But it was fortune rather than his genius which showered on Pitt the triumphs which signalized the opening of his ministry. In the East the daring of a merchant's clerk made a company of English traders the sovereigns of Bengal, and opened that wondrous career of conquest which has added the Indian peninsula, from Ceylon to the Himalayas, to the dominion of the British crown. Recalled by broken health to England, Clive returned at the outbreak of the Seven Years' War to win for England a greater prize than that which his victories had won for it in the supremacy of the Carnatic. He had been only a few months at Madras when a crime whose horror still lingers in English memories called him to Bengal. Bengal, the delta of the Ganges, was the richest and most fertile of all the provinces of India. Its rice, its sugar, its silk, and the produce of its looms, were famous in European markets. Its viceroys, like their fellow lieutenants, had become practically independent of the Emperor, and had added to Bengal the provinces of Orissa and Behar. Surajah Dowlah, the master of this vast domain, had long been jealous of the enterprise and wealth of the English traders; and, roused at this moment by the instigation of the French, he appeared before Fort William, seized its settlers, and thrust a hundred and fifty of them into a small prison called the Black Hole of Calcutta. The heat of an Indian summer did its work of death.
The wretched prisoners trampled each other under foot in the madness of thirst, and in the morning only twenty-three remained alive. Clive sailed at the news with a thousand Englishmen and two thousand sepoys to wreak vengeance for the crime. He was no longer the boy-soldier of Arcot; and the tact and skill with which he met Surajah Dowlah in the negotiations by which the Viceroy strove to avert a conflict were sullied by the Oriental falsehood and treachery to which he stooped. But his courage remained unbroken. When the two armies faced each other on the plain of Plassey the odds were so great that on the very eve of the battle a council of war counselled retreat. Clive withdrew to a grove hard by, and after an hour's lonely musing gave the word to fight., Courage, in fact, was all that was needed. The fifty thousand foot and fourteen thousand horse who were seen covering the plain at day' break on the 23rd of June, 1757, were soon thrown into confusion by the English guns, and broke in headlong rout before the English charge. The death of Surajah Dowlah enabled the Company to place a creature of its own on the throne of Bengal; but his rule soon became a nominal one.
With the victory of Plassey began in fact the Empire of England in the East.
The year of Plassey was the year of a victory hardly less important in the West. There was little indeed in the military expeditions which marked the opening of Pitt's ministry to justify the trust of his country; for money and blood were lavished on buccaneering descents upon the French coasts which did small damage to the enemy. But incidents such as these had little weight in the minister's general policy. His greatness lies in the fact that he recognized the genius of Frederick the Great, and resolved to give him an energetic support. On his entry into office he refused to ratify the Convention of Closter-Seven, which had reduced Frederick to despair by throwing open his realm to a French advance; protected his flank by gathering an English and Hanoverian force on the Elbe, and on the counsel of the Prussian King placed the best of his generals, the Prince of Brunswick, at its head; while subsidy after subsidy were poured into Frederick's exhausted treasury. Pitt's trust was met by the most brilliant display of military genius which the modern world had as yet witnessed.
Two months after his repulse at Kolin, Frederick flung himself on a French army which had advanced into the heart of Germany, and annihilated it in the victory of Rossbach. Before another month had passed he hurried from the Saale to the Oder, and by a yet more signal victory at Leuthen cleared Silesia of the Austrians. The victory of Rossbach was destined to change the fortunes of the world by bringing about the unity of Germany; its immediate effect was to force the French army on the Elbe to fall back on the Rhine. Here Ferdinand of Brunswick, reinforced with twenty thousand English soldiers, held them at bay during the summer, while Frederick, foiled in an attack on Moravia, drove the Russians back on Poland in the battle of Zorn-dorf. His defeat however by the Austrian General Dauc at Hoch-kirch proved the first of a series of terrible misfortunes; and the year 1759 marks the lowest point of his fortunes. A fresh advance of the Russian army forced the King to attack it at Kunersdorf in August, and Frederick's repulse ended in the utter rout of his army. For the moment all seemed lost, for even Berlin lay open to the conqueror.
A few days later the surrender of Dresden gave Saxony to the Austrians; and at the close of the year an attempt upon them at Plauen was foiled with terrible loss. But every disaster was retrieved by the indomitable courage and tenacity of the King, and winter found him as before master of Silesia and of all Saxony save the ground which Daun's camp covered. The year which marked the lowest point of Frederick's fortunes was the year of Pitt's greatest triumphs, the year of Minden and Quiberon and Quebec. France aimed both at a descent upon England and at the conquest of Hanover, and gathered a naval armament at Brest, while fifty thousand men under Contades and Broglie united on the Weser. Ferdinand with less than forty thousand met them on the field of Minden. The French marched along the Weser to the attack, with their flanks protected by that river and a brook which ran into it, and with their cavalry, ten thousand strong, massed in the centre. The six English regiments in Ferdinand's army fronted the French horse, and, mistaking their general's order, marched at once upon them in line, regardless of the batteries on their flank, and rolled back charge after charge with volleys of musketry.