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The Black hole Of Calcutta (part 8)

Updated on March 28, 2016

The Black Hole Of Calcutta



Prof. A.D.Sarkar

A young ruler of a region of Moghal India marched south with huge man power and ample weapons of destruction to throw the British out of India and returned to his capital satisfied that his mission was accomplished. He was too inexperienced to know, however, that the sahibs were too crafty to give up after one defeat in the battlefield. Indians to them, probably more so than other Asiatics or Africans they encountered, were backward, disunited, dissembling and treacherous by nature. The British were determined at least during early days to procure goods from India to take these back home to Britain.

Records show that the first official Englishman to visit India was one Sighelm sent by King Alfred in 883 CE. He came back to the king laden with pearls and spices. Imagine sailing all the way to India via the Cape of Good Hope; a hardy and enterprising race, the Anglo=Saxon settlers of long ago from Germany in England and Scotland! No wonder, the Indians with their laissez- faire approach to conducting their way of living appeared indolent to them and, in due course, they took advantage of it.

Trade seemed to have been the main objective to begin with historically but according to many English writers, the mystery of India to a significant number of the then Britishers was mesmerising as well. An English Jesuit, Father Stevens, wrote to his father in 1579 about the cultural riches of India. Only four years later a London merchant, Ralph Fitch, wrote home about an India with immoderate amounts of sugar, drugs, spices and silk. Systematic encroachment in India with likely political ambition started with the East India Company which was granted a charter by Queen Elizabeth the I in 1600. The Portuguese occupied parts of India and of course traded possibly from 1497 when Vasco da Gama reached the Malabar coast in the southern part of India. They probably enjoyed a peaceful residence in the country for a little over a century but the British defeated them in a sea battle in 1612, four years after William Hawkins arrived in Surat where they established a factory, courtesy Moghal emperor Jahangir. An influential Englishman, Sir Thomas Roe, arrived at the same emperor's court in Agra three years later but it was not until 1641 when appropriate Government officials in Agra and Delhi were manipulated and Francis Day built Fort St George in Madras. At the western end Catherine of Broganza brought Bombay as dowry to her husband Charles the II and Fort William and the British city of Calcutta came into being in 1690.

By 1756 the British were well established at least in Madras and Calcutta and the young nabab of Bengal certainly became weary of their insolence as the British are prone to be even in modern times. It was not hatred based on race because Sirajuddala had great friendship with the Head of the French factory and he acknowledged the competence and reliability of the French gunners. By all accounts he was not averse to the Portuguese and was friendly to the Dutch. So his army arrived in Calcutta and the British fled to Fulta where life for them was dull and dangerous. There was no trading to transact; no dancing girls or nautch girls as the sahibs called them; no women in fact. Even getting hold of arrack was difficult and there were persistent rumours of the nabab's men marching on again to throw them into the Bay of Bengal. Much to the chagrin of even the ordinary lal paltan, the French were ready to step in once the British quit the shores of India.

For John Zephaniah Holwell, however, it was a productive interlude. He decided to write a narrative about the Black Hole of Calcutta. As one entered the East Gate of the British fort in Calcutta, immediately on the left was a hutment called the Court of Guard. Adjacent to it was the row of barracks at the southernmost edge of which was the cell where recalcitrant European soldiers were thrown in to cool off for a day or two. Strahan the pagal sahib was a frequent visitor. It was this cell where many Europeans perished during the nabab's visit to Calcutta with his armed forces. Holwell was determined to let the British in Madras know about this first. He decided that once he got the feedback from Madras he would send a more detailed narrative to London. His first composition was as follows:

'The nabab occupied our fort by 6.00 pm on June 20th 1756. I had a few interviews with him being the most senior officer in the fort. He assured me that no harm would befall me or the British who were in the fort and I believe he was an honourable man and meant what he said. He said that we would be held in custody somewhere merely to ensure that we did not go outside the fort to organize and create further disturbances. As soon as it was dark, however, the guard ordered us all, without making any distinction of rank or position, to get together and sit down under the arched verandah on the left of the Black Hole. He told us rudely to keep quiet. Any noise from us and he would shut our mouths for ever. The south of this verandah led to the South East Bastion so there was a chance that we could escape through there. It was quite in order, therefore, to plant another guard to the south of this verandah. The parade ground facing us had about 500 gunmen with torches at the ready. On the left and right of us the storehouses were burning which gave us all cause for concern. We felt that it was the idea of these Moors to make sure that the smoke that the fire made would suffocate us and that would be the end of all of us. We thought of rushing the guards, getting hold of their swords and attacking the gunmen on the parade ground. Our suspicion was further confirmed when at about 7.30 pm some officers and men came up with torches and started looking at the houses around us. We thought they were here to make sure that all the houses burned so that our demise from this earth would be swift. I spoke to my fellow prisoners saying that I would go and find out about their intentions. I approached the officers. They were courteous and told me that they were looking for a suitable house for us to spend the night.

At this moment Leech, the Company's smith approached me. I was surprised to see him because he escaped during the attack on the fort but he explained that there was a secret passage of which very few knew. He had come for me and a boat was waiting. I thanked him profusely and said that I could not betray the men who trusted me and I must share whatever was in store for all of us. I implored him that he must hurry and make his escape. I would like this on record that Leech said that in that event he would join us and perish with us if need be.

'No sooner had Leech finished speaking when we saw the officers with the torches gather part of the guard on the parade ground and order us to go to the left where the barracks were. The barracks were roomy and airy so we went in readily hoping to have a comfortable night after all. But before we settled down the Moors came with their muskets ready and ordered us to move back to the Black Hole. To make sure some of the soldiers from the parade ground came over and pressed against us with their swords and lances at the ready. We felt terrorised and many feared for their lives for the Moors were shouting at us gesticulating with their swords, lances and muskets. We proceeded to the Black Hole little knowing the size of the cell. If we would have known that, we would have rushed the guards preferring to be cut down by their sabres rather than go through what lay ahead of us.

'I entered first and took Coles and Scot with me since they were wounded. Being in first, I managed to stand against the window by the door. Others started gathering round me. It was 8 pm. It was a clammy night typical of Calcutta at this time of the year. All 146 of us were locked in a room, 18 feet square by 18 feet high. It did not make a comfortable experience with walls on the east and south. There was a wall and a door to the north and only two windows to the west, heavily fortified with iron bars.

'The door opened inwards and as soon as we realised the situation around us, we made a fierce attempt in forcing it. Men piled up against men the ones in front with their shoulders to the door. But all we managed to do was to hurt and exhaust ourselves. As I was the duly selected Governor, I had to take charge of a very difficult situation. The men started shouting and jostling. Some turned abusive. The worst was that those at the back started to jump up and down to have a look at the windows to the west hoping that would give them some air. They were bound to be released at dawn which was some eight hours away. At times I threatened them with the firing squad if they disobeyed me.

This worked for a while but there was no peace. The wounded kept on groaning with pain. Death was near for them. We were all at death's door. I did not fear myself because I was used to death. The merciless climate and the disease ridden air decimated the British community any way. But I feared for the people around me I started reflecting on what I could do to alleviate their sufferings.

There was a jemmaatdaar, a sergeant, by the window. He was not a young man as his grey big moustache made me conclude. I could sense compassion and sympathy in his face as he looked at me and others at the window. He came close as soon as I beckoned to him. I told him about our plight and asked him to at least separate us in two rooms. I offered him one thousand rupees as soon as we were released in the morning. He went away but returned soon, nodded his head, and said that he was very sorry. He could not do anything. He called me huzur meaning 'your honour' so I realised that he knew that I was not only British but a high ranking one at that. I asked him to try again and this time doubled the reward money. He went but came back a little later than last time. He shook his head and told me that only the suba could do what I asked. But he was asleep and nobody dared wake him up.

'Everybody started to perspire and that made them thirsty. I ordered them to take off their clothes. I and the two near me remained fully dressed to preserve the dignity of our office. The men seemed happy for a while and they all started fanning the air with their hats. Then I ordered them to sit down but most of them suffered from cramps so I ordered them to stand up. Some of them could not and were trampled to death by the ones who stood up. By nine o'clock, the men became thirsty. I was afraid for them, not for myself. I kept composed by pressing my face against the window and could not turn my head towards the cell because the stench of urine nauseated me. The men went delirious. They started shouting at the guards in the most profane languages hoping that they would shoot them and put them out of misery. But the guards took no action. Then there went up ear splitting cries of “Water, water, give me water”. The old sergeant asked some guards to fetch the visti walla, the man who carries water in a goat skin. Myself, Coles and Scot passed our hats to the man and managed to bring in most of the water but the men fought like animals and spilled most of it. The kind sergeant supplied us with water as long as he could. The men became more thirsty after drinking and kept on shouting for more. The ones at the back cried pitifully because the water never reached them. How sad I felt for them but I could not turn my head to look at or talk to them because the stench in the room was unbearable. Suddenly the men at the back started to stampede. In their determination to get a drop of water they rushed forward and the weak were trampled to death.'

After this there were two lines which were impossible to decipher because they were carefully covered with ink, possibly with a brush. Then the narrative continued:

'Can it gain belief that the scene of misery proved entertainment to the brutal wretches without? But so it was; and they took care to to keep us supplied with water that they might have the satisfaction of seeing us fight for it, as they phrased it, and held up lights to the bars, that they might lose no part of the inhuman diversion.' After this another sentence was obliterated with ink and the narrative continued:

'My companions died and about 50 of them altogether. The common soldiers and corporals, I am sorry to say, forgot their place and came forward and pressed against me. It was now eleven o'clock and water now reached the other window causing more commotion. I had to plead with these common men to let me go to the back of the prison and die in peace because here I was pressed against the wall and my life in all probability would be squeezed out of me. They let me pass and I walked over the bodies of many and sat down at the opposite end. The stench and heat were suffocating. I wished a quick death. A young writer came towards me to ask how I was getting on but he dropped dead before I could reply. I climbed a raised wooden cot which the natives used to lie on; the Bengalis call it takta. The takta, like a wide wooden platform really, covered the whole of the eastern wall and was more than six feet wide.

'I rushed to the other window and held onto one of the bars and shouted for water which was given to me by the kindly old sergeant himself. I felt sick and the more I drank, the more thirsty I became. I lost my coat to one of the guards outside, the rascal snatching it from me as I was coming into the cell. I did not wear a waistcoat so my shirt was soaking with perspiration for all to see. I started sucking my shirt but a young writer started sharing my perspiration so I did not have enough for myself. I then made an attempt to drink my own urine but it was so bitter that I abandoned the idea.

By half past eleven, the men started shouting abuse at the guards. They called the suba a pig and used other unmentionable adjectives for Raja Manikchand whom the nabab had appointed the Governor of Calcutta, or Alinagar as he now called it. The men hoped that the guards would fire at them thus ending their misery. They then prayed asking God for the raging fire to spread to the prison and thus put a quick end to their sufferings, but nothing happened. The men then started rushing to the window but many fell, never to rise again.

'Early in the morning, I gathered later, the kindly sergeant managed through appropriate channels to inform the suba about our plight in the Black Hole. He was furious and ordered his officers to release us immediately. Myself and those very few of us who survived managed to get out crawling and pushing through the corpses. It took us 20 minutes and I realised I had high fever. I was emotionally drained thinking of those fellow countrymen of mine, low ranking though most of them were. Two natives had to hold me as I walked to meet the suba. One of them was that kindly old sergeant who whispered to me to divulge to the suba where the treasure of the British was hidden. He told me that if I did not the nabab would surely have me blown off the mouth of a blazing cannon. Believe me, fear left me; death would have been a welcome relief from all I experienced and all that was in store for me from this young despot.

'Seeing my plight, the nabab was distressed possibly because he felt responsible. He ordered a large ledger for me to sit on and provided me with clear cool water to drink; which was very welcome. He asked if he should get medical help for me. I thanked him but declined the offer. The nabab showed great sympathy and said he will assist me to go anywhere I pleased, north to Murshidabad, Dacca in EastBengal, Delhi, Bombay or Madras or, perhaps, home to England, but I must tell him where the treasure was hidden. I replied truthfully I did not know. The mood of the nabab changed completely and immediately at this and he became very angry. He ordered that I and the three other gentlemen who were with me be thrown into a cell. I saw the dead from the Black Hole being thrown in the Marhata ditch but the Britishers who survived were given permission to go anywhere they pleased. The suba was convinced that we had wealth which was hidden but I am certain that Omichand has poisoned his mind about us. That fat merchant cannot be trusted.

I was chained but by chance when the nabab was passing he got into a temper and said there was no need for that. The smith came immediately and released me from the chain but I was thrown into a tent. I got soaking wet as it rained all night. My fever, however, left me once I got covered with boils, painful though they were. I was thrown into a hackery, an ox cart, and we headed towards Murshidabad. My plight was terrible all through that journey which took us seventeen days because of the many stoppages we made. I had a lucky break near Murshidabad because I wrote a letter to Monsieur Jean Law. He came right away and showed great kindness, giving us clothing, wine, food and cash. I had high fever again but Monsieur Law and the Head of the Dutch factory came frequently to visit me and my fellow prisoners. They also secured the release some time ago of Warren Hastings who stayed with us most of the time.

'We had a good piece of intelligence from Bando Singh, our guard. He told us that one of the begums had pleaded for our lives and release from captivity the night before. He was not sure which one she was but certainly one of the three, namely. The suba's aunt, Ghasiti; or mother, Amina; or his wife young Lutfunnisa. The nabab agreed but next day he changed his mind and decided to send us to Raja Manikchand at Calcutta. We had a long sleep that afternoon but Bando Singh told us to come outside and meet the suba as he was passing that way. He came soon after we stood outside. We took our place and his palanquin stopped. I made a salam with my hands and bowed to him. He got out and stood in front of us. I told him about our sufferings and he listened. He never interrupted or showed impatience and it was obvious that it was not him who ordered us to be sent to Calcutta. I can say from his face that he felt pity for us and deep remorse. He shouted as he gave orders firmly that we have to be given facilities to bathe. We must be given fresh clothes and the best European or Indian food as we wished. Anybody insulting or molesting us would be punished severely. Imagine the joy we felt. We took a boat and arrived at Fulta.'

Holwell's narrative was read by all the Britishers in India and eventually in Britain and Europe. He wrote many of them, some of them brief but most of them more lengthy than the one given here with graphic accounts of everything he experienced and remembered. Holwell could not arrive at Fulta till August 10th and he was very disappointed to find that Drake had managed to call himself the Governor of Fort William. The original fort was now under the control of Raja Manikchand but Drake occupied a ship named Fort William and issued a proclamation stating that the boat was the Government House of the British in Bengal.

When Holwell arrived he was allowed to be a member of the council and was somewhat pleased to gather that nobody was willing to accept Drake as the Head of the Bengal branch of the East India Company. The members of the council had nothing to do but bicker but Holwell stayed clear of such petty arguments of no consequence to even those disgruntled council members. His time was occupied in the fruitful exercise of communicating his first hand experience of the Black Hole to everyone around him and, hopefully, to the wider readership of the world in general and that of Britain in particular. He revised the draft of each narrative with meticulous care.

The British experienced starvation because there was no food and the incessant rain reduced the mobility of the fugitives at Fulta. They were reduced to beggary. Whenever a Dutch or a French vessel passed by they managed to stop it and ask for provision which were given without question. Drake called a meeting of the council. He said, “Gentlemen when we first came here, we thought this to be a stopover point only to move down to Madras as quickly as possible. That did not happen and now we are at a loss as to what to do.”

“Some of us could escape of course when trouble comes,” said a councillor with a serious face but Drake ignored that comment. He would not retain his position if he took serious notice of fools like him! He looked at Major Killpatrick and said, “We keep on approaching the Company council at Madras but we don't seem to get anywhere.”

“I am only a soldier,” replied the major, “I cannot pretend to know what the decision makers do but I do know that the Madras council is very worried about the French. Then there are the Marhatas and the local feuding rulers to contend with.” Major Killpatrick was sent from Madras by the regional council at the request of Drake some time ago. For some reason Drake chose to forget the help given him by the Madras council.

Manningham felt that must be corrected. He said, “To be fair Major Killpatrick was sent with 200 European troops some time ago.”

“More like 100 now,” said Major Killpatrick with a forced smile.

“Why?” asked Holwell.

“They are dying off like flies,” said the major looking worried.

“With malaria you see,” added Drake.

The previous councillor interjected and said contemptuously, “You don't seem to know anything except fleeing to save your neck. Malaria takes time to kill. Its effect is long term!”

Someone said, “It is more like yellow fever, snake bites and cholera which are decimating the major's men.”

Holwell was pleased but he stayed expressionless. Drake said, “There is one great thing at stake. Our bad luck at Calcutta is not going to please the shareholders in London because the Company may crash. If that happens we are all finished. The only way we could redeem ourselves and save the Company is to retake Calcutta. That is the reason I have asked Major Killpatrick to join us at this meeting.”

The major said, “I have mentioned the dangerous situation the Company is in to the authorities in the Deccan. I don't like the British name downgraded as it is now and it is a mystery to many of us why does the young Sirajuddaula fly into a rage at the very mention of the name, British, although he does not seem to have any animosity towards the Britishers as people. The French and the Dutch are laughing up their sleeves I would say.”

There was at last a chance for Holwell to speak. It was never a good idea to sit silently at meetings. He said, “I had many interviews with the young suba. He was sorry that the beautiful city of Calcutta was damaged. I am sure he was not responsible for the Black Hole because he seemed to be very sorry at the calamity that befell us; and the French and Dutch! They were extremely kind to us at our hour of need.”

Major Killptrick spoke slowly. “You are probably right about the young suba. How would we like it if, in England, hordes of Indians came under the guise of trade but started to build forts and organise their soldiers who will obviously be a threat to our country. I say so because councillor Holwell has been treated with respect I would say by the suba under the circumstance. He acted nearly in a friendly way on a person to person basis. That basis must also apply to the French and the Dutch. Additionally, they must have admired your courage and wanted to express their feelings.”

“I would say so,” said the councillor who never missed a chance of berating Drake. “John did not run. He stood his ground. We need men like him to lead us, not cowards who sneak out with women and children!”

Drake had enough. He shouted, “I was Sir appointed by the authorities at Leadenhall street; not by upstarts like you.”

“You are a young good for nothing fellow,” shouted the councillor. “You are where you are by a pure act of nepotism. If you were not so brazen, you would have at least quit in favour of John Holwell when he managed to return after his terrible ordeal.”

“Can I suggest something?” asked the major. It was his first experience of civilians' way of conducting business. He had a great deal of sympathy for Holwell and he was pleased with the councillor who was speaking out, albeit crudely and rudely. After being in Fulta he was contemptuous of Drake as well. He suggested that rather than write letters, the council should send an experienced Company man to Governor Pigot of Madras. It would be more effective if a face to face conversation took place. The idea appealed to everyone. Drake decided right away that Manningham would go.

The rude councillor exploded again. “These people have no shame,” he shouted. “He will send his own boot-licking crony who got to know about everything from a safe distance on board the Doddaly.” This time many more objected but Drake told them bluntly that it was he who was running the show and Manningham would go to Madras. Objections were overruled.

Quite soon, the British felt hopeful. Treachery succeeded as it must always with the ruling classes of India and the sahibs learnt that nabab's cousin, Shaukat Jang, was going to be put on the masnad at Murshidabad because Mir Zafar and Rai Durlabh had let it be known that they were going to the battlefield, ostensibly, to fight the battle the British were planning against the Moghals in the eastern region of India. These high military men, however, will not join the fight. They were marching only to stop Sirajuddaula from suspecting their role in regime change which was the firm desire of the British. Jagat Seth got disillusioned with Khudadad Yar Lutf Khan and was willing to give his support to Shaukat Jang. In fact he was probably in favour of British rule because he sent a message to Drake that should he attack Murshidabad the British could count on the Seth's active support. The young tyrant must be destroyed.

Holwell, Drake, Major Killpatrick and one Watts worked together. Spies were sent to Murshidabad, Balasore, Calcutta and even Purnea. All the intrigues against Siraj were reported. In fact from intelligence gathered there was hardly anybody of importance who was not poised to overthrow the nabab. If the British could support the right group victory was theirs.

Most importantly victory must also be demonstrated. It was the prestige of the mighty British, God's most favourite nation on earth, that was at stake. It was unbelievable. An upstart inexperienced tyrant came to the beautiful British city with elephants and horses. The British were invincible but all that they achieved from the invasion of the insignificant Moghal was the ridicule of the natives, the lowest segments of the human race. Gone were the days when the Governor could sail through White Town or Black Town if absolutely necessary with his mace bearer, his chobdars and the subahburdars. Those days must be retained. The insolent tyrant must be brought to his knees. He must forfeit his life.

Major Killpatrick said, “It can be done. There is one man right now in Hindustan; if Governor Pigot could only be convinced to persuade him to come over to Bengal!”

He was talking about Robert Clive, the boy from Styche in Shropshire, born on 29th September, 1725.




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