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The Black Hole of Calcutta page 2

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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.

Among the few to whom the thought did occur was Mr. Holwell, and many times he essayed to gain the ear of the officer, and plead with him not to bring more water. Such, however, was the excitement and clamour set up at the prospect of obtaining relief from their agonising thirst, that he failed in his purpose.

The appearance of the water was the signal for increased agitation and excitement, for it created an even greater desire to overcome the tortures of thirst, and those who were situated nearest to the window made violent efforts to secure a place of greater advantage, so that they might the sooner be served with the precious liquid.

The bars at the window prevented the passage of the skins into the cell, and the only means available was that of filling the hats of some of the prisoners and forcing them between the bars. Seeing that the prisoners were determined to have water, Mr. Holwell and two others, a Mr. Coles and a Mr. Scot, although suffering much pain from wounds they had previously received, worked valiantly to supply their comrades with the water, the sight of which only served to increase their own consuming thirst.

In spite of all their efforts, however, the water could not be handed round fast enough, and those who had already drunk were fired by even greater thirst and clamoured for still more. There ensued violent struggles among these, and those who were fearful of being passed over, and such was the violence of the contenders for possession of the water, that the hatfuls which were passed into the cell were frequently entirely spilled, and many others were reduced to little more than a cupful. And, as Mr. Holwell says, "these supplies, like sprinkling water on fire, only served to feed and raise the flame."

Many in the rear of the prison had not the remotest hope of obtaining any water at all, and their cries and ravings were pitiful in the extreme. Many others, friends of long standing who were dear to him, called upon Mr. Holwell from the considerations of friendship and affection to succour them, but there was not the faintest hope of his being able to comply with their heartrending appeals.

Greater and ever greater became the confusion and struggle to appease thirst, and even those who held positions at the other window resigned them to take part in the vicious struggle to reach the water, thus surrendering, possibly, the only chance they had of preserving life.

The pressure at the window through which the water was passed became still greater, as many of those at a distance from it frantically renewed their efforts to force a passage, and in their struggle pressed down many of those who barred their way, trampling them to death.

And while this death struggle was being enacted within the cell, the guards without beheld the scene with fiendish delight, taking care to replenish the hats with water as quickly as they could, and holding lights to the window the better to discern the tragic entertainment.

From nine to nearly eleven o'clock, as Mr. Holwell declares, the cruel scene and painful situation was sustained, he continuing to supply the water, though his legs were almost crushed with the weight that was pressed against them. He himself felt almost at the point of death, while his two companions who had gallantly supported him in dispensing the water, and a third prisoner who had forced a way to the window, were now beyond suffering, life having been crushed from their bodies.

Lying dead at his feet, also, were several of his dearest friends, and over their bodies pressed others in a mad struggle to reach the window, where Mr. Holwell was by now so wedged and crushed that he was unable to be of further assistance. He had now but little hope of living through the night, and so he called upon those pressing about him to make a way that he might find a place in which to lay his half-mangled body and die in quiet.

He succeeded in reaching the centre of the prison, where the pressure was less on account of the number who had struggled to the windows, and from the fact that upwards of forty were now beyond all suffering. He made his way to a sloping platform, and seated himself at the end of it, between two others, one of whom expired as he took his place by his side. Scarcely had he sat down, when he observed an old friend staggering over the dead bodies towards him. He was greeted by his friend, who asked with his accustomed coolness and good nature how he fared, but, before Mr. Holwell had time to reply, his friend fell forward and expired.

In utter despair, Mr. Holwell reclined against some of the dead around him, and recommending himself to heaven, comforted himself with the thought that his suffering would soon be at an end. His thirst was insufferable; lie experienced increasing difficulty in breathing, and soon he was attacked by an acute pain in the chest, and an agonising palpitation of the heart.

Praying for death to intervene, he suffered the excruciating pains in courageous silence, but at length they became so unbearable that he was constrained to seek the relief that only fresh air could bring. He therefore determined to force a passage to the window nearest to him, and with a strength that surprised him fought his way to the third rank of the wretched creatures pressed about it, seized a bar with one hand, and by a superhuman effort levered himself to the window.

The air had the desired effect, and in a few moments the pain had subsided, the palpitation ceased, and he was able to breathe in comparative ease; but his thirst still persisted, and he called aloud for water. His companions had thought him to be dead, but assured that this was not the case, and still retaining the tenderness and respect they had previously shown him, they cried, "Give him water, give him water," and none attempted to drink until he himself had first been supplied.

The water, however, brought him no relief, but had only the effect of increasing his thirst, and he determined to drink no more, but once again resign himself to the coming of the end. From time to time he moistened his mouth by sucking the perspiration from his shirt-sleeves, and drinking in the spots as they fell from his forehead and cheeks.

In this proceeding he was observed by a less fortunate companion on his right, a Mr. Lushington, and he relates how the latter, "took the hint, and robbed me from time to time of a considerable part of my store; though after I had detected him, I had ever the address to begin on that sleeve first, when I thought my reservoirs sufficiently replenished; and our mouths and noses often met in the contest."

Mr. Lushington proved to be one of those who were fortunate enough to emerge alive from the Black Hole prison, and he later paid Mr. Holwell the compliment of assuring him that in all probability he owed his life to the many comforting draughts of perspiration he had from his companion's sleeve.

A little before midnight, having now suffered more than three hours of indescribable torture, most of the survivors were in an advanced state of delirium, and many of the remainder displayed an uncontrollable fury. A few only preserved any sign of calmness and composure, among them being those who were fortunate enough to have secured a place beside the windows.

The despairing cry for water was no longer heard, for all had at length realised that, far from appeasing their anguish, the continued draughts of water had but the effect of increasing their discomfort. The general desire now was for air or, failing air, death - but by some more merciful means than suffocation.

In the hope that the guard might yet be provoked into ending their misery by firing upon them, the wretched creatures once again resorted to insult and abuse; but, failing in their purpose, many, resigned to their fate, laid themselves down upon the bodies of those who had mercifully been spared prolonged torture, and passed away as peacefully as might be.

Such was the pressure of the bodies of those who fought for a position by the windows against those who were fortunate enough to have secured one, that its retention became a matter of the greatest difficulty. Mr. Holwell emphasises this fact in his narrative, declaring that from about 11.30 p.m. until 2 a.m. he had to sustain the weight of a heavy man, who had his knees planted in his back and his whole body pressed down upon his head; while on his left shoulder sat a second man, and on his right rested the full weight of still another.

Mr. Holwell was occasionally enabled to relieve the pressure of the two latter by loosening his hold upon the bars at the window, and driving his knuckles forcibly into their ribs; but no effort of his was sufficient to dislodge the third man, who supported himself by a determined grip of the bars.

At length Mr. Holwell felt that he could no longer sustain the pressure, and, seeing no possibility of an early release from the pestiferous prison, the thought entered his mind to put an end to his sufferings by severing his arteries with a penknife which he had in his pocket.

He had withdrawn the knife, and was about to put his intention into action, when, as he says, heaven interposed and restored him to fresh spirits and resolution, with an abhorrence of the act of cowardice he had contemplated.

He exerted a new strength and fortitude, but the repeated though ineffectual efforts he made to dislodge the three men who pressed so heavily upon him left him quite exhausted, and he determined that, rather than sink to the floor and inevitable suffocation, he would resign his place at the window.

Close behind him was a ship's officer named Carey, the husband of the only woman prisoner, who had conducted himself with considerable courage during the siege of the fort. His repeated cries for air and water had been observed by Mr. Holwell, who now informed the officer of his intention to resign his position at the window, and recommended that he should make an effort to take it for himself.

Carey made a determined attempt to occupy the place as it was vacated by Mr. Holwell, but was supplanted by another. Expressing his gratitude to Mr. Holwell for the offer, he, too, declared his intention to give up his life, and the pair, not without difficulty, made their way from the window. Soon afterwards Carey settled himself down, and quietly died.

Feeling that the end could not now be far off, Mr. Holwell decided to await it with as much composure as possible. He was suffering no pain and only a little uneasiness, but he felt that he was being overcome by stupor, so he laid himself down by the side of one whom he describes as "that gallant old man, Mr. Jervas Bellamy," who, with his son, a naval lieutenant, had met his end peacefully, each clasping the other's hand.

Some little time elapsed, when the thought occurred to Mr. Holwell that with the coming of death his body, like that of so many others dead before him, would be trampled upon by those who still lived and suffered. The fear moved him to transfer his unwilling body to the platform on which he had previously reclined; and there, mercifully, unconsciousness overtook him.

Of the events that followed, accounts vary considerably, but when dawn broke, of the 146 who had been driven overnight into the living tomb of the Black Hole, only twenty-three, including Mrs. Carey, still survived. And they owed the fact of life in great part to those who had succumbed, since they were thus able to secure freer access to the windows and breathe the air that was so vital to them.

Renewed entreaties for release were now made to the guard; but when these proved to be unavailing, a search was instituted for Mr. Holwell, in the hope that he was still among the living, and that his influence would prevail where their own efforts had failed.

He was discovered lying beneath the dead bodies of several others, and as there were signs that life was not yet extinct, he was carried towards a window so that the air might revive him. But life was dear to every one, and none showed a disposition to make room for Mr. Holwell, and so he was taken back to the platform. Soon afterwards, however, a naval captain, who had obtained a seat at the window, offered to withdraw, and Mr. Holwell was again brought forward.

Scarcely had he been deposited there when an officer, sent by the nawab, who had learned of the horrors of the night, inquired if he were among the survivors. The officer was informed that there still appeared to be a spark of life remaining, and that he might probably recover if the door were opened to permit more air to reach him.

The officer sought the nawab, and soon returned with his permission, and the door was opened. It was now close upon six o'clock.

Mr. Holwell was soon restored to consciousness by the fresh air, but it required more than twenty minutes to remove the dead that were piled against the door before a passage could be obtained sufficient for one at a time to pass out into the open.

In justice to the nawab, it must be stated that he had had no intention to inflict upon the prisoners the horrors of that night; nevertheless, he showed no evidence of sympathy with those who had been subjected to them, nor did he take any steps to punish those who had been directly responsible for the outrage.

Instead, when Mr. Holwell was brought half-dead before him, Siraj ud Daula expressed no regrets, but concerned himself only with the treasure which he was convinced the English had buried, and threatened to submit Mr. Holwell to further punishment if he refused to reveal its hiding-place.

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