The Black Hole of Empire: History of a Global Practice of Power

Ramachandra Guha writes:

The British, Richard Gott writes, ‘have always enjoyed hearing and reading about the crimes of people they plan to overthrow’. One such fallen prince, Siraj-ud-daulah, is the central figure of Chatterjee’s book. In June 1756, Siraj laid siege to the British garrison at Fort William in Calcutta. The governor and many of the soldiers fled by boat. When those who remained surrendered, they were put in a small (or large) room, where, by the next morning, some (or many) had died of exhaustion, dehydration, asphyxiation or through fighting one another for the water reluctantly and parsimoniously brought them by Siraj’s guards. In January 1757, the British reoccupied the East India Company’s settlement in Calcutta. The first account of the ‘Black Hole’ – as the room where the soldiers were incarcerated became known – was written by one of the survivors, John Zephania Holwell, and stressed that the nawab had given his word that ‘no harm should come to us’: the deaths, Holwell said, were the ‘result of revenge and resentment’ on the part of the guards. Later accounts, however, claimed that Siraj was responsible: his perfidy and cruelty were evident, it was thought, in the fact that he took one surviving Englishwoman into his harem.

(LRB 20 December 2012)