Fort William, the stronghold of East India Company witnessed a horrendous incident when under siege by the Nawab of Bengal, Siraj ud-Daulah. This story presents the history and facts behind this barbaric event known as the Black Hole of Calcutta.
An obelisk on the grounds of St. John's Church in Calcutta stands as a homage to those who lost their lives in the 'Black Hole' of Fort William.
On 10th April 1756, the reigning Nawab of Bengal, Alivardi Khan died and passed the throne to his young grandson, Siraj ud-Daulah. The new Nawab was not in favor of the British policies on Bengal soil and was waiting to enforce his authority over the East India Company.
The British on the other hand had established a commercial port in Calcutta during the 1690s, and built Fort William as an epic center of the East India Company. During the French incursion of the city, they hastily began strengthening Fort William against possible future French attack.
This particular event was detested by Siraj ud-Daulah who thought that the British were fortifying their hold over the city and melding with the internal affairs, backed by the French. He demanded that the British retreat from the city immediately, to which the British refused.
Enraged by this resistance, the Nawab marched into the city with an imposing army and artillery to lay siege, the outcome of which was outrageous.
The Black Hole' was a small dungeon in Fort William in Calcutta, India, where troops of the Nawab of Bengal, Siraj ud-Daulah, held 146 British prisoners of war for a night after the capture of the fort on 20 June 1756. 123 prisoners died and only 23 survived.
Facts about the Fort
➔ Fort William was built in 1696 by the British East India Company to defend the company's trade in the city of Calcutta, the principal town of the Bengal Presidency. John Goldsborough and Sir Charles Eyre were in charge of the construction site which was situated near river Hoogly. The irregular tetragon-shaped fort was completed in 1706 and named after King William III.
➔ The original building had two storeys and projecting wings, its north side was 340 feet long; its south side 485; its east and west sides each were 170 feet long. The chunk of the buildings which ramified the north section from the south known were known as Long Row. They comprised the most housings of the company servicemen. The south division of the fort had two gates one extending to the river and the other opening out upon the great boulevard to the east.
➔ Rooms to the south were formed in rows of arches which were cross-walled. Each of these arches measured up to 8 feet 9 inches, the first four arches formed the court of guard and were left open to the public square. The next nine arches formed three rooms for the soldiers' barracks. They were separated from the public square by a small parapet wall, built among the arches.
➔ The fourteenth and fifteenth arches were completely surrounded by walls and utilized as the 'Black Hole' or military prison for petty criminals, this room lay to the southernmost part of the building.
Facts about the Siege
➔ On 16th June, 1756, Nawab Siraj ud-Daulah of Bengal arrived in Calcutta, with 30,000 foot soldiers, 20,000 cavalrymen, 400 trained elephants and 80 pieces of cannon to besiege Fort William.
Already infuriated by the events that the Company was misusing its merchandising prerogatives and building new fortifications, he was determined to impose his sovereign authority over the Company. The army captured the outlying areas of Calcutta, submerging all opposition in its way.
➔ The struggle for the fort continued for four days, the army of the Nawab was gaining an upper hand in the attack as the British could not resist their formidable power. Moreover there were only two mortars in the fort which were of no use as much of the gunpowder was too moist and the grapeshot had largely been wiped out by worms while in storage.
Another weak point was that European women and children, and the families of the Company's Indo-Portuguese and Armenian soldiers had taken refuge inside the fort as all the European houses standing in the exterior of the fort were detonated and the bazaars were set on fire to ensure unhindered attack on the Nawab's army.
But pandemonium struck in as the Nawab's forces started to win over the situation, morale inside the fort sank, defections became indigenous.
➔ After two days of fighting, on 18th June, Governor Roger Drake escaped by boat to another fort, leaving all the women and children who had taken refuge behind, and only a few English soldiers to defend the fort under the command of John Zephaniah Holwell, a magistrate and Member of the Council.
Nawab's army put up a final attack on the morning of 20th June, a Sunday, exhausted by defections and insurrections, the Company was in a bleak position.
➔ By noon, 25 soldiers were killed and 70 maimed with only 14 men left to serve the guns. In the evening, Nawab's army surmounted the walls of the fort from all sides and the little river-gate of the fort was traitorously burst open by a Dutch sergeant for the army of the Nawab.
Facing a dismal future, John Howell surrendered the fort by asking for truce and the battle for siege ended.
The 'Black Hole' ordeal
➔ The Nawab's forces took control of the fort. Indians, Indo-Portuguese, Armeninas, and 15 Europeans were allowed to leave, while the remaining 146 British soldiers, two women and several wounded soldiers along with John Holwell were taken captive at sword-point and imprisoned inside the black hole.
➔ The fort's black hole was actually a small dungeon of 18ft by 14ft 10in(4.3 by 5.5 m) and had only 2 small barred windows for air circulation. It was mainly used by the Britishers to imprison minor offenders. On the fateful night of 20th June, 1756, 146 prisoners lay crammed up in the damp airless dungeon fighting for space and life.
➔ The summer heat soon began taking its toll, the prisoners trampled on each other to get a breath of fresh air from the tiny windows and fought over the small supply of water that had been left by the guards. The guards laughed and gibed at them while they begged and jabbered in vain. John Holwell tried to bribe the guards with a handsome amount but it was promptly rejected.
➔ Amidst the sweltering heat and the pitch darkness of the dungeon the prisoners stripped off clothing, clawed for breathing space, and expostulated for life. According to Holwell's historic account some prisoners were already dead by 9.00 p.m. By twilight, the ruckus died away in low gasping and moaning.
As day broke the anger of the Nawab had subsided and he permitted the door to be opened. But as the door opened the Nawab's guards were met with a sight of heaps of corpses and only twenty-three ghastly survivors emerged out of the dead.
Without further delay a pit was instantly dug up and the dead bodies, a hundred and twenty-three in number, were flung into it indiscriminately and covered up.
Significance & Aftermath
➔ John Holwell was among the survivors and he later accounted the horrific tale upon his return to England in his work "A genuine narrative of the deplorable deaths of the English gentlemen and others, who were suffocated in the Black Hole".
This story ignited public opinion in Great Britain, and led to the delineation of the Nawab, Siraj-ud-daulah, and by extension all Indians as brutal barbarians.
➔ Fort William's fall paved the way for the Company to control the commercial interests of Bengal. More or less it was the official reason of setting up of the British Raj in India.
➔ The East India Company took swift action by sending Robert Clive with a formidable army to conquer back Fort William, which was aided by a fleet of warships commanded by Admiral Charles Watson.
The fort was recaptured by the British in January 1757 and in February with a few brave Englishmen, Clive defeated the mammoth army of Nawab at Plassey. The Nawab could not handle his defeat and he fled to Murshidabad, where he was murdered by his own subjects and his body was thrown into the river.
Even though historians - till date - debate over the actual number of prisoners and the sequence of events, the incident itself left a dent in the history of India. The victory of the British at Plassey is often quoted as the beginning of the oppressive colonial rule in India, a reign that stayed unconquered until independence in 1947.