Black Hole Incident

Black Hole Incident is the name given to an event that took place during Nawab sirajuddaula's capture of Calcutta on 20 June 1756. The story of the tragedy is based on the narrative of one person, john zepheniah holwell, the defender of Calcutta. For fifty years since then little notice was taken of the incident. But it appeared to be a significant event in the writings of subsequent British historians, james mill (History of British India, fifth edition, ed by Horace Hayman Wilson 10 vols., 1858). The focus on the incident grew so intense that the 'Black Hole' became, along with palashi (1757) and the Great Revolt (1857-58), one of the three events which 'every English schoolboy knew' about India. However, now it is thought that the story is largely untrue and is greatly exaggerated.

Sirajuddaula arrived before the gate of fort william on 16 June 1756 with a force of 30,000 troops to capture it from the English. After two days of fighting, Governor drake found it impossible to withstand the nawab's forces and, on June 19, escaped with the main body of the English residents of the fort to Fulta. Holwell, with a few other Englishmen (about 170 'white men', excluding the armenians and Eurasians), were left in the fort (presumably in order to put up a show of fight and thus provide cover for Drake's escape) with instructions to follow suit on the following day. The English fell back into a smaller and inner line of defence, covering the old Fort William and a few yards around it. Holwell tried to take a stand, but Sirajuddaula's musketry made it almost impossible. In the cover of the night that followed 53 soldiers (chiefly Dutch) out of the small white contingent left had deserted to Sirajuddaulah's side. In the fighting from morning to noon on 20 June, 25 English soldiers were killed and 70 wounded and only 14 men were left to serve the guns, with no laskar or porter. In the evening of June 20, the nawab's forces scaled the walls of the fort from all sides and the little river-gate of the fort was treacherously burst open by a Dutch sergeant and delivered to the forces of the nawab. Some of the defenders were killed. Holwell surrendered, and the fighting ceased.

The British who had surrendered were well treated. Their chief Holwell had three interviews with the nawab who gave him assurance of safety. The victorious troops of the nawab plundered the Europeans of their valuables, but did not ill-treat them. But later at night, some European soldiers got drunk and assaulted the native guards who, in their turn, sought justice from their nawab. The nawab ordered the confinement of those soldiers who had misbehaved with the natives. Holwell later complained that the nawab ordered the European prisoners to be confined in a 'Black Hole', a chamber of 18 feet by 14 feet 10 inches (5.48 × 4.29m), with only one small window. The prisoners were crowded into that 'Black Hole' throughout that hot night of June, and in the morning many were found to have perished of suffocation or their wounds. The number of victims afterwards given out and accepted in Europe was 123 dead out of 146 confined. It rose to 200 men in the story told by some English fugitives sheltered in Chandernagar, now chandannagar.

Now, how far were the nawab's actions justified? International Law makes prisoners of war liable to be shot if they assault their guards. With oriental humanity the nawab merely put restraints on the rowdy elements in the English forces, but in the unsettled conditions of a fort taken by storm, the nawab's officers had no time to separate the 'sheep from the goats'. The prison was left in charge of common soldiers throughout the night. On the following day, Sirajuddaula released all the Englishmen who had been found within the fort except Holwell and three other leading servants of the company were ordered to be taken to the capital, murshidabad, as prisoners. But a few days later they were set free, and joined the English fleet at Fulta. Only one white woman, Mrs Carey, had been interned in the 'Black Hole', and she came out alive and was taken to the ships at Fulta. By 26 June 1756 all the Englishmen made their way to Fulta. On his return to the capital Siraujuddaula addressed a letter on 30 June 1756 to George Pigot, governor of Fort St George, wherein he expressed his willingness to allow the English to stay and trade in Bengal on just and reasonable terms.

But the number of victims, claimed by certain English and European quarters, is manifestly an exaggeration. Little, headmaster of the English high school in Murshidabad, argued that after the deaths in battle, evacuation and desertion, 146 British prisoners could not have been left in Siraj's hands three hours after the surrender. Secondly, Bholanath Chunder asserted that a floor area of 267 (81.38 sq.m) square feet could not contain 146 European adults. To prove this, Bholanath fenced round an area 5.48 × 4.29m with bamboo stalks and counted the number of his Bengali tenants who could be crammed into it. The number was found to be much less than 146, and a Bengali villager's body occupies much less space than a British gentleman's. Moreover, it is nowhere admitted that a list was made of the British soldiers surrendering at the fort, and not even a count of heads was made. At the same time many escaped secretly between the surrender and the time of putting the prisoners in the 'Black Hole'. Even Holwell was offered by a friend the opportunity to escape. Therefore, the true number of deaths in the so-called 'Black Hole' was considerably less.

Percival Spear (The Oxford History of India, 1958) was convinced that some thing like the 'Black Hole' incident, as described by Holwell, had actually occurred as the combined result of ignorance, apathy and confusion on the part of the nawab's agents in the confused circumstances of the overrunning of the Fort William, though the numbers involved and details are not certain. Spear's argument was that the details of Holwell might be exaggerated, but the fact remains that 123 people who defended Calcutta have to be accounted for, and that the evidence for their death in battle is more slender than for their death in the 'Black Hole'. [Mohammad Shah]