Black Hole of Calcutta

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Fort William is located in Kolkata
Fort William
Fort William
Fort William (Kolkata)
The Black Hole of Calcutta
Black Hole Memorial in St. John's Church, Kolkata

Coordinates: 22°34′24″N 88°20′53″E / 22.573357°N 88.347979°E / 22.573357; 88.347979 The Black Hole of Calcutta was a small dungeon in the old Fort William in Calcutta, India, where troops of the Nawab of Bengal, Siraj ud-Daulah, held British prisoners of war after the capture of the fort on 20 June 1756.

One of the prisoners, John Zephaniah Holwell, claimed that following the fall of the fort, British and Anglo-Indian soldiers and civilians were held overnight in conditions so cramped that many died from suffocation, heat exhaustion and crushing. He claimed that 123 prisoners died out of 146 held. However, the precise number of deaths, and the accuracy of Holwell's claims, have been the subject of controversy.[1]


For more details on this topic, see History of Calcutta.

Fort William was established to protect the East India Company's trade in the city of Calcutta, the principal town of the Bengal Presidency. In 1756, with the possibility of conflict with French forces, the British began building up the fort's strengths and defences. The Nawab of Bengal, Siraj ud-Daulah, was unhappy with the company's interference in the internal affairs of his province and perceived a threat to its independence. He ordered an immediate stop to the Fort's military enhancement, but the Company paid no heed. As a consequence, Siraj organized his army and laid siege to the fort. The garrison's commander organised an escape, leaving behind 146 soldiers[2] under the command of John Zephaniah Holwell, a senior East India Company bureaucrat who had been a military surgeon. However, desertions by allied troops made even this temporary defence ineffectual, and the fort fell on 20 June. The surviving defenders, who numbered between 64 and 69, were captured along with an unknown number of Anglo-Indian soldiers and civilians who had been sheltering in the fort. During this period some prisoners were able to escape through the gates of the fort before the guards were fully alert to the change in numbers.[citation needed]

The Holwell account[edit]

The Black Hole, 20 June 1756

Holwell wrote about the events after the fall of the fort. He met with Siraj, who assured him "on the word of a soldier [sic], that no harm should come to us".[3] After seeking a place in the fort to confine the 146 prisoners (including Holwell), at 8 pm, the jailers locked the prisoners in the fort's prison ("the black hole" was 18th century military slang for any military prison - similar to "the glasshouse" in the 20th century British Army or "the brig" in the US Navy),[4] which was 14 by 18 feet (4.3 m × 5.5 m) in size. When the "Black Hole" was opened the next morning at 6 am, only 23 people were alive.[2] Stanley Wolpert argues that only 64 people were imprisoned and 21 survived.[2] D.L. Prior argues that 43 members of the garrison were dead or missing for reasons other than suffocation and shock,[5] while Busteed argues that, because so many non-combatants were present in the fort when it fell, the number who died cannot be stated with any precision.[6] Regarding responsibility, Holwell believed that it "was the result of revenge and resentment in the breasts of the lower Jemmaatdaars [sergeants], to whose custody we were delivered, for the number of their order killed during the siege."[3] Wolpert concurs and argues that Siraj did not order it and was not informed about it.[2]

The following description from the 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica portrays Holwell's point of view vividly:

The dungeon was a strongly barred room and was not intended for the confinement of more than two or three men at a time. There were only two windows, and a projecting veranda outside and thick iron bars within impeded the ventilation, while fires raging in different parts of the fort suggested an atmosphere of further oppressiveness. The prisoners were packed so tightly that the door was difficult to close.
One of the soldiers stationed in the veranda was offered 1,000 rupees to have them removed to a larger room. He went away, but returned saying it was impossible. The bribe was then doubled, and he made a second attempt with a like result; the nawab was asleep, and no one dared wake him.
By nine o'clock several had died, and many more were delirious. A frantic cry for water now became general, and one of the guards, more compassionate than his fellows, caused some to be brought to the bars, where Mr. Holwell and two or three others received it in their hats, and passed it on to the men behind. In their impatience to secure it nearly all was spilt, and the little they drank seemed only to increase their thirst. Self-control was soon lost; those in remote parts of the room struggled to reach the window, and a fearful tumult ensued, in which the weakest were trampled or pressed to death. They raved, fought, prayed, blasphemed, and many then fell exhausted on the floor, where suffocation put an end to their torments.
About 11 o'clock the prisoners began to drop off fast. At length, at six in the morning, Siraj-ud-Daulah awoke, and ordered the door to be opened. Of the 146 only 23, including Mr. Holwell (from whose narrative, published in the Annual Register for 1758, this account is partly derived), remained alive, and they were either stupefied or raving. Fresh air soon revived them, and the commander was then taken before the nawab, who expressed no regret for what had occurred, and gave no other sign of sympathy than ordering the Englishman a chair and a glass of water. Notwithstanding this indifference, Mr. Holwell and some others acquit him of any intention of causing the catastrophe, and ascribe it to the malice of certain inferior officers, but many think this opinion unfounded.

After the prison was opened, the corpses were thrown into a ditch. Holwell and three others were sent as prisoners to Murshidabad; the rest of the survivors obtained their liberty after the victory of a relief expedition under Robert Clive.


This is Holwell's actual list of the victims:[7]

"List of the smothered in the Black Hole prison exclusive of sixty-nine, consisting of Dutch and British sergeants, corporals, soldiers, topazes, militia, whites, and Portuguese, (whose names I am unacquainted with), making on the whole one hundred and twenty-three persons."

Of Council - E. Eyre, Wm. Baillie, Esqrs., the Rev. Jervas Bellamy.
Gentlemen in the Service - Messrs. Jenks, Revely, Law, Coales, Valicourt, Jeb, Torriano, E. Page, S. Page, Grub, Street, Harod, P. Johnstone, Ballard, N. Drake, Carse, Knapton, Gosling, Bing, Dod, Dalrymple, V. Ament Theme.
Military Captains - Clayton, Buchanan, Witherington.
Lieutenants - Bishop, Ifays, Blagg, Simson, Bellamy.
Ensigns - Paccard, Scot, Hastings, C. Wedderburn, Dumbleton.
Sergeants, &c. - Sergeant-Major Abraham, Quartermaster Cartwright, Sergeant Bleau (these were sergeants of militia).
Sea Captains - Hunt, Osburne, Purnell (survived the night, but died next day), Messrs. Carey, Stephenson, Guy, Porter, W. Parker, Caulker, Bendall, Atkinson, Leech, &c., &c.
List of those who survived - Messrs. Holwell, Court, Secretary Cooke, Lushington, Burdett, Ensign Walcott, Mrs. Carey, Captain Mills, Captain Dickson, Mr. Moran, John Meadows and twelve military and militia, blacks and whites, some of whom recovered when the door was opened.


As a result of Holwell's account, Robert Clive was sent in October to retaliate. With his troops and local allies, he defeated Siraj at the Battle of Plassey. Siraj was overthrown and killed.[2] The Black Hole was later used as a warehouse. An obelisk, 50 feet (15 m) high, was erected in memory of the dead. This now rests in a graveyard in memory of the (unidentifed number) who died that night.


Holwell claims that one hundred and twenty-three died of one hundred and forty-six held. While his account was not questioned in Britain at the time, other contemporary accounts claimed a larger number and differed on other details such as the room size and whether there was a window. In 1915, British scholar J.H. Little challenged Holwell's claims in his article, "The 'Black Hole' — The Question of Holwell's Veracity", arguing that Holwell was an unreliable witness and his veracity is questionable. Little went so far as to label Holwell's version "a gigantic hoax". Other historians, including Indian scholar Brijen Gupta, disagreed with Little's strong rejection, but nevertheless suggest that Holwell's account was exaggerated.

The following arguments have been listed against Holwell's account:

  • Absence of any independent confirmation: It is stated that apart from Holwell's account no other source mentioned such an incident. Given its nature, it seems very unlikely that all traces of such a thing having happened would have disappeared. It must be remembered that the Bengal sultanate was a decaying, bureaucratic one, not at all suited to systematic suppression of information. Historian R. C. Majumdar in his An Advanced History of India says that Holwell's story is entirely baseless and cannot be considered reliable historical information. However, Secretary Cooke, another alleged European survivor of the Black Hole, gave evidence before the Parliamentary Committee of 1772.[8]
  • Little argued that, after the deaths in the occupation of Calcutta and the subsequent evacuation and desertion, 146 British prisoners could not have been left in Siraj's hands three hours after the surrender, though this claim has been challenged. Holwell's list of the alleged victims explicitly includes Anglo-Indians and East India Company sepoys. Aside from the aforementioned list, in his account he writes of being crushed by a fellow inmate who was a "Topaz" (a black Catholic soldier); moreover, the only female survivor, Mrs. Carey, was described as a "country-born" woman, which in the language of the time meant of mixed blood.
  • Only forty-three of the garrison were listed as missing from Fort William after the incident and therefore the maximum number of deaths could only be forty-three. However, this is also subject to the objection that according to the Holwell account itself, not all the prisoners would have been listed as members of the garrison.
  • Bholanath Chunder, a Bengali landlord, opined that a floor area of 267 square feet (25 m²) could not contain 146 European adults. In order to prove this, Bholanath fenced round an area 15 by 18 feet (4.6 by 5.5 m) with bamboo stalks and counted the number of his Bengali tenants who could be crammed into it. The number was found to be much smaller than 146, and it was argued that a Bengali villager's body occupies much less space than a British soldier's. By comparison, modern subway standards specify 3 square feet (0.28 m2) for rush-hour standees, while the 146 people in the 'Black Hole' would have had about 1.85 square feet (0.172 m2). However, this objection misses the point that the prisoners in the 'hole' were so cramped that they perished, and subway densities are designed to give enough space to prevent this. Furthermore, a 1987 media estimate put the actual space available to rush-hour passengers in certain lines of the New York City subway system at as little as 1.6 square feet (0.15 m2)[9]

The true number of deaths will probably never be definitively established. No list was made of the British soldiers surrendering at the fort, not even a count of heads. Many escaped between the surrender and the alleged confinement in the 'Black Hole'. Even Holwell was offered by a friend the chance to escape. Therefore, the number of deaths in the 'Black Hole' could have been considerably lower.

Historian Simon Schama suggested on his 'A History of Britain' programme, which was broadcast in September 2000, that Holwell exaggerated the exact number of people by about three times but did not dispute that the event took place. However, Schama did not provide any new evidence or theory as to why he believes Calcutta Black Hole story is true.

The monument[edit]

Holwell had erected a tablet on the site of the 'Black Hole' to commemorate the victims but, at some point before 1822 (the precise date is uncertain), it disappeared. Lord Curzon, on becoming Viceroy in 1899, noticed that there was nothing to mark the spot and commissioned a new monument, mentioning the prior existence of Holwell's; it was erected in 1901 at the corner of Dalhousie Square, which is said to be the site of the 'Black Hole'.[10] At the apex of the Indian independence movement, the presence of this monument in Calcutta was turned into a nationalist cause celebre. Nationalist leaders, including Subhas Chandra Bose, lobbied energetically for its removal. The Congress and the Muslim League joined forces in the anti-monument movement. As a result, Abdul Wasek Mia of Nawabganj thana (now in Bangladesh), a student leader of that time, led the removal of the monument from Dalhousie Square in July 1940. The monument was re-erected in the graveyard of St John's Church, where it remains.

The 'Black Hole' itself, being merely the guardroom in the old Fort William, disappeared shortly after the incident when the fort itself was taken down to be replaced by the new Fort William which still stands today in the Maidan to the south of B. B. D. Bagh (formerly known as Dalhousie Square). The precise location of that guardroom is in an alleyway between the General Post Office and the adjacent building to the north, in the north west corner of B.B.D. Bagh. The memorial tablet which was once on the wall of that building beside the GPO can now be found in the nearby postal museum.

In literature[edit]

Thomas Pynchon references the Black Hole of Calcutta throughout his historical novel, Mason & Dixon. In the novel, Charles Mason spends an extended period on Saint Helena with astronomer Nevil Maskelyne, the brother-in-law of Lord Robert Clive of India. Various themes of colonialism and racism are discussed in relation to the event. Late in the novel, Jeremiah Dixon visits 18th century New York City and attends a secret "Broad-Way" production of the "musical drama", The Black Hole of Calcutta, or, the Peevish Wazir, "executed with such a fine respect for detail..."[11] Here, Pynchon likely also satirically references the long-running actual musical revue, Oh! Calcutta! that played on Broadway for over 7000 performances. Edgar Allan Poe makes reference to the "stifling" of the prisoners in his introduction to "The Premature Burial".[12] The Black Hole of Calcutta is briefly mentioned by Camille Flammarion in his science-fiction novel, Omega: The Last Days of the World, noting the suffocating properties of Carbonic-Oxide (Carbon Monoxide) on the British soldiers imprisoned in the dungeon.

In astronomy[edit]

According to Hong-Yee Chiu, a long-time astrophysicist at NASA, the Black Hole of Calcutta was the inspiration for the term black hole referring to regions of space-time resulting from the gravitational collapse of very heavy stars. He recalled hearing physicist Robert Dicke in the early 1960s compare such gravitationally collapsed objects to the infamous prison.[13]



  1. ^ Little JH (1916) ‘The Black Hole - The Question of Holwell's Veracity’ Bengal: Past and Present, 12. P136-171.
  2. ^ a b c d e Wolpert, Stanley (2009). A New History of India (8th ed.). New York, NY: Oxford UP. p. 185. ISBN 978-0-19-533756-3. 
  3. ^ a b Holwell, John Zephaniah; Friends (1764). "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 Day of June, 1756". India Tracts (2nd ed.). London, Great Britain: Becket & de Hondt. pp. 251–76. Retrieved 16 September 2011. 
  4. ^ Partridge Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English
  5. ^ D. L. Prior, biographer of Holwell in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, gives figures of 64 prisoners and 21 survivors.
  6. ^ H.E. Busteed Echoes from Old Calcutta (Calcutta) 1908 pp. 30-56
  7. ^ Busteed, 1888 appendix section of Echoes of Old Calcutta
  8. ^ Echoes from Old Calcutta by H. E. Busteed, pp. 14, 31, 33
  9. ^ Levine, Richard (October 10, 1987). "Seeking Bearable Level Of Subway Discomfort". New York Times. Retrieved September 23, 2014. 
  10. ^ Busteed Old Calcutta pp52-6
  11. ^ Pychon, Thomas, Mason & Dixon, pp.562-564
  12. ^ "The Works of Edgar Allen Poe, Volume 2". Retrieved 25 December 2015. 
  13. ^ Siegfried, Tom, "50 years later, it’s hard to say who named black holes", Science News, retrieved 2 January 2014


  • Partha Chatterjee. The Black Hole of Empire: History of a Global Practice of Power. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2012. 425p. ISBN 9780691152004. Explores the incident itself and the history of using it to expand or critique British rule in India.
  • Urs App (2010). The Birth of Orientalism. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press (ISBN 978-0-8122-4261-4); contains a 66-page chapter (pp. 297–362) on Holwell.
  • Dalley, Jan (2006). The Black Hole: Money, Myth and Empire. London: Penguin Books. ISBN 0-670-91447-9. 

External links[edit]

Public Domain This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainChisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press.