The Black Hole by Jan Dalley [A Review]

In every age, events are crafted into stories to suit the narrative needs of the moment. Fact and truth, as much as they can be determined, have to play catch-up. Eventually, though, the consequences of the stories that were told build a thirst to revisit the past. Sometimes it is only to craft a new story to suit a new narrative, equally divorced from the truth. Facts though, are as stubborn as they are unsatisfying. In The Black Hole, Jan Dalley searches for the facts behind one of history’s most notorious stories – the ‘Black Hole of Calcutta’.  

Cover image of The Black Hole by Jan Dalley

The story of the ‘Black Hole of Calcutta’ was once taught to every British schoolchild. The basic story is that, in 1756, a young nawab named Siraj-ud-daulah led an army in an unprovoked attack on Fort William, a British fort built by the town of Calcutta. Hopelessly outmatched, the British were forced to surrender after a few days fighting. Once the fort was surrendered, the nawab had all the survivors placed in a tiny cell – which became the eponymous ‘black hole’. The monsoon was late that year and, by morning, over one hundred of the survivors had died from the heat, thirst and from being crushed in the tiny cell.

Almost immediately, the veracity of the story was questioned and doubts about it have lingered ever since. Accounts vary as to how many went into the cell and how many came out alive. The version told in British school texts for two centuries says 146 people were placed in a cell measuring fourteen by eighteen feet, which is physically impossible. The room, originally built as a jail cell but more often used as a room where soldiers could sleep off their hangovers, was also used as a morgue. Given that the fort had been under siege for days, it seems likely that some, if not most, of the reported dead were already dead before the survivors were shut in the room for the night. The accounts given by survivors are problematic as well – their stories changed over the years, contain numerous discrepancies and, in some cases, we can’t even be sure if the accounts are from real survivors.

Here, in the accounts of important survivors and witnesses, […] we get glimpses of inconsistencies and contradictions so elaborate that they will never be untangled. If literature has its artfully ‘unreliable narrators’, the history of this incident has a whole cast of unreliable survivors – possibly, in some cases, just as artful.

Jan Dalley, author of The Black Hole, is an arts and literature editor for the Financial Times. She describes her interest in the story of the black hole as a result of childhood experience. As a young child, she went to school at a French convent in Iran where her father was working for BP. A cross-cultural education meant she learned very different interpretations of the same historical events which enlightened her understanding of the power of perspective and storytelling and their troubled relationship with historical truth. Whether or not such truth can be obtained given the obstacles of the passage of time, a dearth of objective facts and an abundance of misinformation; Dalley argues for an approach that suspends preconceptions in order to find an interpretation that makes the most sense.

Dalley begins this short book by sharing how little we can say for certain about the black hole incident. Even those who searched for the truth much closer to the time were impeded by the remoteness of the place, the demolition of the fort and the unsuccessful search for witnesses and survivors. This left a great potential for a fable to take hold.

The uncertainties and ambiguities here are typical of the whole legend of the Black Hole of Calcutta, and incident whose resonance and fame would far outstrip its reality. And its reality, indeed, is something we shall never exactly know. Almost everything about the official account is now questioned, and has been challenged, even ridiculed, down the centuries. But that did not stop its enshrinement in British Mythology, and especially the mythology of the British Empire in India. As one nineteenth-century historian put it, it was ‘bitten into the national memory’, and the bite sank deep.

Dalley recounts the history that led up to the black hole incident. The fierce competition in the spice trade between Chinese, Persian, Dutch, Spanish, Portuguese and late-comer British traders, pirates and privateers. She shares the steps taken by the British to get a toehold in India; the founding of the East India Company, its pleas to the Mughal court, the establishment of its trading city ports and the advantages of trading with the British in the eyes of Indians.

It is a very complex history. In some areas the lack of available information obscures attempts to understand the reality of the period, the people and the evolving situation. In others, what information we have only adds further complexity. The reader has to appreciate the nuances, the grey areas and the unknowable. That appreciation includes learning about the role of Asian merchants in the functioning of British trade; of Calcutta’s ‘white town’, ‘black town’ and the hinterland between; the tension between Britain and France in the years leading to the Seven Years War and the fact that India was already dominated by a foreign, expansionist, Imperial power – the Mughals, whose decline had begun. The satisfaction of an incontrovertible interpretation is not to be had here. That Dalley can promote this appreciation of complexity to the reader in what I stress is a short book – little over 200 pages – is an impressive achievement.

All of this is before when even get to the main protagonist of the story – Siraj-ud-daulah – and the black hole incident itself. Here we have many sources of uncertainty – Siraj’s character and his motivations for the attack; the timing and tactics of the battle; complacent, foolish and uncoordinated actions on the British side and Siraj’s contradictory behaviour after the night of the black hole. All have been thoroughly analysed and speculated over ever since the incident, with much that leaves historians puzzled. Dalley assesses various theories, sharing their various strengths and shortcomings. Again, her ability to communicate all this for the general reader is impressive.  

Stories that emerge at a vulnerable or impactful time have the power to change history regardless of how factual they may be. A shift in the relationship between Britain and India, from one of mutually-beneficial trade to one of conquest and empire, certainly followed the incident. It also appears to have influenced the men who made and consolidated this change, such as Robert Clive and Lord Curzon. But suggestions that the news of the fall of Calcutta or the incident of the black hole had a direct influence on future events are difficult to prove – the timing of some events makes them problematic to link.

Dalley ends by investigating why the story of the black hole became to be seen as important and endured for so long? What was its appeal? The obvious answer is that the story could be used to conveniently provide moral justification for British conquests in India, casting the British as victims and saviours and the locals as barbaric. But, while not diminishing that interpretation, Dalley also makes the reader ask what the story says about British culture and the interests of the individuals involved as well.

The perpetual bargaining over numbers is not about numbers. It is about motives. It is about whether a deliberate act of atrocity can be ascribed to Siraj – clearly it cannot, and everyone who looks at the records seems to agree that in this case he was guilty of nothing more than carelessness. It is about whether the British had any justification in using the episode as a springboard for the expansion some of them anyway wanted, and for using force to gain what they had previously gained by negotiation. And it is about the way in which these legendary episodes cast the native rulers and their people as savages.

I have been disappointed several times by books on interesting subjects written by non-experts, usually journalists (see my reviews of The Sixth Extinction or The Genius Factory). Dalley, though not an historian, is a welcome reversal of this trend in my reading. She avoids a lot of the pitfalls I believe the other books suffer from and even sidesteps some of my own pet peeves. For example, though she provides some fascinating anecdotes while telling this story, and I particularly enjoyed reading about the wide influence of nutmeg and the founding of Madras, such pieces were always relevant to the main story. Elsewhere, apocryphal tales are only mentioned and quickly moved on from. And, while she shares the reason for her interest in the story in the Preface, she avoids the temptation of inserting herself into the story.

But the greatest strength of The Black Hole is Dalley’s scepticism. Each item of evidence and each theory that attempts to explain the events is critically appraised by Dalley for their strengths and weaknesses. Most are found to contain flaws, from minor to defeating. Dalley wields this scepticism even-handedly as well, showing no favouritism for any particular narrative. While she avoids being drawn into a theory of her own, the reader can appreciate that no flawless interpretation can be delivered. At best, we might arrive at a least faulty theory that offers the best explanation of the best evidence.

Throughout Holwell’s account the reader is torn between horror and pity, and sheer disbelief. The first detail that strikes us as odd is about the door. Holwell makes a point of telling us that it opened inwards, so whatever they did they couldn’t force it – but then how, with so many people crowding into the room, did they get it shut in the first place? Such practical details have provoked questions to which there is apparently no good answer. How did Holwell manage to recognise people and see what they were doing, and give graphic descriptions of their condition, even the expression on their faces and the moment of their death, especially if they were at the back of the room? It would have been blacker than pitch – yet at several points in his account he seems to have been able to take out his watch (how was it not looted from him earlier?) and read the time. And so on. There is a plethora of petty information that seems fantastical and even preposterous the more we look at it. But this account was written for emotional impact, many months later, and the fact that the details may have been exaggerated or actually invented does not necessarily invalidate the truth of the whole thing.

I am drafting this review in June of 2020. In recent weeks, statues of historical figures have been defaced and torn down, particularly those depicting men who profited from or defended slavery or who expressed racist ideas. Some of these memorials, for example those of American Confederates, were erected not despite their racism or support of slavery but because of those aspects, not to mention their treason. Some people have expressed their disagreement with the destruction of Confederate statues or the renaming of places for American Confederates – I mention this to be comprehensive; but I don’t find their arguments convincing.

However, there are those who argue for a more nuanced appreciation of other memorials. Washington, Jefferson, Churchill and Gandhi, they argue, should not be equated with American Confederates. These memorials are to acknowledge the considerable achievements of these men despite their flaws, not to celebrate or ignore their faults. Indeed, their achievements – creating liberal democracy, defeating fascism, ending colonial rule – created a world that allowed their own faults to be the next items facing dismemberment. The selectivity of which memorials are being targeted has not gone unnoticed either. The world’s major religions, which long provided the moral justification for slavery and caste systems, also seem to be getting a pass by protestors, as is anti-Semitism.

I mention all this because it struck me that, in Britain, something both those defacing memorials and those who argued for a nuanced appreciation of them agree on is a wish that British history was better taught. They wish that an honest appreciation of British history, the legacy of empire and colonialism, was part of their education growing up and would become part of the curriculum going forward. William Dalrymple, prolific and best-selling author of books on Indian history, recently made the case for the removal of a statue of one of the men who feature in the story of the black hole’s aftermath – Robert Clive – arguing that the statue’s presence is a ‘testament to British ignorance of our imperial past’. In The Black Hole, Dalley mentions an offensive ceiling painting, depicting the East giving up her treasures to Britannia, which still resides in the Foreign Office in London.

I would argue that what Dalley presents in The Black Hole is an insight into what an improved education of history would look like. It is a history that is messy, complex and incomplete. It requires an open mind, an appreciation of nuance and a sceptical eye. It provides an education on information that was not previously appreciated, on events from the past that continue to influence the present and the power of stories to change history. Such a history would be unsatisfactory only to those who wish they could continue to use stories like that of the black hole to justify their preconceived narratives.

A good story was needed, or at least a story that blurred any of the details that did not fit. And that is perhaps why the legend became more useful when more time had elapsed and the emotive phase itself spread its wings to obscure any inconvenient realities that might linger in the memory.

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