Freda Bedi Cont'd (#3)

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Part 3 of 6

Full Proceedings of the Black Hole Debate
Bengal, Past & Present
Journal of the Calcutta Historical Society
Vol. XII
Jan. - June, 1916
Serial Nos. 23-24


A special meeting of the Calcutta Historical Society was held on the 24th March 1916, at 9 P.M. in the hall of the Asiatic Society of Bengal to have a discussion on the Black Hole Question. The Venerable Archdeacon, W. K. Firminger, M.A., BD. presided.

Walter Kelly Firminger (28 September 1870 - 1940) was archdeacon of Calcutta and a historian of India who was the first editor of Bengal, Past & Present, the journal of Calcutta Historical Society. He was a fellow of the Royal Geographical Society....

Firminger was ordained deacon at Hereford in 1893. He served as a UMCA missionary in Zanzibar from 1893 to 1897 and was subdean in 1896. He was a curate in Margate from 1897 to 1898. He had clerical appointments in India from 1899 to 1923 being Archdeacon of Calcutta from 1914 to 1923. He was editor of the Indian Churchman from 1900 to 1905. He was Vicar of Padbury, Bucks from 1923 to 1926. He was Chaplain to the King at Hampton Court Palace from 1926 until he died in 1940. B.Litt. and D.D.

-- Walter K. Firminger, by Wikipedia

Mr. J.H. Little, who started the controversy in the pages of Bengal Past & Present, opened the debate:--


I shall place before you all the contemporary evidence we have in favour of the Black Hole story; I shall show that this evidence is neither great in quantity nor trustworthy in character; then I shall give you three good reasons for rejecting the evidence which are quite independent of its unsatisfactory character. I have assumed that you have read my article in the Society’s Journal and have omitted as much of that as I could.

Take any historian you please who has written on the subject and you will find that he has derived his information, directly or indirectly, from Holwell’s Narrative or from Cooke’s Evidence before the Committee of the House of Commons or from both. These are the two primary authorities for the story. I have dealt at length with Holwell's Narrative in Bengal Past & Present and I need not go over the ground again, but there is one point in connection with the Narrative which I have not treated in an adequate manner, and another which I have not mentioned at all. The former point is this. Holwell’s Narrative is essentially different from the original story he told. He has omitted, he has altered, he has added. The main outlines of the story concocted in Calcutta before the prisoners were dispersed will be found in a letter written by Francis Sykes at Cossimbazar on the 8th July, 1756. Sykes gives the purport of a letter which Holwell, who had just passed Cossimbazar on his way to Murshidabad, wrote to the Englishmen who were there and he informs us that Holwell made the following startling statement:— “all the night our poor gentlemen were in the Black Hole the Nabob’s people kept firing at them through the door.” Nor have we any reason to suppose that Sykes reported Holwell incorrectly for the same story was current at Fulta. Captain Grant wrote on the 13th July:—"Some of those who give us the account say that they fired upon them all night with small arms through the doors and windows, but this is contradicted by others." The Fulta story, too, sprang up quite independently of Sykes’ letter for even assuming that his letter was sent direct to Fulta, and we do not know that it was sent there at all, it could not have reached Fulta before the 13th, the day on which Captain Grant wrote his account. The Consultations at Fulta given in Long’s Unpublished Records of Government inform us that a letter of Warren Hastings’ from Cossimbazar dated the 3rd October was received at Fulta on the 8th. In July it would probably have taken longer. Why was this part of the story discarded? The reason is to be found in a letter written at Chandernagore on the 3rd July which relates that the two first days after the capture of the fort “passed in licence and all the disorders of a place taken by assault, with the exception of massacre to which the Moors are not accustomed in regard to people disarmed." This incident, then, was a fatal flaw in their story. People would say, perhaps they did say, “the Muhammadans of Bengal do not do such things.” I think we have evidence, too, of how this incident was explained away. M. Law in his account of the tragedy has these words:--“The most bitter insults were employed to excite the rage of the Moors and persuade the guard to fire on the prisoners. One of the latter, seeing a pistol in the belt of a companion, seized it and fired on the Moors who were passing the window. The pistol had only powder in it, but the guards were so frightened that immediately several guns were thrust through the bars and fired several times. This was exactly what the wretched prisoners wanted. Every shot was a coup-de-grace which they strove with each other to obtain for themselves.” No one else relates this incident. Unless Law is retailing idle rumour, this is how Holwell explained away his former statement when he returned to Cossimbazar on the 19th July. In August Holwell amended his statement still further. He said the guards “ceased not insulting us the whole night.” In his Narrative it was the prisoners who insulted the guards to provoke them to fire upon them and put an end to their misery. Holwell also made important additions to his original story. On the 3rd August he made lists of the victims and survivors of the tragedy and those two lists were, he declared, deficient in nothing. They contain the names neither of Leech nor of Mrs. Carey. Yet in the Narrative we have a pretty story about Leech and the statement that Mrs. Carey accompanied her husband into the prison.

The second point to which I referred is this. Hardly had Holwell put his Narrative together than, in the most deliberate manner, he knocked it to pieces again. He wrote the Narrative on his voyage home in the early part of 1757.
In August he was in London and while there replied to a letter written by William Watts, chief of the factory at Cossimbazar. The letter of Watts was, in turn, a reply to a letter of Holwell’s. Watts complained of Holwell’s “laboured endeavours through five sheets of paper" to set his conduct in the worst possible light and pointed out that Holwell, when he surrendered Fort William, had five times the number of men that he had had at Cossimbazar. To this Holwell replied:—“Had not Mr. Watts been guided more by malice than truth in this and his subsequent interrogatories, he would, from the letter he is answering, have found the number left in the Factory did not exceed 170; that of these we had 25 killed and 70 wounded by noon, the 20th, and that every man who survived was exhausted of strength and vigour." The number of prisoners in the Black Hole was 146; but 25 from 170 leaves 145 and when we make further deductions for the deserters and those who escaped when the fort was taken [“I did not advise that the guard there and a great part of the garrison, military and militia rushed out the moment the gate was opened and endeavoured to escape; many were killed, some escaped and others received quarter." Holwell’s Letter of 3rd August, 1756.] Holwell’s Narrative is clearly absurd. But it may be asked; Were there any non-combatants in the fort? I have not been able to find a trace of any except women and children and these were allowed in the fort because their men folk refused to fight unless they were admitted. Is Holwell, regardless of consequences, trying to score a victory over Watts? He is careful to point out that he made this particular statement in the letter to which Watts was replying. Did Holwell include all the defenders of the fort? In the previous letter he had declared that the number included “officers, volunteers, soldiers and militia”; that is, every class of men in the fort. Then Holwell is deliberately overthrowing his Narrative.

Cooke’s Evidence was given in 1772 when Holwell’s story had established itself. He states that nearly 150 souls were thrust into the dungeon among whom were one woman and twelve of the wounded officers. Picture the scene of 150 people being crammed into a room which would hardly hold them and then compare the picture of your imagination with the reality as described by Cooke. He says:—“The circumstances of the Black Hole affair, with all the horrors of that night, are so well known, and so much surpass any description that words can paint it in that I shall say no more upon that subject than that a little before eight we were all of us directed to withdraw and remain in a place contiguous to the Black Hole (where our soldiers were usually confined in the stocks). While we were wondering what this should mean and laughing at the oddity of it, a party of fellows came and ordered us to walk into the place before mentioned called the Black Hole, a room or rather dungeon, about 18 feet long and 14 wide, with only two holes, barricaded with iron bars, to let in air, which opened into a low piazza, where a guard was set. Into this hole we were forcibly crammed about eight o'clock in the evening, and the door immediately locked upon us.” How simple it all was. One might almost believe those men wished to be shut up. I think, however, there would be no reason to find fault with these words were it not for the figures which follow them. For what he is really describing is how a very few men quietly walked into the prison and were locked up for the night and I shall endeavour to prove that this was the case with John Cooke as my chief witness.

I must first put you in possession of certain facts. Who were the men shut up in the Black Hole prison? They were the defenders of the fort. Then who were these defenders? There were the military who before the Nawab attacked Calcutta numbered 180. Of these 45 were Europeans. The rest, we are told, were black Portuguese. In one list they are called topazes and Holwell’s definition of a topaz is “a black Christian soldier; usually termed subjects of Portugal." There were 50 European volunteers. There were 60 European militia and 150 militia consisting of Armenians and Portuguese. There were 35 European artillery men and 40 volunteers consisting of sea-officers and Portuguese helmsmen. The figures are those of Governor Drake who had the rolls in his possession. The Europeans consisted of British and Dutch and it is necessary for me to estimate the number of the Dutch. At first sight it seems strange to find any Dutch at all among the defenders of the fort for the Dutch authorities, before the Nawab attacked Calcutta, absolutely refused to help the English in any way and after the capture of Calcutta they refused to supply them with food and other necessaries. The mystery is cleared up by Governor Drake who says they were deserters from Dutch ships [“We could have but few Europeans and those deserters from the Dutch ships, the remainder country-born Portugueze wedded to a place of tranquillity.” Drake's Narrative.] and the word matross is used in connection with them which, according to Mr. Hill, means a sailor and almost all the artillery men were sailors. The number of Dutch, then, could hardly have been very great. According to Drake’s list the total number of Europeans was 230. You will find the names of 194 of them in the list I gave in the Society’s Journal. The remaining 36 were Dutch. The prisoners in the Black Hole, then, necessarily consisted of British, Dutch, Armenians and Portuguese. This is confirmed by the various accounts of the tragedy we have. One account says 200 Europeans, Portugese and Armenians were shut up. Holwell heads his list of victims thus:—“A list of those smother’d in the Black Hole, the 20th June, 1756, exclusive of the English, Dutch, and Portuguese soldiers, whose names I am unacquainted with.”

Now I can return to Cooke and his evidence. Before the Nawab left the fort on the evening of the 20th and two hours before the prisoners were put in the Black Hole Cooke asserts that “the Armenians and Portuguese were at liberty, and suffered to go to their own houses.” Mr. Hill endorses this and states in his Introduction, “the Portuguese and Armenians were allowed to go free and disappeared.” If they disappeared, if they went to their own houses, they were not put into the Black Hole. With regard to the Dutch Cooke relates that a “Dutchman of the Artillery Company broke open the back door of the Factory, and with many others attempted to make their escape that way.” Perhaps we ought not to assume that the “many others” were all Dutch but no doubt a part of them were. Holwell asserts that these men broke open the gate with the aid of friends who had deserted the night before and Mr. Hill, following other authorities, relates that on that night, “a corporal and fifty-six soldiers, chiefly Dutch, deserted to the enemy.” I think the number is exaggerated but this, at least, seems clear that a party of Dutch deserted on the 19th and another party broke out of the fort on the 20th. There were only 36 to begin with so that even assuming that none left the fort with the Governor and that none were killed in the fighting, the number of Dutch who remained to go into the Black Hole was negligible. Only the British are left. On the 19th, says Cooke, a prodigious number of the garrison was killed and wounded and we may assume that a fair proportion were British. On the 20th all the attacks of the besiegers were beaten off with great loss to them, but as far as we can learn from Cooke with no loss to the defenders. If, however, you will accept provisionally my statement that most of the British were killed in the fighting, then you will be able to discern at once that very small band of men who walked quietly into the Black Hole prison in the manner so truthfully described by Mr. Secretary Cooke.

In addition to those of Holwell and Cooke we have the accounts of two other so-called survivors. One of these was Captain Mills who states that 144 men, women and children were shut up in the prison. The addition of women and children may have been careless exaggeration on the part of Mills, but I suggest that he made the statement deliberately knowing full well that it was impossible to find such a number of men and that those were the only possible conditions under which the tragedy could have occurred.

We do not know who the fourth survivor was, but the letter he wrote came home in one of the India ships and appeared in the London Chronicle in June 1757. From a list appended to this letter we find that nine men who were supposed to have died in the Black Hole were killed in the fighting and we also learn that Captain Mills was not in the Black Hole at all. This, then, is what we find about the evidence of the four chief witnesses:—two of them overthrow their own stories. The remaining two contradict the two former and also contradict each other.

Now I will deal with the secondary authorities for the story. First in order come the men who took part in the defence of Calcutta or who were in Bengal at the time. Their accounts which are all very short were, with one exception, written in the month of July. Captain Grant referred to the tragedy on the 13th, Watts and Collet on the 14th, Governor Drake on the 19th and William Lindsay’s letter is merely dated July. Then in November William Tooke wrote a narrative of the loss of Calcutta and mentioned the tragedy in it. All these accounts agree in one respect. They contain the true story side by side with the false and we must choose which of the two we will accept. By September, 1756, Governor Drake, Watts and Collet had made their choice and it was the Black Hole story they rejected.

In December the Madras expedition, with Admiral Watson and Colonel Clive in command, arrived in Bengal. I shall now ask you to consider what these two men had to say on the subject and I will take Admiral Watson first. On the 17th December, 1756, he wrote to the Nawab as follows:—“The King my master (whose name is revered among the monarchs of the world) sent me to these parts with a great fleet to protect the East India Company’s trade, rights and privileges. The advantages resulting to the Mogul’s dominions from the extensive commerce carried on by my master’s subjects are too apparent to need enumerating. How great was my surprise therefore to be informed that you had marched against the said Company’s factories with a large army, and forcibly expelled their servants, seized and plundered their effects, amounting to a large sum of money, and killed great numbers of the King my master‘s subjects." There is nothing here about the Black Hole. On the 3rd January 1757, Admiral Watson declared war on the Nawab in the following terms:— "Whereas the President and Council for the affairs of the United Company of Merchants trading to the East Indies in Bengall have represented to me, that in consequence of the many hostilities and acts of violence committed against the servants of the said Company, His Majesty’s subjects, by the Subah of Bengal, Bahar and Orixa, and his officers to the great detriment of the Company, the ruin of many private people His Majesty's good subjects residing under their protection, many of whom have also been deprived of their live: in the most barbarous and inhuman manner,” and so forth. “Many of whom have also been deprived of their lives in the most barbarous and inhuman manner.” Do these words refer to the Black Hole tragedy? If so, it is strange that Admiral Watson was not more explicit. We should not expect to find such reticence in a declaration of war. We should not expect it from Admiral Watson at any time, for he was in the habit of using terribly plain language. I will give you two examples of this. On the 27th January he wrote to the Nawab:—“Your letter of the 23rd day of this month I have this day received. It has given me the greatest pleasure, as it informs me you had written to me before, a circumstance I am glad to be assured of under your hand, as the not answering my letter would have been such an affront as I could not have put up with without incurring the displeasure of the King my master.” Again on the 4th March he wrote to the Nawab in this strain:—“It is now time to speak plain, if you are really desirous of preserving your country in peace and your subjects from misery and ruin, in ten days from the date of this, fulfil your part of the treaty in every Article, that I may not have the least cause of complaint; otherwise, remember, you must answer for the consequences: and as I have always acted the open, unreserved part in all my dealings with you, I now acquaint you that the remainder of the troops which should have been here long since...will be at Calcutta in a few days; that in a few days more I shall dispatch a vessel for more ships and more troops: and that I will kindle such a flame in your country, as all the water in the Ganges shall not be able to extinguish. Farewel: remember that he promises you this, who never yet broke his word with you or with any man whatsoever."

It is the fashion to say that the Nawab was innocent in the matter of the Black Hole murders. Those who say this are merely repeating the statements of Holwell and Cooke, and this is but another instance of how they made truth serve the ends of falsehood. Those who use the argument have still to explain how the officers of the Nawab dared to disregard his known wishes with regard to the prisoners. The officers of the present Nawab Bahadur of Murshidabad would not dare to act in such a manner. But assuming that the Nawab had no direct responsibility for the crime could Admiral Watson have written to him in the following manner if he had not disavowed it and punished the guilty? “I call upon the Almighty,” wrote the Admiral, “whom we both worship, to bear witness against me and punish me, if I ever fail in observing to the utmost of my power every part of the treaty, concluded between yourself and the English nation, so long as you shall faithfully observe your part, which I make no doubt will be as long as you have life. What can I add more but my wishes, that your life may be long and crowned with all manner of prosperity?"

As a matter of fact I claim Admiral Watson as a witness on my side. He is not referring to the Black Hole tragedy at all but to the men who were killed at the time of the capture of the fort. He knew those men had been killed after the fort had been formally surrendered by its governor and put the worst construction on this. I have no doubt he learned subsequently that the slaughter had been a terrible mistake and had been stopped by the Nawab himself. If you are inclined to doubt this I will remove your doubt by showing that Mr. Pigot, Governor of Madras, used almost the same words as Admiral Watson—they are precisely similar in meaning— and plainly said he was referring to something that happened before the Nawab entered the fort. On the 14th October, 1756, he wrote to the Nawab:—“I received the letter you was pleased to write me on the 30th June advising me that it was not your intention to remove the mercantile business of the English Company out of the subah of Bengal, and at the same time I received information that all the Company's factories in the said province with their effects, amounting to several kerows had been seized by your people, also the effects of all the merchants who resided in the said settlements amounting to a great many lacks more, and I was further informed that the greatest part of the merchants were killed by your people in a cruel and barbarous manner beyond what can be described in writing." After relating how the English had enriched the province, how the Emperor had granted them certain privileges and how they had been treated by the Nawabs of Bengal he goes on “all that the Subahs, your predecessors, have done is nothing in comparison to what you have lately done. I should have been willing to have believed that the violence and cruelties exercised by your army against the English was without your knowledge but I find you commanded your army in person and after killing and murdering our people took possession of the Fort. The great commander of the King of England's ships has not slept in peace since this news and is come down with many ships, and I have sent a great Sardar, who will govern after me, by name Colonel Clive, with troops and land forces. Full satisfaction and restitution must be made for the losses we have sustained. You are wise: consider whether it is better to engage in a war that will never end or to do what is just and right in the sight of God: a great name is obtained by justice as well as by valour.” Were all the English in India of the tribe of Chadband?

Credit Charles Dickens for creating Rev. Mr. Chadband, a greedy preacher, in his 1853 novel “Bleak House”; hence, a chadband is an oily, hypocritical person.

-- Put on your Mae West, but try to avoid being a Chadband, by Bill & Rich Sones

I pass now to Clive and will first give you extracts from the family papers of the Earl of Powis. I had no difficulty whatever in obtaining these. The papers have been examined twice—first by Sir John Malcolm whose life of Clive was published in 1836 and recently they were examined again by Mr. Hill. The extracts I shall give were taken from Malcolm’s Life of Clive and Mr. Hill certifies they have been copied from the papers at Walcot. Before Clive left Madras he wrote to the Directors thus:—“From many hands you will hear of the capture of Calcutta by the Moors, and the chain of misfortune and losses which have happened to the Company in particular, and to the nation in general: every breast here seems filled with grief, horror, and resentment: indeed, it is too sad a tale to unfold, and I must beg leave to refer you to the general letters, consultations, and committees which will give you a full account of this catastrophe.” Apart from any Black Hole affair is this more than Clive should have said of the loss of the Company’s most flourishing settlement in India attended with the deaths of a great number of men and the infliction of great suffering and privation on the survivors? Writing to Mr. Mabbot he observes:—“Providence, who is the disposer of all events, has thought proper to inflict the greatest calamity that ever happened to the English nation in these parts; I mean the loss of Calcutta, attended with the greatest mortifications to the Company, and the most barbarous and cruel circumstances to the poor inhabitants.” In a letter to Mr. Roger Drake a gentleman then high in the Court of Directors, Clive writes, “A few weeks ago I was happily seated at St. Davids’s, pleased with the thoughts of obtaining your confidence and esteem, by my application to the civil branch of the Company’s affairs, and of improving and increasing the investment; but the fatal blow given to the Company’s estate at Bengal has superseded all other considerations, and I am now at this presidency upon the point of embarking on Buard His Majesty’s squadron, with a very considerable body of troops, to attempt the recovery of Calcutta and to gain satisfaction from the Nawab for the losses which the Company have sustained in those parts." In a letter to his father he wrote:—“It is not possible to describe the distresses of the inhabitants of this once opulent and populous town. It must be many years before it is restored to its former grandeur. It is computed the private losses amount to upwards of two millions sterling." In an earlier letter also Clive did not think it worth while to mention the Black Hole story to his father. Mr. Hill gives us another letter written by Clive to his father in which after describing his attack on the Nawab’s army early in February, 1757, he writes “This blow has obliged the Nawab to decamp and to conclude a peace very honorable and advantageous to the Company’s affairs." The day before Clive had written to the Secret Committee, London:—“I have little to observe on the terms obtained from the Nabob except that they are both honourable and advantageous for the Company." A British historian declares that no sufficient apology can be found for that treaty. “Peace was desirable,” he adds, “but even peace is bought too dearly when the sacrifice of national honour is the price.” The explanation is very simple. The historian was thinking of the Black Hole affair, Clive was not.

I will now give a different series of utterances by Clive which are not to be found in the family papers, but among the Orme Mss. Writing to the Nawab in December, 1756, he refers to “great numbers of the Company’s servants and other inhabitants inhumanly killed.” However, if the Nawab would make proper satisfaction for the losses sustained by the Company he would make Clive his sincere friend and get eternal honour for himself. On the 21st January, 1757, Clive wrote to Jagat Seth and clearly referred to the Black Hole incident:—“It would be unfolding a tale too horrible to repeat if I was to relate to you the horrid cruelties and barbarities inflicted upon an unfortunate people to whom the Nabob in a great part owes the riches and grandeur of his province. No less than 120 people, the greatest part of them gentlemen of family and distinction being put to an ignominious death in one night and in such a manner as was quite inconsistent with the character of a man of courage or humanity, such as I have always heard the Nabab represented to be, and for this reason I believe it must have been done without his knowledge.” After the battle of Plassey and when Siraj-ud-daula was dead Clive wrote a different version to the Emperor Alamgir Sani. Then he said. “The English, who as merchants were destitute of all implements of war, were easily defeated and Surajah Dowlat took and plundered Calcutta the 20th June 1756 and all the great men and other Englishmen that fell into his hands were by his orders suffocated in one night." Comment is needless. It must be remembered, however, that the standard of honour in the 18th century was not very high where politics were concerned. Twenty years had hardly passed since

Walpole talked of ‘a man and his price’;
Nobody’s virtue was over-nice.

Clive would have scorned to do for his own private benefit what he thought he was justified in doing for the good of the Company.

I have next to deal with the French and Dutch accounts of the capture of Calcutta. I will take the Dutch accounts first. The extracts I shall give were obtained by Mr. Hill from the archives at the Hague. On the 5th July the Dutch Council at Hugli wrote to the Supreme Council at Batavia thus:—“The whole world thought and expected that the Nawab would have knocked his head against such a strong place, but time has shown that the English defended themselves for three days only. A part of them fled in their ships down the river, and the rest, who did not perish by the sword, have fallen into the Nawab’s hands, and are bound in irons." We know that only four men were bound in irons. Therefore, according to this account the rest perished by the sword. It may be that this account absolutely accurate. In any case the error is a very trifling one. There were probably one or two prisoners who were not put in irons. The next account is that of the chief of the Dutch factory at Cossimbazar and is dated the 7th July, 1756. It runs thus:—“The Nawab in accordance with our letter of the 10th ultimo having left for Calcutta and arrived there on the evening of the 15th, has met with the same success as here; for after a five days’ investment he took the same, but, according to the testimony of everyone not by his tactful management or bravery, but rather owing to the ill-behaviour of the Governor Drake, who taking a good 200 picked soldiers with him left the fort, on pretext of attacking the enemy, but far from doing so, he embarked with those men, accompanied by the Commandants Messrs. Manningham and Frankland, after putting considerable treasure and all the women on board a few days before and dropped down the river leaving to the fury of the Nawab a number of brave men, among whom, when the fort was taken, a great carnage was wrought, but soon after put a stop to by the Prince." On the 24th November the Dutch Council at Hugli sent a reasonable account of the Black Hole tragedy to the Supreme Council at Batavia. “The rest who were taken prisoners at Calcutta,” they wrote, “have had, in the first fury, a dreadful time of it, about 160 prisoners being sent into the so-called Black Hole or Donkergat (Dark or Black Hole) in which there was not room for 40 prisoners, and there shut up. Thus they were trampled underfoot or suffocated, all but 15 or 16 who were brought out half dead next morning and being fettered were led by the Nawab in his suite in triumph to Muxadavad." In the following January the same Council, writing to the Assembly of Seventeen in Holland merely state that the Nawab treated the British who had fallen into his hands with great cruelty. How was it the Dutch Council at Hughli gave one account in July and a contradictory account in November? I think there is a simple explanation of this. Holwell was at Hugli in August. It was there that he compiled his first list of victims. He probably stayed with the Governor and must certainly have talked about the tragedy to him and the members of his Council. The result was that the Dutch changed their story. The numbers given in the Dutch account are not correct, but they approximate very closely to the figures which Holwell gave in his first account and subsequently corrected.

The French accounts of the capture of Calcutta are greater in number than the Dutch and more varied in character. Mr. Hill gives nine of the year 1756, and one dated 1757. Five of these, including one written by the Governor of Chandernagore, do not mention the tragedy. Another refers to the many jocular stories that were made up about the business. The first account that mentions the Black Hole incident was written on the 3rd July. The writer seems to have been under the impression that the affair lasted two days and gives some grotesque details on the authority of “an Englishman who survived this Hell.” I have shown elsewhere that this Englishman was, in all probability, Captain Mills who had arrived at Chandernagore a day or two before the letter was written. No further reference was made to the tragedy until October 8th. On that date a letter from Chandernagore contained the following extraordinary account:—“They put in prison more than 120 persons, men and women, and forgot them there for seven days at the end of which time when it was opened, only 14 came out alive, the rest were dead.” The prisoners, then, died of starvation. On the 16th December, 1756, the French Council at Chandernagore wrote an apparently reasonable account of the incident. They say that “the prisoners to the number of 200 having been hurriedly shut up in a warehouse were almost all suffocated in one night.” But were the Council thinking of the tragedy described by Holwell, or were they thinking of a fire? Mr. Hill found in the British Museum a French manuscript entitled. “Revolutions in Bengal”. It seems to have been written two years after the capture of Calcutta by a Frenchman of Chandernagore and contains the following account of the Black Hole affair:—"Night was approaching and the Moors wishing to make sure of their prisoners, shut them up hurriedly in a warehouse which caught fire. There were nearly 150 suffocated." M. Law also has something similar to this. He says:—“The Moors looked with pleasure on the scene of horror which was passing in the dungeon, for them it was a tamasha. To increase their pleasure the idea suggested itself to them of placing below, outside the window, a heap of damp straw to which they set fire. The outer air drove the smoke into the dungeon but the hopes of the Moors were deceived, they could see nothing more.” If the French Council were thinking of a fire, then the first reasonable French account of the tragedy is dated the 7th March, 1757, and came from the Isle of France (Mauritius I think). This relates that the defenders of the fort were made prisoners and thrown into a dungeon so small that the next morning 124 were suffocated.

I have placed before you all the contemporary evidence in favour of the Black Hole story. I will now give you three good reasons for rejecting that evidence.

(1) The story of the tragedy was, for many years, unknown to the people of of Bengal. In 1789, 33 years after the event was supposed to have occurred, the translator of the Seir Mutaqherin, not seeking to prove or disprove anything, but engaged in the task of annotating the historian he was translating, gave this evidence: "This much is certain, that this not known in Bengal; and even in Calcutta, it is ignored by every man out of the four hundred thousand that inhabit that city: at least it is difficult to meet a single native that knows any thing of it; so careless and so incurious are those people.”
This silence of a whole people has hitherto been dismissed in summary fashion. The people were indifferent to the tragedy says one. Their mouthpieces, the historians, says another, were partial and suppressed the story. How can I meet these indictments of a whole nation? Will it be sufficient if I prove that when a real tragedy occurred the people were not silent and their historians recorded the event in their pages? Seven years after the capture of Calcutta another band of men of British birth became the prisoners of a Nawab of Bengal and he, maddened with defeat after defeat, wreaked his vengeance upon the helpless captives. Let the Muhammadan historian tell the story. “A few days after that, on hearing that the English had possessed themselves of the fortress of Monghyr by treason, his temper, soured by misfortunes and perfidies, broke all bounds: Incensed beyond measure at so unexpected a reverse, and mistrusting the future still more than the past, he gave orders to Sumro, the European, [The translator of the Seir Mutaqherin states that Sumro was a German.] to put to death all the prisoners of that nation; and that man, of a flint-like heart, without any regard to the ties which bound him to those unfortunates, who were of the same Christian religion with him, accepted the commission without horror, and without reluctance. That stony man repaired to the house, then called Hadji-ahmed’s, where those ill-fated people were confined,...and without the least hesitation, or the least remorse, he ordered all those unarmed men to be killed with musket balls. It is reported, that in such a moment of distress and perturbation, those unfortunate men, without losing courage marched up to their murderers, and, with empty bottles, and stones, and brickbats, fought them to the last man, until they were all killed." We seem to recognise our countrymen in that story but do we recognise them in the bowling, frenzied mob fighting with each other for water or for a place at the window and ruthlessly trampling down the weak? The translator adds a note which has a direct bearing on our subject. “The next year after that catastrophe,” he writes, “and it was in 1765, I remember to have seen, both at Benares, and at Moorshoodabad, three or four commanders, who had refused the commission with indignation. One of them, an elderly stout man with a large pair of whiskers, speaking to a company where I was, expressed himself in these words: I did not refuse to do it: no: I only desired the Nawab to give them swords and bucklers and that I would fight them then: but, as to killing prisoners disarmed that I will never do. Send your scavengers for that business.” This was the class of men whom Holwell, exonerating the Nawab, charged with the Black Hole murders. He declared that they revenged themselves in that manner for the number of their body who had been killed in the siege. A real tragedy, then, was talked about by the people of Bengal, and the story is recorded in the pages of their historians. They were silent about the Black Hole affair because they were ignorant of it and they were ignorant of it because there had been no tragedy. In the pages of their historians you will find the true story of the capture of Fort William.

(2) My second reason for rejecting the story is that the Bengal Council by their conduct ignored it and by their words contradicted it.
The Council unanimously agreed that before the capture of the fort the enemy destroyed a great many of their officers and private men. When the Council speak of their private men I do not think they are referring to the Dutch or the Armenians or to the topazes but to their own covenanted servants and “young men in the Settlement” who, Drake said, “entered as volunteers in the military doing duty in every respect as common soldiers." In their next letter the Council remove all doubt on this point. They said that most of their covenanted servants that died in the year 1756 “were killed at the taking of Fort William.” According to the Black Hole story, 12 officers and 23 of the covenanted servants of the Company died in the Black Hole. Further, in their letter of the 17th September, 1756, the Council unanimously agreed that the fort surrendered upon promise of civil treatment of the prisoners. How could they have left the matter there if the promise had been broken? In all their acts, too, they ignored the tragedy. In July they wrote to the principal ministers of the Nawab begging them to intercede for them. In August Major Kilpatrick was anxious that the Nawab should look upon him as a friend. It has been said that the necessities of their situation forced them to conceal their true feelings. There is no excuse for the statement. It has been said that they dissociated the Nawab from the crime. We have not their authority for this. But those who use these arguments must admit that when they came to an open rupture with the Nawab they had no necessity for concealment. When they declared war on the Nawab they would not nicely discriminate between his responsibility and that of his officers. They would have stated that on the night of the 20th June the Nawab had done to death over a hundred men in the Black Hole prison. In reality their declaration of war was milder than that of Admiral Watson. “Whereas the aforesaid Sirrajud Dowla," runs the document, "not satisfied with this violent proceeding and, without assigning any reason or even proposing any demands to us the President and Council, did sometime in the said month of June 1756 march towards Calcutta and Presidency of Fort William with a large army and train of artillery, attacked the said factory, took the fort, seized and plundered the effects of the Company and of the private inhabitants to a considerable amount, killed many of their servants both civil and military and expelled the few who escaped” and so forth. Surely common decency and the bonds of fellowship and nationality demanded that the Council, as a Council, should somewhere, at some time, have expressed their sorrow at the miserable deaths of the victims of the Black Hole tragedy, their detestation of the crime and their resentment against the perpetrators of it. They did none of these things. Contrast their conduct seven years afterwards when they were confronted with a real tragedy. When the news of the Patna massacre reached them they met together and passed this resolution:— “After reflecting with the most unfeigned sorrow and regret on this act of unparalleled and barbarous cruelty, which we have now no room left to doubt has been perpetrated at Patna by the emissaries of Cossim Aly Khan on the lives of our countrymen who were prisoners in his hands; although in the ordinary and usual calamities of war it becomes the business of the Heads of a Government to avoid shewing any marks of public concern which may be attended with the bad effects of depressing the spirits of a Colony, yet as the situation of our affairs is such as to give no occasion for apprehending any ill consequences to our public operations from a contrary conduct at this time, and the present calamity being in itself of so singular and heavy a nature, we think it highly proper to enter upon some public methods of manifesting to the world our concern on this occasion, as well because it is a necessary tribute to the memory of the unfortunate gentlemen who have thus fallen the victims of a horrid cruelty, as that it will serve to testify to the Natives of the country the sentiment we feel for the loss of our friends and imply our resolution of revenging their untimely fate. It is therefore agreed and ordered that a general deep mourning shall be observed in the settlement for the space of fourteen days to commence next Wednesday, the 2nd of November.

That the morning of that day shall be set apart and observed as a public fast and humiliation, and that intimation be accordingly given to the chaplains to be prepared with a sermon and forms of prayer suitable to the occasion.” They then order minute guns to be fired and proceed:—

“After paying this necessary duty to the memory of our countrymen, we are further agreed and determined to use all the means in our power for taking an ample revenge on the persons who may have been concerned in this horrid execution, and with a view of deterring in future all ranks and degrees of people from ordering or executing such acts of barbarity.

Resolved therefore that a Manifesto of the action be published throughout all the country, with a proclamation promising an immediate reward of a Lack of Rupees to any person or persons who shall seize and deliver up to us Cassim Aly Khan, and that he or they further receive such other marks of favour and encouragement as may be in our power to show in return for this act of public justice.

That an immediate reward of Rs. 40,000 shall be given to any person or persons who shall apprehend the Chief named Summereau and bring him a prisoner to us.”

Could the Council have called the massacre an act of unparalleled cruelty if a greater act of cruelty had been perpetrated seven years before? Would not that greater act of cruelty have recurred to their minds again and again and could they possibly have refrained from referring to it when they framed the above resolution? By this resolution alone the Black Hole story stands condemned.

(3) My third reason for rejecting the Black Hole story is the mass of evidence which proves that the men died fighting.
Most of the English evidence, but not quite all, will be found in my article in the Society’s Journal. The Dutch evidence I have read to you to-night. The French do not say very much on the point but it must be remembered they were enemies at the time. In addition, after the fall of Calcutta, the Nawab had forced them to pay 350,000 rupees and they blamed the English for this. In their opinion the English were cowards unworthy of the name of Europeans. But even the French were not silent and their evidence is all the more valuable. They testify to the procession of wounded men that passed by their factory on the 19th June and in their first account of the capture of the fort, written the day after the occurrence, they state that those who made no resistance were spared which implies that some did make resistance and were not spared. Governor Renault states that the English lost 200 men at the siege of Calcutta and the natural inference is that the men were lost under circumstances usually attending a siege. Another account says that when the Nawab’s troops broke into the fort they killed many of the English and still another relates that they killed all who tried to resist. Lastly we have the evidence of Persian historians. Two of these speak of the suicide of the defenders of the fort, but there is a general agreement on two points (1) men lost their lives (2) only a few became prisoners.

Test the Black Hole story by this evidence. Take the evidence most favourable to the story—that of Holwell. Holwell suppresses all reference to the men who were killed at the capture of the fort but he states, in four separate letters, that 25 men were killed and 70 wounded by noon of the 20th and those were among his best men. In my article in the Society’s Journal I have shown that these men must have been one officer, perhaps one foreigner, and perhaps a carpenter, a court serjeant, a farrier, another foreigner and a fiddler. [Two of the wounded (Talbot and Pickering) died the next day. The remaining 98 must have died in the Black Hole according to Holwell.] The rest must have been Dutch, Armenians and Portuguese. Difficulties such as this are no new discovery of mine. They were noted and pointed out on the 12th July, 1756, by the Dacca Council who wrote thus to the Court of Directors:—“The accounts we have vary much and are difficult to reconcile. All agree in this that many brave men died miserably whose lives might have been saved by the smallest degree of good conduct and resolution in their leaders." The accounts vary much and are difficult to reconcile; in fact, they cannot be reconciled and we must choose between them. We know the choice made by Richard Becher the chief of the Dacca factory. All agree in this that many brave men died. If you believe they perished in the Black Hole you must reject all this evidence. You must say with Stewart and Orme—“In this scene of confusion no resistance was made" or with Macaulay— "The fort was taken after a feeble resistance." But if you accept this evidence the Black Hole story disappears at once and brave men come to their own again for their deeds will no longer be obscured by

a lamentable tale of things
Done long ago, and ill done.

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Re: Freda Bedi Cont'd (#3)

Postby admin » Wed Oct 28, 2020 5:35 am

Part 4 of 6


Investigation of disputed problems in modern history is seldom free from bias of some sort. The events of the last two hundred years are still comparatively near us; passions stirred up by those events, or passions of which those events were the outcome, are sometimes not allayed for centuries; and we are in regard to those events rarely free from the danger of consciously or unconsciously allowing our judgment to be swayed according as we are Whig or Tory, Radical or Conservative, Royalist or Republican, or bear any other of the various labels by which modern men have in politics been distinguished from their fellows of opposing schools of thought.

The history of British India is recent enough to provide numerous examples of this truism. Warren Hastings provides, of course, the classic example. In his case what should have been the clear river of history has been made muddy by two baleful influences, party feeling in England and race prejudice in India. For instance, whereas under the influence of English party prejudices Hastings’ character and actions were depicted in unfairly dark colours, there has been for some time a tendency which is exhibited, to take an example, in Forrest's introduction to the Consultations of 1772-85, and which is not unnatural in Englishmen writing of a great Englishman to whitewash his actions overmuch.

It is an unfortunate fact that in the question before us, there is a tendency, or rather an eagerness, to take sides on other than historical grounds. Now I entirely fail to understand this. Rather I would say, we all ought to be prejudiced—and in one direction. For the sake of our common humanity we ought to hope that the view which Mr. Little is championing will finally triumph.

In approaching the mystery of the Black Hole I confess myself frankly prejudiced. I want to be able to disbelieve the story. I want to have a real excuse for relegating Holwell’s Narrative to a museum of literary curiosities, side by side with fourteenth century Sir John Mandeville, the father of English sensation writers, as Sir George Birdwood calls him, or nineteenth century Louis de Rougemont. I want to disbelieve Holwell’s Narrative for the same reason as that for which I would, if I could, wipe off from the page of history the massacres of the ancient democrats of Corcyra, or, to come down to our time, the sinking of the Lusitania or the murder of Edith Cavell. Nothing would give me greater pleasure than to see the names of Mr. Little, Mr. Akshay Kumar Maitra, and other gentlemen, who have ere this whispered their suspicions of Holwell’s Narrative, flame across the Historical Reviews of Europe and America as authors of the most remarkable and valuable discovery in the realm of British Indian historical research. For there are certain happenings of the past the mere memory of which brands and sears the sensitive places of our common human nature; history, too, places, as Germany will yet discover, certain dreadful barriers between nations and races, which only time can remove. For this reason, I should regard any one who could prove that Holwell’s Narrative is a tissue of lies as one of the truest servants of our Indian land; but for the same reason I would enter a caution against the subject being too frequently dragged to light, and made a topic of newspaper controversy in a land such as modern India, unless the cogency of the aggressive argument is indubitable, or new evidence can be adduced. It is emphatically not a matter for leading articles in newspapers, or for polemic letters from politicians and professors, however distinguished.

Prejudiced though I am in favour of Mr. Little’s hypothesis, I am as yet quite unable to go all the way with him. Mr. Little and his supporters must not forget that they are in the position of assailants and not of defenders; the current view of the Black Hole incident has been practically unchallenged, even from the very beginning, for a hundred and fifty years; and the orthodox historians are not likely to yield the fort except in the face of overwhelming artillery. That Mr. Little, by his skilful selection and marshalling of the evidence contained in Hill’s Records and other documents of the time, has seriously weakened the conviction with which most of us hold the received story, is, I take it, indubitable. Before however he can claim to have destroyed the received story, and ask us, as he does, to execrate Messrs. Cooke, Holwell and Co., he has to establish indubitably the main props of his argument, to face all possible objections, and perhaps new evidence, which, if sought for, may come to light, and get the subject at least considered and pronounced upon by trained minds in Europe and America. In other words, there remains a good deal of bombardment yet to be done. I am of opinion that Mr. Little, though he has been able to gall the garrison with a very disturbing rifle and machine-gun fire, has failed as yet to bring up those seventeen-inch howitzers which the capture of most forts to-day seems to demand. The question is: Is his theory the only possible explanation of the facts? And can he explain every new difficulty to which his theories, if true, give rise? I cannot in a short paper deal exhaustively with Mr. Little’s views; I shall mention merely one or two points on which I disagree with his views, or on which I should like fuller conviction that he is right.

One of the shots which Mr. Little may, perhaps, fairly consider to be heavy ammunition, is his attempt to show that Holwell was a scoundrel. Perhaps he was; from the point of view of our 20th century morality a good many of the eighteenth century folk both in India and in England were. Mr. Little has succeeded in proving that Holwell was not above current morality of the time. It may be he has proved that he was below it. I do not, however, dwell on this point, because I consider it comparatively unimportant; the Black Hole question is not solely a question of Holwell’s veracity; it is, as I shall mention presently, the question of the veracity of a considerable number of people. But I must enter a protest against any attempt to discredit Holwell on the ground that he did not know Sanscrit in the middle of the eighteenth century. How was Holwell to know that a mixture of colloquial Bengali and Hindustani was not the ancient language of India? Cleverer men than Holwell have been deceived by wily pundits not averse to fooling the inquisitive sahib and making a little money thereby.

However, suppose we admit that Holwell was not the bright unsullied character of certain history books. We reach the position that Holwell, given sufficient motive, was ready to deceive and even forge. What sufficient motive has Mr. Little provided to bind together Holwell and his twenty-two or twenty-three companion-survivors in a conspiracy of silence, nay, more, in a conspiracy of misrepresentation? First what did Holwell get out of it? Which is the noble figure, Holwell inspiring the garrison to a resistance so desperate that only twenty-three prisoners were taken, or Holwell escaping death in the Black Hole by an admitted fight for the window with his gasping and often weaker fellow men, Holwell clinging to the bars while a woman lay gasping (presumably) in the interior of the prison? What possible motive could have bound together Messrs. Cooke and Lushington, Captains Mills and Dickson, Holwell, Court, and Burdet, and fourteen seamen and soldiers in backing up so fearful a story? It is one of the weaknesses of Mr. Little’s attack that he omits to provide any adequate motive to explain why so many men should have joined in concocting and backing a story so singularly unheroic. For by the nature of things in the Black Hole the survivors were those who most successfully fought and trod their fellow creatures to death. Judged by our standards of today (though we should be on our guard against such judgment) to have survived the Black Hole was rather disgrace than glory. I have never been able to see Holwell in the Black Hole as a hero; one might as well consider as heroes those struggling wretches, victims of a wreck, who clasp their fellow victims in the water in one last sub-conscious attempt to seize something solid, till they sink together in the embrace of death.

Suppose, however, Mr. Little provides us with a motive powerful enough to cause all the survivors of the attack upon the Calcutta Fort to spread the story of the Black Hole, though they never suffered it. This implies at least that Holwell and the leading survivors agreed to concoct a tale. If that is so, why did their accounts differ? If the various accounts were various impressions of a real event, it would be perfectly natural that they should differ; but why could not the concocters agree as to the kind of story which they should spread abroad? Why did Holwell in his first official letter of July 17th put 170 people in the Black Hole, and only allow 16 to escape? Why did Mills put 144 in, and save twenty-four of them? Why did Secretary Cooke’s notes, from which he gave his evidence before the Parliamentary Committee, in 1772, put “near 150 souls” in, and rescue only 22? Why did Holwell tell Sykes at Cossimbazar, on the 8th July, as he passed as a prisoner on his way to Murshidabad, that 160 went into the Hole, and 110 came out dead. “And that all night the Nabob’s people kept firing at them through the door." (I would enter a “caveat,” however, against much reliance of any kind upon this report by Sykes of Holwell’s statements, since Sykes says that “the 20th and 21st they fought all day and night.” Holwell could not have written or said this.)

Why did Holwell eventually reduce his numbers on August 3rd to 146 in the Hole, and 123 dead? Does it not seem possible that the first accounts were the excited and inaccurate impressions of men who had passed through a fearful experience, and that Holwell, as he became calmer and thought and talked about the matter, had somewhat to alter his numbers and statements? I cannot but feel that the differing accounts given of the tragedy are some testimony to its truth. Had the narratives agreed in unessential details, there would then have been strong ground for suspicion. There are, I know, other suggested explanations, less favourable to the alleged victims; but if they are true, the new difficulty is raised that the most gigantic and successful hoax in history was successfully perpetrated by the most arrant set of clumsy bunglers imaginable. In any case, an exhaustive and close hypothetical narration of the genesis and growth of the legend, which creates no new difficulties, is a desideratum.

The most important part of Mr. Little’s argument is his attempt to prove that the English in the Fort made such a desperate final resistance on the 20th June that there were not enough survivors left to make up Holwell’s Black Hole numbers.

 In proof of this final desperate resistance, he quotes:—

1. Ghulam Husain Khan, a gossipy writer who certainly cannot be relied upon in any matter of doubt. He wrote 25 years later.

2. Captain Grant, who deserted on the 19th June, and was not in the Fort during the last resistance. If he may be quoted as an authority for this, he may also be quoted as an authority for the Black Hole, which (13th July) he also describes.

3. Mr. Grey, Junior. He was in the Fort on the last day, till it was taken, and then escaped by the river. He is the latest of the witnesses except Holwell. We learn from him that, on the 20th, several men including one officer, Captain Smith, was killed, and several officers were wounded. He tells us nothing of a desperate final resistance: on the contrary, when the officers were out of sight, the men “skulked and would not go up." “About four o’clock in the afternoon, the enemy called out to us not to fire in consequence of which the Governor shewed a flag of truce, and gave orders for us not to fire." “At the time the fort was taken, there was not above the number of twenty men upon the walls. The greatest part of the soldiers were drunk.” I find no evidence here of a desperate final resistance, in which most of the officers and writers fell. We may notice in passing that Grey also accepts the Black Hole story.

4. Holwell, who admits 25 killed, and 70 wounded, “of the best men.” This leaves an insoluble difficulty if we regard “best men” as meaning officers and writers; but surely it means what it says, men. We get over the patent difficulty that no officers were killed besides Smith when we remember Cooke’s evidence before Parliament, that twelve wounded officers went into the Black Hole. And if the London Chronicle letter be adduced to prove that some of the alleged victims like Blagg and Baillie perished fighting, the defender of the orthodox view will reply:—

(a) In a scene of such horror as the fall of the fort memory plays strange tricks. And how was the writer, who was presumably doing his duty fighting, to know whether a writer or an officer whom he saw fall, was killed or only wounded?

(b) Who is to be believed, Holwell, and Cooke giving evidence before Parliament, or an anonymous newspaper correspondent? And if you accept that part of the evidence of the anonymous newspaper correspondent, which suits you, can you reject that part which you don’t like, namely his testimony that “170 of us were crammed into a hole,” and only 16 were alive next morning?

5. Drake, and William Lindsay, both of whom left the Fort on the 19th June.

6. William Tooke, who fled with the Governor on the 19th. Thus, of Mr. Little’s witnesses to the alleged last desperate defence, only three stayed till the taking of the fort. Of these, one declares that the soldiers were drunk, and that only twenty were on the walls at the last rush; another is anonymous; and the third is Holwell, Mr. Little being in the unfortunate position of having to make him his best witness. All these testify to the Black Hole story, and two say they were actually in the Black Hole.

I am forced reluctantly to the conclusion that the attractive argumentum ad hominem, the picture so attractive to Englishmen, of Englishmen resisting to the death and dying gloriously on the bastions as English officers know how to die so gloriously, that there were not enough left to fill the Black Hole, needs more convincing testimony, if it is to be one of the main props of Mr. Little’s theory. I am far from saying it is false; I have a leaning towards faith in it; but it is so important a part of the foundations of his theory, that the fact must be placed beyond a doubt.

There are numerous other points I should like to take up in Mr. Little’s argument. But I must restrict myself to one or two.

Mr. Little’s view is that a month or two after the Fort was captured it was generally recognised by the Council and most thinking men that Holwell was the biggest liar in existence; but that for the credit of the Company, and because the tale of the Black Hole might have its uses, people, including the other members of the Council, tacitly agreed not to show him up, though they refrained from giving the story confirmation by an official account to the Directors. The absence of an official account is curious: but surely the sending home of five separate accounts of the fall of the Fort partly explains it; Holwell, being the only member of the Council of Fulta, who was in the Black Hole, would naturally be the only one to spend any time on the subject. The members of the Council at Fulta were too busy attacking one another on far more important topics. Why should we assume that their inability to agree upon the Black Hole question was the reason why they were unable to send home a joint report? The fact that the four of the members of Council who do not mention the story also sent home separate accounts, shows that the Councillors’ points of difference involved quite other questions than the precise way in which Baillie and other Company’s servants died. At the same time, I do not wish unduly to minimise the significance of the absence of an official account. And yet it is worth while asking whether the following extract from the letter of the Council, Fort William, to the Court of Directors, dated 31st January 1757, does not constitute at least official recognition of the story within seven months of the event: "Our chaplains having both demised, Mr. Gervas Bellamy in the Black Hole......we have appointed the Reverend Mr. Cobbe our chaplain etc.” This casual reference, which certainly is official testimony to the story, was made in a letter signed by Drake, Kilpatrick, Becher, Pearkes, Frankland, and Macket. Holwell was not a signatory, so that the Council’s recognition of the story was not due to him.

In any case, Mr. Little is not, in my opinion, entitled so easily to dismiss the testimony of Clive and Pigott. His view is that at the time it was recognised by the leading Englishmen of the day that Holwell was a liar, and that Black Hole story was a myth. He is not entitled to disregard the following words, written by Clive to the Mogul Emperor: “Surajah Dowlat took and plundered Calcutta the 20th June, and all the great men and other Englishmen that fell into his hands were by his orders suffocated in one night." (30 July, 1757). Pigott too, on the 14th October, 1756, wrote to Suraja Dowlah, thus: “I was further informed that the greatest part of the merchants were killed by your people in a cruel and barbarous manner beyond what can be described in writing." It is true, as Mr. Little says, that these letters were written to Indians for a political purpose, but one of them was the greatest of all Indians. I am not yet convinced that the great men of Bengal knew at the time that the Black Hole story was an invention of Holwell. If it had been general knowledge in high places, I believe that Orme the historian, would have learnt enough of the truth to make him minimise the story in his History, or exclude it altogether. I do not believe, in short, that a secret, known on Mr. Little’s hypothesis to so many, could possibly have remained a secret for ever, especially in fierce years of party controversy that followed.

We may admit, and gladly admit, that Holwell, through ignorance or forgetfulness of the concluding features of the struggle, placed some people, like Blagg, in the Black Hole, who died honourably outside it. Reduction of the number to nine, of whom three died of their wounds, is an attractive theory, but surely as yet scarcely a matter for historical assertion.

If Mr. Little is right, we are face to face with a stupid and enormous hoax. It is extremely difficult to believe that if Mr. Little’s assertions are correct, no hint exists in the periodical literature of the last hundred years, except the “Calcutta Review" (reference to the “said catastrophe of the so-called Black Hole.” (1856). If Mr. Little can discover more such sceptical references in journals, say between 1757 and 1800, in India or England, he would remove one of the greatest difficulties in the way of accepting his position. Otherwise, one cannot but be reminded of the Americanism: “You can fool some of the people all the time, and all of the people some of the time; but you can’t fool all the people all the time.”

Thus it remains for Mr. Little to—

1. Suggest a motive adequate to causing twenty people or more to bolster up a fearful tale of suffering, and three or four men of outward respectability to give written testimony to it.

2. Prove that Mills and Cooke were active liars and scoundrels, and Lushington, Court, Burdet, and the rest of them were at least passive ones. It is scarcely enough to prove only that Holwell was dishonest.

3. Prove incontrovertibly his theory of the fierceness of the final struggle, especially the numerous killings of officers and writers at the final rush.

4. Search for evidence, which may possibly exist, to show that people were sceptical, in India or in England, say between 1760 and 1800. Surely, if the twenty-three survivors, and all the leading men of Bengal knew the story was a fraud, some reference to the fact must have crept into newspapers or reviews before 1856.

I by no means assert that all these four tasks are beyond Mr. Little’s powers. I merely throw out the suggestions as lines along which further pressure may usefully be applied when he has leisure. Some of us who, dreading the unknown, hesitate to abandon the old familiar landmarks, feel that, detest and hate the orthodox story as we may, we cannot throw aside history which has stood for a hundred and fifty years unchallenged, unless certain points of difficulty which remain are fully cleared up. In other words a good deal of work yet remains to be done. We all ought to hope that it will be successfully accomplished.



Observed that one or two of Professor Oaten’s observations seemed to him rather like begging the question.

In classical rhetoric and logic, begging the question or assuming the conclusion is an informal fallacy that occurs when an argument's premises assume the truth of the conclusion, instead of supporting it. It is a type of circular reasoning: an argument that requires that the desired conclusion be true. This often occurs in an indirect way such that the fallacy's presence is hidden, or at least not easily apparent.

-- Begging the Question, by Wikipedia

Professor Oaten spoke of the account of the Black Hole being the orthodox view and accepted history. That was not a position which could be safely taken up in a discussion of this kind. The burden of proof in this matter did not lie on one side more than on the other. Anyone who wished the story of the Black Hole to be believed must produce the evidence or refer to the evidence in favour of it. The speaker was not prepared to go into the evidence in detail. Not very long ago he went through the records which were published by Professor Hill and compared them with considerable care, and he supposed there was room for two opinions on the subject, but, personally he was entirely unable to understand how anyone could find in those records satisfactory evidence of the truth of the Black Hole story, or satisfactory evidence that the incident of the Black Hole as described by Holwell or any incident similar in kind and dimensions ever took place. They had official documents in which they would expect to find the incident referred to if it had really happened, and to him it seemed almost incredible that there should have been no record of it in those documents if it was a real occurrence. Then they had discrepancies and improbabilities in the different accounts, and the various explanations that had been put forward to account for them, seemed to him entirely inadequate and unconvincing.

At the same time the man who tried to prove that the Black Hole incident did not occur was met by certain difficulties. Mr. Little had put forward a theory to account for Holwell’s motive in inventing the story to the effect that it was a story which accounted for the deaths of a number of people who really lost their lives in the defence of Calcutta. But then they had to ask themselves why Clive accepted the story. His theory was that as Holwell had a private motive, Clive had a political and patriotic motive for making public opinion hostile to the Nawab. Hence Clive’s acquiescence in Holwell’s story. He (the speaker) would say that while the “orthodox" historians’ view rested on extremely weak evidence, it had not been conclusively proved that the story was false.

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Re: Freda Bedi Cont'd (#3)

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Part 5 of 6


I. Foreword: Orthodox Tradition.

Few had access to the vast literature which should have been carefully scrutinised to come to an independent judgment on the genuineness of this unheard-of story; but few felt the necessity of taking so great a trouble; because the tradition recorded by Robert Orme—a contemporary—was ready at hand.

Thus, the story has been handed down to posterity as an undisputed episode of History, which can no longer be questioned without stirring up popular sentiment against critical inquisitiveness.

This was noticed twenty years ago, when I ventured to publish my doubts.  

The Modern View.

The times have now changed rapidly to make it possible for Mr. J. H. Little to utilise more abundant materials with conspicuous ability, and to announce with calm confidence in the journal of the Calcutta Historical Society, (Vol. XI, Part I, Serial No. 21) that the story of the Black Hole was a “gigantic hoax.”

Yet, even now, a keen controversy regarding the propriety of this verdict has been roused in more quarters than one; and Mr. Little has come to be belittled with a taunt that he has managed “to play off a clever and audacious practical joke.”

This justifies the reopening of the question.

The New School of Historians.

I must confess, at the outset, that I find it more reasonable to adopt the critical methods of investigation recommended by “the historians of the modern school in Europe,” than to follow the time-honoured practice of swallowing all extravagant stories without any sort of investigation. I cannot, therefore, look upon them as “a generation of iconoclasts," as represented by The Pioneer, for the simple reason that a mere iconoclast exults only in his work of wanton destruction, while “the historians of the modern school in Europe” have shown by example that if they are obliged to destroy any old fetish of faith, they destroy it only to replace fiction by truth.

The Critical Method.

Their critical method, when it lights upon an interesting statement, “begins by suspecting it” (Lord Acton’s The Study of History, p. 40); because the maxim that, “a man must be presumed to be innocent until his guilt is proved” was not made for the historian. The main thing for him “is not the art of accumulating material, but the sublimer art of investigating it,—of discerning truth from falsehood." This art, according to Harrisse (The Discovery of America, VI.), consists “in determining with documentary proofs and by minute investigations duly set forth—the literal, precise, and positive inferences to be drawn at the present day from every authentic statement without regard to commonly received notions, to sweeping generalities, or to possible consequences." J. S. Mill (Inaugural Address, p. 34) rightly pointed out that “there is no part of our knowledge, which is more useful to obtain at first hand, -- to go to the fountain-head for,—than our knowledge of History.” The modern critical method goes a step further, and wants to test all first-hand informations without regard to commonly-received opinions about them, because it looks upon “consistency in regard to opinions as the slow poison of intellectual life.” Every authentic statement is not necessarily true. This may be best illustrated by many authentic statements of Col. Clive, in one of which, in a letter to Alamgir Sani, King of Hindostan, dated the 30th July, 1757 (Hill, II. 462,) he asserted that after the battle of Plassey, Sirajuddowla retreated to the city of Murshidabad, “nor stopt there, but continued his flight, and was killed by his servants who followed him to demand their pay." This statement, though authentic, suppressed the real truth and suggested a deliberate falsehood. Instances need not be multiplied to shew that no story of this notorious period should be accepted without a critical investigation. The story of the Black Hole cannot, therefore, be treated as an exception. We should not only go to the fountain-head of this story, but we should also carefully investigate it according to the well-established rules of modern critical method, which is a method of Science. There can be no investigation in any other way to ensure accuracy in our knowledge of History. In this the modern method differs from the old;—the critical from the uncritical;—the historical from the romantic.

II. Suspicious Circumstances: Mahomedan Histories.

My suspicions were roused by the significant fact that no Mahomedan Historian of the Eighteenth Century made any mention of the Black Hole story, or of any catastrophe, which could be reasonably identified with it. Mr. Little has also noticed this only to ask his readers “to note the fact." But it requires some elaboration to enable one to appreciate the full significance of this omission.

One of these historians, and the most important one, was Nawab Golam Hosain Khan, the author of the celebrated Syer-ul-Mutakherin. He was a relation and adherent of Showkatjung, who disputed the succession of Siraj-Uddowla. After the overthrow and death of his patron, this historian lived in banishment at Benares, until he was restored to his jageer after the battle of Plassey. He completed his work in 1783, when the fall of Calcutta would not have still continued to be regarded as the only or the chief matter of interest, and the story of the Black Hole a mere subsidiary one, as has been ingenuously suggested by The Pioneer to account for the non-mention of the catastrophe in the public records of the day.

Another historian, Golam Hosain Salim of Malda, the author of the Riaz-us-Salateen, completed his work in 1787-88, under the orders and patronage of his kind and benevolent master, George Udney, who was well-known for his piety and scrupulous regard for historical accuracy.

These two Mahomedan historians received just recognition from all celebrated English writers of the Modern History of India. Neither of them had any motive to conceal the truth; yet neither had a word about the Black Hole.

Haji Mustapha's Observations.

A renegade Frenchman, named Haji Mustapha, translated the Syer-ul-Mutakherin into English. He noticed this significant omission, and recorded his own views about the incident in a note, which included the following observation:—

“This much is certain that this event, which cuts so capital a figure in Mr. Watts’ performance, is not known in Bengal; and even in Calcutta it is ignored by every man out of the four hundred thousand that inhabit that city; at least it is difficult to meet a single native that knows anything of it; so careless and incurious are those people.”

Mr. Hill supposed this “to be a sarcastic hint that the translator himself did not believe this story." Be that as it may, this observation reveals a fact and an explanation;—the fact relates to the want of knowledge of the people even of Calcutta;—the explanation relates to an estimate of their character. The explanation is, however, untenable; because Holwell’s monument, built in 1760, was then in existence to refresh the memory of the people; and also because the Mahomedan histories make it abundantly clear that the “natives” were not altogether “careless” or “incurious” about other matters of public notoriety during that period of change of Government, when gossip about every little event naturally ran in every direction with incredible rapidity. If the story of the Black Hole was really true, it could not have failed to reach their ears; nor could it have been kept a profound secret by the people of the Nawab.

Mr. Hill's Explanation.

Mr. Hill, while writing the Introduction to his book on Bengal in 1756-57, did not notice or discuss this significant omission, so prominently noted by Haji Mustapha. He has, however, now noticed it (The Englishman, Town Edition, 16 February, 1916) with an observation,—that knowing by his “own experience how very insouciant are the bulk of the people of India to whatever concerns only those of other castes and creeds, it did not produce sufficient impression” upon his mind for him “to think it worth while to discuss the question.”

Prof. William's Contention

But Mr. Rushbrook Williams, Professor of Modern History in the Allahabad University, has not taken the same view. He has tacitly conceded that this omission carries some weight. So he has made an honest effort to enquire if some faint reference,—even a figurative one,—cannot after all be discovered in some obscure Mahomedan History. For this purpose he contended for a while that a veiled reference might be discovered in the Muzarffarnamah. Maulavi Abdul Wali of Murshidabad, whose knowledge of Persian cannot be inferior to that of the learned Professor, quoted the text (The Statesman, Dawk Edition, 23rd. February, 1916) from the manuscript belonging to the Nizamut Library, and annexed the following translation:—

“Having seen that they are incapable to resist, and being in despair of concluding peace, the English gentlemen seated themselves on board ship and left for the sea; and a few of the English soldiers who saw the road of escape closed on them killed themselves out of excess of the sense of honour and a few persons became prisoners of the claws of predestination.”

Mr. Abdul Wali's Interpretation.

Moulavi Abdul Wali has rightly pointed out that “this passage,—which is the only passage on the subject,—does not prove that the English were put into the Black Hole. The sentence that a few persons became also prisoners of the claws of predestination is a figurative one, and proves nothing." Those who are acquainted with the oriental methods of polished composition, will readily admit that the figurative expression cannot indicate imprisonment; the context shows that while a few committed suicide, a few were also killed during the capture of the fort; a fact admitted also in the English reports.

After this analysis of the text, it must be idle to contend that the story was referred to by a figurative description by at least one Mahomedan historian,—or to contest the fact so definitely and confidently recorded by Haji Mustapha about the complete ignorance of the people even of Calcutta—or to question his authority for such an unqualified acknowledgment.

Mr. Hill's Attitude.

This then is the first important fact which should not have been at first ignored and at last dismissed by Mr. Hill as unworthy of consideration, upon a plea of personal experience, which is as exceptional as it is inapplicable to the bulk of the people of India. In writing the Introduction to his book, Mr. Hill could not have really missed the undeniable proofs which clearly disclosed that the people of this country, even at the risk of their lives, had actually felt compassion for the English fugitives, and supplied them with necessary provisions, “by stealth in the night” (Hill, I, 171), inspite of the strictest prohibition of the Nawab.

Omission in Public Records.

Turning to the important public records of the day, we find the same significant omission. If considerations of unavoidable diplomacy demanded a studied silence on the point in the earlier correspondence with the Nawab, because the English were then very naturally anxious to re-establish their trade at any sacrifice, the same explanation could not be put forward in support of a studied silence in the Minutes and Consultations of the English Council; or in the first report submitted to the Court of Directors. Even in respect of the correspondence with the Nawab, this explanation would be inapplicable to the last letter at any rate which Colonel Clive addressed, complaining only of “the loss of many crores of Rupees" said to have been sustained by the English “in the capture of Calcutta." In the two treaties,-- one with Siraj-ud-dowla (9 February, 1757), and another with Mir Jaffier Khan (3 June, 1757), -- no satisfaction was obtained for the atrocities of the Black Hole. Thornton (History of the British Empire in India, Vol. I, 212-13) observed that the absence of any provision for this purpose was “the greatest scandal attached to the treaty.” Mr. Hill has not quoted or questioned this unbiassed verdict of a truly “eminent historian.” He has only quoted the Third Article of the Treaty, without seeing eye to eye with Thornton, that that Article can in no way be spun out to cover, as Mr. Hill contends, “compensations for every thing.” It related only to compensations for clearly specified losses of property; and did not and could not include a compensation for loss of life in general, or in the Black Hole. In the same strain Mr. Hill now adds that,—“it is quite certain that a large number of the British were killed after Drake deserted his post. If they perished in the Black Hole, then Holwell’s story is substantially true, though it may be incorrect in details." It is needless to point out that no verdict of History can be based upon this “if.” Even if it were possible, it would not banish the need for proof; for, “the living do not give up their secret,” as Lord Acton pointed out, “with the candour of the dead; one key is always excepted; and a generation passes before we can ensure accuracy."

First Official Report

In the first official report of the fall of Calcutta (dated Fulta the 17th. September 1756) submitted to the Court of Directors, nearly three months after the event, there was no mention of the massacre; although it was signed amongst others, by Holwell himself. This document narrated on the other hand that the fort had surrendered “upon the promise of civil treatment of the prisoners” (Hill, I, 214-19) without saying that the promise was ultimately broken.

Mr. Hill's self-contradiction.

Mr. Hill’s present contention (although he did not put it forward in his Introduction) is that it was not mentioned, because “no two members of the Council held the same opinion." This was really so, (Letter from Fort William to the Court of Directors, 31st January, 1757). Mr. Hill has not, however, shown how in the face of such an undeniable fact, he can justify his present self-contradictory observation that the story received “general acceptance,—unquestioned by any of the Europeans present in Calcutta at the time.”

Consistency of First Report

The first official report was consistent with several well-established facts;—(i) that many of the besieged fled when the fort surrendered (Hill, I, 43), nay they simply walked out without opposition; (ii) that a Mahomedan Jemadar of the Nawab’s army escorted unmolested several English ladies, and restored them to their husbands at Fulta that very night (Mutakherin, Vol. II, 190); (iii) that all who had ventured to approach the Nawab in person were pardoned (Hill, I, 108-9) and allowed to go away; and (iv) that when Holwell was brought before the Nawab “with his hands bound, the Nawab released him from his bonds "and promised him (Hill, II, p. 151), “on the word of a soldier" that no harm should be done to him,—which he is said to have “repeated more than once.”

The Causes of Imprisonment

Why was any one imprisoned at all? We are indebted to Holwell for the suggestion that it was due to his inability to disclose the hidden treasure of the garrison, which the Nawab was naturally anxious to secure. This makes it difficult to discover a motive for the imprisonment of 146 persons,—men, women and children, —all of whom could never have been treated as privy to the secret.

Why were then so many persons imprisoned? Holwell assigned no reason to it in his first statement, (reported by Sykes of Cossimbazar) on the 8th July, 1756. In his second statement, (said to have been forwarded from Muxudabad to the Councils of Bombay and Madras) on the 17th July, 1756 (Hill, I, 115), he hazarded an opinion, not a fact, that—“the resistance made by the English and the loss suffered by the besiegers so irritated the Nawab that he ordered the imprisonment of all.”

This was, however, quickly given up in his third statement, (sent from Hugli to the Council of Madras) on 3rd August, 1756 (Hill, I, 186), in which he suggested another reason, viz.,—that the number of the English in the fort was “too great to be at large”;—a reason which ill-fitted the fact that permission and facilities had already been granted to many to leave the fort, after which the Nawab could not have been really anxious to detain any but those who could be reasonably supposed to know anything about the hidden treasure. It could not also have been probable for a really large number of men, women, and children, to have actually lingered in the fort, after many had died in defending it, and some had managed to escape during the confusion which followed the surrender. This reason was accordingly abandoned by the historians, who found it more consistent to adopt a different plea, viz.,—that “some of the drunken soldiers had drawn the misfortune upon all by attacking the soldiers of the Nawab.” This explanation was originally put forward by Governor Drake (Hill, I, 160) either from hearsay or from his own imagination of which he has been proved to have had an ample fund. As he was not an eye-witness, he could not have spoken from personal knowledge.

Holwell's Fairness.

This plea, however, received no support from Holwell, who was an eye-witness. He, on the other hand, recorded in his letter of 3rd August, 1756 that,—“I charged the Nawab with designedly having ordered the unheard-of piece of cruelty of cramming us all into that small prison; but I have now reason to think I did him injustice.”

This significant admission may justly give rise to an interesting and instructive inquiry into its motive, which Mr. Hill has not tried to pursue. When Holwell deliberately charged the Nawab, the English had by that time lost all hopes of returning to Bengal; as soon as the first ray of hope began to dawn upon them, on account of their submitting a petition on 6th July, 1756 to the Nawab to be restored to Calcutta, the charge was as deliberately withdrawn on the 3rd August;-—but when Siraj-ud-dowla was no more, the revolution was over, and the country had quieted down to enable Holwell to build his monument, he inscribed with equal deliberateness on his obelisk that 123 persons had been suffocated to death in the Black Hole prison of Fort William.

"By The Tyrannic Violence of Surajud-Dowla, Suba of Bengal.”

This is the man whose testimony is our chief guide in discerning truth from falsehood.

“He was known,” says Prof. Rushbrook Williams as “a clever rascal even in his own day.” He was “clever” indeed in never asking the English Council, not even when he acted as Governor, to commemorate the catastrophe, which would have necessarily called for a critical investigation of his extravagant story. He, on the other hand, built a monument at his own cost, and “cleverly” attached two inscriptions to it,—one for the tragedy and another for the “revenge” taken by Clive and Watson, evidently to ensure the preservation of his monument, at least as a trophy of victory. An Englishman, a ship’s doctor, however, found it in 1817 in a deplorable condition, (Mss. of a Voyage in the private collection of S. O’Mally Esqr. I.C.S.)— “no railing, nor shrubs,”—“totally unworthy of the universal interest excited by that most hideous event”; nor did it seem to have “arrested the attention of natives, none of whom could point out the Black Hole close to it.” That monument was unhesitatingly demolished in 1821 to make room for the Customs House. The new monument, built in 1902, by a noble donor, has omitted the “revenge,” excluded the reference to “the tyrannic violence of Sirajuddowla,” revised the list of victims, and included some names which are names of those (Hill, Introduction, p. xcix, note 4) Mr. Hill has given “as being killed during the fighting.” This monument, in the language of Sir Rabindranath Tagore, may, therefore, be justly liable to be looked upon as “a big thumb of stone, raised in the midst of a public thoroughfare to proclaim to the heavens that exaggeration is not the monopoly of any particular race or nation.”

Unavoidable Presumption.

These circumstances naturally raise some presumption against the genuineness of the story; and that presumption gradually gains in strength when we find, as Mr. Little has shown in detail, that the presence of so many persons in the fort at that late hour would be a matter of great improbability.

III. Development of the story: Admissibility of Evidence.

Before we turn to that important question, we must decide another,—the question of the admissibility of evidence. Should we admit, as required by a correspondent of The Statesman (Dawk Edition, 15th February, 1916), half in jest and half in earnest, The Confessions of De Quincey, in which the ill-ventilated coaches of England in the early days of the nineteenth century were compared to “Governor Holwell’s Black cage at Calcutta” in support of Holwell’s story? Sober sense will readily concede that all sayings and doings of third persons, after the story had gained a fair currency, must stand on the same footing, whether they related to Lord Clive’s endorsement of the petitions of those who said that they had lost their relatives in the Black Hole; or to the writings of the French and the Dutch, who derived no knowledge except through Holwell and his party. The story must stand or fall with the statements of the aggrieved party,—the alleged survivors of the grim tragedy of the Black Hole; for, they and the Nawab’s people, and no one else, could supply us with real proof.

Mr. Hill has referred to a book, Memoir Sur l’Empire Mogul, written in French by a Scoto-Frenchman named Jean Law of Lauriston, to show that the writer, who was an independent spectator in Bengal, “accepted the story of Holwell.” This book, written under the orders of the French Ministry, partly in Paris in 1763, and partly on a second voyage to India in 1764, was published by Alfred Martineau in 1913. I am indebted to my learned friend, Prof. R. C. Majumdar M. A., for an extract of the Preface, which shows that the author was an old Chief of the French Factory of Cossimbarar, who was well-known to the Durbar of the Nawab. In his Memoir (Hill, III, 160) he distinctly noted that he could not be “certain as to the correctness” of all he had heard; he preferred, therefore, “to refer” us “to what the English themselves have written.” Mr. Hill should have found that a reference to the story of Holwell by this writer could not be accepted as an “acceptance."

Modern Research.

Modern research has discovered, with commendable diligence, many useful materials, which tend to show that a story of the Black Hole was actually in circulation among the European residents of Bengal from a certain date, before it was transmitted to Europe;—but it does not fail at the same time to reveal that that story was the result of a gradual development.

The letter of 3rd July from Chandernagor (Hill, I, 50), Syke’s letter of the 8th July (Hill, I, 61) and William Lindsay’s letter (Hill, I, 168) relied on by Mr. Hill as tests of Holwell's story, cannot be treated as real tests; because these letters are not the letters of eyewitnesses. They can, however, be referred to to show, why, inspite of them, Holwell’s story fails to carry conviction; because these letters prove a gradual development of the story, and supply us with many useful materials to discover how the story stood at each stage of such development.

True Concern.

This did probably induce Prof. Rushbrook Williams to contend that “our true concern is not with Holwell," and that the Black Hole incident does not stand or fall with the truth or falsehood of Holwell’s story. An analysis of the first accounts in circulation in Bengal will, however, show at a glance that we cannot have the story of the Black Hole without Holwell, as we cannot have Hamlet, without the Prince of Denmark. Holwell cannot altogether be dismissed for the simple reason that the story of the imprisonment of the 146 persons and of the death of 123, which constitute “the main features of the tragedy” was the story of no one else but of Holwell; and even with him it was not the first story, narrated by him as soon as he got the earliest opportunity to do so. Our true concern must, therefore, be with Holwell and his principal associates, not with those, who reported from hearsay only; nor with those who accepted the story without any critical investigation.

First Uncertainty.

The first story of the fall of Calcutta, that could be gathered by the French or the Dutch from really independent sources, including the wounded, who passed by their settlements, did not disclose an episode of the Black Hole (Hill, I, 22-24).

The news of the fall of Calcutta was speedily carried far and wide. But (i) the letter written by the Council of Fort William from Fulta on the 25th June 1756 (Hill, I, 25) asking for aid and succour from the Dutch in the distress of the English, (ii) the Consultations of the Dutch at Hugli from 25th to 27th June, 1756 (Hill, I, 25), (iii) the letter from the Dutch Council to their agent written on 27th. June, 1756 (Hill, I, 33), (iv) the Dacca Consultations of 27th and 28th June, 1756 (Hill, I, 34 and 36) showing that the news of the fall of Calcutta had already been received through the French at that distant station, and (v) the secret Consultations of the Dutch at Hugli on 28th June, 1756 (Hill, I, 37),— do not disclose an account or even a mention of the Black Hole story.

Although the Dutch were at first afraid to succour the English, the French speedily accomodated matters with the Nawab, and readily offered a shelter to the English at Chandernagur. To this asylum arrived Watts and Colett, after their release, “in palanquins in the evening of the 28th June, 1766” (Hill, I.).


After a well-earned rest at this place for three days, Watts and Colett wrote to the Council at Madras on 2nd July, 1756, giving an account of the fall of Cossimbazar and of Calcutta, as well of their imprisonment and release (Hill, I, 45). But this letter contained no reference to the Black Hole, or to any catastrophe, which could be placed in it. Although they were prisoners in the Nawab’s camp before their release, they did not carry with them any information even from that source.

Holwell's First Story.

According to Holwell (India Tracts, Third Edition, pp. 387-418) he was sent to Murshidabad along with Court, Walcot and Burdett. On his way, as a prisoner of war, he sent a letter which was reported by Sykes of Cossimbazar on 8th of July, 1756 (Hill, I, 61-62).

This was the first story of Holwell;—a story which was begun with a confusion of dates obviously to assert that the fort had held out till 21st June. It did not disclose that the fort had really surrendered on “a promise of civil treatment of the prisoners”; it recorded another story,—the story of a dishonourable “surrender at discretion.” What was worse, it made out a case of wilful murder with an allegation that,——“all the night our poor gentlemen were in the Black Hole, the Nawab’s people kept firing at them through the door.”

Evident Concoction.

Strangely enough, an account recorded by Captain Grey, on the 13th July 1756 (Hill, I, 73) at Fulta, discloses that the story of firing had also been carried to that station by some, although it was contradicted by others.

This shows, beyond doubt, that as the fact of firing could not have been independently imagined by more than one person, it must have been concocted in consultation to be circulated in different directions by different associates to make out a case of wilful murder, which came to be given up only because every one could not prove clever enough to repeat that story without contradicting others.

Probable Motive.

One is, therefore, naturally tempted to enquire into the reason of the invention of such a story; specially in view of an observation of the French on 3rd July 1756 (Hill, I, 50) that “the two first days passed in license and all the disorders of a place taken by assault, with the exception of massacre, to which the Moors are not accustomed in regard to people disarmed.” Was it not due to the consciousness that the dead bodies thrown into the ravelin actually bore marks of gun-shot wounds which caused death during the defence of the fort? When the story had to be given up, something had to be retained to account for these marks of injuries; and so the final story retained the allegation that many “wounded” persons had also been thrust into the Black Hole; although there could be no motive for any one to take such an unnecessary step; in as much as the “wounded" could have raised no apprehension in the minds of the Nawabs' army.

Holwell's Caution.

Under these circumstances, Holwell very soon came to take caution. He nowhere acknowledged in his subsequent correspondence that he had given out a story at Cossimbazar, much less a story of “firing,” although he admitted he had written a letter to Mr. Law, the French Chief of that station. In his letter to his dear friend, William Davis, written on 28th February 1757, Holwell gave a detailed account of his voyage to Murshidabad as a prisoner (India Tracts, Third Edition, p. 411). In this letter he referred to the English factory at Cossimbazar by saying only this that,—“passing by our fort and factory at Cossimbazar raised some melancholy reflections amongst us.” Maintaining a discreet silence about the statement made at Cossimbazar, he deliberately placed his arrival “in sight of the French factory” of that station on the 7th of July, (Hill, I, 115 and India Tracts) evidently to ignore Sykes, who noted (Hill, I, 61) on the 8th July that,—“this morning Mr. Holwell, Court, Walcot, and one Burent (Burdett?) a writer, passed by on their way to Murshidabad, prisoners in irons.” The omission on the part of Holwell to refer to his Cossimbazar-statement is significant;—it betrays an evident solicitude to suppress his connection with the discarded first story of the “firing.”

Different Stories.

When Drake and others left the fort, they left behind more than 200 men (Hill, III, 169). “Without counting the Armenians and the Portuguese (Hill, II, 129) those who were left behind found that “They numbered 170 men Capable of defence." The story that was carried to Captain Grant (Hill, I, 88) and to Roger Drake (Hill, I, 160) at Fulta, was the story of the imprisonment of 200 persons. This story of the imprisonment of the entire garrison, thoughtlessly left behind by Drake, was carried only to two places,—Fulta and Chandernagore,—evidently to blacken the character of the deserters, whose conduct had been harshly criticised by Holwell on the rampart. This number had, however, to be subsequently changed. Why was it changed? The inference is irresistible that when the story was found to be insupportable and inconsistent with the dimensions of the Black Hole, it came down to the imprisonment of 160 persons. Holwell, immediately after his release, in his letter of the 17th July 1756, narrated the imprisonment of 165 or 170 persons; and the death of all but 6. His next account, written from Hugli on 3rd August 1756, disclosed another story. In this he said he had “over-reckoned the number of the prisoners and the number of the dead,” the former being really 146, and the latter 123. Why had Holwell at first “over-reckoned" and what materials he obtained afterwards to ascertain the correct figures, he never condescended to disclose.

Probable Reason.

One is, therefore, naturally tempted to enquire into the cause of this change. The Black Hole, according to Mr. Holwell, was 18 feet square; and reserving 2 x 1 square feet for each person, ordinary Arithmetic would allow only 162 persons to be put into it. Was not this Arithmetic responsible for fixing upon the number of 160 persons? Strangely enough, Holwell gave the number as 160 in his first account communicated to Sykes. Strangely enough, news had also been carried to Chandernagore (Hill, I, 50),—the first news of the tragedy,—by another informant, who also reported the imprisonment of exactly the same number of persons.

The current story shows that this number was also ultimately abandoned. Was it due to any further calculation that more than 146 persons could not have been in the fort on the 20th June?

Evident Concert.

The records of the period can hardly explain the psychology of this “over-reckoning” of prisoners to the same extent by two informants, who carried the earliest account to two different stations—Cossimbazar and Chandernagore. Was not this another and equally convincing instance of concert?

Final Account.

A mystery hangs about the letter of John Young, Prussian Supercargo as to its date,-—the 10th July 1756 (Hill, I, 65). In this letter he noted that “Holwell with his fellow partners of misery and affliction, from the moment of their capture to that of their release, came to Chandernagore a few days ago.” Their coming to Chandernagore was no doubt a fact; but that must have been an event of a date subsequent to their release, which took place on the 16th of July,—subsequent also to the 17th of July on which date Holwell wrote from Murshidabad,—and probably subsequent to the 3rd of August, when he wrote from Hugli. Thus, the letter of John Young must have been a letter of a subsequent date. By that time the story had been finally settled, viz.,—146 “wounded and unwounded of all ranks” had been imprisoned, and 23 only survived. This going round the European settlements by Holwell and his fellow-sufferers coincides with the final reduction of the number. It makes all subsequent French and Dutch reports loose their value as independent accounts of a real episode of History.

Nationality of Prisoners.

If there was uncertainty about the number of prisoners, there was no less uncertainty about their nationality. According to some the prisoners included Portuguese and Armenians, “of which many were wounded” (Hill, I, 88). But according to another, all Portuguese and Armenians received pardon, and left the fort (Hill, II, p. 182; p. 301). Holwell on the other hand, alleged that the prisoners included Dutch and English whites and Portuguese blacks. If any Dutch had actually died in the Black Hole, the Dutch in Bengal took no notice of it: this was hardly probable.

The Real Question.

Mr. Hill is satisfied with the truth of the story, not as a historian, but as one who takes the contemporary historian to be his infallible guide. The special "acceptance by the great contemporary historian Robert Orme” weighs greatly with him. He cites Captain Mills, Sykes, William Lindsay and the French at Cossimbazar and Chandernagore as witnesses, who are said to supply “confirmation and corroboration.” Neither in the Introduction to his work, nor in his letter now published in The Englishman, has Mr. Hill tried to face the real question,—a question, which is concerned only with the direct evidence of the imprisonment of 146 persons, and the death of 123; because the imprisonment of Holwell and a few of the principal persons likely to know the hidden treasure, and the death of no one from suffocation would not constitute the tragedy. To support the current story, there must be evidence of the imprisonment of 146, and the death of 123. Who were they? That is the real question, which must legitimately demand to know the names of all. In the absence of evidence on that point, a true historian cannot go beyond saying that the story should be called “not to be proven."

Future Research.

This verdict, which really applies to the story in question, has been, by an irony of fate, sought to be applied to the theory advanced by Mr. Little. Mr. Hill has, therefore, sincerely hoped “that in future, instead of indulging in practical jokes, Mr. Little will direct his energies into some more fruitful lines of historical research.” One such fruitful line for Mr. Little should have been the History of the History of this period, which alone could have cleared the ground of all unscholarly freedom of language and verdict.

In the absence of such research work, The Pioneer discovers a formidable obstacle for Mr. Little to over-come. “If the Black Hole incident had never taken place at all,” says The Pioneer, “Holwell, who was no fool, would have known better than to put forward his own account of it." But inspite of this “formidable obstacle," Holwell actually invented another story,— the story of the Dacca-massacre,—about which the English Council of Calcutta had to record that it had “not the least foundation in truth.” Although Mr. Little referred to this, The Pioneer did not notice it, or refute it in any way. Such is the critical atmosphere in which knowledge struggles to advance in India.

IV. The Last Questions: Names of Victims.

Coming now to the last question,—the names of the victims,—we have to admit that, do what we may, we shall never know the names of all who were imprisoned,— of all who perished,—and of all who survived. We must abandon all critical inquisitiveness and remain conveniently satisfied with nothing better than the allegation that 146 persons were thrust into the Black Hole, 123 died of suffocation, and only 23 survived. But who were they? We must never ask to know.

Knowing how the number of prisoners gradually came down from 200 to 146, and knowing how the number of survivors gradually mounted up from 6 to 23, it will be an insult to human intelligence not to suppose that the names, of all who were imprisoned and of all who perished, and also of all who survived, must have been ascertained at some stage to find out the definite numbers related in the current story. But do what we may, we shall never know—when, where, how, and by whom such an enquiry was made, and with what result.

The List of Holwell.

This leads us to only one source of information; and that source leads to the available lists.

The list annexed to the “genuine narrative” of Holwell (Hill, III, 131-154) contains only some of the names,—not all. This list begins by excluding, without any reason, the names of 69 victims; and, therefore, it purports to disclose the names of 54 persons, though as a matter of fact, it comes abruptly to an end with the names of 52 only; still giving us 4 more names than those which Holwell caused to be inscribed on his monument. The list does not give us the occupation or nationality of the excluded 69. This exposes the list to the just criticism of all students of History.

"The Genuine Narrative".

This must have convinced Holwell to some extent. His “genuine narrative," with the list annexed, was not published until 1764. It contained a foreword “to the reader,” written by Holwell himself, which revealed that he too was not without some misgivings regarding his performance. This “genuine narrative” was originally written as a private letter to a dear friend, on board the Syren-Sloop, when Holwell was going home with the natural expectation of meeting his dear friend in person. Why was this letter written at all, or written during the voyage? It was not written like a letter of The Citizen of the World for the purpose of publication. Holwell assures us that “only through a chain of unforeseen accidents" it came "to appear in print.” But it was printed and published with a grim picture, made to order, showing “Governor Holwell confined in the Black Hole,” which cannot fail to show that a motive of advertisement could not have been altogether absent; and the alleged cause of publication could not have been absolutely colourless.

Be that as it may, the list, thus published, failed to render any account of 71 victims,—a large number indeed,—too large to be lightly disregarded as an unimportant matter of unnecessary detail. Yet this list and this “genuine narrative" are the chief foundations on which the current story stands.

Captain Mill's Diary.

The diary of Captain Mills (Hill, I, 40-45), recorded in an octavo pocket book of 16 pages and given to the contemporary historian, who was then in Madras, is another piece of evidence which Mr. Hill now characterises as the first test of Holwell’s story; because “this diary still exists and cannot be ignored”; it purports to be a contemporaneous account of events, which happened from day to day from 7th June to 1st July 1756. That it “still exists” cannot show that it “cannot be ignored.” Although its existence cannot be ignored, its value will always be ignored whenever it will be properly examined.

How was it written?

We have no evidence that it was recorded from day to day. Such an assumption would lead to many more;—(i) that it was taken by the writer with him into the Black Hole; and so it happened to be preserved during the sack of Calcutta; and (ii) that it was clung to with more than a martyr’s steadfastness during all those long hours of unbearable agony in that “night of horrors.” It shows at a glance that it could not have been recorded, like an ordinary diary, from day to day; but that it must have been written afterwards for being sent to Madras to Robert Orme, the historian, who had a well-known hobby not only of collecting, but also of preserving all such original documents. This diary records the names of victims and survivors in pages 9-11. In the next page it records the names of those, who escaped, when the fort was taken; and then, in the next page, it records what had happened before the fort was captured. This anachronism makes it forfeit its bonafide character as a diary written up from day to day.

Supplimentary Account.

As the personal narrative of a Captain, engaged in active military work, this diary reveals a significant and disappointing feature, in that it does not disclose any item of personal work done by the narrator. Another account (Hill, I, 194) was sent to Robert Orme to supplement it. But that also gave only an account of what happened to the writer, after he had come out of the Black Hole, until he reached Fulta, on 10th August 1756. According to this account Captain Mills and his companions, after their expulsion from Calcutta on 1st July, came to the Prussian Supercargo, and then to Chandernagore, where they resided till 8th or 9th August 1756.

The Prussian Account.

This makes the Prussian account one of great importance to History. According to this account “20 of the English that escaped death" were the first to come up. John Young recorded what he had heard from them about the fall of Calcutta. He did not hear a word about the Black Hole. Next appeared Messrs. Watts and Colett; and they too could not disclose the story of the tragedy. Lastly came Holwell and his companions, and from them the story of the Black Hole was heard. This interesting letter of John Young, the Prussian Supercargo (Hill, I, 62-66), discloses an important secret,—it shows at a glance that when Captain Mills appeared, he had no story to tell about the Black Hole.

The London Chronicle.

A report, published in the London Chronicle, a year after the event, (Hill, III, 70-74), gives a list of the Europeans “who were in Calcutta when it was taken, but escaped being put into the Black Hole, and were ordered to leave Calcutta by the Moors.” This list contains only four names, —the very names of Captain Mills and his companions, who were not included in the list of survivors, published in the London Chronicle. This makes it difficult to regard Captain Mills’ diary as the diary of an eye-witness. He can be hardly put forward as a witness to corroborate Holwell. The same remark applies to Grey Junior (Hill, I, 106-109) who was not also a “survivor," and who did not note (Hill, I, 109) that Captain Mills was one of the survivors.

Incredibility of List.

The report of the London Chronicle makes the lists, left by Holwell and Captain Mills, equally unreliable. William Bailley was a member of the Council, and an important person. It was reported in the London Chronicle that he had died “with a shot in his head." Of the “gentlemen in service,” Carse is said to have been “cut to pieces,” having rashly fired a pistol after the place was taken. Lt. Bellamy “shot himself before the attack." Blagg was “cut to pieces on a bastion.” Lieutenants Bishop and Paccard died “before the place was taken.” Sea-Captains Parnell, Stephenson, Carey, and Grey, “were killed in the attack”. But, according to Holwell, these very persons died in the Black Hole; and what is more,—Carey died with thankfulness on his lips for having been offered by Holwell a convenient place, which he could not live to occupy.

The name of Blagg has now been unanimously omitted from the list of victims, and excluded altogether from the names inscribed on the new monument.

Evidentiary Effect.

Mr. Hill has not, however, considered the effect of this exclusion upon the whole testimony. As the name of Blagg occurs equally in the lists of victims left by Grey junior, Holwell and Captain Mills, was it possible for them to have erred independently or to have dreamt simultaneously regarding his death in the Black Hole? If this is a circumstance, which indicates concert between them, as it does without doubt, does it not affect the entire testimony, and make it difficult to discard one portion and retain the rest?

Veracity of Eye-witnesses.

Holwell disclosed the names of only eleven “survivors, including his own." One of them, Secretary Cooke, was examined by the Parliamentary Committee appointed in 1772. Instead of giving an oral disposition, like the other witnesses, Cooke preferred to hand in a written narrative (Hill, III, 290-303) said to have been “copied with his own hands from notes taken by him soon after the transactions” of 1756. Although the massacre of the Black Hole was not then one of the subjects of the enquiry, Secretary Cooke volunteered an account of it in his statement, an account which must remind one of Holwell's narrative, which had already been then in print.

These facts and circumstances affect the veracity of all the eye witnesses alike, even if we do not allow ourselves to be prejudiced against them on account of the little regard for veracity which they enjoyed from their own contemporaries.

Mr. Little has supplemented his original essay with a long letter in The Statesman to discuss Holwell’s motive for concoction, and the motive of his concocted story being accepted. The value of this labour lies chiefly in showing that an absolute want of motive cannot be urged in defence of Holwell. When an improbable story is proved to have been started, developed and supported in concert, the question of motive does not really arise, or affect the verdict.

The Story: a libel.

Although the Black Hole story was open to these objections from the very beginning, yet it was never subjected to any critical investigation by any of the contemporaries of Holwell. In that respect it has left us in utter darkness,—perhaps also in the suffocating atmosphere of a real Black Hole. But this negligence on the part of contemporaries, whose hands were then always full with one question of life and death after another, cannot be accepted as a test of Holwell’s story;—the truth of which must be established by evidence, not by any conduct, opinion, or want of critical faculties of the contemporaries.

As the story goes, it is an undoubted libel against some at least of the British heroes, who sacrificed their lives in doing their duty;—nay, it is also a general libel against the British love of truth, which Col. Clive and Admiral Watson took every opportunity to refer to in their correspondence with the Nawab.

Mr. Little's Theory.

In the midst of all these harrowing circumstances, Mr. Little’s theory—as to what really happened—comes as a welcome working hypothesis, which agrees better with probable human conduct than the current story of the Black Hole. Mr. Little may, therefore, be congratulated upon his honest attempt to do justice, where justice has been either ignored or delayed for more than a century and a half.

The noble band of heroes, who sacrificed their lives in ignorance of Holwell’s solicitude to surrender, have a legitimate claim upon the recognition of History. A tribute, paid to their memory by an alien historian, Nawab Golam Hosain Khan, makes the reticence of their own countrymen all the more prominent and deplorable. Mr. Little, will therefore, command the admiration of all lovers of justice for his noble attempt, inspite of the hesitation of many of his countrymen, which is really due to their inability to look upon his work in its true perspective.

Holwell had associates and devoted ones too. He had more than one in those, who carried the story of the firing at Fulta; and a principal one in Captain Mills, who supported him regarding the death of Blagg in the Black Hole, and helped him greatly by sending a diary to the contemporary historian. Thus supported, Holwell acted in concert,—which related to two important matters, (i) the number of prisoners (ii) and the death of those in the Black Hole, some of whom at any rate had actually died as heroes in the defence of the fort. With this concert vanishes the large number that is said to have created the suffocation; and with it vanishes the story of the Black Hole. An unshaken faith in it reveals a want of critical faculty, which Mr. Little is unwilling to claim.

“When we are told,” said Lord Acton (Lecture on the Study of History, June 11, 1895), “that England is behind the continent in critical faculty, we must admit that this is true as to quantity, not as to quality of work." Mr. Little’s work may now be rightly cited as an example of such quality, in contrast with the great body of unscholarly criticism that has cropped up against him.

The Conclusion.

True it is that this “gigantic hoax" of Holwell is recorded in every text-book as an actual event of History, and we have to teach it, and generations after generations have to continue to learn it by heart. But it is also true, as Lord Acton told us, that,—“the historians of former ages unapproachable for us in knowledge and in talent cannot be our limit. We have the power to be more rigidly impersonal, disinterested, and just than they; and to learn from undisguised and genuine records to look with remorse upon the past, and to the future with assured hope of better things; bearing this in mind that if we lower our standard in History, we cannot uphold it in Church and State."

Mr. Little briefly replied.

The Venerable Archdeacon, W. K. Firminger, said that as the hour was late, nearly midnight, he would not detain them beyond expressing the hope that the ladies and gentlemen present who were not members of the Calcutta Historical Society, would join the Society. At present the Society was in a bad way as regards funds, and by becoming members they would not only be engaged in interesting historical work but would also help the Society.

The meeting then separated.  

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Part 6 of 6

The Black Hole Episode: Is It History or Myth?
by Alfred Albert Martineau
English Translation by Mr. A. Lehuraux

Is the dreadful episode of the Black Hole of Calcutta during the night of the 20th June 1756, like the heroic revolt of William Tell against Gessler, nothing more than a legend? The incident is well known. In the forenoon of the 20th June 1756 Siraj-ud-daula, Nawab of Bengal, captured Fort William at Calcutta. The Governor, Mr. Drake, had escaped two days earlier to Fulta on the Hoogly with a portion of the English from the town; the remainder, unable to follow his example, were compelled either to remain in the fort or to return to the town. Mr. Holwell conducted the defence. On the 20th June at about 11 o’clock in the morning he capitulated. In the afternoon he had three conferences with Siraj-ud-daula the subject of which remains a mystery, but which probably referred to the surrender of the alleged treasures of the Company. In the evening the officers of Siraj-ud-daula confined the survivors, to the number of 169, in a prison called the Black Hole. The prison was a cell eighteen feet by fourteen, the heat was stifling and 143 perished during the night. Mr. Holwell was among the survivors; he was removed to Murshidabad and eventually set at liberty about the 10th July. But he had already spread the news of that tragic night in a letter addressed by him from Cassimbazar to a Company’s servant named Sykes. Later, he wrote a more detailed narrative of the catastrophe. The account was published in 1764. The impression produced by these revelations is one of the gloomiest in history.

Till very recent times, apart from the Bengalis, no one had cast a doubt on the authenticity of Holwell’s facts. Last September Bengal Past and Present, the organ of the Calcutta Historical Society, published a long article in which Mr. Little, an Englishman resident in Murshidabad, set out to prove that if there were English prisoners confined in the Black Hole on the 20th June 1756, their number did not exceed nine and the victims were not more than three.

Monghyr. View from "Scandal Point." Photo by Walter K. Firminger

To justify his opinion Mr. Little first endeavours to establish that Holwell, in the opinion of Clive himself as well as of other Directors of the East India Company of the period, was wont to draw largely upon his imagination for his facts. Apart from the Black Hole episode he had invented other imaginary conversations and incidents. The Black Hole incident, according to Mr. Little, was imagined by Holwell merely to screen himself from a trick practised by him on the 20th June at the capitulation, which, for some reason difficult to surmise, he had omitted to make known to his people. When Siraj-ud-daula’s soldiers came to take possession of the fort they met with an unexpected resistance, the garrison continuing to fire on them. Driven to fury they returned the fire of the English, killing a great number. These were, according to Mr. Little, the alleged victims of the Black Hole. Witnesses to his deception having thus disappeared, when Holwell was restored to liberty fifteen days or three weeks later he concocted the story known to us.

Mr. Little’s article produced a considerable sensation in India. The newspapers of Bengal, notably the Englishman and the Statesman, commented on it at great length. His critics point to the existence of several survivors of the Black Hole who died as late as 1800, the latest in 1815, and quote the letters of Holwell’s contemporaries one of whom shared his dramatic captivity. They also appeal to the opinion of Law de Lauristan, the former Chief of the French loge of Cassimbazar, who wrote in 1764 in his “Mémoires sur quelques affaires de l'Empire Mogol” published by us in 1913, a lurid account of the Calcutta drama.

The Company failed to found a successful colony on Madagascar, but was able to establish ports on the nearby islands of Bourbon and Île-de-France (today's Réunion and Mauritius). By 1719, it had established itself in India, but the firm was near bankruptcy. In the same year the Compagnie des Indes Orientales was combined under the direction of John Law with other French trading companies to form the Compagnie Perpétuelle des Indes [The Mississippi Company].
Lauriston Castle from the south

Law was born into a family of Lowland Scots bankers and goldsmiths from Fife; his father, William, had purchased Lauriston Castle, a landed estate at Cramond on the Firth of Forth and was known as Law of Lauriston. On leaving the High School of Edinburgh, Law joined the family business at the age of 14 and studied the banking business until his father died in 1688.

-- John Law (Economist), by Wikipedia
The reorganized corporation resumed its operating independence in 1723.

-- French East India Company, by Wikipedia

Jacques François Law French: Jacques-Francois Law, Compte de Tancarville Birthdate: 1724 Death: 1767 (42-43), Mauritius Immediate Family: Son of William Law of Lauriston and Rebecca Desves de Percy Husband of Maria de Carvalho Father of Jacques Louis Law de Clapernon Brother of Jean Law, baron de Lauriston; Jeanne Marie Law and Elisabeth Jeanne Law

William Law of Lauriston Birthdate: 1675 Death: 1752 (76-77) Immediate Family: Son of William Law of Brunton, Baron of Lauriston and Jean Campbell Husband of Rebecca Desves de Percy Father of Jean Law, baron de Lauriston; Jeanne Marie Law; Jacques François Law, comte de Tancarville and Elisabeth Jeanne Law Brother of John Law de Lauriston; Andrew Law of Lauriston and Jean Law of Lauriston

William Law of Brunton, Baron of Lauriston Birthdate: estimated between 1608 and 1668 Death: September 1684, Paris, France Immediate Family: Son of Reverend Mr. John Law of Waterfoot, Minister of the Gospel at Neilston and Agnes Shearer; Husband of Jean Campbell; Father of John Law de Lauriston; Andrew Law of Lauriston; William Law of Lauriston and Jean Law of Lauriston Brother of John Law, goldsmith -- by

Mr. Little refutes this evidence on the ground of the total absence of official documents relating to the occurrence. Neither the English refugees from Calcutta, nor the French at Chandernagor, nor yet the Dutch at Hoogly have written anything which makes the faintest allusion to that tragic night, although all relate the capture of Fort William. He recognises moreover that the distortion of history has been very rapid. It appears to have even preceded the liberation of Holwell. Prepared by him in a letter addressed to Sykes, it finds confirmation as early as July 3rd in a letter from Chandernagor written by some Englishmen who were not eye witnesses. Three months later it had become an accepted historical fact.

However great the interest attaching to the subject, we can only give it a very limited space here, as the Black Hole incident belongs to English history. But since Mr. Little has alluded to the absence of French testimony in the circumstances, it appeared to us interesting to consult the archives of Pondichery, the only ones actually available. In Registers Nos. 90 & 91 of our archives we possess a series of letters from 1744 to 1757 written by the Council of Pondichery to that of Chandernagor, or by the latter to different persons. Unfortunately these letters are incomplete; nevertheless we have discovered five, two of which are of great importance. They originate from the same source, the Superior Council of Chandernagor, but with a strange irony one sustains Mr. Little’s theory, while the other seemingly refutes it.

In a letter dated 25th June addressed to the factory of Masulipatam, Mr. Renault the Chief of Chandernagor relates that Siraj-ud-daula is at war with the English; he has arrived at Calcutta which he is besieging with 50,000 men, a great number of elephants and a numerous artillery. The issue is as yet unknown, but Mr. Renault anticipates the defeat and expulsion of the English. Nevertheless Mr. Renault’s letter displays no sympathy for Siraj-ud-daula. The next day Mr. Renault knows the end of the drama and announces it in the following terms in a second letter to the factory of Musulipatam: “(The English) had taken the precaution, from the beginning of the siege which has not been long, to embark the wives of the employes and of the principal residents, .... which makes one believe these vessels will have much to endure from now till they can get out of the Ganges and gain the coast. The Nawab did no harm to those who were in the factory when he took possession of it. He was content to have them stripped of their belongings, and dismissed them, with the exception of the principal residents whom he has made prisoners.”

This letter written the day following the event should be carefully noted. Not only does Mr. Renault ignore the Black Hole affair, but he calmly writes the Nawab did no harm to those who were in the factory. The letter certainly supports Mr. Little’s theory.

In another letter dated 29th August, also addressed to Masulipatam, and which appears to be a continuation of that of 26th June, Mr. Renault still appears to be ignorant of the Black Hole incident.

“No event of importance," he writes “has occurred in the country since the capture of Calcutta, and the English have so far not made any sign. All those who were imprisoned have been set free by the Nawab and have regained their ships. They have been joined by several boats from the coast, but among them there is only one Company’s vessel bearing 250 soldiers from Madras. It does not appear that with such a feeble reinforcement they will attempt any enterprise, seeing that they lack the greater part of the means required for the purpose. There has been a rumour afloat for sometime that they are willing to come to terms with the Nawab in order to return to their settlement, but this has not taken place. It is said at present that the war ships have gone to Madras and that large forces are assembling there to come and avenge the affront to the nation."

Mr. Renault on the 29th August sees nothing more in the capture of Calcutta than an affront offered to the English; to judge by current rumours the English regard themselves so little as the victims of an abominable crime that they are thinking of making terms with the Nawab.
The opinion of Mr. Renault is very different on the 16th September. In a letter addressed that day to Mr. LeVerrier, the Chief of Surat, he narrates events from their commencement:

“When we sent you our packets for Europe last July” he wrote, “we were so occupied that it was impossible to give you the smallest details concerning the revolution that we announced to you, the account of which formed the subject of our despatch. You will learn from the present that the Nawab Siraj-ud-daula having, contrary to the expectation of everyone, succeeded his grand uncle (sir) Ali Verdi Khan in the Soubadari of Bengal from the month of April, the English have experienced the most terrible effects of the anger of this young prince whom they had irritated by their arrogance and by the asylum they had accorded to certain of his enemies.

“Provoked by their boasting he invested them in their fort of Cassimbazar with many of their troops and after having removed the Chief (Mr. Watts) he made them surrender the factory which, although strong, was defended by only a few troops. Emboldened by this success, which he originally had little ground to expect, he drew up his army in battle array and came to lay siege to this place on the 18th June with 60,000 men, an immense artillery and numerous elephants.

“The vanity of the English having led them to believe that the Moors would never dare to venture so far, they found themselves so surprised and terrorized that they lost their heads at the sight of the enemy and did not profit by any of the advantages which Europeans possess over such contemptible troops. Although well fortified and numbering 600 Europeans, they scarcely offered the least resistance. The very day before the arrival of the Nawab (the 19th) the Governor, Mr. Drake, took refuge on the ships, with the commandant of the troops, the greater part of the Council, officers, inhabitants and the women. The few soldiers who remained in the fort, refusing to obey any superiors, so great a disorder ensued that the white flag was hoisted on the afternoon of the 20th. But the Moors, not wishing to recognise any capitulation, attacked the gates in great numbers and forced an entry, doing great violence to those who continued to offer any resistance. The pillage of both the settlement and the factory was immense, the English not having taken the precaution of embarking all their wealth.

“This was so to speak but the beginning of their troubles. The prisoners, amounting to some 200, having been confined pell-mell in a warehouse, were nearly all suffocated during the night. Those who survived, and especially the principal inhabitants, after enduring every species of misery, and having been carried in chains to Moxoudabad were sent back to us by the Nawab in the most pitiable condition, which we have endeavoured to relieve by all the assistance possible.

“The fate of those who escaped to the vessels was not less deplorable. Having gained the lower reach of the river with the utmost trouble in the world, they have suffered all the ill effects of the season and the inconvenience of having a multitude of women and children by whom the vessels were overcrowded, all of which added to bad fare procured with difficulty has produced a species of pestilential malady that carries away numbers every day. Many have come to seek relief here and at Chinsurah, but very few have recovered.”

A letter conceived in exactly the same terms was sent to the Council of Ile de France on the 16th December following. Do these documents suffice to pass a decisive judgment on the incident of the Black Hole? We do not think so. Like Mr. Little we are at first surprised that so extraordinary and alarming an event should not immediately have become known to public opinion, while on the other hand it seems difficult to admit that a legend of this nature could have grown so quickly. That Mr. Holwell and the English should have accepted it without question and spread it with complacency is not surprising, since it served their interests; but to admit that strangers should have been equally credulous is to say that their hatred for Siraj-ud-daula had extinguished in them all spirit of criticism. None of these suppositions is impossible. In 1756 the French at Chandernagor still considered that their interests were identical with those of the English, and their fear of Siraj-ud-daula fed by reports of his lordly cruelties, clouded their judgment.

We must, therefore, until further evidence is forthcoming, regard Mr. Little’s theory as not proven, but we are far from considering his arguments as valueless. India, every one knows, is a land where truth is deformed with the greatest ease and rapidity. We find instances of this fact every day in our own administration. It must also be recognised, in equity, that cruelty is not the characteristic of Indians, and nothing justifies us in supposing that in the present case they wreaked vengeance for a particular offence. Siraj-ud-daula, every one is agreed, did not give orders to imprison the English or to cause them to perish in so brutal a fashion; why should his officers have been more cruel? From the standpoint of psychology this is by no means evident.

We shall be told perhaps that seven years later at Patna the dethroned Nawab Mir Kassim caused many English to be put to death under still more cruel circumstances; but Mir Kassim had good grounds for hating the English and for wishing to be revenged on them. Moreover nothing tells us that in ordering their massacre he did not wish to transform the Black Hole legend into a striking reality.

We must not ask History to be the handmaid of passion. Holwell sleeps in the grave yard of Pinner since 1798; he has his statue at Calcutta, let us respect his grave. As to his memory, if it is ever proved beyond doubt that the incident of the Black Hole was grossly exaggerated, it should not be forgotten that, according to the official documents published by Mr. Hill in his Bengal in 1756-57, the English defended themselves bravely against Siraj-ud-daula on the 20th June till six o’clock in the evening and that a great number of them fell in the fight. In default of legend that alone would suffice for their fame.

Monghyr. Entrance to Fort Close to Cemetery. Photo by Walter K. Firminger.
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The Enlightenment and Orientalist Discourse on the Aryan, Excerpt from Aryans, Jews, Brahmins: Theorizing Authority through Myths of Identity
by Dorothy M. Figueira
State University of New York Press

CHAPTER 1: The Enlightenment and Orientalist Discourse on the Aryan


Orientalist and postcolonialist criticism has positioned the origin of much that it seeks to critique within the Enlightenment project. Edward Said identified the Enlightenment as a unified trajectory and master sign of both Orientalism and colonialism (Said 1978). Ashis Nandy traced the roots of colonialism’s mandate to absolutize the relative differences between cultures to the cultural arrogance of Enlightenment Europe. Partha Chatterjee problematized Enlightenment historiography (Chatterjee 1986). Peter van der Veer has blamed Enlightenment discourse for the erroneous politicization of Hinduism (Van der Veer 1998). Curiously, none of their arguments dwells on specifics—a common methodological flaw of critical schools which measure past texts against contemporary claims of emancipation or fantasies of dissent (Fluck 1996: 228). In these instances, critics assess the Enlightenment in light of the subsequent colonial experience. Their critical canon virtually ignores the fundamental texts of the period. Indeed, the Enlightenment has suffered much at the hands of poststructuralism’s vague and atextual treatment. There is clearly a need for a reappraisal of the Enlightenment with reference to its literature.

In satirical works of the eighteenth century, there appeared a general theme, barely hidden under the fiction and in the satire itself: Asia can and should offer lessons. The pittoresque Oriental tale provided an ideal medium through which authors could expose the vices of their own corrupt civil and religious institutions. The satirist’s task had been made that much easier, since travel accounts minutely described the religious and secular institutions of Asia and marked analogies to European systems of rule. Somewhat bemused, the voyagers drew comparisons between Christian and Asian mores. They noted in detail the various resemblances and their far-seeing readers were spurred on to draw further comparisons. In Diderot, Raynal, and Helvétius, for example, the strategy consisted of distancing readers from their normal surroundings in order to make them understand dangerous truths. Incessantly, Helvétius protested that his critique was aimed at the Orient and not at France, but the context of his discussion clearly pointed to misery found in a France stifling under the yoke of oppression.

In contradistinction to the voyagers’ descriptions, the Jesuits had formulated a portrait of an Asia noteworthy for its enlightened customs and institutions. They represented the Chinese as philosophers of subtle wisdom, a marvelously civilized people who were ruled by a paternal government. They obeyed pious and tolerant magistrates who governed with admirably just laws. These Jesuitical observations were, in turn, appropriated by the philosophes, who were not adverse to borrowing their teachers’ arguments to attack the Church. The Jesuitical emplotment of an enlightened Asia allowed the philosophes to question the principle of revealed religion.

For philosophers lost in the century of Louis XV, where visions of utopia collided daily with the contradictions of reality, the fiction of exotic “pure” religions proved captivating. Hindu or Confucian tolerance could be contrasted to the relentlessness of a Church suppressing liberty and to the sad spectacle of European religious disputes. One discovers, therefore, in the Enlightenment emplotment of the Orient, a subtle rhetorical strategy: Asia is portrayed as the victim of prejudice and superstition as well as the domain of reason and virtue. In its former role, it engendered political discussions and emphasized secularized history. In its latter use, the Enlightenment depiction of Asia helped define the disciplinary parameters of the history of religions. The comparisons of religious dogmas resulted in paradigms for practical analyses, most notably a form of biblical exegesis and a criticism of religious superstitions.

In this manner, Montesquieu’s Esprit des lois (1748) presented, for the first time in European literature, an examination of India with the purpose of illuminating universal history. Asia offered Montesquieu a vision of diversity which was unavailable in the classics or in European cultural attitudes. In an important respect, Montesquieu’s understanding of Asia contributed to the work’s originality. He showed that although nature was the same all over, climates differed and affected human behavior. Data culled from Asia enabled Montesquieu to develop this theory in book 17 of the Esprit des lois. Montesquieu’s provocative conclusions directly inspired Voltaire’s Essai sur les moeurs (1756–78). Voltaire adopted Montesquieu’s theory of climates, which in turn legitimized the objective comparison of different social institutions. Although Montesquieu and Voltaire herald the beginning of the scientific or philosophical reception of Asia, the didactic model still informed their work.


The Aryan Rewrites History

For Voltaire, Asia was the ideal. In fact, in the eighteenth century, Voltaire was a principle panegyrist and official defender of Asia’s moral rectitude. It held the key to understanding the European present as well as its future. At first, Voltaire directed his enthusiasm toward China. But its radical foreignness and the indecipherability of its literature stymied his efforts. He then turned his attention toward India, consoling himself with the belief that Indian religion was “very possibly” the same as that of the Chinese government, that is, a pure cult of a Supreme Being disengaged from all superstition and fanaticism (Voltaire 1885: 11.190). He maintained that the brahmin religion was even more ancient than that of China (Voltaire 1885: 28.136). The Indians were, perhaps, the most ancient assembled body of people. It appeared that other nations, such as China and Egypt, went to India for instruction (Voltaire 1885: 11.49). The brahmins were the first theologians in the world (Voltaire 1885: 29.488), and Indian religion formed the basis of all other religions (Voltaire 1885: 45.448). Voltaire believed that Indian philosophers had discovered a new universe “en morale et en physique” [moral and physical] (Voltaire 1963: 2.318).

With time and with a more complete documentation, Voltaire became better informed and refined his characterization of ancient India. As inventors of art, the Aryans were chaste, temperate, and law-abiding (Voltaire 1963: 1.65). They lived in a state of paradise—naked and without luxury. They subsisted on fruit rather than cadavers. Paragons of morality and specimens of physical perfection, the Aryans embodied prelapsarian innocence and sobriety. Their gentleness, respect for animal life, and deep religiosity incarnated the virtues of “Christianity” far more than anything found in the civilized West. Unlike the Saracens, Tartars, Arabs, and the Jews, who lived by piracy, the Aryans found nourishment in a religion (Voltaire 1963: 1.229, 231; 1.60; 1.234) that was based upon universal reason (Voltaire 1963: 1.237).

While Voltaire had initially based his information on the travel accounts of Chardin, Tavernier, and Bernier (Voltaire 1953–65: D 2698), he later came to rely heavily on the Lettres édifiantes et curieuses . . . par quelques missions de la compagnie de Jésus (Paris: 1706–76), especially the letters from Père Bouchet to Huet. As elsewhere in his oeuvre, even in his most virulent critiques of the Church, Voltaire was never truly distant from his Jesuit teachers. Jesuitical documentation on India supplied him with a theme he was to exploit with verve. Although the reverend fathers expressed horror for idolatrous superstition, they were not totally negative in their assessment of Indian religious potential. Jesuit missionaries judged the Indians eminently capable and worthy of conversion. After all, one could find in their “ridiculous” religion belief in a single God (Voltaire 1953-65: 11.190; 11.54), suggesting a kind of proto-Christianity. Bouchet’s mention of parallels between Aryan religious thought and Christianity prompted Voltaire to develop the idea that the West had derived its theology from India.

In short, Voltaire appropriated from the Jesuits data to suit a specific polemic—that Vedism comprised the oldest religion known to man and represented a pure form of worship whose loftly metaphysics formed the basis of Christianity. Voltaire found no difficulty in reconciling the sublimity of Indian religion with its modern superstitions: the Vedic Indian had simply been made soft by the climate (Voltaire 1963: 1.235–37). The climate’s effect was so pernicious that India’s conquerors even became weak under its influence (Voltaire 1885: 13.158). Thus, human frailty (Voltaire 1963: 2.325) and nature (Voltaire 1963: 1.61) conspired to render man idolatrous.

By disengaging a fictive Urform of Hinduism from all superstition and fanaticism, Voltaire effectively set up an ideal against which all other religions could be measured to their disadvantage. What religion could compete with that of the initial brahmins, who had established a government and religion based upon universal reason? When you have peaceful prelates, ruling an innately spiritual people, religion is simple and reasonable. More importantly, India was to supply Voltaire with information to combat the Church and its role in society. As a culture ignored by the Bible, India allowed Voltaire to question the accepted biblical chronology. Most significantly, however, Voltaire’s discussion of India enabled him to vent his spleen against the Jews. In other words, Voltaire’s emplotment of India concentrated on four problems: it allowed him to call into question the chronology of the sacred book, the chosen status of the Jews, the origin of the Judeo-Christian tradition, and the diffusion of our mythology, all of which challenged the historical importance of the Jewish people (Hawley 1974: 139–40).

Voltaire’s [H]anskrit Canon

One can almost forgive Voltaire his subjective portrayal of India, given the quality of the information culled from travel accounts, missionary letters, “scholarly” works, and “translations.” Although he sought out European accounts that he felt were exempt from sectarian prejudice, he was inexorably drawn to texts glaringly slanted by Protestant anti-Catholic rhetoric, as in the case of La Croze and Niecamp. He studied those Europeans who purported to know Sanskrit, yet knew none. He studied authors who, although they had spent sufficient time in India, were nevertheless woefully ignorant of the culture. Having literally read everything available concerning India, edited and unedited, Voltaire realized only too well the necessity of basing any future discussion of India upon an authentic Sanskrit text. He, therefore, set out to discover one. After having depended so long on secondary sources, he tended to ascribe authenticity to any Sanskrit text that fell into his hands. Time and again, he was deceived by his sources.

As the oldest theologians, Indians were the first people to possess books (Voltaire 1885: 26.325–6). One such book was the Shaster Bedang, a supposedly four-thousand-year-old exposition of the doctrine of the “Bedas” written by the philosopher Beass Muni. It was found in Alexander Dow’s History of Hindostan translated from the Persian to which are prefixed two dissertations concerning the Hindoos (1768, French translation in 1769).1 Voltaire believed that the Bedang taught Vedic monotheism. Voltaire was also familiar with another purportedly ancient and sacred book, the Shasta or Shastabad of Brahma. Voltaire maintained that the Shasta was five thousand years old, probably the oldest book in the world (Voltaire 1885: 15.326) and the source for subsequent law books (Voltaire 1885: 28.138).2 It possessed real wisdom and the pure original expression of Indian religion. The Shasta was actually a small “theological” treatise of recent date that had been transmitted to John Zephaniah Holwell, who included it in his Interesting historical events relative to the Provinces of Bengal and the Empire of Indostan (1765–71). However, Voltaire read its existence to prove that the brahmins had preceeded by several centuries the Chinese, whom Voltaire initially thought had preceeded the whole world in wisdom. The Shasta’s importance for Voltaire, therefore, was not so much that it was the oldest book but that its style prefigured, in his estimation, all wisdom, including that of Greece.3 The Shasta proved to Voltaire that the Indians were monotheists (Voltaire 1885: 29.167). More importantly, however, it showed that the Chinese and the West borrowed from India both their vision of God (Voltaire 1885: 29.210–11) and their myth of the Fall of Man (Voltaire 1885: 26.326; 28.138; 29.472–73).

Voltaire also discovered a manuscript, entitled the Cormo Vedam, that he described as a résumé of opinions and rites contained in the Veda (Voltaire 1885: 11.52). Voltaire did not believe the Cormo Vedam to be a text worthy of the modern brahmins. He judged it a ludicrous ritual “pile” of superstitions (Voltaire 1963: 1.242–43). Voltaire cited the Cormo Vedam primarily to show how the Veda and brahmins had degenerated. Traces of such decay were particularly prevalent in Voltaire’s primary document of Aryan religion, the Ezour Vedam. In Voltaire’s estimation, the Ezour Vedam was the most important Hanskrit [sic] text that he possessed.4 He claimed that its composition predated Alexander’s expedition to India (Voltaire 1885: 41.12, 367, 464; 45.448). Voltaire received the manuscript of the Ezour Vedam from the Comte de Maudave (1725–77) who had brought it to France. The count was purportedly a close friend of a francophone brahmin (Voltaire 1885: 45.170; 46.117) who had tried to translate the manuscript from Sanskrit into French (Voltaire 1885: 47.72). Voltaire alternately defined the Ezour Vedam as the beginning of the Veda (Voltaire 1885: 26.325–26) or “a copy of the four vedams” (Voltaire 1885: 26.392). In La Défense de mon oncle, he characterized it as “the true vedam, the vedam explained, the pure vedam.” By 1761, however, he described it as merely a commentary of the Veda.

In reality, it did not matter to Voltaire that this text was not really the Veda; what mattered was that it satisfied the idea of a Veda which, for Voltaire, represented an exemplum of sublimity and the scripture of the world’s oldest religion. The Ezour Vedam became such a text: it was the authentic text par excellance (Voltaire 1885: 41.464), the real Urtext, anterior to Pythagorus and anterior to the Shasta (Voltaire 1885: 19.58).5 Not only did Voltaire value it but, at the Bibliothèque du Roi where he had deposited a copy (Voltaire 1885: 47.72), he claimed that it was regarded as the most precious acquisition of the collection (Voltaire 1885: 45.464). This “Veda” announced a pure cult, disengaged from all superstition and all fanaticism (Voltaire 1963: 1.236). Written by the first brahmins, who also served as kings and pontiffs, it established a religion based upon universal reason.

More importantly, the Ezour Vedam provided Voltaire with the ideal text with which to challenge the historical perspective of Judeo-Christianity. Voltaire read the Ezour Vedam to show how the vaunted aspects of the Judeo-Christian tradition existed in India centuries before the Old Testament. The general thrust of this argument was to displace the Jews from a favored position in the Christian tradition. Vedic India represented a more distant antiquity than that of the Jews (Voltaire 1885: 17.55–56). Or, as Voltaire allowed his Indian narrator to articulate his message:

We are a great people who settled around the Indus and the Ganges several centuries before the Hebraic horde transported itself to the banks of the Jordan. The Egyptians, Persians and Arabs came to our country in search of wisdom and spices, when the Jews were unknown to the rest of mankind. We could not have taken our Adimo from their Adam. (Voltaire 1885: 17.55)6

The Ezour Vedam harkens back to a time before brahmins and their cult had degenerated. The religion existing in modern India had obscured sage Vedic theology, marketed superstition, and profited modern brahmins (Voltaire 1963: 2.405–6). The Ezour Vedam, however, combated the growth of idolatry and the very superstitions that eventually destroyed Aryan religion (Voltaire 1885: 26.392). For his part, Voltaire hoped to prove how all the principles of Christian theology that had been lost with the Veda could still be found in the Ezour Vedam (Voltaire 1963: 1.240–42), thanks to its retrieval and circulation by a French philosophe.

The Ezour Vedam

Max Müller characterized the Ezour Vedam as a “very coarse forgery” (Müller 1978: 5).7It consisted of a poor compilation of Hindu and Christian doctrines mixed up together in the most childish way. While Müller believed that it was probably the work of a “half educated native convert at Pondicherry” (Müller, 1891: 39) and the silliest book that could be read by a student of religion, he did not believe that the original author intended it for the purpose for which it was used by Voltaire (Müller, 1872: 20).

In La Renaissance orientale, Raymond Schwab characterized the Ezour Vedam as an insidious piece of propaganda consisting of certain “Vedic” materials translated by Jesuits with the intention of isolating elements most in harmony with Christianity (Schwab 1950: 166–68). With this fraud, Schwab maintained, the Jesuits sought to refute idolatry and polytheism in the name of the purer doctrine of the Vedas, and, ultimately, to convert Indians. As the Indologist Willem Caland noted, the fraud was clever: The Ezour Vedam did not reject all Hinduism, but granted those tenets not in contradiction with Christiam dogma. Its author tried to make readers think that the Vedam differed entirely from what they might have believed it to be (Rocher 1983: 24).

The editor of the Ezour Vedam, the Baron de Sainte Croix, did not present it as one of the four Vedas (Ezour Vedam 1778: 116),8 but offered it as the first original Sanskrit text published on religious and philosophical dogma. He did believe, however, that the Ezour Vedam’s scriptural citations were authentic.9 This point was important, since the editor also maintained that the four Vedas were lost (Ezour Vedam 1778:130). Sainte Croix felt that, given the mendacity of the brahmins and the large fees offered by the West for the Veda’s retrieval, the texts would have long since fallen into missionary hands had they still existed (Ezour Vedam 1778: 109–10).

It was upon its arrival in Europe that the confusion concerning the Ezour Vedam’s identity occurred. Ludo Rocher has suggested that error arose due to the work’s title. The Ezour Vedam’s reference to itself as a “veda” should have been understood in a generic sense, as the term “veda” is used in India by both missionaries and Indians alike. In fact, Rocher suggests that the Ezour Vedam did not pretend to be one of the four Vedas, but rather a “veda” in the general sense of the term, a holy book or, as the text defined itself, a “corps de science” (Ezour Vedam 1778: 203). It made no attempt to rank itself among the Vedas. In fact, the text clearly presents itself as a commentary. 10 By resolving the samdhi11 of the Ezour Vedam’s original title (Zozur Bedo), Rocher translated the title as the “Gospel of Jesus.” It seems likely that the Ezour Vedam was, indeed, a syncretistic pastiche compiled in the hopes of converting Hindus to an amenable Christianity. What the Ezour Vedam actually was is less significant than the use to which it and the mythic Aryan society it described were put during the Enlightenment. The Veda (in the form of the Ezour Vedam) allowed Voltaire and Sainte Croix to draw a distinction between what was Vedic and post-Vedic, the latter being a degenerated form of the former. Just as scripture had degenerated, so too had its interpreters.

A considerable portion of this early discourse surrounding the “Veda” consisted in mourning the loss of a rational religion that had suffered corruption (Voltaire 1963: 1.238) and blaming the brahmin elite, who neither instructed their people properly nor desired knowledge themselves (Voltaire 1963: 1.243–44). In this diatribe, Voltaire always presented the brahmin clergy as mendacious and generally corrupt (Voltaire 1963: 1.61).12 Voltaire blamed the brahmin priests for having led the Aryans astray, just as he blamed the Jesuits for the state of French Catholicism. In both instances, priestly machinations had entrapped the faithful in the snares of superstition and intolerance. Aryan India mirrored the Human (that is, French) Condition: Rational religion had degenerated into superstitions and abominable cultic practices. The prime actors in both instances were the priests. Brahmins offered Voltaire a most pregnant symbol: Where in the world could he have directed his anticlerical polemics so successfully? The brahmin priests allowed him to “écraser l’infâme” and, for once, the objects of his critique were not Catholic, Jesuits, or French.

The polemic directed against the brahmin clergy was seen inscribed within the narrative structure of the Ezour Vedam itself rather than as an intentional product of it. Biache, the caricature of a degenerate brahmin, preaches superstition in the form of popular theology to the philosopher Chumontou. By challenging Biache with refutations culled from the “Veda,” Chumontou imparts “pure” Aryan wisdom concerning the unity of God, creation, the nature of the soul, and the doctrines of suffering and reward. By enumerating the proper forms of worship (Ezour Vedam 1778: 150), the text itself is seen to exhibit the extent to which original Aryan theism had degenerated into Hindu polytheism (Ezour Vedam 1778: 13). With a brahmin priest spouting foolish superstition ably refuted by a philosopher championing reason, the Ezour Vedam was tailor-made to voice Voltaire’s critique of organized religion and faith in rationalism. But, Voltaire’s exoticism did not limit itself to a simple Deist idealization of the Aryan past. India was to provide Voltaire with a forceful weapon for a more significant battle in historical revisionism.

India, What Can It Teach Us?

This question, adopted by Max Müller as the title of a collection of essays, addresses a fundamental concern of this study, namely, that a fictive India and fictional Aryan ancestors were constructed in the West to provide answers for questions regarding European identity. India enabled Europe to discover its “true” past. Nowhere is this more true than in Voltaire’s attempt to rewrite the history of religions. It was in his efforts to compare world mythologies, especially the myth of the Fall of Man, that Voltaire’s true need to construct an Indian alibi (Latin: elsewhere) surfaced.

Voltaire compared the “Indian” version of the Fall with the classical myth relating the revolt of the Titans and the apocryphal account of Lucifer’s rebellion found in the Book of Enoch (Voltaire 1885: 18.34). The common use of this myth in three traditions suggested to Voltaire that the Greeks and the Jews had knowledge of brahmin mysteries. Voltaire placed additional significance on this myth, attributing all subsequent religious thought to it. It provided the foundation for the entire Christian religion (Voltaire 1885: 11.184), since it set the stage for Original Sin, which in turn set the stage for everything that followed. Voltaire also claimed that the Aryans originated the concept of the Devil, who, as the agent of sin, animated all Judeo- Christian theology (Voltaire 1885: 29.482). If this was indeed true, why, Voltaire asked, did Christianity bother to use a source as tenuous as a Jewish apocryphal book to explain the existence of evil (Voltaire 1885: 29.172–73)? Why did Christianity seek to base itself solely on a myth that did not even appear in the Old Testament (Voltaire 1885: 28.139)?

Voltaire posed these questions with a clear response in mind. By inserting this fundamental myth into an apocryphal book, the Jews contrived to claim authorship and displace the true founders of our faith. It was the Aryans, the Vedic brahmins, who had first developed these truths. The Jews subsequently repeated this mythology, after stealing it from its ancient Indian source. Just as the Jews stole the source of religions, so too did they steal the idea of Adam as the progenitor.

Did they get this from the Jews? Did the Jews copy the Indians, were both original? The Jews are not allowed to think that their writers took (ont puisé) anything from the brahmins, of whom they have never heard. It is not permitted to think about Adam in another way than do the Jews. I will be quiet and I will not think. (Voltaire 1885: 19.59)

Such is Voltaire’s polemic: The Jews stole what was of worth in their religion from the Aryans, people whom they called Gog and Magog (Voltaire 1885: 29.471). They then conspired to keep their fraud a secret. We, as Christians, have not dared to reveal this fraud, as our own beliefs are implicated (Voltaire 1885: 29.481). We have to believe the Jews, although we detest them, because they are regarded as our precursors and masters (Voltaire 1885: 11.47).

Ironically, Voltaire’s strategy to reveal this fraud involved those very individuals who, had the Jews not been his scapegoats, would have been his natural enemies—the Jesuits. Voltaire felt that the Jesuits alone were capable of proving whether “the vast Indies or a part of Palestine” comprises the most ancient society. They alone possessed the scholarly means to determine whether brahmins had plagarized the Pentateuch or the Jews had appropriated the wisdom of the Aryans (Voltaire 1885: 29.184).

The Veda was never more than a symbolic text for Voltaire. Nevertheless, it supplied him with an effective tool to launch a considerable attack: it combated idolatry, introduced Adam to the world, and provided an alternative scenario for the Fall of Man. In short, the Veda provided “all the principles of theology” (Voltaire 1885: 11.192) that Voltaire needed or desired: baptism, the immortality of the soul, metempsychosis, the identification of Abraham with Brahm (sic), and of Adam and Eve with Adimo and Procriti. The description of the revolt of the angels found in Holwell’s Shasta prefigured the biblical account of Lucifer’s fall.

The political repercussions of this reconstruction of Aryan religion were signficant. We have seen how the Ezour Vedam’s creation myth enabled Voltaire to attack the originality of the Hebrews and their religion. It allowed him to claim the anteriority of the Indians and, in doing so, effectively challenge the authority of the Bible. India provided another basis for religion unencumbered by the Judaic tradition. Indian “scripture” also allowed Voltaire to make the argument that the Jews were the great plagiarists of history:

Some very intelligent thinkers say that the brahmin sect is incontestably older that that of the Jews . . . they say that the Indians were always inventors and the Jews always imitators, the Indians always clever and the Jews always coarse. (Cited in Hawley 1974: 151)

In sections appended at a later date (1769) to the Essai sur les moeurs, Voltaire accuses the Jews of stealing from the Indians both the myths of Creation and the Fall. The Jews did not set the stage for Christianity; rather it was the Aryans who bequethed to us a religion based on universal reason that the Jews subsequently distorted. In a late letter to Frederick the Great (December 1775), Voltaire reiterated that Christianity was founded solely on the ancient religion of “Brama” [sic].

Voltaire’s reading of the “Veda” is, indeed, as ironic as it is inventive. He was able to imbue a clever piece of propaganda (or a clumsy attempt at ecumenicism) with characteristics that suited his polemical needs. Vedic India became a privileged site of Deist rationalism. He enlisted the Aryans in an attack on the pretensions of the Catholic Church and invoked their originality in order to displace the Jews from their privileged position in history. Less spectacular yet not less noteworthy is the simple fact that hidden behind Voltaire’s polemic lie the seeds of modern historiography, the study of comparative mythology, and the history of religions. It was with such faulty source material and prejudice that Voltaire initiated the comparative study of religion by comparing our myths to those of the Aryans.


Herder: Poetry versus Metaphysics

Kant proclaimed that the modern state resulted from man’s progressive development. How was one to reconcile this theory with the perception that many “primitive” peoples were happier and better off than inhabitants of the civilized world? In accordance with popular Enlightenment propaganda, one could render these “primitives” more sophisticated than the modern Western man. Thus, Kant could declare that Indian religious thought was free of dogmatism and intolerance: “It is a principle of the Indians (i.e. the Hindus), that every nation has its own religion. For this reason, they do not force anyone to accept theirs” (cited in Halbfass 1988:61).

We have seen how in the French Enlightenment discourse, India provided an alibi: by satisfying, through spacial displacement, the need for a new social and religious geography. Moreover, Indian religion also illustrated how “natural light” had been eclipsed through superstition, fanaticism, and idolatry. As Wilhelm Halbfass has noted, this theme of the suppression of natural light through superstition enjoyed great popularity among thinkers of the Enlightenment. Finally, the discourse on India also gives expression to the motif of religious decay (Halbfass 1988: 60–61). It was in the writings of Johann Gottfried von Herder that this strategy, linking self-reflection to anexotic, was first used to indulge politically charged fantasies of structural collapse and decay.

The philosophes and their followers believed in the unity of mankind and held that all men subsisted under the same natural law of right and reason. They supposed that all would participate alike in progress and that the outcome of history would be one of uniform civilization in which all peoples and races would share equally. As Herder maintained in the Ideen, man has the potential of ascending to the ideal of infinite perfection even without the benefits of Western culture. The study of peoples such as Indians (Herder 1877–1913: 4.357, 425; 5.214; 8.208; 11.247; 16.13) contributed to the development of Humanität, defined by Herder as the sum of the virtue and talents peculiar to human beings or the divine in man (Herder 1877–1913: 13.350; 14.230). However, the Enlightenment’s belief in the potential similarity of all human beings and in freedom from intolerance and ignorance would not be so easily realized. Herder’s discussions of India brings to the foreground this very dilemma.

Contrary to the account found in Genesis, Voltaire had placed the origin of mankind in the East on the banks of the Ganges. Herder followed Voltaire in that he too discovered the cradle of humanity in India (Herder 1877–1913: 13.38, 399, 403, 406).13 Since all men were descended from the same race (Herder 1877-1913: 5.447; 13.252, 405), Herder attributed the development of different cultures and languages to environmental forces (Herder 1877–1913: 5.539). Language, the purest expression of the spiritual character of a national group (Herder 1877–1913: 17.58–59), like man himself, descended from a unique source (Herder 1877–1913: 30.8). By positioning the childhood of humanity in India, Herder referred not only to the ancestors of Europeans, but also to progenitors of all humankind.

In the Ideen, Herder described India as the birthplace of all languages, sciences, and art (Herder 1877–1913: 13.411). He characterized the Hindus as the gentlest race of man (Herder 1877–1913: 13.222, 225–26). The Indian has respect for all sentient beings. His nourishment is sound and his demeanor as graceful as his spirit (Herder 1877-1913: 13.222). Indians are endowed with supernatural physical and spiritual qualities (Herder 1877–1913: 14.32, 73–74). No people exceeds the Indian in calmness and gentle obedience. Herder attributed the Indians’ tranquility to the climate as well as their innate character (Herder 1877–1913: 14.28). Their gestures and speech are unconstrainedly charming, their intercourse free, their bodies pure, and their mode of life simple and harmless. Children are brought up with indulgence and are not lacking in sensitivity, knowledge, or diligence. Even the lowest strata of society learn to read, write, and add (Herder 1877–1913: 14.28–29). Their vision of God is great and beautiful.

However, Herder did not give India the least importance in the comparative history of primitive revelation. It was as though Indian religion, since the supposed loss of the Rig Veda, had been cut off from primitive revelation and reduced to human speculation. Indian religion was interesting in and of itself, but inappropriate to illuminate the authenticity of pure Christianity or Judaism, which, after all, were the objects of legitimate exegesis. Herder found much to respect about India. Like his friend Goethe, he admired the graceful simplicity of Kalidasa’s Sakuntala. He even felt that it must be more valuable than all “the Vedas, Upavedas and Upangas” put together. Its poetry, undistorted by tendentious religious speculation, provided greater beauty and truth than was thought possible in Sanskrit literature. Herder judged the Vedas, “Upavedas” and “Upangas,” although absent to his gaze, as interminable, less useful, and far less agreeable than the poetry of Kalidasa. He even surmised that it was the Veda that had blunted the spirit and character of the Indian people. Compared to the poetry, all those “Upnekats” and “Bagavedams” must have presented faint notions of the Indian mentality (Herder 1786–92: 91).

In Herder’s mind, India and the primitive world, the primitive world and nature, nature and poetry become synonymous and interchangeable. He joined the eighteenth-century belief in the anteriority of poetry to his own variation of the bon sauvage theme and posited an equivalence of India and poetry (Herder 1877–1913: 5.50; 1.32). The compiler of the Stimmen der Völker in Liedern also encouraged Germans to seek new inspirational models and question the absolute value of Greek classical norms. The philosophes and their German disciples believed that reality and, by extension, the arts were ordered in terms of universal, timeless, objective, and unalterable laws which rational investigation could discover. Their detractors believed that logic was incompatible with the force of inspiration necessary for poetic creation. Herder sought a middle ground between these diametrically opposed alternatives. He rejected the particular concept of reason propounded by Enlightenment rationalism and endeavored, rather, to interpret rationality in such a way that it was not inimical to spontaneity and vitality.

The Fragmente, Über die neuere deutsche Literatur, and Abhandlung über den Ursprung der Sprache reveal Herder’s struggle with the possibility of discovering a native German literature. The movement of German authors to found a German national literature developed along two distinct lines: the first consisting of a need to establish a clear criterion for assessing a work’s national characteristics, the second, to create a literature unique in itself. As a corollary, this movement stimulated speculation on the nature of artistic inspiration in general. To proclaim the poetic origin of language, to situate the land of poetry in India, to present popular songs against the classics, to underline the sacred character of inspiration—in other words, to found a Weltliteratur—already entailed the assertion of the artistic equivalence between the Nibelungenlied and the Vedas (Gérard 1963: 65).

With man’s origin in India, it followed that Sanskrit poetry should provide the source from which all poetry descended. Sanskrit poetry thus played a pivotal role in Herder’s thought. Its beauty and sublimity provided an excellent argument in favor of Herder’s humanistic aesthetic. The study of songs, fables, and myths of nationalities such as that of India (Herder 1877–1913: 16.13; 4.357; 5.214; 8.208; 11.247) contributed to the development of one’s national culture, which, in turn, contributed to the development of humanity (Herder 1877–1913: 13.356; 14.230).

Due to the West’s necessarily incomplete knowledge of Sanskrit literature, Herder could cut it to measure out of the poetic presuppositions of an unpoetic age. As a result of Herder’s theories and instigations, Sanskrit poetry became required reading for anyone who desired to experience “real” poetry. In Herder’s thought, the ´´ Sakuntala possessed everything the absent Veda lacked. In fact, for Herder, Kalidasa’s nataka assumed a significance which subsequent writers attributed to the Veda in their depiction of an Aryan humanity. Herder chose to emphasize the Sakuntalafor two reasons. Kalidasa’s play existed and could be read in support of Romantic claims which found their germ in Herder’s writings. The Veda did not exist. But, even as an absent text, it was never absent as a counterpoint to Sanskrit poetry and was a negative authority in his discourse to be rejected because of its degeneracy and superstitious beliefs.

According to Herder, Aryan religion was destroyed long ago by Vaisnavite and Shivaite sectarians. Its legends came down to us only in the form of more recent interpretations. While some residue of the initial purity of primitive Aryan religion remains in these legends, they have been grossly distorted by myth. While quasi-biblical and quasi-Christian, Indian religion suffered from a particular evil, metempsychosis, that destroyed Aryan spirituality and morality, leaving Hindu quietism, indifference, and social disaster in its wake. Herder suspected what modern Indologists can prove from the Rig Veda—that the Aryans did not believe in metempsychosis. Herder believed that metempsychosis betokened the regression of Aryan spirituality from contact with aboriginal tribes given to totemism (Herder 1877–1913: 16.78). For Herder, metempsychosis signified the illusion of sensual men who envied the fate of animals. Populations that are more evolved and happier invent a locus where their terrestrial life can be prolonged in idealized form. The Aryans had done this. But the later Indians had degenerated. Their belief in metempsychosis encouraged compassion for plants and animals, rather than for people (Herder 1877–1913: 14.31).

In actuality, Herder distinguished three Indias: the primitive kingdom of poetry and natural religion provided by the presence of the Sakuntala, the mystico-metaphysical worldview represented by the Aryans of the absent Veda, and the degenerate present. For Herder’s subjective reasoning, the first alone was of interest, the second inaccessable, and the third a monstrous product of the human spirit. All three Indias—the locus of true poetry, the lost Aryan hierophany, and the degenerate present—would, however, reappear in subsequent discussions. It would be the task of the Romantic mythographers to incorporate these fictive Indias within an interpretation of the Semitic-Christian religious cycle. India was still too distant, however, in Herder’s time.

Nevertheless, many of the Romantic theses regarding India begin to coalesce in Herder. Already, in Voltaire, we saw the Aryans inhabiting a golden age and their religion offering a tradition older than the Bible. Aryan India saw primitive revelation degenerate under the influence of a corrupt priesthood and monotheism reduced to polytheism. Upon this script, Herder and the Romantics projected their own aesthetic need: the desire to discover a true national poetry. Once the Veda appeared on the literary scene, Herder’s notions concerning the poetic origin of language and poetry as a spontaneous expression of the folk spirit and Sanskrit poetry as natural national poetry would be applied to it. Herder’s depiction of India as an ancient poetic utopia and modern site of cultural decay would also reappear in subsequent discussions.

Jones and Colebrooke: Myth versus Text

Sir William Jones was Europe’s foremost Orientalist scholar. He mastered twenty-eight languages, translated the Sakuntala and the Manava Dharmashastra (Laws of Manu), and served in India as a judge. Nevertheless, he depicted the ancient Aryan in terms not dissimilar to those of the nonspecialists of his time. The Aryans were a superior people. All that was considered valuable in the Ancients found an initial expression among the Aryans. They possessed a highly evolved moral wisdom and a fertile imaginative genius (Jones 1788: 728-29). They originated the study of astronomy (Jones 1788: 430) and developed metaphysical theories that the Greeks later appropriated (Jones 1788: 425). The Aryans also supplied the Ancients with their gods (Jones 1788: 724). They were somewhat related to the great cultures of mankind, including our own. Aryan society was so magnificent that, even after so many revolutions and conquests, they still surpassed the world in wealth. However, Aryan culture degenerated and only vestiges of its former glory appear in modern India.

Today they appear degenerate and abased . . . in some early age, they were splendid in arts and arms, happy in government, wise in legislation, and eminent in various knowledges. (Jones 1788: 421) Before the Aryans disappeared, however, they left a textual trace of their genius behind in the Veda and its “compendium, the Upanishads.” According to Jones, these texts provided source material for information regarding the Aryans and their noble metaphysics (Jones 1788: 429). To this script, Jones added several key points that would provide valuable information for an ideological portrait of ancient India that subsequent thinkers in India and the West would exploit.

Jones is credited with the discovery of the affinity between Sanskrit and the Classical, Persian, Celtic, and Gothic languages. His speculation regarding the importance of Sanskrit not only initiated the scientific study of India, but proved revolutionary to the then barely nascent study of linguistics. For, in addition to noting the similarity between Sanskrit and the classical languages, Jones informed his readers that Sanskrit was “more perfect” than Greek, more copious than Latin and, more exquisitely refined than either (Jones 1788: 422). If Sanskrit so far surpassed those languages previously held as the highest forms of expression, then the Indians who spoke it were truly a race to be admired. We have seen how others had made similar assertions. Jones, however, was the first to be able to back his claim with “scientific” data. The belief in a linguistic affinity of the Aryans with Persians, Ethiopians, Egyptians, Phoenicians, Greeks, Tuscans, Goths, Celts, Chinese, Japanese, and Peruvians implied that these peoples all proceeded from some central site of origin (Jones 1788: 431). That they all possessed languages structurally similar to our own became politically significant. Scholarship could now be enlisted in the service of empire. By rediscovering India’s Aryan past, England could subsequently presume that it was helping India help itself. This motive, explicit in Jones’s translation efforts (Figueira 1991: 25), also informed the portrayal of the Aryan in the scholarship of Henry Thomas Colebrooke (Müller 1837: 1.2). Colebrooke’s assessment of the Vedic materials was, however, more directly instrumental in defining the British colonial mission.

Jones, along with other scholars (Halhed, Marine, and Chambers) had collected numerous Vedic fragments and deposited them in the library of the College of Fort William in Calcutta (Kopf 1969:40). In 1800, Colebrooke was assigned by Governor-General Wellesley to teach Sanskrit at Fort William. During his tenure there, he found an ideal opportunity to collate the Vedic fragments residing in the college library. In the Asiatick Researches of 1805, Colebrooke offered an approximate idea of the contents of the Veda (Colebrooke 1805: 377–497). His readings of this material offered Westerners for the first time the textual evidence to chart the decline of Indian civilization from Vedic to modern times (Müller 1837: 1.3).

Colebrooke had initially doubted whether the Vedas were extant or whether their obsolete dialect could be read by anyone.14 He had thought that even if brahmins possessed the Veda, they would not have shared them. Although the Upanishads had already been translated into Persian, the brahmins still jealously guarded their scripture (Colebrooke 1805: 377). Colonel Polier’s discovery of a purportedly complete copy dispelled Colebrooke’s doubts. The Veda did, in fact, exist and it became Colebrooke’s task to introduce it in general terms to the West.15

The bulk of Colebrooke’s article, however, dealt with proving the authenticity of his manuscripts. Although the Veda’s date and authorship could not be determined “with accuracy and confidence” (Colebrooke 1805: 489), Colebrooke confirmed its authenticity by cross-referencing it to other works. He also compared fragments of numerous commentaries whose authenticity had been secured by interpretations of their annotations in other works.16 He further verified Vedic quotations with the testimony of grammars, collections of aphorisms, law digests, astronomy, medical texts, profane poetry, and even the writings of heretical sects (Colebrooke 1805: 481–84). This corroboration offered sufficient grounds to prove that no forger’s skill was equal to the task of fabricating large works in all branches of Sanskrit literature to agree with the numerous citations pervading thousands of volumes in every branch of that literature (Colebrooke 1805: 484). The “superstitious” manner in which the Veda was read, its explanatory table of contents, and indices as well as glosses of every passage and every word made interpolations impracticable (Colebrooke 1805: 480). Colebrooke assured his readers that the Veda, as he presented it, not only was genuine but had survived in an unadulterated form. After authenticating the texts in question, however, Colebrooke showed little interest in analyzing their message or the civilization out of which they arose.

He did, however, corroborate Jones’s more significant assertions. Colebrooke read the Veda as a negative authority. It did not so much relate what the Aryans were like as what they were not like: modern Hindus. All the abuses of modern Hinduism were absent from Vedic religion. There were no blood sacrifices (Colebrooke 1805: 437–78). The numerous gods of modern cultic practice could be reduced to the three major Vedic deities and these were ultimately manifestations of one supreme god (Colebrooke 1805: 395). Just as Aryan religious rituals differed dramatically from those of modern India, so did its social practices (Colebrooke 1795: 209–19; Colebrooke 1798: 33-67).

Colebrooke’s thesis, while evidently more informed and expert than that of the nonspecialist commentary, was remarkably similar to the Enlightenment discourse on the Aryans. It emphasized an ideal Vedic age whose religion had degenerated through superstition and clerical abuse. The monotheistic religion that Colebrooke discovered in the Vedas was no longer in use and had been superseded by polytheism and decadent ceremonies, founded on the Puranas or, even worse, the Tantras. Bloody sacrifices to Kalı had taken the place of the less sanguinary yajña, just as adoration of Krishna and Rama had succeeded the worship of elements and plants (Colebrooke 1805: 495-96). As Colebrooke would note in his essay “On the Religious Ceremonies of the Hindus,” modern Hinduism functioned as a misunderstanding of ancient texts (Colebrooke 1802: 229–31). Rituals such as satı were not part of the authentic scriptural tradition (Colebrooke 1785: 109–19). Colebrooke also found discrepancies between the ancient texts and contemporary practice with reference to caste exclusionary practices. David Kopf has characterized the Jones-Colebrooke depiction of the Aryans in the following terms: they “were thought to have been outgoing and non-mystical. They were pictured as a robust, beef-eating, socially egalitarian society” (Kopf 1969: 41). These Aryans believed in one God, did not practice satı or idolatry, and did not adhere to caste regulations. They were in no way similar to modern Hindus.

Despite the length of Colebrooke’s article, his specific conclusions were scant and uninspiring. He limited his discussion to providing a soupçon of the Vedas, citing passages to show the “seeming absurdity” of the text under analysis (Colebrooke 1805: 434). They were too voluminous for a complete translation, their language was obscure, and they presented too little reward to the reader and the translator.17 Colebrooke concluded that the Vedas deserved to be consulted occasionally by the Oriental scholar for those few remarkable and important things found in them, however difficult it was to extract such pearls. On this negative note, Colebrooke concluded his 120- page analysis introducing the Veda to Europe. His article had the effect of dampening interest in the Vedas and discouraging scholars from delving deeper into them for profitable information. However, Colebrooke’s analysis had a significant political effect upon the colonial administration’s assessment of the worth of Sanskrit literature and modern Hindu religion, as Thomas B. Macauley’s oft-cited Minute will attest. It took another half-century to amend Colebrooke’s dismissive judgment and shift the focus of scholarly interest away from the classical period of Sanskrit literature back to the Urtext.18


The discourse on the Aryan during this period, culled from fraudulent or largely absent textual material, expressed concerns that were crucial to the Enlightenment vision of historical progress and knowing subjects acting within history. The Veda’s discovery, “scientific” analysis, and presence in the West as a text would not significantly alter the nonspecialist portrait of the Aryan. In fact, Orientalist scholarship is seen to have provided the documentation necessary to support the Enlightenment conceptual apparatus. Such validation may, indeed, explain critical interpretations of the Enlightenment’s influence on Orientalism and colonialism. As we have noted, postcolonial critiques of the Enlightenment tend to avoid actually engaging Enlightenment texts. This failure should not be attributed to critical laziness, the theorists’ restrictive canon, or the fact that Foucault has exhausted the possibilities of interpreting the Enlightenment. By evoking the Enlightenment without allowing its literature to inform any analysis and projecting onto Enlightenment anthropology the discursive source of colonialism without engaging texts, critics can neatly avoid having to confront what the literature reveals: the Enlightenment’s ambiguous representation of the Other. Poststructuralism’s limited canon normally protects certain ideological presuppositions, the first and foremost of which is Deconstruction’s critique of Western rationalism. Actual engagement with Enlightenment texts might very well call such presuppositions into question. Therefore, postcolonial theory, spawned as it is from Deconstruction’s confrontation with logocentrism, must present the Enlightenment as a unified trajectory. It must be seen as a period that uniformly absolutized differences. The Enlightenment must be made to fit the master narrative of Orientalism and colonial discourse analysis.

Moreover, any actual confrontation with Enlightenment literature would highlight the extent to which poststructural criticism embraces its presentism, equates politics with oppositionalism and power with rationalism. If poststructuralist theory’s universalization of power defines itself as a systemic limitation to individual choice (Fluck 1996: 227), then postcolonial criticism has a vested interest in dismissing the Enlightenment. If a key concern of this criticism involves the rejection of ideals that were fundamental to the Enlightenment project, then the Enlightenment as the perpetrator of rationalism, empiricism, and historicism must be suspect. The Enlightenment belief in the idea of historical agents and/or knowing subjects must also be ignored, since the edifice of poststructuralist criticism has been erected upon the impossibility of self-reflection and intersubjective validation (Fluck 1990: 17). Thus, criticism’s own agenda must be projected onto texts from the past. A valuable lesson can be learned from this critical reading of the Enlightenment. As readers, we should look beyond critical gestures of empowerment and assess the larger politics of identity that not only informed historical and literary analysis, but continue to be played out with Indian props.
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Jacob Ilive [John Ilive]
by Wikipedia
Accessed: 10/31/20

Jacob Ilive (1705 – 1763) was an English type-founder, printer and author. He was a religious radical, who developed neognostic views based on deism.[1] He spent time in prison, convicted of blasphemy.


He was the son of Thomas Ilive (died 1724), a London printer of Aldersgate Street, and his wife Jane James (1669–daughter of Thomas James, another printer. Two brothers, Abraham and Isaac, were also printers. He was apprenticed to his father, and freed from the bond in 1726, by his mother.[2][3]

Around 1730, Ilive carried on both a type foundry and a printing business. In 1734 he lived by Aldersgate coffee house. From January 1736 to 1738 he published a rival to Edward Cave's Gentleman's Magazine.

The Gentleman's Magazine was a monthly magazine founded in London, England, by Edward Cave in January 1731. It ran uninterrupted for almost 200 years, until 1922. It was the first to use the term magazine (from the French magazine, meaning "storehouse") for a periodical. Samuel Johnson's first regular employment as a writer was with The Gentleman's Magazine.

The original complete title was The Gentleman's Magazine: or, Trader's monthly intelligencer. Cave's innovation was to create a monthly digest of news and commentary on any topic the educated public might be interested in, from commodity prices to Latin poetry. It carried original content from a stable of regular contributors, as well as extensive quotations and extracts from other periodicals and books. Cave, who edited The Gentleman's Magazine under the pen name "Sylvanus Urban", was the first to use the term magazine (meaning "storehouse") for a periodical. Contributions to the magazine frequently took the form of letters, addressed to "Mr. Urban". The iconic illustration of St. John's Gate on the front of each issue (occasionally updated over the years) depicted Cave's home, in effect, the magazine's "office"...

Samuel Johnson's first regular employment as a writer was with The Gentleman's Magazine. During a time when parliamentary reporting was banned, Johnson regularly contributed parliamentary reports as "Debates of the Senate of Magna Lilliputia". Though they reflected the positions of the participants, the words of the debates were mostly Johnson's own. The name "Columbia", a poetic name for America coined by Johnson, first appears in a 1738 weekly publication of the debates of the British Parliament in the magazine.

A skilled businessman, Edward Cave developed an extensive distribution system for The Gentleman's Magazine. It was read throughout the English-speaking world and continued to flourish through the 18th century and much of the 19th century under a series of different editors and publishers. It went into decline towards the end of the 19th century and finally ceased general publication in September 1907...

In addition to an index for each year of The Gentleman's Magazine, which was usually published with the December issue of the magazine, a full index was compiled by the College of Arms and typed by the Genealogical Society of Utah.

-- The Gentleman's Magazine, by Wikipedia

He sold the foundry in 1740, but kept the printing side going for the rest of his life. He went to live in "London House", the former residence of Christopher Rawlinson.[2]

Ilive died in 1763, aged 58. The printer John Nichols considered him "somewhat disordered in his mind".[2]

Views and gaol sentence

Ilive delivered at Brewers' Hall on 10 September 1733, and at Joiners' Hall two weeks later, an Oration on the plurality of worlds and against the doctrine of eternal punishment. He hired Carpenters' Hall, London Wall, and lectured there on the natural religion. In 1738 he brought out another Oration, for which the venue was Trinity Hall, in Aldersgate Street, on 9 January 1738; it was directed against Henry Felton's True Discourses, on personal identity in the resurrection of the dead.[2]


In 1751 Ilive printed anonymously the Book of Jasher, a purported translation. It was reissued with additions by Rev. Charles Rogers Bond, Bristol, 1829.[2] Behind unconvincing stories of its origin, the book contained naturalistic explanations of Old Testament miracles.[1]

The Book of Jasher, also called Pseudo-Jasher, is an eighteenth-century literary forgery by Jacob Ilive. It purports to be an English translation by Flaccus Albinus Alcuinus of the lost Book of Jasher. It is sometimes called Pseudo-Jasher to distinguish it from the midrashic Sefer haYashar (Book of the Upright, Naples, 1552), which incorporates genuine Jewish legend.

Published in November 1750, the title page of the book says: "translated into English by Flaccus Albinus Alcuinus, of Britain, Abbot of Canterbury, who went on a pilgrimage into the Holy Land and Persia, where he discovered this volume in the city of Gazna." The book claims to be written by Jasher, son of Caleb, one of Moses's lieutenants, who later judged Israel at Shiloh. The book covers biblical history from the creation down to Jasher's own day and was represented as the Lost Book of Jasher mentioned in the Bible.

The provenance of the text was immediately suspect: the eighth-century cleric Alcuin could not have produced a translation in the English of the King James Bible. There is an introductory account by Alcuin of his discovery of the manuscript in Persia and its history since the time of Jasher, and a commendation by John Wycliffe.

The supposed lost book was declared an obvious hoax by the Monthly Review in the December of the year of publication, and the printer Jacob Ilive was sentenced in 1756 to three years in jail for this fraud and for his radical anti-religious pamphlets.

In 1829, a slightly revised and enlarged edition was published in Bristol, provoking attacks against it. Photographic reproduction of this 1829 edition was published in 1934 by the Rosicrucians in San Jose, California, who declared it an inspired work.

-- Book of Jasher (Pseudo-Jasher), by Wikipedia

On 20 June 1756 Ilive was sentenced to three years' imprisonment with hard labour in the House of Correction at Clerkenwell, for writing, printing, and publishing an anonymous pamphlet in 1754. Aimed at Thomas Sherlock, it was entitled Some Remarks on the excellent Discourses lately published by a very worthy Prelate by a Searcher after Religious Truth. It was rewritten and enlarged as Remarks on the two Volumes of excellent Discourses lately published by the Bishop of London, 1755. It was declared to be "a most blasphemous book" denying the divinity of Jesus Christ as well as revealed religion.


Thomas Sherlock (1678 – 18 July 1761) PC was a British divine who served as a Church of England bishop for 33 years. He is also noted in church history as an important contributor to Christian apologetics.

Born in London, he was the son of the Very Revd William Sherlock, Dean of St Paul's. He was educated at Eton College and St Catharine's College, Cambridge. In 1704 he succeeded his father as Master of the Temple, where he was very popular...

In 1714 he became master of his old college at Cambridge and later the university's vice-chancellor, whose privileges he defended against Richard Bentley. In 1715, he was appointed Dean of Chichester.

He took a prominent part in the Bangorian controversy against Benjamin Hoadly.

The Bangorian Controversy was a theological argument within the Church of England in the early 18th century, with strong political overtones. The origins of the controversy lay in the 1716 posthumous publication of George Hickes's Constitution of the Catholic Church, and the Nature and Consequences of Schism. In it, Hickes, on behalf of the minority non-juror faction that had broken away from the Church of England after the Glorious Revolution, as Bishop of Thetford, excommunicated all but the non-juror churchmen. Benjamin Hoadly, the Bishop of Bangor, wrote a reply, Preservative against the Principles and Practices of Non-Jurors; his own Erastian position was sincerely proposed as the only test of truth.

The controversy itself began very visibly and vocally when Hoadly delivered a sermon on 31 March 1717[which calendar?] to George I of Great Britain on The Nature of the Kingdom of Christ. His text was John 18:36, "My kingdom is not of this world" and from that, Hoadly deduced, supposedly at the request of the king himself, that there is no Biblical justification for any church government of any sort. He identified the church with the Kingdom of Heaven. It was therefore not of this world, and Christ had not delegated His authority to any representatives.

Two competing visions of government were in play. On the one hand, there was a vision of God appointing the king and the bishops to be leaders, selecting them from all others and imbuing them with special characters, either through grace or in creation. That view held that the king, as the head of the Established Church, was not only a secular leader of a state but also a religious primate. Power and regulation flowed downward from God to the people. That was the aristocratic model that was favoured by the Tory party and had been used to propose the divine right of kings.

The other view was that power flowed up from the people to the leaders, that leaders were no more intrinsically better than those led, and God gives out revelation freely. That Whig view was also the view of the Puritans and the "Independents" (the various Congregational and Baptist churches, Quakers etc.).

George I favoured the Whigs in Parliament and favoured a latitudinarian ecclesiastical policy in general. That was probably not by any desire to give up royal prerogative but to break the power of the aristocracy and the House of Lords. A significant obstacle to all kings of England had been the presence of bishops in the Lords. While a king could create peers, it was much more difficult for him to move bishops into and out of the Lords.

The sermon was immediately published and instantly drew counterattacks. William Law (Three Letters to the Bishop of Bangor) and Thomas Sherlock (dean of Chichester), in particular, gave vigorous defences of church polity. Hoadly himself wrote A Reply to the Representations of Convocation to answer Sherlock, Andrew Snape, provost of Eton, and Francis Hare, then dean of Worcester. The three men, and another opponent, Robert Moss, dean of Ely, were deprived of their royal chaplaincies by the king. Hoadly did not, however, attempt to answer William Law. It has been claimed that in all, over 200 pamphlets linked to the controversy were published by 53 writers. Of those, 74 were published in July 1717.

In May 1717, the Convocation appointed a committee to study the sermon. When the report was ready for synodal sanction against Hoadly, the king dismissed the convocation, which did not meet again for over 130 years.

-- Bangorian Controversy, by Wikipedia

Sherlock became Bishop of Bangor in 1728. He was translated to Salisbury in 1734, where he was ex officio Chancellor of the Order of the Garter; and in 1748 to London, where he was sworn of the Privy Council. Sherlock was a capable administrator and cultivated friendly relations with Dissenters. In Parliament he gave good service to his old schoolfellow, Robert Walpole, Prime Minister of Great Britain.

He published against Anthony Collins's deistic Grounds of the Christian Religion a volume of sermons entitled The Use and Intent of Prophecy in the Several Ages of the World (1725); and in reply to Thomas Woolston's Discourses on the Miracles he wrote a volume entitled The Tryal of the Witnesses of the Resurrection of Jesus (1729), which soon ran through fourteen editions. His Pastoral Letter (1750) on the late earthquakes had a circulation of many thousands, and four or five volumes of Sermons which he published in his later years (1754–1758) were also at one time highly esteemed. Jane Austen, wrote to her niece Anna in 1814, "I am very fond of Sherlock's Sermons, prefer them to almost any."...

Sherlock also wrote a respected work entitled A Discourse Concerning the Divine Providence, in which he argues that the Sovereignty and Providence of God are unimpeachable.

Since the Deist controversy Sherlock's argument for the evidences of the resurrection of Jesus Christ has continued to interest later Christian apologists such as William Lane Craig and John Warwick Montgomery. His place in the history of apologetics has been classified by Ross Clifford as belonging to the legal or juridical school of Christian apologetics.

-- Thomas Sherlock, by Wikipedia

He remained in gaol until 10 June 1758, spending time writing.[2]

The sceptical line Ilive took towards the Genesis creation myth had something in common with ideas found earlier in Charles Blount and Charles Gildon. A strong influence came from the writings of William Derham, in particular Astro-Theology (1715).[4]

Astrolatry is the worship of stars and other heavenly bodies as deities, or the association of deities with heavenly bodies. The most common instances of this are sun gods and moon gods in polytheistic systems worldwide. Also notable is the association of the planets with deities in Babylonian, and hence in Greco-Roman religion, viz. Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn.

The term astro-theology is used in the context of 18th- to 19th-century scholarship aiming at the discovery of the original religion, particularly primitive monotheism. Unlike astrolatry, which usually implies polytheism, frowned upon as idolatrous by Christian authors since Eusebius, astrotheology is any "religious system founded upon the observation of the heavens", and in particular, may be monotheistic. Gods, goddesses, and demons may also be considered personifications of astronomical phenomena such as lunar eclipses, planetary alignments, and apparent interactions of planetary bodies with stars. Astro-theology is used by Jan Irvin, Jordan Maxwell and Andrew Rutajit (2006) in reference to "the earliest known forms of religion and nature worship", advocating the entheogen theory of the origin of religion...

-- Astrolatry, by Wikipedia

In what was a tolerant epoch of the Church of England, Ilive was in a select group, with Peter Annet and Thomas Woolston, of those against whom blasphemy charges were successfully brought.[5] Sherlock, by legal action, sought to discourage Ilive from publishing other deist writers.[3]


In 1730 Ilive printed his major book, The Layman's Vindication of the Christian Religion, in 2 pts. The parts were

1. The Layman's general Vindication of Christianity

2. The Layman's Plain Answer to a late Book, a reply to the Grounds and Reasons of Anthony Collins.[2]

His Oration was written in 1729, and published in 1733 (2nd edit. 1736), at the wish of his mother Jane. A Dialogue between a Doctor of the Church of England and Mr. Jacob Ilive upon the subject of the Oration spoke at Joyners' Hall, wherein is proved that the Miracles said to be wrought by Moses were artificial acts only, followed in the same year, in support of the Oration.[2]

In relation to his profession, Ilive wrote:[2]

• Speech to his Brethren the Master Printers on the great Utility of the Art of Printing at a General Meeting 18th July 1750, London, no date.
• The Charter and Grants of the Company of Stationers, with Observations and Remarks thereon, 1762, a pamphlet. It dealt with Ilive's grievances against the management of the Stationers' Company, and he called a meeting on 3 July. A committee was appointed to inquire into the state of the company, and a new master and wardens elected.

Two further pamphlets were:[2]

• Reasons offered for the Reformation of the House of Correction … with a Plan of the Prison (1757)
A Scheme (1759) for the employment of persons sent to prison as disorderly.


1. Jones, Derek (1 December 2001). Censorship: A World Encyclopedia. Taylor & Francis. p. 2546. ISBN 9781136798634. Retrieved 25 January 2018.
2. Stephen, Leslie, ed. (1887). "Ilive, Jacob" . Dictionary of National Biography. 12. London: Smith, Elder & Co.
3. Herrick, James A. "Ilive, Jacob". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online ed.). Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/14361. (Subscription or UK public library membership required.)
4. Hudson, Wayne; Lucci, Diego (15 April 2016). Atheism and Deism Revalued: Heterodox Religious Identities in Britain, 1650-1800. Routledge. pp. 113–4. ISBN 9781317177586. Retrieved 25 January 2018.
5. Lucci, Diego (2008). Scripture and Deism: The Biblical Criticism of the Eighteenth-century British Deists. Peter Lang. pp. 18–9. ISBN 9783039112548. Retrieved 25 January 2018.

External links


This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: Stephen, Leslie, ed. (1887). "Ilive, Jacob". Dictionary of National Biography. 12. London: Smith, Elder & Co.
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