The “Black Hole Tragedy”of Kolkata

The facts about  the “Taking of Calcutta in 1756” and the calamity in which it culminated, are of course  known in a general way to most readers ,and familiarly to the researchers of history ;still it may be worth-while to restate the Black Hole Tragedy once more and unearth a few of the half-forgotten names of those actors who played their parts in the scenes, which chiefly conspired to stamp the main incidents with the notoriety attaching to them.

Lord Thomas Babington Macaulay a noted British Historian and Politician wrote at length and vividly about the tragedy that took place in the night of June 20th ,1756 which goes as follows….From a child, Surajah Dowla (Siraj-Ud-Daula,the Nawab of Bengal) hated the English.He had also formed a very exaggerated notion of the wealth which might be obtained by plundering them . Pretexts for a quarrel were readily found . The English, in expectation of a War with France ,had begun to fortify their settlement without special permission from the Nabob. On such ground as these Surajah Dowla marched with a great army against Fort William.

The servants of the Company  at Madras  has been forced by Dupleix (Governor General of French India and rival of Robert Clive) to become statesman and soldiers. Those in Bengal were still mere traders and were terrified and bewildered by the approaching danger. The Governor, who heard much of Surajah Dowla’s cruelty was frightened out of his wits ,jumped into a boat , and took refuge in the nearest ship. The military commandant thought that he could not do better than follow so good an example. The Fort was taken after a feeble resistance, and a great number of English fell into the hand of conquerors. The Nabob seated himself with real pomp in the principal hall and ordered Mr. Holwell ,the first rank among the prisoners, to be brought before him.

It would be unwise to criticise the tale as told by Lord Macaulay, it is however by no means difficult to detect the partial inaccuracies of that great historian.  ” The Fort was taken after a feeble resistance” is by no way truthful accounts of facts , and the declaration is probably due to Macaulay’s love for melodrama. The “Mere Trader” view of Company’s Servants in Bengal lent itself to picturesque representation, yet in truth, the Nawab was actually repelled at Chitpur and a very stout resistance was offered to his forces as he entered Calcutta by the avenue now known as Bowbazar.

Lord Macaulay had illustrated the black hole tragedy in a very fervent manner, he wrote  Then was committed that great crime memorable for its singular atrocity, memorable for the tremendous retribution by which it was followed. The English captives were left to the mercy of the guards and the guards determined to secure them for the night in the prison of the garrison , a chamber known by the fearful name of the Black Hole. Even for a single European malefactor, that dungeon, would in such a climate , have been too close and narrow. The space was only twenty feet square. The air holes were small and obstructed. It was the summer solstice , the season when the fierce heat of Bengal can scarcely be rendered tolerable to the natives of England by lofty halls and by a constant waving of fans. The number of prisoners was One hundred and Forty Six. When they were ordered to enter the cell ,they thought that the soldiers were joking ;and being in high spirits on the account of the promise of the Nabob to spare their lives , they laughed and jested at the absurdity of the notion. They soon discovered their mistake . They expostulated ,they entreated but in vain. The captives were driven into the cell at the point of sword and the door instantly shut and locked upon them. They cried for mercy .They strove to burst the door .Holwell, who even in that extremity retained some presence of mind offered large bribes to the gaolers .But the answer were that nothing could be done without the Nobob’s order , that the Nabob was asleep , and that he would be angry if anybody woke him. The prisoners went mad with despair , they trampled each other down ,fought for the places near windows ,fought for the pittance of water. At length the tumult died away in low gasping and groaning.

The day broke. The Nabob had permitted the door to be opened. But it was sometime before the soldiers could make a lane for the survivors by piling up on each side the heap of corpses on which the burning climate had already begun to do its loathsome work. A pit was instantly dug. The dead bodies, a hundred and twenty-three in number were flung into it promiscuously and covered up.

Historians offer different numbers of prisoners and casualties of the Black Hole Tragedy ; Stanley Wolpert reported that 64 people were imprisoned, and 21 survived imprisonment. D.L. Prior reported that 43 men of the Fort-William garrison were either missing or dead, for reasons other than suffocation and shock. Regarding responsibility for the maltreatment and the deaths in the Black Hole Tragedy of Calcutta, Holwell said, “it was the result of revenge and resentment, in the breasts of the lower Jemmatdaars [sergeants], to whose custody we were delivered, for the number of their order killed during the siege.”

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. Bag. 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.

The aftermath of the Black Hole Tragedy

The old obelisk disappeared in 1821, the legend was that the Governor-General (Lord Hastings) considering to be impolitic to preserve in the heart of Kolkata a memorial so bitter, a conflict between British and the Indian ordered its removal. It is known on the other hand that the old monument was ruined by a storm after getting decayed. The present monument was the gift to the City from Lord Curzon and unveiled by him on December 19th,1902. In original inscription, only a few names were recorded but the new Monument  contains  Holwell’s record of 80 names. The refurbished Holwell monument is still footing straight at the outer yard of St.John’s Church .


Kolkata, the City of Joy has been enchanting me, since childhood, of her glorified past and also the time at present.This blog is made with the intention to give you a brief and photographic detail of the famous spots of Kolkata with a pinch of little-known history behind it.