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Early in 1756, the terrifying tale of the Black Hole of Calcutta begins. The East India Company, a relative newcomer to the Indian subcontinent, had already created a well-known trade hub in Calcutta, but French interests in the region threatened to undermine its primacy. The Company made the decision to fortify Fort William, its primary fort in the city, as a preventative precaution.

It is important to keep in mind that the East India Company only directly controlled a small number of strongholds in India during the early stages of colonial rule. In order to maintain these strongholds, the Company was frequently compelled to enter into tense truces with neighbouring princely states and their ruling "Nawabs."
When the neighbouring Nawab of Bengal, Siraj ud-Daulah, learned of the rising militarization of Fort William, he gathered some 50,000 soldiers, 50 cannons, and 500 elephants and marched on Calcutta. By June 19th, 1756, the Nawab’s force was at the gates of Fort William, and the majority of the local British employees had fled to the Company's ships in the harbour.

The fort was, sadly for the British, in quite bad shape. The mortars' ammunition was too wet to be used, and their commander, John Zephaniah Holwell, was a governor whose primary responsibility was tax collection. On the afternoon of June 20th, Holwell was compelled to hand over to the Nawab with only 70 to 170 soldiers left to defend the fort. The last British troops and residents were collected up as the Nawab’s forces approached the city and thrown into the fort's "black hole," a tiny prison measuring 5.4 metres by 4.2 metres that was initially designed for minor offenders.

The convicts were subsequently confined for the evening in stifling humidity and temperatures that reached approximately 40 degrees. According to Holwell's testimony, over a hundred people perished over the course of the following few hours as a result of asphyxia and trampling. When the cell doors were unlocked at 6am, there was a heap of dead bodies. Those who begged for their captors' mercy were met with jeers and laughing. Only 23 individuals had endured. A relief expedition headed by Robert Clive was swiftly organised once word of the "Black Hole" reached London and landed in Calcutta in October. Fort William was captured by the British in January 1757 after a protracted siege.

At the Battle of Plassey in June of that same year, Robert Clive and a force of only 3,000 men destroyed the Nawab’s 50,000-man army. The British's victory at Plassey is frequently recognised as the beginning of extensive colonial authority in India, which would continue unbroken until independence in 1947.

Sriparna Mukherjee
Amity University, Kolkata


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