Freda Bedi Cont'd (#3)

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Part 1 of 6

The Black Hole: The Question of Holwell's Veracity
by J. H. Little
Bengal, Past & Present
Journal of the Calcutta Historical Society
Vol. XI -- Part 1
July-Sept., 1915
Serial No. 21

-- The Black Hole -- The Question of Holwell's Veracity, by J. H. Little, Bengal, Past & Present, Journal of the Calcutta Historical Society, Vol. XI, Part 1, July-Sept., 1915

-- Full Proceedings of the Black Hole Debate, Bengal, Past & Present, Journal of the Calcutta Historical Society, Vol. XII. Jan – June, 1916

-- 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., In a Letter to a Friend, from India Tracts, by Mr. J.Z. Holwell, and Friends.

-- Interesting Historical Events, Relative to the Provinces of Bengal, and the Empire of Indostan. With a Seasonable Hint and Persuasive to the Honourable The Court of Directors of the East India Company. As Also The Mythology and Cosmogony, Facts and Festivals of the Gentoo's, followers of the Shastah. And a Dissertation on the Metempsychosis, commonly, though erroneously, called the Pythagorean Doctrine. Part II. By J.Z. Holwell, Esq.

-- Forging Indian Religion: East India Company Servants and the Construction of ‘Gentoo’/‘Hindoo’ Scripture in the 1760s, by Jessica Patterson

-- French Jesuits in India and the Lettres Edifiantes, by Jyoti Mohan

-- Claiming India: French Scholars and the Preoccupation with India During the Nineteenth Century, by Jyoti Mohan

-- Natural Theology and Natural Religion, by Andrew Chignell & Derk Pereboom

-- The Enlightenment and Orientalist Discourse on the Aryan, Excerpt from Aryans, Jews, Brahmins: Theorizing Authority through Myths of Identity, by Dorothy M. Figueira

-- Ezourvedam: A French Veda of the Eighteenth Century, Edited with an Introduction by Ludo Rocher

-- Holwell's Religion of Paradise, Excerpt from The Birth of Orientalism, by Urs App

It may be asserted with safety that every British school boy, almost as soon as he is able to understand stories at all, is told the story of the Black Hole of Calcutta and learns that on a stifling night in June 1756 one hundred and forty six men, the greater part of British birth, were shut up in a small room in Fort William; that when the prison door was opened in the morning only twenty three miserable wretches were able to totter out and that the remainder of that unfortunate band lay dead on the floor of the prison, the victims of a tyrant's cruelty.

He never thinks of doubting the truth of the story. Belief in it grows with his growth and strengthens with his strength so that if he chance to come to Bengal he is amazed to find highly educated Bengalis who disbelieve the story altogether. “But,” he will reply to such a one, “it is in all the history books. You will find it in every elementary text-book written for schools as well as in the pages of the most authoritative writers on the history of Bengal.” If the Indian objects that the story is not found in the pages of his historians our Englishman, naturally and not undeservedly, gives the objection short shrift. Abana and Pharphar are better than all the waters of Israel. Such negative evidence cannot stand for a moment against the positive statements of Macaulay and Mill.

One Englishman, at least, seems to have doubted the truth of the incident. An article in the Calcutta Review1 [No. LI, March 1856, Warren Hastings in Slippers. p. 69.] contains the following remarkable words:—“John Zephaniah Holwell, the historian of the said catastrophe of the so-called “Black Hole of Calcutta." There is nothing going before or after to explain the meaning of these words. Articles in the Calcutta Review were not signed in those days, but in the copy in the hands of the present writer some one has written in pencil the names of the authors of all the articles, and against this one appears the name of Dr. J. Grant, Apothecary General.

The appointment of Apothecary General in the British (or English) Army dated from 1686; it lapsed in 1826, by which time it was little more than an honorary title.
According to British regulations, the Apothecary General, like the Judge Advocate General, was a noncombatant officer who, under directions from the secretary at war, supplied the army with medicines, hospital stores, surgical instruments, etc. Semi-annually he presented a bill to the Treasury, having previously submitted it for approval to the surgeon and physician generals and to the secretary at war, who certified that the medicines specified had been forwarded to their respective destinations.

-- Apothecary General, by Wikipedia

The present writer was led to a study of the incident by chance. Engaged in research on a different subject entirely it was his task to read the works of many of the contemporary writers on the affairs of Bengal in the 18th century as well as the official records of the time. Holwell came into intimate connection with his subject, and he formed a very different opinion on the character of that gentleman from the one given by Dr. Busteed in his Echoes from Old Calcutta. Various incidents in the official records also caused grave doubts to arise in his mind as to the truth of the accepted version of the incident of the Black Hole. But a question at once asserted itself. If there is no truth in the Black Hole story then what did take place on the night of the 20th June 1756 to cause the death of so many men? The question was unanswerable and the matter dismissed.

Recently, however, the writer read once more Holwell's Narrative, and the answer to the above question almost leaped from its pages—an answer as simple and “as true as truth's simplicity”—and he is now prepared to prove that the Black Hole incident was a gigantic hoax and to advance what he believes to be the true version of the affair. Of his ability to perform the first part of his task he is calmly confident, but the second part he presents with all diffidence. The merit of the theory is its simplicity, the ease with which it removes every difficulty in which this incident is at present involved, and the fact that it explains how men living in Bengal at the time might have believed in the Black Hole story. It does far more. If it takes away it repays a hundred fold. It presents to the British nation a band of heroes not unworthy to rank with those who turned at bay in the retreat from Mons, with those who held the trenches at Ypres or those who stormed the blood-stained heights of Gallipoli. “Here are large promises,” the reader may exclaim. Let him read and judge whether they are not fulfilled.

Very significant, from the writer’s point of view, is the fact that the author of the Seir Mutaquerin, a contemporary historian, does not mention the Black Hole incident, but all he asks the reader to do is to note the fact. To prove his case he will rely solely on the writings of Englishmen who were in Bengal at the time—either in the Black Hole itself or in the neighbourhood. In the forefront of these men stands Holwell whose Narrative—“than which nothing more pathetic is to be found in the annals of the British in India”‘2 [Bengal in 1756-1757 by S. C. Hill (1905) Vol. I Introduction p. xc.] —is the chief authority for the incident. But before dealing with the narrative he will deal with the man. He frankly confesses that he intends to prejudice the reader against the writer of the narrative, so the reader will be upon his guard. Or if the latter prefers to form an opinion on the words of the narrative itself without the obtrusion of any extraneous matter whatever, let him pass over section 2 and proceed to section 3. Afterwards he may return to section 2 to confirm or modify the opinion he may have formed.


John Zephaniah Holwell has received the eulogy of modern writers for his gallant defence of Calcutta in 1756 after the desertion of Governor Drake and his chief officers. He was the principal survivor of the Black Hole tragedy and wrote a narrative of his sufferings. When Clive left India in February 1760, Holwell succeeded him as Governor of Calcutta, but in August was superseded by Vansittart. His great achievement as Governor was to work up a case, in a most unscrupulous manner, against Nawab Mir Jafar. He prepared a memorial3 [The memorial may be found in Holwell's India Tracts and also in Vansittart’s Narrative Vol. 1 pp. 46-63.] on the state of the affairs of the province for the new Governor who was on his way to Calcutta. In this memorial he laid at the door of Mir Jafar all the evils under which the country was suffering; he charged him with treacherous dealings with the Dutch in the previous year, although Major Caillaud pointed out to him that this was never clearly proved, and even if it had been proved the fault had been condoned by Clive; he charged him with corresponding with the Shahzada, although Warren Hastings declared that the document was a forgery4 [The letters of Major Caillaud and Warren Hastings are given in India Tracts, but the writer has mislaid the exact reference.]; he charged him with the murder of persons who were alive when Mir Jafar himself was dead5 [See infra.] and he got £30,000 for himself when his scheme was successful.6 [Malcolm's Life of Clive (1836) Vol. 2, p. 289. See Bengal P. & P. Vol. VIII pp. 214-219.] The dethronement of Mir Jafar, condemned by Clive,7 [Malcolm's Life of Clive, Vol. 2, p. 255.] protested against by seven of the Company’s servants in Bengal who asserted that if the President had consulted the whole Council the measure would have been rejected,8 [Holwell’s India Tracts (1774) p. 107.] approved by the Court of Directors in such hesitating terms that Warren Hastings did not venture to translate the despatch to the new Nawab,9 [Hastings to Vansittart, July 14, 1762. (Vansittart’s Narrative Vol. 2, p. 69.)] was carried out by Governor Vansittart in October, and Mir Kasim was installed in his place.

Holwell was a man of great ability which he used unscrupulously to secure his own ends. Clive condemns him in the strongest terms: “Mr. Holwell is a specious and sensible man, but from what I have heard and observed myself I cannot be persuaded he will ever make use of his abilities for the good of the Company.”10 [Clive to William Mabbot, 31 Jan. 1757, (Hill’s Bengal in 1756-57 Vol. 2, p. 186)] He trembled to think of the fatal consequences if he were succeeded by such a mercenary man. “Mr. * * * has talents, but I fear wants a heart, therefore unfit to preside where integrity as well as capacity are equally essential.”11 [Malcolm's Life of Clive Vol. 2, p. 137 and p. 139. Asterisks are placed for the name but it is quite clear that Holwell is the man.] It seems ungenerous to add that when Siraj-ud-daula besieged Calcutta Holwell would have run away with the others if he had been able. But the statement was made at the time. Ives mentions it without condemnation12 [A Voyage from England to India in the year 1754 etc. (1773) p. 93. Ives was surgeon to Admiral Watson.] and Clive believed it. “I am well informed," he wrote, “there is no merit due to him for staying behind in the fort, nothing but the want of a boat prevented his escape and flight with the rest.”13 [In the letter quoted above. So Mr. William Lindsay who left the fort by permission on the 19th June. “It was much against his inclination being there, two gentlemen having carried away the budgerow he had waiting for him. I mention this as I understand he made a merit in staying when he found he could not get off." Letter to Mr. Robert Orme from Fulta July 1756. Hill’s Bengal in 1756-57, Vol. 1, p. 168.]

As a historian Holwell enjoys a reputation which is quite undeserved. To qualify himself to write on the history of India Holwell asserts that he “studiously perused all that has been written of the empire of Indostan, both as to its ancient as well as more modern state; as also the various accounts transmitted to us, by authors in almost all ages (from Arrian, down to the Abbé de Guyon) concerning the Hindoos, and the religious tenets of the Bramins.” He proceeds “to pronounce them all very defective, fallacious, and unsatisfactory to an inquisitive searcher after truth.”14 [Holwell's Interesting Historical Events, Part 1, p. 5.] Holwell may have been right, for all his reading did not save him from making the elementary blunder of declaring that Prince Nicosir, a pretender to the Empire in 1709, was a son of the great Akbar who died in 1605!15 [Holwell’s Interesting Historical Events, Part 1, p. 37.] If Holwell is correct in his history of the Mughal Empire from the death of Aurungzeb to the reign of Muhammad Shah then Elphinstone’s History of India needs revision for that period. If the Seir Mutaqherin approximates to history then Holwell’s account of the Transactions in Bengal from 1717 to 1750 is romance.

Here the reader may object: “Granted (though we should require better proof than you have brought forward) that Holwell was an inaccurate historian, that does not prove that he was a dishonest man." The latter point will now be established by showing (1) that Holwell fabricated a speech and fathered it on the Nawab Alivardi Khan; (2) that he brought false charges against the Nawab Mir Jafar; (3) that he fabricated a whole book and called it a translation from the ancient sacred writings of the Hindus.

(1) In a letter to the Court of Directors, dated Fulta, 30 November 1756,16 [Hill's Bengal in 1756-1757 Vol. 2, p. l.] Holwell is at pains to prove that the protection given by the Company’s servants to subjects of the Nawab was not the cause, as had been alleged, of Siraj-ud-daula’s attack on Calcutta. He asserts that Alivardi Khan “had long meditated to destroy the forts and garrisons of the Europeans,” and in support of this statement he quotes “verbatim, the last discourse and council which Mahabut Jung (Alivardi Khan) gave his grandson (Siraj-ud-daula) a few days before his death,” which, he adds, "I had from very good authority at Murshidabad, after my releasement.” Then follows the speech from which the following extract may be made:—“Keep in view the power the European nations have in the country. This fear I would also have freed you from if God had lengthened my days—The work, my son, must now be yours ....... ..Think not to weaken all three together. The power of the English is great; they have lately conquered Angria, and possessed themselves of his country; reduce them first; the others will give you little trouble, when you have reduced them. Suffer them not, my son, to have fortifications or soldiers: if you do, the country is not yours.”17 [Hill's Bengal in 1756-1757, Vol. 2, p. 16.]

This speech called forth some very plain language. Matthew Collet, second at Cassimbazar, contemptuously dismissed it with the words:—“As to Alliverde Cawn's last dying speech to his nephew, I look on it as a specious fable.”18 [Letter from Collet to Council, Fort William (Hill, Vol. 2, p. 129).] Richard Becher, chief of the Company’s factory at Dacca remarks:—“Mr. Holwell will excuse me if I do not admitt Alliverdee Cawn's speech as genuine till better proofs are brought to support it than any I have yet seen. Such advice if really given, it is reasonable to imagine had few or no witnesses, so that it appears very improbable Mr. Holwell in his distressed situation at Muxadavad should have been able to unravell the mysterries of the Cabinet and explore a secret never yet known to any one but himself.”19 [Letter from Becher to Council, Fort William (Hill, Vol. 2, p. 162).] William Watts, chief of the factory at Cassimbazar, observes:—“The last dying speech of Mahabut Jung or Alliverdi Cawn to his grandson neither he, or I believe, any of the gentlemen of the factory, ever heard of; neither have I since from any of the country people; it seems an imitation of the speech of Lewis XIV. to his grandson, and appears as Mr. Collet aptly terms it only a specious fable.”20 [Letter from Watts to Court of Directors, (Hill, Vol. 3, p. 336).]

Holwell replied to what (in his own words) was a charge of imposing on the Court of Directors a forgery that had no foundation but in his own invention. After quoting the words of Messrs. Collet, Becher and Watts he proceeds:—"That Mr. Becher should not believe the speech genuine I do not much wonder at, as he seems fully resolved that nothing shall drive him from his adopted principal cause of our misfortunes, the detention of the Nabob’s subjects, in confutation of which I have said sufficient; but the reasons this gentleman gives for his believing the speech not genuine had been better omitted for his own sake. The speech might probably enough have been a secret whilst it was necessary it should be so; but when I obtained it that necessity had long vanished, and Mr. Becher might have observed I say I had it from good authority, after my releasement, which was more than three months after the period it was uttered, and was no longer to be deemed a mystery of the cabinet, but might be judiciously enough divulged and circulated as an apology for and in support of Surajud Dowla's proceedings against the English, &c. Mr. Becher's opinion, “that I was unable to explore a secret, never yet known to any one but myself,” I would explain and reply to, could I possibly understand him. Shall only add, for Your Honours’ satisfaction, and in vindication of my own veracity, that I was released the 16th of July, and continued at the Tanksall, and the Dutch and French factories, until the 19th at night; during which period I had frequent conferences with the principal Armenians, and some the immediate servants of the late and present Suba, from whence I had the speech literally as I have given it; and notwithstanding the ingenious ridicule it meets from Messieurs Watts and Collet to cover their deficiency in matters which ought to have been known to them, I will not despair of giving Your Honours yet more convincing proofs of its being genuine.” The only proof that Holwell produces is a copy of a letter written by William Forth, surgeon at Cassimbazar, who relates that he was attending the Nawab fifteen days before his death when Siraj-ud-daula entered the room and charged the English with plotting to set up a rival to him in the succession. Alivardi Khan questioned Forth and at the end of his examination declared “he did not believe a word of the report he had heard.”21 [Letter from Holwell to Court of Directors, (Hill, Vol. 3, pp. 355, 356, 357.] How this helps Holwell it is difficult to see.

Holwell’s reply is as feeble as it could possibly be. Why did he not produce names with the date and hour of the conferences? He dared not. Watts and Collet were stationed close to Murshidabad and could have bowled him out. The only other remark of Holwell’s worthy of the slightest notice is his statement that the secret might have been circulated as an apology for the Nawab’s proceedings against the English. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Manningham, in his evidence before the Committee of the House of Commons said that “it was impossible to give any rational account of the origin of the Troubles”; that he was in Murshidabad with Clive in July 1757 and “enquiry was then made with all possible attention, but without success, into the motives of Surajah Dowla’s conduct from his principal officers, and likewise from the officers of his predecessor, from the Seats, and every other person from whom information was likely to be obtained.22 [First Report, (Hill, Vol. 3, p. 284).] Scrafton says the same. “I have made it my study since our intercourse with the great men at court, to penetrate into the cause of this event, but could never obtain anything satisfactory .... Perhaps it is a vain research to trace the motives of a capricious tyrant."23 [Scrafton, Reflections on the Government, &c., of Indostan (1763) p. 55.] Finally, on the main point we have the evidence of a relation24 [Hill, Vol. I Introduction, p. xxviii, foot note.] of Alivardi Khan’s—the author of the Seir Mutaqherin—who states:—“He (Alivardi Khan) used to compare the Europeans to a hive of bees, of whose honey you might reap the benefit, but that if you disturbed their hive they would sting you to death.” On another occasion, when his General, Mustafa Khan, supported by his nephew, Sayyid Ahmad, represented the ease with which the Europeans might be deprived of their immense wealth, he exclaimed: “My child, Mustapha Khan is a soldier, and wishes us to be constantly in need of his service, but how come you to join in his request? What have the English done against me that I should use them ill? It is now difficult to extinguish fire on land; but should the sea be in flames, who can put them out? Never listen to such advice as his, for the result would probably be fatal."25 [All this is borrowed from Hill’s Bengal in 1756-57 Vol I, Introduction p. xxxi.] Commenting on the inconsistency of these words with Holwell’s speech Dr. Busteed suggests that probably Alivardi Khan modified these views later on.26 [Echoes from Old Calcutta (2nd edition) p. 5 footnote.] Undoubtedly he did, or Holwell is guilty of forgery. Let the reader judge.

(2) With respect to the second charge against Holwell the reader will probably be disposed to accept the judgment of Clive and his Council who in 1766 considered it their duty to acquaint the Court of Directors in an official despatch that the “horrible massacres” with which Holwell had charged Nawab Mir Jafar were “cruel aspersions on the character of that prince" and had not the least foundation in truth. The persons who, according to Holwell, had been put to death by Mir Jafar “are all now living, except two, who were put to death by Meeran, without the Nawab’s consent or knowledge.“27 [Long's Selections from Unpublished Records of Government, p. 428.]

(3) Holwell asserts that the leisure hours of his thirty years’ residence in India were spent in collecting materials relative to the history and religion of the inhabitants of the country. Many curious Hindu manuscripts came into his possession and among them “two very correct and valuable copies of the Gentoo Shastah" procured with great labour and at great expense. He spent eighteen months in translating the Sastra.28 [Interesting Historical Events, Part 1, p. 3.] In one year more he would have completed the work but the catastrophe of 1756 intervened and when Calcutta was captured he lost manuscript and translation. By an unforeseen and extraordinary event “that possibly I may hereafter relate” (he never does so) he recovered some of his manuscripts.29 [Interesting Historical Events, Part 1, p. 4.] Hence he was able to give to the world an account of what he calls the “Chartah Bhade of Bramah,” the oldest and purest of the sacred writings of the Hindus. In Holwell’s time only three or four families were capable of reading and expounding it from the Sanskrit character.30 [Interesting Historical Events, Part 2, p. 15.] He obtained his information concerning it not from ordinary learned Brahmans who, in spite of their knowledge of the truth, pandered to the corrupt beliefs of the mob, but from those “whose purity of principle and manners and zeal for the primitive doctrines of Bramah’s Shastah sets them above disguising the truth."31 [Interesting Historical Events, Part 2, p 9 and p. 21.] Holwell gives an account of the doctrines contained in the “Chartah Bhade of Bramah”32 [Interesting Historical Events, Part 2, pp. 9 to 21.] and a translation of the first book and a section of the second. This version of the most ancient sacred book of the Hindus will make Sanskrit scholars stare and gasp. But what condemns the whole thing as a colossal fraud is the fact that Holwell has retained some words of the original in his translation which he explains in footnotes, and from these words it appears that his manuscript of the “Chartah Bhade” which only a few Brahman families were capable of reading and expounding from the Sanskrit character, was written in a mixture of Colloquial Bengali and Hindustani33 [Holwell starts his translation with the words "God is one" which according to a footnote are a translation of "ekhummesha" (ek, one hamesha, always?) pure Hindustani (Interesting Historical Events, Part 2 p. 31). The other words of the Sanskrit (?) original given in the translation or in footnotes are:—Debtah, angels; logue, a people, multitude or congregation; debtah-logue, the angelic host (p. 35); hazaar par hazaar (Hindustani), thousands upon thousands (p. 42); mahah surgo, supreme heaven; onderah (Hindustani) intense darkness (p. 44) dooneah or dunneah (Hindustani) the world; dunneahoudah, the worlds or the universe; boboons, regions or planets (p. 48) ghoij, the cow; ghoijal, cows; ghoijalbarry, a cowhouse; mhurd (Hindustani) the common name of man, from murto, matter or earth; jhoale, water, fluid; oustmaan (Hindustani) the air (p. 56) jogues, ages (p. 56); pereeth logue, purified people (p. 103); munnoo logue, people of contemplation, from mun or mon, thought, reflection (p. 104); modoo, discord, enmity; kytoo, confusion, tumult (p. 106); surjee, the sun; chunder, the moon (p. 110). (The meanings and derivations are Holwell’s).] —the latter apparently predominating. The fourth “sublime book" of the “Chartah Bhade" which “must lie in oblivion, until some one, blessed with opportunity, leisure, application, and genius, brings them to light" was according to Holwell, commonly called by Hindus “Bramah Ka Insoff (insaf) Bhade”! or “Bramah's Book of Justice." Such was the barefaced fraud foisted by Holwell on a Europe totally ignorant of Sanskrit, and it was for this that Voltaire gratefully thanked him.34 [Quoted in Busteed's Echoes from Old Calcutta, p. 38 (2nd edition).]

Three outrageous frauds have thus been brought home to Holwell, and we now proceed to reveal a fourth. Let us examine what he calls “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."


A reader of Holwell’s narrative35 [The Narrative may be read in Holwell's India Tracts or in Hill’s Bengal in 1756-1757 Vol. 3, p. 131. All quotations have been taken from the latter source.] cannot fail to be struck by the leading part—and a noble part it is—played by Holwell himself. He is the hero of his own narrative. He bestrides his narrow world like a Colossus, and the petty men, his companions in misfortune

Walk under his huge legs, and peep about
To find themselves dishonourable graves.

At the very outset of the narrative Holwell’s nobility of character is brought conspicuously forward. Leech, the Company’s smith, had made his escape when the Fort was captured by the enemy, but as soon as it was dark he returned and informed Holwell that he had a boat in readiness and Holwell might escape if he would follow him “through a passage few were acquainted with, and by which he (Leech) had then entered.” The guards were not looking, he might easily have escaped, the temptation to do so was great but immediately resisted. “I thanked him,” says Holwell “in the best terms I was able; but told him it was a step I could not prevail on myself to take, as I should thereby very ill repay the attachment the gentlemen and the garrison had shewn to me; and that l was resolved to share their fate, be it what it would; but pressed him to secure his own escape without loss of time; to which he gallantly replied, that “then he was resolved to share mine, and would not leave me.”36 [p. 135. Yet on the 3rd August 1756, six weeks after this incident, Holwell appears to have forgotten Leech. On that date he compiled his first lists of victims, etc. which he declared “are as correct as I at present can make them and are deficient in nothing but in the number of those of the militia and others who quitted the fort the 18th and 19th" (Hill Vol. i. p. 188). Leech‘s name is not given. It appears first in the list appended to Holwell's Narrative.]

The rest of the narrative is pitched in the same key. Throughout that night of horrors Holwell ever regardless of himself thinks only of his companions and how he may help them, comfort them and sustain their courage. Death he plainly perceived was their inevitable destiny, but death had no terrors for him, indeed he felt much more for his wretched companions than himself.
37 [p. 137.] Only once during that dreadful night did his courage fail him. “Some infernal spirit” he says, “brought to my remembrance my having a small clasp penknife in my pocket, with which I determined instantly to open my arteries and finish a system no longer to be borne. I had got it out, when heaven interposed and restored me to fresh spirits and resolution, with an abhorrence of the act of cowardice I was just going to commit.”38 [p. 143.] Holwell’s abnegation of self and regard for others were repaid in a manner that is very touching. His fellow prisoners show their regard for him throughout the night, and when the first rays of dawn entered the prison some of the survivors searched for him and brought him insensible to the window where a man is found willing to resign his place to him.39 [p. 144.] Truly we must admit that this fiery ordeal thoroughly consumed all the dross there may have been in Holwell’s character leaving fine gold or ...........

The second point that cannot fail to strike a reader of the narrative is the extraordinary nature of the sufferings endured by Holwell and not less than this, his extraordinary powers of endurance and instant recuperation.

Holwell entered the Black Hole at 8 P.M. “exhausted by continual fatigue and action."40 [p. 136.] From about nine to near eleven Holwell had to withstand such pressure in his window that his “legs were almost broke with the weight against them.” By eleven o’clock he was “very near pressed to death”; while three men who were with him in the window had actually been crushed to death. It is true two of these were wounded men, but the third could not have been, for Holwell says he “had forced himself into the window."41 [p. 139.] Not only did Holwell withstand a crush that killed three men beside him, but the effects on himself were quite temporary. He begged those around him “as the last instance of their regard" to remove the pressure and allow him to retire into the room to die in quiet. They gave way and he was able “without much difficulty” to reach the centre of the prison and from thence he proceeded to a platform at the back.42 [p. 140.] After remaining ten minutes here he was seized with a pain in his breast and palpitation of the heart “both to the most exquisite degree." Fresh air would give relief, so he determined to push for the window opposite him. “By an effort of double the strength I ever before possessed," he states that he gained the third rank at the window and “with one hand seized a bar, and by that means gained the second, though I think there were at least six or seven ranks between me and the window.”43 [p. 141.] The pain, palpitation and difficulty of breathing immediately ceased. In this new position Holwell declares “from half an hour past eleven till nearly two in the morning, I sustained the weight of a heavy man, with his knees in my back and the pressure of his whole body on my head, a Dutch serjeant, who had taken his seat upon my left shoulder, and a topaz44 [A black Christian soldier: usually termed "subjects" of Portugal (Holwell).] “bearing on my right; all which nothing could have enabled me long to support but the props and pressure equally sustaining me all around.”45 [p. 142.] An hour and a half of this was more than even Holwell could stand, and about two o'clock he made his way once more to the platform where he lay down and “presently lost all sensation."46 [p. 144.] Holwell remained insensible till nearly six in the morning when, as has been related, he was, found under the dead47 [p. 144.] and carried to a window. Nearly four hours of insensibility in an atmosphere which had caused the death of 123 men had the most temporary of effects on Holwell. “The fresh air at the window," he says, “soon brought me to life"48 [p. 144.] and not merely to life but restored him to his sight and senses and he gazed round the room and his soul was stricken with suffering at the dreadful destruction which met his view. However, Holwell did not escape scot-free. When he got out he found himself in a “high putrid fever”49 [p. 145.] and not being able to stand threw himself on the wet grass outside the verandah of the prison. He was then taken to the Nawab who charged him with being privy to the concealment of the Company’s treasure and ordered him to discover it. Once more we admire Holwell’s superiority to bodily infirmities. The high fever leaves all his faculties unimpaired and he vigorously repels the charge. “I urged everything I could to convince him there was no truth in the information; or that if any such thing had been done, it was without my knowledge. I reminded him of his repeated assurance to me the day before; but he resumed the subject of the treasure, and all I could say seemed to gain no credit with him.”50 [p. 145.] After the interview Holwell with three companions was conveyed to the camp of Mir Madan, over three miles off. Here they were “loaded with fetters and stowed all four in a seapoy’s tent, about four feet long, three wide, and about three high; so that we were half in, half out: all night it rained severely."51 [p. 146.] Holwell must, therefore, have been drenched but, if so, it agreed with him and cured his fever. “I became,” he says, “covered from head to foot with large painful boils, the first symptom of my recovery; for until these appeared my fever did not leave me."52 [p. 146.] Still twenty four hours’ high fever would leave an ordinary man extremely weak, but not so Holwell. “On the morning of the 22nd they marched us to town in our fetters under the scorching beams of an intense hot sun, and lodged us at the Dockhead in the open small veranda fronting the river."53 [p. 146.] Here for all we learn from the narrative Holwell was in a tolerable state of health and was quite ready on the 24th (the 23rd is a blank in the narrative) to embark for Murshidabad. The curious reader may pursue the story of Holwell’s sufferings on the journey by boat to Murshidabad but probably enough has been related to cause him to exclaim that, Holwell was no mere mortal man, or .......

We now proceed to notice a few points in Holwell’s narrative on which, if he were a witness in a court of law, he would certainly suffer cross-examination. The first four points are comparatively unimportant, but they will assume importance later, and the reader is requested to give them his attention. The fifth point, if the reasoning is sound, and the reader will judge of this, immediately characterises the whole narrative as a daring piece of unblushing impudence.

(1) Holwell states:—“The Suba and his troops were in possession of the Fort before six in the evening. I had in all three interviews with him; the last in Durbar before seven, when he repeated his assurances to me, on the word of a soldier, that no harm should come to us;
and indeed I believe his orders were only general, that we should for that night be secured; and that what followed was the result of revenge and resentment in the breasts of the lower jemmaatdars, to whose custody we were delivered, for the number of their order killed during the siege.”54 [p. 134.] Knowing how Indian subordinate officers are ready to reflect the smiles and frowns of their master is it credible that these men would dare to disobey the orders of the Nawab given in Durbar in this flagrant manner? How can this be reconciled with the fact that when Holwell requested that the prisoners might be separated into two parties one of these same subordinate officers went to inquire and returned with the reply “it could not be done but by the Suba’s orders and that no one dared awake him.”55 [p. 137.]

(2) This is Holwell’s account of how the prisoners entered the Black Hole:—“We were no sooner all within the barracks, than the guard advanced to the inner arches and parapet wall; and, with their muskets presented, ordered us to go into the room at the southernmost end of the barracks, commonly called the Black Hole prison; whilst others from the court of guard, with clubs and drawn scymitars, pressed upon those of us next to them. This stroke was so sudden, so unexpected, and the throng and pressure so great upon us next the door of the Black Hole prison, there was no resisting it; but like one agitated wave impelling another, we were obliged to give way and enter; The rest followed like a torrent, few amongst us, the soldiers excepted, having the least idea of the dimensions or nature of a place we had never seen; for if we had, we should at all events have rushed upon the guard, and been, as the lesser evil, by our own choice cut to pieces.”56 [p. 136.] Yet under such circumstances as these, Holwell who was “amongst the first that entered" and who had never seen the room before, was able, as soon as he passed the door, to turn sharply to the right and secure possession of one of the windows. Not only did Holwell do this but two wounded men also.57 [p. 136.] Surely when Holwell thought of the matter afterwards he must have wondered how he found himself at the window instead of being flattened against the dead wall opposite the door and blessed his good fortune. But in his narrative he passes the matter by without notice.

(3) The writer has read somewhere the statement made by a Bengali gentleman58 [I have since verified this statement. It was made by Babu Bhola Nath Chunder in the Calcutta University Magazine. Quoted by Babu Akhoy Kumar Maitra in his book (in Bengali) on Siraj-ud-daula.] that it was mathematically impossible to get 146 men into that room. Let us examine this point. Holwell says the room was “a cube of about eighteen feet.”59 [p. 136.] Mr. Secretary Cooke, one of the survivors, said it was about 18 feet long and 14 wide.60 [First Report (Hill, Vol. 3. p. 302).] The late Dr. C. R. Wilson ascertained that the exact dimensions were 18 feet by 14 feet 10 inches.61 [Hill’s Bengal in 1756-57, Vol. I Introduction p. xc. footnote.] The last dimensions give somewhat less than two square feet of floor space to each man, and this seems to be quite enough if the men were carefully packed. But what a job the guards must have had to get the last of the prisoners in the room; And when they were all inside, the door had to be shut and the door opened inward!62 [p. 136.] What shouting and cursing on the part of the guards there must have been to get free space to close that door! What expostulations on the part of those roughly pushed about! How Holwell must have been squeezed in his window! Yet this is passed by unnoticed by Holwell. The men who, according to Holwell, would have rushed upon the guard and been as the lesser evil, cut to pieces, when they had the chance of doing so, preferred tamely to allow that door to be closed without an attempt to prevent it, without even so much as a protest.

(4) Consider this internment from another point of view. The Nawab's officers had first to decide on the prison. For this purpose they examined “with lighted torches” (please note this fact for future reference) “all the apartments under the easterly curtain"63 [p. 136.] of the Fort. They decided upon the room. Then the officers went to the parade where “four or five hundred gun-men” were drawn up.64 [p. 134.] Next Holwell “observed part of the guard drawn up on the parade advance to us with the officers who had been viewing the rooms.65 [p. 135.] Holwell and his companions were sitting quietly “under the arched veranda or piazza, to the west of the Black-Hole prison, and the barracks to the left of the court of guard."66 [p. 134.] The officers ordered them “all to rise and go into the barracks and when they were all in the barracks and were congratulating themselves on “the prospect of passing a comfortable night” there they were hustled into the Black Hole as quoted above. And all this took exactly—half an hour. According to Holwell the officers began to examine the appartments “about half an hour past seven."67 [p. 135.] When Holwell was in the window he says “it was now about eight o’clock!"68 p. 136.] Mr. Secretary Cooke allows less time. He says; “A little before eight we were all of us directed to withdraw and remain in a place contiguous to the Black Hole....While we were wondering what this should mean and laughing at the oddity of it, a party of fellows came and ordered us to walk into the place before mentioned called the Black Hole .... Into this hole we were forcibly crammed about eight o’clock in the evening and the door immediately locked upon us.”69 [First Report (Hill, Vol. 3, p. 302.)] Who will dare to say after this smart performance that Indians cannot hustle?

(5) There are other incidents upon which some light would be desirable; for example, how water was passed in hats through the bars of a window which, according to Holwell, was blocked up by four men sitting in it, but let us pass to something fundamental. Holwell states that the Black Hole was “shut up to the eastward and southward (the only quarters from whence air could reach us) by dead walls, and by a wall and door to the north, only open to the westward by two windows, strongly barred with iron”.70 [p. 136.] Remember that these were windows of a recognised prison. Remember further that the windows opened not into the outer air but into a low verandah. Lastly remember that it was night and it follows at once that the room was as dark as Erebus. But the room might have been lighted from the verandah. Undoubtedly it might. Then let the reader place guards to his taste in the verandah and give each guard a torch. (He will remember that the officers examined the rooms with torches and this is the only kind of light mentioned in the narrative). Should we not expect from Holwell a description of the weird effect of the light falling on that mass of men and of the dark shadows in the remoter parts of the room? But we have not assumed all the conditions. Block up the windows, as described by Holwell, with men and others standing over them and how much light could possibly have entered the room? Now turn to the narrative and the reader will see that the room was as bright as noonday and Holwell could see and describe everything that went on in every corner of it. As soon as he was settled in his window he remarks; “What must ensue appeared to me in lively and dreadful colours the instant I cast my eyes round and saw the size and situation of the room.”71 [p. 136.] Immediately after this “observing every one giving way to the violence of their passions”72 [p. 136.] he made them a speech. He tells us that every man stripped except himself, Mr. Court and the two wounded gentlemen.73 [p. 137.] Every hat was put in motion to produce a circulation of air and every man sat down on his hams. “When the whole body sat down, they were so closely wedged together that they were obliged to use many efforts before they could put themselves in motion to get up again.”74 [p. 138.] When Holwell retired from the first window in the manner related above he was able to pause in the centre of the prison and calculate the number of the dead which he believed amounted to one third.75 [p. 140.] He then “travelled over the dead” to the platform at the very back of the prison and “repaired to the further end of it, just opposite the other window" and seated himself “between Mr. Dumbleton and Captain Stevenson, the former just then expiring." Here Mr. Edward Eyre came “staggering over the dead” to him and “with his usual coolness and good-nature“ asked him how he did but fell down and expired before Holwell had time to reply.76 [p. 136.] Is it necessary to go on? One word more. Holwell, seated in his window with his back to any light there may have been, was able to see everything that went on in the room, but he states that when the guards wanted to see they held up lights to the bars.77 [p. 139.] This is the only reference that Holwell makes to a light during the time he was in the Black Hole.


The writer imagines that by this time the reader is disposed to reject the Black Hole incident as we know it, and he will now present what he conjectures really happened on the night of the 20th June 1756. Astounding as it may appear, the only authority he will appeal to will be Holwell’s Narrative, for he believes that in a great measure it is a true narrative and that the very difficulties which he brought forward in the last section to overthrow the narrative are only difficulties because they are true facts placed in a false environment. This then is what he believes happened. The Nawab entered the Fort before six in the evening and Holwell had three interviews, with him as he states. It was not Holwell who desired the three interviews or he would have said so and the reason why he wished to see the Nawab so many times. It was the Nawab who wished to see Holwell and the reason is clear. The Nawab was anxious to secure the Company‘s treasure of which he had heard exaggerated accounts. He believed that this had been hidden, that Holwell knew the hiding place and could be forced to disclose it. Three attempts to obtain the information failed and then the Nawab desisted with the intention of trying again in the morning as we know he did. Meanwhile he gave orders that Holwell and all the Company's Servants in his hands and nobody else were to be secured for the night. These surviving servants of the Company were Holwell, Court, Cooke, Walcot, Lushington, Burdett the Rev. Gervas Bellamy and probably the two wounded men, Coales and Scott. Of these Walcot and Scott belonged to the military. These men, then, were placed in the Black Hole prison precisely in the manner related by Holwell in his narrative and there they remained in semi-darkness throughout the night, though Holwell made an attempt to get them removed to a more comfortable apartment. The two wounded men, if they were there,78 [It is probably safe to assume that they were there. In that case another statement of Holwell's falls at once into the category of “true facts placed in a false environment.” Holwell states that at about eleven o’clock one third of the prisoners had died. On our supposition this was literally true. Three had died out of nine.] died that night, but they died of their wounds and lack of medical aid. It is absolutely certain that the Rev. Mr. Bellamy died in the Black Hole. He was ill at the time and succumbed to his illness in the prison.79 [For his death in the Black Hole we have the authority of the Bengal Council. In their letter to the Court of Directors, dated the 31 January 1757 they state “ Our chaplains having both demised, Mr. Gervas Bellamy in the Black Hole .... ..we have appointed &c.” (Hill, Vol. 2 p. 190). For his illness we have the authority of the list given in Hill, (Vol. 3 p. 415) and quoted in the following pages of this paper. Ill as he was the padre Sahib was too important a man to be passed over when the order had been given to seize all the Company's servants.] The rest suffered much as Holwell says they suffered. They were bathed in perspiration. They fanned themselves with their hats. They suffered greatly from thirst and water was passed through the bars to them as stated by Holwell. Finally at about 2 a.m. Holwell managed to fall asleep and was roused in the morning by one of his companions and told that the guard had come to take him to the Nawab who again interrogated him on the subject of the treasure. That, approximately, is the secret of the Black Hole of Calcutta. To that genuine experience add the idea that there were 146 men present, throw in a small quantity of what a great man called “corroborative detail tending to give verisimilitude to an otherwise bald and unconvincing narrative,” and you have the whole secret of the concoction of Holwell’s story.
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Part 2 of 6

Observe how all the difficulties advanced in the preceding section vanish. Reduce Holwell’s sufferings to the discomforts arising from passing the night in a small room at the hottest time of the year and he dwindles to human proportions. The guards were strictly carrying out orders when they shut up Holwell in the Black Hole prison, and hence there was no inconsistency when one of them refused to remove him to another room without orders from the Nawab. Guards with torches escorted the prisoners into the Black Hole and Holwell had ample leisure to observe the nature of the room and take possession of the window. There was not the slightest difficulty in closing the door although it opened inward. The prisoners could easily have been shut up in the few minutes allowed by Mr. Secretary Cooke for the performance. It was an easy matter to hand water through the bars of the window and this was not blocked up with human bodies, so that the guards were not insane when they held up lights to the bars in order that they might look into the room.

Of far greater importance than this is the fact that various stumbling-blocks besetting the path of those who study the history of this period also vanish in the light of this interpretation of the Black Hole incident. In the minutes of a meeting of the Secret Committee of the Bengal Council held on board the Phoenix schooner at Fulta on August 22nd 1756, we find these words:—“Major Killpatrick on the 15th instant wrote a complimentary letter to the Nabob Suraged Dowla complaining a little of the hard usage of the English Honourable Company, assuring him of his good intentions notwithstanding what had happened and begging in the meantime, till things were cleared up, that he would treat him at least as a friend and give orders that our people may be supplied with provisions in a full and friendly manner."80 [Long's Selections from Unpublished Records of Government, p. 75. ] We are amazed that Englishmen could write in this strain to a man responsible for the tragedy of the Black Hole and then without a blush enter it in the record of their proceedings. Sir William Hunter’s explanation is that the terrible sufferings they had endured in the fever-stricken delta caused them to descend to these depths.81 [Sir W. W. Hunter, The Thackerays in India and Some Calcutta Graves (1897) p. 26.] But the explanation does not hold good as far as Major Killpatrick is concerned. He had been sent from Madras with a reinforcement of 200 men and arrived at Fulta a fortnight before the letter was despatched.82 [He arrived on 31st July. Letter from Council at Fulta to Council, Fort Saint George, dated 18th August, 1756. (Hill, Vol. I, p. 197).] British officers do not grovel at the feet of the murderers of their countrymen. Again we were taught at school to look upon Clive not only as the vindicator of British might, but also as the avenger of blood and then we read in the records that the Madras Council, who fitted out the expedition, in the true spirit of Christian charity, were prepared to forgive the Nawab all the injuries he had done to them, including the massacre of their countrymen, provided be restored Calcutta and their other settlements and made ample reparation for the pecuniary loss they had sustained. “Should the Nabob,” the Council wrote, “on the news of the arrival of these forces, make offers tending to the acquiring to the Company the before-mentioned advantages, rather than risque the success of a war, we think that sentiments of revenging injuries, although they were never more just, should give place to the necessity of sparing as far as possible the many bad consequences of war, besides the expence of the Company’s treasures ”83 [Letter from Select Committee, Fort Saint George to Select Committee, Fort William, 13 October, 1756 (Hill, Vol. I p. 12239.] and directed Clive to consult the Council at Fort William on the nature of the treaty to be made with the Nawab.

Further when we read the terms of the treaty made with Siraj-ud-daula on the 9th February, 1757,84 [Hill, Vol. 2 p. 215.] and the terms of the treaty made with Mir Jafar85 [Walsh's Murshidabad, p. 150.] a few months later we are struck with the fact that there is not a word about compensation to the widows and children86 [Of the relatives of victims of the Black Hole we find mention of Mrs. Buchanan and one child, Mrs. Dnmbleton (two children), Mrs. Coales (one child), Mrs. Clayton, Mrs. Bellamy, Mrs. Hunt, Mrs. Smith, Mrs. Porter, Miss Bellamy and Miss Carey. (Hill Vol. 3 p. 76).] of the men said to have been put to death in the Black Hole, nor a demand for justice on the murderers.87 [Scrafton writing from Murshidabad to Walsh suggested that one of the terms of the treaty with Mir Jafar should be:-- "the guilty in the affair of the Black Hole to be given up to us." Hill, Vol. 2. p. 350. Why was this not done?]

Lastly the records reveal the astonishing fact that no official account of the Black Hole tragedy was ever sent home by the Bengal Council to the Court of Directors.[/b][/size] After narrating events up to the 18th June, 1756, the letter from the Council at Fulta to the Court of Directors, proceeds as follows:—“The next morning they commenced a brisk fire upon the fort which they continued the whole day and great part of Sunday the 20th; and having gained possession of the several houses near the factory and the Church, they destroyed a great many of our officers and private men, who being harassed out with continual duty and the enemy overpowering us with their numbers, the walls were scaled on the evening of the 20th, and the fort surrendered upon promise of their civil treatment of the prisoners. We have now given your Honours a summary relation of the Nabob's proceedings at Cassimbazar, his march against Calcutta, the attack and capture of that place."88 [Letter from Council at Fulta to Court of Directors, dated 17 September 1756. Hill, Vol I, p. 217.] The Council promised to send further particulars of the siege, but in their next letter they refer to this promise and proceed “upon second consideration we find it impracticable to form a narrative that will be assented to by all the members of the Board who were concerned in these transactions. We must therefore beg leave to refer your Honours to the several addresses those gentlemen have separately made you through the channel of this Board. They are transmitted in this packet and to your candour we submit our conduct, without any further comment.”89 [Letter from Council, Fort William, to the Court of Directors, dated, 31 January, 1757 Hill Vol. 2, p. 187.] Now it is quite easy to trace these letters. They were written by Drake, Watts, Becher, Collet and Holwell.90 [Drake's Letter (Hill Vol. 2, p. 134); Watt’s Letter (Hill Vol. 3, p. 331); Becher’s Letter (Hill Vol. 2, p. 157); Collet’s Letter (Hill Vol. 2, p. 128); Holwell's Letter (Hill Vol. 2, p. 1).] They are full of charges, countercharges and recriminations on such subjects as the cause of the Nawab's attack on Calcutta, the defence of Cassimbazar and the mistakes made in the defence of Calcutta. The only one who refers to the Black Hole incident is Holwell and he casually mentions his sufferings there. It is difficult to understand how the Black Hole incident could have been a subject of controversy if it really happened and still more difficult to understand why the Council mentioned, in their former letter, that the fort surrendered upon promise of civil treatment of the prisoners and omitted to state immediately after that 23 of the Company’s servants alone had lost their lives in consequence of that promise being broken, if it had been broken.

The lists of victims and survivors also are unofficial and seem to have been compiled by Holwell.
91 [One is appended to his letter to Council, Fort Saint George, dated Hugli, 3 August, 1756 (Hill I 185) and the other to his narrative (Hill 3 p. 153).]


The reference to the victims of the Black Hole tragedy at the end of the last section must have caused the reader to ask, “Then how did those men die?” The labours of Mr. S. C. Hill, late officer in charge of the records of the Government of India, who has collected together and printed in his three volumes entitled “Bengal in 1756-1757" probably every memorial of the time relating to the Black Hole that is to be found in the archives of London, Calcutta, Paris and The Hague, enables this question to be answered.

The genesis of the National Archives of India may be traced back to the year 1860 when Sandeman, the Civil Auditor, in his report stressed the need of relieving the offices of congestion by destruction of the papers of routine nature and transfer of all valuable records to a ‘Grand Central Archive’. However, things took a concrete shape in 1889, when Professor G.W. Forrest of Elphinstone College, Bombay was entrusted the job of examining the records of the Foreign Department of the Government of India. Earlier, he had earned reputation as an Archivist for his work in the Bombay Records Office. In his report, he made a strong plea for transferring all records of the administration of East India Company to a Central Repository. As a result, Imperial Records Department (IRD) came into existence on 11 March 1891 which was located in Imperial Secretariat Building at Calcutta (Kolkata). Professor G.W Forrest was made its Officer in Charge. His main task was to examine, transfer, arrange and catalogue records of all the Departments and to organise a Central Library in place of various Departmental Libraries. After G.W. Forrest, the work at Imperial Records Department (IRD) progressed well under S.C. Hill (1900), C.R. Wilson (1902), N.L. Hallward (1904), E. Denison Ross (1905), A.F. Scholfield (1915), R.A. Blaker (1919), J.M. Mitra (1920) and Rai Bahadur A.F.M. Abdul Ali (1922-1938) who were scholars as well as Records Keepers in their own right.

-- History of National Archives of India, by National Archives of India

From those volumes we can learn what happened from 10 o’clock in the morning of the 19th June, when Governor Drake and his companions deserted the Fort, to the evening of the 20th when the Fort was captured. Captain Grant, Adjutant-General, who deserted with the Governor writes:—"The place was taken the next day the 20th afternoon, about 30 hours after the Governor left it, during which time upwards of 50 Europeans were killed on the Bastions by the enemy’s small arms from Mr. Cruttenden’s, Eyre’s, the Church and the Company’s House. The firing was so hot from the top of the Church that they at last were obliged to abandon the easterly curtain and bastions.” Then when the enemy scaled the walls of the Fort “numbers were cut to pieces on the walls: all who wore red coats without mercy."92 [Hill, Vol. 1 p. 88.] Mr. Grey, Junior, one of the Company’s servants, relates:—"Next morning the enemy having got possession of the Church and houses round the fort from thence galled our men with small arms killing several of them (among whom was Captain Smith) and wounding many of the officers."93 [Hill, Vol. I p. 108.] Holwell’s evidence may be admitted when corroborated:—"The 20th in the morning the enemy formed three assaults at once against the north-west bastion, against the north-west futtock or barrier, and against the windows of the labratory (sic) on the eastern curtain, and attempted to scale to the north-westward. From each of these assaults they were beat off with great loss to them before noon .... when finding we had 25 killed and 70 or more of our best men wounded and our Train killed, wounded and deserted to all but 14 and not two hours’ ammunition left, we threw out a flag of truce towards the evening intending to amuse the enemy and make the best retreat we could in the night to the “Saint George,” not then knowing she was on a sand opposite to Omichund’s house."94 [Hill, Vol. 1 p. 88, 114.] Governor Drake in his Narrative gives similar evidence.95 [Hill, Vol. 1 p. 159.] Mr. William Lindsay, who received permission to leave the Fort on the 19th on account of his lameness, wrote to the historian Orme at Madras thus:—“The gentlemen in the Fort being now quite desperate fought like madmen. On Sunday morning there was above forty men killed on one bastion .... About half an hour after this the Moors scaled the walls on all quarters in a manner almost incredible to Europeans. Now the gentlemen looked upon their situation as the most desperate. Lieutenant Blagg defended the bastion he was upon till he and his men were cut to pieces. This officer behaved with the greatest bravery."96 [Hill, Vol. I p. 168.] William Tooke, who left the fort on the 19th relates:—“The defence of the place was carried on briskly under the new commanderie, but with the loss of several people; among the killed was Lieutenant Smyth and the wounded Ensign Coales of the militia and Piccard of the military .... June the 20th, early in the morning the enemy attacked the N.E. and N.W. bastions with great fury, but after a dispute of about three hours were obliged to retire .... About four o’clock in the afternoon the factory was taken, when many lost their lives."97 [Hill, Vol. 1 p. 263, 293.] Then there is the account sent by the Council to the Court of Directors which has already been quoted in full.

Thus stands revealed the story of a memorable and gallant defence, a defence so desperate that it did not cease till all the defenders except a mere handful were lying dead or dying on the bastions of the fort, a defence worthy of a place in the annals of British valour. But what has been the fate of the heroic defenders of Fort William? Has any Englishman reverently searched for their names? Has any historian worthily enshrined their heroism in his pages? One only has done this—and he a man of alien race—and his words have been despised and rejected by us all. “Mr. Drake,” writes Ghulam Husain Khan, the author of the Seir Mutaqherin, “finding that matters went hard with him, abandoned everything, and fled without so much as giving notice to his countrymen. He took shelter on board a ship, and with a small number of friends and principal persons he disappeared at once. Those that remained, finding themselves abandoned by their chief, concluded their case must be desperate; yet most of them were impressed with such a sense of honour that preferring death to life, they fought it out until their powder and ball failing at last, they bravely drank up the bitter cup of death; some others, seized by the claws of destiny, were made prisoners.” Even through the words of the translation we can respond to the thrill in the heart of the gallant historian—a soldier himself—when he wrote about “most of them” dying gloriously and we can feel the perceptible cold drop when he added, almost by an afterthought it seems, “some others” were made prisoners. Do we know the grave of these men? Yes; their bodies were promiscuously thrown into the ditch of the ravelin of Fort William and their names are inscribed on a monument built over the spot which libellously proclaims to the world that they died ignominious deaths in a dungeon.98 [This is a melancholy fact, but the words are not intend to convey the shadow of a reproach on the donor of the monument. That would be both ungrateful and unjustifiable. The monument expressed in a concrete form the belief universal among English-speaking races all over the world. It is obvious that this paper could not have been written before 1905 the year in which Mr. Hill’s volumes were published. All, therefore, that is permitted to us is to regret that the information published in 1905 was not known in 1902 the year in which the monument was erected.] Has the reader the slightest doubt of this? Does not his heart instinctively tell him who is speaking the truth—Holwell who declares that Lieutenant Blagg died in the Black Hole, or Lindsay who asserts that the Lieutenant died as a British officer knows how to die—sword in hand, leading his men in one last desperate charge against an overwhelming band of foes.

But the reader may call for cold proof, and that, too, is forthcoming. What has to be proved is this; if these men died in the defence of the fort there were only a very few left to go into the Black Hole. What will actually be proved is the converse of this, that is, if the men whose names are in Holwell’s list died in the Black Hole then not more than one or two died in the defence of the fort. Once more we delve in99 [Vol. 3 p. 415.] Mr. Hill’s rich mine and bring forth “a Summary of a list of Inhabitants, &c., who bore arms at late siege of Calcutta, dated 1 July, 1756.” The names of those who were “killed or otherwise lost their lives" are placed in italics in the list and the only liberty the writer has taken is to set them out in two columns, the first column containing the names of those who survived the siege and the second those who lost their lives. The writer has added the particulars placed against each name and the references are to Mr. Hill’s volumes.



Drake (Governor); left fort 19th June (I 41, 107, 112, 158, 189, 262).
Manningham; left fort 18th June (I 41,86, 107, 112, 151, 154,165, 189, 261).
Pearkes; escaped when fort was taken (I 44.)
Frankland; left fort 18th June (I 41, 86, 107, 112, 151, 154, 165, 189, 261.)
Macket; left fort 19th June (I 41, 87, 107, 112, 158, 189, 262.)
Holwell; survived Black Hole.
Sumner; left fort 18th June (I 189).
Court; survived Black Hole.
Cooke; survived Black Hole.
Billers; left fort 19th June (I 41, 107, 190.)
Ellis; left fort 19th June (I 41, 107, 190.)
Tooke; left fort 19th June (I 41, 107, 190.)
Rider; left fort 19th June (I 41, 107, 190.)
Lindsay; left fort 19th June (1 153, 154.)
Senior; left fort 19th June (I 41, 107, 190.)
Vasmer; left fort 19th June (I 41, 107, 190.)
Orr; left fort 19th June (I 107, 190.)
Leycester; left fort 19th June (I 41, 107, 190.)
Lushington; survived Black Hole.
Charlton; left fort 19th June (I 41, 107, 190.)
Bardet; survived Black Hole.
Gray; escaped after fort taken.


Minchin (Commandant); left fort 19th June (I 41, 87, 112, 158, 189, 262.)
Capt. Grant; left fort 19th June (I 41, 87, 112, 158, 189, 262.)
Ensign Walcot; survived Black Hole.
Ensign Carstairs; Wounded on 18th June (I 80, 111, 148, 191) see note.
O'Hara (Engineer); left fort 19th June (I 41, 87, 107, 112, 158, 189, 262.)


Mapletoft; left fort 19th June (I 41, 87, 107, 112, 158, 189, 262.)


Gray; escaped when fort taken (I 44).
Fullerton; left fort 19th June (I 41, 190.)
Taylor; escaped when fort taken (I 44.)
Knox Senior; escaped when fort taken (I 44).
Knox junior; escaped when fort taken (I 44).
Fletcher; cannot be traced.


Putham; left fort 18th or 19th (I 190)
Ridge; left fort 19th June (I 41, 190).
Atkinson; at Fulta in July (III 76) (died in Black Hole-Holwell)
Mackpherson; cannot be traced (marked sick in list)


Beaumont; left fort 18th or 19th (I 153, 120).
Margas; left fort 18th or 19th (I 190).
Holmes; left fort 18th June (I 152, 154, 189, 261).
Douglas; left fort 18th June (I 112, 189, 262).
Wood; left fort 18th or 19th (I 190).
Cruttenden; left fort 19th June (I 41, 107, 190).
Blachford; cannot be traced; marked sick in list
Nixon; left fort 19th June (I 153, 190)
Cole; cannot be traced; marked sick in list.


Baldrick; left fort 19th June (I 41, 112, 189).
Pyefinch; left fort 18th or 19th (I 190).
Wilson (tailor); a mistake? (died in Black Hole, III 72).
Rannie (tailor); cannot be traced.
Phillips (tailor); cannot be traced.
Whaley (butcher); left fort 19th June (I 41, 190).
Burton (butcher); left fort 18th or 19th (I 190)
Alsop (butcher); a mistake? (died in Black Hole; III 72)
Cole (carpenter); at Fulta in July (III 76).
Todd (carpenter); at Fulta? see declaration signed James Tod (III 418).
Tilley (court serjeant); a mistake? died in Black Hole (III. 72)
Blaney (joiner); at Fulta in July (III. 76.)
Barnet (joiner); a mistake? (died in Black Hole? III. 72.)
Moulder (coachman); cannot be traced.
Simms (footman); cannot be traced.


Carvalho; left fort 18th or 19th (I. 190.)
Albert; left fort 18th or 19th (I. 190.)
La Beaum; wounded 18th and escorted ladies on board ships (I, 80, 148, 151, 154.)
Montague; cannot be traced.
Montre; cannot be traced.
Fieze; cannot be traced.
Piniot; cannot be traced.
(1) Beanto, (2) Caytano, (3) Joam. No trace unless these are the three Portuguese priests at Fulta in July (III. 76.)
Bodle; cannot be traced.

FIDLERS (sic).

Ling; left fort on 19th June.
Tuball; cannot be traced.
Hilmbrat; cannot be traced.
Heneriko; cannot be traced.
John; cannot be traced.


Rannie; left fort 18th or 19th (I. 190.)
Walmsley; left fort 18th or 19th (I 190.)
Wedderburn; left fort on 18th (I. 112, 152, 189, 261).
Widdrington; at Fulta in July (III. 76.)
Nickleson; left fort 18th or 19th (I. 190.)
Young; left fort 18th or 19th (I. 190.)
Watmore; left fort 19th (I. 190.)
Sanders; at Fulta in July (III. 76.)
Campbell; left fort on 19th (I. 190.)
Dixon; survived Black Hole (I. 190.)
Mills; survived Black Hole (I. 190.)
Lewis; escaped when fort taken (I. 44).
Baldwin; died at Fulta in July (III. 76.)
Austin; left fort on 19th (I. 190).
Best; died at Fulta (III. 76.)
Baillie left fort 19th (I. 41, 190.)
Laing; left fort 19th (I. 41, 190.)
Savage; escaped when fort was taken (I. 44.)
Johnson; escaped when fort was taken (I. 44.)
Smith; left fort 19th (I. 41.)
Costelly; at Fulta in July (III. 76).
Cozens; at Fulta in July (III. 76).
Lord; left fort an 19th (I. 41.)
Graham; went off in one of the Company’s sloops (I. 263.)
Aston; at Fulta in July (III. 75.)
Summers; left fort on 19th (I. 41, 190.)
Iver; cannot be traced.
Caley; cannot be traced.
Elvis; left fort on 19th (I. 41, 190)
Champion, left fort on 19th (I. 190.)
Brown; cannot be traced.
Hugue; captain of Prince George, escaped to Chinsurah (I 42; III. 416).
Downey; Cannot be traced but probably the officers who are mentioned as having left the fort with their captains (I. 190.)
Whiteridge; Cannot be traced but probably the officers who are mentioned as having left the fort with their captains (I. 190.)
Morain; Cannot be traced but probably the officers who are mentioned as having left the fort with their captains (I. 190.)
McKenzie; Cannot be traced but probably the officers who are mentioned as having left the fort with their captains (I. 190.)
Dundas; Cannot be traced but probably the officers who are mentioned as having left the fort with their captains (I. 190.)
Lemmon; Cannot be traced but probably the officers who are mentioned as having left the fort with their captains (I. 190.)


Deans; Cannot be traced.
Parsons; Cannot be traced.
Tool; Cannot be traced.
Mc Laughlin; Cannot be traced.
Tart; Cannot be traced.
Pennatz; Cannot be traced.
Morris; Ran the "Prince George” ashore and escaped to Chinsurah (I. 42.)


Eyre; died in Black Hole. (I 190; III 153) see note at end.
Baillie (of Council); died in Black Hole.
Bellamy; shot himself before the attack (I 43; III 71.)
Coales; died in Black Hole.
Valicourt; died in Black Hole.
Jenks; died in Black Hole.
Reveley; died in Black Hole.
Law; died in Black Hole.
Jeb; died in Black Hole.
Carse; died in the Black Hole.
Drake; died in Black Hole.
Smith; killed 18th June (I 40, 107, 260.)
Thoresby; killed 17th June (I 40, 107, 145, 257.)
Dalrymple; died in Black Hole.
Wilkinson; killed 18th June (I 40, 107, 260.)
Byng; died in Black Hole.
Page Stephen; died in Black Hole.
Page, Edward; died in Black Hole.
Johnson; died in Black Hole.
Harwood; died in Black Hole (Harod, III 153.)
Grub; died in Black Hole.
Street; died in Black Hole.
Gosling; died in Black Hole.
Ballard; died in Black Hole.
Dodd; died in Black Hole.
Toriano; died in Black Hole.
Knapton; died in Black Hole.


Capt. Clayton; died in Black Hole.
Capt. Buchanan; died in Black Hole.
Capt. Smith; killed on 20th June (I 42, 108, 190. 263.)
Caot, Witherington; died in Black Hole.
Lieut. Blag; died in Black Hole.
Lieut. Hays; died in Black Hole.
Lieut. Simpson; died in Black Hole.
Lieut. Pickard; died in Black Hole.
Lieut. Talbot; Wounded 20th, died 21st (I 42, 190.)
Lieut. Bishop; died in Black Hole.
Ensign Bellamy; died in Black Hole.
Ensign Scott; died in Black Hole.
Ensign Hastings; died in Black Hole.
Ensign Wedderburn; died in Black Hole.


Bellamy; died in Black Hole (III 153) (marked sick in list).


Inglis; a mistake? a Dr. English escaped when fort taken (I 44.) Perhaps died at Fulta.


Dumbleton (Registrar); died in Black Hole.
Berdal; (Bendal? died in Black Hole).
Cocker; died in Black Hole (I 43; III 72)
Porter; died in Black Hole (I 43, 190; III 72)
Hillier; died in Black Hole (I 43, III 72)


Stevenson; died in Black Hole.


Parker; died in Black Hole (190; III 154).
Stopford (butcher); died in Black Hole (I 43).
Guy (carpenter); died in Black Hole (I 190; III 154).
Surman (carpenter); cannot be traced.
Stopford (carpenter); died in Black Hole (I 43).
Blue (carpenter) Bleau? died in Black Hole (I 190; III 153).
Leech (smith); died in Black Hole (III 154.)
Burton (smith); died in Black Hole (III 72).
Cartwright (court serjeant); died in Black Hole (I 190; III 154).
Bruce (court serjeant); cannot be traced.
Coverley (tailor; gaoler?) a mistake? at Fulta in July (III. 76.)
Osborne (sailmaker); died in Black Hole (I 190; III 154.)
Johnson (farrier); cannot be traced.


Mackpherson Daniel; killed in attack (I. 261; II. 37; III. 72.)
Montrong; cannot be traced.
Coquelin; a mistake? there is a Cockylane, a French seafaring gentlemen, at Fulta in July (III. 76.)


Janniko; cannot be traced.


Purnel; survived Black Hole, died next day. (III, I54.)
Carey; died in Black Hole (I. 190; III. 154.)
Hunt; died in Black Hole (I. 190; III. 154.)
Collins; drowned when making his escape from the fort (I. 44; III. 72.)
Pickering; wounded on 20th (I. 42, 191) no further trace.

In addition to the above there were 35 European soldiers, 25 European artillery, 190 topazes, 50 Portuguese and Armenian militia. (These European soldiers were probably Dutch.)100 [The above list contains the names of 194 Europeans. in addition there were 300 defenders besides, making a total of 494. It may be asked if the list is accurate. Governor Drake, who kept the rolls, gives the total as 515 and William Lindsay gives the same figure. They give the artillery as 35 instead of 25 as in the list and thus 10 are accounted for William Tooke gives the total as 475. In each list the number of Europeans, apart from Dutch, approximates to 200. (Hill, Vol. I. 137, 171, 255). With regard to Ensign Carstairs who was wounded on the 18th no further information is obtainable except that he lost an arm (I. 189) and survived the siege. Captain Mills, however, says that all the wounded were taken on board the ships on the 19th and he probably was taken with them. Where no reference has been given for victims or survivors of Black Hole Holwell's lists (I. 190; III. 153) are to be understood.]

Monument at Calcutta Called the Black-Hole." (Center: The Monument; Far Right Black Building: The Old Fort; Building Left: Buildings for the Civil Officers of the Company; Far Right Top Fenced Area: Enclosed pond in the middle of the Town; Bottom Left: A Palanquin.)
Frontispiece to Vol. II of A Voyage in the Indian Ocean and Bengal undertaken in the years 1789 and 1790. Translated from the French of L. de Grandpre, an Officer in the French Army. London, 1803.

From the list the reader will see that the casualties in the 30 hours fighting were:—none of the Company’s servants killed; one military officer (Smith) killed and one (Talbot) wounded who died the next day but was not placed in the Black Hole; one sea-lieutenant (Pickering) wounded who subsequently died but where is not known; in addition one foreigner, with the familiar name of Macpherson, was killed in the attack but whether in the fighting that took place from the 16th to the 19th June or afterwards is not known; lastly the deaths of one carpenter, one court serjeant, one farrier, one foreigner and one fiddler cannot be accounted for.

On the other hand 23 of the Company's servants died in the Black Hole; 12 military officers; one clergyman; 5 lawyers: 1 free merchant; 9 (or 13) men of various trades, and 3 sea-captains.

But Holwell says that by one o’clock on the 20th he had lost of his best men 25 killed and more than 70 wounded and to these must be added those who fell in the final assault; which is manifestly absurd. Therefore, Holwell cannot have his casualties and also his Black Hole victims. Quod erat demonstrandum [Google translate: It can be shown].

The reader may enquire, “Did no inkling of the truth filter through to England?,” and once more we find the information required in Mr. Hill’s volumes.101 [Vol. III. p. 70-72.] In the “London Chronicle” (From Tuesday, 7 June, to Thursday, 9 June 1757, No. 69) appeared a letter “received by the India ships arrived in Ireland, containing a particular account of the unfortunate affair at Bengal.” It seems to have been written by one of the survivors of the Black Hole tragedy for it relates how “170 of us102 [The writer may however, possibly be writing merely as one of the Company's servants of military expression "Jones of Ours."] were crammed into a hole not large enough for fifty of us to breathe in; the effect of it was, that only sixteen were alive the next morning, four of us were sent to the Nabob’s camp, and put into irons; but what became of the other twelve that escaped hell in miniature, I have not been able to learn.” To this letter is appended a list “of the persons killed in the defence of Calcutta and Fort William when attacked by the Moors in June 1756, also those who died in the Black Hole overheated and for want of water.” Yet from this list, apparently made out by a survivor, we learn that William Baillie (of Council) died “with a shot in his head.” Lieutenant Pickard was "wounded and died before the place was taken.” Lieutenant Bishop died of his wounds before the place was taken. Ensign Blagg was "cut to pieces on a bastion” (corroborating Lindsay); Carse was “cut to pieces, having rashly fired a pistol after the place was taken.” Sea-captain Purnal was killed in the attack and Stephenson also; so too were Parker, Cary and Macpherson. All these, except Macpherson, are in Holwell’s list of victims. The probability is that the writer gave these particulars from his own personal knowledge while those about whom he had no personal knowledge he placed in the Black Hole. Had more such lists been sent home we should probably be able, by comparing them all, to eliminate all the names of the men said to have been in the Black Hole except those of the few who were actually there.

But the writer may be asked:--“How do you explain the fact that the Black Hole is mentioned by men who were in Bengal at the time when the incident is said to have occurred?” These men are:—Captain Grant,103 [Hill, Vol.1. p. 88.] Watts and Collet104 [p. 103.] (joint letter), Grey Junior,105 [p. 109.] Drake,106 [p. 159.] Lindsay107 [p. 168.] and Tooke.108 [p. 264.] But surely this is not strange. There was a Black Hole prison. Men were shut up in it on the night of the 20th June. Holwell could place his hand on his heart and declare he was there. Cooke could swear on the Bible to the same effect.
Besides there is a very significant fact about all these accounts. They were all written in the month of July, 1756,109 [Except Tooke's Account, which was written at the end of the year. Probably in writing his long account he did not wish to omit a good story. The slightly veiled references of Governor Pigot and Clive to the event are not to be taken seriously. They are so evidently written to support the attack of the English on Siraj-ud-daula and were only written to Indians -- Pigot to Siraj-ud-daula (Hill, I. 242); Clive (I) to Jagat Seth (I. 24) (2) to the Emperor at Delhi (II. 461) (3) to the Vizier (II. 463). They seem half-ashamed to refer plainly to the affair. In any case they must stand by their official words and deeds.] when rumours were flying broadcast. After that month there is a significant silence. Men began to think. They began to add up and subtract and to ask how it was possible that all those men could have died in the Black Hole. So that in September when the Council at Fulta sent their letter to the Court of Directors the matter was dropped entirely. That letter was signed by Drake, Watts, Killpatrick, Becher, Pearkes, Frankland, Collet, Holwell, Mackett, Amyatt and Boddam. Is it believable that Holwell did not strive to add to the concluding words of the 11th paragraph of the letter (which has already been quoted in full) the sentence “but the Nawab broke his promise and 123 men lost their lives in the Black Hole?” Is it unfair to draw the conclusion that he was overruled by a majority of the Council? Can we blame these men that the world has believed a fable? If we do have they not their reply? “The fable is not supported by our authority. Read our words given to the world after grave deliberation in Council. We stated that the fort surrendered on promise of civil treatment to the prisoners but we nowhere said that they did not receive civil treatment. We stated that the Rev. Gervas Bellamy died in the Black Hole, and that statement is true, but we nowhere said that any other of the Company’s servants died in the Black Hole. Nay, we plainly said that they were killed at the capture of Fort William.110 [“Enclosed is a list of the covenant servants upon our establishment, which compared with the list sent you last season will mark out those who are dead, most of whom were killed at the taking of Fort William: Messrs. Hyndman, Lyndsay, and Vasmer died at Fulta of fevers." Letter of Council to Court of Directors dated the 31st January 1757 (Hill II. p. 192).] If in place of calling for our official despatches the world accepted the statements of irresponsible individuals let the world look to it. It was not our duty to prick a bubble nor to expose any of the Company’s Servants.”

Nor does the fable appear to have received the support of the Directors of the East India Company.
They picked out a man whom they considered to be entitled to a particular mark of their regard for “the hardships he underwent in continuing to discharge his duty in the defence thereof (Fort William) until the Nabob became master of the place.” The name of that man was not John Zephaniah Holwell. It was Paul Richard Pearkes111 [Long's Selections from Unpublished Records of Govt. p. 130.].

A few words on the narratives of “survivors” may be of interest. Holwell’s chief narrative has been dealt with in full, but the remains are extant of what was evidently the rough draft of an original version. When Holwell, on his journey to Murshidabad, passed Cassimbazar he wrote to Sykes, one of the Company’s servants there, and therefore this must be the very earliest version of the incident that we have. Sykes gives the purport of Holwell’s letter,112 [Hill, Vol. I. p. 62.] as far as it referred to the Black Hole thus:—“As soon as the Nabob arrived in the fort he found with covenanted servants, soldiers and officers to the number of 160 (sic) who were put into a place called the Black Hole and jamed so close that out of 160 put in alive the next morning 110 were brought out dead for want of air. Jenks Reveley, Law, Eyres, Baillie, Cooke, Captain Buchanan, Scott and all our other military officers and Covenanted servants dead. The writers and officers behaved bravely. A prodigious number of Moors are killed. All the night our poor gentlemen were in the Black Hole the Nabob's people keep firing at them through the door.” That this was not a mistake on the part of Sykes is shown by Captain Grant’s account which states “Some of those who give us the account, say that they fired upon them all night with small arms through the doors and windows, but this is contradicted by others.”113 [Hill, Vol. I. p. 88.] Was it originally intended to make the tragedy a massacre?

Mr. Secretary Cooke's account may be read in the First Report of the Committee of the House of Commons and extracts have already been made from this. There remain two other narratives by survivors. One of these occurs in the diary of Captain Mills114 [Hill Vol. I. p. 43; spelling as given in original.] and runs thus:—“Most of those that remained in the fort where put into the Black Hole, to the number of 144 men, women, and children. Off whome upwards of 120 where miserably smuthered by the heat occationed by so many being shut up in so small a place, as to be obliged to stand upon one another." He then gives a list of the victims followed by one of the survivors. The list of the latter agrees with that of Holwell in including Captain Mills himself, Captain Dickson and Messrs. Moran and Meadows. The existence of the last two men rests solely on the evidence of Holwell and Mills.115 [Holwell calls Meadows “John.” Mills calls him “Thomas."] The lists differ in the fact that while Holwell is content to dismiss the remaining survivors under the general term “soldiers and Gunners,” Mills gives ten more names. His poverty of invention in the matter of Christian names is shown by the fact that he calls six of the ten “John.” The writer of the letter in the “London Chronicle" quoted above states that Captain Mills was one of those who were in the fort at the time of its capture, but who were not put into the Black Hole, and the nature of his narrative bears out this statement. Then there is the note discovered in a copy of Holwell’s “Tracts” and reproduced by Dr. Busteed in his “Echoes from Old Calcutta."116 [p. 30 (2nd edition), Holwell is the sole authority for the existence of Mrs. Carey. Mills does not include her in his list. It is very significant also that Holwell forgot her when he compiled his first list (I. 190) and only added her name when he compiled the list appended to his "Narrative." (Another name that Holwell forgot in his first list is that of Leech, who figures in the "Narrative"). There was a Miss Carey at Fulta in July.”] which records a visit paid to Mrs. Carey “the last survivor of those unfortunate persons who were imprisoned in the Black Hole of Calcutta)". Of this it is sufficient to say that the lady confirmed all that Holwell had said about the Black Hole in his “Narrative,” that she was only fifteen at the time of the occurrence and that she puts her mother, her sister, and an indefinite number of soldiers’ wives and children into the Black Hole besides herself.

To conclude, what shall be said of Messrs. Holwell, Cooke and Co. who did this thing. Clive read them aright. “I would have you guard against anything these gentlemen can say,” he warned Governor Pigott, “for, believe me, they are bad subjects and rotten at heart .... the riches of Peru and Mexico should not induce me to dwell among them.”117 [Malcolm’s Life I. 158.] As for us let us repair the mischief they have wrought and let them go.


August, 1915.
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Re: Freda Bedi Cont'd (#3)

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Part 3 of 6

Full Proceedings of the Black Hole Debate
Bengal, Past & Present
Journal of the Calcutta Historical Society
Vol. XII
Jan. - June, 1916
Serial Nos. 23-24


A special meeting of the Calcutta Historical Society was held on the 24th March 1916, at 9 P.M. in the hall of the Asiatic Society of Bengal to have a discussion on the Black Hole Question. The Venerable Archdeacon, W. K. Firminger, M.A., BD. presided.

Walter Kelly Firminger (28 September 1870 - 1940) was archdeacon of Calcutta and a historian of India who was the first editor of Bengal, Past & Present, the journal of Calcutta Historical Society. He was a fellow of the Royal Geographical Society....

Firminger was ordained deacon at Hereford in 1893. He served as a UMCA missionary in Zanzibar from 1893 to 1897 and was subdean in 1896. He was a curate in Margate from 1897 to 1898. He had clerical appointments in India from 1899 to 1923 being Archdeacon of Calcutta from 1914 to 1923. He was editor of the Indian Churchman from 1900 to 1905. He was Vicar of Padbury, Bucks from 1923 to 1926. He was Chaplain to the King at Hampton Court Palace from 1926 until he died in 1940. B.Litt. and D.D.

-- Walter K. Firminger, by Wikipedia

Mr. J.H. Little, who started the controversy in the pages of Bengal Past & Present, opened the debate:--


I shall place before you all the contemporary evidence we have in favour of the Black Hole story; I shall show that this evidence is neither great in quantity nor trustworthy in character; then I shall give you three good reasons for rejecting the evidence which are quite independent of its unsatisfactory character. I have assumed that you have read my article in the Society’s Journal and have omitted as much of that as I could.

Take any historian you please who has written on the subject and you will find that he has derived his information, directly or indirectly, from Holwell’s Narrative or from Cooke’s Evidence before the Committee of the House of Commons or from both. These are the two primary authorities for the story. I have dealt at length with Holwell's Narrative in Bengal Past & Present and I need not go over the ground again, but there is one point in connection with the Narrative which I have not treated in an adequate manner, and another which I have not mentioned at all. The former point is this. Holwell’s Narrative is essentially different from the original story he told. He has omitted, he has altered, he has added. The main outlines of the story concocted in Calcutta before the prisoners were dispersed will be found in a letter written by Francis Sykes at Cossimbazar on the 8th July, 1756. Sykes gives the purport of a letter which Holwell, who had just passed Cossimbazar on his way to Murshidabad, wrote to the Englishmen who were there and he informs us that Holwell made the following startling statement:— “all the night our poor gentlemen were in the Black Hole the Nabob’s people kept firing at them through the door.” Nor have we any reason to suppose that Sykes reported Holwell incorrectly for the same story was current at Fulta. Captain Grant wrote on the 13th July:—"Some of those who give us the account say that they fired upon them all night with small arms through the doors and windows, but this is contradicted by others." The Fulta story, too, sprang up quite independently of Sykes’ letter for even assuming that his letter was sent direct to Fulta, and we do not know that it was sent there at all, it could not have reached Fulta before the 13th, the day on which Captain Grant wrote his account. The Consultations at Fulta given in Long’s Unpublished Records of Government inform us that a letter of Warren Hastings’ from Cossimbazar dated the 3rd October was received at Fulta on the 8th. In July it would probably have taken longer. Why was this part of the story discarded? The reason is to be found in a letter written at Chandernagore on the 3rd July which relates that the two first days after the capture of the fort “passed in licence and all the disorders of a place taken by assault, with the exception of massacre to which the Moors are not accustomed in regard to people disarmed." This incident, then, was a fatal flaw in their story. People would say, perhaps they did say, “the Muhammadans of Bengal do not do such things.” I think we have evidence, too, of how this incident was explained away. M. Law in his account of the tragedy has these words:--“The most bitter insults were employed to excite the rage of the Moors and persuade the guard to fire on the prisoners. One of the latter, seeing a pistol in the belt of a companion, seized it and fired on the Moors who were passing the window. The pistol had only powder in it, but the guards were so frightened that immediately several guns were thrust through the bars and fired several times. This was exactly what the wretched prisoners wanted. Every shot was a coup-de-grace which they strove with each other to obtain for themselves.” No one else relates this incident. Unless Law is retailing idle rumour, this is how Holwell explained away his former statement when he returned to Cossimbazar on the 19th July. In August Holwell amended his statement still further. He said the guards “ceased not insulting us the whole night.” In his Narrative it was the prisoners who insulted the guards to provoke them to fire upon them and put an end to their misery. Holwell also made important additions to his original story. On the 3rd August he made lists of the victims and survivors of the tragedy and those two lists were, he declared, deficient in nothing. They contain the names neither of Leech nor of Mrs. Carey. Yet in the Narrative we have a pretty story about Leech and the statement that Mrs. Carey accompanied her husband into the prison.

The second point to which I referred is this. Hardly had Holwell put his Narrative together than, in the most deliberate manner, he knocked it to pieces again. He wrote the Narrative on his voyage home in the early part of 1757.
In August he was in London and while there replied to a letter written by William Watts, chief of the factory at Cossimbazar. The letter of Watts was, in turn, a reply to a letter of Holwell’s. Watts complained of Holwell’s “laboured endeavours through five sheets of paper" to set his conduct in the worst possible light and pointed out that Holwell, when he surrendered Fort William, had five times the number of men that he had had at Cossimbazar. To this Holwell replied:—“Had not Mr. Watts been guided more by malice than truth in this and his subsequent interrogatories, he would, from the letter he is answering, have found the number left in the Factory did not exceed 170; that of these we had 25 killed and 70 wounded by noon, the 20th, and that every man who survived was exhausted of strength and vigour." The number of prisoners in the Black Hole was 146; but 25 from 170 leaves 145 and when we make further deductions for the deserters and those who escaped when the fort was taken [“I did not advise that the guard there and a great part of the garrison, military and militia rushed out the moment the gate was opened and endeavoured to escape; many were killed, some escaped and others received quarter." Holwell’s Letter of 3rd August, 1756.] Holwell’s Narrative is clearly absurd. But it may be asked; Were there any non-combatants in the fort? I have not been able to find a trace of any except women and children and these were allowed in the fort because their men folk refused to fight unless they were admitted. Is Holwell, regardless of consequences, trying to score a victory over Watts? He is careful to point out that he made this particular statement in the letter to which Watts was replying. Did Holwell include all the defenders of the fort? In the previous letter he had declared that the number included “officers, volunteers, soldiers and militia”; that is, every class of men in the fort. Then Holwell is deliberately overthrowing his Narrative.

Cooke’s Evidence was given in 1772 when Holwell’s story had established itself. He states that nearly 150 souls were thrust into the dungeon among whom were one woman and twelve of the wounded officers. Picture the scene of 150 people being crammed into a room which would hardly hold them and then compare the picture of your imagination with the reality as described by Cooke. He says:—“The circumstances of the Black Hole affair, with all the horrors of that night, are so well known, and so much surpass any description that words can paint it in that I shall say no more upon that subject than that a little before eight we were all of us directed to withdraw and remain in a place contiguous to the Black Hole (where our soldiers were usually confined in the stocks). While we were wondering what this should mean and laughing at the oddity of it, a party of fellows came and ordered us to walk into the place before mentioned called the Black Hole, a room or rather dungeon, about 18 feet long and 14 wide, with only two holes, barricaded with iron bars, to let in air, which opened into a low piazza, where a guard was set. Into this hole we were forcibly crammed about eight o'clock in the evening, and the door immediately locked upon us.” How simple it all was. One might almost believe those men wished to be shut up. I think, however, there would be no reason to find fault with these words were it not for the figures which follow them. For what he is really describing is how a very few men quietly walked into the prison and were locked up for the night and I shall endeavour to prove that this was the case with John Cooke as my chief witness.

I must first put you in possession of certain facts. Who were the men shut up in the Black Hole prison? They were the defenders of the fort. Then who were these defenders? There were the military who before the Nawab attacked Calcutta numbered 180. Of these 45 were Europeans. The rest, we are told, were black Portuguese. In one list they are called topazes and Holwell’s definition of a topaz is “a black Christian soldier; usually termed subjects of Portugal." There were 50 European volunteers. There were 60 European militia and 150 militia consisting of Armenians and Portuguese. There were 35 European artillery men and 40 volunteers consisting of sea-officers and Portuguese helmsmen. The figures are those of Governor Drake who had the rolls in his possession. The Europeans consisted of British and Dutch and it is necessary for me to estimate the number of the Dutch. At first sight it seems strange to find any Dutch at all among the defenders of the fort for the Dutch authorities, before the Nawab attacked Calcutta, absolutely refused to help the English in any way and after the capture of Calcutta they refused to supply them with food and other necessaries. The mystery is cleared up by Governor Drake who says they were deserters from Dutch ships [“We could have but few Europeans and those deserters from the Dutch ships, the remainder country-born Portugueze wedded to a place of tranquillity.” Drake's Narrative.] and the word matross is used in connection with them which, according to Mr. Hill, means a sailor and almost all the artillery men were sailors. The number of Dutch, then, could hardly have been very great. According to Drake’s list the total number of Europeans was 230. You will find the names of 194 of them in the list I gave in the Society’s Journal. The remaining 36 were Dutch. The prisoners in the Black Hole, then, necessarily consisted of British, Dutch, Armenians and Portuguese. This is confirmed by the various accounts of the tragedy we have. One account says 200 Europeans, Portugese and Armenians were shut up. Holwell heads his list of victims thus:—“A list of those smother’d in the Black Hole, the 20th June, 1756, exclusive of the English, Dutch, and Portuguese soldiers, whose names I am unacquainted with.”

Now I can return to Cooke and his evidence. Before the Nawab left the fort on the evening of the 20th and two hours before the prisoners were put in the Black Hole Cooke asserts that “the Armenians and Portuguese were at liberty, and suffered to go to their own houses.” Mr. Hill endorses this and states in his Introduction, “the Portuguese and Armenians were allowed to go free and disappeared.” If they disappeared, if they went to their own houses, they were not put into the Black Hole. With regard to the Dutch Cooke relates that a “Dutchman of the Artillery Company broke open the back door of the Factory, and with many others attempted to make their escape that way.” Perhaps we ought not to assume that the “many others” were all Dutch but no doubt a part of them were. Holwell asserts that these men broke open the gate with the aid of friends who had deserted the night before and Mr. Hill, following other authorities, relates that on that night, “a corporal and fifty-six soldiers, chiefly Dutch, deserted to the enemy.” I think the number is exaggerated but this, at least, seems clear that a party of Dutch deserted on the 19th and another party broke out of the fort on the 20th. There were only 36 to begin with so that even assuming that none left the fort with the Governor and that none were killed in the fighting, the number of Dutch who remained to go into the Black Hole was negligible. Only the British are left. On the 19th, says Cooke, a prodigious number of the garrison was killed and wounded and we may assume that a fair proportion were British. On the 20th all the attacks of the besiegers were beaten off with great loss to them, but as far as we can learn from Cooke with no loss to the defenders. If, however, you will accept provisionally my statement that most of the British were killed in the fighting, then you will be able to discern at once that very small band of men who walked quietly into the Black Hole prison in the manner so truthfully described by Mr. Secretary Cooke.

In addition to those of Holwell and Cooke we have the accounts of two other so-called survivors. One of these was Captain Mills who states that 144 men, women and children were shut up in the prison. The addition of women and children may have been careless exaggeration on the part of Mills, but I suggest that he made the statement deliberately knowing full well that it was impossible to find such a number of men and that those were the only possible conditions under which the tragedy could have occurred.

We do not know who the fourth survivor was, but the letter he wrote came home in one of the India ships and appeared in the London Chronicle in June 1757. From a list appended to this letter we find that nine men who were supposed to have died in the Black Hole were killed in the fighting and we also learn that Captain Mills was not in the Black Hole at all. This, then, is what we find about the evidence of the four chief witnesses:—two of them overthrow their own stories. The remaining two contradict the two former and also contradict each other.

Now I will deal with the secondary authorities for the story. First in order come the men who took part in the defence of Calcutta or who were in Bengal at the time. Their accounts which are all very short were, with one exception, written in the month of July. Captain Grant referred to the tragedy on the 13th, Watts and Collet on the 14th, Governor Drake on the 19th and William Lindsay’s letter is merely dated July. Then in November William Tooke wrote a narrative of the loss of Calcutta and mentioned the tragedy in it. All these accounts agree in one respect. They contain the true story side by side with the false and we must choose which of the two we will accept. By September, 1756, Governor Drake, Watts and Collet had made their choice and it was the Black Hole story they rejected.

In December the Madras expedition, with Admiral Watson and Colonel Clive in command, arrived in Bengal. I shall now ask you to consider what these two men had to say on the subject and I will take Admiral Watson first. On the 17th December, 1756, he wrote to the Nawab as follows:—“The King my master (whose name is revered among the monarchs of the world) sent me to these parts with a great fleet to protect the East India Company’s trade, rights and privileges. The advantages resulting to the Mogul’s dominions from the extensive commerce carried on by my master’s subjects are too apparent to need enumerating. How great was my surprise therefore to be informed that you had marched against the said Company’s factories with a large army, and forcibly expelled their servants, seized and plundered their effects, amounting to a large sum of money, and killed great numbers of the King my master‘s subjects." There is nothing here about the Black Hole. On the 3rd January 1757, Admiral Watson declared war on the Nawab in the following terms:— "Whereas the President and Council for the affairs of the United Company of Merchants trading to the East Indies in Bengall have represented to me, that in consequence of the many hostilities and acts of violence committed against the servants of the said Company, His Majesty’s subjects, by the Subah of Bengal, Bahar and Orixa, and his officers to the great detriment of the Company, the ruin of many private people His Majesty's good subjects residing under their protection, many of whom have also been deprived of their live: in the most barbarous and inhuman manner,” and so forth. “Many of whom have also been deprived of their lives in the most barbarous and inhuman manner.” Do these words refer to the Black Hole tragedy? If so, it is strange that Admiral Watson was not more explicit. We should not expect to find such reticence in a declaration of war. We should not expect it from Admiral Watson at any time, for he was in the habit of using terribly plain language. I will give you two examples of this. On the 27th January he wrote to the Nawab:—“Your letter of the 23rd day of this month I have this day received. It has given me the greatest pleasure, as it informs me you had written to me before, a circumstance I am glad to be assured of under your hand, as the not answering my letter would have been such an affront as I could not have put up with without incurring the displeasure of the King my master.” Again on the 4th March he wrote to the Nawab in this strain:—“It is now time to speak plain, if you are really desirous of preserving your country in peace and your subjects from misery and ruin, in ten days from the date of this, fulfil your part of the treaty in every Article, that I may not have the least cause of complaint; otherwise, remember, you must answer for the consequences: and as I have always acted the open, unreserved part in all my dealings with you, I now acquaint you that the remainder of the troops which should have been here long since...will be at Calcutta in a few days; that in a few days more I shall dispatch a vessel for more ships and more troops: and that I will kindle such a flame in your country, as all the water in the Ganges shall not be able to extinguish. Farewel: remember that he promises you this, who never yet broke his word with you or with any man whatsoever."

It is the fashion to say that the Nawab was innocent in the matter of the Black Hole murders. Those who say this are merely repeating the statements of Holwell and Cooke, and this is but another instance of how they made truth serve the ends of falsehood. Those who use the argument have still to explain how the officers of the Nawab dared to disregard his known wishes with regard to the prisoners. The officers of the present Nawab Bahadur of Murshidabad would not dare to act in such a manner. But assuming that the Nawab had no direct responsibility for the crime could Admiral Watson have written to him in the following manner if he had not disavowed it and punished the guilty? “I call upon the Almighty,” wrote the Admiral, “whom we both worship, to bear witness against me and punish me, if I ever fail in observing to the utmost of my power every part of the treaty, concluded between yourself and the English nation, so long as you shall faithfully observe your part, which I make no doubt will be as long as you have life. What can I add more but my wishes, that your life may be long and crowned with all manner of prosperity?"

As a matter of fact I claim Admiral Watson as a witness on my side. He is not referring to the Black Hole tragedy at all but to the men who were killed at the time of the capture of the fort. He knew those men had been killed after the fort had been formally surrendered by its governor and put the worst construction on this. I have no doubt he learned subsequently that the slaughter had been a terrible mistake and had been stopped by the Nawab himself. If you are inclined to doubt this I will remove your doubt by showing that Mr. Pigot, Governor of Madras, used almost the same words as Admiral Watson—they are precisely similar in meaning— and plainly said he was referring to something that happened before the Nawab entered the fort. On the 14th October, 1756, he wrote to the Nawab:—“I received the letter you was pleased to write me on the 30th June advising me that it was not your intention to remove the mercantile business of the English Company out of the subah of Bengal, and at the same time I received information that all the Company's factories in the said province with their effects, amounting to several kerows had been seized by your people, also the effects of all the merchants who resided in the said settlements amounting to a great many lacks more, and I was further informed that the greatest part of the merchants were killed by your people in a cruel and barbarous manner beyond what can be described in writing." After relating how the English had enriched the province, how the Emperor had granted them certain privileges and how they had been treated by the Nawabs of Bengal he goes on “all that the Subahs, your predecessors, have done is nothing in comparison to what you have lately done. I should have been willing to have believed that the violence and cruelties exercised by your army against the English was without your knowledge but I find you commanded your army in person and after killing and murdering our people took possession of the Fort. The great commander of the King of England's ships has not slept in peace since this news and is come down with many ships, and I have sent a great Sardar, who will govern after me, by name Colonel Clive, with troops and land forces. Full satisfaction and restitution must be made for the losses we have sustained. You are wise: consider whether it is better to engage in a war that will never end or to do what is just and right in the sight of God: a great name is obtained by justice as well as by valour.” Were all the English in India of the tribe of Chadband?

Credit Charles Dickens for creating Rev. Mr. Chadband, a greedy preacher, in his 1853 novel “Bleak House”; hence, a chadband is an oily, hypocritical person.

-- Put on your Mae West, but try to avoid being a Chadband, by Bill & Rich Sones

I pass now to Clive and will first give you extracts from the family papers of the Earl of Powis. I had no difficulty whatever in obtaining these. The papers have been examined twice—first by Sir John Malcolm whose life of Clive was published in 1836 and recently they were examined again by Mr. Hill. The extracts I shall give were taken from Malcolm’s Life of Clive and Mr. Hill certifies they have been copied from the papers at Walcot. Before Clive left Madras he wrote to the Directors thus:—“From many hands you will hear of the capture of Calcutta by the Moors, and the chain of misfortune and losses which have happened to the Company in particular, and to the nation in general: every breast here seems filled with grief, horror, and resentment: indeed, it is too sad a tale to unfold, and I must beg leave to refer you to the general letters, consultations, and committees which will give you a full account of this catastrophe.” Apart from any Black Hole affair is this more than Clive should have said of the loss of the Company’s most flourishing settlement in India attended with the deaths of a great number of men and the infliction of great suffering and privation on the survivors? Writing to Mr. Mabbot he observes:—“Providence, who is the disposer of all events, has thought proper to inflict the greatest calamity that ever happened to the English nation in these parts; I mean the loss of Calcutta, attended with the greatest mortifications to the Company, and the most barbarous and cruel circumstances to the poor inhabitants.” In a letter to Mr. Roger Drake a gentleman then high in the Court of Directors, Clive writes, “A few weeks ago I was happily seated at St. Davids’s, pleased with the thoughts of obtaining your confidence and esteem, by my application to the civil branch of the Company’s affairs, and of improving and increasing the investment; but the fatal blow given to the Company’s estate at Bengal has superseded all other considerations, and I am now at this presidency upon the point of embarking on Buard His Majesty’s squadron, with a very considerable body of troops, to attempt the recovery of Calcutta and to gain satisfaction from the Nawab for the losses which the Company have sustained in those parts." In a letter to his father he wrote:—“It is not possible to describe the distresses of the inhabitants of this once opulent and populous town. It must be many years before it is restored to its former grandeur. It is computed the private losses amount to upwards of two millions sterling." In an earlier letter also Clive did not think it worth while to mention the Black Hole story to his father. Mr. Hill gives us another letter written by Clive to his father in which after describing his attack on the Nawab’s army early in February, 1757, he writes “This blow has obliged the Nawab to decamp and to conclude a peace very honorable and advantageous to the Company’s affairs." The day before Clive had written to the Secret Committee, London:—“I have little to observe on the terms obtained from the Nabob except that they are both honourable and advantageous for the Company." A British historian declares that no sufficient apology can be found for that treaty. “Peace was desirable,” he adds, “but even peace is bought too dearly when the sacrifice of national honour is the price.” The explanation is very simple. The historian was thinking of the Black Hole affair, Clive was not.

I will now give a different series of utterances by Clive which are not to be found in the family papers, but among the Orme Mss. Writing to the Nawab in December, 1756, he refers to “great numbers of the Company’s servants and other inhabitants inhumanly killed.” However, if the Nawab would make proper satisfaction for the losses sustained by the Company he would make Clive his sincere friend and get eternal honour for himself. On the 21st January, 1757, Clive wrote to Jagat Seth and clearly referred to the Black Hole incident:—“It would be unfolding a tale too horrible to repeat if I was to relate to you the horrid cruelties and barbarities inflicted upon an unfortunate people to whom the Nabob in a great part owes the riches and grandeur of his province. No less than 120 people, the greatest part of them gentlemen of family and distinction being put to an ignominious death in one night and in such a manner as was quite inconsistent with the character of a man of courage or humanity, such as I have always heard the Nabab represented to be, and for this reason I believe it must have been done without his knowledge.” After the battle of Plassey and when Siraj-ud-daula was dead Clive wrote a different version to the Emperor Alamgir Sani. Then he said. “The English, who as merchants were destitute of all implements of war, were easily defeated and Surajah Dowlat took and plundered Calcutta the 20th June 1756 and all the great men and other Englishmen that fell into his hands were by his orders suffocated in one night." Comment is needless. It must be remembered, however, that the standard of honour in the 18th century was not very high where politics were concerned. Twenty years had hardly passed since

Walpole talked of ‘a man and his price’;
Nobody’s virtue was over-nice.

Clive would have scorned to do for his own private benefit what he thought he was justified in doing for the good of the Company.

I have next to deal with the French and Dutch accounts of the capture of Calcutta. I will take the Dutch accounts first. The extracts I shall give were obtained by Mr. Hill from the archives at the Hague. On the 5th July the Dutch Council at Hugli wrote to the Supreme Council at Batavia thus:—“The whole world thought and expected that the Nawab would have knocked his head against such a strong place, but time has shown that the English defended themselves for three days only. A part of them fled in their ships down the river, and the rest, who did not perish by the sword, have fallen into the Nawab’s hands, and are bound in irons." We know that only four men were bound in irons. Therefore, according to this account the rest perished by the sword. It may be that this account absolutely accurate. In any case the error is a very trifling one. There were probably one or two prisoners who were not put in irons. The next account is that of the chief of the Dutch factory at Cossimbazar and is dated the 7th July, 1756. It runs thus:—“The Nawab in accordance with our letter of the 10th ultimo having left for Calcutta and arrived there on the evening of the 15th, has met with the same success as here; for after a five days’ investment he took the same, but, according to the testimony of everyone not by his tactful management or bravery, but rather owing to the ill-behaviour of the Governor Drake, who taking a good 200 picked soldiers with him left the fort, on pretext of attacking the enemy, but far from doing so, he embarked with those men, accompanied by the Commandants Messrs. Manningham and Frankland, after putting considerable treasure and all the women on board a few days before and dropped down the river leaving to the fury of the Nawab a number of brave men, among whom, when the fort was taken, a great carnage was wrought, but soon after put a stop to by the Prince." On the 24th November the Dutch Council at Hugli sent a reasonable account of the Black Hole tragedy to the Supreme Council at Batavia. “The rest who were taken prisoners at Calcutta,” they wrote, “have had, in the first fury, a dreadful time of it, about 160 prisoners being sent into the so-called Black Hole or Donkergat (Dark or Black Hole) in which there was not room for 40 prisoners, and there shut up. Thus they were trampled underfoot or suffocated, all but 15 or 16 who were brought out half dead next morning and being fettered were led by the Nawab in his suite in triumph to Muxadavad." In the following January the same Council, writing to the Assembly of Seventeen in Holland merely state that the Nawab treated the British who had fallen into his hands with great cruelty. How was it the Dutch Council at Hughli gave one account in July and a contradictory account in November? I think there is a simple explanation of this. Holwell was at Hugli in August. It was there that he compiled his first list of victims. He probably stayed with the Governor and must certainly have talked about the tragedy to him and the members of his Council. The result was that the Dutch changed their story. The numbers given in the Dutch account are not correct, but they approximate very closely to the figures which Holwell gave in his first account and subsequently corrected.

The French accounts of the capture of Calcutta are greater in number than the Dutch and more varied in character. Mr. Hill gives nine of the year 1756, and one dated 1757. Five of these, including one written by the Governor of Chandernagore, do not mention the tragedy. Another refers to the many jocular stories that were made up about the business. The first account that mentions the Black Hole incident was written on the 3rd July. The writer seems to have been under the impression that the affair lasted two days and gives some grotesque details on the authority of “an Englishman who survived this Hell.” I have shown elsewhere that this Englishman was, in all probability, Captain Mills who had arrived at Chandernagore a day or two before the letter was written. No further reference was made to the tragedy until October 8th. On that date a letter from Chandernagore contained the following extraordinary account:—“They put in prison more than 120 persons, men and women, and forgot them there for seven days at the end of which time when it was opened, only 14 came out alive, the rest were dead.” The prisoners, then, died of starvation. On the 16th December, 1756, the French Council at Chandernagore wrote an apparently reasonable account of the incident. They say that “the prisoners to the number of 200 having been hurriedly shut up in a warehouse were almost all suffocated in one night.” But were the Council thinking of the tragedy described by Holwell, or were they thinking of a fire? Mr. Hill found in the British Museum a French manuscript entitled. “Revolutions in Bengal”. It seems to have been written two years after the capture of Calcutta by a Frenchman of Chandernagore and contains the following account of the Black Hole affair:—"Night was approaching and the Moors wishing to make sure of their prisoners, shut them up hurriedly in a warehouse which caught fire. There were nearly 150 suffocated." M. Law also has something similar to this. He says:—“The Moors looked with pleasure on the scene of horror which was passing in the dungeon, for them it was a tamasha. To increase their pleasure the idea suggested itself to them of placing below, outside the window, a heap of damp straw to which they set fire. The outer air drove the smoke into the dungeon but the hopes of the Moors were deceived, they could see nothing more.” If the French Council were thinking of a fire, then the first reasonable French account of the tragedy is dated the 7th March, 1757, and came from the Isle of France (Mauritius I think). This relates that the defenders of the fort were made prisoners and thrown into a dungeon so small that the next morning 124 were suffocated.

I have placed before you all the contemporary evidence in favour of the Black Hole story. I will now give you three good reasons for rejecting that evidence.

(1) The story of the tragedy was, for many years, unknown to the people of of Bengal. In 1789, 33 years after the event was supposed to have occurred, the translator of the Seir Mutaqherin, not seeking to prove or disprove anything, but engaged in the task of annotating the historian he was translating, gave this evidence: "This much is certain, that this not known in Bengal; and even in Calcutta, it is ignored by every man out of the four hundred thousand that inhabit that city: at least it is difficult to meet a single native that knows any thing of it; so careless and so incurious are those people.”
This silence of a whole people has hitherto been dismissed in summary fashion. The people were indifferent to the tragedy says one. Their mouthpieces, the historians, says another, were partial and suppressed the story. How can I meet these indictments of a whole nation? Will it be sufficient if I prove that when a real tragedy occurred the people were not silent and their historians recorded the event in their pages? Seven years after the capture of Calcutta another band of men of British birth became the prisoners of a Nawab of Bengal and he, maddened with defeat after defeat, wreaked his vengeance upon the helpless captives. Let the Muhammadan historian tell the story. “A few days after that, on hearing that the English had possessed themselves of the fortress of Monghyr by treason, his temper, soured by misfortunes and perfidies, broke all bounds: Incensed beyond measure at so unexpected a reverse, and mistrusting the future still more than the past, he gave orders to Sumro, the European, [The translator of the Seir Mutaqherin states that Sumro was a German.] to put to death all the prisoners of that nation; and that man, of a flint-like heart, without any regard to the ties which bound him to those unfortunates, who were of the same Christian religion with him, accepted the commission without horror, and without reluctance. That stony man repaired to the house, then called Hadji-ahmed’s, where those ill-fated people were confined,...and without the least hesitation, or the least remorse, he ordered all those unarmed men to be killed with musket balls. It is reported, that in such a moment of distress and perturbation, those unfortunate men, without losing courage marched up to their murderers, and, with empty bottles, and stones, and brickbats, fought them to the last man, until they were all killed." We seem to recognise our countrymen in that story but do we recognise them in the bowling, frenzied mob fighting with each other for water or for a place at the window and ruthlessly trampling down the weak? The translator adds a note which has a direct bearing on our subject. “The next year after that catastrophe,” he writes, “and it was in 1765, I remember to have seen, both at Benares, and at Moorshoodabad, three or four commanders, who had refused the commission with indignation. One of them, an elderly stout man with a large pair of whiskers, speaking to a company where I was, expressed himself in these words: I did not refuse to do it: no: I only desired the Nawab to give them swords and bucklers and that I would fight them then: but, as to killing prisoners disarmed that I will never do. Send your scavengers for that business.” This was the class of men whom Holwell, exonerating the Nawab, charged with the Black Hole murders. He declared that they revenged themselves in that manner for the number of their body who had been killed in the siege. A real tragedy, then, was talked about by the people of Bengal, and the story is recorded in the pages of their historians. They were silent about the Black Hole affair because they were ignorant of it and they were ignorant of it because there had been no tragedy. In the pages of their historians you will find the true story of the capture of Fort William.

(2) My second reason for rejecting the story is that the Bengal Council by their conduct ignored it and by their words contradicted it.
The Council unanimously agreed that before the capture of the fort the enemy destroyed a great many of their officers and private men. When the Council speak of their private men I do not think they are referring to the Dutch or the Armenians or to the topazes but to their own covenanted servants and “young men in the Settlement” who, Drake said, “entered as volunteers in the military doing duty in every respect as common soldiers." In their next letter the Council remove all doubt on this point. They said that most of their covenanted servants that died in the year 1756 “were killed at the taking of Fort William.” According to the Black Hole story, 12 officers and 23 of the covenanted servants of the Company died in the Black Hole. Further, in their letter of the 17th September, 1756, the Council unanimously agreed that the fort surrendered upon promise of civil treatment of the prisoners. How could they have left the matter there if the promise had been broken? In all their acts, too, they ignored the tragedy. In July they wrote to the principal ministers of the Nawab begging them to intercede for them. In August Major Kilpatrick was anxious that the Nawab should look upon him as a friend. It has been said that the necessities of their situation forced them to conceal their true feelings. There is no excuse for the statement. It has been said that they dissociated the Nawab from the crime. We have not their authority for this. But those who use these arguments must admit that when they came to an open rupture with the Nawab they had no necessity for concealment. When they declared war on the Nawab they would not nicely discriminate between his responsibility and that of his officers. They would have stated that on the night of the 20th June the Nawab had done to death over a hundred men in the Black Hole prison. In reality their declaration of war was milder than that of Admiral Watson. “Whereas the aforesaid Sirrajud Dowla," runs the document, "not satisfied with this violent proceeding and, without assigning any reason or even proposing any demands to us the President and Council, did sometime in the said month of June 1756 march towards Calcutta and Presidency of Fort William with a large army and train of artillery, attacked the said factory, took the fort, seized and plundered the effects of the Company and of the private inhabitants to a considerable amount, killed many of their servants both civil and military and expelled the few who escaped” and so forth. Surely common decency and the bonds of fellowship and nationality demanded that the Council, as a Council, should somewhere, at some time, have expressed their sorrow at the miserable deaths of the victims of the Black Hole tragedy, their detestation of the crime and their resentment against the perpetrators of it. They did none of these things. Contrast their conduct seven years afterwards when they were confronted with a real tragedy. When the news of the Patna massacre reached them they met together and passed this resolution:— “After reflecting with the most unfeigned sorrow and regret on this act of unparalleled and barbarous cruelty, which we have now no room left to doubt has been perpetrated at Patna by the emissaries of Cossim Aly Khan on the lives of our countrymen who were prisoners in his hands; although in the ordinary and usual calamities of war it becomes the business of the Heads of a Government to avoid shewing any marks of public concern which may be attended with the bad effects of depressing the spirits of a Colony, yet as the situation of our affairs is such as to give no occasion for apprehending any ill consequences to our public operations from a contrary conduct at this time, and the present calamity being in itself of so singular and heavy a nature, we think it highly proper to enter upon some public methods of manifesting to the world our concern on this occasion, as well because it is a necessary tribute to the memory of the unfortunate gentlemen who have thus fallen the victims of a horrid cruelty, as that it will serve to testify to the Natives of the country the sentiment we feel for the loss of our friends and imply our resolution of revenging their untimely fate. It is therefore agreed and ordered that a general deep mourning shall be observed in the settlement for the space of fourteen days to commence next Wednesday, the 2nd of November.

That the morning of that day shall be set apart and observed as a public fast and humiliation, and that intimation be accordingly given to the chaplains to be prepared with a sermon and forms of prayer suitable to the occasion.” They then order minute guns to be fired and proceed:—

“After paying this necessary duty to the memory of our countrymen, we are further agreed and determined to use all the means in our power for taking an ample revenge on the persons who may have been concerned in this horrid execution, and with a view of deterring in future all ranks and degrees of people from ordering or executing such acts of barbarity.

Resolved therefore that a Manifesto of the action be published throughout all the country, with a proclamation promising an immediate reward of a Lack of Rupees to any person or persons who shall seize and deliver up to us Cassim Aly Khan, and that he or they further receive such other marks of favour and encouragement as may be in our power to show in return for this act of public justice.

That an immediate reward of Rs. 40,000 shall be given to any person or persons who shall apprehend the Chief named Summereau and bring him a prisoner to us.”

Could the Council have called the massacre an act of unparalleled cruelty if a greater act of cruelty had been perpetrated seven years before? Would not that greater act of cruelty have recurred to their minds again and again and could they possibly have refrained from referring to it when they framed the above resolution? By this resolution alone the Black Hole story stands condemned.

(3) My third reason for rejecting the Black Hole story is the mass of evidence which proves that the men died fighting.
Most of the English evidence, but not quite all, will be found in my article in the Society’s Journal. The Dutch evidence I have read to you to-night. The French do not say very much on the point but it must be remembered they were enemies at the time. In addition, after the fall of Calcutta, the Nawab had forced them to pay 350,000 rupees and they blamed the English for this. In their opinion the English were cowards unworthy of the name of Europeans. But even the French were not silent and their evidence is all the more valuable. They testify to the procession of wounded men that passed by their factory on the 19th June and in their first account of the capture of the fort, written the day after the occurrence, they state that those who made no resistance were spared which implies that some did make resistance and were not spared. Governor Renault states that the English lost 200 men at the siege of Calcutta and the natural inference is that the men were lost under circumstances usually attending a siege. Another account says that when the Nawab’s troops broke into the fort they killed many of the English and still another relates that they killed all who tried to resist. Lastly we have the evidence of Persian historians. Two of these speak of the suicide of the defenders of the fort, but there is a general agreement on two points (1) men lost their lives (2) only a few became prisoners.

Test the Black Hole story by this evidence. Take the evidence most favourable to the story—that of Holwell. Holwell suppresses all reference to the men who were killed at the capture of the fort but he states, in four separate letters, that 25 men were killed and 70 wounded by noon of the 20th and those were among his best men. In my article in the Society’s Journal I have shown that these men must have been one officer, perhaps one foreigner, and perhaps a carpenter, a court serjeant, a farrier, another foreigner and a fiddler. [Two of the wounded (Talbot and Pickering) died the next day. The remaining 98 must have died in the Black Hole according to Holwell.] The rest must have been Dutch, Armenians and Portuguese. Difficulties such as this are no new discovery of mine. They were noted and pointed out on the 12th July, 1756, by the Dacca Council who wrote thus to the Court of Directors:—“The accounts we have vary much and are difficult to reconcile. All agree in this that many brave men died miserably whose lives might have been saved by the smallest degree of good conduct and resolution in their leaders." The accounts vary much and are difficult to reconcile; in fact, they cannot be reconciled and we must choose between them. We know the choice made by Richard Becher the chief of the Dacca factory. All agree in this that many brave men died. If you believe they perished in the Black Hole you must reject all this evidence. You must say with Stewart and Orme—“In this scene of confusion no resistance was made" or with Macaulay— "The fort was taken after a feeble resistance." But if you accept this evidence the Black Hole story disappears at once and brave men come to their own again for their deeds will no longer be obscured by

a lamentable tale of things
Done long ago, and ill done.

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Re: Freda Bedi Cont'd (#3)

Postby admin » Wed Oct 28, 2020 5:35 am

Part 4 of 6


Investigation of disputed problems in modern history is seldom free from bias of some sort. The events of the last two hundred years are still comparatively near us; passions stirred up by those events, or passions of which those events were the outcome, are sometimes not allayed for centuries; and we are in regard to those events rarely free from the danger of consciously or unconsciously allowing our judgment to be swayed according as we are Whig or Tory, Radical or Conservative, Royalist or Republican, or bear any other of the various labels by which modern men have in politics been distinguished from their fellows of opposing schools of thought.

The history of British India is recent enough to provide numerous examples of this truism. Warren Hastings provides, of course, the classic example. In his case what should have been the clear river of history has been made muddy by two baleful influences, party feeling in England and race prejudice in India. For instance, whereas under the influence of English party prejudices Hastings’ character and actions were depicted in unfairly dark colours, there has been for some time a tendency which is exhibited, to take an example, in Forrest's introduction to the Consultations of 1772-85, and which is not unnatural in Englishmen writing of a great Englishman to whitewash his actions overmuch.

It is an unfortunate fact that in the question before us, there is a tendency, or rather an eagerness, to take sides on other than historical grounds. Now I entirely fail to understand this. Rather I would say, we all ought to be prejudiced—and in one direction. For the sake of our common humanity we ought to hope that the view which Mr. Little is championing will finally triumph.

In approaching the mystery of the Black Hole I confess myself frankly prejudiced. I want to be able to disbelieve the story. I want to have a real excuse for relegating Holwell’s Narrative to a museum of literary curiosities, side by side with fourteenth century Sir John Mandeville, the father of English sensation writers, as Sir George Birdwood calls him, or nineteenth century Louis de Rougemont. I want to disbelieve Holwell’s Narrative for the same reason as that for which I would, if I could, wipe off from the page of history the massacres of the ancient democrats of Corcyra, or, to come down to our time, the sinking of the Lusitania or the murder of Edith Cavell. Nothing would give me greater pleasure than to see the names of Mr. Little, Mr. Akshay Kumar Maitra, and other gentlemen, who have ere this whispered their suspicions of Holwell’s Narrative, flame across the Historical Reviews of Europe and America as authors of the most remarkable and valuable discovery in the realm of British Indian historical research. For there are certain happenings of the past the mere memory of which brands and sears the sensitive places of our common human nature; history, too, places, as Germany will yet discover, certain dreadful barriers between nations and races, which only time can remove. For this reason, I should regard any one who could prove that Holwell’s Narrative is a tissue of lies as one of the truest servants of our Indian land; but for the same reason I would enter a caution against the subject being too frequently dragged to light, and made a topic of newspaper controversy in a land such as modern India, unless the cogency of the aggressive argument is indubitable, or new evidence can be adduced. It is emphatically not a matter for leading articles in newspapers, or for polemic letters from politicians and professors, however distinguished.

Prejudiced though I am in favour of Mr. Little’s hypothesis, I am as yet quite unable to go all the way with him. Mr. Little and his supporters must not forget that they are in the position of assailants and not of defenders; the current view of the Black Hole incident has been practically unchallenged, even from the very beginning, for a hundred and fifty years; and the orthodox historians are not likely to yield the fort except in the face of overwhelming artillery. That Mr. Little, by his skilful selection and marshalling of the evidence contained in Hill’s Records and other documents of the time, has seriously weakened the conviction with which most of us hold the received story, is, I take it, indubitable. Before however he can claim to have destroyed the received story, and ask us, as he does, to execrate Messrs. Cooke, Holwell and Co., he has to establish indubitably the main props of his argument, to face all possible objections, and perhaps new evidence, which, if sought for, may come to light, and get the subject at least considered and pronounced upon by trained minds in Europe and America. In other words, there remains a good deal of bombardment yet to be done. I am of opinion that Mr. Little, though he has been able to gall the garrison with a very disturbing rifle and machine-gun fire, has failed as yet to bring up those seventeen-inch howitzers which the capture of most forts to-day seems to demand. The question is: Is his theory the only possible explanation of the facts? And can he explain every new difficulty to which his theories, if true, give rise? I cannot in a short paper deal exhaustively with Mr. Little’s views; I shall mention merely one or two points on which I disagree with his views, or on which I should like fuller conviction that he is right.

One of the shots which Mr. Little may, perhaps, fairly consider to be heavy ammunition, is his attempt to show that Holwell was a scoundrel. Perhaps he was; from the point of view of our 20th century morality a good many of the eighteenth century folk both in India and in England were. Mr. Little has succeeded in proving that Holwell was not above current morality of the time. It may be he has proved that he was below it. I do not, however, dwell on this point, because I consider it comparatively unimportant; the Black Hole question is not solely a question of Holwell’s veracity; it is, as I shall mention presently, the question of the veracity of a considerable number of people. But I must enter a protest against any attempt to discredit Holwell on the ground that he did not know Sanscrit in the middle of the eighteenth century. How was Holwell to know that a mixture of colloquial Bengali and Hindustani was not the ancient language of India? Cleverer men than Holwell have been deceived by wily pundits not averse to fooling the inquisitive sahib and making a little money thereby.

However, suppose we admit that Holwell was not the bright unsullied character of certain history books. We reach the position that Holwell, given sufficient motive, was ready to deceive and even forge. What sufficient motive has Mr. Little provided to bind together Holwell and his twenty-two or twenty-three companion-survivors in a conspiracy of silence, nay, more, in a conspiracy of misrepresentation? First what did Holwell get out of it? Which is the noble figure, Holwell inspiring the garrison to a resistance so desperate that only twenty-three prisoners were taken, or Holwell escaping death in the Black Hole by an admitted fight for the window with his gasping and often weaker fellow men, Holwell clinging to the bars while a woman lay gasping (presumably) in the interior of the prison? What possible motive could have bound together Messrs. Cooke and Lushington, Captains Mills and Dickson, Holwell, Court, and Burdet, and fourteen seamen and soldiers in backing up so fearful a story? It is one of the weaknesses of Mr. Little’s attack that he omits to provide any adequate motive to explain why so many men should have joined in concocting and backing a story so singularly unheroic. For by the nature of things in the Black Hole the survivors were those who most successfully fought and trod their fellow creatures to death. Judged by our standards of today (though we should be on our guard against such judgment) to have survived the Black Hole was rather disgrace than glory. I have never been able to see Holwell in the Black Hole as a hero; one might as well consider as heroes those struggling wretches, victims of a wreck, who clasp their fellow victims in the water in one last sub-conscious attempt to seize something solid, till they sink together in the embrace of death.

Suppose, however, Mr. Little provides us with a motive powerful enough to cause all the survivors of the attack upon the Calcutta Fort to spread the story of the Black Hole, though they never suffered it. This implies at least that Holwell and the leading survivors agreed to concoct a tale. If that is so, why did their accounts differ? If the various accounts were various impressions of a real event, it would be perfectly natural that they should differ; but why could not the concocters agree as to the kind of story which they should spread abroad? Why did Holwell in his first official letter of July 17th put 170 people in the Black Hole, and only allow 16 to escape? Why did Mills put 144 in, and save twenty-four of them? Why did Secretary Cooke’s notes, from which he gave his evidence before the Parliamentary Committee, in 1772, put “near 150 souls” in, and rescue only 22? Why did Holwell tell Sykes at Cossimbazar, on the 8th July, as he passed as a prisoner on his way to Murshidabad, that 160 went into the Hole, and 110 came out dead. “And that all night the Nabob’s people kept firing at them through the door." (I would enter a “caveat,” however, against much reliance of any kind upon this report by Sykes of Holwell’s statements, since Sykes says that “the 20th and 21st they fought all day and night.” Holwell could not have written or said this.)

Why did Holwell eventually reduce his numbers on August 3rd to 146 in the Hole, and 123 dead? Does it not seem possible that the first accounts were the excited and inaccurate impressions of men who had passed through a fearful experience, and that Holwell, as he became calmer and thought and talked about the matter, had somewhat to alter his numbers and statements? I cannot but feel that the differing accounts given of the tragedy are some testimony to its truth. Had the narratives agreed in unessential details, there would then have been strong ground for suspicion. There are, I know, other suggested explanations, less favourable to the alleged victims; but if they are true, the new difficulty is raised that the most gigantic and successful hoax in history was successfully perpetrated by the most arrant set of clumsy bunglers imaginable. In any case, an exhaustive and close hypothetical narration of the genesis and growth of the legend, which creates no new difficulties, is a desideratum.

The most important part of Mr. Little’s argument is his attempt to prove that the English in the Fort made such a desperate final resistance on the 20th June that there were not enough survivors left to make up Holwell’s Black Hole numbers.

 In proof of this final desperate resistance, he quotes:—

1. Ghulam Husain Khan, a gossipy writer who certainly cannot be relied upon in any matter of doubt. He wrote 25 years later.

2. Captain Grant, who deserted on the 19th June, and was not in the Fort during the last resistance. If he may be quoted as an authority for this, he may also be quoted as an authority for the Black Hole, which (13th July) he also describes.

3. Mr. Grey, Junior. He was in the Fort on the last day, till it was taken, and then escaped by the river. He is the latest of the witnesses except Holwell. We learn from him that, on the 20th, several men including one officer, Captain Smith, was killed, and several officers were wounded. He tells us nothing of a desperate final resistance: on the contrary, when the officers were out of sight, the men “skulked and would not go up." “About four o’clock in the afternoon, the enemy called out to us not to fire in consequence of which the Governor shewed a flag of truce, and gave orders for us not to fire." “At the time the fort was taken, there was not above the number of twenty men upon the walls. The greatest part of the soldiers were drunk.” I find no evidence here of a desperate final resistance, in which most of the officers and writers fell. We may notice in passing that Grey also accepts the Black Hole story.

4. Holwell, who admits 25 killed, and 70 wounded, “of the best men.” This leaves an insoluble difficulty if we regard “best men” as meaning officers and writers; but surely it means what it says, men. We get over the patent difficulty that no officers were killed besides Smith when we remember Cooke’s evidence before Parliament, that twelve wounded officers went into the Black Hole. And if the London Chronicle letter be adduced to prove that some of the alleged victims like Blagg and Baillie perished fighting, the defender of the orthodox view will reply:—

(a) In a scene of such horror as the fall of the fort memory plays strange tricks. And how was the writer, who was presumably doing his duty fighting, to know whether a writer or an officer whom he saw fall, was killed or only wounded?

(b) Who is to be believed, Holwell, and Cooke giving evidence before Parliament, or an anonymous newspaper correspondent? And if you accept that part of the evidence of the anonymous newspaper correspondent, which suits you, can you reject that part which you don’t like, namely his testimony that “170 of us were crammed into a hole,” and only 16 were alive next morning?

5. Drake, and William Lindsay, both of whom left the Fort on the 19th June.

6. William Tooke, who fled with the Governor on the 19th. Thus, of Mr. Little’s witnesses to the alleged last desperate defence, only three stayed till the taking of the fort. Of these, one declares that the soldiers were drunk, and that only twenty were on the walls at the last rush; another is anonymous; and the third is Holwell, Mr. Little being in the unfortunate position of having to make him his best witness. All these testify to the Black Hole story, and two say they were actually in the Black Hole.

I am forced reluctantly to the conclusion that the attractive argumentum ad hominem, the picture so attractive to Englishmen, of Englishmen resisting to the death and dying gloriously on the bastions as English officers know how to die so gloriously, that there were not enough left to fill the Black Hole, needs more convincing testimony, if it is to be one of the main props of Mr. Little’s theory. I am far from saying it is false; I have a leaning towards faith in it; but it is so important a part of the foundations of his theory, that the fact must be placed beyond a doubt.

There are numerous other points I should like to take up in Mr. Little’s argument. But I must restrict myself to one or two.

Mr. Little’s view is that a month or two after the Fort was captured it was generally recognised by the Council and most thinking men that Holwell was the biggest liar in existence; but that for the credit of the Company, and because the tale of the Black Hole might have its uses, people, including the other members of the Council, tacitly agreed not to show him up, though they refrained from giving the story confirmation by an official account to the Directors. The absence of an official account is curious: but surely the sending home of five separate accounts of the fall of the Fort partly explains it; Holwell, being the only member of the Council of Fulta, who was in the Black Hole, would naturally be the only one to spend any time on the subject. The members of the Council at Fulta were too busy attacking one another on far more important topics. Why should we assume that their inability to agree upon the Black Hole question was the reason why they were unable to send home a joint report? The fact that the four of the members of Council who do not mention the story also sent home separate accounts, shows that the Councillors’ points of difference involved quite other questions than the precise way in which Baillie and other Company’s servants died. At the same time, I do not wish unduly to minimise the significance of the absence of an official account. And yet it is worth while asking whether the following extract from the letter of the Council, Fort William, to the Court of Directors, dated 31st January 1757, does not constitute at least official recognition of the story within seven months of the event: "Our chaplains having both demised, Mr. Gervas Bellamy in the Black Hole......we have appointed the Reverend Mr. Cobbe our chaplain etc.” This casual reference, which certainly is official testimony to the story, was made in a letter signed by Drake, Kilpatrick, Becher, Pearkes, Frankland, and Macket. Holwell was not a signatory, so that the Council’s recognition of the story was not due to him.

In any case, Mr. Little is not, in my opinion, entitled so easily to dismiss the testimony of Clive and Pigott. His view is that at the time it was recognised by the leading Englishmen of the day that Holwell was a liar, and that Black Hole story was a myth. He is not entitled to disregard the following words, written by Clive to the Mogul Emperor: “Surajah Dowlat took and plundered Calcutta the 20th June, and all the great men and other Englishmen that fell into his hands were by his orders suffocated in one night." (30 July, 1757). Pigott too, on the 14th October, 1756, wrote to Suraja Dowlah, thus: “I was further informed that the greatest part of the merchants were killed by your people in a cruel and barbarous manner beyond what can be described in writing." It is true, as Mr. Little says, that these letters were written to Indians for a political purpose, but one of them was the greatest of all Indians. I am not yet convinced that the great men of Bengal knew at the time that the Black Hole story was an invention of Holwell. If it had been general knowledge in high places, I believe that Orme the historian, would have learnt enough of the truth to make him minimise the story in his History, or exclude it altogether. I do not believe, in short, that a secret, known on Mr. Little’s hypothesis to so many, could possibly have remained a secret for ever, especially in fierce years of party controversy that followed.

We may admit, and gladly admit, that Holwell, through ignorance or forgetfulness of the concluding features of the struggle, placed some people, like Blagg, in the Black Hole, who died honourably outside it. Reduction of the number to nine, of whom three died of their wounds, is an attractive theory, but surely as yet scarcely a matter for historical assertion.

If Mr. Little is right, we are face to face with a stupid and enormous hoax. It is extremely difficult to believe that if Mr. Little’s assertions are correct, no hint exists in the periodical literature of the last hundred years, except the “Calcutta Review" (reference to the “said catastrophe of the so-called Black Hole.” (1856). If Mr. Little can discover more such sceptical references in journals, say between 1757 and 1800, in India or England, he would remove one of the greatest difficulties in the way of accepting his position. Otherwise, one cannot but be reminded of the Americanism: “You can fool some of the people all the time, and all of the people some of the time; but you can’t fool all the people all the time.”

Thus it remains for Mr. Little to—

1. Suggest a motive adequate to causing twenty people or more to bolster up a fearful tale of suffering, and three or four men of outward respectability to give written testimony to it.

2. Prove that Mills and Cooke were active liars and scoundrels, and Lushington, Court, Burdet, and the rest of them were at least passive ones. It is scarcely enough to prove only that Holwell was dishonest.

3. Prove incontrovertibly his theory of the fierceness of the final struggle, especially the numerous killings of officers and writers at the final rush.

4. Search for evidence, which may possibly exist, to show that people were sceptical, in India or in England, say between 1760 and 1800. Surely, if the twenty-three survivors, and all the leading men of Bengal knew the story was a fraud, some reference to the fact must have crept into newspapers or reviews before 1856.

I by no means assert that all these four tasks are beyond Mr. Little’s powers. I merely throw out the suggestions as lines along which further pressure may usefully be applied when he has leisure. Some of us who, dreading the unknown, hesitate to abandon the old familiar landmarks, feel that, detest and hate the orthodox story as we may, we cannot throw aside history which has stood for a hundred and fifty years unchallenged, unless certain points of difficulty which remain are fully cleared up. In other words a good deal of work yet remains to be done. We all ought to hope that it will be successfully accomplished.



Observed that one or two of Professor Oaten’s observations seemed to him rather like begging the question.

In classical rhetoric and logic, begging the question or assuming the conclusion is an informal fallacy that occurs when an argument's premises assume the truth of the conclusion, instead of supporting it. It is a type of circular reasoning: an argument that requires that the desired conclusion be true. This often occurs in an indirect way such that the fallacy's presence is hidden, or at least not easily apparent.

-- Begging the Question, by Wikipedia

Professor Oaten spoke of the account of the Black Hole being the orthodox view and accepted history. That was not a position which could be safely taken up in a discussion of this kind. The burden of proof in this matter did not lie on one side more than on the other. Anyone who wished the story of the Black Hole to be believed must produce the evidence or refer to the evidence in favour of it. The speaker was not prepared to go into the evidence in detail. Not very long ago he went through the records which were published by Professor Hill and compared them with considerable care, and he supposed there was room for two opinions on the subject, but, personally he was entirely unable to understand how anyone could find in those records satisfactory evidence of the truth of the Black Hole story, or satisfactory evidence that the incident of the Black Hole as described by Holwell or any incident similar in kind and dimensions ever took place. They had official documents in which they would expect to find the incident referred to if it had really happened, and to him it seemed almost incredible that there should have been no record of it in those documents if it was a real occurrence. Then they had discrepancies and improbabilities in the different accounts, and the various explanations that had been put forward to account for them, seemed to him entirely inadequate and unconvincing.

At the same time the man who tried to prove that the Black Hole incident did not occur was met by certain difficulties. Mr. Little had put forward a theory to account for Holwell’s motive in inventing the story to the effect that it was a story which accounted for the deaths of a number of people who really lost their lives in the defence of Calcutta. But then they had to ask themselves why Clive accepted the story. His theory was that as Holwell had a private motive, Clive had a political and patriotic motive for making public opinion hostile to the Nawab. Hence Clive’s acquiescence in Holwell’s story. He (the speaker) would say that while the “orthodox" historians’ view rested on extremely weak evidence, it had not been conclusively proved that the story was false.

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Re: Freda Bedi Cont'd (#3)

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Part 5 of 6


I. Foreword: Orthodox Tradition.

Few had access to the vast literature which should have been carefully scrutinised to come to an independent judgment on the genuineness of this unheard-of story; but few felt the necessity of taking so great a trouble; because the tradition recorded by Robert Orme—a contemporary—was ready at hand.

Thus, the story has been handed down to posterity as an undisputed episode of History, which can no longer be questioned without stirring up popular sentiment against critical inquisitiveness.

This was noticed twenty years ago, when I ventured to publish my doubts.  

The Modern View.

The times have now changed rapidly to make it possible for Mr. J. H. Little to utilise more abundant materials with conspicuous ability, and to announce with calm confidence in the journal of the Calcutta Historical Society, (Vol. XI, Part I, Serial No. 21) that the story of the Black Hole was a “gigantic hoax.”

Yet, even now, a keen controversy regarding the propriety of this verdict has been roused in more quarters than one; and Mr. Little has come to be belittled with a taunt that he has managed “to play off a clever and audacious practical joke.”

This justifies the reopening of the question.

The New School of Historians.

I must confess, at the outset, that I find it more reasonable to adopt the critical methods of investigation recommended by “the historians of the modern school in Europe,” than to follow the time-honoured practice of swallowing all extravagant stories without any sort of investigation. I cannot, therefore, look upon them as “a generation of iconoclasts," as represented by The Pioneer, for the simple reason that a mere iconoclast exults only in his work of wanton destruction, while “the historians of the modern school in Europe” have shown by example that if they are obliged to destroy any old fetish of faith, they destroy it only to replace fiction by truth.

The Critical Method.

Their critical method, when it lights upon an interesting statement, “begins by suspecting it” (Lord Acton’s The Study of History, p. 40); because the maxim that, “a man must be presumed to be innocent until his guilt is proved” was not made for the historian. The main thing for him “is not the art of accumulating material, but the sublimer art of investigating it,—of discerning truth from falsehood." This art, according to Harrisse (The Discovery of America, VI.), consists “in determining with documentary proofs and by minute investigations duly set forth—the literal, precise, and positive inferences to be drawn at the present day from every authentic statement without regard to commonly received notions, to sweeping generalities, or to possible consequences." J. S. Mill (Inaugural Address, p. 34) rightly pointed out that “there is no part of our knowledge, which is more useful to obtain at first hand, -- to go to the fountain-head for,—than our knowledge of History.” The modern critical method goes a step further, and wants to test all first-hand informations without regard to commonly-received opinions about them, because it looks upon “consistency in regard to opinions as the slow poison of intellectual life.” Every authentic statement is not necessarily true. This may be best illustrated by many authentic statements of Col. Clive, in one of which, in a letter to Alamgir Sani, King of Hindostan, dated the 30th July, 1757 (Hill, II. 462,) he asserted that after the battle of Plassey, Sirajuddowla retreated to the city of Murshidabad, “nor stopt there, but continued his flight, and was killed by his servants who followed him to demand their pay." This statement, though authentic, suppressed the real truth and suggested a deliberate falsehood. Instances need not be multiplied to shew that no story of this notorious period should be accepted without a critical investigation. The story of the Black Hole cannot, therefore, be treated as an exception. We should not only go to the fountain-head of this story, but we should also carefully investigate it according to the well-established rules of modern critical method, which is a method of Science. There can be no investigation in any other way to ensure accuracy in our knowledge of History. In this the modern method differs from the old;—the critical from the uncritical;—the historical from the romantic.

II. Suspicious Circumstances: Mahomedan Histories.

My suspicions were roused by the significant fact that no Mahomedan Historian of the Eighteenth Century made any mention of the Black Hole story, or of any catastrophe, which could be reasonably identified with it. Mr. Little has also noticed this only to ask his readers “to note the fact." But it requires some elaboration to enable one to appreciate the full significance of this omission.

One of these historians, and the most important one, was Nawab Golam Hosain Khan, the author of the celebrated Syer-ul-Mutakherin. He was a relation and adherent of Showkatjung, who disputed the succession of Siraj-Uddowla. After the overthrow and death of his patron, this historian lived in banishment at Benares, until he was restored to his jageer after the battle of Plassey. He completed his work in 1783, when the fall of Calcutta would not have still continued to be regarded as the only or the chief matter of interest, and the story of the Black Hole a mere subsidiary one, as has been ingenuously suggested by The Pioneer to account for the non-mention of the catastrophe in the public records of the day.

Another historian, Golam Hosain Salim of Malda, the author of the Riaz-us-Salateen, completed his work in 1787-88, under the orders and patronage of his kind and benevolent master, George Udney, who was well-known for his piety and scrupulous regard for historical accuracy.

These two Mahomedan historians received just recognition from all celebrated English writers of the Modern History of India. Neither of them had any motive to conceal the truth; yet neither had a word about the Black Hole.

Haji Mustapha's Observations.

A renegade Frenchman, named Haji Mustapha, translated the Syer-ul-Mutakherin into English. He noticed this significant omission, and recorded his own views about the incident in a note, which included the following observation:—

“This much is certain that this event, which cuts so capital a figure in Mr. Watts’ performance, is not known in Bengal; and even in Calcutta it is ignored by every man out of the four hundred thousand that inhabit that city; at least it is difficult to meet a single native that knows anything of it; so careless and incurious are those people.”

Mr. Hill supposed this “to be a sarcastic hint that the translator himself did not believe this story." Be that as it may, this observation reveals a fact and an explanation;—the fact relates to the want of knowledge of the people even of Calcutta;—the explanation relates to an estimate of their character. The explanation is, however, untenable; because Holwell’s monument, built in 1760, was then in existence to refresh the memory of the people; and also because the Mahomedan histories make it abundantly clear that the “natives” were not altogether “careless” or “incurious” about other matters of public notoriety during that period of change of Government, when gossip about every little event naturally ran in every direction with incredible rapidity. If the story of the Black Hole was really true, it could not have failed to reach their ears; nor could it have been kept a profound secret by the people of the Nawab.

Mr. Hill's Explanation.

Mr. Hill, while writing the Introduction to his book on Bengal in 1756-57, did not notice or discuss this significant omission, so prominently noted by Haji Mustapha. He has, however, now noticed it (The Englishman, Town Edition, 16 February, 1916) with an observation,—that knowing by his “own experience how very insouciant are the bulk of the people of India to whatever concerns only those of other castes and creeds, it did not produce sufficient impression” upon his mind for him “to think it worth while to discuss the question.”

Prof. William's Contention

But Mr. Rushbrook Williams, Professor of Modern History in the Allahabad University, has not taken the same view. He has tacitly conceded that this omission carries some weight. So he has made an honest effort to enquire if some faint reference,—even a figurative one,—cannot after all be discovered in some obscure Mahomedan History. For this purpose he contended for a while that a veiled reference might be discovered in the Muzarffarnamah. Maulavi Abdul Wali of Murshidabad, whose knowledge of Persian cannot be inferior to that of the learned Professor, quoted the text (The Statesman, Dawk Edition, 23rd. February, 1916) from the manuscript belonging to the Nizamut Library, and annexed the following translation:—

“Having seen that they are incapable to resist, and being in despair of concluding peace, the English gentlemen seated themselves on board ship and left for the sea; and a few of the English soldiers who saw the road of escape closed on them killed themselves out of excess of the sense of honour and a few persons became prisoners of the claws of predestination.”

Mr. Abdul Wali's Interpretation.

Moulavi Abdul Wali has rightly pointed out that “this passage,—which is the only passage on the subject,—does not prove that the English were put into the Black Hole. The sentence that a few persons became also prisoners of the claws of predestination is a figurative one, and proves nothing." Those who are acquainted with the oriental methods of polished composition, will readily admit that the figurative expression cannot indicate imprisonment; the context shows that while a few committed suicide, a few were also killed during the capture of the fort; a fact admitted also in the English reports.

After this analysis of the text, it must be idle to contend that the story was referred to by a figurative description by at least one Mahomedan historian,—or to contest the fact so definitely and confidently recorded by Haji Mustapha about the complete ignorance of the people even of Calcutta—or to question his authority for such an unqualified acknowledgment.

Mr. Hill's Attitude.

This then is the first important fact which should not have been at first ignored and at last dismissed by Mr. Hill as unworthy of consideration, upon a plea of personal experience, which is as exceptional as it is inapplicable to the bulk of the people of India. In writing the Introduction to his book, Mr. Hill could not have really missed the undeniable proofs which clearly disclosed that the people of this country, even at the risk of their lives, had actually felt compassion for the English fugitives, and supplied them with necessary provisions, “by stealth in the night” (Hill, I, 171), inspite of the strictest prohibition of the Nawab.

Omission in Public Records.

Turning to the important public records of the day, we find the same significant omission. If considerations of unavoidable diplomacy demanded a studied silence on the point in the earlier correspondence with the Nawab, because the English were then very naturally anxious to re-establish their trade at any sacrifice, the same explanation could not be put forward in support of a studied silence in the Minutes and Consultations of the English Council; or in the first report submitted to the Court of Directors. Even in respect of the correspondence with the Nawab, this explanation would be inapplicable to the last letter at any rate which Colonel Clive addressed, complaining only of “the loss of many crores of Rupees" said to have been sustained by the English “in the capture of Calcutta." In the two treaties,-- one with Siraj-ud-dowla (9 February, 1757), and another with Mir Jaffier Khan (3 June, 1757), -- no satisfaction was obtained for the atrocities of the Black Hole. Thornton (History of the British Empire in India, Vol. I, 212-13) observed that the absence of any provision for this purpose was “the greatest scandal attached to the treaty.” Mr. Hill has not quoted or questioned this unbiassed verdict of a truly “eminent historian.” He has only quoted the Third Article of the Treaty, without seeing eye to eye with Thornton, that that Article can in no way be spun out to cover, as Mr. Hill contends, “compensations for every thing.” It related only to compensations for clearly specified losses of property; and did not and could not include a compensation for loss of life in general, or in the Black Hole. In the same strain Mr. Hill now adds that,—“it is quite certain that a large number of the British were killed after Drake deserted his post. If they perished in the Black Hole, then Holwell’s story is substantially true, though it may be incorrect in details." It is needless to point out that no verdict of History can be based upon this “if.” Even if it were possible, it would not banish the need for proof; for, “the living do not give up their secret,” as Lord Acton pointed out, “with the candour of the dead; one key is always excepted; and a generation passes before we can ensure accuracy."

First Official Report

In the first official report of the fall of Calcutta (dated Fulta the 17th. September 1756) submitted to the Court of Directors, nearly three months after the event, there was no mention of the massacre; although it was signed amongst others, by Holwell himself. This document narrated on the other hand that the fort had surrendered “upon the promise of civil treatment of the prisoners” (Hill, I, 214-19) without saying that the promise was ultimately broken.

Mr. Hill's self-contradiction.

Mr. Hill’s present contention (although he did not put it forward in his Introduction) is that it was not mentioned, because “no two members of the Council held the same opinion." This was really so, (Letter from Fort William to the Court of Directors, 31st January, 1757). Mr. Hill has not, however, shown how in the face of such an undeniable fact, he can justify his present self-contradictory observation that the story received “general acceptance,—unquestioned by any of the Europeans present in Calcutta at the time.”

Consistency of First Report

The first official report was consistent with several well-established facts;—(i) that many of the besieged fled when the fort surrendered (Hill, I, 43), nay they simply walked out without opposition; (ii) that a Mahomedan Jemadar of the Nawab’s army escorted unmolested several English ladies, and restored them to their husbands at Fulta that very night (Mutakherin, Vol. II, 190); (iii) that all who had ventured to approach the Nawab in person were pardoned (Hill, I, 108-9) and allowed to go away; and (iv) that when Holwell was brought before the Nawab “with his hands bound, the Nawab released him from his bonds "and promised him (Hill, II, p. 151), “on the word of a soldier" that no harm should be done to him,—which he is said to have “repeated more than once.”

The Causes of Imprisonment

Why was any one imprisoned at all? We are indebted to Holwell for the suggestion that it was due to his inability to disclose the hidden treasure of the garrison, which the Nawab was naturally anxious to secure. This makes it difficult to discover a motive for the imprisonment of 146 persons,—men, women and children, —all of whom could never have been treated as privy to the secret.

Why were then so many persons imprisoned? Holwell assigned no reason to it in his first statement, (reported by Sykes of Cossimbazar) on the 8th July, 1756. In his second statement, (said to have been forwarded from Muxudabad to the Councils of Bombay and Madras) on the 17th July, 1756 (Hill, I, 115), he hazarded an opinion, not a fact, that—“the resistance made by the English and the loss suffered by the besiegers so irritated the Nawab that he ordered the imprisonment of all.”

This was, however, quickly given up in his third statement, (sent from Hugli to the Council of Madras) on 3rd August, 1756 (Hill, I, 186), in which he suggested another reason, viz.,—that the number of the English in the fort was “too great to be at large”;—a reason which ill-fitted the fact that permission and facilities had already been granted to many to leave the fort, after which the Nawab could not have been really anxious to detain any but those who could be reasonably supposed to know anything about the hidden treasure. It could not also have been probable for a really large number of men, women, and children, to have actually lingered in the fort, after many had died in defending it, and some had managed to escape during the confusion which followed the surrender. This reason was accordingly abandoned by the historians, who found it more consistent to adopt a different plea, viz.,—that “some of the drunken soldiers had drawn the misfortune upon all by attacking the soldiers of the Nawab.” This explanation was originally put forward by Governor Drake (Hill, I, 160) either from hearsay or from his own imagination of which he has been proved to have had an ample fund. As he was not an eye-witness, he could not have spoken from personal knowledge.

Holwell's Fairness.

This plea, however, received no support from Holwell, who was an eye-witness. He, on the other hand, recorded in his letter of 3rd August, 1756 that,—“I charged the Nawab with designedly having ordered the unheard-of piece of cruelty of cramming us all into that small prison; but I have now reason to think I did him injustice.”

This significant admission may justly give rise to an interesting and instructive inquiry into its motive, which Mr. Hill has not tried to pursue. When Holwell deliberately charged the Nawab, the English had by that time lost all hopes of returning to Bengal; as soon as the first ray of hope began to dawn upon them, on account of their submitting a petition on 6th July, 1756 to the Nawab to be restored to Calcutta, the charge was as deliberately withdrawn on the 3rd August;-—but when Siraj-ud-dowla was no more, the revolution was over, and the country had quieted down to enable Holwell to build his monument, he inscribed with equal deliberateness on his obelisk that 123 persons had been suffocated to death in the Black Hole prison of Fort William.

"By The Tyrannic Violence of Surajud-Dowla, Suba of Bengal.”

This is the man whose testimony is our chief guide in discerning truth from falsehood.

“He was known,” says Prof. Rushbrook Williams as “a clever rascal even in his own day.” He was “clever” indeed in never asking the English Council, not even when he acted as Governor, to commemorate the catastrophe, which would have necessarily called for a critical investigation of his extravagant story. He, on the other hand, built a monument at his own cost, and “cleverly” attached two inscriptions to it,—one for the tragedy and another for the “revenge” taken by Clive and Watson, evidently to ensure the preservation of his monument, at least as a trophy of victory. An Englishman, a ship’s doctor, however, found it in 1817 in a deplorable condition, (Mss. of a Voyage in the private collection of S. O’Mally Esqr. I.C.S.)— “no railing, nor shrubs,”—“totally unworthy of the universal interest excited by that most hideous event”; nor did it seem to have “arrested the attention of natives, none of whom could point out the Black Hole close to it.” That monument was unhesitatingly demolished in 1821 to make room for the Customs House. The new monument, built in 1902, by a noble donor, has omitted the “revenge,” excluded the reference to “the tyrannic violence of Sirajuddowla,” revised the list of victims, and included some names which are names of those (Hill, Introduction, p. xcix, note 4) Mr. Hill has given “as being killed during the fighting.” This monument, in the language of Sir Rabindranath Tagore, may, therefore, be justly liable to be looked upon as “a big thumb of stone, raised in the midst of a public thoroughfare to proclaim to the heavens that exaggeration is not the monopoly of any particular race or nation.”

Unavoidable Presumption.

These circumstances naturally raise some presumption against the genuineness of the story; and that presumption gradually gains in strength when we find, as Mr. Little has shown in detail, that the presence of so many persons in the fort at that late hour would be a matter of great improbability.

III. Development of the story: Admissibility of Evidence.

Before we turn to that important question, we must decide another,—the question of the admissibility of evidence. Should we admit, as required by a correspondent of The Statesman (Dawk Edition, 15th February, 1916), half in jest and half in earnest, The Confessions of De Quincey, in which the ill-ventilated coaches of England in the early days of the nineteenth century were compared to “Governor Holwell’s Black cage at Calcutta” in support of Holwell’s story? Sober sense will readily concede that all sayings and doings of third persons, after the story had gained a fair currency, must stand on the same footing, whether they related to Lord Clive’s endorsement of the petitions of those who said that they had lost their relatives in the Black Hole; or to the writings of the French and the Dutch, who derived no knowledge except through Holwell and his party. The story must stand or fall with the statements of the aggrieved party,—the alleged survivors of the grim tragedy of the Black Hole; for, they and the Nawab’s people, and no one else, could supply us with real proof.

Mr. Hill has referred to a book, Memoir Sur l’Empire Mogul, written in French by a Scoto-Frenchman named Jean Law of Lauriston, to show that the writer, who was an independent spectator in Bengal, “accepted the story of Holwell.” This book, written under the orders of the French Ministry, partly in Paris in 1763, and partly on a second voyage to India in 1764, was published by Alfred Martineau in 1913. I am indebted to my learned friend, Prof. R. C. Majumdar M. A., for an extract of the Preface, which shows that the author was an old Chief of the French Factory of Cossimbarar, who was well-known to the Durbar of the Nawab. In his Memoir (Hill, III, 160) he distinctly noted that he could not be “certain as to the correctness” of all he had heard; he preferred, therefore, “to refer” us “to what the English themselves have written.” Mr. Hill should have found that a reference to the story of Holwell by this writer could not be accepted as an “acceptance."

Modern Research.

Modern research has discovered, with commendable diligence, many useful materials, which tend to show that a story of the Black Hole was actually in circulation among the European residents of Bengal from a certain date, before it was transmitted to Europe;—but it does not fail at the same time to reveal that that story was the result of a gradual development.

The letter of 3rd July from Chandernagor (Hill, I, 50), Syke’s letter of the 8th July (Hill, I, 61) and William Lindsay’s letter (Hill, I, 168) relied on by Mr. Hill as tests of Holwell's story, cannot be treated as real tests; because these letters are not the letters of eyewitnesses. They can, however, be referred to to show, why, inspite of them, Holwell’s story fails to carry conviction; because these letters prove a gradual development of the story, and supply us with many useful materials to discover how the story stood at each stage of such development.

True Concern.

This did probably induce Prof. Rushbrook Williams to contend that “our true concern is not with Holwell," and that the Black Hole incident does not stand or fall with the truth or falsehood of Holwell’s story. An analysis of the first accounts in circulation in Bengal will, however, show at a glance that we cannot have the story of the Black Hole without Holwell, as we cannot have Hamlet, without the Prince of Denmark. Holwell cannot altogether be dismissed for the simple reason that the story of the imprisonment of the 146 persons and of the death of 123, which constitute “the main features of the tragedy” was the story of no one else but of Holwell; and even with him it was not the first story, narrated by him as soon as he got the earliest opportunity to do so. Our true concern must, therefore, be with Holwell and his principal associates, not with those, who reported from hearsay only; nor with those who accepted the story without any critical investigation.

First Uncertainty.

The first story of the fall of Calcutta, that could be gathered by the French or the Dutch from really independent sources, including the wounded, who passed by their settlements, did not disclose an episode of the Black Hole (Hill, I, 22-24).

The news of the fall of Calcutta was speedily carried far and wide. But (i) the letter written by the Council of Fort William from Fulta on the 25th June 1756 (Hill, I, 25) asking for aid and succour from the Dutch in the distress of the English, (ii) the Consultations of the Dutch at Hugli from 25th to 27th June, 1756 (Hill, I, 25), (iii) the letter from the Dutch Council to their agent written on 27th. June, 1756 (Hill, I, 33), (iv) the Dacca Consultations of 27th and 28th June, 1756 (Hill, I, 34 and 36) showing that the news of the fall of Calcutta had already been received through the French at that distant station, and (v) the secret Consultations of the Dutch at Hugli on 28th June, 1756 (Hill, I, 37),— do not disclose an account or even a mention of the Black Hole story.

Although the Dutch were at first afraid to succour the English, the French speedily accomodated matters with the Nawab, and readily offered a shelter to the English at Chandernagur. To this asylum arrived Watts and Colett, after their release, “in palanquins in the evening of the 28th June, 1766” (Hill, I.).


After a well-earned rest at this place for three days, Watts and Colett wrote to the Council at Madras on 2nd July, 1756, giving an account of the fall of Cossimbazar and of Calcutta, as well of their imprisonment and release (Hill, I, 45). But this letter contained no reference to the Black Hole, or to any catastrophe, which could be placed in it. Although they were prisoners in the Nawab’s camp before their release, they did not carry with them any information even from that source.

Holwell's First Story.

According to Holwell (India Tracts, Third Edition, pp. 387-418) he was sent to Murshidabad along with Court, Walcot and Burdett. On his way, as a prisoner of war, he sent a letter which was reported by Sykes of Cossimbazar on 8th of July, 1756 (Hill, I, 61-62).

This was the first story of Holwell;—a story which was begun with a confusion of dates obviously to assert that the fort had held out till 21st June. It did not disclose that the fort had really surrendered on “a promise of civil treatment of the prisoners”; it recorded another story,—the story of a dishonourable “surrender at discretion.” What was worse, it made out a case of wilful murder with an allegation that,——“all the night our poor gentlemen were in the Black Hole, the Nawab’s people kept firing at them through the door.”

Evident Concoction.

Strangely enough, an account recorded by Captain Grey, on the 13th July 1756 (Hill, I, 73) at Fulta, discloses that the story of firing had also been carried to that station by some, although it was contradicted by others.

This shows, beyond doubt, that as the fact of firing could not have been independently imagined by more than one person, it must have been concocted in consultation to be circulated in different directions by different associates to make out a case of wilful murder, which came to be given up only because every one could not prove clever enough to repeat that story without contradicting others.

Probable Motive.

One is, therefore, naturally tempted to enquire into the reason of the invention of such a story; specially in view of an observation of the French on 3rd July 1756 (Hill, I, 50) that “the two first days passed in license and all the disorders of a place taken by assault, with the exception of massacre, to which the Moors are not accustomed in regard to people disarmed.” Was it not due to the consciousness that the dead bodies thrown into the ravelin actually bore marks of gun-shot wounds which caused death during the defence of the fort? When the story had to be given up, something had to be retained to account for these marks of injuries; and so the final story retained the allegation that many “wounded” persons had also been thrust into the Black Hole; although there could be no motive for any one to take such an unnecessary step; in as much as the “wounded" could have raised no apprehension in the minds of the Nawabs' army.

Holwell's Caution.

Under these circumstances, Holwell very soon came to take caution. He nowhere acknowledged in his subsequent correspondence that he had given out a story at Cossimbazar, much less a story of “firing,” although he admitted he had written a letter to Mr. Law, the French Chief of that station. In his letter to his dear friend, William Davis, written on 28th February 1757, Holwell gave a detailed account of his voyage to Murshidabad as a prisoner (India Tracts, Third Edition, p. 411). In this letter he referred to the English factory at Cossimbazar by saying only this that,—“passing by our fort and factory at Cossimbazar raised some melancholy reflections amongst us.” Maintaining a discreet silence about the statement made at Cossimbazar, he deliberately placed his arrival “in sight of the French factory” of that station on the 7th of July, (Hill, I, 115 and India Tracts) evidently to ignore Sykes, who noted (Hill, I, 61) on the 8th July that,—“this morning Mr. Holwell, Court, Walcot, and one Burent (Burdett?) a writer, passed by on their way to Murshidabad, prisoners in irons.” The omission on the part of Holwell to refer to his Cossimbazar-statement is significant;—it betrays an evident solicitude to suppress his connection with the discarded first story of the “firing.”

Different Stories.

When Drake and others left the fort, they left behind more than 200 men (Hill, III, 169). “Without counting the Armenians and the Portuguese (Hill, II, 129) those who were left behind found that “They numbered 170 men Capable of defence." The story that was carried to Captain Grant (Hill, I, 88) and to Roger Drake (Hill, I, 160) at Fulta, was the story of the imprisonment of 200 persons. This story of the imprisonment of the entire garrison, thoughtlessly left behind by Drake, was carried only to two places,—Fulta and Chandernagore,—evidently to blacken the character of the deserters, whose conduct had been harshly criticised by Holwell on the rampart. This number had, however, to be subsequently changed. Why was it changed? The inference is irresistible that when the story was found to be insupportable and inconsistent with the dimensions of the Black Hole, it came down to the imprisonment of 160 persons. Holwell, immediately after his release, in his letter of the 17th July 1756, narrated the imprisonment of 165 or 170 persons; and the death of all but 6. His next account, written from Hugli on 3rd August 1756, disclosed another story. In this he said he had “over-reckoned the number of the prisoners and the number of the dead,” the former being really 146, and the latter 123. Why had Holwell at first “over-reckoned" and what materials he obtained afterwards to ascertain the correct figures, he never condescended to disclose.

Probable Reason.

One is, therefore, naturally tempted to enquire into the cause of this change. The Black Hole, according to Mr. Holwell, was 18 feet square; and reserving 2 x 1 square feet for each person, ordinary Arithmetic would allow only 162 persons to be put into it. Was not this Arithmetic responsible for fixing upon the number of 160 persons? Strangely enough, Holwell gave the number as 160 in his first account communicated to Sykes. Strangely enough, news had also been carried to Chandernagore (Hill, I, 50),—the first news of the tragedy,—by another informant, who also reported the imprisonment of exactly the same number of persons.

The current story shows that this number was also ultimately abandoned. Was it due to any further calculation that more than 146 persons could not have been in the fort on the 20th June?

Evident Concert.

The records of the period can hardly explain the psychology of this “over-reckoning” of prisoners to the same extent by two informants, who carried the earliest account to two different stations—Cossimbazar and Chandernagore. Was not this another and equally convincing instance of concert?

Final Account.

A mystery hangs about the letter of John Young, Prussian Supercargo as to its date,-—the 10th July 1756 (Hill, I, 65). In this letter he noted that “Holwell with his fellow partners of misery and affliction, from the moment of their capture to that of their release, came to Chandernagore a few days ago.” Their coming to Chandernagore was no doubt a fact; but that must have been an event of a date subsequent to their release, which took place on the 16th of July,—subsequent also to the 17th of July on which date Holwell wrote from Murshidabad,—and probably subsequent to the 3rd of August, when he wrote from Hugli. Thus, the letter of John Young must have been a letter of a subsequent date. By that time the story had been finally settled, viz.,—146 “wounded and unwounded of all ranks” had been imprisoned, and 23 only survived. This going round the European settlements by Holwell and his fellow-sufferers coincides with the final reduction of the number. It makes all subsequent French and Dutch reports loose their value as independent accounts of a real episode of History.

Nationality of Prisoners.

If there was uncertainty about the number of prisoners, there was no less uncertainty about their nationality. According to some the prisoners included Portuguese and Armenians, “of which many were wounded” (Hill, I, 88). But according to another, all Portuguese and Armenians received pardon, and left the fort (Hill, II, p. 182; p. 301). Holwell on the other hand, alleged that the prisoners included Dutch and English whites and Portuguese blacks. If any Dutch had actually died in the Black Hole, the Dutch in Bengal took no notice of it: this was hardly probable.

The Real Question.

Mr. Hill is satisfied with the truth of the story, not as a historian, but as one who takes the contemporary historian to be his infallible guide. The special "acceptance by the great contemporary historian Robert Orme” weighs greatly with him. He cites Captain Mills, Sykes, William Lindsay and the French at Cossimbazar and Chandernagore as witnesses, who are said to supply “confirmation and corroboration.” Neither in the Introduction to his work, nor in his letter now published in The Englishman, has Mr. Hill tried to face the real question,—a question, which is concerned only with the direct evidence of the imprisonment of 146 persons, and the death of 123; because the imprisonment of Holwell and a few of the principal persons likely to know the hidden treasure, and the death of no one from suffocation would not constitute the tragedy. To support the current story, there must be evidence of the imprisonment of 146, and the death of 123. Who were they? That is the real question, which must legitimately demand to know the names of all. In the absence of evidence on that point, a true historian cannot go beyond saying that the story should be called “not to be proven."

Future Research.

This verdict, which really applies to the story in question, has been, by an irony of fate, sought to be applied to the theory advanced by Mr. Little. Mr. Hill has, therefore, sincerely hoped “that in future, instead of indulging in practical jokes, Mr. Little will direct his energies into some more fruitful lines of historical research.” One such fruitful line for Mr. Little should have been the History of the History of this period, which alone could have cleared the ground of all unscholarly freedom of language and verdict.

In the absence of such research work, The Pioneer discovers a formidable obstacle for Mr. Little to over-come. “If the Black Hole incident had never taken place at all,” says The Pioneer, “Holwell, who was no fool, would have known better than to put forward his own account of it." But inspite of this “formidable obstacle," Holwell actually invented another story,— the story of the Dacca-massacre,—about which the English Council of Calcutta had to record that it had “not the least foundation in truth.” Although Mr. Little referred to this, The Pioneer did not notice it, or refute it in any way. Such is the critical atmosphere in which knowledge struggles to advance in India.

IV. The Last Questions: Names of Victims.

Coming now to the last question,—the names of the victims,—we have to admit that, do what we may, we shall never know the names of all who were imprisoned,— of all who perished,—and of all who survived. We must abandon all critical inquisitiveness and remain conveniently satisfied with nothing better than the allegation that 146 persons were thrust into the Black Hole, 123 died of suffocation, and only 23 survived. But who were they? We must never ask to know.

Knowing how the number of prisoners gradually came down from 200 to 146, and knowing how the number of survivors gradually mounted up from 6 to 23, it will be an insult to human intelligence not to suppose that the names, of all who were imprisoned and of all who perished, and also of all who survived, must have been ascertained at some stage to find out the definite numbers related in the current story. But do what we may, we shall never know—when, where, how, and by whom such an enquiry was made, and with what result.

The List of Holwell.

This leads us to only one source of information; and that source leads to the available lists.

The list annexed to the “genuine narrative” of Holwell (Hill, III, 131-154) contains only some of the names,—not all. This list begins by excluding, without any reason, the names of 69 victims; and, therefore, it purports to disclose the names of 54 persons, though as a matter of fact, it comes abruptly to an end with the names of 52 only; still giving us 4 more names than those which Holwell caused to be inscribed on his monument. The list does not give us the occupation or nationality of the excluded 69. This exposes the list to the just criticism of all students of History.

"The Genuine Narrative".

This must have convinced Holwell to some extent. His “genuine narrative," with the list annexed, was not published until 1764. It contained a foreword “to the reader,” written by Holwell himself, which revealed that he too was not without some misgivings regarding his performance. This “genuine narrative” was originally written as a private letter to a dear friend, on board the Syren-Sloop, when Holwell was going home with the natural expectation of meeting his dear friend in person. Why was this letter written at all, or written during the voyage? It was not written like a letter of The Citizen of the World for the purpose of publication. Holwell assures us that “only through a chain of unforeseen accidents" it came "to appear in print.” But it was printed and published with a grim picture, made to order, showing “Governor Holwell confined in the Black Hole,” which cannot fail to show that a motive of advertisement could not have been altogether absent; and the alleged cause of publication could not have been absolutely colourless.

Be that as it may, the list, thus published, failed to render any account of 71 victims,—a large number indeed,—too large to be lightly disregarded as an unimportant matter of unnecessary detail. Yet this list and this “genuine narrative" are the chief foundations on which the current story stands.

Captain Mill's Diary.

The diary of Captain Mills (Hill, I, 40-45), recorded in an octavo pocket book of 16 pages and given to the contemporary historian, who was then in Madras, is another piece of evidence which Mr. Hill now characterises as the first test of Holwell’s story; because “this diary still exists and cannot be ignored”; it purports to be a contemporaneous account of events, which happened from day to day from 7th June to 1st July 1756. That it “still exists” cannot show that it “cannot be ignored.” Although its existence cannot be ignored, its value will always be ignored whenever it will be properly examined.

How was it written?

We have no evidence that it was recorded from day to day. Such an assumption would lead to many more;—(i) that it was taken by the writer with him into the Black Hole; and so it happened to be preserved during the sack of Calcutta; and (ii) that it was clung to with more than a martyr’s steadfastness during all those long hours of unbearable agony in that “night of horrors.” It shows at a glance that it could not have been recorded, like an ordinary diary, from day to day; but that it must have been written afterwards for being sent to Madras to Robert Orme, the historian, who had a well-known hobby not only of collecting, but also of preserving all such original documents. This diary records the names of victims and survivors in pages 9-11. In the next page it records the names of those, who escaped, when the fort was taken; and then, in the next page, it records what had happened before the fort was captured. This anachronism makes it forfeit its bonafide character as a diary written up from day to day.

Supplimentary Account.

As the personal narrative of a Captain, engaged in active military work, this diary reveals a significant and disappointing feature, in that it does not disclose any item of personal work done by the narrator. Another account (Hill, I, 194) was sent to Robert Orme to supplement it. But that also gave only an account of what happened to the writer, after he had come out of the Black Hole, until he reached Fulta, on 10th August 1756. According to this account Captain Mills and his companions, after their expulsion from Calcutta on 1st July, came to the Prussian Supercargo, and then to Chandernagore, where they resided till 8th or 9th August 1756.

The Prussian Account.

This makes the Prussian account one of great importance to History. According to this account “20 of the English that escaped death" were the first to come up. John Young recorded what he had heard from them about the fall of Calcutta. He did not hear a word about the Black Hole. Next appeared Messrs. Watts and Colett; and they too could not disclose the story of the tragedy. Lastly came Holwell and his companions, and from them the story of the Black Hole was heard. This interesting letter of John Young, the Prussian Supercargo (Hill, I, 62-66), discloses an important secret,—it shows at a glance that when Captain Mills appeared, he had no story to tell about the Black Hole.

The London Chronicle.

A report, published in the London Chronicle, a year after the event, (Hill, III, 70-74), gives a list of the Europeans “who were in Calcutta when it was taken, but escaped being put into the Black Hole, and were ordered to leave Calcutta by the Moors.” This list contains only four names, —the very names of Captain Mills and his companions, who were not included in the list of survivors, published in the London Chronicle. This makes it difficult to regard Captain Mills’ diary as the diary of an eye-witness. He can be hardly put forward as a witness to corroborate Holwell. The same remark applies to Grey Junior (Hill, I, 106-109) who was not also a “survivor," and who did not note (Hill, I, 109) that Captain Mills was one of the survivors.

Incredibility of List.

The report of the London Chronicle makes the lists, left by Holwell and Captain Mills, equally unreliable. William Bailley was a member of the Council, and an important person. It was reported in the London Chronicle that he had died “with a shot in his head." Of the “gentlemen in service,” Carse is said to have been “cut to pieces,” having rashly fired a pistol after the place was taken. Lt. Bellamy “shot himself before the attack." Blagg was “cut to pieces on a bastion.” Lieutenants Bishop and Paccard died “before the place was taken.” Sea-Captains Parnell, Stephenson, Carey, and Grey, “were killed in the attack”. But, according to Holwell, these very persons died in the Black Hole; and what is more,—Carey died with thankfulness on his lips for having been offered by Holwell a convenient place, which he could not live to occupy.

The name of Blagg has now been unanimously omitted from the list of victims, and excluded altogether from the names inscribed on the new monument.

Evidentiary Effect.

Mr. Hill has not, however, considered the effect of this exclusion upon the whole testimony. As the name of Blagg occurs equally in the lists of victims left by Grey junior, Holwell and Captain Mills, was it possible for them to have erred independently or to have dreamt simultaneously regarding his death in the Black Hole? If this is a circumstance, which indicates concert between them, as it does without doubt, does it not affect the entire testimony, and make it difficult to discard one portion and retain the rest?

Veracity of Eye-witnesses.

Holwell disclosed the names of only eleven “survivors, including his own." One of them, Secretary Cooke, was examined by the Parliamentary Committee appointed in 1772. Instead of giving an oral disposition, like the other witnesses, Cooke preferred to hand in a written narrative (Hill, III, 290-303) said to have been “copied with his own hands from notes taken by him soon after the transactions” of 1756. Although the massacre of the Black Hole was not then one of the subjects of the enquiry, Secretary Cooke volunteered an account of it in his statement, an account which must remind one of Holwell's narrative, which had already been then in print.

These facts and circumstances affect the veracity of all the eye witnesses alike, even if we do not allow ourselves to be prejudiced against them on account of the little regard for veracity which they enjoyed from their own contemporaries.

Mr. Little has supplemented his original essay with a long letter in The Statesman to discuss Holwell’s motive for concoction, and the motive of his concocted story being accepted. The value of this labour lies chiefly in showing that an absolute want of motive cannot be urged in defence of Holwell. When an improbable story is proved to have been started, developed and supported in concert, the question of motive does not really arise, or affect the verdict.

The Story: a libel.

Although the Black Hole story was open to these objections from the very beginning, yet it was never subjected to any critical investigation by any of the contemporaries of Holwell. In that respect it has left us in utter darkness,—perhaps also in the suffocating atmosphere of a real Black Hole. But this negligence on the part of contemporaries, whose hands were then always full with one question of life and death after another, cannot be accepted as a test of Holwell’s story;—the truth of which must be established by evidence, not by any conduct, opinion, or want of critical faculties of the contemporaries.

As the story goes, it is an undoubted libel against some at least of the British heroes, who sacrificed their lives in doing their duty;—nay, it is also a general libel against the British love of truth, which Col. Clive and Admiral Watson took every opportunity to refer to in their correspondence with the Nawab.

Mr. Little's Theory.

In the midst of all these harrowing circumstances, Mr. Little’s theory—as to what really happened—comes as a welcome working hypothesis, which agrees better with probable human conduct than the current story of the Black Hole. Mr. Little may, therefore, be congratulated upon his honest attempt to do justice, where justice has been either ignored or delayed for more than a century and a half.

The noble band of heroes, who sacrificed their lives in ignorance of Holwell’s solicitude to surrender, have a legitimate claim upon the recognition of History. A tribute, paid to their memory by an alien historian, Nawab Golam Hosain Khan, makes the reticence of their own countrymen all the more prominent and deplorable. Mr. Little, will therefore, command the admiration of all lovers of justice for his noble attempt, inspite of the hesitation of many of his countrymen, which is really due to their inability to look upon his work in its true perspective.

Holwell had associates and devoted ones too. He had more than one in those, who carried the story of the firing at Fulta; and a principal one in Captain Mills, who supported him regarding the death of Blagg in the Black Hole, and helped him greatly by sending a diary to the contemporary historian. Thus supported, Holwell acted in concert,—which related to two important matters, (i) the number of prisoners (ii) and the death of those in the Black Hole, some of whom at any rate had actually died as heroes in the defence of the fort. With this concert vanishes the large number that is said to have created the suffocation; and with it vanishes the story of the Black Hole. An unshaken faith in it reveals a want of critical faculty, which Mr. Little is unwilling to claim.

“When we are told,” said Lord Acton (Lecture on the Study of History, June 11, 1895), “that England is behind the continent in critical faculty, we must admit that this is true as to quantity, not as to quality of work." Mr. Little’s work may now be rightly cited as an example of such quality, in contrast with the great body of unscholarly criticism that has cropped up against him.

The Conclusion.

True it is that this “gigantic hoax" of Holwell is recorded in every text-book as an actual event of History, and we have to teach it, and generations after generations have to continue to learn it by heart. But it is also true, as Lord Acton told us, that,—“the historians of former ages unapproachable for us in knowledge and in talent cannot be our limit. We have the power to be more rigidly impersonal, disinterested, and just than they; and to learn from undisguised and genuine records to look with remorse upon the past, and to the future with assured hope of better things; bearing this in mind that if we lower our standard in History, we cannot uphold it in Church and State."

Mr. Little briefly replied.

The Venerable Archdeacon, W. K. Firminger, said that as the hour was late, nearly midnight, he would not detain them beyond expressing the hope that the ladies and gentlemen present who were not members of the Calcutta Historical Society, would join the Society. At present the Society was in a bad way as regards funds, and by becoming members they would not only be engaged in interesting historical work but would also help the Society.

The meeting then separated.  

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Re: Freda Bedi Cont'd (#3)

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Part 6 of 6

The Black Hole Episode: Is It History or Myth?
by Alfred Albert Martineau
English Translation by Mr. A. Lehuraux

Is the dreadful episode of the Black Hole of Calcutta during the night of the 20th June 1756, like the heroic revolt of William Tell against Gessler, nothing more than a legend? The incident is well known. In the forenoon of the 20th June 1756 Siraj-ud-daula, Nawab of Bengal, captured Fort William at Calcutta. The Governor, Mr. Drake, had escaped two days earlier to Fulta on the Hoogly with a portion of the English from the town; the remainder, unable to follow his example, were compelled either to remain in the fort or to return to the town. Mr. Holwell conducted the defence. On the 20th June at about 11 o’clock in the morning he capitulated. In the afternoon he had three conferences with Siraj-ud-daula the subject of which remains a mystery, but which probably referred to the surrender of the alleged treasures of the Company. In the evening the officers of Siraj-ud-daula confined the survivors, to the number of 169, in a prison called the Black Hole. The prison was a cell eighteen feet by fourteen, the heat was stifling and 143 perished during the night. Mr. Holwell was among the survivors; he was removed to Murshidabad and eventually set at liberty about the 10th July. But he had already spread the news of that tragic night in a letter addressed by him from Cassimbazar to a Company’s servant named Sykes. Later, he wrote a more detailed narrative of the catastrophe. The account was published in 1764. The impression produced by these revelations is one of the gloomiest in history.

Till very recent times, apart from the Bengalis, no one had cast a doubt on the authenticity of Holwell’s facts. Last September Bengal Past and Present, the organ of the Calcutta Historical Society, published a long article in which Mr. Little, an Englishman resident in Murshidabad, set out to prove that if there were English prisoners confined in the Black Hole on the 20th June 1756, their number did not exceed nine and the victims were not more than three.

Monghyr. View from "Scandal Point." Photo by Walter K. Firminger

To justify his opinion Mr. Little first endeavours to establish that Holwell, in the opinion of Clive himself as well as of other Directors of the East India Company of the period, was wont to draw largely upon his imagination for his facts. Apart from the Black Hole episode he had invented other imaginary conversations and incidents. The Black Hole incident, according to Mr. Little, was imagined by Holwell merely to screen himself from a trick practised by him on the 20th June at the capitulation, which, for some reason difficult to surmise, he had omitted to make known to his people. When Siraj-ud-daula’s soldiers came to take possession of the fort they met with an unexpected resistance, the garrison continuing to fire on them. Driven to fury they returned the fire of the English, killing a great number. These were, according to Mr. Little, the alleged victims of the Black Hole. Witnesses to his deception having thus disappeared, when Holwell was restored to liberty fifteen days or three weeks later he concocted the story known to us.

Mr. Little’s article produced a considerable sensation in India. The newspapers of Bengal, notably the Englishman and the Statesman, commented on it at great length. His critics point to the existence of several survivors of the Black Hole who died as late as 1800, the latest in 1815, and quote the letters of Holwell’s contemporaries one of whom shared his dramatic captivity. They also appeal to the opinion of Law de Lauristan, the former Chief of the French loge of Cassimbazar, who wrote in 1764 in his “Mémoires sur quelques affaires de l'Empire Mogol” published by us in 1913, a lurid account of the Calcutta drama.

The Company failed to found a successful colony on Madagascar, but was able to establish ports on the nearby islands of Bourbon and Île-de-France (today's Réunion and Mauritius). By 1719, it had established itself in India, but the firm was near bankruptcy. In the same year the Compagnie des Indes Orientales was combined under the direction of John Law with other French trading companies to form the Compagnie Perpétuelle des Indes [The Mississippi Company].
Lauriston Castle from the south

Law was born into a family of Lowland Scots bankers and goldsmiths from Fife; his father, William, had purchased Lauriston Castle, a landed estate at Cramond on the Firth of Forth and was known as Law of Lauriston. On leaving the High School of Edinburgh, Law joined the family business at the age of 14 and studied the banking business until his father died in 1688.

-- John Law (Economist), by Wikipedia
The reorganized corporation resumed its operating independence in 1723.

-- French East India Company, by Wikipedia

Jacques François Law French: Jacques-Francois Law, Compte de Tancarville Birthdate: 1724 Death: 1767 (42-43), Mauritius Immediate Family: Son of William Law of Lauriston and Rebecca Desves de Percy Husband of Maria de Carvalho Father of Jacques Louis Law de Clapernon Brother of Jean Law, baron de Lauriston; Jeanne Marie Law and Elisabeth Jeanne Law

William Law of Lauriston Birthdate: 1675 Death: 1752 (76-77) Immediate Family: Son of William Law of Brunton, Baron of Lauriston and Jean Campbell Husband of Rebecca Desves de Percy Father of Jean Law, baron de Lauriston; Jeanne Marie Law; Jacques François Law, comte de Tancarville and Elisabeth Jeanne Law Brother of John Law de Lauriston; Andrew Law of Lauriston and Jean Law of Lauriston

William Law of Brunton, Baron of Lauriston Birthdate: estimated between 1608 and 1668 Death: September 1684, Paris, France Immediate Family: Son of Reverend Mr. John Law of Waterfoot, Minister of the Gospel at Neilston and Agnes Shearer; Husband of Jean Campbell; Father of John Law de Lauriston; Andrew Law of Lauriston; William Law of Lauriston and Jean Law of Lauriston Brother of John Law, goldsmith -- by

Mr. Little refutes this evidence on the ground of the total absence of official documents relating to the occurrence. Neither the English refugees from Calcutta, nor the French at Chandernagor, nor yet the Dutch at Hoogly have written anything which makes the faintest allusion to that tragic night, although all relate the capture of Fort William. He recognises moreover that the distortion of history has been very rapid. It appears to have even preceded the liberation of Holwell. Prepared by him in a letter addressed to Sykes, it finds confirmation as early as July 3rd in a letter from Chandernagor written by some Englishmen who were not eye witnesses. Three months later it had become an accepted historical fact.

However great the interest attaching to the subject, we can only give it a very limited space here, as the Black Hole incident belongs to English history. But since Mr. Little has alluded to the absence of French testimony in the circumstances, it appeared to us interesting to consult the archives of Pondichery, the only ones actually available. In Registers Nos. 90 & 91 of our archives we possess a series of letters from 1744 to 1757 written by the Council of Pondichery to that of Chandernagor, or by the latter to different persons. Unfortunately these letters are incomplete; nevertheless we have discovered five, two of which are of great importance. They originate from the same source, the Superior Council of Chandernagor, but with a strange irony one sustains Mr. Little’s theory, while the other seemingly refutes it.

In a letter dated 25th June addressed to the factory of Masulipatam, Mr. Renault the Chief of Chandernagor relates that Siraj-ud-daula is at war with the English; he has arrived at Calcutta which he is besieging with 50,000 men, a great number of elephants and a numerous artillery. The issue is as yet unknown, but Mr. Renault anticipates the defeat and expulsion of the English. Nevertheless Mr. Renault’s letter displays no sympathy for Siraj-ud-daula. The next day Mr. Renault knows the end of the drama and announces it in the following terms in a second letter to the factory of Musulipatam: “(The English) had taken the precaution, from the beginning of the siege which has not been long, to embark the wives of the employes and of the principal residents, .... which makes one believe these vessels will have much to endure from now till they can get out of the Ganges and gain the coast. The Nawab did no harm to those who were in the factory when he took possession of it. He was content to have them stripped of their belongings, and dismissed them, with the exception of the principal residents whom he has made prisoners.”

This letter written the day following the event should be carefully noted. Not only does Mr. Renault ignore the Black Hole affair, but he calmly writes the Nawab did no harm to those who were in the factory. The letter certainly supports Mr. Little’s theory.

In another letter dated 29th August, also addressed to Masulipatam, and which appears to be a continuation of that of 26th June, Mr. Renault still appears to be ignorant of the Black Hole incident.

“No event of importance," he writes “has occurred in the country since the capture of Calcutta, and the English have so far not made any sign. All those who were imprisoned have been set free by the Nawab and have regained their ships. They have been joined by several boats from the coast, but among them there is only one Company’s vessel bearing 250 soldiers from Madras. It does not appear that with such a feeble reinforcement they will attempt any enterprise, seeing that they lack the greater part of the means required for the purpose. There has been a rumour afloat for sometime that they are willing to come to terms with the Nawab in order to return to their settlement, but this has not taken place. It is said at present that the war ships have gone to Madras and that large forces are assembling there to come and avenge the affront to the nation."

Mr. Renault on the 29th August sees nothing more in the capture of Calcutta than an affront offered to the English; to judge by current rumours the English regard themselves so little as the victims of an abominable crime that they are thinking of making terms with the Nawab.
The opinion of Mr. Renault is very different on the 16th September. In a letter addressed that day to Mr. LeVerrier, the Chief of Surat, he narrates events from their commencement:

“When we sent you our packets for Europe last July” he wrote, “we were so occupied that it was impossible to give you the smallest details concerning the revolution that we announced to you, the account of which formed the subject of our despatch. You will learn from the present that the Nawab Siraj-ud-daula having, contrary to the expectation of everyone, succeeded his grand uncle (sir) Ali Verdi Khan in the Soubadari of Bengal from the month of April, the English have experienced the most terrible effects of the anger of this young prince whom they had irritated by their arrogance and by the asylum they had accorded to certain of his enemies.

“Provoked by their boasting he invested them in their fort of Cassimbazar with many of their troops and after having removed the Chief (Mr. Watts) he made them surrender the factory which, although strong, was defended by only a few troops. Emboldened by this success, which he originally had little ground to expect, he drew up his army in battle array and came to lay siege to this place on the 18th June with 60,000 men, an immense artillery and numerous elephants.

“The vanity of the English having led them to believe that the Moors would never dare to venture so far, they found themselves so surprised and terrorized that they lost their heads at the sight of the enemy and did not profit by any of the advantages which Europeans possess over such contemptible troops. Although well fortified and numbering 600 Europeans, they scarcely offered the least resistance. The very day before the arrival of the Nawab (the 19th) the Governor, Mr. Drake, took refuge on the ships, with the commandant of the troops, the greater part of the Council, officers, inhabitants and the women. The few soldiers who remained in the fort, refusing to obey any superiors, so great a disorder ensued that the white flag was hoisted on the afternoon of the 20th. But the Moors, not wishing to recognise any capitulation, attacked the gates in great numbers and forced an entry, doing great violence to those who continued to offer any resistance. The pillage of both the settlement and the factory was immense, the English not having taken the precaution of embarking all their wealth.

“This was so to speak but the beginning of their troubles. The prisoners, amounting to some 200, having been confined pell-mell in a warehouse, were nearly all suffocated during the night. Those who survived, and especially the principal inhabitants, after enduring every species of misery, and having been carried in chains to Moxoudabad were sent back to us by the Nawab in the most pitiable condition, which we have endeavoured to relieve by all the assistance possible.

“The fate of those who escaped to the vessels was not less deplorable. Having gained the lower reach of the river with the utmost trouble in the world, they have suffered all the ill effects of the season and the inconvenience of having a multitude of women and children by whom the vessels were overcrowded, all of which added to bad fare procured with difficulty has produced a species of pestilential malady that carries away numbers every day. Many have come to seek relief here and at Chinsurah, but very few have recovered.”

A letter conceived in exactly the same terms was sent to the Council of Ile de France on the 16th December following. Do these documents suffice to pass a decisive judgment on the incident of the Black Hole? We do not think so. Like Mr. Little we are at first surprised that so extraordinary and alarming an event should not immediately have become known to public opinion, while on the other hand it seems difficult to admit that a legend of this nature could have grown so quickly. That Mr. Holwell and the English should have accepted it without question and spread it with complacency is not surprising, since it served their interests; but to admit that strangers should have been equally credulous is to say that their hatred for Siraj-ud-daula had extinguished in them all spirit of criticism. None of these suppositions is impossible. In 1756 the French at Chandernagor still considered that their interests were identical with those of the English, and their fear of Siraj-ud-daula fed by reports of his lordly cruelties, clouded their judgment.

We must, therefore, until further evidence is forthcoming, regard Mr. Little’s theory as not proven, but we are far from considering his arguments as valueless. India, every one knows, is a land where truth is deformed with the greatest ease and rapidity. We find instances of this fact every day in our own administration. It must also be recognised, in equity, that cruelty is not the characteristic of Indians, and nothing justifies us in supposing that in the present case they wreaked vengeance for a particular offence. Siraj-ud-daula, every one is agreed, did not give orders to imprison the English or to cause them to perish in so brutal a fashion; why should his officers have been more cruel? From the standpoint of psychology this is by no means evident.

We shall be told perhaps that seven years later at Patna the dethroned Nawab Mir Kassim caused many English to be put to death under still more cruel circumstances; but Mir Kassim had good grounds for hating the English and for wishing to be revenged on them. Moreover nothing tells us that in ordering their massacre he did not wish to transform the Black Hole legend into a striking reality.

We must not ask History to be the handmaid of passion. Holwell sleeps in the grave yard of Pinner since 1798; he has his statue at Calcutta, let us respect his grave. As to his memory, if it is ever proved beyond doubt that the incident of the Black Hole was grossly exaggerated, it should not be forgotten that, according to the official documents published by Mr. Hill in his Bengal in 1756-57, the English defended themselves bravely against Siraj-ud-daula on the 20th June till six o’clock in the evening and that a great number of them fell in the fight. In default of legend that alone would suffice for their fame.

Monghyr. Entrance to Fort Close to Cemetery. Photo by Walter K. Firminger.
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