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, 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.

Primary Text:

John Zephaniah Holwell: A Genuine Narrative of the Deplorable Deaths of the English Gentlemen and others who were suffocated in the Black Hole: London, 1758.