The myth of Holwell's ''Black Hole'' tragedy, Kolkata and the number of casualties - EIC's publicity Bonanza!!

Black Hole Tragedy, Kolkata. survivor John Holwell.
 Many of you would have read about the ''Black Hole'' tragedy of Calcutta, perhaps, in your high school history brooks. This early colonial gory  incident was a hoax, a sort of cock and bull story by the English company officials to tag Indians as ruffians and they have no scruples. The tragedy did occur and it was not a wanton act on the part of the Nawab's army.  Real facts about the tragedy are not presented in the history books being followed by schools world over. In the absence of official records, with respect to  number of casualties  the British relied on the  oral deposition of John Zephaniah  Holwell, an employee of EIC  who survived the tragedy  to win the sympathy of the British public and the Crown. Later, armed with special powers, they gobbled up Bengal after two major wars and by way of heavy taxation augmented the land revenue,etc. Black hole incident gave the EIC a great chance on a silver platter and they used it diligently and converted India into a ''cash cow'' with which they vastly improved their poor economy and reduced India into a poor land of emaciated people with bleak future.  

The  casualty of Calcutta's Black Hole incident (1756) that took place when the English company was just a trader in Bengal, has been a subject of discussion for a long time. The general consensus among the well-known historians has been that it was purposely hyped up by the English company that was involved in a number of illegal trade  activities in Bengal, frequently breaking trade treaty with the ruler and not paying customs duty to his administration. Besides the company, there were many illegal private  English traders in Bengal, not paying taxes  and the dishonest English officials were making money on the sidelines. This appalling situation angered the Nawab.  This tragedy in Ft.William became a fodder for the English company  to get sympathy from the British public and  a chance to expand their mercantile activities manifold in Bengal of course, using  army power.
.Black Hole memorial built by Holwell,
Black hole memorial.
 For the Nawab of Bengal, an independent ruler, the presence of the East India Company in his land was an  irksome one - some thing like letting the poisonous Black widow spider  crawl on his body. or a ferocious rattler hidden in the woodpile. In addition, non payment of customs duty taxes that caused heavy loses to the Nawab's treasury,  open abuse of special trade grants made by the then Mogul ruler in Delhi,  the illegal  fortification of Fort William by British Bobs  without  a written consent from the Nawab, thus enhancing the military prowess of EIC became causes of worry for the ruler. Not to be content with all that was not legal, the English company had the audacity to become  so mischievous as to insult the Nawab by graciously offering  asylum to the offending officers  in the Nawab's administration. This galling act by the English irritated the Nawab to such an extend he decided to wage a war against the English company as they failed to correct the mistakes. 

With a huge army, countless elephants and numerous cannons, Siraj overcame the resistances in the city and finally captured Calcutta in June 1756. After a  two-day siege of Ft.William, the Bengal army seized it.  Roger Drake, the administrator of the fort could not hang in there and finally on June 19 fled to a nearby place called Phalta, leaving behind a number of Angelo Indian soldiers and civilians under the command of John Zephaniah  Holwell, who happened to a senior administrator with no training in military.
Black Hole memorial now in St.John's graveyard, Kolkata
On the evening of 20th June Holwell and others surrendered to the Nawab's army who herded them into a small room measuring 14 feet by 8 feet with two small windows for ventilation. The prisoners were now under the custody of a local commander. Mind you,
Black Hole incident Calcutta. (10-21 June 1756)
 Above image: The Black Hole Of Calcutta, It is a drawing by Mary Evans Picture Library which was uploaded on February 15th, 2018.In the tragedy,  only 23 of 146 prisoners are said to have survived. (This is considered as  a myth).   There are  no written official reports from the period exist today. The story is based on the account of one survivor, a John Zephaniah Holwell, one of the 23 survivors of the tragedy. He was just an employee and, not a military man..............................................

Nawab Siraj -ud-daulah was not aware that the British prisoners were crammed in a dungeon on the premises of Ft. William. In fact this dungeon was once a guard room of the old Ft. William. After the incident, the room was not there as new spacious and safe Ft. William came up later  in the same place.The old dungeon is no longer there.
A fenced display of the Black Hole of Calcutta. (1908),en.
 It seemed there was a sort of communication gap between the Nawab's soldiers and the commander who unintentionally left  captives in the overcrowded dungeon  to suffer all through the grueling night. A big unintentional mistake made by the Nawab's army  cost the Nawab dearly. It was to become a famous tragedy in the history of British Empire on which many books were written. Following day, it resulted in the death of 123 people out of 142 (according to Holwell). Cause of death: mainly due to suffocation, heat and possibly stampede. The cell which was already known as the  Black Hole before this unfortunate incident in 1756 later became  popular across the world as a symbol of 'torture and punishment of prisoners' in a dungeon.  Holwell himself wrote that out of 146 only 23 survived. His account of the Black Hole had a very limited impact on his contemporaries, media and the people in 1758.
Photograph of the replica of Holwell Monument -1905, Calcutta.
Holwell Monument, Calcutta.
 Holwell, who survived the Black Hole tragedy was the main eye- witness and his  written account on the number of causality was taken as authentic record by some  British media and authorities. Holwell went ahead and erected a tablet, at his own expense, on the spot to commemorate the victims. However, this tablet fell into ruins  later and became a hang out for the vagabonds and hobos. Lord Valentia, a visitor to Calcutta in1803, wrote,''The Black Hole is now part of a godown or warehouse; it was filled with goods and I could not see it.'' Commerce gained an upper hand and not the commemoration of victims!! The Black Hole made a dramatic reappearance when Thomas Babington Macaulay in 1840 described it as a great crime memorable for its 'singular atrocity'!!

 For the East India company it was a great opportunity to justify their skirmishes with the local Nawab.  The dungeon was portrayed as the first chamber of horrors in Bengal, an objective proof Indian ignominy and pretext and justification of conquest and violence.  However, conscientious historians  considered Holwell's account of the tragedy as over-exaggerated bordering on travesty of truth. He became a stooge in the hands of the English company who encouraged him to paint the ruler in the bad light which would provide them justification to their illegal activities against the Nawab. One could see diabolism in the vilification of Nawab Siraj.  The crux of the matter is it possible to herd 150 people in a small room in Ft William? Was there any proof that the Nawab himself  had ordered the local army commander to put all the 150 white people in the same small room with poor ventilation  and leave them right there so that they could face slow death due to suffocation?

 Ramesh Chandra Mazumdar, historian is of the opinion  Holwell's account on  the number of casualty in the 'Black Hole' incident is not a reliable one. Stanley Wolpert, historian of good repute, contended that  Nawab Siraj had no idea about the imprisonment of English people in the dungeon in Ft. William. Nor had he ordered his men to confine them in the prison. On purpose, the English company victimized him and made him a scapegoat with view to relegating their atrocities to the background. In a study by Prof. Brijen Gupta in 1959 pointed out that the incident did occur and  only 21 people survived  the ordeal in the dungeon in 1756 and the rest about 43 faced painful death.

 The question may arise about  the 15 meter tall obelisk to commemorate the victims of the Black Hole that came up later between Writer's building and GPO (close to Ladigi)in Kolkata. In fact, it was Lord Curzon who in the beginning of the 20th century, restored the crumbling Holwell Monument  as there was no other Black Hole tragedy memorial in honor of the victims. However, in the later years in July 1940, this memorial was shifted to a much safer place in the graveyard of St. John's church. During that period India's independence activities peaked and it was suspected that the Black Hole memorial would be pulled down by the highly spirited freedom fighters. 

As far as the number of casualty of 1756 Black Hole incident is concerned, it was more of a conjecture to hoodwink the British public and the Crown  by the dishonest EIC than of a true presentation of the truth. There are no valid reports to support  Holwell's account. Deposition given by eyewitness can not be always true. Some times, it may be misleading. In this case, Holwell, on purpose, bungled the facts to confound the public. British historians realized that that if Holwell's  written account were true, that small room was not good enough to stake  all 143 victims horizontally. Though myth repeated several times may impact the society, it can not become a historical fact. Because of this myth Black hole incident had earned a permanent niche in British India history. Truth will never lie hidden for a long time and one day it may wiggle out and get exposed.  Historians  now realized Nawab Siraj was a victim of EIC 's wrong campaign and finally faced death after the Battle of Plassey at the instigation of Robert Clive  and William  Watts, the latter found the traitors of Siraj.