Andrew MacDonald of Rogart fights the War-Elephants of Bengal

In Rogart, on the 7th of May 1721, a little boy was born to the MacDonalds and named Andrew.  He was educated at the parish school where he would have learned English as well as arithmetic, and perhaps some of the classics.  After five years there, when he was probably in his early teens he went to work on the farm.  This did not suit him.  He apparently became ‘dissatisfied with the hard, monotonous toil’.  At the time the East India Company was recruiting in the Highlands.  He and some relations, probably also young men, fancied the adventure and possible profits of trying for their fortunes half way around the world.  He was sent to Calcutta where he enlisted with the military wing of the EIC.  It was a good time for a healthy, ambitious young man as the Company was expanding its reach across India.  For several years he was ‘employed on most active and arduous work’, the ‘constant turmoil’ agreeing well with the ‘rugged and trusty contingent of Scottish Highlanders, of which Macdonald was a leading spirit’.  He was lucky to avoid rampant diseases such as cholera which struck down even healthy young men.  After ten years his ambitions were satisfied and he was promoted to the office of Military Inspector.  This entailed him supervising three distant trading outposts of the Company.  He seems to have performed well here also as he was then made a Superintendent of the Convoy and Defence Department which sought new trade.  This was an exhausting and responsible role which involved travel far away from Company headquarters.  It was also dangerous, as the EIC’s techniques were frequently coercive so were not always welcomed by locals.  It is not clear what trouble Andrew got into, but several times he was badly wounded.  The work, travel and fighting combined with the severe climate in the interior of India eventually took its toll and he was sent back to Scotland to recuperate.  In 1754 he returned to India and resumed his former position.  Within three years he participated in a crucial event in India’s history.  The battle at Plassey was really more of a skirmish, but it was crucial to the East India Company’s triumph over its French rivals and to the establishment of British rule in India.

Siraj-ad-daula, the young Nawab of Bengal had, with a vast army, taken Calcutta from the EIC in June of 1756.  The Company headquarters in Madras did not hear of this until August when they dispatched Lord Clive with a 2,500 strong mixed European-Indian force.  Clive drove Siraj’s army out and replaced him with Mir Jafar, a puppet ruler.  Siraj’s spies caught scent of the conspiratorial discussions and moved south to Plassey.  Clive also moved with 2,000 Indian sepoys, 600 British infantry, and about 200 artillerymen with ten field pieces and two small howitzers.  At some point during these manoeuvres, Andrew MacDonald from Rogart had joined the force.  Clive’s men were outnumbered and his council of war voted against action.  After an hour or so meditating in a grove of trees, Clive changed his mind ordering the army to move to Plassey.  In History Today magazine Richard Cavendish describes what happened:

“The confrontation came on a cloudy morning north of the village of Plassey on the bank of the Hughli river.  Clive’s army was drawn up in three divisions, as was the Nawab’s army of perhaps 40,000 men with its war-elephants and more than 50 cannon.  One division was commanded by Mir Jafar.  After an opening cannonade, a crash of thunder at noon heralded a torrential downpour of rain that lasted half an hour.  The British artillerymen quickly covered their cannon and ammunition with tarpaulins, but the enemy failed to do the same and their artillery was put out of action, so that when the Nawab’s army moved forward, assuming that Clive’s cannon were also out of action, it was met with a withering storm of fire.  The enemy withdrew and Siraj, who distrusted his generals and had already been warned of impending defeat by his astrologer (who had possibly been bribed), lost his nerve when Mir Jafar advised retreat.  When Clive’s army attacked again, Siraj fled on a fast camel.  His demoralized army followed suit and when the British entered the enemy camp at about 5pm, they found it abandoned.”

Image

Lord Clive meeting with Mir Jafar after the Battle of Plassey, oil on canvas (Francis Hayman, c. 1762) [Image from National Portrait Gallery: http://www.npg.org.uk/collections/search/portrait/mw01347/Robert-Clive-and-Mir-Jafar-after-the-Battle-of-Plassey-1757%5D

Clive reported that he had only lost eighteen men and he estimated that his opponent had lost 500.  Siraj was killed by his own people and was replaced by Mir Jafar.  As he had planned, Clive operated the strings of his puppet ruler, gaining control of Bengal.  Andrew MacDonald almost paid a high price for helping Britain gain control of India.  He was severely wounded at Plassey and left on the field as dead.  He was rescued and sent back to Britain as an invalid. 

To be continued…

Annals, North British Society, Halifax, with portraits and biographical notes, 1768-1903http://www.archive.org/details/annalsnorthbriti00nortuoft pps 20-21

Richard Cavendish, ‘The Battle of Plassey’, History Today, Volume 57, Issue 6 (2007)

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One thought on “Andrew MacDonald of Rogart fights the War-Elephants of Bengal

  1. Warfare is a fascinating subject. Despite the dubious morality of using violence to achieve personal or political aims. It remains that conflict has been used to do just that throughout recorded history.

    Your article is very well done, a good read.

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