What really happened on that deadly, steaming hot night in 1756?
The British Empire in India was about to begin its reign in deadly earnest. Since their first established trading post in 1614, the British presence in India was growing steadily. They were not the first Europeans to establish bases there, nor the last to leave - but their influence on this mighty continent became overpowering to all others. And is felt to this day.
The East India Company was the British enterprise that had been established to administer its properties and trading posts in India. It even had its own private army, made up of not only ex-British officers, but Europeans (and even Americans) of many nationalities. The British government was not directly involved at this point, leaving most of the work in the capable hands of the East India Company.
During the mid 18th century the Mogul rulers of India were already in steep and steady decline throughout their ancient strongholds. In 1756, one of them decided to act in order to secure his previously strong, but now tenuous position.
Siraj-ud-daulah succeeded to the title of Nawab of Bengal in April of 1756. What was the character and temper of this new potentate like? The 27 year old ruler had been described as "...a monster of vice, cruelty and depravity." Or so wrote Robert Clive - the young English warrior soon to become famous as "Clive of India." There are apparently no local, contemporary accounts of the young man to contradict this opinion. But in any event, he was clearly held in no high regard by either friend, family, or foe.
When the newly installed Nawab saw that mighty fortifications were being built in Calcutta (undoubtedly to be used by the British for his own demise he reckoned), he demanded that they be torn down. Needless to say, they were not.
Growing more arrogant, and over-reaching, Siraj-ud-daulah assembled a mighty force and marched upon the British - no one was going to threaten him. He quickly managed to occupy not only the British outpost of Fort William - but Calcutta itself - the very center of power for the East India Company.
At Fort William, Siraj's warriors quickly gathered up a group of 146 Europeans and shoved them into what has been described as a small, airless dungeon - a veritable black hole. The phrase itself - "Black Hole" - was a term commonly used (derisively of course) by the British to indicate a military "holding facility." The dimensions of the room have been recorded as being a mere 18 feet long by 14 feet, 10 inches wide. Accounts say there were only two small, barred windows. Some same one - some, none at all. When water was meagerly rationed through one of these windows it is said, a crush of thirsty souls, desperate and dying, trampled whoever may have slid to the floor.
It was Monday, June 21, 1756 - and it was going to be long, and horrifying night for the captives.
As the sun rose the next morning the Nawab's men opened the door to the prison - the terrible sight before them must have drained the blood from their bodies. Of the 146 people who had entered - 123 were now dead. The corpses compacted so tightly that some of the bodies were still standing upright. Heat, suffocation - and sheer terror had engulfed them.
The major account (indeed the only one written by a survivor) that told the miserable tale of the Black Hole came from an obscure Dublin born doctor. John Zephania Holwell. Born in 1711, Holwell grew up mainly in London where he learned something of the medical profession. By 1722 he found himself in India - and at Fort William that fateful night.
Dr. Holwell wrote:
"...for we were no sooner all within the barracks, than the guard advanced to the inner arches and parapet wall, and with their muskets presented, ordered us to go into the room at the southernmost end of the barracks, commonly called the Black Hole prison...Like one agitated wave impelling another, we were obliged to give way and enter; the rest followed like a torrent, few amongst us, the soldiers excepted, having the least idea of the dimensions or the nature of a place we had never seen...."
John Zephaniah Holwell
John Zephaniah Holwell: A Genuine Narrative of the Deplorable Deaths of the English Gentlemen and others who were suffocated in the Black Hole: London, 1758.
But - is it true? Could 146 men and women actually have fit into such a small space? Was Holwell enhancing the tragedy for his own benefit? As magistrate he could have been promoted. Indian officials do agree with the general outline of the event - Britons did go into a cell - some died during the night. Various figures put the casualties at 69 dead, or more - or less. But do playing with numbers demean the horror of the act? Adding doubt to its veracity? Does a lesser body count make it a "lesser" tragedy?
Holwell certainly had his detractors - some who had survived their night in hell say it happened exactly as documented, others remained silent - publicly at least. And local, official mention at the time of the event, and immediately after, make no mention at all of it.
It is a story ingrained upon the pages of history - accepted, distorted and denied. But after more than 240 years the conclusion seems to be that a horrible event known as the Black Hole of Calcutta did take place. The dead are still dead - murdered by events beyond their control, and probably their understanding.
The British of course were not a people to let a slight go unanswered - especially a slight caused by an "inferior" peoples. After all, they were their benefactors, weren't they? Couldn't these motley, corrupt tribes know when they had a good thing going? The British offered order where there had been chaos - for a hefty price of course. Besides that, the British were becoming well known for sending entire armies into far flung corners of the globe to rescue even one or two of its citizens - if deemed important enough that is.
Clive and his mighty army marched on Calcutta - capturing it in the opening months of 1757. The Nawab fled to the fastness of his hills - setting the stage for a battle that would define the British position in India for almost two centuries to come.
The British caught up with the Nawab at a place called Plassey. It was June 23rd, 1757. The bulk of Siraj's main army deserted him, led off the field by his own "traitorous" great-uncle, Mir Jafar. There was a quick sharp action with the soldiers of Clive's East India Company force - Siraj-ud-daulah ran away in terror, and the remainder of his army, demoralized, fled the field. Clive had won not only the day, but much more - a new empire for Great Britain.
Soon after, all of Bengal found itself under the administration of the triumphant East India Company. It was a loss more terrible than the arrogant Nawab could have ever imagined. Or his people - for a few days later Siraj's lifeless body was found floating in a river.
The epic saga of British India was just beginning.