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Holwell, John Zepheniah

Holwell, John Zepheniah (1711-1798) author of the oft-told black hole incident at the time of Nawab sirajuddaula’s military action against the obstinate fort william authorities in Calcutta. The nawab’s attack on Calcutta (16-20 June 1756) put the English of the settlement to flight. One hundred seventy white persons including John Zepheniah Holwell failed to board the evacuating ship in time and they were consequently taken prisoners by the nawab’s army.

John Zepheniah Holwell

A hundred and forty six of the captives were forced to spend the night of humid Bengal summer in a military punishment cell of the fortress, a room measuring 18 feet by 14 feet 10 inches. One hundred and twenty-three perished in the inferno. Holwell was one of the survivors.He very vividly narrated the episode strongly implicating the nawab in the unfortunate event. Believing in his anecdote most British historians of the early nineteenth century had taken this event as a typical example of savagery and cruelty on the part of oriental rulers. But later historians have found evidence to suspect the veracity of Holwell’s account. The unfortunate incident took place entirely beyond the knowledge of the nawab.

John Zepheniah Holwell came to Calcutta in 1733 and served as a surgeon to the east india company’s factory at Dhaka for several years. Later he left his profession and joined company’s civil service. He was entrusted with the responsibility of the management of the company’s zamindari affairs in 1758. He rose to the position of the second member of the Council of the Fort William and held, on robert clive’s departure in 1760, the post of the acting governor until henry vansittart came to assume governorship of the Fort William Council in July 1760.

Holwell is, indeed, one of the pioneers among the Europeans in Bengal to write on Bengal and Indian subjects. Among his works are Genuine Narrative of the Deaths ... in the Black Hole, London 1758; India Tracts, London 1758; Motives of the Revolution in Bengal, London 1764; Historical Events Relative to the Provinces of Bengal and the Empire of Indostan, London 1765; Mythology of the Gentoos, London 1765; and An account of the Method of Inoculating for the Small-Pox in the East Indies, London 1767. But though Holwell tried to look at Indian civilisation intellectually, he was never recognised by serious writers as an orientalist because his observations, as the contemporary and later Indologists thought, were cloaked in a shroud of mystery and fabrications. [Sirajul Islam]