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Of Lies, Deceipt and Violence

Amar Farooqui

By Partha Chatterjee
Permanent Black, Ranikhet, 2012, pp.xiv + 425, Rs. 795.00


At a time when it has become fashionable in some academic circles to champion the cause of empire as a guarantee of global stability, at a time when Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri's influential Empire seeks to make colonialism respectable by advocating the notion of a 'centreless Empire', at a time when we are being told by apologists such as Niall Ferguson that imperialism has been a benign historical force, Partha Chatterjee's important book, Black Hole of Empire, reminds us that empire is ultimately about lies, deceit and violence. The United States has diligently studied the 'forgeries and subterfuges' through which Britain ruled over its empire, to emerge as an able successor, and 'the global techniques of empire in the days of British paramountcy in India continue to shape the practices of empire today'. The manner in which the mythical history of the 'black hole' episode of 1756 became a justification for conquest is the 'little history' from which Chatterjee draws larger conclusions about imperialism as an integral part of modernity. The 'black hole' episode, the outcome of mounting tensions between the East India Company and Nawab Sirajuddaula, set in motion events that culminated in the battle of Palashi (Plassey). Seeking to discipline the Company which had been expanding its commercial activities in Bengal by constantly defying the authority of the Nawab and his officials, Sirajuddaula drove the English out of their fort in Calcutta in June 1756. While most of the Company's servants had evacuated the fort before it was occupied by the Nawab's forces on 20 June, there were some who had stayed behind. They were captured and imprisoned in a small room ('black hole') where they spent the entire night. Many of the captives are supposed to have died of suffocation. The exact number of prisoners, or of casualties, is not known. Neither do we have much information about the actual dimensions of the 'black hole'. The authorized colonial version of the incident, as it appeared in later text-books, was that 'a hundred and forty-six English prisoners, one of them a woman, were forced to spend the night of an Indian summer in the military punishment cell of the fortress, a room of about eighteen feet square. One hundred and twenty-three perished in the inferno ...'1 Among the survivors of the tragedy was John Holwell, commandant of the fort at the time of its surrender. He is the author of ...

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