History and Myth out of Calcutta

History and Myth out of Calcutta

A 1920 depiction of a monument to the Black Hole in the center of Kolkata, before it was moved in 1940.

Legendary Black Hole is at center of first annual Center for India and South Asia lecture by anthropologist Partha Chatterjee.

The mythical history of the British empire in the East begins in a black hole.

Today, the story of the 1756 Black Hole of Calcutta (Kolkata) begins and ends south of the general post office, tucked away in a graveyard of St. John's church. A monument "obscured by overgrown shrubs and rubbish" is on the western wall of the church, Partha Chatterjee told the audience of the inaugural Center for India and South Asia annual lecture on April 11, 2006. As told by a British civil servant, John Holwell, the story of the Black Hole once was an unavoidable feature of Western history texts on India but can now hardly be found.

The British East India Company's Fort William in the center of Kolkata while under Holwell's command came under siege and was taken over by Nawab of Bengal, Siraj Ud Daulah. It was then that, by Holwell's account, the Nawab's soldiers took him and 145 other prisoners to a secret prison in the depths of the fort. The Black Hole was "a cube of about 18 feet" with "dead walls" and no fresh air. By morning, 123 of the prisoners had suffocated and died, Holwell wrote.

Chatterjee, the Director of the Centre for the Study of Social Sciences in Kolkata and a professor of anthropology at Columbia University, said that this story, regarded by some as a brutal tragedy and others as a giant hoax, is a good example of why scholars should "take seriously the myth of imperial hegemony." While the British Empire was not homogeneous, it was very good at spreading a myth of its own invincibility. The history of the Black Hole, he said, is a "perfect example" of how this myth was spread.

"The mythical history of the British empire in the East begins in a black hole," he explained. Like the celestial phenomenon, the Black Hole of Calcutta cannot be directly observed. Details about the incident from sources other than Holwell are hard to come by, Chatterjee said.

Holwell's account of the night was focused not on the brutality of the Nawab or his soldiers. It was not about the violence or death, Chatterjee said. Rather, the account was "pedagogical" in nature, intended to glorify the "elevated principles of moral discipline" that allowed Holwell to survive. "There is no doubt Holwell had an axe to grind," said Chatterjee.

Holwell's view of the Black Hole prison deaths became a rallying point for defenders of imperialism. An 1840 biography of the general Robert Clive, who led the relief expedition to Fort William, for example, became standard reading for school children for the next 100 years. The piece by Thomas Babington Macaulay "turned the Black Hole story into a founding myth of empire," Chatterjee said. It praised the East India Company for ending the "Oriental despotism" of brutal rulers like the Nawab.

By the late 1800s, a series of challenges to Holwell's account of Black Hole surfaced. A Bengali landlord, Bholanath Chunder, for example, opined in 1896 that 146 people cannot physically fit into a room of such small size. A British schoolmaster, J.H. Little, in 1916 challenged the characterization of the Nawab in Holwell's account and pronounced the story a "giant hoax." Other scholars put the number who died between 50 and 60 and said that many died from battle injuries, rather than suffocation in prison. In July 1940, the monument that was in the center of the city was moved to the "perfect obscurity" of St. John's church, Chatterjee said. The 1987 edition of the New Cambridge History of India does not mention the Black Hole incident.

The confused history of the Black Hole prison offers lessons that remain relevant, Chatterjee said. "The consequences of the imperial impulse are never benign," he said, "just as resistance to it is often frequently violent and mindless."

Chatterjee is the author of The Politics of the Governed and A Princely Imposter? and a founding member of the Subaltern Studies editorial collective. He is currently working on book called The Black Hole of Empire.

Published: Tuesday, April 25, 2006