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Story of the English - Helene Guerber

The Black Hole of Calcutta

The war which thus raged in two parts of the world was also extended to a third. In the days of Queen Elizabeth, the English had formed the East India Company and had begun to trade in Asia, where the French had preceded them. By this time the East India Company had several trading posts, besides the city of Bombay, which had belonged to the English ever since the marriage of Charles II. Whenever there was war between France and England, the French and the English traders in India took part in the quarrel.

Now, when the Seven Years' War began, the English had a small station at Calcutta, besides their settlements at Madras and Bombay. The Viceroy of Bengal, an ally of the French, suddenly attacked the Calcutta station with a large force of natives. Of course the place fell into his hands, and he ordered one hundred and forty-six English prisoners to be locked up under the fort in a small, dark room, known as the Black Hole.

There was barely standing room for the prisoners in this small place; but they were driven in at the sword's point and the door was closed. Now you know that people cannot live without plenty of air; and as soon as these captives were shut in they began to gasp for breath, for there were only two very small windows.

Map of India


It is frightfully hot in India, and this was in the month of June. The English knew that they must die in a few hours if they were not released, so they implored the sentinels to go and ask the viceroy to put them elsewhere. But the soldiers did not dare disturb their master, who was resting; and, besides, they were so heartless that they laughed as they watched the Englishmen struggling to reach the window for a breath of air, and heard them clamour for water. This was given to them in very small quantities, but only in exchange for large sums of money.

The suffering of those poor people cannot be described; and when the door was finally forced open, the next morning, only twenty-three were still alive! All the others—one hundred and twenty-three had perished from want of air!

When this news reached the ears of the English traders, one of them, Robert Clive, set out with a force of about one thousand Englishmen and two thousand natives, whom he had drilled until they made good soldiers. With this small army, he defeated the Viceroy of Bengal's sixty thousand men at Plassey (1757), and recaptured Calcutta.

Since that day Calcutta has belonged to the British, who have made of it a great and flourishing city. The whole of Bengal soon came under their rule, and little by little they extended their conquests, until in 1760, the year of the death of George II., they drove the French out of India.

During the reign of this monarch a change was made in the calendar. The English had hitherto kept to the length of the year adopted by the Romans in the days of Julius Caesar. But it had long been known that according to this system the year was, on the average, about eleven minutes too long; and these eleven minutes in each year had by this time amounted to eleven days, so all dates were eleven days wrong.

On the Continent this error had been corrected by the pope in 1582; but the English had clung to the "Old Style," and they dated their letters September 3 when people elsewhere wrote September 14. This difference made correspondence very awkward, so, by decree of Parliament, the date was changed in the year 752. Not only were the eleven days provided for, but it was also decided that the year should thereafter begin on January t, instead of on the 25th of March, as had been the custom until then.