How the east was won
In conversation with Professor Partha Chatterjee on the 261st year of the Battle of Plassey
On June 16, 1756, a young Siraj ud-Daulah led a force of some thirty thousand soldiers to attack Fort William in Calcutta, unhappy that despite his directives, the British were heavily reinforcing the fort and at the company's interference in internal politics of his province. After three days of heavy fighting with the British on the retreat, on June 20, a truce was signed, and the nawab occupied the fort. The remaining Europeans in the fort were left in charge of the nawab's guards, and after some hostilities, these Europeans were supposedly locked up in a cramped prison inside the Fort originally designed to imprison unruly Europeans. What happened next is disputed, but the story goes that cramped inside a small space, without water and food, most of these Europeans died a horrible death. Most of what we know of the Black Hole incident, comes from one survivor's account, John Zephaniah Holwell, an employee of the East India Company.
A year later, in 1757, Siraj would face the British again, and this time betrayed by his own, be defeated. The British victory on June 23, 1757 at Palashi marked the beginning of the British Empire in India. And with that, the Black Hole incident, told and retold, praising the ingenuity of the British or painting Siraj as an Oriental despot would take on a more political role. The Battle of Plassey was reframed as the revenge for what had happened at Fort William.
Partha Chatterjee, professor of anthropology and of Middle Eastern, South Asian, and African Studies and Columbia University, a member of the famous Subaltern Studies Collective and author of The Black Hole of Empire: History of a Global Practice of Power talks to Moyukh Mahtab of The Daily Star about Siraj ud-Daulah, the Black Hole, Empire, history and historiography.
In schoolbook history, we learned that the Battle of Plassey was the foundation of the British Empire in India. You begin your book by saying that the "mythical history of the British Empire in the East begins in a black hole", and that this story has largely been forgotten. For readers not familiar with the incident, could you elaborate how the Black Hole incident related to the subsequent Battle of Plassey and eventually to the founding of the empire? Why did the story have to be forgotten after going through its many retellings?
There is nothing in contemporary British records to suggest that the Battle of Plassey (or Palashi in Bangla) was provoked by a motive to avenge the deaths of British men and women in the so-called Black Hole incident. There were far more important considerations such as re-establishing an important trading post and preventing the French at Chandannagar from becoming the preeminent European trading power in Bengal. Clive had decided that the only way these objectives could be achieved was by acquiring direct control over the government in Murshidabad. He wanted, in today's language, a regime change in Bengal. That is what was achieved by the result at Palashi. Holwell, a survivor of the Black Hole, published his account of the incident a year after the Palashi battle. When he put up a monument in Kolkata in 1760 commemorating the Black Hole victims, he mentioned in the inscription that “this horrid act of violence was as amply as deservedly revenged” in 1757. But the colonial myth of the Black Hole was actually authored by Thomas Macaulay in 1840 when, in an essay on Clive, he narrated the incident as one of oriental barbarism and cruelty subsequently defeated and subjugated by a civilised, moral and caring British Empire. Macaulay's essay was widely circulated in the English-speaking world, which is why, until very recently, the phrase “black hole of Calcutta” was commonly used to mean a closed and suffocating place. With the end of empire, the Black Hole story has now been largely forgotten everywhere.
Could you briefly tell us how Siraj's defeat was portrayed by historians and in popular culture? What were the implications of the different narratives on the bigger history of the subcontinent?
Indian historians writing in Persian were quite ambiguous in their assessment of Siraj. Ghulam Husain Tabtabai, the most important among them, was part of Ali Vardi Khan's circle and describes Siraj as immature, haughty, disrespectful of elders and immoral. But Ghulam Husain could not condone the betrayal and cruelty perpetrated on Siraj. Bengali Hindu writers in the 19th century generally described Siraj as a cruel tyrant in whose kingdom no woman was safe. But the rise of nationalism changed the story completely. Akshay Maitra of Rajshahi wrote a very popular book in 1897 in which Siraj's Bengal was described as a land of prosperity and harmony that was shattered by the intrigues and violence of the British. Siraj became a tragic hero. This was also the image projected in Girish Ghosh's play Sirajuddaula, produced at the time of the Swadeshi movement. The play was later banned by the government. But the most influential popular story about Siraj was told in Sachin Sengupta's play, first produced in 1938 when Fazlul Huq's government had come to power in Bengal. Adorned with music and songs by Kazi Nazrul Islam, this play was also circulated in a set of gramophone records, with the famous actor Nirmalendu Lahiri playing Siraj. These records circulated all over East and West Bengal well into the 1970s. It is also interesting that even as Hindu-Muslim political relations were worsening all over India, the movement in 1940 to remove the Holwell monument from the central square of Kolkata brought together Congress nationalists led by Subhas Chandra Bose and the Muslim Students Federation. All Bengalis had apparently come to accept that the Black Hole incident did not deserve to be publicly remembered.
Why was there a need to justify the initial attack and subterfuge involved in the war with Siraj? What does attempts such as Macaulay's tell us about colonial historiography and the idea of empire?
The East India Company was able to bring a very small force from Madras with which it was able to reoccupy its fort in Kolkata. But Clive's bigger plan of putting his own man on the throne of Murshidabad could never have been accomplished if the entire army of Siraj had engaged in battle at Palashi. Clive knew he could only get the job done if he managed to bring over to his side some of the key disaffected figures in Siraj's court. The early accounts of the Battle of Plassey written by historians associated with the East India Company did not hide the fact that Siraj was betrayed by his generals because Clive managed to bribe them with promises of great wealth to be obtained from the government treasury after Siraj's fall. But by the 1840s, the mood in Britain had changed. The empire in India was now seen as part of a great civilising mission and Clive's sordid intrigues did not sit well with that mood. Macaulay managed to rewrite the story by portraying Clive as a man of courage, decisiveness and vision whose actions had immense, and mostly beneficial, historical consequences.
There have been many narratives of the Battle of Plassey—how do they continue to shape and in turn be shaped in the post-colonial nation states that once constituted the British empire?
Despite all their differences, I think most current histories in Pakistan, India and Bangladesh share the view that British motives leading up to the Battle of Plassey were those of economic plunder and securing special privileges from the Nawab's government in order to keep out the French. There was no thought at all of providing better government to Indians. It is also agreed that the British victory was the result of conspiracy and betrayal. These conclusions are generally held independently of any assessment of Siraj's character which, it is evident, was not without blemish. In popular memory, Siraj, I think, still remains a tragic hero in Bangladesh and West Bengal. The name Mir Jafar, however, has become a synonym for traitor in every language of South Asia.
Can we relate the shaping of the myth of the British Empire in India to the practice of empire today?
The key difference between what may be called empire today with what used to exist in the 19th and early-20th century is that there are no attempts any more to conquer territory and establish colonies. There are no territorial empires today. But, of course, many forms of exercise of unequal economic and political power over other countries continue, including military intervention to carry out regime change. The justifications are often similar and appeal to the responsibility of the so-called civilised world to remove despotic rulers, modernise backward cultures, end oppression of women, create economic prosperity, and so on. Macaulay's spirit continues to hover over us.
As a historian, what do you think are the challenges in historiography today? What is the role of the historian in today's world where we see histories being appropriated and exploited and narratives being changed to suit political agendas?
It is important to realise that unlike other kinds of narratives such as fiction or cinema or popular performance, the persuasive power of the historical narrative depends on a claim to factual truth. The historian must be able to marshal the evidence of archival documents, archaeological finds, contemporary accounts, etc. and apply the methods of evaluating and interpreting that evidence to build a story of the past. There is sometimes an insistence that only other trained historians should be allowed to judge the results. But I don't think that is a realistic or reasonable demand. The historian must also engage with a broader public and put across her or his research findings in a manner that is accessible to a non-professional audience. This is not always easy, because not every public forum is equally well suited for a reasonable conversation. So the historian must exercise judgment in choosing the right venues for public debate. But what I find completely unacceptable is the call to the authority of the state to intervene in historical debates and lay down a supposedly correct history, or even worse, prevent particular viewpoints from being expressed. Unfortunately, all branches of government in South Asian countries—the executive, the judiciary and the lawmakers—have been more than eager to respond to such invitations. I firmly believe that history cannot be written by government fiat.