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The Black Hole of Calcutta


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In the long and varied history of the "little continent" of India no incident stands out in more tragic relief than that of the Black Hole of Calcutta.

The old nawab of Bengal, Aliverdi Khan, had died in April, 1756, and there ruled in his place his grandson, who had not yet arrived at man's estate. He was Siraj ud Daula, an irresponsible youth, with an unbalanced understanding and a ferocious temper, who had in his boyhood days passed much of his time in torturing birds and beasts, and who later found a pleasurable pastime in causing suffering to his fellow-creatures.

The new nawab also had a weakness for ardent spirits, and when under their influence would commit himself to every kind of debauchery, in which he was freely joined by companions given to his own loose habits, who flattered him and applauded his gross conduct.

For his neighbours, the British in Bengal, Siraj ud Daula had only feelings of contempt, and he despised the people of Europe generally, in his ignorance expressing the belief that the continent was a land of little importance, containing no more than ten thousand men in all.

It was not long before this irrational being found an opportunity to show his displeasure with and contempt of the British people in his immediate neighbourhood. As a pretext, he seized upon the escape of a revenue officer with certain treasure, which the nawab believed the absconding officer had deposited in safety in Calcutta. This incident, together with the knowledge that the British were busily strengthening their fortifications, actually as a protection against the contingency of attack by the French, but, as the nawab chose to believe, with a view of invading his dominions, gave him the desired excuse for initiating hostilities against his hated and despised neighbours.

Forthwith he attacked and took possession of the British factory at Cossimbazar, the river-port of Murshidabad, placing the captured chiefs in confinement. The suddenness and complete success of this unexpected thrust so alarmed the Presidency of Fort William that a message was hastily dispatched to Siraj ud Daula, containing an offer to accept any terms which he felt disposed to dictate.

But the nawab turned a deaf ear to all the suggested proposals for a peaceful settlement. His avarice had been excited by the stories that had been related to him of the vast wealth which lay hidden in Calcutta, and nothing short of its possession would satisfy his cupidity.

The failure to effect a peaceful compromise set the Presidency in a state of genuine alarm, for the defences of Calcutta were inconsiderable, and the inadequate garrison could muster no more than two hundred Europeans, and a native militia of fewer than a thousand, armed with matchlocks. Nor was the garrison set an inspiring example by some of the chiefs, for the governor and the commanding officer were both seized with panic and promptly made their escape by boat down the River Hooghli.

With the ignominious flight of the garrison commander, it became an urgent necessity to appoint another to the command. A conference of the East India Company chiefs was hastily convened, and it was unanimously decided to place direction of affairs in the hands of a Mr. Holwell, who, although not a senior member of the Company, commanded the full support and respect of his colleagues.

In the meantime, the nawab having placed his artillery in position, the attack on the fort had already been launched. It was an unequal conflict, yet, in spite of every disadvantage, the garrison under Mr. Holwell managed to sustain the defence of the fort for two days. On June 20, 1756, as evening fell, it was decided that further resistance was inadvisable, and the enemy forces were allowed to take possession of the fort.

Soon afterwards the nawab, seated in the great hall of the Government or factory house, amid a throng of flattering courtiers, demanded that Mr. Holwell should be brought "before him. While he displayed considerable resentment with Mr. Holwell for having had the presumption to defend the fort, he showed even greater annoyance at the absence of the immense treasure which he had hoped to secure, for no more than 50,000 rupees had been discovered.

Mr. Holwell's interview, however, was not an altogether unpleasant experience, for, apart from his outburst at the smallness of the treasury, the nawab displayed an unexpected courtesy and graciousness, promising "on the word of a soldier" that none of the prisoners should suffer any harm.

Permitted at length to retire from his audience with the nawab, Mr. Holwell hastened back to the other captives, and cheered them with the reassuring news of their safety. Greatly relieved at hearing that their lives were to be spared, apprehension gave place to the wildest joy, but it was a joy that was soon to be changed to an even greater sorrow, to a tragedy almost beyond imagination.

Soon, orders were issued for the prisoners to be placed in confinement for the night; they were collected together, and told to sit down quietly beneath the arched veranda, or piazza, on the west of the place in which they were later to e confined, situate near to the barracks and close to the windows of the Governor's easterly apartments.

A guard was placed over them, and in case of emergency, another guard was ordered to take up a position some little distance away, at the foot of some stairs at the south end of the veranda, leading to the south-east bastion. As an added precaution against any attempt on the part of the-prisoners to effect an escape, there were drawn up on the parade between four and five hundred gunmen, ready to-fire should the occasion arise.

Although comforted by the nawab's assurance of their safety, the unfortunate prisoners had cause to suffer doubts. To the right and left of them the factory, which the nawab. had ordered to be burned down, was a blazing mass, and as the flames continued to spread towards them on both sides, the thought entered their minds that it was the intention to suffocate them, an impression that gained strength when. they observed a body of officers and men, carrying lighted torches in their hands, enter some curtained apartments close by. That they were intent upon setting fire to the apartments to hasten their destruction by burning, became the firm conviction of the disquieted prisoners, and, Mr. Hoi well relates, they "presently came to a resolution of rushing on the guard, seizing their scimitars, and attacking the troops upon the parade, rather than be thus tamely roasted to death."

Better counsel prevailed, however, and Mr. Holwell, at the suggestion of some of his companions in distress, walked across to the apartments to ascertain if they were actually being fired. On his return he was able to satisfy his fearful companions that their belief was groundless, and assure them that the object was only to discover a place in which to confine them for the night.

Almost immediately afterwards, the officers and men. reappeared from within the apartments, and then the guard approached the prisoners and ordered them to rise and proceed into the barracks. The barracks was a commodious apartment, fitted with a large wooden platform for soldiers to sleep upon, and the prisoners felt the greatest relief and satisfaction at the thought that they would be assured of comparative comfort and a good night's rest. But their delight at such a prospect was soon to be dispelled, for no sooner had they entered the barracks than the guard advanced towards them, and with muskets presented, ordered them into a small room at the farther end of the barracks, referred to by the unsavoury name of the Black Hole.

The majority of the unfortunate prisoners moved forward without demur, and the few that exhibited disinclination to follow were dissuaded from making open opposition when the guards, brandishing clubs and drawn scimitars, urged them on. Their action was so sudden and unexpected, and the pressure so great on those nearest the door of the Black Hole, that resistance en masse was out of the question.

Like one agitated wave impelling another, as Mr. Holwell avers, the unhappy throng was obliged to give way and enter, the remainder following like a torrent, being rushed haphazard and in disorder into the small and totally unsuitable room that was to be their place of confinement. Had they had the least conception of the dimensions or the character of their prison, rather than suffer what was virtually a living death, they would have turned on the guard, and risked being cut to pieces.

Into this inadequate chamber, whose measurements were no more than eighteen feet by fourteen feet ten inches, the unfortunate prisoners, 146 in number, were herded, one of them a woman, who had refused to be separated from her husband. These people, it must be remembered, were already suffering from continual fatigue and action, and they were now, on a sultry summer's night, one of the hottest of the year, crowded into this living tomb, into which air could penetrate only through the two small windows on the westward wall, which were stoutly protected by strong iron bars.

Realising the almost certain doom that awaited them, these poor, defenceless souls made continued efforts to obtain release by battering at the door, but, without the aid of implements of any kind, their efforts were unavailing. Observing that nearly all were giving way to their passions, and feeling that this course would inevitably prove fatal, Mr. Holwell endeavoured to calm their anger, so that he might discuss with them the best course to pursue.

Succeeding at length in obtaining silence and the attention of his companions in misfortune, Mr. Holwell, in moving terms, begged that as they had followed his advice earlier in the day they would now, not only for their own sake, but for the sake of those whom they held dear, and who desired that their lives would be spared, consider the advice that he was going to give them.

He impressed upon them that with the coming of the morning they would have their liberty restored, and with it the fresh air that was then denied them; that the only way in which they could sustain the great misfortune that had befallen them was by preserving a clear mind and resigning themselves to calm submission.

He urgently entreated them to subdue as best they could their agitation of mind and body, declaring that it would serve no good purpose to allow their passions to run riot, but that it would tend rather to bring about their destruction. For a time, this moving and reasoned appeal brought peace, a peace, however, that was frequently punctuated by the cries and moanings of the wounded; and during this temporary cessation of violent clamouring, Mr. Holwell had time to consider what might best be done to alleviate the suffering of his distracted companions.

From his position at one of the windows, he observed an elderly officer of the guard, who appeared from his countenance to feel some little compassion at the terrible plight of the prisoners. Beckoning to him, Mr. Holwell begged that he. might use his influence to have them separated into two groups, one half to remain in their present chamber, the other to be removed elsewhere; and for this act of kindness he would reward him in the morning with the gift of a thousand rupees.

The old officer promised to forward the request to the proper quarter, but returned shortly to say that permission had been refused. A further offer of two thousand rupees induced him to make a second application, but once again his mission failed to achieve success, and regretfully he stated that the prisoners could be separated only on the order of the nawab, who, however, was sleeping; and none dared disturb his rest.

In the meantime, the uneasiness of the prisoners had increased, although they had so far shown no inclination to resume their passionate outbursts. Almost from the moment of their incarceration, they had fallen into a profuse perspiration, and its continuance caused the setting up of a raging thirst, which became increasingly intense. It was the urgent desire for air and the means to slake their thirst that occasioned their uneasiness, and various were the devices to which resort was made to lessen their sufferings from these causes.

To obtain more air the removal of clothing was suggested, and no sooner had the suggestion been advanced than it was put into practice, almost without exception. For a time this device gave some relief to their sufferings, and to circulate the air about their bodies hats and other garments were set in motion.

Another suggestion which was hopefully put into operation was that every one should assume a sitting posture, and although such a proceeding could have been of little if any benefit, such was the pitiful plight of the prisoners, that they were only too willing to try any expedient which might hold a possibility of giving even the smallest relief from their tortures.

Time after time this measure was adopted, but each time the order was issued to rise again, some whose natural strength was less than that of the others, or had become exhausted from the hardships endured, and who, therefore, were slow in the effort to recover their feet, failed to respond to the call, and were either trodden to death or died from suffocation. Such, in fact, was the pressure of the tightly packed company when seated on the ground, that it was only by the exertion of great effort that they were able to rise at all.

About an hour after their entry into the Black Hole, respiration had become difficult, and the desire for water extreme. Once again the passions of the wretched creatures became unrestrained, and violent but ineffectual efforts were made once more to batter down the door. Knowing that death by suffocation must be their lot if nothing could be effected to secure their early release, and feeling that death in almost any other form were preferable, they resorted to the hurling of abuse and insults at the guard, in the hope of lashing them into a fury which would provoke them into firing.

Defeated in this purpose, they yet again resorted to battering at the door in a despairing effort to force a way into the fresh air, but the door withstood their frantic onslaughts, and their futile exertions only increased their sufferings.

Soon their thirst became insufferable, and despairingly the cry of "Water, water" was raised. The cry was heard by the old officer of the guard who had earlier attempted to intercede on their behalf, and on his instructions skins of water were brought to the barred windows of the prison.

Parched with thirst, and suffering untold agonies from the fetid and polluted atmosphere, the wretched creatures, with but few exceptions, gave no thought to the fatal consequences that would almost certainly result from partaking of the water.

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