Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Reconstructing History

Deir Yassin is a major issue in the Israel-Arab conflict.

What exactly happened there? Who did what? How many? Etc., etc., etc.

Well, remember the "Black Hole of Calcutta" affair?

Well, there's a new book out and see what happens to a "well-known" incident:-

Like the Charge of the Light Brigade and the Miracle of Dunkirk that came later, the Black Hole of Calcutta is one of those iconic episodes in British history in which an abject defeat is somehow transformed into a matter of national pride. The bare outline of the story is well known. On the evening of June 20, 1756, the hottest of the year, more than a hundred English, French, Dutch and Portuguese members of Calcutta's European community were herded into a small airless cell known as the 'Black Hole' by the troops of the dastardly Nawab Siraj-ud-daula of Bengal. When the door was opened in the morning, only a handful were still alive; the rest had died of thirst, suffocation, and from wounds received during the fierce battle for Calcutta.

Thanks to Curzon, the 'myths' of the Black Hole have endured to this day. Yet no two contemporary accounts seem to agree, and historians are still divided as to the number of fatalities: estimates range from 132 to three, with Linda Colley, in her recent book Captives, plumping for 40 captives and just eight dead. This lack of clear factual information made it easy to weave a myth. 'There was, after all, little solid evidence to get in the way,' writes Dalley, 'there were no pictures to establish a record, and because the old fort… was eventually demolished… there was not even a site to be visited.'

Curzon's view was heavily influenced by the American Mark Twain who, having visited India in the 1850s, wrote: 'It was the ghastly episode of the Black Hole that maddened the British and brought [Robert] Clive, that young military marvel, raging up from Madras; it was the seed from which sprung Plassey; and it was that extraordinary battle, whose like had not been seen in the earth since Agincourt, that laid deep and strong the foundations of England's colossal Indian sovereignty.'

Dalley is not wholly convinced. Yes, Clive sailed from Madras on hearing the news from Calcutta; and, yes, he re-took the city, won the battle of Plassey and established a sympathetic ruler, Mir Jaffir, on the throne of Bengal. But he achieved this 'by politicking and intrigue and deals done in advance rather than by a military feat to rival Agincourt'. Moreover the idea that the British government did this out of outrage is 'not accurate' for the simple reason that 'news took so long to travel that Britain didn't even know about the loss of Calcutta until well after it had been regained'. Yet Twain and Curzon were right to see the loss of Calcutta as a turning-point, 'not only a profound change in the avowed intentions of the East India Company but a springboard for the imperial expansion that swiftly followed'.

Few Britons emerge from Dalley's account with any credit: the military commander ignored warnings that the defences of Calcutta were weak; the governor's foolish letters to Siraj only made matters worse; and both left on ships before the final attack, leaving their subordinates to their fate. Even John Holwell, the 'hero' of the defence who left a highly fanciful account of the Black Hole, is criticised by Dalley for fighting on for too long and incurring unnecessary casualties.

As for the Hole itself, it was originally a British military prison and the sort of place where prisoners were 'usually put'. Siraj, we learn, had gone off for the night and was 'not interested in the details'. If anyone was to blame for the decision to pack so many people into so small a space - if indeed that ever happened - then it was probably an Indian merchant called Omichand who had fallen out with the British.

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