Gyan Prakash reviews Partha Chatterjee's new book in Caravan:
IN HIS NEW BOOK, Partha Chatterjee returns to the Black Hole, excavating the layers of justifications covering British rule to reveal how these laid the groundwork for new norms and practices of governance. Chatterjee is a widely known and read historian and political theorist, and a professor at Columbia University. As one of the founder members of the Subaltern Studies Group, he is the author of several influential books and articles, almost all of them based on his intimate knowledge of Bengal’s history and culture. The Black Hole of Empire is his most ambitious book yet. Challenging existing understandings, reinterpreting the meaning of well-known events, and displaying an authoritative knowledge of an astonishing range of scholarly literature, we encounter a historian at the top of his game.
Like Chatterjee’s other works, The Black Hole of Empire also focuses on colonial Bengal. It covers the period from the birth of British rule in the 18th century to the 20th-century nationalist mobilisations against the Raj. He places his Bengal-centric account on a larger canvas, tracing the origins of the global norms and practices of modern European imperialism—and those of the modern state itself—in local history. He invites us to see the contemporary predicaments of the Indian state and its moral and legal legitimacy in light of the drama played out in Britain’s prized possession in the east.
At the centre of the book is an attempt to trace the emergence of theories and norms in the actual business of empire. It is not an account of abstract debates on political theory, law and economics but a narrative of the actual conquerors, rulers and their opponents. The work of empire on the ground mattered; it was there that enduring theories and practices of the modern empire and the state were forged.
Chapter 1 of the book can be found here.