In 18th century India, the power of the Mughal Empire lay in the despotic hands of the Nawabs, or provincial princes. At the same time, the British and French East India Companies had built competing commercial empires on the lucrative sub-continent. The British had established a port and trading hub at Kolkata (Calcutta) and built Fort William to guard it from French attack.
This blatant military build-up infuriated Bengals’ new, 23-year-old Nawab, Siraj-ud-daula who took power in 1756. He ordered Calcutta’s British governor to immediately cease all work on the fort. When the predictable Brits ignored him, the hot-headed Nawab marched his massive army of 50,000 on Calcutta, including elephants and artillery. The governor and residents fled to company ships on the River Hooghly, leaving behind a small garrison of only 170 English soldiers to defend the fort.
Siraj’s attack came the morning of Sunday June 20th. John Holwell, in command of the fort, had no military experience, they were hopelessly outnumbered, and the fort was no match against 50,000 attackers. By the afternoon, he was forced to surrender – under the condition they would be treated fairly.
That night occurred the Black Hole horror which would become legend.
Holwell and 145 British prisoners, including two women, plus the wounded, were all squeezed at scimitar-points into the fort’s ‘Black Hole.’ This was the name given a single small cell built for prisoners. It measured only 18 by 15 feet and had but two small barred windows near the ceiling.
The heat of an Indian summer is suffocating, even at night, reaching 40C/104F. Conditions were so tight they could not sit or lie down. The prisoners trampled each other to get near fresh air near the 2 windows, and fought over the small cups of water they were handed. They pleaded for mercy from indifferent guards, who jeered at them while they screamed in agony.
The prisoners were left to suffer in the oppressive heat, sucking the perspiration from their shirts or resorting to drinking their own urine. The next morning, when the door was finally unbarred, steaming corpses were still standing as they were packed too tight to fall.
Only 23 of the 146 prisoners survived the hellish night.
The rest had died from a mixture of suffocation, trampling and dehydration. A large pit was dug for the dead and the bodies were dumped unceremoniously in a mass grave. The Nawab claimed to have had no knowledge of the inhumane incarceration. Few believed him.
British vengeance was swift. When news of the ‘Black Hole’ reached London, a rescue expedition led by Colonel Robert Clive was immediately dispatched. It arrived in Bengal by October. Clive wasted no time, marching on Calcutta. He set siege to the Mughals at Fort William, which he bombarded from a fleet of warships in the river.
The fort fell to the British after a relentless siege, with the Mughals retreating.
But Robert Clive, a war hero from his last Indian campaign, was not finished with his vengeance. In June 1757, with an army of a mere 3,000 men, Clive marched to the Bengal capital and defeated Siraj’s army of 50,000 at Plassey with their 500 war-elephants and artillery. Siraj fled to his capital Murshidabad, where he was killed by his own people for desertion.
John Holwell survived the Black Hole and later describing in great detail the horrors of that night in: A Genuine Narrative of the Deplorable Deaths of the English Gentlemen, who were Suffocated in the Black Hole. Holwell’s tale caused uproar in Britain. The story inspired patriotic fervor in Britain and rage at the Indian Mughals.
Clive’s victory at the Battle of Plassey was the start of British colonial rule in India, that would last uninterrupted for nearly 200 hundred years, until the Gandhi-inspired independence in 1947.