The Black Hole of Calcutta was a prison in Fort William, Calcutta measuring 4.30 × 5.50 meters (14 × 18 feet). In which troops of Siraj ud-Daulah, the Nawab of Bengal, confined British prisoners of war on the night of 20 June 1756.
One of the prisoners and East Indian Company employees said that, after the fall of Fort William, the surviving Britisher soldiers, Anglo-Indian soldiers, and Indian civilians, were detained overnight in that small cell.
The cell was so crowded that many people died of heat exhaustion and suffocation. There were 146 prisoners, only 23 of them survived.
East India Company built Fort William to protect his trade in Calcutta. In 1756, there was the chance of an imperial confrontation with the military forces of the Kingdom of France. So, the British armed the fort. Siraj ud-Daulah ordered to stop the strengthening of forts by the French and British. French complied with the order but the British denied.
As a result of that British indifference to his authority, Siraj ud-Daulah organized his army and laid an attack on Fort William. To bear the losing battle, the British commander ordered the surviving soldiers of the army to escape. But there were still 146 soldiers left behind. They were under the command of John Zephaniah Holwell, a senior official of the East India Company.
They lost the battle and the Fort William was seized by the Bengali forces on 20 June 1756. All the surviving defender, Anglo-Indian civilians, English officers, and merchants based in Kolkata were rounded up and forced into a prison known as a “Black Hole”
Account By Howell
Holwell wrote about the events occurred after the fall of Fort William. When he met Siraj-ud-Daulah, he said: “On the word of a soldier; that no harm should come to us”. The jailer locked the prisoners at 8.00 p.m. in “the black hole” in soldiers slang. The next morning, when the black hole was opened at 6.00 a.m., only 23 prisoners were remained alive.
About responsibility for the maltreatment and the deaths in the Black Hole of Calcutta, Holwell said, “it was the result of revenge and resentment, in the breasts of the lower Jemmaatdaars [sergeants], to whose custody we were delivered, for the number of their order killed during the siege.”
Agreeing with Holwell, Wolpert said that Siraj-ud-Daulah did not order the imprisonment and was not informed of it. The physical description of the Black Hole of Calcutta corresponds with Holwell’s point of view:
The dungeon was a strongly barred room, and was not intended for the confinement of more than two or three men at a time. There were only two windows, and a projecting veranda outside, and thick iron bars within impeded the ventilation, while fires, raging in different parts of the fort, suggested an atmosphere of further oppressiveness. The prisoners were packed so tightly that the door was difficult to close.
One of the soldiers stationed in the veranda was offered 1,000 rupees to have them removed to a larger room. He went away, but returned saying it was impossible. The bribe was then doubled, and he made a second attempt with a like result; the nawab was asleep, and no one dared wake him.
By nine o’clock several had died, and many more were delirious. A frantic cry for water now became general, and one of the guards, more compassionate than his fellows, caused some [water] to be brought to the bars, where Mr. Holwell and two or three others received it in their hats, and passed it on to the men behind. In their impatience to secure it nearly all was spilt, and the little they drank seemed only to increase their thirst. Self-control was soon lost; those in remote parts of the room struggled to reach the window, and a fearful tumult ensued, in which the weakest were trampled or pressed to death. They raved, fought, prayed, blasphemed, and many then fell exhausted on the floor, where suffocation put an end to their torments.
About 11 o’clock the prisoners began to drop off, fast. At length, at six in the morning, Siraj-ud-Daulah awoke, and ordered the door to be opened. Of the 146 only 23, including Mr. Holwell [from whose narrative, published in the Annual Register & The Gentleman’s Magazine for 1758, this account is partly derived], remained alive, and they were either stupefied or raving. Fresh air soon revived them, and the commander was then taken before the nawab, who expressed no regret for what had occurred, and gave no other sign of sympathy than ordering the Englishman a chair and a glass of water. Notwithstanding this indifference, Mr. Holwell and some others acquit him of any intention of causing the catastrophe, and ascribe it to the malice of certain inferior officers, but many think this opinion unfounded.
Afterward, when the prison of Fort William was opened, the bodies of the dead men were thrown into a canal. Moreover, as prisoners, Holwell and three other men were transferred to Murshidabad.
On the orders of the nawab, the left survivors of the Black Hole of Calcutta were released. In August 1756, Lieut. Col. Robert Clive was sent to take revenge. Clive recaptured Calcutta in January 1757. He defeated Siraj ud-Daulah at the Battle of Plassey which resulted the death of Siraj. The Black Hole of Calcutta was later used as a warehouse.
In memoriam of the dead, the British erected a 15-meter-high tower. It now is in the graveyard of (Anglican) St. John’s Church, Calcutta. Holwell had built a tablet on the site of the ‘Black Hole’ to remember the victims, but later it disappeared.
Lord Curzon, on becoming Viceroy in 1899, saw that there was nothing to mark the spot and ordered a new monument, mentioning the prior existence of Holwell’s. it was founded in 1901 at the corner of Dalhousie Square (now B. B. D. Bagh), which is said to be the site of the ‘Black Hole’.
At the top of the Indian independence movement, the appearance of this monument in Calcutta was transformed into a nationalist cause célèbre. Nationalist leaders, including Subhas Chandra Bose, lobbied energetically for its removal. The Congress and the Muslim League joined forces in the anti-monument movement. As a result, Abdul Wasek Mia of Nawabganj thana, a student leader of that time, led the removal of the monument from Dalhousie Square in July 1940. The monument was re-erected in the graveyard of St John’s Church, Calcutta, where it remains.
The ‘Black Hole’ itself, is simply the guardroom in the old Fort William, disappeared shortly after the event when the fort itself was taken down to be replaced by the new Fort William which still stands today in the Maidan to the south of B. B. D. Bagh. The precise position of that guardroom is in an alleyway between the General Post Office and the adjacent building to the north, in the northwest edge of B.B.D. Bagh. The memorial tablet which was once on the wall of that building beside the GPO can now be found in the nearby postal museum.
“List of the smothered in the Black Hole prison exclusive of sixty-nine, consisting of Dutch and British sergeants, corporals, soldiers, topazes, militia, whites, and Portuguese, (whose names I am unacquainted with), making on the whole one hundred and twenty-three persons.”
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