In 18th century India, the power of the Mughal Empire lay in the despotic hands of the Nawabs, or provincial princes. At the same time, the British and French East India Companies had built competing commercial empires on the lucrative sub-continent. The British had established a port and trading hub at Kolkata (Calcutta) and built Fort William to guard it from French attack.
This military build-up infuriated Bengals’ volatile, 23-year-old Nawab, Siraj-ud-daula, who took power in 1756. He ordered Calcutta’s British governor to immediately cease all work on the fort. When the predictable Brits ignored him, the hot-headed Nawab marched his massive army of 50,000 on Calcutta, including elephants and artillery. The governor and residents fled to company ships o n the River Hooghly, leaving behind a small garrison of only 170 English soldiers to defend Fort William.
Siraj’s attack came the morning of Sunday June 20th. John Holwell, in temporary command of the fort, was a surgeon by training and had no military experience. He knew they were hopelessly outnumbered, and the fort was no match against 50,000 Mughal attackers. By the afternoon, with the walls about to be breached, he reluctantly raised a white flag and was forced to surrender the fort – under the condition they would be treated fairly.
That night the Black Hole horror would occur, which would become legend.
Holwell and 145 British prisoners, including two women and all the wounded, were all squeezed at warrior’s scimitar-points into the fort’s ‘Black Hole.’ This was the name given a single, small cell built for just a few prisoners. It measured only 18 by 15 feet and had but two small, barred windows near the ceiling. Still the Mughal soldiers managed to somehow force ALL 145 prisoners into the single cell and lock the wooden door behind them. Holwell shouted his objections, but it fell on deaf ears.
The heat of an Indian summer is suffocating, even at night, reaching up to 40C/104F. Conditions were so tightly packed the men could not sit or lie down. The prisoners trampled each other to get near the only fresh air near the 2 small windows. They fought over the small cups of water they were handed by the soldiers. They pleaded for mercy from their indifferent guards, who jeered at them while they screamed out in agony. Those who fell underfoot were trampled and quickly died.
The British prisoners were left to suffer in the oppressive heat, gasping for fresh air, sucking the perspiration from their shirts or resorting to drinking their own urine by hand. As the night progressed, the cries of the pitiful prisoners slowly quieted, then ceased. The next morning, when the door was finally unbarred, the guards discovered 122 steaming corpses, still standing as they were packed too tight to fall over.
Only 23 of the 145 prisoners survived the hellish night in the Black Hole.
The rest had died throughout the long night from a mixture of suffocation, trampling, and dehydration. A large pit was dug for the dead by the Mughal soldiers outside the fort, and the bodies dumped unceremoniously in a mass grave. The Nawab later claimed to have had no knowledge of the inhumane incarceration. He said, the guards were all to blame. Few believed him, as John Holwell claims to have seen Siraj-ud-daula at the Black Hole’s window, jeering in satisfaction.
British vengeance was swift. When news of the ‘Black Hole’ reached London, a rescue expedition led by Colonel Robert Clive was immediately dispatched. They arrived in Bengal by October and found the remnants of the East India Company encamped on the river bank downstream. Clive wasted no time marching on Calcutta. He set siege to the Mughals at Fort William, which he bombarded from a fleet of warships in the River Hooghly.
The fort fell to the British after a relentless siege, with the Mughals retreating.
But Robert Clive, a war hero from his last Indian campaign, was not finished with his vengeance. He listened to Holwell’s tale of the Black Hole with simmering anger. He intended to secure Bengal for Britain once and for all. In June 1757, with an army of a mere 3,000 men, Clive marched inland to the Bengal capital at Plassey. Though vastly outnumbered, they defeated the Nawab’s army of 50,000 with their 500 war-elephants and artillery. Siraj-ud-daula fled with his entourage to his capital Murshidabad, where he was killed by his own people for desertion.
John Holwell survived the Black Hole and later described in great detail the horrors of that night in: A Genuine Narrative of the Deplorable Deaths of the English Gentlemen, who were Suffocated in the Black Hole. Holwell’s tale caused an uproar in Britain. The story inspired patriotic fervor in the United Kingdom and rage at the Indian Mughals. Clive had this to say of his victory at Plassey:
“So small a body as 3000 Europeans will enable the Company to take sovereignty upon themselves. There will be less difficulty, as the natives themselves have no attachment whatever to their princes. As they have no security, they would rejoice in so happy an exchange as that of a mild despotic government.”Colonel Robert Clive
The Black Hole set into motion events that would have a profound impact for India. Colonel Clive’s victory over the Mughals at the Battle of Plassey was the start of absolute British colonial rule in India from Kolkata to Delhi to Mumbai. It would last uninterrupted for nearly 200 hundred years.
That is, until Mohandas ‘Mahatma’ Gandhi. He inspired a non-violent Indian independence movement against Britain, which finally succeeded in 1947 when an independent Hindu India and Muslim Pakistan were proclaimed. The Black Hole itself was destroyed when Fort William was raised by the British for a new mightier Fort William in 1781. A 50 ft. memorial obelisk was erected in 1901 for the victims of the Black Hole and stands in the cemetery of St. Johns Church in Kolkata.