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

By Partha Chatterjee | Go to book overview
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A Secret Veil

IT HAS OFTEN been said in the last two centuries that the British acquired the territories of Bengal without ever having planned to do so. The description was turned into a much-repeated aphorism by the historian John Seeley, who remarked in 1883: “Nothing great that has ever been done by Englishmen was done so unintentionally, so accidentally, as the conquest of India.”1 Of course, it is necessary to remind ourselves that when considering large processes such as the rise of modern empires, it is foolish to expect to identify world-historical intentions in the careers of individual politicians or generals. The idea that empires are founded by single figures of rare genius is a prejudice we have carried over from older histories of bygone empires. Modern empires, like modern capitalism and modern nation-states, do not have founders, notwithstanding the persistent desire in certain quarters to claim and celebrate them. Perhaps it is only now, at this juncture at the beginning of the twenty-first century when all three entities—capitalism, the nation-state, and empire—can be subjected to systematic historical critique, that we can see this clearly. It is easier today to argue that we should not expect to read intentions of empire directly out of Clive ‘s letters, the council's proceedings at Fort St. George, or the resolutions of the East India Company directors in London. They must be sought in the complex formations of discourse that shaped, through rules and precedents, precepts and advices, traditions and innovations, the conditions of practice for the strategic move toward conquest and territorial empire.


What do we know about the discursive formation within which the East India Company made sense of the geographic entity called India in the mideighteenth century? What were the strategic possibilities open to its agents in London and India? Fortunately, a mountain of written records on this subject has been available to historians for the last two centuries or more. It is thus possible to sketch out the following outline of the parameters within which Clive had to think and act.

First, there was a clear genealogy of claims of privilege—based on racial and religious difference, going all the way back to the Portuguese—available to


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


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