The Black Hole by Jan Dalley

Not a hole, and maybe not even that dark
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The Black Hole of Calcutta is still a phrase resonant with terror and mystery. Its impact has ricocheted down the centuries - Mark Twain on his visit to Calcutta in 1846 was keen to see the site of the world-famous atrocity, and every account of Empire since the news first filtered slowly home to the England of 1756, has given a version of it.

The story is starkly simple. The local nawab, Siraj-udûdaulah, an aggressive young hothead who had recently seized power from his peace-loving grandfather, had besieged the nascent British trading town of Calcutta. After a bloody battle lasting five terrifying days, the survivors were herded into a small, airless prison in the vanquished fort. Of the 146 bullied and packed into a space that measured 14 by 18 feet, 123 died an agonising death through the unbearably sweltering night. In the morning, only 23 were alive. It took the weakened survivors 20 minutes to load the bodies from the door so the guards could open it. End of story. Or, rather, start of controversy. Was it an act of brutal barbarism or a bureaucratic blunder? Was it on the scale claimed? Did it even happen at all?

Some sceptical historians have asserted the whole thing was a giant, politically motivated hoax. How would it be possible, for instance, to force so many people in such a small area in the first place? And in the pitch dark, how was it possible for the chronicler of the atrocity, survivor John Holwell, to record so many tiny details of their individual agonies?

Jan Dalley renders an imaginative and forensically relentless examination. She concludes that the Black Hole was a reality (the exact numbers, she concedes, must be impossible to get entirely correct), but she does ask questions. "Was it deliberate brutality of the part of the victor, or was it simply a sad mistake on the part of the nawab's soldiers?" How did the story prevail in a century packed with bloodshed and massacre on a much grander scale? Why were succeeding generations keen to re-tell it?

Well, it had political usefulness. "The Black Hole of Calcutta was never quoted as a reason for the British to take one course of action or another in India. But when Robert Clive marched on Calcutta to recapture the Company's possessions, he seized the opportunity to take decisive steps in the direction of full colonial power." The atrocity was later invoked by grand Empire-makers like the mighty Lord Curzon who insisted, as late as 1898, on creating a huge monument which dominated every view of the city, a reminder of the brutality of foreigners and a justification for the dazzling acquisition of India.

Two hundred years earlier, things were more coarsely commercial. Britain, this draughty, cold Northern island, was desperate for spice. It is hard to credit that thousands would risk their lives, and more thousands their fortunes, for nutmeg. But do believe it. "All historians agree the British Empire began with stimulants," Dalley asserts. Our nation would "go just to just about any lengths for a buzz". People wanted better food, and once they saw them, lovelier and more brilliant clothes.

Calcutta flourished on a lust for variety. English servants aspired to dress more like their mistresses - a trend bitterly condemned by the fearsomely puritanical Daniel Defoe - and Indian fabric was a wild hit. Then there was the lure of adventure. Young men in dreary rain-sodden Scottish crofts or run-down Somerset smallholdings yearned to see the world. Calcutta offered a bright chance to make money.

The newly built outpost, with its elegant parks and lovely churches, was keen to supply the demand. Defence was far from its concerns. Apart from some skirmishes with the French, relations with the Mughal rulers had gone swimmingly. Trade blossomed. Migrants flocked over to make fortunes bringing the fads and fashions of Europe with them into the sweltering heat.

When the attack came, Calcutta was pathetically unprepared. A huge, cacophonous force of fighters and looters surrounded and then ravaged the city. Far from a tale of heroism, this was a dismal story of cowardly retreat by those in charge, leaving a handful of very young and very brave - 550 in all - men to hold the fort, literally. They tried, as their elders and betters fled, and heroically failed. The last of the gallant 21-year-olds trying to protect the terrified garrison were outnumbered and hacked to death by the pitiless victors. The Black Hole was the horrific by-product of the shambles that followed, a cruel, casual waste of life. Its perpetrator was hunted down and murdered a year later.

Yet, over time, it represented "a fear of strangeness and came to epitomise, through its very name, the savagery of other peoples". And, with the appalling toll taken by the Indian climate, where young men often died within two monsoons of arrival, it vindicated the British presence - a story of solace for grieving relatives in the English shires who saw one son after another sacrificed to the brutal climate of faraway India. The Black Hole explained why we were there; this one small corner of human suffering justified the leap from trade to conquest and ultimately, the creation of the Empire.