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Black Hole of Calcutta – A Case in British India

Sumir Sharma

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Black Hole of Calcutta – A Case in British Indian Empire

When Alivardi Khan died on 9th April, 1756, there were three parties that could lay claim over the throne of Bengal, a province which was part of Mughal Empire. They were heirs of the three daughters of Alivardi Khan. Alivardi Khan had picked Siraj-ud-Daulah, the son of his youngest daughter, as his successor. Shaukat Jang, son of second aunt of Siraj-ud-Daulah and daughter of Alivardi Khan, also had ambition of sitting on the throne. The third party was identified with Ghasiti Begam.

During the later part of the life of Alivardi Khan, Siraj-ud-Daulah was looking after the affairs of the province. The relation of Bengal with English company had deteriorated at that time on the issue of fortification of Calcutta. The French company had also undertaken the fortification of their establishments but when the Bengal government had ordered them to discontinue, they had complied with the order but the British company did not care to oblige. At that time, British company was engaged in bitter conflict with the French company during the Carnatic Wars which was caused by the War of Austrian Succession and then later by Seven Years War. They had dared to continue with the fortification because as per their estimate the succession would go in favour of Ghasiti Begum and they were obliging Rajaballabh, a courtier of Ghasiti Begum. It is proved by the version of Orme, a contemporary historian who wrote, “There remained no hopes of Alivardy’s recovery; upon which the widow of Nawajis (ie. Ghasiti Begam) had quitted Muxadabad (the capital city of Mrushidababd) and encamped with 10000 men at Moota Ghill (Moti Jhil), a garden two miles south of the city, and many now began to think and to say that she would prevail in her opposition against Surajo Dowla (Siraj-ud-Daulah). Mr. Watts therefore was easily induced to oblige her minister and advised the Presidency (of Calcutta) to comply with his request.”1 (An Advanced History of India by R. C. Majumdar and others, Macmillan Publication, 1990)

Another incidence is quoted by Dr. R. C. Majumdar. According to it, Dr. Forth, attached to the factory of Cassimbazar, visited Alivardi Khan about fortnight before his death. While he was talking with the Nawab, Siraj-ud-Daulah came in and reported that he had information to the effect that the English had agreed to help Ghasiti Begam. The dying Nawab immediately questioned Forth about this. Forth not only denied the charge but disavowed on behalf of his nation any intention to interfere in Indian politics.

All such non-diplomatic activities were being undertaken with full knowledge of Mr. Drake, the Governor of Fort William where the fortification was continuing. When Siraj-ud-Daulah took over as the next Nawab of Bengal, they did not pay their respect to the local authority which was due to him. It further increased the enmity between both the parties. Against the estimate of British, Siraj-ud-Daulah, the new ruler was able to pacify Ghasiti Begum in his favour. He then warned the English company to comply with his orders against the fortification of the Fort William. He also adopted the next logical approach of confronting Shaukat Jang who was ruling over Purnea under the throne of Bengal. It was when he was proceeding against Shaukat Jang that Governor of Fort William sent his message in response to the order of Siraj-ud-Daulah. The letter was not to the liking of the new Nawab and he turned around and marched on Calcutta.

By 16th of June of 1856, he was in Calcutta. Drake and other leading officer had left before his arrival to safety of their ships. They had left Holwell behind for the protection of the fort. On June 20, 1856, Siraj-ud-Daulah occupied the Fort William and left after handing over the charge to his commander Manikchand. Under the command of Manikchand, the English officers who were arrested were put in the cells of the Fort William.

It was an incidence which however, is more popular in history of British Empire for Black Hole Tragedy. The arrest of Englishmen in Fort William was made popular by the account of J. Z. Holwell which reported that 123 were killed by the Bengal administration in most horrifying manner.

According to the version of J. Z. Holwell, 146 English prisoners were confined during the night in a small room, made popular by him as Black Hole, which was 18 feet long and 14 feet 10 inches wide. One hundred and twenty three died of suffocation, and 23 miserable survivors alone remained to tell the tale that tragic summer night.

In year 1902, Lord Curzon had raised a monument in memory of those killed in that incidence. In an inscription on the monument, Lord Curzon had given the list of names of the victim. Even Holwell was claimed to have written a book (presently publicized at www.lostbooks.net/cgi-bin/lbn455/26413.html and the going rate is 200 pounds) in which he had given the names of all the 149 persons imprisoned on the night of June 20, 1756. Picture available at http://www.greatmirror.com/index.cfm?chapt...id=563&picid=18. The list of the names who perished there and the people who perished after the June 20 incidence is available at http://archiver.rootsweb.com/th/read/INDIA...4-05/1083754311 and in “Echoes from Old Calcutta” by H. E. Busteed, Thacker Spink & Co. 1888. Appendix A, p. 340.

(Reference: http://www.jihadwatch.org/dhimmiwatch/archives/004196.php

In 1960s, new researches on British Indian Empire raised doubts about the authenticity of the account as given by Holwell and motives behind such accounts.

According to Dr. R. C. Majumdar, “The truth of this story has been doubted on good grounds. That some prisoner were put into the black hole a number of them, including those wounded in the course of fight, died there, may be accepted as true. But the tragic details, designed to suit a magnified number of prisoners, must almost certainly be ascribed to the fertile imagination of Holwel, on whose authority the story primarily rests. In any case, it is agreed on all hands that Siraj-ud-Daulah was not in any way personally responsible for the incident.”

It is claimed that the details of the episode is the product of imagination of Holwell intently exaggerated in order to win laurels and project himself as hero of the moment. It is alleged that the British Rulers of the day also used this episode to justify their conquests in India.

The text of the account is available under the title, “John Zephaniah Holwell: A Genuine Narrative of the Deplorable Deaths of the English Gentlemen and others who were suffocated in the Black Hole: London, 1758.

The research papers presented in IHC of 1962 claims that total number of people dumped in the cell of the Fort William constructed by the British East India Company was not higher than 69. They had stressed that the total dimension of the room was 18 feet by 14 feet and 10 inches. Such a room could never contain people more than that number. Therefore, it is wrong to accept that there were 149 people in that room on the night of 20 June, 1756. However, the new researchers had also claimed that it was really doubtful that this incidence had actually taken place. It was corroborated by some other researchers also. The photograph of the monument could be accessed at www.obelisken.com/calcutta.htm.

Another scholar, Steve Clark, whose findings were broadcast on Education Broadcast at University of Richmond had based his finding on following resources:

De, Amalendu. "A Note on the Black Hole Tragedy," Quarterly Review of Historical Studies, x, 3 and 4 (1970-1971), 141-153, 187-192.

Hill, S.C. Bengal in 1756-1757. London, 1905.

Holwell, J.Z. India Tracts. London, 1774. Especially Book IV.

Little, J.H. "The Black Hole - The Question of Holwell's Veracity,"

Bengal: Past and Present, xii (1916), Part I, Serial 23, 32-42, 136-171.

According to his finding that it was a version of Holwell that 146 European men, women and children fought for survival during one of the hottest nights of the year. Some were already wounded, and many who fell were trampled to death. The air was foul and they began to vomit all over each other. Discipline was lost and panic moved in waves across the crowd.

From his vantage near one of the two small windows, Holwell tried but failed to restore order. Water appeared at the window but spilled before it could reach the back of the room. Only twenty-three people survived.

From 1757, by the time Clive had defeated Siraj-ud-Daulah in April 1757 in Battle of Plassey, Holwell began to project his version vigorously. From his writings, it was carried by other authorities and every new reference projected this episode with more horrifying versions. It was used to project the native Indians as most uncivilized creatures on the earth and also a justification for building a British Empire. “Remember the Black Hole of Calcutta” became the main mantra of every new conquest in India.

J. H. Little had called this whole episode as a “hoax designed by Holwell to make himself look like a hero.” He had also pointed out that no contemporary Muslim historians of Bengal had given any reference to such an important event.

The conclusion of Steve Clark is that the British authorities had a vested interest in letting Holwell's exaggerations stand. What a story! What better way to justify the enormous sacrifices needed to maintain the largest empire the world had ever seen? Thus, the Black Hole of Calcutta became one of the great imperial myths, designed to horrify later and perhaps more squeamish generations.

His version is available at www.amomentintime.com

Another Scholar, Rajneesh Khanna, presently head of the department, D. A. V. College, Hoshiarpur, had visited and lived in Calcutta for two years. He had been visiting the site in different seasons. He claims that if we assume that climatic situation in 1756 would have been similar to present climate, then it is really doubtful that 146 people would have been pushed and dumped into such a small room. If that had really taken, then it is doubtful that any one of them have survived because the humidity and heat is so high in the month of June, that it would have been not suitable for such a gathering of people to have survived at all. Secondly, he had been checking the documents relating to this incidence. He claims that he had not found any reference to this event for the period of fifteen years after 1756. It had found mention only after 1771 in the government records and some journals of that time.

It is a claim of Armenian scholars, who had been writing of about India since the ancient period and had extensively provide sources since the days of Akbar, that no specific figures about the dead British prisoners in the Black Hole could be given. In one of the contemporary record of a Armenian scholar, it is stated that the exact number of imprisoned and dead could not given. It is further recorded that as per the information provided at that time, that the “the prisoners numbered 146 and only 15 survived.” As per this source, there is difference of eight people as compared to what J. Z. Holwell, who claimed to have written a book in 1560 in which he claimed to have given the name of all the people who died in the incidence, had given.

In another Armenian source, which was History of India of Thomas Khojamall, it is recorded that more than 15 soldiers died in one night. It can also be learned from that book that Thomas Khojamall was not having good impression of Siraj-ud-Daulah. From there, it can be concluded that the report of Holwell had recorded inflated number of people imprisoned and actual number of people who died there.

The next important source of Armenian origin is a letter of an Armenian merchant to his son. Emin, an Armenian merchant in India wrote to his son Joseph Emin in London, “The wicked Suraj-du-Dowlah came with a vast army, destroyed almost 40 innocent English gentlemen in one night in the Black Hole. For my share, I have lost 16000 rupees.” Emin had business association with the East India Company and he had lost 16000 rupees because Siraj-ud-Daulah had taken over Calcutta. He had reported that there were 131 soldiers who were imprisoned at that time. He had not mentioned that there were children also which was claimed by Holwell in his report. (Reference: www.menq.am/history/chap4_part02.htm). It is important to note that the East India Company made huge profit for shipping their merchandise and they kept the Armenians always happy. The Armenians did not possess ships. So they hired European vessels for this purpose and paid enormous transportation tax. On the other hand, they did not have comfortable relations with the Bengal administration.

J. Z. Holwell was M. D. and F. R. S. and member of College of Physicians in London. He died in 1798 at Pinner, where a commemoration declares him as the Governor of Bengal as per the "The National Gazetteer of Great Britain and Ireland" (1868)

Transcribed by Colin Hinson. While giving an address at a meeting he had given a detalied account of the inoculation as carried by Brahmins to check the small pox. The whole text of the account reveal a type of admiration of a qualified doctor for the expertise of the Brahmins. However, it was on the report of Dr. J. Z. Holwell that the British East India Company was claimed to have avenged the death of the victims of Black Hole. This was so claimed on the monument raised by Lord Curzon.

There is an accusation that Holwell had intentionally reported in that manner in order to claim the governor’s post for him at that time. He was reported to have be appointed as Officiating governor in 1760 for some time.

There is need to evaluate this incidence from different angle. It is to be studied that how in those days, the commercial enterprises were being centers of political maneuvers by the officials serving at a distant post and how their activities influenced the decisions of the owners of a company to make their appointments. Such an angle had been aggressively debated and commented upon on political grounds only and the appointment of important governors had been the only subject of their studies. However, this incidence, the role of Holwell and then that Clive demands a new angle to this study. It is to be considered that in 1756, it was not mere an East India Company. It was “The United Company of Merchants of England Trading to the East Indies” formed under 1708 Parliamentary act having merchant and sovereign rights. The appointments to this company was aggressively pursued, desired, and sought in the upper circle of the English society. This incidence had remained submerged as a mere an incidence which was presented by different historians from their respective ideological orientations. Now, when the corporate history is well established field in itself, this incidence qualify for revision with a new perception. It should be study under the research carried in field of corporate politics in the field of business and multinational companies as it is being done now.

Therefore, it can be studied as a case in which the distant business leaders were manipulated to make appointments which were being sought for their high monetary benefits. It was done not only from London, but also by the officers who were on the ground and at the most happening places. It can be studied as actual role of officers in the running the company.

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