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On June 20, 1756, just 20 years before our own Declaration of Independence, Indian forces under the Nawab (Nabob), numbering between 20,000 and 50.000 men, attacked and captured Fort Williams, the British stronghold guarding Calcutta. The president of the council, most of the council, most of the military had fled, leaving behind a few troops and civilians. When the fighting was ended, 146 of them were imprisoned overnight in the detention cell of the fort, a semi-basement measuring 15 by 18 feet.

In the morning 23 were left alive, having survived by sucking sweat from their underwear and drinking their own urine. This, then, was the infamous Black Hole of Calcutta, its survivors described as "the ghastliest forms ever seen alive," and the Hole itself, "this infernal scene of horror."

Naturally, retribution was called for. Clive of India, with a large force, was back at the walls of Calcutta's forts the following Christmas. And while the great man was pondering tactics, this astonishing thing happened:

A common sailor named Strahan, off the ship Kent, "having evidently made too free with the grog, was seen to stagger uncertainly forward, wade the forts' moat, and imperceptibly get under the walls." When Strahan, now inside and atop the bastion, found himself surrounded by hostile Indians, "he flourished his cutlass and fired his pistol. Then, after having given three loud huzzas, he cried out, `The place is mine.' "

At that, his comrades, without waiting for plan, tactic or signal, rushed the walls and took the enemy position, their only casualty a Scots captain by friendly musket fire. The mighty Clive thus upstaged, Strahan was reprimanded, admitted he'd done the deed, saying piously he "hoped there was no harm in it." As they led hero Strahan off to be flogged for indiscipline, he cried out solemn oaths, vowing he "would never take another fort by himself so long as he lived, by God!"

Nor did he, nor was he flogged, but this is one of many marvelous stories in a new book by John Keay called "The Honourable Company," published by Macmillan, and subtitled "A History of the English East Indian Company," which the publishers admit, was neither entirely English, wasn't really a company and was anything but honorable.

It did, however, get the British Empire started, gave India to the Crown, and explains any number of strange things happening to this day.

I am a sucker for books like this, even with their confusing mass of detail and date and chaos of names. And if you are one of those who suspects the world was a better place when Great Britain, by and large, ran it, this is your meat.

The fascinating thing is that "The Honourable Company" was composed of profit-seeking merchants rather than great soldiers or admirals. But because they were, starting in the early 1600s, working so far from home (it often took a ship an entire year to sail from England 'round the Cape and across the Indian Ocean to India or China or the Indies), these daring merchants perforce had to raise private armies and become good soldiers or perish.

They began by exporting English cloth (woolens didn't sell too well in the tropics) and bringing back spices. They had little success at all in Japan (I kept seeing Richard Chamberlain and his travails in "Shogun") but they opened up China, India, Ceylon, Malaysia, Indo-China, Madagascar, South Africa, what are now Bangladesh and Pakistan, some of the Philippines and Indonesia, and ranged as far off as Alaska (sailing out of sweltering Indian ports to the Arctic Circle, trapping seals, and sailing back).

Naturally, there were difficulties. Ships simply vanished, as if they'd fallen off the lip of a flat earth. The natives became restive. Life expectancy in some ports was as little as 18 months for Europeans. There were rivals, both other British adventurers and foreigners, the French, Dutch, Portuguese being principal among them. Whenever a war broke out in Europe, once word got to the various outposts and settlements, they immediately went to war as well.

Because news traveled so slowly, sometimes London and Paris would have signed a peace treaty but for another year Frenchmen and Brits would be killing each other in India. And India, that vast subcontinent, did not yet really exist. Afghans ruled the north, various sultans battled to control districts, pirates ranged and pretty much ran the coast. Captain Kidd was in the region. So, too, an American merchant named Elihu Yale who, having made his packet, returned to Connecticut and bestowed his bounty on a small local college which promptly renamed itself in his honor.

Calcutta's Black Hole was hardly unique in its cruelty. One British member of the company punished Malays by removing all their fingers, joint by joint, and then executing them. Local authorities got hold of one English captain, removed his tongue, nailed it to his chest, nailed him to a log and floated him downstream.

The Dutch, whom we think of today as jolly folk and amiable, had a positive knack for torture. One Englishman who fell afoul of the Hollanders was tortured for a week with lighted candles under his armpits so that flesh was slowly burned away leaving only tendon and blackened bone.

Then they killed him.

Clive of India, Robert Clive, was a businessman with a genius for war and for organizing vast territories. It was he, as much as any man, who coalesced India. Then, having made his fortune and become the most celebrated man in England, he committed suicide.

They bribed the sultans and cheated them and were in turn betrayed by them and they warred one against the other and they died horribly or became rich and, over two centuries, they built an empire, without ever meaning to do so, and frequently being chewed out by king or parliament, for doing so. It is an incredible tale of rascals and villains, drunks and thieves, great men and base.

And of a "common sailor" named Strahan, "too free with the grog."

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