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C h a p t e r 6 Holwell’s Religion of Paradise An Internet search for John Zephaniah Holwell (1711–98) produces thousands of references, most of which contain the words ‘‘Black Hole.’’ The back cover of Jan Dalley’s The Black Hole: Money, Myth and Empire explains: The story of the Black Hole of Calcutta was once drilled into every British schoolchild: how in 1756 the Nawab of Bengal attacked Fort William and locked the survivors in a tiny cell, where over a hundred souls died in insufferable heat. British retribution was swift and merciless , and led to much of India falling completely under colonial domination .1 Dalley’s book tells the story of this foundation myth of the British Empire , a myth that was ‘‘based on improbable exaggeration and half-truth’’ and ‘‘helped justify the march of empire for two hundred years’’ (2007: back cover). The reason Holwell is associated with this myth is that he was its creator. When Holwell’s account of the dreadful night in the Black Hole was printed in 1758, it provoked scandal and horror. Fueled by numerous reprints, the story soon became an event of mythic proportions, a symbol of the fall of Calcutta and the beginning of empire that Dalley lines up with the likes of the Boston Tea Party and the Battle of Wounded Knee (2007:199). According to Hartmann (1946:195) this story was ‘‘about as well-known in the English -speaking world as the fact that Napoleon was Emperor of France’’; but the fact that this statement occurs in a paper titled ‘‘A Case Study in the Perpetuation of Error’’ points to the raging controversy about the ‘‘Question of Holwell’s Veracity,’’ as J. H. Little put it in the title of his influential 1915 article. Having examined Holwell’s original Black Hole report line by line, PAGE 297 ................. 17751$ $CH6 05-21-10 15:31:20 PS 298 chapter 6 Little arrived at the conclusion that the whole episode was a gigantic hoax. Hartmann summarized Little’s observations as follows: Specifically, Little shows that Holwell (1) fabricated a speech and fathered it on the Nawab Alivardi Khan; (2) brought false charges against the British puppet ruler of Bengal, the Nawab Mir Jafar, accusing him of massacring persons all of whom were later shown to be alive . . . (3) forged a whole book and called it a translation from the ancient sacred writings of the Hindus. (Hartmann 1946:196) Hartmann defended Holwell against the last accusation by portraying him as a possible victim of fraud rather than a forger: This last might be defended on Holwell’s behalf if we assume him to have been victimized by some Brahmin or pundit who enjoyed pulling a foreigner’s leg; but certainly the first two cases have a brazen political significance also possessed by the similar story of the Black Hole. (pp. 196–97) The book that Holwell (according to Little) forged and sold as a translation from the ancient sacred writings of the Hindus was the very Chartah Bhade Shastah that Voltaire from 1769 onward so stridently promoted as monotheism’s oldest testament (see Chapter 1). Is there any evidence that Holwell’s Chartah Bhade Shastah is a brazen forgery? Some modern historians and Indologists have tried to identify the text translated by Holwell, thereby absolving him of the charge of having invented the whole text. For example, A. Leslie Willson thought that Holwell had adapted a genuine Indian text: John Z. Holwell (1711–1798), a former governor of Bengal and a survivor of the famed Black Hole of Calcutta, gives an account of his favorable impression of the religious and moral precepts of India. Because of his acquaintance with one of the holy books of the Hindus (the Sanskrit Satapatha-brâhmana, called the Chartah Bhade in Holwell’s adaptation), he believed he discerned a great influence of Indic culture upon other lands in ancient times. The more familiar he became with the Sanskrit work, the more clearly he claimed to see that the mythology as well as the cosmogony of the Egyptians, the Greeks, and the Romans was borrowed from the teachings of the Brahmans contained in the SatapathaPAGE 298 ................. 17751$ $CH6 05-21-10 15:31:20 PS Holwell’s Religion of Paradise 299 brâhmana. Even the extreme rituals of Hindu worship and the classification of Indic gods found their way West, although extremely falsified and truncated. (Willson 1964:24) Based on the authority of...


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