Given how powerful the British Empire seemed to be to its subjects, it is curious that the public at home has always shown more interest in its disasters than in its triumphs. Think of Khartoum, Cawnpore, the Amritsar massacre, Mau Mau or the subject of this book – the Black Hole. The tale of a hundred-odd British soldiers suffocating to death in a tiny room on a sweltering night in eighteenth-century Calcutta has horrified and inspired the British for so long that it is bound to come up whenever the city is mentioned, even though the historical reality of the Black Hole, as Jan Dalley shows, is actually quite elusive.
In the mid eighteenth century, the British merely ran a few trading outposts in India and had little political power. The subcontinent was governed by the Mughal emperor in theory but each region was in fact controlled by local kings and nobles. In prosperous, agrarian Bengal, where the British, French,