Black Hole Of Calcutta, 20th June 1756 AD

During the 18th century the British began to take an interest in trade with india. Indian goods such as textiles, Indigo and spices could be sold at a good profit in Britain. A group of merchants formed The East India Company, which was given sole rights to trade in India by the British Government. In return, The East India Company agreed to give the British government a share of its profits.

The French also formed an East India Company and the two rival companies were forced to have their own small army to protect their trade in India. Then in 1756 Britain and France went to war. The Nawab of Bengal, Siraj-ud-Daulla (সিরাজ-উদ-দৌল্লা), was unhappy with The East India Company's interference in the internal affairs of his province and perceived a threat to its independence. The French also encouraged Siraj-ud-Daulla to attack the British base at Calcutta.

The Incident

Site of Black Hole
Site of Black Hole
Siraj-ud-Daulla arrived before the gate of Fort William at Calcutta on 16th June, 1756 with a force of 30,000 foot soldiers, 20,000 cavalrymen, 400 trained elephants and 80 pieces of cannon to capture it from the English. After two days of fighting, Governor Roger Drake found it impossible to withstand the nawab's forces and, on June 19th, escaped to the fort at Fultah. John Zephaniah Holwell, a magistrate and Member of the Council, with a few other Englishmen were left in the fort presumably in order to put up a show of fight and thus provide cover for Drake's escape. In the fighting from morning to noon on 20th June, 25 English soldiers were killed and 70 wounded and only 14 men were left to serve the guns, with no laskar or porter. In the evening of June 20th, the nawab's forces scaled the walls of the fort from all sides and the little river-gate of the fort was treacherously burst open by a Dutch sergeant and delivered to the forces of the nawab. Some of the defenders were killed. Holwell surrendered, and the fighting ceased.

Siraj-ud-Daulla imprisoned 146 English prisoners in a notorious military prison which was only about 8 meters by 6 meters. The room was so small and so short of air that by the next morning 123 of the prisoners had died. This story was recounted by the survivor John Zephaniah Holwell, and soon became the basis for representing Indians as a base, cowardly, and despotic people. Holwell describes how, as soon as the prisoners were thrust into the small room, they began to sweat profusely and soon developed a raging thirst. It was not long before everyone was "giving way to the violence of their passions" and fighting each other, even killing people, in an effort to get to the one small window. It is now almost universally conceded that Holwell greatly embellished his story. Indian scholars have shown the Nawab had no hand in this affair, and that the number of incarcerated prisoners was no higher than 69.
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Some Interesting facts about the Black Hole of Calcutta

  1. The prison was already called the "Black Hole" before the events of 1756.
  2. No report of the event was ever made to the Directors of the East India Company.
  3. In 1757 leaders from Britain and India signed the Treaty of Alinagar in which the Indians agreed to pay compensation for attacks on British citizens. No mention was made of the Black Hole of Calcutta.

Black Hole of Calcutta
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The Old Fort William

In order to picture Fort William as it then was, we must remember that in those days the river Hugli flowed much further east than it does now, and where the present Strand Road is was then deep under water. The actual site of the fort was the ground now occupied by the General Post Office (GPO), the New Government Offices, the Custom House, and the East Indian Railway House. The warehouses built along the south side of the fort skirted Koila Ghat Street. The north side was in Fairly Place. The east front looked out on Clive Street and Dalhousie Square, which in those days was known as the Lal Bagh, or the Park (The tank is now called Lal Dighi). The fort was an irregular tetragon in shape. Its north side was 340 feet long; its south side 485 feet; its east and west sides each 710 feet. The block of buildings, which separated the north section from the south, known as the Long Row, contained the damp, unhealthy lodgings of the young gentlemen in the Company's service. These were the Writers Buildings of the first half of the eighteenth century. The south section of the fort had two gates, one leading to the river and the other opening out upon the great avenue to the eastward, the road which we now variously call Dalhousie Square North, Lal Bazar, Bow Bazar and Baitakhana.

Map of Old Fort William :: old-fortwilliam.pdf
Reference : Old Fort William in Bengal - By Charles Robert Wilson

The Black Hole tragedy occurred in the rooms to the south of the gate, which were formed by dividing off the space between the curtain wall and the first row of arches by a number of cross walls. Each of these arches measured 8 feet 9 inches. The first four arches formed the court of guard and were left open to the piazza before them. The next nine arches formed three rooms, communicating with each other, used for the soldiers barracks. They were separated from the piazza before them by a small dwarf wall or parapet wall, built between the arches. The fourteenth and fifteenth arches were completely walled in and used as the Black Hole or military prison. This room was the most southern of the series. Its east side was the curtain wall.

Holwell's Monument

Holwell had erected a monument on the site of the 'Black Hole' to mark the spot where those who perished in the Black Hole had been buried. Towards the end of 1759, orders were given to build slight apartments on 'the Cotta Godowns and the Long Row' for the reception of the officers of Colonel Coote's battalion, and in 1760 the space between the East Gate and the Black Hole prison was made into a temporary church. By the beginning of 1767, all the military were withdrawn from the place, in order that it might be converted into a Custom House, and various buildings were erected to adapt it to its new uses. At the beginning of 1821 a further improvement was effected by pulling down the old obelisk erected by Holwell. From this time onward for some eighty years, Calcutta remained without even a sculptured tablet to the memory of those 123 of her citizens who perished faithful to their duty. In 1882, a determined attempt to fix the site of the Black Hole prison was made by Mr. R. R. Bayne, C.E., of the East Indian Railway Company. No real progress, however, was made till the year 1889, when Mr. T. R. Munro discovered in the King's Library of the British Museum a large map of old Calcutta, dated 1753, drawn by Lieutenant Wells of the Company's Artillery. Munro deposited a traced copy of the map at the Public Works Department. On December 19, 1902, Lord Curzon restored the crumbling Holwell Monument, and erected a replica of the original memorial it at the corner of Dalhousie Square. The statue of Sir Ashley Eden, which had been erected upon the exact site of the old Holwell monument, was removed to Dalhousie Square. From Dalhousie Square, In July, 1940 the monument was re-erected in the graveyard of St John's Church (22°34'N 88°20'E), where it remains to this day.

The original inscription gave only the few names that Holwell could remember, and gave some of them inaccurately. The present fuller and more accurate lists are due to a careful examination of contemporary records, lists, and registers, which was conducted by Lord Curzon, in co-operation with Mr. S. C. Hill. The inscriptions are as follows:
Holwell's Monument :: Inscription - I
I
This monument
Has been erected by
Lord Curzon, Viceroy and Governor-General of India,
In the year 1902,
Upon the site
And in reproduction of the design
Of the original monument
To the memory of the 123 persons
Who perished in the Black Hole prison
Of Old Fort William
On the night of the 20th of June, 1756.
The former memorial was raised by
Their surviving fellow-sufferer
J. Z. Holwell, Governor of Fort William,
On the spot where the bodies of the dead
Had been thrown into the ditch of the ravelin.
It was removed in 1821.
Holwell's Monument :: Inscription - II
II
To the memory of
Edward Eyre, William Baillie,
Revd. Jervas Bellamy, John Jenks,
Roger Reveley, John Carse, John Law,
Thomas Coles, James Valicourt,
John Jebb, Richard Toriano,
Edward Page, Stephen Page,
William Grub, John Street,
Aylmer Harrod, Patrick Johnstone,
George Ballard, Nathan Drake,
William Knapton, Francis Gosling,
Robert Byng, John Dodd,
Stair Dalrymple, David Clayton,
John Buchanan, and Lawrence Witherington,
Who perished in the Black Hole prison.
Holwell's Monument :: Inscription - III
III
The names inscribed on the tablet
On the reverse side to this
Are the names of those persons
Who are known to have been killed
Or to have died of their wounds
During the Siege of Calcutta
In June, 1756,
And who either did not survive
To enter the Black Hole prison
Or afterwards succumbed to its effects.
Holwell's Monument :: Inscription - IV
IV
The names of those who perished
In the Black Hole prison,
Inscribed upon the reverse side
Of this monument,
Are in excess of the list
Recorded by Governor Holwell
Upon the original monument.
The additional names, and
The Christian names of the remainder,
Have been recovered from oblivion
By reference to contemporary documents.
Holwell's Monument :: Inscription - V
V
To the memory of
Peter Smith, Thomas Blagg,
John Francis Pickard, John Pickering,
Michael Collings, Thomas Best,
Ralph Thoresby, Charles Smith,
Robert Wilkinson, Henry Stopford,
William Stopford, Thomas Purnell,
Robert Talbot, William Tidecomb,
Daniel Macpherson, John Johnson, and
Messrs. Whitby, Surman, Bruce,
Montrong, and Janniko, who perished,
During the Siege of Calcutta.
Holwell's Monument :: Inscription - VI
VI
To the memory of
Richard Bishop, Francis Hayes,
Collin Simson, John Bellamy,
William Scott, Henry Hastings,
Charles Wedderburn, William Dumbleton,
Bernard Abraham, William Cartwright,
Jacob Bleau, Henry Hunt,
Michael Osborne, Peter Carey,
Thomas Leach, Francis Stevenson,
James Guy, James Porter,
William Parker, Eleanor Weston, and
Messrs.. Cocker, Bendall, Atkinson, Jennings,
Reid, Barnet, Frere, Wilson,
Burton, Lyon, Hillier, Tilley, and Alsop,
Who perished in the Black Hole prison.

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John Zephaniah Holwell (1711-1798)

John Zephaniah Holwell was born in Dublin, September 17, 1711, the son of Zephaniah Holwell (d. 1729), a timber merchant and son of John Holwell (1649-86), astrolger and mathematician. John Zephaniah went to school in Richmond, Surrey, and then began a commercial career in Holland. He soon returned to London, was articled to a surgeon in Southwark and attended Guy's Hospital for further instruction, under the Senior Surgeon, Andrew Cooper. In 1732 Holwell became a surgeon's mate on board an Indiaman bound for Calcutta; after a few voyages he obtained an appointment on shore, was granted the rank of a "Surgeon-Major" and settled in Calcutta in 1736. After a period of leave at home, he returned to India in 1751 as a "covenated civilian".

Having survived the night in the "Black Hole" he was conveyed as prisoner with three others to Murshidabad, in a very bad state of health and covered with boils. Holwell was eventually released on July 17, 1756, on the intercession of the Begum of Bengal, who, it is said, recognized his services to ailing Indians. Holwell then returned to England on the sloop "Syren" in February 1757; the voyage took five months, during which time he wrote an account of the events in the "Black Hole". He returned to Calcutta in 1759 and was appointed Governor in 1760, but disagreeing with the Board of Directors in the September of the same year he resigned; thereupon Mr. Henry Vansittart succeeded as Governor. Holwell then went back to England, lived in retirement at Pinner near Harow, where he died on November 5, 1798. He was twice married; one son and two daughters survived him.

References :
  • Old Fort William in Bengal - By Charles Robert Wilson
  • John Zephaniah Holwell (1711-1798) and the Black Hole of Calcutta - By H. P. Bayon

Page Updated : November 26, 2016 10:04 pm