by Pamela Toler
In mid-eighteenth century India, power was up for grabs. The Mughal dynasty was in decay. Smaller regional powers flourished. European trading companies, which held their trading privileges at the discretion of Indian rulers, were constantly looking for a way to get an edge. The British and French East India Companies, in particular, maintained private armies with which to defend themselves–usually against each other.
In 1756, the British East India Company became involved in a dispute with the new Nawab of Bengal, twenty-six-year-old Siraj-ud-duala. The young Nawab looked on the growth of the British settlement at Calcutta with both greed and suspicion. When he learned that the British merchants, in anticipation of war with France, had begun to expand their fortifications without his permission, he marched on Calcutta with 30,000 foot, 20,000 horse, 400 trained elephants and 80 cannon. The city was defended by a small, badly trained, force of soldiers and militia. Siraj-ud-daula attacked early on June 20.Anyone who could escaped down river by boat in a disorganized retreat. Those who had been unable to escape surrendered by mid-day and spent the night in the the Black Hole, a cell in which the British locked up drunken soldiers. The next day, the survivors were forced to leave Calcutta and made their way downriver to Fulta, where the rest of the Calcutta merchants had taken shelter.
The incident was made infamous by the account of one of the survivors, John Zephaniah Holwell. Published in 1758, Howell’s pamphlet, titled A Genuine Narration of the Deplorable Deaths of the English Gentlemen and others who were suffocated in the Black Hole, was popular reading in the eighteenth century and frequently reprinted. Holwell reported that 146 English, including one woman, were held in an 18 square foot cell with one small barred window; only 21 survived the night. Referring to his experience as “a night of horrors I will not attempt to describe, as they bar all description,” he went on to describe the event in horrific detail. The story became part of the mythology of empire when Thomas Babington Macaulay borrowed heavily from Holwell for his own lurid account of the incident in his 1840 essay on Lord Clive.
There is no doubt that the men who attempted to defend Calcutta against Siraj-ud-daula, led by Howell himself, were incarcerated in the fort’s punishment cell, which was called the Black Hole by British soldiers. (The name continued to be used in army garrisons as late as 1863). Details of the story have since been disputed. Holwell’s numbers appear to have been exaggerated. More importantly, his claims of malice on the part of Siraj ud duala have been rejected. While it is clear is that the British prisoners were held overnight in a small, badly ventilated cell on the longest day of the year and that a substantial proportion of them did not survive, there is no evidence that the Nawab ordered the imprisonment or was even aware of it. British atrocities against Indian residents of Calcutta in the days before Siraj-ud-daula’s attack add balance to the story.
From the British point of view, retribution was rapid and thorough. Siraj ud duala’s attack on Calcutta was the first step in the events that would lead to the Battle of Plassey and the rise of the British Raj.