The coming year marks the 150th anniversary of the Uprising of 1857 and the 250th anniversary of the Battle of Plassey. The connection is not arbitrary, the fighters of 1857 were keenly aware of the significance of the Plassey anniversary and their preachers and ideologues enthusiastically played up the apocalyptic moment. When we attempt to celebrate these momentous events of modern Indian history, however, we are faced with a woeful lack of iconic images. What do we recall when we think of Plassey, merely the chagrin of defeat or worse, the Black Hole. What can we bring to 1857 that will match the stupendous mythology around Kanpur and Satichaura Ghat, the Residency and the relief of Lucknow? There are no episodes of last ditch stands, no display of individual heroism and valour, no markers, myths, figures or details on which to hang our fevered imagination. British Imperial mythology on the other hand, when you begin to probe it, is often less about glorious victories than accounts of defeat and dejection -- think Dunkirk, Khartoum, Kanpur, Black Hole -- which tells us how the most desperate imperial scare could end up, reworked into fiction, historiography and national myth, actually bolstering imperial self-confidence.
Amongst the most potent of those was the Black Hole. If you ask an average Indian, or a Briton for that matter, about the Black Hole today, he is more likely to mention to you the one in outer space. It is a measure of how our imaginative landscape and our national mythologies have altered in the last fifty years. Not too long ago, the Black Hole stood as the most ghastly symbol of native cruelty and Imperial triumph, of Indian treachery versus the never-say-die spirit of the British. Taught in school histories, in India and England, memorialised in novels, diaries, poems, plays, memoirs and letters -- school children in faraway Rhodesia in the 1890s performed plays on it -- the Black Hole was both event and metaphor, memory and reminder, symbol of disaster and supremacy and while the event has been forgotten, the phrase lives on in popular usage. Jan Dalley, British journalist and writer, investigates the event and its afterlife in a new book.
So what was the Black Hole? According to British historian J H Little, writing in 1916, merely a ‘gigantic hoax'. For Lord Curzon, who erected a new monument to mark it, the same Holwell’s monument which Subhash Chandra Bose successfully agitated against shortly before going on exile, it was ‘practically the foundation stone of the Brtisih Empire in India’. Dalley’s book is an attempt to unearth the actual events, to trace how and why it occurred and to examine the modes by which it has been enshrined in Imperial imagination. It succeeds in the first task, fails in the second and is feeble at the last.
In June1756, the Nawab of Bengal, Sirajuddaulah, after previously warning the English governors against recent fortifications, marched from Murshidabad and besieged the heavily outnumbered British, including natives and other Europeans, in Fort William, Calcutta. A few days of fighting later, on 20th June, the residents, 146 of them in the consecrated version, were locked in a tiny cell overnight, and in the morning only 23 emerged. There is also a sleepy Nawab in the story. When asked what was to be done with the prisoners, Sirajuddaulah answered, let them be locked in their dungeons, that is the prisoner’s cells built by the British inside the fort. By the morning, when the men, women and children began to die of thirst and asphyxiation, the Nawab could not be woken up and so when the cell was opened, only 23 of them survived. A few months later, in a heroic march, Robert Clive sailed down from Madras, and defeated the much larger forces of the Nawab in the battle of Plassey that set the foundation for the British Empire in India.
Every single detail of the event has subsequently been questioned and refuted. If the cell was so tiny -- barely six by four in some versions -- how were so many people cramped into it? The only versions we have of the event are by the survivors, John Holwell chief amongst them, and their versions of the number of the people and the conditions of their imprisonment do not tally. But the lurid details of the night ring truer than the truth of the event: how the survivors asked for water, how it was passed from hat to hat, how in an attempt to fan themselves with their hats, the prisoners bruised and wounded each other, how the gate wouldn’t open in the morning because of the piled-up bodies and so on.
Dalley is skillful at unearthing the exact sequence of events, at matching survivors’ stories with each other and with reconstructing the way events unfolded in that June week. She concludes that the Black Hole was a reality (the exact numbers, she concedes, must be impossible to get entirely correct although Little claims 6 survivors out of nine prisoners and British Historian Linda Colley counts 8 survivors out of 40), but she does ask questions. "Was it deliberate brutality on the part of the victor, or was it simply a sad mistake on the part of the nawab's soldiers?" How did the story prevail in a century packed with bloodshed and massacre on a much grander scale? Why were succeeding generations keen to re-tell it? There is enormous literature on the Black Hole by Indian historians, most notably in Bengali, and she would have been able to fill up the Indian side had she consulted them more thoroughly.
But this is a British book, written primarily for British audiences. It is evident in the way she narrates the history of colonial expansion. East India Company and its trading endeavors are, for her, a search for nutmeg, for exotica, ‘the need for a buzz’. In this account of individual bravery and risk-taking, there is no place for political economy, for the fact that there was a massive European expansion in all corners of the globe, that the world of the Indian Ocean was a thriving metropolitan scape of diverse nations, tongues, and peoples, that until the 18th century, the Indian merchants dominated trade bound to and from India far more heavily than Europeans, that they had credit and financial mechanisms that extended up to Africa.
In this book about 18th century Europe, the word 'mercantilism', which defines linkages between commerce, politics and state formation, does not find a single mention. Her account of Indian history -- the 18th century has perhaps seen more fundamental research than any other century in the last twenty years -- could have been lifted straight from an Imperial account, V A Smith’s for instance, since it casts the Mughals as the principal players, as Muslim rulers ‘in alliance with a Hindu merchant class’ against a ‘largely antagonistic Hindu populace’ to boot. She informs us, a number of times, about how Sirajuddaulah hated the British but does not bother to ask why. Siraj’s cunning and ambition receives flak but praise for his information and communication system -- he had knowledge of the minutest developments of Calcutta, thirty hours away from Murshidabad -- is not analysed for its significance.
Dalley seems, also, to have imbibed uncritically early British fancies about the greed of the Oriental monarchs. She talks about the ‘massive wealth generated by the foreigners’ for indigenous rulers (on pp. 102, 103, 107), entirely unmindful of the fact that for rulers like Alivardi Khan, Siraj’s uncle and the previous Governor, the Mughal Emperor was more than a fossil and that is why he continued to send annual tributes of upwards of 20 lakhs for as long as he reigned. And then, while describing the British actions, she provides us this masterly exculpation: ‘it was not a very British way of doing things.’
There are nice nuggets along the way, about men like Elihu Yale, a Governor of Madras and the future founder of the Ivy League university of that name, about Thomas Pitt, the grandfather of the future Prime Minister, and the diamond named after him, about the curious fashion for using brass door knobs in hot Calcutta, which would have to be changed to marble ones in the summer. So the memory of rapes at Kanpur in 1857, which certainly did not occur, spurred and justified cruelty in the aftermath of that war and the memory of Black Hole threw, as Nirad Chaudhry puts it, ‘a moral halo over British conquest of India,’ just as the Jallianwala Bagh became a sacred memorial for envisioning and creating the Indian national. Myths are important for Imperial aggrandisement as much as for anti-colonial resistance, so why is there no myth surrounding Sirajuddaulah’s grand march to Calcutta or the mutineers’ bravery in 1857? It would not be enough to say that History is written by victors for now, we, the heirs of the colonial state, are victors over colonialism too.
Dalley starts her book by reminiscing over her childhood in Iran where her father worked for British Petroleum and wonders at the difference between his actions and that of the East India Company. According to Nick Robbins there is none. A blistering critique of the greed inherent in a corporation, Robbins’ book examines the foundation, development and afterlife of the Company by seeing it as the forerunner, a hugely formative one, of the modern multi-national Corporation. He takes us back to the worlds of Edmund Burke and Adam Smith, of the pamphlets and plays of 18th Century which excoriated the company and feared that its greed and its monies would corrupt England just as territorial acquisition would, for Burke, whose rehabilitation is a strong achievement of this book, wholly compromise the equality between peoples, and thus England’s politics, forever.
|The Corporation that Changed the World : How the East India Company Shaped the Modern Multinational by Nick Robbins, Orient Longman, 218 pages, Rs 295|
Eventually, however, both these books by British journalists cum writers are really about Britian, where India is a peripheral player. That Dalley sees the Empire as a creation of young men in search of adventures and Robbins explains it as the power of the corporation tells us, eventually, more about their particular locations in British society than about Indian history or the Empire.
Mahmood Farooqui is a Delhi-based freelance writer and performer. A shorter version of this appeared in the print edition.