Black Holed Sunday: A Horror Tale Of Calcutta

By the end of the 17th century in India, effective power in the Mughal empire had fallen into the hands of the nawabs, or provincial governors.

The British built Fort William to protect the British East India Company trade in the city of Calcutta in Bengal. While preparing for a regional battle with the French during the Seven Years War (1756-1763), they fortified Calcutta, especially by strengthening Fort William. The Nawab of Bengal, Siraj ud-Daulah got concerned that the fortification marked the British company’s encroachment upon Indian sovereignty. He ordered both the French and the British to immediately stop building any fortifications. The French complied at Chandernagore. The British ignored the command, fearing the war with France would catch them unprepared.

This offended the young nawab, who had recently succeeded his grandfather in the Bengal capital of Murshidabad around 1756, when he was barely in his twenties. When the British took no notice, the nawab marched on to Calcutta with a massive army, said to have numbered 50,000 men, 500 elephants and 50 cannon. The nawab army arrived on June 16th, and began to move slowly through the outlying areas of Calcutta, overwhelming all resistance. The British governor, many of his staff and the British residents ran for safety to the ships in the harbour, leaving women and children behind and a garrison of only 170 English soldiers to defend the fort under the command of one John Zephaniah Holwell, who was the Company’s zemindar and was responsible for tax collection and keeping law and order. Desertions by allied troops, mainly the Dutch, made even temporary defense untenable. The evacuation from the fort by ship fell into disorganization.

There were two mortars in the fort, but much of the powder was too damp to use and the grapeshot had mostly been eaten by worms while in storage. The nawab’s final attack in full force came on the morning of June 20th, a Sunday. Holwell had no military experience, the situation was hopeless in any case and by afternoon he was forced to surrender in return for what he thought was a guarantee of quarter.

That night, as he recorded later, there occurred a horror which was to become a legend in history. A total of 146 British prisoners, including 2 women, several wounded men, and Holwell himself, were herded at sword-point for the night into the fort’s ‘black hole’, a little lock-up the British had built for minor offenders. It measured only 18ft by 14ft 10in and had 2 small windows. The heat at that time of year was suffocating and the prisoners trampled on each other to get near the windows and fought over the small supply of water they had been left with, while begging for mercy from the guards, who laughed and jeered at them while they prayed and raved in vain.

The veranda projecting outside and the thick iron bars within impeded ventilation. Fires raging in different parts of the fort made a further oppressive atmosphere. The prisoners were packed so tightly that closing the door became difficult.

The prisoners offered one of the soldiers stationed in the veranda 1,000 rupees to have them removed to a larger room. He went away, but returned without accepting the money. Doubling the bribe, the soldier tried again without success; the nawab slept, and no one dared wake him.

By 9 p.m., several had died and many more became delirious. A frantic cry for water became general. One of the guards brought some to the bars. In their impatience to receive it, nearly all got spilled. The little they drank seemed only to increase their thirst. Loosing self-control, those in remote parts of the room struggled to reach the window. A fearful tumult ensued with many trampled to death. They raved, fought, prayed, blasphemed, and many then fell exhausted on the floor, dying of suffocation.

By 11 p.m., prisoners began to die rapidly. At 6 a.m., the nawab awoke, ordering the door be opened. Holwell counted only 23 of the original 146 still living. Fresh air soon revived the survivors. Soldiers took the commander before the nawab. Holwell reported that he expressed no regret for the calamity. Holwell and some others acquitted him of any intention of causing the catastrophe. They attributed the crime to officers who acted without orders.

A pit was hastily dug for the dead and the bodies were dumped in it.

Holwell referred to the experience as ‘a night of horrors I will not attempt to describe, as they bar all description’, but he did decide on describing them at length and in detail after his return to England the following year, in A genuine narrative of the deplorable deaths of the English gentlemen and others, who were suffocated in the Black Hole. In the majestic prose of Macaulay’s essay on Clive of India, based on Holwell’s account, the story inspired patriotic fervour and rage at Indian perfidy in generations of British.

Holwell’s account included a summary of the alleged victims: Dutch and English sergeants, corporals, soldiers, topazes (Indian soldiers fighting for the British), militia, whites, and Portuguese, making on the whole 123 persons.

Of Council—E. Eyre, Wm. Baillie,. Esqrs., the Rev. Jervas Bellamy.
Gentlemen in the Service—Messrs. Jenks, Revely, Law, Coales, Valicourt, Jeb, Torriano, E. Page, S. Page, Grub, Street, Harod, P. Johnstone, Ballard, N. Drake, Carse, Knapton, Gosling, Bing, Dod, Dalrymple.
Military Captains—Clayton, Buchanan, Witherington.
Lieutenants—Bishop, Ifays, Blagg, Simson, Bellamy.
Ensigns—Paccard, Scot, Hastings, C. Wedderburn, Dumbleton.
Sergeants—Sergeant-Major Abraham, Quartermaster Cartwright, Sergeant Bleau (these were sergeants of militia).
Sea Captains—Hunt, Osburne, Purnell (survived the night, but died next day), Messrs. Carey, Stephenson, Guy, Porter, W. Parker, Caulker, Bendall, Atkinson, Leech, and so on.

No other contemporary sources corroborated Holwell’s story and he was caught fabricating incidents. In 1915 British schoolmaster J.H. Little pointed out Holwell’s unreliability as a witness and other discrepancies, and it became clear that the nawab’s part was one of negligence only. The details of the incident were thus opened to doubt. According to a calculation by Professor Brijen Gupta in the 1950s, the total prisoners shut in the black hole was probably 64, of whom 21 came out alive. He also produced evidence that the nawab did not order the prisoners to be shut in the black hole and knew nothing about it until afterwards.

But vengeance was swift. Soon thereafter Robert Clive marched back to Calcutta and set siege to Fort William, which was also bombarded by an accompanying fleet of warships under Admiral Charles Watson. The fort fell to the British in January 1757 and in February with an army of a mere 3,000 men, Clive routed the nawab’s army of perhaps 50,000 along with their cannon and war-elephants at the famous battle of Plassey. The nawab got killed subsequently.

Later on becoming Governor, Holwell erected a tablet on the site of the Black Hole to commemorate the victims. It had been stolen at some point of time before 1822 (the precise date remains unknown). Lord Curzon, the new Viceroy in 1899, noticing that nothing marked the spot, commissioned a new monument. He mentioned Holwell’s tablet on the previous spot. In 1901, Curzon placed the obelisk at the corner of Dalhousie Square, the reputed site of the Black Hole. At the height of the Indian independence movement, the presence of that monument in Calcutta became a nationalist issue. Nationalist leaders like Subhash Chandra Bose lobbied hard for its removal. The Congress and the Muslim League joined forces in the anti-monument movement. As a result, the government removed the obelisk from Dalhousie Square in July, 1940, and placed it in the graveyard of St John’s Church, where it remains to this day. The Black Hole itself has long been taken down and no trace of it remains today.

Source Credits: History Today, Encyclopaedia Britannica, Asian History and New World Encyclopaedia

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