The Black Hole of Calcutta – 1756

Siraj-ud Daulah became Nawab of Bengal in April 1756 at the age of 23, succeeding his grandfather. The young independent ruler had learned at the old man’s knee to be suspicious of British colonial ambitions in Bengal, as represented by a British East India Company that had established Fort William beside Calcutta’s River Hooghly to advance its acquisitive commercial ambitions. The new Nawab was not happy when its defenses were strengthened in anticipation of a confrontation with his French allies. In addition, the company was giving sanctuary to disgraced members of his entourage and seriously abusing trade privileges at the Nawab’s expense.

Siraj-ud Daulah attacked Calcutta and laid siege to Fort William. After taking casualties most of the garrison managed to escape, leaving a small force under John Zephaniah Holwell to continue the fort’s defense. Holwell was a company man whose military knowledge was confined to former employment as an army surgeon. After some of his mercenary troops deserted, Fort William was taken on June 19 1756.

Following this defeat, Holwell asserted that 146 assorted prisoners consisting of soldiers and civilians were crammed into a tiny guardroom measuring 4.3 m by 5.5 m (14 ft by 18 ft), packed in so tightly that the door could barely be closed. There were two small barred windows and the atmosphere was full of smoke from fires that still burned with the fort. Attempts to bribe guards on the balcony (ailed and repented pleas for water resulted only in small amounts being passed through the windows, much of which was spilt. As thirst intensified, hysteria spread through the captives as those furthest from the windows struggled to reach fresh air and many were suffocated in the deadly crush. Holwell survived, but stated that over 120 other unfortunate captives did not.

When: June 19 1756

Where: Calcutta, Bengal, India

Death toll: 123 (claimed but unsubstantiated)

You should know: Although Holwell’s account of the terrible Black Hole of Calcutta was widely accepted at the time, and became the stuff of legend, there is now some doubt as to its accuracy. Some historians have suggested that the incident was exaggerated by the British to discredit the Nawab of Bengal, who would be deposed in 1757 after the Battle of Plessey, paving the way for the British East India Company’s subsequent rule over the entire subcontinent.

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