Talk:John Zephaniah Holwell

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Untitled[edit]

I have removed the text below from the article page to the talk page. The reasons, I think, are obvious. Everyone feel invited to improve this. KF 16:15 19 Jun 2003 (UTC)

The notorious episode of the "Black Hole" of Calcutta furnishes an extraordinary instance of the manner in which narratives are constructed and the place of iteration in historical narratives. It points equally to the difficulty of ascertaining "truth" in history. In 1756, Siraj-ud-daulah <Siraj.html>, the Nawab of Bengal, occupied Fort William and Calcutta, then the principal possession of the East India Company. 146 people are said to have been imprisoned, at the orders of the Nawab, in a small and airless dungeon at Fort William. Next morning, when the door was opened, 123 of the prisoners had died. This story was recounted by the survivor John Zephaniah Holwell, and soon became the basis for representing Indians as a base, cowardly, and despotic people. Innumerable journalistic and historical works recounted the story of the "Black Hole" of Calcutta, but Holwell's account was the sole contemporary narrative. 146 people could not have been accommodated in a room of the stated dimensions of 24 x 18 feet, and it is now almost universally conceded that Holwell greatly embellished his story. Indian scholars have shown the Nawab had no hand in this affair, and that the number of incarcerated prisoners was no higher than 69. It may even be possible to argue that the episode of the "Black Hole" never transpired. Though for the British it became an article of faith to accept the veracity of the episode in its most extravagant and sordid form, all accounts relied, without stating so, upon the sole authority of the contemporary narrative of Holwell. As Edward Said, following Foucault, has suggested in Orientalism (1978), once something is said often enough, it becomes true.

Hmm, well neither Foucault nor Said was a historian, or had any understanding of the principles of historical evidence. Indeed, they came close to denying the existence of any historical truth, arguing that nothing existed except "narratives" and "representations" dependent on "power relationships". All no doubt very interesting, but of little use to mere mortals who think that sometimes things happen and are then recorded: if you don't believe that, then stick to literary theory and forget about writing History at all. If Holwell's account is unreliable (and it may well be) what of the evidence used by these unspecified 'Indian Historians'? Or is that beyond reproach because they are Indian? In fact the British Historian H.E. Busteed wrote back in 1885 (at the height of British Imperial power) that the Nawab was probably unaware of what transpired; J.H. Little, another British historian, was the first to question Holwell's figures, in the Edwardian period: hardly the elaborate discursive conspiracy alleged above. There are also numerous interviews with survivors and articles in the contemporary press which corroborate elements of Holwell's account. It is far from being settled that 'only' 69 people were incarcerated (anyway, surely that's bad enough)? as this figure only takes into account the garrison, and not the large numbers of civilians (Anglo-Indian and Anglo-Portuguese) who took shelter in the Fort. In any case I find it hard to understand why this incident generates such emotions. Whatever the truth of the matter, it is in no way a slur on modern Indians or Bengalis to admit that the Black Hole occurred and that it was a very nasty incident. Serious historians have always recognised that it was a tragic cock-up, not an act of calculated malice and cruelty Sikandarji 15:57, 18 April 2006 (UTC)