Detail of Robert Clive, studio of Nathaniel Dance (later Sir Nathaniel Holland, Bt). Circa 1773. National Portrait Gallery, London

In photographs and paintings, eighteenth-century European soldier of fortune Major-General Robert Clive, the First Baron Clive of Plassey (also known as Clive of India), is often seen turning the impressive swell of his right buttock to the camera or painter, his fist pressed firmly into his fat hip, just above a ruffled khaki pocket. His military coat is red and his sash is red and his buttons are gold. It’s obvious that he’s trying to hold his mouth in such a way to evoke stoicism, but the tautness there pulls his ailing eyes downward, and the result is a depressing image of a depressive man holding something sour beneath his tongue as penance. But, sure: he has a nice ass.

Clive’s ass is the ass of an erratic sociopath who, during his occupation of Bengal in the mid-eighteenth century, was responsible for the slaughter and subsequent pillaging of countless villagers and their villages, and the enslavement of those he left alive, forcing upon them the torturous cultivation of opium. During his reign as governor of Bengal, it was compulsory for farmers to devote their land entirely to these poppies, which led to the Bengal Famine of 1770, responsible for the death of an estimated 10 million people—one-third of the region. According to the March 23, 1771 edition of the Oxford Journal, “There were not people enough left alive to bury the dead.” 1

Clive’s parents, Richard and Rebecca, had thirteen children, of which he, Robert, was the eldest. Perhaps it was because six of his siblings died in infancy that his father descended into the sort of depression that sparked angry, and often violent, outbursts. As such, the boy Clive was sent away, black-eyed and split-lipped, to live with his mother’s sister in a low-lying and coal-blighted neighborhood in Manchester where he, like his father (according to the sister’s husband), “was out of measure addicted to fighting.”

As a teenager, he started a street gang and protection racket, extorting money from local merchants via violent beatings and vandalism—breaking their fingers and their arms, breaking the windows of their shopfronts and destroying their goods. In triumph, post-extortion, Clive would ritualistically scale the tower of St. Mary’s Parish Church and straddle the shoulders of the most grotesque of the gargoyles, who had themselves shunned their original place as the statuesque conveyors of the rain to become nesting places, incubating untold generations of pigeons until the city mothers and fathers affixed the gargoyles’ mouths with screens and razor wire, spikes and poisons. 2

There, atop the church, Clive would sit and listen to the pigeons conversing in the chimera’s mouth beneath him, imagining himself motherly, as if he was sitting on the egg. He would see bastardized versions of the Union Jack in the constellations of the bird excrement, and from them derive the inspiration to roar at, and spit on, the earthbound passersby. If there were no passersby, he would stare out beyond the church courtyard (where town markets were held until 1201, when the Pope banned any such commercial engagement from church property), and the red sandstone bluff to the River Tern, contemplating both his future and the painting of Jesus and Mary beneath the roof that held him—mother and child—as he conjured his roar and his urine for the next round of pedestrians.

St. Mary’s Parish Church, years later, would publicly denounce the findings of Charles Darwin (citing “the wisdom of Augustine of Hippo” as evidence against Darwin’s theories), but express a sly pride at the fact that none other than Clive of India had once perched on its pinnacle. 3 Also towing the prideful line is the 1935 biopic Clive of India, starring the debonair Roland Coleman, and Loretta Young as Clive’s love interest, Margaret Maskelyne. According to The New York Times, the film is “a handsome tribute to the glory of British rule in India, and sprawling screen biography of England’s great soldier-politician.” The film also featured Clive of India’s actual descendant, the alcoholic and tubercular actor Colin Clive, best known for his role as Dr. Frankenstein in Frankenstein (1931) and Bride of Frankenstein (1935). Strange and unseemly, also, that the murderous Clive of India would become the namesake for the Hong Australian Corporation’s popular Clive of India All Purpose Curry Powder: Blend of Exotic Herbs and Spices (Has a Distinct Madras Influence!).

During the first Carnatic War, which saw the French and British jockeying for power in India (each nation enlisting the blood of their vassals), the mad Clive refused to obey a cease-fire order, issued after the French seized Madras in 1746, captured the British military leadership, and held them hostage in Pondicherry, promising their release after what they expected to be a peaceful negotiation. Instead, Clive smeared dirt over his skin, ripped the clothing from the body of one of the British vassals, and disguised himself as a “native.” He led a group of soldiers in what would become the Siege of Pondicherry, during which, according to a witness, Clive’s “platoon, animated by his exhortation, fired again with new courage and great vivacity upon the enemy.” 4

Clive’s lifelong penchant for violence would serve him well in future battles, for which he gained notoriety throughout Europe. In 1750, the famed Clive retreated to Bengal to convalesce from a “nervous disorder” that resulted in scattershot acts of violence. Though he was later to marry Margaret Maskelyne, sister of his friend Nevil, the Astronomer Royal, historians speculate that Clive’s most intimate relationship was with Robert Orme, the British historian of India and son of an East India Company surgeon, who quickly became obsessed with the irascible but charismatic Clive during his Bengali recuperation.

Orme, who was long married, but who kept this marriage a secret even from his closest friends during his lifetime, would become Clive’s chief chronicler. And it was Orne who compelled Clive to lead a blood-soaked punitive expedition to Calcutta in 1757, revenge for the “Black Hole,” a prisoner-of-war dungeon for British soldiers captured by Muslim fighters—the troops of Siraj ud-Daulah, the last independent Nawab of Bengal—in which, due to the cramped conditions and resulting deaths by suffocation, heat exhaustion, and crushing, 123 of the 146 prisoners perished.

As the French and British remained at war, Siraj ud-Daulah campaigned to assist the French, isolating certain members of his court who, in turn, campaigned, either openly or quietly, to depose him. Jafar Ali Khan (aka Mir Jafar, aka Mir Jafar the Wretched Traitor, aka Puppet Nawab), Siraj ud-Daulah’s commander-in-chief, made an under-the-table deal with Clive; he agreed to pay the British reparations for the Black Hole incident (reported to be in the neighborhood of 2 million sterling, a large portion of which went straight into Clive’s pocket) in exchange for the office of viceroy of Bengal, Bihar, and Odisha. Historians credit Mir Jafar’s rule as the true beginning of British imperialism in India. 5 Despite being widely reviled in the region (invocation of his name, in fact, is today treated as a slur, meaning a disgrace to a faith, or disgrace to a nation), Mir Jafar’s great-grandson, Iskandar Mirza, a military police officer, went on to become the first president of Pakistan.

With the help of the conspirators from the Nawab’s court (all of whom he bribed), and many documented sessions spent lying on his back beneath various stands of trees considering the clouds and developing his strategies (the poet Sir Alfred Lyall claimed, in verse, that all of Clive’s best decisions were the results of a long and fruitful dream), Clive defeated Siraj ud-Daulah in the aftermath of a torrential monsoon. Charging across the saturated landscape—mud and water and blood rushing up over his boot-toes, twists of coupling mosquitoes whirling over his body like helices—Clive captured his enemy’s water tanks and stationed himself as commander in a crumbling hunting lodge. The Nawab’s gunpowder had been ruined by the rain, and he fled the battlefield by camel with whatever remaining wealth he could carry, through the seemingly opaque stench of the corpses. Clive deployed the assassin Mohammadi Beg to execute Siraj ud-Daulah, who afterward tossed the mangled body into a particularly zaftig meander of the Bhāgirathi-Hooghly River.6

Clive, once he installed himself as governor of Bengal and launched his reign of terror as opium trade lord, became, according to the Oxford Journal, “the richest self-made man in Europe,” stirring the envy of his parliamentary colleagues, who annoyed him to the point of suicide. By this point, he had grown heavy, curvaceous, lazy, and pampered, a veritable gargoyle himself, living off of his loot. He regularly gorged himself on le petit pâté de Pézenas after le petit pâté de Pézenas, and soon, as a hobby, collected an impressive flock of slate gray and metallic green Nicobar pigeons—the closest living relatives to the extinct dodo—to whose blood he regularly compared the brilliant color of the rubies he looted from India.

These rubies, alongside his smuggled diamonds, now reside at The Clive Museum in Powis Castle in Welshpool, which houses more Mughal artifacts than anywhere else in the world, including the National Museum in Delhi. The museum’s Long Gallery also includes “Clive of India’s Cat,” made from some of the world’s most difficult-to-sculpt marble, which Clive purchased from a Greek quarry known for its impacted crystals. The sculpture, which depicts a cat attacking a snake, sits in conversation with two other rare feline depictions in Roman art—one in Pompeii and one in Vatican City—both of a cat attacking a dove.7

In 1774, full, be-ringed, bubble-butted, and possessive of a soon-to-be-doomed coop, ninety-one years before the HMS Beagle’s Captain FitzRoy enacted the similar, Clive, aged forty-nine, took a healthy dose of opium before slitting his own throat with a paperknife. The newspapers covered this up and reported that his death was the result of a stroke or apoplectic fit. His corpse was buried in an unmarked vault on a cold night, the earth bearing the sheen of frost. His rare pigeons starved to death.

When construction workers, decades later, dug up a parquet floor in the Shropshire village of Morton Say, the bones they found were identified as Clive’s. The bones were reburied in the same spot, and marked with an apocryphal plaque that read, and still reads, “Primus in Indis” (First in India). According to The Guardian, “The people of Allahabad have chosen to forget this episode in their history… None of the sentries had even heard of the company whose cannons still dot the parade ground where Clive’s tent was erected.” Siraj ud-Daulah’s Murshidabad tomb, it must be noted, resembles a single-story country home, pillared and painted Tuscan yellow, and is ensconced in lush gardens comprised of hyacinth, wild mustard, mango trees, and, predominantly, date palms.

Choosing to forget the atrocities perpetuated unto us can be tough when we have the museums and the movies, the rallies and reelections to remind us and to exalt the tyrants. 8 What else can we do but plant so many trees, tuck nightmare into the sway of a date palm, and turn away from the lionized ass of the man in the paintings?

If I, too, squint, the images on the nightly news—all of the atrocious men in their too-tight khakis— can look to be made of ash, and if I squint further, they can be mere hieroglyph—the testament to a horror ancient and not current, a documentary on the Vesuvius eruption, safely framed by the sort of television screen we nickname after the pale yellow component of our inherited blood. 9

  1. Former Phoenix, Arizona sheriff Joe Arpaio (the fascist, racist, sadist, or hero, depending on who’s asked), after being pardoned in 2017 by Donald Trump of his contempt-of-court charges (fueled by a tireless investigation into his unconstitutional treatment of prisoners and immigrants in his infamous Tent City prison, which Arpaio once bragged about being a “concentration camp,” of which he clearly wanted to be viewed by his constituency as an advocate), announced in September 2019 his plan to once again run for sheriff. “I plan on winning. I am going to win,” Arpaio said, “There’s a lot of unfinished work to be done.” Arpaio, often posing for pictures in his snug khaki sheriff’s uniform, fronted with an oversized, flash-catching badge, uncannily resembles Clive, down to the arc of his tush, to which I can only wish my eye wasn’t drawn.

  2. In 2006, Arpaio, at the height of his self-proclaimed powers as the “toughest sheriff in America,” added to his already busy agenda (of immigrant abuse, and the tent-city prisons in which chain gangs were made to do hard labor while wearing the compulsory frilly pink underwear, large numbers of under-nourished prisoners dropping dead of heat stroke every year), a war on pigeons.

  3. Apparently, a vast number of pigeons decided to build their homes on the vents and ledges and awnings of the Maricopa County Jail in downtown Phoenix. Local newspapers began comparing the birds to rodents, vermin, bats, mosquitoes, and other beasts we dismiss as blights. Arpaio called for a mass poisoning, which, when the city’s protected (and predatory) Peregrine falcons began turning up dead, he abandoned in favor of a mass installation of fake owls.

  4. Arpaio demanded that a special volunteer committee be formed, charged with ornamenting the city’s buildings and parks and arroyos and cacti with the plastic owls in an effort to confuse the pigeons, convince them that they were being stalked by real predators. Further, since pigeon carcasses were allegedly being used by the tent city prisoners to, according to Arpaio, “smuggle contraband,” the fake owls decorated the desert labor camp as well.

  5. According to the Phoenix East Valley Tribune, “American Indian inmates complained, saying owls symbolize death in many tribal cultures. Beyond a cultural misunderstanding, the owls don’t scare the pigeons. While Arpaio spoke with about twenty-five inmates, birds were seen roosting on tent tops and surveillance cameras.”

  6. “”I’m sure we’ve all been to a funeral where you have to lay a loved one down to rest,’ Tash Juan, a member of the Tohono O’odham tribe, told Arpaio during a meeting Wednesday,” reported the Phoenix East Valley Tribune. “’This [the act of installing fake owls on prison property] is just a reminder of that.’” Arpaio did not even nod at Tash Juan, just stared blankly before turning his back, bending to scratch at his ankle, his mean posterior catching the unforgiving light of the fluorescents. Rising, Arpaio gesticulated with his chin to a different group of reporters. “I’m going to be honest with you,” Arpaio muttered to them, “If those owls worked, they’d still be there.”

  7. Also according to the Phoenix East Valley Tribune, “Under [Arpaio’s] consideration to scatter the pigeons is the use of trained birds of prey. Ted Diamont, a master falconer from Phoenix, brought to the meeting a female goshawk named Xena.”

  8. “That wall should be up there to the moon,” Arpaio said of Donald Trump’s proposed wall along the US-Mexico border. Is Joe Arpaio the reincarnation of Clive of India? Goodness, who knows? But his very existence and agenda may inspire one to wonder about the heritability of meanness, its grating repetition at every given moment throughout human history. “‘Anybody caught feeding the pigeons, you’re going into lockdown,’ Arpaio told a group of female inmates,” according to the Phoenix East Valley Tribune, “‘The only way you’ll ever get out is to volunteer for the chain gang.’ He also had a noisemaking system installed that periodically blasts the sounds of distressed birds. The pigeons were unfazed, but the screeching seemed to spook Xena, sending her into a flurry of beating wings.”

  9. “Sheriff Joe reminds me of Winston Churchill,” said one of his supporters, “[He] deserves a statue, and not posthumously.” Woe unto us the martyrdom of the sociopaths. They will pass their asses on.

Matthew Gavin Frank

Matthew Gavin Frank’s latest nonfiction book, Flight of the Diamond Smugglers is about, among other things, the ways in which carrier pigeons are used by diamond smuggling rings.  He is also the author of the nonfiction books The Mad Feast: An Ecstatic Tour Through America’s Food, Preparing the Ghost: An Essay Concerning the Giant Squid and Its First Photographer, Pot Farm, and Barolo; and three books of poetry.

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