Black Hole of Calcutta

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The Black Hole of Calcutta was a small dungeon in the old Fort William, at Calcutta, India, where troops of the Nawab of Bengal, Siraj ud-Daulah, held British prisoners of war after the capture of the Fort on June 19, 1756.

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 prisoners held. Doubt has been cast on the numbers of deaths. Some historians now believe the number of death toll to have been at most 43.[1]

Contents

Background

Fort William was established to protect British East India Company trade in the city of Calcutta in the region of Bengal. In 1756, with a view to the possibility of conflict with French forces, the British began building up the fort's military strength and defences. The Nawab 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. As ruler 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 laid siege to the fort, whose defenders took many casualties. The garrison's commander organised an escape, and left a token force in the fort under the command of John Zephaniah Holwell, a one-time military surgeon who was a top East India Company civil servant. However, desertions by allied troops, mainly Dutch, made even this temporary defence untenable, and the fort was taken.

The Holwell account

Holwell wrote an account of the incident in which he claimed that of 146 prisoners, 123 suffocated when imprisoned in the tiny room. His version of events, which was not challenged by other survivors, was widely accepted at the time in Britain.

Indian soldiers captured the surviving defenders, who numbered from 64 to 69, as well as an unknown number of Anglo-Indian soldiers and civilians who had been sheltering in the fort. During this period some prisoners were able to escape, and others attacked their guards. According to Holwell, the troops, apparently acting on their own, then packed the prisoners in a guardroom measuring 14 by 18 ft (4.3 by 5.5 m) and locked them in overnight. Prisoners begged for water or escape, growing delirious from heat exhaustion. As time passed, men collapsed from heat stroke, suffocation, or trampling. The prisoners were not released until morning, when Siraj ud-Daulah awoke. By then, certain modern historians believe, some 43 members of the garrison were dead or missing for other reasons.[2] Because so many non-combatants were present in the fort when it fell, the number who died cannot be stated with any precision.[3]

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