important features of the gardens were an aviary and a menagerie, which entailed raising the height of the park walls to keep the animals confined – deer, cranes, nylghai and antelope among them and, best known, a zebra. Before Clive could live in his new mansion, he died, either by an accidental drug overdose or suicide. He had suffered long periods of illness and pain, relieved by opium.

The Claremont estate was already an important landscape garden, the creation of Sir John Vanbrugh, who lived there for a time, and of Charles Bridgeman, who worked with Henry Wise and later himself became Royal Gardener; he made the lake – later transformed from its round shape to a more sinuous outline by William Kent – and turf amphitheatre that still delight visitors. The formality of Bridgeman’s garden, with grand avenues of trees praised by the garden writer Stephen Switzer, was softened by William Kent, and further changes took place when Clive employed Brown as architect of a new house – he knocked down Vanbrugh’s – and to make further changes to the landscape. The spectacular hilly and wooded site is the result, therefore, of the work of three of England’s greatest landscape architects and a great deal of dubious money.”

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