British History Discussion

British History Discussion

Our readings for this week by Partha Chatterjee and Nicholas Dirks examine the economic and ideological foundations of British colonial India and how they changed over time from the vantage points of two important “events”. But their analyses of the myth of “Black Hole of Calcutta” and the impeachment trial of Warren Hastings, respectively, also raise bigger questions regarding the complex relationship between history, myth, memory/memorialization, and scandal. What do you think about their arguments? Do you agree with Dirks that Burke was not really an anti-imperialist as some have claimed? Did Dirks’s argument regarding the long-term effects of Burke’s criticisms of Hastings and the East India Company make you think differently about the nature of public scandals and whether they actually lead to positive change in the world?

One thing that I find interesting about these readings is the similarity between what Chatterjee has to say regarding Holwell’s account of the night in the dungeon in Fort William (the only first-person account which has served as the basis for all subsequent ones) and Dirks’s reading of Burke’s arguments during the Hastings trial. Chatterjee states that Holwell, in essence, “was calling for the [British] imperial nation to civil itself” and its representatives in order “to make them worthy of ruling” over non-Europeans, and that, “in making this plea, he was somewhat ahead of his time” (26). To me, this sounds a lot like what Dirks says regarding Burke foreshadowing what was to come. What do you think? How exactly were Burke and Holwell—and their rationales for empire—“ahead of their time”? Can you think of evidence from the primary documents that you read for this week to support (or contradict) Chatterjee’s and/or Dirks’s arguments?

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