Telling the Hole Truth ..... the Black Hole: Money, Myth and Empire by Jan Dalley Fig Tree [Pounds Sterling]16.99 .[Pounds Sterling]13.59 (0870 165 0870)

Article excerpt

Byline: JULIA KEAY

Somewhere between the writing, the unwriting and now the rewriting of our imperial history, the Black Hole of Calcutta got lost. Like Wolfe storming the Heights of Abraham or Gordon going down at Khartoum, it was once one of the set-pieces.

Luridly told, the story of hundreds of British prisoners dying of heat and suffocation in the Black Hole of Calcutta helped generations of schoolchildren stay awake during their history lessons.

The disaster unfolded on June 20,1756,the hottest night of the year, in the British fort in Calcutta. According to school textbooks in use as late as the 1950s, 146 prisoners were locked in a room measuring 14ft by 18ft with only two small, barred windows.

When the door was opened in the morning, all but 23 had died of suffocation and dehydration. Or so the story goes. The figures have been disputed ever since.

Jan Dalley does not shed any new light on what happened in that dark and stifling room, but that was never her intention. Rather she places it in the context that was so conspicuously lacking to those who grew up with the legend. Her account of the events that preceded that fateful night, of what followed it, and of the reasons why it was once so infamous, is clear, concise and atmospheric.

Believing the British had extended Fort William beyond its agreed limits, the Nawab of Bengal, Siraj-ud-daulah, attacked it with a vast army, intending to expel the foreigners from Calcutta altogether. The British defence of their most prized Indian base was chaotic and inadequate. Hundreds died in the battle; many, including some of those supposedly in charge of the defence, escaped in boats down the Hooghly river.

Most of those captured were locked up for the night until the Nawab decided what to do with them. …