The Black Hole of Calcutta incident occurred during the time when Britain was attempting to establish a lasting foothold in the region of India known as Bengal. In early 1756, Britain’s East India Trading Company began to fortify its position in Calcutta, with a special focus on upgrading the local stronghold of Fort William. These fortifications were mainly carried out to better defend against Britain’s long-time rival, France, but the Mughal leader of Bengal, Siraj-ud-daulah (also spelled Siraj al-Dawlah), was understandably paranoid about the increased militarization of the British in Calcutta; after all, Britain, like many other European powers at the time, was an aggressively imperialistic nation. Siraj-ud-daulah quickly sent a demand stating that the fortifications of Calcutta had to be ceased immediately—a request that the British pointedly ignored. With no compliance from the British, the Mughal ruler of Bengal raised an army (reportedly around 50,000 strong) and marched against the East India Trading Company’s garrison in Calcutta.
By the time Siraj-ud-daulah began sieging the city, most of the British citizenry and important leadership figures had already fled to the safety of the sea. Nevertheless, a small garrison and reportedly one or two unfortunate women were in the vicinity of Fort William when the siege began. The remaining garrison mounted an ineffective resistance (due to being largely outnumbered and poorly equipped), but was forced to surrender on June 20, 1756.
Upon surrender, the garrison, along with however many civilians they had been harboring, were all locked away in a prison of their own creation. The prison was known as the “Black Hole”—it was a small rectangular building measuring around 5.5 meters by 4 meters, with only two windows for air and ventilation. The Black Hole was originally used by the British authorities in Calcutta as a prison for small numbers of petty criminals, but when Siraj-ud-daulah’s forces took Fort William in June 1756, the Black Hole was where all of the British captives were herded for the night.
What actually happened at the Black Hole of Calcutta following the siege in June 20, 1756, remains relatively unknown—the story changes depending on the narrator. According to John Zephaniah Holwell, the leader of the garrison that surrendered at Fort William, a total of 146 prisoners entered the Black Hole, but only 23 lived to leave the prison when the doors were unlocked at around 6:00 a.m., the next morning. In contrast, a study conducted in 1959 claimed that only 64 prisoners were held in the Black Hole—nevertheless the study suggested only 21 of those survived the night of imprisonment. Either way, both scenarios end with a tragically high fatality ratio, especially considering that the cause of death for most of the deceased prisoners was trampling and suffocation.
Even though the true statistics of the Black Hole of Calcutta incident remain a debated topic, the tale was an inspiration and a war-cry to another wave of British imperialism in India. By January 1757, the combined forces of Robert Clive on land and Admiral Charles Watson at sea worked together to recapture Calcutta and Fort William from the Mughal forces. Clive rode that momentum to further victories in Bengal, and with the help of a disgruntled Mughal general named Mir Ja’far, the British were able to soundly defeat the forces of Siraj-ud-daulah at the battle of Plassey in June 23, 1957. Following the Battle of Plassey, Mir Ja’far (with British support) became the next regional leader of Bengal, and Siraj-ud-daulah was assassinated or executed several days later, in early July.
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
Top picture attribution: (Public Domain Brick box from pixabay.com, cropped and modified).