Story of Lord Clive - John Lang

The Black Hole of Calcutta

After a year in England, Clive stood for Parliament at the General Election, and was returned for the borough of St. Michael, in Cornwall. On petition, however, he was unseated. Election petitions in those days were not heard before judges, as is now the case, but were heard before a Committee of the House of Commons. The Committee decided in Clive's favour, but then the question came later before the whole House. It became, therefore, not a question as to whether Clive had or had not been properly returned, but a Party question, and that Party which Clive supported was not so strong as the other, and he thus lost his seat. The disappointment was a grievous one, and he determined to return to India.

Before sailing, he received a commission as lieutenant-colonel in the royal army. Up to this time he had held his commission only from the East India Company. He was also appointed Governor and Commander of Fort St. David, and was named as the future Governor of Madras.

He sailed for Bombay in 1755, taking with him three companies of artillery and 300 infantry. On arrival at Bombay, he employed his men in harrying the stronghold of Angria, a pirate chief, who had for years been a pest on that coast. No town was safe from him; no trading vessel could sail in those waters without almost the certainty of capture; no man's life was secure; on all the Malabar coast Angria was feared and hated. Now his end had come. Clive wiped him out, and destroyed his stronghold after two days' fighting, and plunder worth 150,000 was taken and divided amongst the troops and the fleet.

After this Clive sailed for Fort St. David, where he arrived on 20th June 1756. That is a day never to be forgotten in the history of India and of England; a day the horror of which yet lives, and men forget now, when they talk of "The Black Hole of Calcutta," that they speak of horrors which took place 50 years ago. Except in the punishment of the fiends who caused the awful torture and death of so many helpless white men, Clive had no part in the affair. But no story could be told of Clive's life without telling also of the tragedy of the Black Hole of Calcutta.

The Nawab Surajah Dowlah, native ruler of Bengal, a very young man, thoroughly vicious and bad, for reasons of his own had seized the English factory at Cossimbazar. After plundering it and putting the small garrison in prison, he had marched against Calcutta, where he believed that the English had vast treasure hidden away. Surajah Dowlah gave out that his chief reason for coming against Calcutta was that the English were, contrary to his orders, building new fortifications round that city.

Far, however, from adding to their fortifications, the English, to avoid giving offence to Surajah Dowlah, delayed for nearly three weeks, after hearing of his having marched, even to repair their old earthworks, which were in a ruinous state. Thus, when at last, on 7th June, they realised that their only safety lay in resisting Surajah Dowlah, there was no time to put their fortifications in any condition to be defended.

All that could be done was done. Provisions were got in, and letters were sent to Madras and to Bombay asking for help. But help from these places could not be got, for, owing to the blowing of the south-west monsoon, troops could not come by sea, and a force could not arrive by land from either place in time to be of any use.

Help was even asked from the neighbouring Dutch and French settlements. The Dutch refused to stir a finger; the French only said, "You can come and hide behind as at Chandranagore, if you like. We will send no help to Calcutta; it isn't our quarrel." Nothing remained, therefore, for the little garrison but to do the best that lay in its power.

Of the 514 men in the fort, only 174 were English. The rest were of mixed races, partly Portuguese, partly Armenian, none of them to be depended on. There were also 1500 natives, armed with old-fashioned muskets, called matchlocks, weapons, even in those days, only fit to put in a museum. In the river lay a few small lightly-armed ships.

On 16th June news of the enemy's approach was brought to Calcutta; the soldiers at once went to their posts, and all English women quitted their houses and came inside the fort. Into the fort, too, flocked 2000 Portuguese—a mob of terrified, clamouring men, women, and children, who added greatly to the difficulties of the defenders. Fighting began that afternoon, 4000 of the enemy attacking a small outlying redoubt, which stood a little way up the river from Calcutta, and which was garrisoned by fifty Englishmen, with two field-guns. That same night the officer in command of the redoubt, Ensign Pickard, led out a party of his men, drove the enemy from their position and spiked their guns, without himself losing a man.

But the English outposts were soon driven in, and gradually the whole body was forced back into the fort. Here the confusion was terrible; the Portuguese and Armenian militia were useless from fear, the lascars and others had deserted, and, in spite of much bravery shown by the English, there seemed little chance of keeping the enemy out. That night nearly all the English women were sent for safety to the small vessels which lay at anchor in the river, and at 2 a.m. a council of war was held to decide whether the whole remaining force should escape to the ships, or continue to hold the fort. But no decision was come to, and at daylight the enemy again attacked fiercely.

During the night many of the boats had deserted, and after sunrise, when an attempt was made to take the Portuguese women and children off to the ships, so great was the confusion and terror amongst them, that in the rush to get on board, the poor frantic creatures overcrowded the remaining boats so that they sank. Thus numbers perished, and many others were massacred by the enemy, who now had possession of the bank of the river above and below the fort. Now, too, Surajah Dowlah's men began to shoot fire-arrows into the vessels which lay close to the shore. So great a panic arose amongst the passengers and crews that the ships slipped their anchors and dropped three miles down the river.

Soon after this, Mr. Drake, the Governor (who up to now had behaved very well), hearing from a man that all the powder remaining in the magazines was so damp as to be unfit for use, and seeing that only two boats were left, by one of which some of his own friends were escaping, became panic-stricken and hurried into the other boat, without giving any warning to the garrison.

This was bad enough, but more remains to be told. The military commanding officer, and several others who saw the Governor embark, followed his example, and crowding also into the boat, fled, leaving the garrison to its fate. Bitter and fierce was the anger this desertion raised in the hearts of the few brave men who were left in Calcutta, and Mr. Holwell, who now took command, locked the gate leading to the river, so that at least no more might run away.

The whole garrison that remained amounted now but to 190 men. How could they, so few, hold out against the countless thousands of Surajah Dowlah!

A chance of safety still remained. One small ship had been stationed a little way up the river, and signals were now made to her to drop down abreast of the fort. When all had been done that brave men could do, the garrison had yet the hope that they might by her help save themselves. But as she came down stream, unhappily this little vessel ran aground, and remained fast on a mud-bank; and her crew, finding it impossible to get her off, left her to her fate.

And so the last hope of safety vanished. Signal after signal was made to the ships which had dropped down the river out of harm's way, but not one took any notice, not one attempted to help the doomed garrison.

During the next few hours' fighting, twenty-five of the defenders were either killed or were mortally wounded, and seventy of the others were more or less hurt. Many of the common soldiers, too, having broken open a building where arrack was stored, became hopelessly drunk, and refused to obey orders. Some of them, in their drunken folly, thinking to escape, opened one of the gates just as the enemy were about to make an assault on it, and the fort was at once rushed. Twenty of the garrison jumped over the walls, and a few struggled wearily through the river-mud till they joined the ships, but all the rest of the Englishmen were taken by Surajah Dowlah's soldiers.

At first no harm was done to the prisoners, and when Surajah Dowlah and his general, Meer Jaffier, came into the fort, the former promised Mr. Holwell, "on the word of a soldier," that he and his companions should be well treated.

But night came, the hot, stifling night, when to sleep is possible only if a punkah is without cease kept waving over the bed. On such nights, sheets and clothes seem to scorch the naked skin, and a fever of thirst consumes those who lie panting through the breathless hours. It was the season of the year when the heat in Bengal is unbearable. Night came, and Surajah Dowlah had left the fort. Orders arrived, from whom no one knows, that the prisoners should be locked up. Search was made for a suitable building in which to confine them, but none could be found.

Thereupon a native officer commanded the prisoners to go into a room, the door of which was close to where they stood. It was a very small room, a room known as the Black Hole, which had been used by the garrison as a dungeon for confining drunken soldiers. It was capable of holding three or four, or perhaps half-a-dozen men, without ill effect on those so confined.

Many of the English, knowing the size of the dungeon and its terrible want of air, (for it had but two very small windows opening on to a low-roofed verandah), objected to being put in there. Some of the prisoners laughed, thinking that the order was given merely in jest. But it was no jest.

The officer ordered his men to draw their swords, and to cut down any one who refused to enter. Thus, 146 miserable and helpless beings—145 men and one lady, a Mrs. Carey—were forced as sword's point into this small space, and the door was with difficulty closed on them. Happier their fate had they been cut down before entering.

Orme, the historian of India, whose account was written not many years after, says of this fearful time "It was the hottest season of the year and the night uncommonly sultry even at this season. The excessive pressure of their bodies against one another, and the intolerable heat which prevailed as soon as the door was shut, convinced the prisoners that it was impossible to live through the night in this horrible confinement, and violent attempts were immediately made to force the door, but without effect, for it opened inward; on which many began to give a loose to rage."

Mr. Holwell, who had been one of those fortunate enough to get near a window, tried to calm them, and he offered to a native non-commissioned officer, who stood outside near the window, a thousand rupees if he would put the prisoners into two rooms. The man said he would see what could be done, but soon he returned, saying that it was impossible. Mr. Holwell then offered him two thousand rupees, and again the man went away, whilst the unfortunate prisoners waited, hopeful, but almost fearing to be hopeful, of release. Once more the man returned, shaking his head.

Black Hole of Calcutta


"No, he said. "It is impossible. Nothing can be done. The Nawab" (Surajah Dowlah) "is asleep. Nothing can be done without his orders, and no one dares to wake him."

Now began horrors so great that one may not tell all that happened. Again the prisoners tried to break open the door, and again they failed. The heat was so unbearable that all were forced to take off their clothes; but this gave no relief. Many, overcome, sank down and rose no more. "Water! water!" the poor prisoners gasped; "for God's sake give us water!"

The non-commissioned officer who had before tried to help them, ordered some skins of water to be brought to the barred windows, but this only made matters worse. Men fought like wild beasts to be first to cool their parched throats they trampled on each other, and raved madly over the water that was spilled by their struggles. Those who did get water were no better off than their comrades who got none; it gave no relief, for every moment the air of the dungeon grew more and more foul, every moment the heat more great, till all but the strongest laid themselves quietly down and died.

And while this horror went on, the fiends outside, the Nawab's soldiers, crowded round the windows, holding up torches that they might lose nothing of the sight, and shrieking with laughter at the mad struggles of their victims.

Before midnight, all who were left alive, and who were not near the windows, were either unconscious or out of their minds. "Faintness," says Orme, "sometimes gave short pauses of quiet, but the first motion of any one renewed the struggle through all, under which, ever and anon, some one sunk to rise no more. At two o'clock not more than fifty remained alive."

In the morning, it was thought that Mr. Holwell's influence might still have some effect in getting the guard to open the door. But Mr. Holwell, though alive, was now unconscious. He was carried towards a window, so that the air there, being less foul, might revive him. But each man near the window refused to give up his place, for that meant possibly giving up also his life.

Only one, Captain Mills, was brave enough, unselfish enough, to give way to Mr. Howell. Hardly had the latter begun to come to his senses, when an officer, sent by Surajah Dowlah, came to inquire if the leader of the English was alive; and soon the same officer returned, and ordered the door to be opened.

Before that could be done, however, (for you will remember that the door opened inwards), it took the poor, exhausted survivors nearly half-an-hour before they found strength enough to clear a lane through the dead to allow the living to pass out, one by one.

Of 146 who went in, but twenty-three came out—twenty-two men, and Mrs. Carey. Happier far for her had it been if she, too, had been numbered with the dead.

A few only of those who came through that fearful night were able to make their way down the river to the ships, which still lay where they had come to an anchor. The awful tale the poor suffering creatures had to tell must surely have crushed with shame and. remorse those on board who had made no effort to help them. Says Orme: "Never, perhaps, was such an opportunity of performing an heroic action so ignominiously neglected; for a single sloop, with fifteen brave men on board, might, in spite of all the efforts of the enemy, have come up, and anchoring under the fort, have carried away all who suffered in the dungeon."

It is probable that Surajah Dowlah did not mean to treat his prisoners with cruelty so fiendish. But, at the least, he never punished those who had been guilty of it, he never showed the slightest sense of pity for the sufferings of his victims, and he sent up country in chains, and cruelly ill-treated, Mr. Holwell and some of the others who, he imagined, were concealing from him the spot where, he chose to believe, the English had hidden treasure in Calcutta.

Surajah Dowlah gloried in his "victory," and he imagined that the English would never again dare to appear in arms in his country. He had wiped them out, he thought.