Is the black hole of Calcutta a myth?


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Dear Straight Dope: I was lead to believe that the incident known as “The Black Hole of Calcutta” was true but recently discovered that the story may have been (using a polite term ) “embellished.” In fact, it appears to have been a great exaggeration that contributed to the downfall of Britain in India. What’s the Straight Dope and why did no one investigate this more thoroughly--or did Britain need a war to help the economy? Dan Bennett

John Corrado replies:

Actually, Dan, you’ve got it a bit backwards. The incident in Calcutta (or, to use the spelling preferred by India as of last December, Kolkata) was not the beginning of the end of British rule in India. Rather, it was the end of the beginning. Or, at least, the middle of the beginning. Or somewhere in the beginning part.

Not the absolute beginning part, though–that would start with the formation of the British East India Company in 1600. But we’ll get to that in a second.  

The story of the Black Hole, for those unfamiliar with it, is this.  In 1756, Sirai-ud-daulah, the Nawab of Bengal, decided to show off his power by driving the infidel Europeans out of Indian lands. His army attacked Fort William in Calcutta, and captured 146 soldiers of the British East India Company. 

The East India Company was an early example of privatization. The British crown had granted a group of knights and merchants of London a charter to go forth and try to wrest some of the East Indies spice trade from the Dutch. The company failed there, but managed to set up trading posts in Madras and Calcutta. Troops were hired as company employees to protect the trading posts from restless natives and from the other European powers, and soon the East India Company was a rich megacorporation with outposts around the globe, a commanding position in world markets, and its own private army. William Gibson, take note. 

On June 21st, on the Nawab’s orders, the soldiers were marched into the “Black Hole," a prison cell located in the fort. One hundred forty-six people were crammed into a cell that was 24 feet wide by 18 feet long (or maybe 18.5 feet by fourteen, see below), in the blazing heat of the Indian summer. There were no windows in the room (or maybe there was one, or maybe two–again, see below). No water or food were given to the captives. When the Indian guards returned the next morning, 123 of the 146 had died, many of them still standing up due to the crowded conditions of the room.

Anyway, that’s the story told by one of the survivors, John Zephaniah Holwell, in A Genuine Narrative of the Deplorable Deaths of the English Gentlemen and others who were suffocated in the Black Hole. No other survivor of the incident stepped forward to contradict him–in fact, many stepped forward to agree entirely with his account.

Except. Except that they differed a bit on the size of the room. And whether it had windows at all. But at the time, no one really cared. Instead, the incident attained mythical status as a demonstration of British stoicism for surviving the horror, and of Indian treachery and barbarism.

In 1915, scholar J.H. Little published an article entitled, “The Black Hole–The Question of Holwell’s Veracity," in which he pointed out the flaws in Holwell’s story. He showed Holwell to be an unreliable witness and claimed the entire incident–if it occurred at all–was exaggerated by Holwell in an attempt to pass himself off as a hero (successfully, I might add, for Holwell eventually rose to become Governor of Bengal). Other scholars have since studied the issue, including Indian scholar Brijen Gupta, and claimed that Little vastly underplayed the matter, while Holwell vastly overplayed it.

So what’s the truth? Here’s the best that can be established. The East India Company garrison in Kolkata had been building up the defenses at Fort William in preparation for eventual war with the nearby French forces. Nawab Sirai-ud-daulah took this action as a threat to his rule, given that the East India Company had tried to prevent him from taking the throne in the first place. The Nawab gathered his forces together and took Fort William. The captives numbered 64 to 69 people, and they were placed in the cell as a temporary holding by a local commander. But there was confusion in the Indian chain of command, and the captives were unintentionally left there overnight. No more than 43 of the garrison at Fort William was unaccounted for afterwards; therefore, at most 43 people died in the Black Hole.

So, on the one hand, yes, the British–at the very least Holwell and those East India Company officials who knew the truth–did overstate what happened, exaggerating the number of casualties and the motivations of the Indians. On the other hand, the Indians did force over five dozen people into a cell that was designed to hold maybe six, and then promptly, though accidentally, forgot about them and let them swelter and starve. Not a real good PR move, there.

As for the fall and decline of the British empire, though–not really. The Black Hole incident outraged the British public, which thereafter was willing to let the East India Company do whatever it needed to pacify the damned wogs–which is probably why the company let Holwell’s story remain the official account. Robert Clive, a lieutenant colonel in the company, took a relief force from Madras and routed the Nawab, eventually deposing Siraj-ud-daula and replacing him with his uncle Mir Jafar. Jafar paid Clive 235,000 pounds and gave him a 30,000 pound-a-year salary, and the East India Company was given the power to tax Mughal lands and command Mughal troops. Suddenly, rather than being traders in India, the East India Company was the de facto ruler–an incident most Britons looked upon with great favor, possibly out of revenge for the Black Hole, or the belief that with British rule, the savages of India could be civilized.

Even when the Black Hole story was being debunked in Britain in 1915, the general attitude of Indians towards Britain was still one of respect and acceptance. It wasn’t until after World War I, when Britain began backing down on promises made to India, then reacted with force to Indian protest movements, that the true decline of the British rule of India began.

But here’s a last thought. The initial idea of Hinduism as a religion and a nationality, and of it being equal if not superior to that of English Anglicanism, which of course played a role in the independence movement, might have been sparked by the tract Interesting Historical Events, relating to the Provinces of Bengal and the Empire of Indostan. . . . As also the Mythology and Cosmogony, Fasts and Festivals of the Gentoos, followers of the Shastah, and a Dissertation on the Metempsychosis, commonly, though erroneously, called the Pythagorean doctrine, in which Britons were exhorted not to apply their own standards to the Indians, and rather to let the Indians follow their own path. It was written in 1767 by one John Zephaniah Holwell.

As the one hand giveth, and all that.

John Corrado

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