The phrase "the Black Hole of Calcutta" has become a common English usage, yet every time I encounter it I feel an involuntary aversion - not just for its connotations of despondency but because of its malignant potency to taint a real place and its people. Its insensitive use over 250 years is hard to eradicate, though most people have little idea of how it was coined. It is in fact a brilliant political spin to cover up ignominious martial incompetence by the British.
Jan Dalley revisits this minor but haunting myth through the historical evidence, reflecting on the motives of the players and recording its impact on mass perception. She contrasts the grandiose militia of the nawab of Bengal, Siraj-ud-daula, with feeble British defences and catalogues the cowardice of the British commanders, skilfully evoking a period of clashing cultures. The standard version of the event came from John Zephaniah Holwell, its chief survivor and an East India Company man. He proclaimed that 146 English and other Europeans were crammed into the Black Hole - an 18- by 14-foot cell with a single barred window - by the nawab on the sultry night of 20 June 1756. Next morning only 23 came out alive. Holwell scribbled his melodramatic account in a letter during the sea voyage to England, where it was published. But what had actually happened was more complex.
As the business of the East India Company prospered in Calcutta, it started to shore up the defence of their meagre office and store with a grand name - Fort William. The rumours of the Company's substantial wealth peeved Siraj-ud-daula enough to march down to Calcutta with his formidable army to investigate. The Company panicked, and instead of trying for a diplomatic solution rashly confronted him with an ill-prepared garrison. …