Prison for British POWs: The Black Hole of Calcutta in the 18th Century
The incident’s grip on the popular imagination has been long-lasting.
By Mark Cartwright
The Black Hole of Calcutta refers to a prison cell which was used to hold 146 mostly British prisoners captured after the Nawab of Bengal had taken over the city from the East India Company. Interred on 20 June 1756 in a tiny cell in Fort William, 123 of the prisoners died of dehydration and suffocation.
The number of the Black Hole deaths may have been exaggerated, but testimonies to the event actually happening are numerous. The East India Company used the story as a justification for taking over Calcutta completely. It was really in the next century, though, that knowledge of the incident was spread through textbooks and literature as one of a host of equally dubious means to justify Britain’s colonial presence in India. The incident’s grip on the popular imagination can be seen in the long-lasting use of the expression “like the Black Hole of Calcutta” to refer to any dark and forbidding place.
In the mid-18th century, the British East India Company (EIC) was seeking to expand its control of trade and territory in India. The rich region of Bengal was an obvious target, and Calcutta (Kolkata) became a major trading port for the company. The French East India Company was also present in the region at Chandernagore (Chandannagar) further up the coast. Balancing between these two foreign companies, both essentially representatives of their respective government’s imperial ambitions in India, was the Nawab of Bengal, Siraj ud-Daulah (b. 1733), nominally under the suzerainty of the Moghul emperors in Delhi. Siraj ud-Daulah wanted to remove the EIC from Calcutta since it would not pay to improve the city’s fortifications, and so he marched on the city in June 1756. A short siege followed, and the city fell. The fate of those captured was the source of the infamous Black Hole legend.
The Black Hole Cell
According to one survivor, the splendidly named John Zephaniah Holwell (1711-1798), he, several officials, and a number of soldiers who had defended Calcutta’s Fort William were captured. According to the standard version of events, on 20 June, one woman and 145 men, including a number of civilians, were imprisoned in Fort William. Most were British, but there were some Dutch and Portuguese nationals, too. In some accounts, the room of confinement was normally used as an occasional prison cell for petty thieves, but other accounts have it as a military prison. The single cell measured 5.5 x 4 metres (18 x 14 ft) and had only two small and heavily barred windows which gave very limited light and air to the dungeon. For these reasons, the cell was known locally as the ‘Black Hole’. It was likely the intention to keep the prisoners in the cell for one night only until a more suitable place of incarceration could be found, but a single night in this hell hole was already too much. Suffering extreme heat and humidity, dehydration, and insufficient air, only 23 men survived the Black Hole. Debate continues today as to the real number of prisoners involved, which may have been much lower. Some modern historians put the figure of those imprisoned at 64 and the number of survivors as 21.
The fullest account of the Black Hole deaths comes from Holwell, then a junior member of the EIC’s governing council in Bengal. He wrote of the events in A Genuine Narrative of the Deplorable Deaths of the English Gentlemen, and others, who were suffocated in the Black Hole in Fort William, at Calcutta, in the Kingdom of Bengal; in the Night Succeeding the 20th June 1756, published in 1758. Holwell was able to survive because he was fortunate enough to find himself near one of the cell’s two windows in the crush of humanity.
We had been but a few minutes confined before everyone fell into a perspiration so profuse, you can form no idea of it. This consequently brought on a raging thirst, which still increased, in proportion as the body was drained of its moisture…every man’s thirst grew intolerable, and respiration difficult…Now everybody, except those situated in and near the windows, began to grow outrageous, and many delirious: Water, Water, became the general cry…at last I became so pressed and wedged up, I was deprived of all motion.Holwell, 260-1
Holwell’s dramatic account was not without a touch of hyperbole as this passage indicates:
While I was at this second window, I was observed by one of my miserable companions on the right of me, in the expedient of allaying my thirst by sucking my shirtsleeve. He took the hint, and robbed me from time to time of a considerable part of my store…and our mouths and noses often met in the contest.Holwell, 263
Another survivor gave the following testimony to the British Parliament:
Some of our company expired very soon after being put in: others grew mad, and having lost their senses, died in high delirium. All we could urge to the guard set over us, could not prevail upon them either to set us at liberty, or separate us into different prisons; which we desired, and offered money to obtain; but to no purpose: and when we were released at eight o’clock the next morning, only twenty-three came out alive.quoted in Watney, 95
The episode is recorded more concisely by the Mughal chronicler Yusuf Ali Khan:
[Officials] confined nearly 100 Firangis [foreigners] who fell victim to the claws of fate on that day in a small room. As luck would have it, in the room where the Firangis were kept confined, all of them got suffocated and died.quoted in Dalrymple, 106
The EIC Response
News of the fall of Calcutta and the Black Hole incident stirred the EIC into action. Robert Clive (1725-1774), who had already won several military victories in the EIC’s name, was dispatched in command of an EIC army. Clive’s task was not necessarily to retake the city but, as the Company’s real priority was always to make money, to re-establish trade in Calcutta. Clive described the loss of Calcutta as a “general calamity,” and in a letter to the directors of the EIC in London, he described the impact of the news of the Black Hole prisoners: “every breast here seems filled with grief, horror, and resentment; indeed it is too sad a tale to unfold” (Faught, 49).
Sailing in five ships and with an army of some 1,500 men, Clive succeeded in gaining control of the city in January 1757. Clive then met Siraj ud-Daulah’s army at the Battle of Plassey on 23 June 1757. Clive won an important victory, and a new EIC-friendly nawab was installed. Siraj ud-Daulah was executed, and Clive was appointed the Governor of Bengal in February 1758. So began the systematic exploitation of the region by the EIC. Revenge had been achieved, but the scale of the subsequent suffering of 20 million Bengalese people far outweighed that of the Black Hole victims. Holwell, meanwhile, became the acting governor of Bengal in the interim period between the two governships of Robert Clive and Henry Vansittart. Holwell also set up a memorial outside the infamous prison cell.
The Legend Continues
Despite the incident’s grip on the popular imagination, there were long rumours that the entire episode was an invention by the British to justify further military conquest. A notable study by J. H. Little in 1916, published in Bengal Past and Present, cast serious doubts on Holwell’s reliability and the accepted version of the Black Hole story. There were, though, other witnesses such as a soldier named Cooke who vouched for Holwell’s version of the events. There are some discrepancies in details in contemporary accounts, but no more than one would expect to find in any attempt to reconstruct past events using different witnesses. Even Holwell’s enemies did not go so far as to say he invented the story.
Little was mistaken in his belief that key EIC figures never mentioned the Black Hole story in documents or letters; several of them did, including Clive. And here we have another important point: those in power in the EIC were, at least in part, moved to action by the Black Hole story, a fact some modern historians have sought to diminish in favour of a more posthumous outrage by later generations of British imperialists. It may also be true that focus on the Black Hole incident was a convenient way to draw attention away from the EIC’s shambolic defence of Fort William, where the officers had disgracefully abandoned their men prior to the capture of the fort. The incident also drew public attention away from the EIC’s general policy change in this period from a mere trading company to a full colonial power all of itself.
In conclusion, the general consensus amongst historians is that the incident did occur, but probably with fewer men involved than Holwell stated given the dimensions of the cell. As the Cambridge History of India notes:
Everyone who has studied the records of the time must have come to the conclusion that Holwell was not a virtuous man; it is even likely that he touched up his story so as to make the part he played as conspicuous as possible. But even when we have made all allowance for this sort of thing, the main outlines of the story still remain. (156)
The story of the Black Hole of Calcutta continued to stir emotions, and the incident became one of many dubious justifications for what the British considered their ‘civilizing’ presence in India and (to them) a measure of just how awful the previous rulers had been. This was especially so during the Victorian era when the EIC was replaced by the British Empire in India and the frontier days of the 18th century were looked on fondly as a golden era of daring endeavour against rival and (what the British considered) racially inferior rulers.
Passions were still running high in the 20th century. A commemorative statue to the victims of the Black Hole incident, which had been set up in 1902 after Holwell’s original had been lost, was the focus of a demonstration against British rule in 1940. The Bengali leader Subhas Chandra Bose called for his supporters to tear down the monument which now stands in the cemetery of St. John’s Church in the city.
The expression “like the Black Hole of Calcutta” became a common way to refer to any dark, claustrophobic, airless, and generally forbidding place, and is still in use today, even if Calcutta is now known as Kolkata. The name also lives on in astronomy ever since the physicist Robert H. Dicke (1916-1997), who was known to frequently use the phrase in his private life, first used it to describe those areas of space where gravity is so strong that not even light can escape, the ultimate Black Hole.
- 50 years later, it’s hard to say who named black holes | Science News Accessed 7 Oct 2022.
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- Dalrymple, William. The Anarchy. Bloomsbury Publishing, 2022.
- Faught, C. Brad. Clive. POTOMAC BOOKS, 2013.
- J.S.Holwell’s Account of the Black Hole of Calcutta
- James, Lawrence. Raj. St. Martin’s Griffin, 2000.
- JON WILSON. India Conquered. Simon & Schuster India, 1970.
- Rapson, Edward James. The Cambridge History of India, Vol. 3 of 6. Forgotten Books, 2017.
- Watney, John Basil. Clive of India. Saxon House, 1974.
Originally published by the World History Encyclopedia, 10.11.2022, under a Creative Commons: Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported license.