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

By Partha Chatterjee | Go to book overview
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The Death and Everlasting Life of Empire

BHOLANATH CHANDRA (1822–1910) was a successful businessperson and observant traveler.1 Although a prominent public figure in Bengal, he was never associated with nationalist political causes. Thus, he seemed somewhat unlikely to have initiated the process of the nationalist demolition of the narrative of the Black Hole of Calcutta.

The blow he dealt was small but telling. In a picturesque and often whimsical account of a journey by boat along the Hugli River, Chandra suddenly broached the subject of old Fort William and the Black Hole tragedy. On the latter, he said, he had “a very doubtful faith in its account.”

I have always questioned it to myself, how could 146 beings be squeezed into a room
18 feet square, even if it were possible to pack them like the seeds within a pome-
granate…. Geometry contradicting arithmetic gives the lie to the story. It is little
better than a bogey against which was raised an uproar of pity.2

The seeds of rational doubt were thus sown.3 Historians with more explicitly nationalist motivations would soon reap a rich harvest.


Akshaykumar Maitreya, in his Sirājaddaulā, published as a book in 1897, took up the cudgels in earnest. After first presenting Holwell's account of the event in some detail, Akshaykumar announced that the Black Hole deaths could not be regarded as a settled fact of history. There were several reasons to doubt Holwell's account. First, why is the event not mentioned by any Indian historian of the time, including those severely critical of Siraj? Second, if this was such a calamitous and traumatic event, then why do we not find any mention of it in any contemporary British account except for that of Holwell? Third, while reparations were extracted from Mir Jafar for every little damage inflicted on the British during Siraj's attack on Calcutta, why did the elaborate list of the defeated nawab's crimes and their compensation include not so much as a mention of the Black Hole deaths? Fourth, if the crime of the Black Hole was the


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


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