Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Holwell Monument

The Black Hole of Calcutta was the British Raj's first chamber of horrors. It served as a pretext and justification for conquest and violence in India. As Nirod Choudhuri said " it threw a moral halo over the British conquest of India." Perhaps because of this reason, it continues to attract Britons to write books about it. It is significant that in the last three decades to Indian historian or writer has been tempted to write on the event. The book under review is by a journalist with the Financial Times. The revival of interest took place in the hands of two great paladins of the British empire. One was Lord Macaulay, who in 1840 described it as "that great crime memorable for its singular atrocity. " The other was Lord Curzon, who restored the monument after he was moved by the "moral agony of the Black Hole"   Dalley follows the myth-making, but also gives details about the battle for Calcutta in 1756 when Siraj attacked the place.
For many years, it stood close to Laldighi (later known as Dahousie Square and then BBD Bagh,through burst of post-colonial myth-making) an  obelisk to commemorate the victims of the Black Hole. It was erected by Holwell himself at his own expense and thus known as Holwell Monument,Newspapers in Britain in 1758 carried extracts from his recollections of captivity, but then the report died down. No new edition of his account appeared. Most contemporaries of Holwell, the British historian, Linda Colley notes,did not accept Holwell's velification of Siraj ud-Daulah.
The history of the Black Hole monument in the early 19th century is significant. It was allowed to fall into ruin, and in 1821, under the orders of the Marquis of Hastings, Lord Moira, the then Governor general, it was taken down. Before it was brought down , Cotton records in Calcutta old and new , the obelisk, the monument to British suffering, had become a godown or waterhouse and was filled with goods.
The Black Hole made a dramatic reappearence when Thomas Babington Macaulay in 1840 descrribed it as that crime memorable for its singular atrocity Lord Curzon, at the begining of the 20th century restored the crumbling Holwell Monument, and erected in 1901 at the corner of Dalhousie Square, which was said to be the Black Hole.
At the apex of the Indian Independence movement, the presence of this monument in Calcutta was turned into nationalist course celebre. Nationalist leaders like Subhas Chandra Bose lobbied energetically for its removal. As a result, Abdul Wasek Mia of   Nawabganj thana (now in Bangladesh), a student leader of that time, led the removal of the monument from Dalhousie Square in July, 1940. The monument was re-ercted in the graveyard of St. John's Church, where it remains even today.