Jane Austen and the Black Hole. Chapter 9
The East India Company, the Black Hole and the conquest of Bengal
"Mr. Children's two Sons are both going to be married, John & George - They are to have one wife between them; a Miss Holwell, who belongs to the Black Hole at Calcutta."
- Jane Austen in a letter to Cassandra (1796).1
“Gentoos in general are as degenerate, crafty, superstitious and wicked a people as any race in the known world, if not eminently more so, especially the common run of Brahmins.”
- John Zephania Holwell (survivor and chronicler of the Black Hole of Calcutta and grandfather of the above Miss Holwell).2
“By God, Mr Chairman, at this moment I stand astonished at my own moderation!”
- Lord Robert Clive responding to Parliamentary cross-examination in 1773 over his immense personal pecuniary advancement in Bengal.3
The consequences of passive and active Austenizing
We have seen how Jane Austen, the artist, quite legitimately confined her moral exercises to a rarefied, genteel slice of English society. Our concern is that historians have illegitimately applied the same social editing in their portrayal of British society and the Empire. We have already seen how this Austenizing has been applied (albeit relatively innocently) to Jane Austen’s life and connections. It is useful to now briefly sketch the origins of the East India Company and the conquest of Bengal that contributed immensely to the prosperity of the privileged part of society to which Jane Austen belonged. In doing so we will draw upon a large historical literature that deals with this saga of the 17th and 18th centuries with varying degrees of comprehensiveness and humanity.4
Austenizing involves both passive and active distortion of reality. The passive process involves ignoring unpleasant realities of which the most glaringly obvious in our disquisition is the avoidable death by starvation and attendant disease of tens of millions of remorselessly exploited colonial subjects in Bengal and elsewhere in the Indian Empire.5 The active process involves the construction of heroes and anti-heroes, racial stereotyping and romantic mythologising. Such constructions can be very powerful and can mobilize whole nations. The dreadful story of the Black Hole of Calcutta is an example of such powerful “Empire-building” iconography. There is a standard “Black Hole story” that is recounted in essence in a large number of British histories with different degrees of detail and commentary (indeed on occasion with the qualification that the reader is surely aware of the matter). 6 Nevertheless some declare that the “Black Hole” incident did not actually happen 7 and others believe the event was grossly exaggerated if it did. 8
The present chapter traces the foundation of the East India Company and the ultimate British invasion of Golden Bengal in the 18th century. At that time Bengal was one of the richest countries in the world in an agricultural, industrial and cultural sense.9 The “Black Hole” incident in 1756 arose out of the last successful Bengali defence of their country against a merciless invader. The subsequent treacherous defeat of the last completely independent Bengali ruler, the Nawab Siraj-ud-daulah, by the British under Robert Clive at the Battle of Plassey in 1757 delivered control of Bengal to the East India Company.10 The final defeat of the last Bengali resistance under the “puppet” Nawab Mir Kasim and his allies by the British under Major Hector Munro, at the Battle of Buxar in 1764, delivered the people of Bengal, and indeed of the whole Gangetic plain, into the hands of merciless foreign exploiters.11 Within half a dozen years of the Battle of Buxar, 10 million people - one third of the remorselessly impoverished population of Bengal - would perish in the Great Bengal Famine, one of the most horrendous events in all of human history. The most extraordinary Austenizing ensured that the British ruling class, Jane Austen’s people, escaped censure and accordingly continued a “business as usual” process of murderous exploitation over nearly 2 centuries in India. That process involved the deaths of scores of millions through famine, culminating in the “forgotten holocaust” of Bengal in the latter half of World War 2.12 The same moral blindness, supported by resolute Austenizing on the part of academics, media and politicians, is set to turn the tropical parts of the planet into a global Bergen-Belsen by the middle of the 21st century.13
Foundation and expulsion from the Spice Islands
The exciting story of the foundation and expansion of the East India Company is described in a variety of enthralling texts.14 The East India Company was formally established by the signature of Queen Elizabeth I of England on New Year's Eve 1600. England was at war with Spain and Portugal (who had divided the world, and in particular the New World, between themselves). The Portuguese had established themselves in India and the East Indies and the Dutch were also trading from the islands of the East Indies. The overland passage to the East was blocked by the Ottoman Empire, whose navy patrolled the Mediterranean. Francis Drake had circumnavigated the world in 1572-1580 and Albion was set to bestride the world.
In January 1601 the first East India Company fleet set sail to the Spice Islands of the East Indies under the command of Captain Lancaster. By the time the Cape of Good Hope was reached, scurvy (due to vitamin C deficiency) had decimated the crew and the Guest was abandoned. In 1602, after a voyage of 18 months, the fleet reached Achin in northern Sumatra. Lancaster presented gifts and presents from Queen Elizabeth to the King of Achin who granted the Englishmen freedom to trade, entertained them and inquired after Queen Elizabeth. It should be noted that in the culture of that part of the world, women can have a prominent position in relation to government, inheritance and property rights. Lancaster captured a Portuguese galleon and used the coin of the prize to purchase spices (notably pepper, the dried berries of Piper nigrum (Piperaceae), a tropical climbing vine). Sending one ship back to England, Lancaster traded with the Dutch at Bantam in Java, where his deputy commander John Middleton died. After further adventures, including peaceful trade with French and Dutch vessels at St Helena and a huge storm, the fleet returned to London in 1603 but of 460 men who had ventured out only 278 returned. Lancaster was knighted by the new monarch James I, became a proprietor of the Company and thence wisely stayed home.
Over the next decades the enterprise continued and expanded. Henry Middleton commanded the next fleet that completed the return voyage to Bantam, Java and to the Molucca Islands with the loss of 1 ship. A third expedition under Captain Keeling (immortalized in the Cocos-Keeling Island group in the Indian Ocean) returned with an extraordinarily profitable cargo of cloves (the dried flower buds of Syzygium aromaticum = Eugenia caryophyllata (Myrtaceae), a tropical evergreen tree). The increasing activity led to ship-building at Deptford and timber yards at Reading but eventually the Company commenced leasing ships. After 2 decades the Company employed 2,500 seamen and was distributing substantial dividends to its shareholders.
The growing trade led to increasing conflict with the Dutch in the East, even though England and Holland were ostensibly at peace in Europe. The Dutch, Portuguese and subsequently the English built forts to protect key bases and conflict erupted between these competing interests in various places. John Jourdain, president of the Company's Java factory at Bantam, was killed in a naval engagement with the Dutch in 1620. The conflict with the Dutch East India Company led to the Amboina massacre in the Moluccas in which the Dutch arrested 18 Englishmen for spying on the Dutch fort, the Dutch having elicited this intelligence from torturing a Japanese mercenary of the English. The English were tortured and all but 2 beheaded. The Amboina massacre did not endear the Dutch to the English and no doubt contributed to the anti-Dutch Navigation Act of 1651 (confining importation of goods into England to English shipping) and the genesis of the Anglo-Dutch Wars of 1652-1654 and 1665-1667. In the wash-up of the latter conflict, the English gave up their Java factory in 1667 and swapped Surinam for New Amsterdam (later New York) with the Dutch in the Americas. The Portuguese lost their fort at Hormuz (at the entrance to the Persian Gulf) to the English and lost Ceylon to the Dutch.
The commercial stakes were very high in these conflicts in terms of the trade to Europe of spices such as pepper, cloves, nutmeg (the seeds of Myristica fragrens (Myristicaceae), an evergreen tree native to the Moluccas) and cinnamon (the seeds of Cinnamomum zeylanicum (Lauraceae), a bushy, evergreen tree of Ceylon, South India, Sumatra and Burma). Other plant products of great value were tea (the dried leaf tips of Camellia sinensis = Thea sinensis (Dipterocarpaceae), an East Asian evergreen bush), coffee (seeds of Coffea arabica (Rubiaceae), an Arabian bush) and the narcotic laudanum or opium (the latex of the immature fruits of Papaver somniferum (Papaveraceae), the opium poppy of Asia). The blue dye from the indigo plant (Indigofera species (Leguminosae) indigenous to Bengal and Java), Chinese silk and porcelain and Bengali silk and muslin were also valuable goods traded to Europe.. The Europeans also traded in slaves for work on plantations or for purposes of sexual abuse. The Dutch seized slaves for their plantations in the East Indies. The Portuguese had a vile reputation for slaving in coastal regions of Bengal, slaves being secured by thin canes passed through holes made in the palms of their hands. Shah Jehan ordered the extirpation of Portuguese slavers from Bengal. The English were also involved in slavery in the East. Female slaves as young as 12 were bought and hired for prostitution.
Adam Smith has described the conduct of the Dutch in the Spice Islands in relation to maximizing their profits from spices and maintaining their monopoly. In order to keep the price high in Europe they would burn excess spices from the harvest and to keep others from engaging in the trade they would also destroy spice-producing trees. However another option was also exercised by the Dutch to maintain their monopoly and to keep prices high:
" If the produce even of their own islands was much greater than what suited their market, the natives, they suspect, might find some means to convey some part of it to other nations; and the best way, they imagine, to secure their own monopoly, is to take care that no more shall grow than what they themselves carry to market. By different arts of oppression they have reduced the population of several of the Moluccas to nearly the number which is sufficient to supply with fresh provisions and other necessaries of life of their own insignificant garrisons, and such of their ships as occasionally come there for a cargo of spices. Under the government of even the Portuguese, however, these islands are said to have been tolerably well inhabited. The English company have not yet had time to establish in Bengal so destructive a system. The plan of their government, however, has had exactly the same tendency. It has not been uncommon, I am well assured, for the chief, that is, the first clerk of a factory, to order a peasant to plough up a rich field of poppies, and sow it with rice or some other grain. The pretence was, to prevent a scarcity of provisions; but the real reason, to give the chief an opportunity of selling at a better price a large quantity of opium, which he happened then to have on hand. Upon other occasions the order has been reversed..." 15
After discussing monopolistic usurpation of foreign and inland trade in particular goods in Bengal and similar restraints on production to maximize profit, Adam Smith (1776) concludes prophetically:
"In the course of a century or two, the policy of the English company would in this manner have probably proved as completely destructive as that of the Dutch". 16
The first footholds in India
The first direct Company contact with the Mughal Emperor of India was by their representative William Hawkins. His ship arrived at Surat in 1608 and following difficulties with the hostile Portuguese and after making suitable presents to the local authorities and Mughal representatives, he set off for the Imperial Court at Agra. The Emperor Jahangir took to Hawkins, who could speak Turkish, gave him a position and a Christian Armenian bride. Hawkins ultimately left but died in transit to Bantam. His widow subsequently married a Company man in London.
The English established a factory at Surat and 2 English ships secured a victory against 4 Portuguese galleons in 1612. When Jahangir initiated hostilities against the Portuguese, a small English fleet of 4 vessels under Nicolas Downton successfully repulsed a much larger Portuguese fleet of 6 galleons, 2 further ships and a large number of smaller vessels. Sir Thomas Roe was sent to Agra with a message from James I seeking peaceful trade. At his audience with Jahangir he declined to touch the ground with his head. He gained recognition of a circumscribed, non-military, Company presence at Surat and Agra that was subject to the laws of the land. His advice to the Company on his return home was for civilized trade: "it is an error to affect garrisons and land wars in India".17
Fort St George was founded by Francis Day in 1640 on the south eastern coast of India on land granted by the local ruler. It was made a Company "presidency" in 1653 and in 1658 was put in charge of Company affairs in Bengal and on the Coromandel coast. With a small English population of several hundred and ten times as many Portuguese, it was a lively place. Factional conflict in 1665 required the despatch of Company forces to restore order. This station was to become the city of Madras (now Chennai). In 1661 Charles II received the island of Mumbai (Bombay) on marrying the Infanta of Portugal. The Company obtained the island for a nominal rental and for providing a substantial loan. Thus was the beginning of the mega-city of Bombay (now Mumbai again).
The first probings of Bengal began in 1633. A factory was established at Hooghly, on the river of the same name, and trade commenced in a difficult physical and political environment. Notwithstanding the earlier advice of Sir Thomas Roe, in 1686 Job Charnock led a Company army of 300 men plus Portuguese mercenaries and Rajput sepoys (Indian soldiers) against a Mughal army of 12,000 men. In the event the English were forced to withdraw from Hooghly and the Mughals took Surat on the west coast. The Emperor Aurangzib (son of Shah Jahan and Mumtaz Mahal [remembered by the Taj Mahal], grandson of Jahangir and the Rajput Manmati and great-grandson of Akbar), was concerned with English naval dominance of the Arabian Sea and the security of pilgrims taking the haj to Mecca. Accordingly he made peace with the English and his subordinate, the Nawab of Dacca, was ordered to permit an English return to Bengal. Charnock established Fort William at Kalikata on the River Hooghly. Charnock married a Brahmin widow he had saved from the suttee funeral pyre. Charnock died in 1693 and in 1699 this settlement was made a third Indian presidency of the Company. This settlement was eventually to become the great city of Calcutta.
In 1685 Sir John Child became Captain-General and Admiral of India, based at Bombay. The Company became responsible for English interests in India. The first tea from China was sold in London in 1657 and towards the end of the century the Company began a trade involving opium from India to China to obtain the coinage required to purchase Chinese tea. With the Revolution in England and the establishment of William and Mary, a rival English East India Company was established. Amalgamation into the United Company of Merchants of England Trading in the East Indies, the "East India Company", occurred in 1709. The Company had a statutory monopoly of trade with the East Indies and "interlopers" were acted against. Thomas Pitt (1653-1726), “Diamond Pitt” (the grandfather of William Pitt the Elder, 1st Earl of Chatham), was a celebrated 'interloper" who nevertheless became a Company man as Governor of Fort St George in 1697. An outstanding example of an Englishman surviving and making good in the service of the Company, he returned home with great wealth, including the famous Pitt diamond. His descendants William Pitt the Elder and William Pitt the Younger led England against the French in the Seven Years’ War and the Napoleonic Wars, respectively. [We have already seen the connection of the “Austen” Leighs to the East India Company via Cassandra Willoughby, second wife of James Brydges and step-daughter of Sir Josiah Child, a Director and thence a Governor of the Company.18 Our artistic heroine Jane Austen and William Pitt (the 1st Earl of Chatham) shared a common ancestor in Sir Thomas Leigh, Lord Mayor of London. 19 ]
The “Glorious Revolution” that finally secured the Protestant establishment of England ushered in an ethos of imperialism and global commercial expansion that wreaked havoc upon the world, is still a dominant global driving force and which is currently set to destroy the world. For all of the grandeur and high culture of the 18th century, the lives of the ordinary English people and of their subjects, from the Scottish Highlands to the colonies, were vile. G.M. Trevelyan, the master of Austenizing history, has a mellifluous view:
“The Revolution gave to England an ordered and legal freedom, and through it gave her power. She often abused her power, as in the matters of Ireland and of the Slave Trade, till she reversed the engines; but on the whole mankind would have breathed a harsher air if England had not grown strong. For her power was based not only on her free Constitution but on the maritime and commercial enterprise of her sons, a kind of power naturally akin to freedom, as the power of great armies in its nature is not.” 20
Dupleix and the French ascendancy in India
The English under William III were at war with the French from 1689-1697 (concluded by the Treaty of Ryswick). Under Queen Anne and generaled by Marlborough, the English were subsequently engaged in the bloody War of the Spanish Succession (1701-1714) (the Anglo-French conflict being concluded by the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713). However these Anglo-French conflicts had not spread to India. Joseph Francois Dupleix came to India in 1722 and by 1731 had become the Governor of the French Company station of Chandernagore, upriver from Calcutta. Dupleix made a great success of this operation and was made Governor of Pondicherry in 1742. Pondicherry, lying between the British establishments of Fort St George (Madras) in the north and Fort St David in the south, had been the key French base on the Coromandel coast since 1683. This was a time of great uncertainty in the south of India: the English and French were poised in competition and the Hindu Marathas had conquered most of the Carnatic and captured the capital Arcot, about 100 miles inland from Madras and from Pondicherry.
Admiral La Bourdonnais, the Governor of the island of Mauritius in the Indian Ocean, had made naval preparations for the coming conflict with the English in India. In 1744 came the formal declaration of war between England and France. Louis XV was unwilling to commit forces to India. Accordingly, Dupleix proposed a truce east of the Cape of Good Hope but this was rejected by the English. An English fleet captured 4 French ships and in 1746 the French under Dupleix and La Bourdonnais made alliance with the Nawab of the Carnatic and moved against Madras. While Madras was now a substantial city of 250,000 inhabitants, it was poorly defended by only 200 English troops and a contingent of sepoys. After a short bombardment, Madras surrendered to La Bourdonnais. [Back home the last battles to be fought on English and indeed on British soil were associated with the second Jacobite Rebellion. The defeat of the young pretender Charles at Culloden in Scotland on April 16th 1746 lead to the Clearances of the Scottish Highlands]. An English fleet under Admiral Edward Boscawen arrived carrying Royal English troops - these were the first British Army troops to serve in India. With the Company forces of Major Stringer Lawrence and the Royal troops under his command, Boscawen besieged Pondicherry but the French resisted successfully. The French were now in a very strong position in the Carnatic.
Under the terms of the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle Madras had to be handed back to the English. However Dupleix proceeded apace to secure a formidable position in the Carnatic (not without the assistance of his vigorous wife and her brother M. d'Auteuil). Dupleix set up their favourite as Nizam of Hyderabad and another favourite as the Nawab of the Carnatic. The British set up a rival claimant in Mohammed Ali but, yielding to French power, he was under siege in the fortress city of Trichinopoly by 1750. Given the formal peace between England and France, the English and French made a qualified deal to minimize European casualties. A French army under the Marquis de Bussy defended Hyderabad and the Nizam ceded the province of the Northern Circars to pay for the maintenance of this army. Dupleix realised the extraordinary value of the revenues that could be made from millions of subject Indians and indeed acquired immense wealth before his recall to France.
Clive, Stringer, the Marathas and British ascendancy in the Carnatic
The first substantial territorial acquisition of the East India Company dates from this period, namely a coastal strip of land at Devicotah. Stringer Lawrence had organized the Company forces sensibly after the fashion of the British Army and is regarded as the founder of the British Army in India. The situation in southern India was critically poised: the Mughal authority was non-existent and the English and French had come to appreciate the relative ineffectiveness of indigenous Indian forces as compared to well-armed, well-trained and well-led European troops or sepoys trained and led by European officers.
A plan was devised (possibly by Clive or by others) to attack Arcot, the capital of the Carnatic, and hence relieve Mohammed Ali at Trichinopoly. Thomas Saunders, the Governor at Fort St David, permitted Clive to lead the venture. The 1,100-strong garrison defending Arcot withdrew in the face of only 200 English soldiers, 300 sepoys and 8 officers. Clive sensibly acceded to advice to concentrate on defending Arcot. A second success by Clive was a night attack on enemy forces encamped nearby but his small army was to face a mounting siege by accumulating forces involving the original defenders, 4,000 men sent north from investing Trichinopoly and 150 French soldiers from Pondicherry. With food, water and ammunition running low, the diseased and malnourished defenders were in a desperate position after a siege of 50 days. At this point a Maratha army of 6,000 men intervened and set themselves for Arcot. The Nawab's son attempted negotiation and indeed bribery and then launched an attack with his army of 10,000 men. However panicking elephants stampeded back into the attacking army, the Nawab's son withdrew (to be later executed by the Marathas), 600 French sepoys changed sides and Mysore allied itself to the British. Stringer defeated the French and their allies at Trichinopoly in 1752, Clive defeated D'Auteuil and Mohammed Ali became de facto Nawab of the Carnatic.
The French were not yet done. With De Bussy established firmly in Hyderabad, Dupleix resorted to a combination of diplomatic and military moves to restore the French position elsewhere. He was able to remove the support of Mysore and the Marathas for the British, captured 200 Swiss mercenaries travelling by ship from Madras to Fort St David and invested the latter fort. However Lawrence defeated the French forces at Fort St David and held them elsewhere. At this critical junction Dupleix was recalled to France, his replacement arriving in 1754 (noting the substantial time-lag involved in the round trip to France and metropolitan decision-making). The French East India Company was seriously concerned with the conduct of costly wars at the expense of trade and failed to accept Dupleix's assertion of the immense wealth to be made through taxation of millions of Indian farmers. Dupleix returned to France a very rich man. His successor made peace with the English (and returned the captured Swiss mercenaries). In hindsight, the French East India Company had effectively at this point thrown away the chance of creating what would surely have been (from a cultural point of view) an extraordinary French empire in India.
Bengal administration before Plassey - Murshid Quli, Shuja-ud-din, Alivardi and Siraj-ud-daulah
Before it was raped by the British, Bengal was one of the most prosperous places on the face of the earth. The immense fertility of the silt-derived soil, ample water and sunlight ensured high and consistent agricultural production. The manufacture of indigo and textiles as well as a plethora of other needs made for a very solid manufacturing as well as agrarian base for this society. The flow of money in the government revenue system was organized thus: ryot (peasant) to zamindar (local ruler responsible for law, relief, protection, river embankments, loans to ryots) to amil (revenue collector) to nawab (ruler of Bengal, who was also Diwan, or revenue raiser for the Emperor, and Nazim, or Supreme Magistrate) and finally to the Mughal Emperor (with appropriate diminutions at each stage). Revenue also entered this stream from appropriate taxation of merchants and manufacturers. This sophisticated society required banking, the Jagan Seth banking family being of major commercial and political importance. The reader is referred to an excellent account of this period by Sinha (1967). 21 This rich, well-organized society was described as one in which “the peasant was easy, the artisan encouraged, the merchant enriched and the prince satisfied” by Harry Verelst, the East India Company Governor of Bengal in 1767-1769, immediately prior to the famine that was to desolate the country and destroy one third of the population.
Murshid Quli Khan ruled a prosperous Bengal for the first few decades of the 18th century, imposing a good civil admistration while being unable to control the Afghan and other Muslim military adventurers at his court. After Shuja-ud-din, Alivardi came to power in 1740 through violent usurpation after killing the legitimate heir Sarfaraz at Giria. Alivardi had to deal with an increasingly pushy European presence as well as threats from the Marathas. He appointed his grand-nephew Siraj-ud-daulah as his successor in 1751 and in 1756 Siraj-ud-daulah (1737-1757) became the last Nawab of a Bengal free of British domination. For what was to follow you can choose between versions that align themselves more with the invaded 22 or with the glorious British invaders 23.
The British quickly resolved to dispose of Siraj-ud-daulah. The Nawab had, like his predecessor Alivardi, objected to the continuing British evasion of trading duties. The Company justification for this was a 1717 firman (or official pronouncement) from Emperor Farrukh Siyar granting the Company an exemption from such duties in exchange for a small annual fee. The Nawab insisted on some payments from the English, Dutch and French by way of affirming his right to tax such commercial activity. Nevertheless it was clear that the Company and those involved in private trade were abusing this dastak (trading permit) system and Siraj-ud-daulah was prepared to stand his ground on this quite legitimate matter. However the Nawab faced an extraordinarily difficult situation since the Afghan Ahmad Shah Abdali had invaded India in 1756, seizing Lahore in 1756 and Delhi in 1757. The Anglo-French conflict in South India and consequent conspiracies of Shah Nawaz and Nizam Ali at Hyderabad added to the strategic knife-edge. The Marathas represented a continuing threat as well and Siraj-ud-daulah, while dealing with the French, was clearly unwilling to alienate the British in such a dangerous environment. Nevertheless the British mounted plots against him in his own court that would eventually lead to his military defeat and death. The principal “traitors” were Mir Jafar, Roy Durlabh and Yar Latif with the assistance of the Jagan Seths and the merchant Omichand.
In 1755 war erupted between the French and the English in North America and in 1756 the Seven Years' War (1756-1763) commenced. With the imminence of war and the experience of the Carnatic, the Europeans looked to their defences in Bengal. However Siraj-ud-daulah demanded that such military preparations should cease. While the French acceded acceptably, the British declined to do so. Siraj-ud-daulah invested Fort William with an army of 50,000 men. The British Governor Roger Drake and the garrison commander, Captain George Minchin, attempted to hold a perimeter around the fort but the Bengali forces were simply too great against a British garrison of only 520. Evacuation of women and children to ships on the Hooghly was effected at night of the 18th and the morning of the 19th of June. While Mary Carey, the part-European wife of one of the British soldiers was not allowed to embark on the Dodaldy (despite the protestations of some European wives), 2 officers who were partners in the ship insisted on remaining on board in safety.
On the 19th of June the situation worsened: there were about 2,000 Indian women and children as well as soldiers and traders in the fort, food was short, some soldiers were mutinous and casualties were mounting. The one surgeon was engaged amputating all day. Panic over the rumor that gunpowder had run out precipitated a stampede that trampled 2 sentries. People left in a flotilla of craft. As the last boats left for the Dodaldy, Captain Minchin and other officers also fled to be joined by Governor Drake. The Dodaldy sailed downstream when Drake boarded. The chief magistrate John Zephania Holwell, while not the most senior person, took command, distributed food, treasure, liquor and gunpowder and organised resistance to enable final evacuation. In response to a message from Holwell, a Company vessel the Prince George sailed upriver but ran aground on a sandbar. Captain Young of the Dodaldy would not endanger his overloaded vessel and could not assist. The Prince George was eventually set ablaze by Bengali fire arrows.
On the 20th of June the end came in sight of the Company fleet that declined to assist with their gunnery. A truce was arranged with the Nawab but this was evidently violated by the defenders firing on the Bengalis with cannons and muskets and the attack resumed. However when some defending soldiers opened the gates in the afternoon the battle was lost. The victorious Nawab entered the fort. While there was the possibility of a settlement, discharge of a gun by a drunken European soldier in a brawl decided the Nawab to order the imprisonment of the British.
Holwell’s version of the Black Hole
According to the accounts given by Holwell (which are very likely to be grossly exaggerated but are nevertheless generally accepted by the vast majority of histories), at 8 p.m. 145 men plus Mary Carey were imprisoned in the cell known as the Black Hole that was 18 feet long and 14 feet 10 inches wide. The Black Hole rapidly became a hell of squashed bodies, excrement, urine, vomit, sweat, airlessness and thirst. People were trampled, drank their own urine out of thirst and pleaded with the guards for relief. Clothing was removed and hats waved to ameliorate the conditions but the expedient of men rising and falling on their haunches to allow air led to the trampling and suffocation of the exhausted. Holwell was in a position near a window but surrendered his position to the press. After a further spell at the window for air, drinking his own urine and sucking moisture from his shirt, Holwell returned to the interior, lay down beside Mary Carey and her dead husband and lost consciousness. The guards offered some water but nobody was prepared to rouse the sleeping Nawab. At 6 a.m. in the morning, after the unconscious Holwell was propped up for the guards to see, the 23 survivors were released. Among the dead was Captain Buchanan whose widow would later marry Warren Hastings. The survivors, including Holwell and Mary Carey, were taken to Murshidabad. Holwell gave several versions of these events and in 1758 published his final “146 in and 23 out” version. 24
The Dutch and French commanders in Bengal sensibly paid off the Nawab. The British survivors were released but the widowed Mary Carey (a 15-16 year old part-Portuguese woman) was retained in the zenana for the pleasure of the Nawab. She later fell into the hands of Siraj-ud-daulah's successor, Mir Jafar, but eventually escaped or was otherwise released 6 years later at the behest of Governor Henry Vansittart. 25
The Black Hole as a Big Lie of British History
The Black Hole made a powerful contribution to the iconography and psychopathy of British imperialism. It no doubt contributed to negative attitudes towards Indians held by the British in subsequent centuries and to the contempt for Indians of particular powerful people such as Winston Churchill. The hatred of the latter for Indians was to contribute to one of the most appalling crimes of the 20th Century and indeed of human history - the death of about 4 million Bengalis in the man-made famine of 1943-1946. 26
Over the years scepticism grew in relation to the Holwell story: Holwell’s probity was highly arguable; there were only several hundred Europeans in the settlement anyway; the dimensions of the Black Hole were inconsistent with the number of people claimed to have been incarcerated. In addition, contemporary historians, including people considered to be pro-British, evidently did not think the matter of any substance. J.H. Little in Bengal Past and Present (1915-1916) perceived inconsistencies and “blew the whistle” on the tale. 27 Einbinder (1972) also considered the evidence and concluded that the story had no substance in reality. Einbinder (1972) succintly summarized the evidence provided by Little (1916) concerning the veracity of the Black Hole story: the tale was essentially based on the words of J.Z. Holwell (a liar and a rogue), was not mentioned in a key Indian history of the time that nevertheless records other Indian atrocities against the British, was not substantiated by Clive and his colleagues and contains extraordinary inconsistencies (notably details of fellow prisoners that surely could not have been apparent in the virtually pitch-black conditions). 28
Gopal (1963b) has summarized much of this evidence and concludes that something happened but that Holwell’s account was greatly exaggerated. Gopal concludes: “One is therefore driven to the conclusion that the Black Hole was not as ghastly a tragedy as it has been made to appear”. Gopal cites better documented atrocities performed by the British on Indians during the Indian Mutiny (the Indian War of Independence) in 1857 (execution by being tied to the muzzle of cannon and being “blown away”, the public hanging of hundreds, burning of villagers, massacres of Indian civilians, bayoneting and burning alive of victims). Gopal (1963b) cites an incident on 1 August 1857 in the Amritsar district in which hundreds of sepoys were confined to a round tower. After several hundred had been taken out and shot, the survivors refused to come out. However in the morning nearly all of those remaining were found to have died from exhaustion and partial suffocation, some 45 in all. Gopal cites 49 prisoners “blown away” from guns after a revolt in Malerkotla in 1872 and a further “Black Hole” occurred as recently as 1921 when 66 out of about 70 prisoners died when confined to a scorching railway goods wagon. 29
Iris Macfarlane (1975) has made a very convincing case that the investment of Fort William by Siraj-ud-daulah was probably part of a plan to dispose of him. In essence she proposes that the sort of plot that had a dramatically successful military and financial outcome for Clive and his associates at the Battle of Plassey (1757) was set in place by Holwell and the same set of Bengali collaborators in 1756. Indeed of the 2 plots the 1756 plan would surely have been the more likely to have succeeded. That it did not can be ascribed to the confusion of the siege. The actuality of the Black Hole according to Holwell and the consequent demonizing of Siraj-ud-daulah can be very plausibly disputed, the most compelling evidence coming from the implausibility of Holwell’s changing account and the reactions of people at the time. Clive’s subsequent description of Siraj-ud-daulah as “a man of courage and humanity” is astonishingly inconsistent with the Holwell account. However it must be stated that Siraj-ud-daulah’s behaviour was manifestly noble and humane no matter the version that is accepted, for the noble Prince was asleep during the night and disposed of the survivors generously. Macfarlane (1975) concludes that there could have been no more than 64 Europeans in the Black Hole anyway, that the total number is likely to have been about 9-20 and that maybe only 2 previously wounded men died. 30
The Black Hole makes a “ripping yarn” and the highly coloured version of Barber (1966), The Black Hole of Calcutta, a Reconstruction, is entertaining reading redolent of the imperialist adventures of the Chums Own Annuals that I read as a child in Tasmania, that all-white, southern-most outpost of the British Empire. Barber’s book includes, among many such bloodthirsty descriptions, the graphic account of how Juggernath Singh, chief footman of the detained merchant Omichand, unaccountably murders 13 women and 3 children in Omichand’s compound. The victims approach in a line, the first woman tears her dress from her breasts, is stabbed in the heart and falls soundlessly to the ground. She is followed in the same fashion by the remaining 15 victims. 31 However the ugly story of 2 centuries of British Imperial global slaughter tells us that the Black Hole is more than simply a ripping yarn and may well have been for entrenched British racism what the Little Hugh of Lincoln story or the Protocols of the Elders of Zion have been for British or European anti-Semitism, respectively. The canard of Little Hugh of Lincoln being murdered by Jews for his blood arose 60 years after the death of the wonderful St Hugh, Bishop of Lincoln, who had courageously defended Jews from mobs in an era of violent anti-Semitism that resulted in pogroms and the ultimate exclusion of Jews from England. The power of such racially-specific lies has been dealt with by a number of writers, a relatively recent example being the account by Koestler (1971) of transient, anti-Semitic mass hysteria in Orleans in 1969 occasioned by the fictitious disappearance of as many as 26 women via Jewish fashion boutiques. 32
Notwithstanding the immense amount of recapitulation of the “received version” of the Back Hole, the critics are on strong ground. In the monumental work The History and Culture of the Indian People. The Maratha Supremacy, edited by Majumdar and Dighe (1977), Datta concludes: “But Holwell’s story of the “Black Hole” has been proved by modern researchers to be untrue” . 33 Even the name itself - so evocative of irresistable awfulness - is misleading since it was the name used then for a “local lock-up or temporary gaol”. 34 According to Edwardes (1977) (a qualified believer, estimating no more than 64 incarcerated): “It was an emotive name, but only the usual one given officially by the English to any garrison lock-up normally used for confining drunken soldiers, and not abandoned by the army until 1868 ... It grew, however, into one of the great imperial myths - a justification for the Victorian empire.” 35 The Victorian chronicler E.H. Nolan indeed expressed the British view of the time very well: “The whole transaction admits of no defense: it was an exemplification of Mohammedan insolence, intolerance, and cruelty ... if ever a nation had cause of war, Great Britain then had. That people would have been unworthy of an empire which did not rise to punish the author of such a crime.” 36 [ In current times the anti-Islamic fervour in the West culminating in the horrors of the Gulf War has had the same flavour. “Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel” 37 and the fantastic Allied successes in the Gulf War have masked the immense military-industrial complex profits from the affair. A heart-wrenching piece of propaganda used by the Allies was the canard of the Kuwaiti babies thrown out of humidicribs thence destined for Baghdad. Just as the Black Hole helped to obscure 2 centuries of oppression and massive human rights abuse, so Allied propaganda (some true, some false) about the undoubted, genocidal inhumanity of Saddam Hussein has helped to obscure the awful realities: the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi conscripts and the dreadful impact of war and sanctions on that half of the Iraqi population who are simply children. 38 We will later encounter passionate anti-Islamic sentiment in the writings of H.G. Wells, who managed not to notice either the 1770 or the 1943 Bengal holocausts in his Outline of History. 39 ]
Holwell could hardly have admitted to the truth of a “1756” plot given the substantial European casualties and financial cost, no more than Winston Churchill could admit to his likely fore-knowledge (not communicated to his Allies) of the indefensibility of Singapore in 1941/42 and the nature and time of the attack on Pearl Harbor by the Japanese in December 1941.40 Nor could Churchill admit to the actuality of the appalling Bengal Famine of 1943/44 in his History of the Second World War 41 while admitting as much (if not his culpability) in secret communication to Roosevelt. 42
A monument was erected in memory of the Black Hole by J.Z. Holwell after he became Governor of Fort William but by 1821 it had fallen into disrepair and was removed (the very removal of the monument suggesting an absence of substance to the tale). 43 By the middle 1880s the site was noted in carefully dimensioned paving at the entrance to a lane adjacent to the Calcutta General Post Office.44 Viceroy Lord Curzon restored the monument in 1902 with much imperial rhetoric45, notwithstanding the horrendous famine that had afflicted India at the time and the supposed shortage of money for famine relief. 46 Rabindranath Tagore subsequently made the following comment on the second Calcutta monument to the victims of the Black Hole: “A big thumb of stone, raised in the midst of a public thoroughfare, to proclaim to the heavens that exaggeration is not a monopoly of any particular race or nation”. 47 The second Black Hole monument was finally destroyed by the Bengal Provincial Government under Premier Fazl-ul-Haq in 1940. 48 However 3 years later the malignant effect of the Black Hole myth solidified into horrible reality with the conscious, sustained decisions of the war-time British authorities that permitted the Bengal Famine of 1943-44.49
Clive and the conquest of Bengal
The final disposal of Siraj-ud-daulah was now only a matter of time despite his conciliatory attitude to the British. The situation in the west with Ahmad Shah Abdali occupying Delhi forced him to send forces to Patna in Bihar under Ramnarayan. The situation in Hyderabad, the French-British conflict and British concern about Siraj-ud-daulah’s approaches to the French led to a conspiracy involving collaboration of members of his court with the British that ultimately sealed his fate as well as that of Bengal and millions of Bengalis.
Robert Clive had been appointed Governor of Fort St David and was made a Lieutenant-Colonel in the army, this enabling him to command both British Army and Company soldiers. The recapture of Calcutta was an imperative and Clive was made the Commander-in-Chief. A force of 1,000 European soldiers, about 1,000 sepoys, 5 navy men-of-war and 7 other armed vessels left for Calcutta in 1757. The naval fleet was under the command of Vice-Admiral Watson. Clive led his army in a dawn attack on the Nawab's army of 12,000 foot soldiers, 18,000 cavalry and 40 guns. The British rapidly broke through the Indian line, recaptured Fort William and accepted the Nawab's request for peace talks. The British subsequently captured Chandernagore from the French with the naval bombardment from Watson's fleet and his control of the river being a crucial aspect. Clive had entered into negotiations with Siraj-ud-daulah's uncle Mir Jafar who was one of the Nawab's key commanders and who aspired to the throne. However a Hindu merchant Omichand, who acted as an intermediary, got greedy and threatened betrayal unless he was exorbitantly recompensed. Clive drew up 2 agreements, one on white paper and countersigned by Watson that gave Omichand nothing and another on red paper that agreed to Omichand's demands. The honorable Watson refused to sign the latter but his signature was forged on the document by Henry Lushington (who was to subsequently die in the Patna Massacre in 1783). Clive set out with 2,000 European troops, 1,000 sepoys and 12 guns to meet the Nawab's army of 50,000 that included a French company as well as French gunnery officers.
The Nawab's forces formed a semi-circle about the British who had their backs to the river at the village of Plassey. The battle commenced with an artillery barrage but with the onset of rain at midday the disciplined and experienced British kept their ammunition dry whereas the Bengalis were unable to continue firing. The subsequent Bengali cavalry charge was met with artillery from the British and stampeding Indian elephants disrupted the attack. The British infantry under Eyre Coote launched a successful counter attack that became a rout when the treachery of Mir Jafar, Roy Durlabh and Yar Latif led to the critical witholding of forces. Siraj-ud-daulah fled to Murshidabad before the advancing British. Clive took Murshidabad and installed Mir Jafar as Nawab. Mary Carey was apparently retained in the zenana of the newly-installed Nawab Mir Jafar for his pleasure - she either escaped or was released some years later at the instance of the then Governor Henry Vansittart and lived to old age, dying in 1801. 50 Clive and the Company were generously rewarded by the new Nawab under the terms of the "deal". Clive himself was paid 234,000 pounds.
Siraj-ud-daulah fled for safety to Bihar with one of his wives but was captured and cut to pieces on the orders of Mir Jafar’s unpleasant son Miran. Siraj-ud-daulah was only 24 years old at the time of his death. He was the last independent ruler of Bengal until independence from Britain in 1947, nearly 2 centuries later. Despite the awfulness of the “Black Hole” story and the attendant disapprobation attaching to the Nawab, Siraj-ud-daulah is generally exonerated for culpability by historians going along with the Holwell story - the Nawab was asleep, his men dared not wake him and he treated the survivors humanely when apprised of the situation. 51 Nevertheless some unpleasant stories are told of Siraj-ud-daulah e.g. his allegedly having had pregnant women opened up to satisfy his curiosity and having his soldiers overturn boat-loads of people on the River. 52
The final defeat of the French
In 1758 the French embarked on what was to be a final push to secure an Indian empire. A force under the command of an Irish Frenchman Tom O'Lally (known as the Comte de Lally) landed in South India and captured Fort St David. With the collaboration of Bussy's forces from Hyderabad, Lally attacked Madras but was frustrated by the naval superiority of the British. Clive sent an army to occupy the Northern Circars in the absence of Bussy, defeating the French at Masulipatam. Bussy's removal to the south and the loss of the Northern Circars prompted the Nizam of Hyderabad to change sides. In 1760 Sir Eyre Coote of Plassey fame marched against Lally who was besieging Wanderwash. Coote's forces comprising 1,700 Europeans, 3,500 sepoys, 1,500 cavalry and 15 artillery pieces defeated a much larger French force of 2,500 French Army and French Company soldiers, 10,000 sepoys, 3,000 Marathas and 20 guns. In the following year Pondicherry fell to a siege, Lally again being defeated by Coote. Lally was returned to England having been taken prisoner at Pondicherry. Against advice he returned to France, was tried for alleged treason at Pondicherry and beheaded. Bussy returned to France an extremely wealthy man. The Treaty of Paris of 1763 which concluded the Seven Years' War allowed the return of Pondicherry to the French but French power was finally broken in India.
The defeat of the Marathas at Panipat by the Afghans
During the period of the Seven Years' War the British in Bengal had to contend with the Dutch and with aggression from adjoining Oudh. In 1758 the Vizier of Oudh invaded Bengal but his army was defeated at Patna. The defeat of the Dutch at Chinsura in 1759 left Bengal to the British and finally removed the Dutch from India. While the Marathas played a key role in the fluctuating fortunes of Britain and France in southern India during this period, events involving the Marathas were being played out in the Gangetic plain to the west that did not directly involve the Company but which would have some impact on subsequent Company operations in India. In the west a massive confrontation occurred between the Hindu Marathas and the Muslim forces of the Afghan invader Ahmed Shah Abdali who had conquered northern India, including Delhi. Ahmed Shah made the emperor appoint Nujib-ud-daulah prime minister and also appointed a viceroy at Lahore to rule the Punjab. Ahmed Shah retired victorious to Afghanistan but the Hindu Marathas took advantage of his absence to invade northern India. While Balaji Baji Rao, the Maratha Confederacy Peshwa (prime minister), advanced through Central India, his brother Rughanath Rao invaded the north. Rughanath Rao conquered Delhi, Lahore and finally, the Punjab. However this aggression into the previously Muslim dominated north led to an immediate reaction. Nujib-ud-daulah organized a Muslim confederacy and Ahmed Shah returned in force in the winter of 1759-1760. Ahmed Shah recaptured the Punjab, Lahore and Delhi. The Maratha Confederacy responded in kind, the Peshwa sending a huge force from Poona under his son Wiswas Deo to confront the Muslim forces. Wiswas Deo was joined by the armies of other Maratha generals and the stage was set near Delhi at Panipat for a massive battle.
The Maratha army comprised 75,000 cavalry, 15,000 infantry and 200 guns. In addition 15,000 Pindaris (freebooters) as well as banditti elements were associated with the Maratha army. Opposed to them were 28,000 Afghan cavalry as well as over 50,000 infantry and cavalry from Ahmed Shah's allies. The huge Maratha horde had initial great success against the right wing of the Muslim army and their artillery and rockets drove back the centre commanded by Ahmed Shah's Vizier. The Vizier successfully rallied his forces with reinforcements from Ahmed Shah who killed or halted fleeing soldiers and committed all his reserves to a counterattack. The counterattack was withstood for a short time by the huge Maratha army but Afghan advances and the death of the Maratha leader precipitated a collapse and a rout. The fleeing Marathas were butchered by the pursuing Afghan cavalry and indeed by the peasantry over the countryside. The Peshwa wisely deferred further engagement, his confederates having suffered such an enormous loss. Remarkably, Ahmed Shah did not capitalize on this immense victory that was the outcome of one of the greatest battles ever between Hindu and Muslim forces in India: he simply returned home to Afghanistan with his booty, leaving a Muslim-ruled region that would be eventually brought under British domination and thence subjection in the succeeding decades.
Mir Jafar, puppet Nawab of the British
In Bengal Clive appointed the young Warren Hastings as the Company representative at Mir Jafar's court at Murshidabad. The new régime faced problems with threats of Shah Allam to Bihar and rebellions in Midnapore and Patna involving connections of the late Siraj-ud-daulah. Mir Jafar objected to Ramnarayan, ruler of Bihar, but Clive thought it politic to keep friendly with the latter. In 1760 Clive returned home an extremely wealthy man. He was reputed to be the richest man in England. The British position was very strong with the French finally excluded from Bengal and the Bengalis incapable of mounting a serious threat against the British again. Back in Bengal Holwell took over as Acting Governor of Calcutta, to be succeeded in turn by Henry Vansittart. Holwell’s view was that the Company should take over Diwani or imperial revenue collection. Although Clive had rejected an offer of this from Shah Allam before he left, this became a reality by 1765. Conversely, Clive had made suggestions to London that with 2,000 European soldiers he could conquer India but such conquest was not to be completed for some decades yet. With the example of Clive before them, the other men of the Company cashed in on the circumstances. They were law unto themselves and were not subject to the taxation or jurisdiction of the Nawab or his officers, from whom they exacted substantial contributions. They could compete unfairly with Bengali traders and merchants who were subject to both indigenous and British authority. The outstanding "debt" of the Nawab to the Company had to be paid off.
Mir Jafar was essentially a British puppet but had the trappings of power that was an irritant to the British. His son Miran had definite dislikes including Roy Durlab who was eventually removed with reluctant British assent. A young son of Siraj-ud-daulah disappeared, others from the previous regime were imprisoned and 2 Begums were thrown into the river with weights attached to their legs, their hands beaten as they clawed at the gunwhale. Miran was disliked and distrusted by the British (which is possibly why he has got such a poor press) and one suspects that he reciprocated the sentiment and dreamed of freedom from the British. He was involved in all kinds of sorties with the British General Caillaud involving strategic positioning against the Dutch, the French, Oudh and the residual Mughal Empire. Miran was supposedly (and most implausibly) struck by lightning while in his tent, an event that has given rise to considerable speculation since that he was murdered by Caillaud or other Englishmen. 53 With Miran dead and the army restless for payment, Governor Henry Vansittart was finally moved to persuade Mir Jafar to step down and go to Calcutta. He was replaced by his son-in-law Mir Kasim.
Mir Kasim’s revolt and the Patna Massacre
The impetus for the changeover to Mir Kasim appears to have been mercenary, the responsible Company officers gaining financially from Mir Kasim in the same way that Clive had benefited from Mir Jafar. The "deal" in this case involved huge payments to the Company for the revolution, including transfer of particular districts to the Company, and, most significantly, the transfer of Bengali land to the Company to pay for the upkeep of Company forces. However Mir Kasim was a relatively responsible leader and attempted some reforms to assist indigenous commerce. The British had a monopoly of external trade with Europe and also profited immensely from an exemption from taxes on internal trade in Bengal. The dealings of the British through their gomastahs (agents) could be exploitataive and violent. These exclusive trading rights were of course very damaging for Bengali merchants and manufacturers. Mir Kasim abolished taxes on trade in order to restore indigenous competitiveness with respect to the Europeans. Governor Henry Vansittart and his friend Warren Hastings had some sympathy for Mir Kasim but the overwhelming greed of the majority of Company men overcame their sensible scruples.
Armed conflict arose out of these pressures. Ellis, the chief of the Patna factory, took violent action to avert the intervention of the soldiers of Mir Kasim bent on enforcing the Nawab's residual authority. Ellis and his men were captured by the Nawab's soldiers as they were looting Patna, but the Bengalis in turn were overcome by a Company force. Mir Kasim massacred their Bengali prisoners including Ramnarayan and the Seths. After threatening that further British advance would precipitate massacre of his British prisoners, Mir Kasim carried out his threat with the infamous Patna massacre of Ellis, Lushington and about 50 other British captives as well as many other prisoners. The outrageous Patna massacre of several hundred prisoners (supervised by a ruthless European mercenary, an Alsatian Walter Reinhard known as Samroo) 54 did not achieve the notoriety of the “Black Hole” event in the absence of a good publicist. Adams, who recaptured Patna, would have been well-advised to have backed off and secured the release of his fellow Englishmen. 55 [By a strange conjunction of events, my wife’s paternal grandfather (dada) Kasim came from within several kilometers of the Black Hole of Calcutta and her paternal grandmother (dadi) Bedami was from a village near Patna. Kasim, a Muslim, and Bedami, a Hindu, both left Calcutta on the Ganges in 1913 for temporary slavery in the sugar cane plantations of Fiji.]
Mir Kasim was pushed out of his position by the Council in 1763 and Mir Jafar was restored to his nominal position as Nawab for a second term from 1763-1765. Mir Kasim fled to neighbouring Oudh and was succoured by the Nawab of Oudh to whom the Mughal Emperor Shah Allam had also fled from Delhi after its capture by the Marathas. The Nawab of Oudh, Shuja-ud-daulah, and the deposed Nawab of Bengal, Mir Kasim, invaded Bengal in 1764 but were met by a numerically inferior but better equipped and trained British force under Major Hector Munro at Buxar on the Ganges. Major Munro disposed of a sepoy mutiny by “blowing away” mutineers from cannons 56 and then proceeded to dispose of the enemy “without”. A component of the Mughal army was sacrificed to the pursuing Company forces to allow for the destruction of a bridge of boats that allowed the major part of the army and the 2 Nawabs to escape. Major Munro was angered by this eventuality because he had lost the opportunity to seize the jewels of the Nawabs. This victory firmly established the authority of the British over Bengal, giving them effective control over neighbouring Oudh, Bihar and Orissa as well as substantially intruding into the affairs of the Mughal Emperor.
Mir Kasim assumed the existence of a refugee who represented a formal but actually insubstantial threat to the British in Bengal. He died in Shahjahanabad in 1777, the last Nawab of Bengal to have led an army against the British invaders. Mir Kasim’s puppet Nawab successors included the restored Mir Jafar (1763-1765 in addition to his 1757-1760 period), Najm-ud-daulah (1765-1766), Saif-ud-daulah (1766-1770) and Mubarak-ud-daulah (1770-1793).
Clive and the Bengal Settlement of 1765
Clive returned to India in 1765 as the Governor of the Calcutta Presidency and set about straightening things out with characteristic energy. A treaty with Oudh allowed the Nawab a form of independence although a small part of his territory was hived off and given to the Mughal Emperor. The Treaty of Allahabad with the Mughal Emperor restored his nominal authority over the areas controlled by the Company. In return the Emperor gave the company the power of Dewani (the authority to collect revenue) in Bengal. The Nawab was theoretically in charge of the civil administration of Bengal but the Company was charged with collecting taxes. A proportion of such taxes would go to the Emperor, a further sum to the Nawab and the rest was to be retained by the Company. In the event Clive allowed the "native" government to collect taxes. This "native" administration was headed by Mohammed Reza Khan, the chief minister of the very young Nawab Najm-ud-daulah appointed by the Company after the victory at Buxar. Mohammed Reza Khan was a very effective administrator and tried to meet the financial obligations placed upon him by the Company.
The period from 1760-1765 has been described by Sir Alfred Lyell as "the only period of Anglo-Indian history which throws grave and unpardonable discredit on the English name”. 57 More discreditable times were yet to come and Clive's reforms did not eat too severely into the profitability of his subordinates although they certainly were not popular. The junior Company men felt some indignation`that Company servants were excluded from private trading except for senior employees who were permitted to trade in salt. A mutiny among the military officers who had suffered a loss of some commercial outlets was snuffed out.
Clive returned home in 1767 to face a lot of inquiry into his wealth from his enemies and the envious. While the House of Commons formally asserted in a motion that Clive had made 250,000 pounds in Bengal during his first stint as Governor, it also passed a motion stating that "Robert, Lord Clive, did at the same time render great and meritorious service to his country". Clive died in 1774 at his own hand, probably from stabbing himself with a penknife in a water-closet after having used it to sharpen the quill of a lady. 58 However he was suffering from depression and pain from illness and an alternative story (possibly deriving from friends or family) was that he died of a laudanum (opium) overdose. 59
Between Clive's departure in 1767 and the arrival of Warren Hastings in 1772, Bengal was formally governed by Verelst and then by Cartier. As we will document in Chapter 10, it is a period that is remarkably skirted in most British histories and indeed completely ignored by some 60 - and for good reason. A time of exceptionally cruel taxation of the Bengalis by the British, it was also a period that includes the disastrous famine that swept away 10 million people, one third of the total population, perhaps the most horrendous single decimation in the history of mankind. It has nevertheless been treated minimally by most historians 61 although a small set of historians have been moved by the enormity of the disaster. 62 We will deal with this period in some detail because, while supposedly having little impact on formally recognized British "history" as displayed by British historiography, it certainly had an immense impact on Bengal for the next half century as detailed by Hunter (1871). It also had a significant impact on Adam Smith, the "father" of modern economics, who deals with this Bengal famine and its causes in his seminal book An Inquiry into the Wealth of Nations. 63 The immense wealth extracted from Bengal provided capital for the British Industrial Revolution. This in turn would drive further British conquest and incidentally decimate the Bengal textile industry that had helped to fuel the expansion of the Company in the 18th century. 64
The “Black Hole”, something that may have been no more than an exaggerated concoction, has been of vastly greater concern to British historians than the British-exacerbated famine that killed 10 million Bengalis in 1769-1770 and crippled a populous and sophisticated society. The Black Hole is typically treated with precise and indignant detail but the Great Bengal Famine, when rarely alluded to, is dismissed in a dozen words. Dodwell (1963b) castigates J.H. Little (1916) for his disposal of the “Black Hole” with a confident, patronising academic pomposity: “Altogether the controversy seems to have arisen from the perplexities of a student unaccustomed to the conflicts of evidence which the historian has perpetually to encounter.” 65 Honi soit qui mal y pense. In Dodwell (1963a), The Cambridge History of India, the relevant chapter by Dodwell manages to completely ignore the Great Bengal Famine of 1769-1770. 66