[Marxism] The Black Hole of Empire

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Thu Oct 18 18:56:02 MDT 2012


A Return to the Black Hole
Partha Chatterjee’s treatise on the flawed legacy of empire
By GYAN PRAKASH | 1 October 2012

The Black Hole of Empire: History of a Global Practice of Power PARTH 
PRESS) 440 PAGES, Rs.795

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.


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