This book braids two histories: a little history, and a grand one. The little history is local, tracing the career of the English East India Company's fortified settlement in Bengal from the eighteenth century. In the nineteenth century, Fort William and the city of Calcutta that surrounds it became the capital of the British Empire in India. In the twentieth century, Calcutta also became a major place where nationalist modernity was fashioned and mass politics was organized. The conspiracies, ambitions, alliances, resistances, and confrontations that mark this local history of Fort William and its environs constitute one strand within this book. The grand history, on the other hand, is about the global phenomenon of modern empire from the eighteenth to the twentieth century. This history, I claim, was fundamentally shaped by the unprecedented problems posed by the fact of modern European states ruling over Asiatic and African peoples, shaping in turn the norms and practices of the modern state itself. Modern empire was not an aberrant supplement to the history of modernity but rather its constituent part. It will continue to thrive as long as the practices of the modern state-form remain unchanged. The continuing global history of the norms and practices of empire constitutes the second strand of the narrative.
The two histories come together in this book in the story of the Black Hole of Calcutta, the site of the alleged death by suffocation of 123 Europeans taken prisoner by Nawab Siraj-ud-daulah of Bengal in 1756. There was a time not too long ago when this account was widely known in many parts of the world. Indeed, the phrase “the black hole of Calcutta” was once commonly used to refer to any dark and suffocating place. Yet from 1758, the time of its first telling, the story has gone through many transformations, with each new version drawing a different moral conclusion. The sequence of retellings of the Black Hole story in the last two and a half centuries provides the narrative spine of this book. Around this, I have built a history of the British Empire in India and the nationalist resistance to it as well as a history of the global practices of empire as they have unfolded in the course of the frequently troubled relationship between metropolis and colony, and the changing demands of economic interest, political power, and moral legitimacy. Needless to say, the history of empire is densely entangled with the modern history of political theory, political economy, and international law. These entanglements work through abstract theoretical concepts and normative judgments.
My narrative commitment serves as a constant reminder that empire was not just about power politics, the logic of capital, or the civilizing mission but instead was something that had to be practiced, as a normal everyday business