Fifty years ago every schoolchild in Britain knew about the Black Hole of Calcutta, whereas today hardly anyone in the English-speaking world knows anything about it.
This is according to Professor Partha Chatterjee who delivered the Vice-Chancellor's Open Lecture titled Modern Empires and Nations at UCT this week.
Chatterjee is a Professor of Anthropology and South Asian Studies at Columbia University in New York, as well as an Honorary Professor of Political Science at the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences in Kolkata.
The historic incident at the heart of his lecture took place on 20 June 1756 in Fort William, Calcutta. A survivor of the incident, John Holwell, the governor of the Fort at the time, alleges that 123 Europeans died in the Fort's dungeon called the Black Hole. They were captured by the then ruler of Bengal, Siraj-ud-daulah, who attacked the Fort after his call to stop further fortification of Calcutta was ignored by Holwell's predecessor.
Within the context of this historical event, Chatterjee wove together political theory and history to argue that "the modern state as we know it today would have looked very different had the European powers not had overseas empires".
He added, "Empire and nation are familiar terms in India as well as South Africa. A common history of British colonialism also means that many specific institutions and practices of the British Empire are shared in the historical memory of the two countries."
Chatterjee is UCT's PERC (Programme for the Enhancement of Research Capacity) visitor for 2013. PERC refers to a cluster of support activities for academic staff and is part of a university-wide commitment to produce Africa-centred knowledge and Southern Theory, which seeks to redress global historical knowledge inequalities.
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