Saturday, 24 January 2015

'Black Hole' incident (1756), Calcutta and eye witness John Holwell

 Since the Mogul empire became weak, the Nawobs and Provincial Governors became independent and took certain political decisions on their own. Toward the end of 17th century, the British and the French commercial enterprises competed against each other for a space in Bengal. To make their mercantile operations  more effective and safer, the British in the1690s had already built a port, trading post and later Ft.William. At this point of time,  the relationship between the British and the Nawob  - Siraj-ud daulah was not good as the British failed to pay taxes and, a few years later, also started fortification work  at Ft. Williams without prior  permission from the Nawab.  Nawob Siraj was young in his twenties and took the reigns from his grandfather in the capital of Murshidabad in 1756.

Site of Black Hole(1756), KolkataAlamy

Infuriated Nawab's orders to the British to stop the fortification work fell on deaf ears. The British didn't care a fig. Now, offended, 
Siraj-ud-Daulla arrived before the gate of Fort William at Calcutta on 16th June,1756 with a formidable force of 30,000 foot soldiers, 20,000 cavalrymen, 400 trained elephants and 80 pieces of cannon to capture it from the English for their failure to pay trade taxes. Governor Roger Drake found it impossible to tackle the onslaught of  the Nawob's forces and, on June 19th, escaped to the fort at Fultah to avoid capture under the cover provided by other soldiers, leaving behind women and children and a garrison  of 170 soldiers headed by non-military official John Holwell The responsibility to save the fort from the marauding  forces of Nawob fell on John Zephaniah Holwell, a magistrate and Member of the Council, with a few other Englishmen left in the fort. On 20th June, only 14 men were left to serve the guns as 25 English soldiers were killed and 70 wounded. They fought tooth and nail till evening. The main gate, having been opened by a Dutchman, the Nawob's forces entered and several British soldiers lost their life in the fierce fighting and at last  Holwell surrendered to the invading army. That night an unexpected horrible thing  had occurred that was blown out of proportion and made to look like a legend in history showing the Nawob in poor light making the British war heroes.

 Above image: Nawob Siraj-ud-daulah and Z.Z.Holwell,Black hole incident (1756), Calcutta.......

According to the  survivor  John Zephaniah Holwell, Siraj-ud-Daulla put 146 English prisoners in a  small military prison -  a lock-up (a sort of dungeon measuring 15 feet by 18 feet) in the fort meant for minor offenders. The room being not good  enough for 143 people and with no ventilation, following morning, 123 of the prisoners had died. This incident was recalled by the survivor and tagged Indians as a base, cowardly, and despotic people. Holwell, however, pointed out suffocation is one reason and the other reason was prisoners, who had been inside the dungeon, were short of breath bordering on heavy panting and in the me-lee to get fresh air from the only small window available, prisoners panicked and initially resorted to violence,then fighting and ultimately killing - Darwin's theory of natural selection came into play: survival of the fittest, so to speak. It is now almost universally conceded that Holwell greatly embellished his story. Indian scholars have shown the Nawob had no hand in this affair, and that the number of incarcerated prisoners was no higher than 69.  Professor Brijen Gupta mentioned  in the 1950s, the total of prisoners shut in the black hole was probably sixty-four, of whom twenty-one came out alive. He also showed evidence that Siraj-ud-daula did not order the prisoners to be shut in the black hole and knew nothing about it until afterwards.

Black hole (1756),Calcutta,people fighting to stay alive.

 John Zephaniah Holwell was born in Dublin on17 September 1711, the son of Zephaniah Holwell (d. 1729), a timber merchant. In 1732 Holwell became a surgeon's mate on board an India-bound ship for Calcutta  and later he settled there in1736. Subsequently  he went back to England  and in 1751 he returned to India now as a "covenanted civilian".

Coming back to the black hole tragedy. having survived the night in the "Black Hole," Holwell was taken as a  prisoner along with three others to Murshidabad. He was in a  bad state of health and covered with boils. Holwell was eventually released on July 17, 1756, at the interference of the Begum of Bengal, who, it is said, recognized his services to ailing Indians. Holwell, then returned to England  in February 1757; the voyage took five months, during which time he wrote an account of the events in the "Black Hole". Holwell's narrative 'his experience as a night of horrors' and other subsequent publications by famous people on Black Hole inspired the patriotic zeal of  several generations of Britons and at the same time  they accentuated their rage at Indian perfidy.

He returned to Calcutta in 1759 and was appointed Governor in 1760. However, his disagreement  with the Board of Directors in  September of the same year made him to  resign the covetous post.  He died on  5 November 1798 and, as for his personal life, he  was twice married and was survived by two daughters.

John Zephaniah Holwell
The original inscription gave only a few names that Holwell could remember, and  he gave some of them inaccurately. The present  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 inscription is as follows:
'This monument was 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 raveling.
It was removed in 1821.'

Black Hole memorial St. John's Church, 

As per Treaty of Alinagar in 1757  between leaders from Britain and India, the finally Indians agreed to pay compensation for attacks on British citizens. Surprisingly there was no mention  of the Black Hole incident of Calcutta. Wily British never talked about payment of  huge  tax arrears due from EIC to the Nawob.

The list of casualty legally declared was based on solitary evidence given by Holwell. The list of 123 dead  British officer in a small  prison cell that could accommodate only 50 to 60 people at a time  was a cock and bull story promoted by Holwell and his buddies backed by the biased British  media to gain political millage out of this unfortunate incident and to win the sympathy and support of the British public in favor of company's confrontation against the Nawob. This way they could show the Nawob in poor light and portray him as the real villain or culprit whose motive was to kill the British mercilessly. Siraj-ud daulah was not  a cruel man and this act was committed  most probably out of negligence

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