The Black Hole of Calcutta was a small prison in Fort William, India, and became the site of a tragedy where many British prisoners died on the evening of 20 June 1756. The story began when the Bengal Nawab, Siraj ud-Daulah, succeeded his maternal grandfather as Nawab of Bengal in April 1756 at the age of 23 and became angry with the British merchants of the East Indian Company.
The East Indian Company, or The Company as it was called, interfered constantly in his province. For instance, they grossly abused trade privileges that had been granted them by the Mughal rulers, which then resulted in heavy losses in custom duties for Siraj’s government. They also provided shelter to some of Siraj’s officers who had misappropriated government funds, making it impossible for him to punish them. In addition, he also accused British merchants of The Company of attempting to oust him.
Siraj, who was said to be Anti-European, was also aware of the interests the British had in colonization and wary of what they might try. Things got worse when The Company, without Siraj’s permission, began bringing in reinforcements and strengthening Fort William. Siraj then ordered The Company to immediately cease reinforcements at Fort William, but The Company ignored him.
Siraj’s anger boiled over and he gathered a force of nearly 50,000 infantry and cavalry that then surrounded Calcutta. Defenses of Calcutta were negligible at best. According to Brijen Kishore Gupta in the Sirajuddaullah and the East Indian Company, the garrison consisted of only 180 soldiers, 50 European volunteers, 60 European militia, 150 Armenian and Portuguese militia, 35 European artillery-men and 40 volunteers from ships. In addition, British efforts to repel Siraj’s forces were termed a “tragedy of errors” by John Zephaniah Holwell, a senior bureaucrat in The Company.
As the fighting raged between the combatants the British commander and his officers realized their efforts were lost and deserted their posts, boarded a ship, and escaped down the river. Left behind was a leaderless militia that then called upon Holwell to lead them. Under his guidance they fought but ultimately Holwell realized they were about to be overwhelmed by Siraj’s forces and so he raised the white flag to prevent any further massacre.
The Bengal Nawab promised Holwell that that they would not kill him or his soldiers and so Holwell and his supporters surrendered on 20 June 1756. Of this surrender Holwell stated that Siraj gave “repeated assurances to me, on the word of a soldier, that no harm should come to us. And indeed I believe his orders were only general, that we should for that night be secured.” British sources maintain that the total of those who were detained amounted to 146 people. Holwell continued stating:
“[A]s soon as it was dark we were all, without distinction, directed by the guard over us, to collect ourselves into one body, and sit down quietly under the arched veranda or piazza, to the west of the Black-hole prison … Beside the guard over us, another was placed at the foot of the stairs at the fourth end of the veranda, leading up to the south-east bastion, to prevent any of us escaping that way. …
At this time the factory was in flames to the right and left us; to the right, the armory ad laboratory; to the left the carpenter’s yard: though at this time we imagined it was the cotta warehouses. … The first advanced with rapidity on both sides; and it was the prevailing opinion, that they intended suffocating us between the two fires: and this notion was confirmed by the appearance, about half an hour past seven, of some officers and people with lighted torches in their hands, who went into all the apartments under the easterly curtain to the right of us; to which we apprehended they were setting fire, to expedite their scheme of burning us.”
The men soon decided that if necessary, they would rush the guards rather than be roasted to death, but they also decided to appoint Holwell to further investigate the situation. He found that they were not to be roasted alive but that instead the guards were searching for somewhere to house the prisoners and that they had examined the barracks of the court guard. The guards then having found a spot decided to secure their prisoners more tightly, ordered them to rise, and sent them marching to the barracks.
Holwell says that they were pleased that they were to pass a comfortable night “little dreaming of the infernal apartment in reserve for us.” As they entered the guards presented their muskets and ordered their captives into the furthermost end of the barracks called the Black Hole of Calcutta. According to Holwell, they were then driven into it so suddenly and so unexpectedly with “clubs” and “scymitars” that there was great pressure upon the door and they prisoners did so “like a torrent” to avoid being hit or cut to pieces by the scimitars.
Perhaps the Black Hole of Calcutta was the only reliable place inside the fort to secure the detainees but putting so many captives in this “strongly barred room” quickly became a problem. It was small and measured about 14 feet by 18 feet, and, in addition, it was designed to hold no more than about two or three prisoners. Ventilation inside was also poor because although the room had two windows on its west side, circulation was impeded by a “projecting verandah” outside and by thick iron bars inside.
Other problems existed that contributed to ventilation problems in the Black Hole of Calcutta. One was it was one of the sultriest nights of the year and the expected monsoon rains that had by usually appeared had not. Rather they arrived the next night on the 21st. Second, many buildings in and around the fort had been set on fire and the heat and smoke from those fires aided to a lack of fresh air in the immediate area of the location of the Black Hole of Calcutta. These problems and the immense number of captives jammed into the Black Hole all contributed to poor air circulation for prisoners crammed together.
Holwell later claimed that the reason the guards imprisoned them in such an awful place was payback. He stated that it “was the result of revenge and resentment in the breasts of the lower jemmautdaars [sergeants], to whose custody we were delivered, for the number of their order killed during the siege.” Moreover, according to British accounts, it got worse once the captives were placed in the Black Hole of Calcutta:
“A few moments sufficed to throw them into a profuse perspiration, the natural consequence of which was a raging thirst. They stripped off their clothes to gain more room, sat down on the floor that the air might circulate more freely, and when every expedient failed, sought by the bitterest insults to provoke the guards to fire on them. One of the soldiers stationed in the verandah 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 nabob was asleep, and no one durst wake him. By 9 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 2 or 3 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. The Indian soldiers, meanwhile, crowded around the windows, and even brought lights that they might entertain themselves with the dreadful spectacle. The odor which filled the dungeon became more deadly every moment, and about 11 o’clock the prisoners began to drop off fast.”
Holwell later provided his thoughts as to why some captives survived and some did not.
“The survival of any was no doubt due to the comparative relief afford by the destruction of very many early in the night, who were pressed and trampled to death in the struggles for water, and in the endeavours to carry out the suggestion of Mr. Baillie, that a movement of air might be promoted by all sitting down and rising together at word of command. This was fatal to the weakly, as, so closely packed were they, that many efforts and writhings were necessary before each could extricate himself from the sitting to the upright position, and all those who could not get up in time were on each occasion killed under the feet of their robuster neighbours.”
According to Holwell of the 146 captives imprisoned in the Black Hole of Calcutta 123 died and 23 survived. Among the survivors besides Holwell was Warren Hastings, the future and first Governor of the Presidency of Fort William and godfather to Eliza de Feuillide. The Siraj allegedly had no intention of having the captives imprisoned in such a way and reputedly did not learn of the dire situation until the following morning when he awoke. However, some say that when he did learn of the British deaths, even though he was unsympathetic and indifferent, he gave orders to release those remaining in the Black Hole. Of this release Holwell wrote:
“An order came immediately for our release, it being then near six in the morning. The fresh air at the window soon brought me to life; and a few minutes after the departure of the jemmautdaar, I was restored to my sight and senses. But Oh! Sir, what word shall I adopt to tell you the whole that my soul suffered at reviewing the dreadful destruction round me! … The little strength remaining amongst the most robust who survived made it a difficult task to remove the dead piled up against the door; so that I believe it was more than twenty minutes before we obtained passage out.”
Exactly how many were imprisoned in the Black Hole, how many escaped during the battle, and how many were killed is still debated by historians. Although the British claim 146 soldiers were imprisoned and all but 23 died, other historians claim that number is inaccurate. For example, D.L. Prior reported in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography that 43 men from the fort were either missing or dead for reasons other than suffocation or shock. It is also known that some captives were already injured or shot when put into the Black Hole and that they may have died not of suffocation or trampling but because of previous injuries. In addition, Stanley Wolpert, an American historian, Indologist, and author, claims that only 64 people were imprisoned and 21 survived.
When news of the fall of Calcutta broke, an expeditionary force was sent out by The Company commanded by Colonel Robert Clive and Admiral Charles Watson to free the survivors and reestablish British authority. As to Siraj, discontent had been flourishing in his court because Bengal traders worried about their wealth under his reign. A conspiracy to overthrow him then began and succeeded with the help of the British who obtained an alliance with his rival, a Mir Jafar. He opposed Siraj and promised to support the British in battle against Jafar.
With Jafar’s aid, the British ultimately declared a decisive victory at the Battle of Plassey on 23 June 1757, and as promised Jafar was made Nawab. In the meantime, Siraj and his wife escaped by boat intending to reach Patna, but they only got as far as Rajmahl where they took refuge. They were discovered and turned over to Jafar’s son, who executed Siraj that same evening on 2 July 1757.
After the Black Hole of Calcutta incident, Englishmen wanted a memorial to the dead and Holwell erected a tablet on the site of the Black Hole. When George Nathaniel Curzon became Viceroy in 1899, he found the tablet had disappeared. With nothing to mark the spot, a new monument was ordered in 1901 that was a 15-meter high obelisk and erected at the corner of Dalhousie Square, which was claimed to be the site of the Black Hole. However, in 1940, nationalist leaders in India lobbied against it and had it removed. It was then re-erected in the Anglican graveyard of St. John’s Church in Calcutta.
The ultimate result of the Black Hole of Calcutta was that the British used the incident to justify consolidation of The Company’s presence in Bengal. The Battle of Plassey afterwards is widely considered the turning point in the history of the subcontinent as it opened the way for British domination of India for the next hundred years. Yet, when an investigation was conducted into Clive’s actions in India, Sir William Meredith, a British landowner who sat in the House of Commons from 1754 to 1780, stated:
“[Siraj] … is … reported to have been a very wicked, and a very cruel prince: but how he deserved that character does not appear in fact. He was very young, not 20 years old when he was put to death — and the first provocation to his enmity was given by the English. It is true, that when he took Calcutta a very lamentable event happened, I mean the story of the Black Hole; but that catastrophe can never be attributed to the intention, for it was without the knowledge of the prince. … A peace was however agreed upon with [Siraj]; and the persons who went as ambassadors to confirm that peace, formed the conspiracy, by which he was deprived of his kingdom and his life.”
-  The Scots Magazine, “Holwell’s Account of the Sufferings in the Black Hole,” February 6, 1758, p. 79.
-  Ibid.
-  Ibid., p. 80.
-  Ibid., p. 79.
-  G. Ripley and C. A. Dana, The New American Cyclopædia (New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1859), p. 308.
-  H. E. Busteed, Echoes from Old Calcutta: Being Chiefly Reminiscences of the Days of Warren Hastings, Francis and Impey (Calcutta: Thacker, Spink and Company, 1882), p. 33.
-  The Scots Magazine, p. 86.
-  The Parliamentary History of England from the Earliest Period to the Year 1803: From which Last-mentioned Epoch it is Continued Downwards in the Work Entitled “Hansard’s Parliamentary Debates.” V. 1-36; 1066/1625-1801/03 v. 17 (London: T.C. Hansard, 1813), p. 860–61.