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Monday, June 26, 2006

Looking Into The Black Hole

What exactly happened on the night of June 20, 1756? Was it a politically motivated hoax, or another vile act by an unfeeling despot? Jan Dalley delves into the incident known as the Black Hole of Calcutta and comes up with a book that, according to The Independent, is an "imaginative and forensically relentless examination." The review continues: "She concludes that the Black Hole was a reality (the exact numbers, she concedes, must be impossible to get entirely correct), but she does ask questions. Was it deliberate brutality of 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?"

(In The Observer, however, Hilary Spurling remains unimpressed by Ms Dalley's effort: "This is a story that requires fresh evidence or a thorough, imaginative overhaul, or both, to be worth retelling.")

Another article on the 250th anniversary -- if 'anniversary' is the right word -- of the Black Hole quotes Partha Chatterjee at the Centre for the Study of Social Sciences: "The event is largely forgotten.Whenever it is brought up now it is simply as an example of a falsehood of imperialist history." Basudeb Chatterjee, director of West Bengal's government archives, is more blunt: "Holwell was a congenital liar. His underlying motive was to impress on his superiors that he behaved nobly for surviving the experience. So he exaggerated."

Now, some trivia: the site of the incident is marked by a small plaque in the General Post Office in Dalhousie Square (now B.B.D. Bag), where Fort William once stood. And an obelisk at the square erected by the British to commemorate the event now stands in St John's churchyard, "where it now provides a perch for raucous crows". (The church, by the way, also contains the mausoleum of Job Charnock.Some photographs here.)


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