Black hole incident
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Black hole incidenceBYSLIDE_MAKER4U(ABHISHEK SHARMA)
IntroductionThe Black Hole of Calcuttawas a small dungeon in the oldFort WilliaminCalcutta,India, where troops of theNawabofBengal,Siraj ud-Daulah, heldBritishprisoners of warafter the capture of the fort on 20 June 1756.
One of the prisoners,John Zephaniah Holwell, claimed that following the fall of the fort, British and Anglo-Indian soldiers and civilians were held overnight in conditions so cramped that many died from suffocation, heat exhaustion and crushing. He claimed that 123 prisoners died out of 146 held. However, the precise number of deaths, and the accuracy of Holwell's claims, have been the subject of controversy.
Fort William was established to protect theEast India Company's trade in the city ofCalcutta, the principal town of theBengal Presidency. In 1756, with the possibility of conflict withFrenchforces, the British began building up the fort's strengths and defences. TheNawab of Bengal,Siraj ud-Daulah, was unhappy with the company's interference in the internal affairs of his province and perceived a threat to its independence. He ordered an immediate stop to the Fort's military enhancement, but the Company paid no heed. As a consequence, Siraj organized his army and laidsiegeto the fort. The garrison's commander organised an escape, leaving behind 146 soldiers
However, desertions by allied troops made even this temporary defence ineffectual, and the fort fell on 20 June. The surviving defenders, who numbered from 64 to 69, were captured along with an unknown number ofAnglo-Indiansoldiers and civilians who had been sheltering in the fort. During this period some prisoners were able to escape.
The Holwell account
Holwell wrote about the events after the fall of the fort. He met with Siraj, who assured him "on the word of a soldier[sic], that no harm should come to us".After seeking a place in the fort to confine the 146 prisoners (including Holwell), at8 pm, the jailers locked the prisoners in the fort's prison ("the black hole" was 18th century military slang for any military prison - similar to "the glasshouse" in the 20th century British Army or "the brig" in the US Navy),which was 14 by 18 feet (4.3m 5.5m) in size. When the "Black Hole" was opened the next morning at6 am, only 23 people were alive.
Stanley Wolpertargues that only 64 people were imprisoned and 21 survived.D.L. Prior argues that 43 members of the garrison were dead or missing for reasons other than suffocation and shock,while Busteed argues that, because so many non-combatants were present in the fort when it fell, the number who died cannot be stated with any precision.Regarding responsibility, Holwell believed that it "was the result of revenge and resentment in the breasts of the lower Jemmaatdaars [sergeants], to whose custody we were delivered, for the number of their order killed during the siege."Wolpert concurs and argues that Siraj did not order it and was not informed about it.
The following description from a1911 Encyclopdia Britannicaportrays Holwell's point of view vividly:The dungeon was a strongly barred room and was not intended for the confinement of more than two or three men at a time. There were only two windows, and a projecting veranda outside and thick iron bars within impeded the ventilation, while fires raging in different parts of the fort suggested an atmosphere of further oppressiveness. The prisoners were packed so tightly that the door was difficult to close.
One of the soldiers stationed in theverandawas offered 1,000rupeesto 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 nawab was asleep, and no one dared wake him.By nine 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 to be brought to the bars, where Mr. Holwell and two or three 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.
About 11 o'clock the prisoners began to drop off fast. At length, at six in the morning, Siraj-ud-Daulah awoke, and ordered the door to be opened. Of the 146 only 23, including Mr. Holwell (from whose narrative, published in theAnnual Registerfor 1758, this account is partly derived), remained alive, and they were either stupefied or raving. Fresh air soon revived them, and the commander was then taken before the nawab, who expressed no regret for what had occurred, and gave no other sign of sympathy than ordering the Englishman a chair and a glass of water. Notwithstanding this indifference, Mr. Holwell and some others acquit him of any intention of causing the catastrophe, and ascribe it to the malice of certain inferior officers, but many think this opinion unfounded.After the prison was opened, the corpses were thrown into a ditch. Holwell and three others were sent as prisoners toMurshidabad; the rest of the survivors obtained their liberty after the victory of a relief expedition underRobert Clive.
This is Holwell's actual list of the victims:"List of thesmotheredin the Black Hole prison exclusive of sixty-nine, consisting of Dutch and Britishsergeants,corporals,soldiers, topazes,militia, whites, and Portuguese, (whose names I am unacquainted with), making on the whole one hundred and twenty-three persons."
Of Council - E. Eyre, Wm. Baillie, Esqrs., the Rev. Jervas Bellamy.
Gentlemen in the Service - Messrs. Jenks, Revely, Law, Coales, Valicourt, Jeb, Torriano, E. Page, S. Page, Grub, Street, Harod, P. Johnstone, Ballard, N. Drake, Carse, Knapton, Gosling, Bing, Dod, Dalrymple, V. Ament Theme.
Military Captains- Clayton, Buchanan, Witherington.
Lieutenants- Bishop, Ifays, Blagg, Simson, Bellamy.
Ensigns- Paccard, Scot, Hastings, C. Wedderburn, Dumbleton.
Sergeants, &c.-Sergeant-MajorAbraham,QuartermasterCartwright, Sergeant Bleau (these were sergeants of militia).Sea Captains- Hunt, Osburne, Purnell (survived the night, but died next day), Messrs. Carey, Stephenson, Guy, Porter, W. Parker, Caulker, Bendall, Atkinson, Leech, &c., &c.List of those who survived - Messrs. Holwell, Court, Secretary Cooke, Lushington, Burdett, Ensign Walcott, Mrs. Carey, Captain Mills, Captain Dickson, Mr. Moran, John Meadows and twelve military and militia, blacks and whites, some of whom recovered when the door was opened.
"Portuguese" was the general, albeit confusing, name used for Calcutta'sAnglo-Indians: a term commonly used from the early 18th century to the mid 19th century - but no later than 1850.In 1829,Victor Jacquemont(travelling naturalist, to theMuseum of Natural History,Paris) wrote: "There is a fairly large Portuguese population in Calcutta. Few of them, it is true, can boast a purely European origin; there are some, but they are all black, blacker than the natives... " In 1798, Portuguese and other Christian inhabitants (i.e., Eurasians and Indian converts) occupied 2,650 houses out of a total of 78,760 city abodes. They were often the distant offspring of Portuguese soldiers who had established the first European settlement in Bengal atHooghly.
As a result of Holwell's account,Robert Clivewas sent in October to retaliate. With his troops and local allies, he defeated Siraj at theBattle of Plassey. Siraj was overthrown and killed.The Black Hole was later used as a warehouse. Anobelisk, 50 feet (15 m) high, was erected in memory of the dead.
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