ON 16 JUNE, 1756, Nawab Siraj-ud-daulah of Bengal arrived in Calcutta, with a force of 30,000 soldiers and heavy artillery, to lead an assault on the East India Company. Incensed by the news that the Company was abusing its trading privileges and constructing new fortifications, he was determined to teach the upstart traders a lesson in military power. With just 5,000 soldiers, only half of whom were European, the Company’s position was precarious. Therefore, the Company’s Council of War decided to concentrate its defensive efforts on Fort William. European women and children, and the families of the Company’s Indo-Portuguese and Armenian soldiers, were given refuge in the fort. In addition, all European houses outside the fort were blown up and native houses and bazaars were set on fire in order to allow the fort’s defenders to fire unhindered at the Nawab’s troops. But panic struck as the Nawab’s forces closed in. As morale in the fort sank, desertions became endemic. On 18 June, Governor Roger Drake himself deserted, ingloriously fleeing on a boat. The stranded council in the fort elected John Zephaniah Holwell as the temporary Governor of Fort William. But depleted by desertions and mutinies, the Company was in a hopeless position. On 20 June, Holwell asked for a truce.
The Nawab’s forces occupied the fort. Indians, Indo-Portuguese, Armenians and 15 Europeans were allowed to leave, while the remaining Europeans, along with Holwell, were incarcerated overnight in a 14 by 18-foot cell. According to Holwell’s account written a year later, it was a night of unbearable confusion and agony. Packed tight in a dark dungeon, the captives suffered grievously. Soaked in perspiration, they stripped off their clothes, fought for water, and trampled over each other, clawing for breathing space in the pitch-black darkness of the dungeon. When the cell doors were opened the next morning, there were only 23 survivors out of the 146 jailed Europeans. Later historians have disputed Holwell’s account and drawn attention to his embellishments and exaggerations. They have determined that the cell was not a dungeon, that only 64 men were imprisoned, and that no more than 43 died. But no matter what the facts were, the legend of the ‘Black Hole of Calcutta’ was born.
Fort William’s fall convinced the Company that its commercial interests demanded the control of Bengal, by hook or by crook. As we know, it was mostly by crook. Having found a pretext for breaking the peace with Siraj-ud-daulah, Robert Clive, the Governor of Bengal, employed intrigue and treachery to defeat the Nawab at the Battle of Palashi (Plassey) in 1757. All this could be justified, as later histories written by the British did, as just retribution for the barbarity of the Black Hole. But what justified the subsequent conquest of the Bengal territories and of India? Could the defence of commercial interests alone legitimise the chicanery and the violence involved in imperial conquest?
“The conquest of earth, which mostly means the taking away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much,” Joseph Conrad writes in Heart of Darkness. “What redeems it is the idea only. An idea at the back of it; not a sentimental pretence but an idea; and an unselfish belief in the idea—something you can set up, and bow down before, and offer a sacrifice to...”
With the help of the Idea, the ugly facts of conquest can be tucked away from sight. We encountered this recently during the Iraq War. While the American invasion and occupation consumed more than 100,000 Iraqi lives, the ideologues implored us to keep our eyes on the supposed benefit. Niall Ferguson, the Harvard historian, encouraged the American establishment to perform its imperial role, drawing its attention to the record of the British Empire and extolling it for bestowing the gift of progress to the colonies. Christopher Hitchens, an erstwhile radical and raconteur, was also seduced by the Idea. He cosied up to American neocon ideologues and policy makers and offered full-throated support for the invasion. Not that George Bush and Dick Cheney needed encouragement in bludgeoning Baghdad. The “War on Terror” had already prepared the ground for a trumped-up case against Saddam Hussein. Critics charged that no “unselfish belief” stood behind the war. The US dressed up the war in lofty language to conceal something altogether crass—reiteration of American hegemony, control of the Iraqi oilfields, and removal of a counterforce to Israel. But that is precisely the point; what redeemed these vulgar motives and the carnage of the invasion in the eyes of the neocon ideologues was the goal of asserting the power and values of a US-led Western coalition. So much so that they were prepared to—and did—massage intelligence reports and lie to the UN. The “War on Terror” was a cynical ploy because the invaders knew, thanks to the anti-colonial legacy and anti-war mobilisation, that outright conquest without justification was not an option. The Idea was crucial.
By now we are accustomed to—and able to see through—imperial smokescreens and self-delusions that serve to obfuscate the motives behind invasions and conquests. Even if some try to persuade us that colonialism was not always oppressive, the ugly facts of alien rule are well established by historical research. So much so that few historians consider it necessary to pay further attention to the actual record of annexations and their justifications. Discussions on the topic produce weary impatience. Don’t we know this already? Colonialism is a thing of the past, it’s history; the world has moved on.
But what if the world has not moved on? During the past few decades scholars and intellectuals like Edward Said and Ashis Nandy have argued that colonialism did not end with its formal abolition. The era of European domination has left lasting ideologies and systems of power. To understand our present, we need to return to the colonial past. This is not in order to reiterate the facts about European oppression, but to ask how conquest and its justifications gave rise to ideas and forms of rule that are still with us.
IN HIS NEW BOOK, Partha Chatterjee returns to the Black Hole, excavating the layers of justifications covering British rule to reveal how these laid the groundwork for new norms and practices of governance. Chatterjee is a widely known and read historian and political theorist, and a professor at Columbia University. As one of the founder members of the Subaltern Studies Group, he is the author of several influential books and articles, almost all of them based on his intimate knowledge of Bengal’s history and culture. The Black Hole of Empire is his most ambitious book yet. Challenging existing understandings, reinterpreting the meaning of well-known events, and displaying an authoritative knowledge of an astonishing range of scholarly literature, we encounter a historian at the top of his game.
Like Chatterjee’s other works, The Black Hole of Empire also focuses on colonial Bengal. It covers the period from the birth of British rule in the 18th century to the 20th-century nationalist mobilisations against the Raj. He places his Bengal-centric account on a larger canvas, tracing the origins of the global norms and practices of modern European imperialism—and those of the modern state itself—in local history. He invites us to see the contemporary predicaments of the Indian state and its moral and legal legitimacy in light of the drama played out in Britain’s prized possession in the east.
At the centre of the book is an attempt to trace the emergence of theories and norms in the actual business of empire. It is not an account of abstract debates on political theory, law and economics but a narrative of the actual conquerors, rulers and their opponents. The work of empire on the ground mattered; it was there that enduring theories and practices of the modern empire and the state were forged.
On the ground, conquest was a nasty business. In the American settler colonies, the Europeans could pretend that the indigenous population constituted no recognisable society and polity, that the lands were tabula rasa. The settlers imported European institutions and secured, over time, their rights as citizens. To plantation colonies, the settlers brought African slaves, who were deemed to have no rights. Spanish legal theory recognised Native Americans as subjects but settlers found a variety of means—from serfdom to debt peonage—to beat them into submission.
The situation was different in India. Here, the Europeans could not overlook the existence of polities with well-established practices of statecraft. Subduing local rulers in the subcontinent involved subterfuge and treachery. One moment, Bengal’s Mir Jafar, who helped the British defeat Siraj-ud-daulah, was a useful Company puppet fit to occupy Siraj’s throne; the next moment, he was a liability to be summarily dismissed. His replacement, Mir Qasim, proved too big for his boots and bit the dust in the Battle of Buxar in 1764. The Company wantonly abused its trading privileges, trampling over local customs and existing treaties as it went about plundering and annexing territories. All this is well known now. It was widely known and documented even then.
The Company’s conduct alarmed critics in London. Leading the impeachment proceedings against Warren Hastings in the British parliament between 1788 and 1795, Edmund Burke raged against the Governor-General and his officials for unleashing a reign of wanton plunder and destruction. The annexations, he charged, rode roughshod over ancient traditions of the land, and had inaugurated a capricious and rapacious regime of oppression and tyranny. “To-day the Commons of Great Britain prosecute the delinquents of India. To-morrow the delinquents of India may be the Commons of Great Britain.” Burke did not want the Company to relinquish its colonial possessions but only to administer them according to the British principles of equity and respect for laws and traditions. Otherwise, the corrupt nabobs may come home to pervert the English body politic. The solution was found in making colonial despotism overseas answerable to the parliament at home. This permitted the British to denounce Continental empires as land-based despotisms while claiming that their own overseas possessions were institutions of commerce, regulated by Demos and consistent with liberty.
With the ambiguities and doubts about conquest settled, the Company confidently waged wars of imperialist expansion during the late 18th century. It, however, encountered a formidable enemy in Tipu Sultan, the ruler of Mysore. Tipu had built a strong, absolutist state that vested complete power in the person of the monarch. The absolutist claim allowed a determined mobilisation of economic and military resources, rendering him enormously powerful. To the Company, his absolutism, which had several contemporary examples, appeared as a symbol of age-old Oriental tyranny. The tiger motif, which adorned his jackets and turbans and marked his soldiers’ uniforms, became in British eyes a sign of Tipu’s dangerous power and cruelty. Tipu’s Tiger, an exhibit at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, captures this representation. The display is a mechanical tiger, which is seen devouring a British soldier who wails while the beast snarls. The Company fought the Mysore wars as a hunt for the Tiger of Mysore, seeking to liberate the masses from his brutal grip, while the popular press and opinion in Britain championed them as national wars. Once Tipu was defeated and killed in 1799, the image of the British hunter standing victorious in his boots on the tiger’s carcass became an ubiquitous representation of imperial manliness. “The fearsome tiger had been made subservient and innocuous,” Chatterjee writes. “In its place, the power that would now lay down the law in the Orient was that of the British lion—rampant.”
To the rampant imperialists, the Black Hole was an inconvenient reminder of an inglorious history. It called to mind the British captives clawing and trampling over each other—hardly an expression of imperial manliness and fortitude. Besides, it brought back the memory of the ugly and embarrassing facts of the Bengal conquest. The Black Hole memorial in Calcutta, erected in 1760, was demolished in 1821.
But no amount of refurbishing of Company rule could alter the fact that it was based on racial arrogance. This was true not only of the period after the 1830s, when the Evangelicals and liberal imperialists gained ascendance, but also of the earlier era when, according to writer William Dalrymple in his book The White Mughals, Empire provided opportunities for cross-cultural exchange. He writes of Europeans who frequently went native, learning Persian and maintaining conjugal relations with Indian concubines. Chatterjee disagrees with Dalrymple’s reading of the supposed openness of the ‘White Mughals’. In the course of analysing the attitudes of “even the most sensitive and adventurous of the eighteenth-century cross-culturists”, he turns to William Hickey’s memoir. A lawyer by profession, Hickey lived in Calcutta during the late 18th and early 19th centuries. His house, which he shared with his Indian mistress Jamdani, was at the centre of European social life in the city. After Jamdani’s death, Hickey writes:
My friend, Bob Pott, now consigned to me from Moorshidabad a very pretty little native girl, whom he recommended for my private use. Her name was Kiraun. After cohabiting with her a twelvemonth she produced me a young gentleman whom I certainly imagined to be of my own begetting, though somewhat surprized at the darkness of my son and heir’s complexion; still, that surprize did not amount to any suspicion of the fidelity of my companion. Young Mahogany was therefore received and acknowledged as my offspring, until returning from the country one day quite unexpectedly, and entering Madam Kiraun’s apartments by a private door of which I had a key, I found her closely locked in the arms of a handsome lad, one of my kitmuddars with the infant by her side, all three of them being in a deep sleep, from which I awakened the two elders. After a few questions I clearly ascertained that this young man had partaken of Kiraun’s personal favours jointly with me from the first month of her residing in my house, and that my friend Mahogany was fully entitled to the deep tinge of skin he came into the world with, being the produce of their continued amour. I consequently got rid of my lady, of her favourite, and the child, although she soon afterwards from falling into distress became a monthly pensioner of mine, and continued so during the many years I remained in Bengal.
As palpable as Hickey’s feeling of betrayal is his sense of entitlement to the “pretty little native girl” for his “private use”. We shouldn’t be surprised. Empire was rooted in gender and racial hierarchy. Of course, it was possible for individuals to upend this hierarchy. But when privileged white males enjoyed conjugal relations with indigenous women, they were not transgressing notions of racial dominance; their conduct was entirely in line with the rules of colonial power. The secret of cross-cultural openness, supposedly the life-blood of White Mughals, was the privilege of white over brown, man over woman. The conquest of earth . . .is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much.
Those who believed otherwise soon found out that Company rule was despotism of a new type. In the nascent public sphere that emerged in boomtown Calcutta in the early 19th century, those running the English language press discovered that even the rights of free-born Englishmen to air their views met their limits in the colony. Criticisms of the Company encountered restrictions on the circulation of newspapers, libel charges, and even imprisonment. Men like David Hare and Henry Derozio schooled the Bengali bhadralok in European ideas of reason and liberty. Rammohan Roy believed that British rule was beneficial and that it was a beacon for freedom. But he found colonial authorities deaf to his plea for the freedom of the press and the equality of Indian judges with English ones in the judicial system. His disciple, Dwarkanath Tagore, got no better a hearing. Europe may have stood for reason and liberty but, unlike the Creole republics of the New World, there was no room in colonial Bengal for an anti-absolutist regime, under which Europeans and the educated Indian elite could enjoy rights of citizenship.
HOW WAS IT THAT THE BRITISH COULD PROCLAIM the universality of liberty while practicing despotism in India? In 1859, John Stuart Mill published his famous essay ‘A Few Words on Non-Intervention’. Much of it was devoted to claiming that, among European powers, Britain alone scrupulously followed the principle of non-intervention in its foreign policy. A glaring exception to his claim was the British annexation of “Oude” (Awadh), violating the existing treaty between the Company and the Nawab.
To his credit, Mill recognised the problem. He justified the annexation on the ground that Britain was morally accountable for the tyranny and anarchy that the Nawab’s rule had unleashed in Awadh. The conquest of Awadh was a demonstration of Britain’s commitment to liberty and good government everywhere. But what about the fact that this violated Britain’s supposed adherence to the principle of non-intervention? Mill’s answer was that this principle did not apply to the British in India or to France in Algeria. It would be a grave error to assume, he argued, that “the same rules of international morality” that obtained between civilised nations could apply to relations between the “civilized nation and barbarians”.
Mill avoided the means-and-ends problem. He did not claim that the higher goal of good government trumped the unsavoury methods of achieving it. Instead, Chatterjee tells us, he advanced the idea of the colonial exception. The norms of non-interference were universal. But these applied only to European nations. The colonies constituted an exception to these norms. There, the application of despotism was legitimate, indeed necessary, to establish the universal principles of good government. With this claim, the Idea no longer just veiled the unpleasantness of annexation; it also licensed bringing ever more territories under colonial control and under a new system of governance.
The late 19th-century “scramble for Africa” derived legitimacy from the political theory of norms and exceptions developed in the course of the British conquest of India. The European nations that met in Berlin in 1884-85 to carve up Africa amongst themselves believed that it, like the Indian subcontinent, could be subject to a deviation from the norm because it did not meet the established standards of development and good government. Therefore, the European sovereign nations were entitled to deny self-government to Africa. You did not have to be a supporter of imperial ideology to endorse colonial rule as long as you subscribed to the theory of comparative world government. The rule of the advanced over backward nations was not really imperialism but a sort of tutelage to bring the deviant up to scratch: An unselfish belief in the idea—something you can set up, and bow down before, and offer a sacrifice to.
Lord Curzon, the arch imperialist, was unabashed about his belief in the benevolence of British rule. Feeling no need to be apologetic about conquest, he had a new Black Hole monument built in 1902. By this time, British paramountcy over the subcontinent was a settled fact. Territories were fully annexed. Directly-ruled provinces and princely states were forged into a unified space. Integrated by railroads, postal services, laws and administration, this space could now be imagined as a nation. But the tutelage of imperial government proved to be a double-edged sword.
As did the pedagogy of culture. Modern western education, with which the British had hoped to create a new class of loyal subjects—“Indian in colour, British in taste”, in Macaulay’s famous words—turned out a little differently. Siraj-ud-daulah made another appearance in history, this time as a tragic figure in Bengali nationalist theatre. To explain his defeat, the playwrights pointed fingers at the greedy foreigners and treacherous nobles. Chatterjee offers a fascinating discussion of this theatre and its popular reach. Equally interesting is his account of football’s entanglement with nationalism. His thrilling account of Mohun Bagan’s barefoot players scoring a shocking victory in the 1911 IFA shield final over the East Yorkshire Regiment’s booted athletes makes clear that it was more than just a football match. When, with barely a minute left in the game, the Mohun Bagan skipper dribbled through the defence and passed the ball to his unmarked teammate who struck the winner, Calcutta erupted in joy. Coming as it did on the heels of the Swadeshi movement and the annulment of Bengal’s partition in 1911, the sporting contest dramatised the divide between the ruler and the ruled.
What created the space for the nationalisation of theatre and sport was the emergent belief across the world that the nation was the standard form of collective life. Men like Khudiram Bose engaged in acts of armed terrorism by invoking this belief in the nation as a natural community. The Raj was to be opposed not because of its bad government but because it was a rule by foreigners. This legitimated the use of violence, the armed groups argued. Popular opinion may not have approved their methods, but they admired Bose and others like him for their sacrifice and patriotism.
Underlying nationalist activity was the emergence of the nation-state as the universal form of organising a political community. At the end of World War I, the American president Woodrow Wilson’s espousal of self-determination, and the foundation of the League of Nations, expressed this development. Even though Wilson’s principles were not meant to extend to subject peoples of the colonies, the norm of the nation-state was established. Advancing and drawing on this normativity, the nationalists agitated for the demolition of Holwell’s monument. A group of Muslim intellectuals urged the government to wipe out the stain on Siraj-ud-daulah’s character by removing the monument. Subhas Chandra Bose, recently expelled from the Congress and looking for a fresh political start, stirred the pot by also calling for its removal. Under pressure, the monument was removed at the end of 1940.
The British did not passively accept the rise of nationalist agitation. The growth of armed groups and secret societies alarmed them. They responded to the growing ‘sedition’ by introducing repressive laws, including the infamous Rowlatt Act, against which Mahatma Gandhi launched his satyagraha in 1918. If the promise of good government justified despotism in the colonies, it had to be despotism under law. The Idea demanded that the imperial government conduct campaigns against its opponents not as war but as police actions dictated by laws. This was the result of the compulsion to project the empire as a force of lawful governance.
The despotism of law did not end with British rule. In fact, the postcolonial nation-state adopted, almost in its entirety, the judicial and penal system designed by the colonial state. This was not surprising, for the nationalists had not questioned the laws themselves, but only the right of British rulers to make and enforce them. Once the state that applied these laws was legitimate, so were the laws that it inherited.
Partha Chatterjee’s is not a sunny story about the emergence of India as a modern nation-state. Not for him Ramachandra Guha’s celebration of India as an “unnatural nation” and an “unlikely democracy”. For Chatterjee, the picture is gritty and grey. In his view, the formation of the nation-state was shadowed by colonialism and its practices of governance. This is not to say that he is in agreement with Empire’s apologists who depict India’s modern laws and institutions, and indeed the nation itself, as colonial gifts. Chatterjee is attentive to the work of imagining and fighting for a nation, but argues that these occurred against the background of Empire and its practices of conquest and rule. If the modern nation-state is a gift of the British, it is a poisoned one.
In offering this picture, Chatterjee draws on a wide range of scholarship, both old and new. He leads us back to widely known turning points and historical figures, providing new understandings. All this is very impressive, but there is a price to be paid. Though he promises to keep his sights on the functioning of the Empire on the ground, large parts of the book soar high into the stratospheric world of British governor-generals and philosophers, nawabs and the Bengali bhadralok. This is a long way off from the historiographical war against conventional narratives that Ranajit Guha launched in 1982 when he introduced the Subaltern Studies Group and called for histories written from the margins. The group now stands dissolved, but in the over two decades of its existence, it focused on demolishing colonial and nationalist idols and ideologies in historical scholarship. Traces of that iconoclastic assault are clearly present in Chatterjee’s book. He critically analyses the historical roles of elite actors, highlighting the exclusions practiced by them and the limits of their visions. But his state-centric concern leaves undisturbed the traditional picture of Indian history as a story of great men: Clives and Dalhousies, Roys and Tagores stalk the book as the chief dramatis personae of colonial India. In this sense, Chatterjee does not fully deliver on his promise of analysing Empire in its everyday life. For that would have involved dealing not only with the problems of conquest, which he does, but also with the experience of Empire in the daily lives of ordinary people, which he does not.
Where The Black Hole of Empire does succeed is in offering a bold interpretation of colonialism’s history. The book is addressed primarily to scholars of modern empires and states. But that is no reason why it should not be part of a wider conversation. Nor should we consider it a disqualification that the cosy intellectual clubs in the West are unlikely to authenticate arguments like Chatterjee’s in their discussions of empire and its continuing legacy. The price of admittance there is to check such radically critical readings of empire at the gate. This is regrettable, for the book shows that colonialism cannot be viewed only as the deplorable past; its ideology and practices endure and continue to shape our present. With masterful synthesis, it shows that the process of justifying acts of conquest produced enduring political theories of empire and the modern state. So much so that in a world without colonies, the right to declare an exception is still an imperial right. Great powers can still march into sovereign territories, claiming an exceptional right to intervene. We still live in a world where the exercise of power over others is redeemed by the Idea.