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Politics of Representation

Lakshmi Subramanian

By Jan Dalley
Penguin, Delhi, 2006, pp. 222, price not stated.


Dalley begins with the best of intentions. Debunking myths, demonstrating how the practices of history writing and representation implicitly and explicitly make and unmake myths and understanding within this how and why the story of the Black Hole of Calcutta (1756) became so central to the formation of the British Empire are his overall concerns. Unfortunately, he ends up toting up old, drab and half represented details to betray his own weakness for the enterprise of the Company Bahadur. Nothing wrong with that or even unusual about it especially as we are told in the introductory pages about his sense of identification with the dramatis personae of the eighteenth century drama set in motion by the employees of the English East India Company who according to him were not colonists, or the servants of an overtly colonial power but merely traders who had come to a foreign place for the commercial exploitation of its resources rather than the domination or administration of its people. And this he admits is part of a legitimate personal perception of a past event. The point is taken and who is to question the audacity and perseverance of the early private traders, the intrepidity of a Clive or the ingenuity of a Watson as they planned Plassey and took over Bengal, a region that subsequently became the bridgehead for British expansion? Yet how do we match this story of personal perception and assessment with the perceptions from the other side—of a bewildered administration unable to comprehend the irrational greed of a foreign trading company that literally demanded a mile, even a thousand miles after having been given an inch? It is here that Dalley wilfully ignores, even distorts existing analysis to present a story that remains in its essentials a conventional and hackneyed account of the brave exploits of a trading company that every school boy in Britain knew about for at least two centuries. In fact the Black Hole story figures only in a cursory way, albeit with a few interesting tidbits about some of the protagonists such as Mary Carey, famous as the only woman to survive the ordeal. As for the rest, the book does little more beyond tracking the well-trodden territory of the English East India Company’s growing presence in the trade of the Indian Ocean.   What was the Black Hole episode and why was it so important as a ...

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