September 13, 2012

Black Hole Memorial, Calcutta

This post is part of series about St. John’s Church located in BBD Bagh area, Calcutta. The integrated post about the church and the structures within can be accessed from here – Pixelated Memories - St. John's Church.


"Of one hundred and forty-six prisoners, one hundred and twenty-three were smothered in the Black Hole prison, in the night of the 20th of June, 1756. Few survived capable of giving any detail of the manner in which it happened; and of these I believe none have attempted it: for my own part, I have often sat down with this resolution, and as often relinquished the melancholy task, not only from the disturbance and affliction it raised afresh in my remembrance, but from the consideration of the impossibility of finding language capable of raising an adequate idea of the horrors of the scene I essayed to draw. But as I believe the annals of the world cannot produce an incident like it in any degree or proportion to all the dismal circumstances attending to it, and as my own health of body and peace of mind are once again, in a great measure, recovered from the injuries they suffered from that fatal night, I cannot allow it to be buried in oblivion."
– John Zephaniah Holwell, "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" (1758)

A solitary edifice remembering the victims of Calcutta's Black Hole (Photo courtesy -

The British East India "trading" Company, an early example of capitalist privatization and massive-scale political maneuvering and powerbrokership, was given the charter to trade silk, spices and jewels in foreign lands, most notably India and south-east Asia, by the British crown – the Company soon began to maintain its own army in the areas where it established factories, hired British army officers as administrators, maintained regiments of mercenaries and Indian soldiers and turned kingmaker in several regions where it practiced its writ by interfering with local politics and sovereignty of the kings and landlords and also through political intrigues and offering military assistance to the warring factions. The Company adopted a policy of high-handedness and abuse of its duty-free privileges when Mirza Muhammad Siraj-ud-Daulah ascended the throne of the Nawab (Provincial Governor) of Bengal and Bihar in AD 1756. Only 23-years old at the time of his ascension, the wise Nawab, from the very beginning of his reign, was worried stiff by the ever-increasing territorial power and influence of affluent foreign imperialist countries and their militarily-strong trading companies. And he had valid reason to be worried as well – the assiduously cunning British East India Company never wanted him to become the ruler of Bengal-Bihar, but instead supported, financially and militarily, his renegade uncles and cousins. Immediately upon ascension and as one of the first working orders he issued, an enraged Siraj demanded the fortifications and armouries of both the French and British strongholds in Calcutta be torn down. The French promptly obeyed, but the obdurate British did not comply, further refused to pay the respects due to him, and soon thereafter even indulged in rioting and war-mongering. Incensed, Siraj marched to Fort William, the Company’s military and trade stronghold, and laid siege to it. The fortress' Commander and other officers had escaped beforehand to safety, leaving behind only a small retinue of trained soldiers and civilians to defend it and they proved no match for Siraj's martial prowess and surrendered four days later. The fortress captured and its defenders imprisoned, Siraj handed them over for further dealings and interrogation to his commander Manikchand. It is said that 146 of the survivors of that melancholic siege and battle were confined overnight in a horribly small, poorly ventilated dungeon – consequentially, 123 of them died as a result of asphyxiation and the ensuing stampede when water was passed around the prison cell!

Commemoration (Photo courtesy -

The entire miserably terrifying, heartrending brutal incident from British-Indian history is based on the account of John Zephaniah Holwell, who claimed to be a survivor of the “Black Hole” tragedy (nomenclature he himself invented – in a way, the credit for the christening of the spatial phenomena of gravitationally collapsed colossal objects discovered much later goes to him) and penned an exceedingly detailed account, filled with pictures of blackened windows, suffocation and terrible physical and mental atrocities, about the abominable incident. British politicians and public, outraged and vehement in their demands for retribution and vengeance, never asked questions about Holwell's stories nor accounted for the numbers of soldiers, dead or missing, following the incident. No other contemporary historian or even Company papers mention this particularly important incident, nor was a report of it made to the Company Director. Nevertheless, it gave Lieutenant-Colonel Robert Clive the opportunity to march from Madras with a regiment of especially trained soldiers and challenge Siraj-ud-Daulah's authority in the Battle of Plassey (AD 1757). The Company became the de-facto ruler of the entire province of Bengal after Siraj's capture and execution on the battle front, the ascension of his Commander and Paymaster-General Mir Jafar Ali Khan (with the Company's inauspicious blessings) as the (nominal) sovereign and the appointment of J.Z. Holwell as the Governor of Bengal. British Governors, administrators and politicians of the day magnified the incident by adding gruesome details, used it to justify their conquests over the “uncivilized and brutal” Indians and, considering the meteoric rise of Robert Clive and J.Z. Holwell, also milked its aftermath to their own personal advantage. Later British historians justified the conquest of Bengal through intrigues and treachery by considering it a just retribution for the tragedy and an essential requisite for the Company's trade and territorial supremacy – but what if the maligned event itself was a case of crookedness and falsehood?!

Today, many eminent historians, including the renowned British scholar J.H. Little, question the veracity of Holwell's eyewitness account and contend that the ghastly incident did not take place at all but was a fabrication by Holwell to blemish the monarch’s name and present himself as the hero of the day. Most historians, however, do accept that some prisoners were indeed put in the dungeon and many amongst them did die due to suffocation, summer heat and the ensuing stampede, but hotly dispute that Siraj was not personally responsible for their deaths and Holwell’s version is highly exaggerated in itself as 146 people could not have been physically confined in the said punishment room (14 ft X 18 ft) and only around 65 people were actually confined. They even deny Holwell's statements that the women prisoners of European or mixed descent were forcefully relegated to Siraj's harem. There are many other inconsistencies unaccounted for that render the entire episode a shameful sham – for instance, how did Holwell move about in the cramped chamber to comfort his co-prisoners like he claims to have done in his recounting? How did he observe their agonized faces and keep note of the time in his watch if the entire chamber was drenched in darkness and even the windows had been barred and blocked till not a stream of light escaped through? Also, it has been countered that Holwell and several other officials and military officers escaped from Fort William through a series of tunnels to the Hooghly riverfront from where they were transported to Chennai (Madras) by a ship and only 43 people, including many Indian soldiers, were left unaccounted for.

The monument at its original location, after it was recommissioned by Lord Curzon in 1901 (Photo courtesy -

Besides penning the said book about the tragic incident, Holwell even commissioned a commemorative memorial edifice that was originally located near the present-day Calcutta General Post Office (refer Pixelated Memories - General Post Office) in 1760. Interestingly, the entire monument vanished without a trace in 1822! Some historians claim that it was demolished upon the orders of then Governor-General Francis Rawdon-Hastings who was disturbed by the congregation of barbers at all times of the day around the obelisk memorial. The "Black Hole" itself, afterwards transformed into an ordinary warehouse, was dismantled when the fortress was rebuilt several years later. It is surprising that an edifice remembering such a gruesome catastrophic event in British history was destroyed in its entirety and there was no monument whatsoever following its obliteration to mark the same. Another monument, exactly identical to the original in all aspects except a few further fabrications (discussed below), was rebuilt in the vicinity of Writers' Building (present day office of the Chief Minister of Bengal, said to be the actual site of the “Black Hole”, refer Pixelated Memories - Writers' Building) by Lord Curzon, then Viceroy of India, in 1901. But in addition to the twenty seven names that Holwell had furnished of the British officers massacred in the tragedy, Lord Curzon also added several more who were known to have actually died in the siege of the fortress and the skirmishes and fighting that followed! Epigraphs were inscribed on each side of the memorial. The one etched upon the orders of Lord Curzon reads –

"This Monument
Has been erected by
Lord Curzon, Viceroy and Governor-General of India,
In the year 1902,
Upon the site
And in reproduction of the design
Of the original monument
To the memory of the 123 persons
Who perished in the Black Hole prison
Of Old Fort William
On the night of the 20th of June, 1756.

The former memorial was raised by
Their surviving fellow-sufferer
J. Z. Holwell, Governor of Fort William,
On the spot where the bodies of the dead
Had been thrown into the ditch of the ravelin.
It was removed in 1821."

At the height of Indian independence movement, with the growing clamor, especially provoked by Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose, for removal of signs of British supremacy and colonial history, the memorial was removed in its entirety from the Writers' Building compound and shoved in a corner of St. John’s Church (refer Pixelated Memories - St. John's Church for more details and photographs) where it still exists.

The 50 feet (15 meters) tall, obelisk-like memorial surmounted upon an extremely high octagonal base, one of the earliest examples of British masonry in the country, is inscribed with the names of the 123 people (supposedly) killed while incarcerated in the Black Hole. One of the legends states –

"The names of those who perished
in the Black Hole prison,
inscribed upon the reverse side
of this monument
are in excess of the list
recorded by Governor Holwell
upon the original monument.
The additional names, and
the Christian names of the remainder,
have been recovered from oblivion
by reference to contemporary documents."

Citing the memorial's meager forgotten existence in the corner of the church complex, another engraving, belonging to a later date after the sober but shambolic edifice had been shifted here, notes –

"This Monument was erected in 1901
Lord Curzon on the original site of the Black Hole
(North-West corner of Dalhousie Square)
and removed thence to the Cemetery of
St. John’s Church, Calcutta in 1940."

The reason (Photo courtesy -

Whatever the true story was, the event has become an important constituent of the annals of Indo-British history and has been one of those instances where stories, conceived out of half-truths and falsehoods and constructed on the premise of an irresistible and unquenchable lust for political and territorial power, repeated again and again become transformed to "truths", difficult to chaff from reality, in popular perception. Oddly enough, J.Z. Holwell, as a surgeon and commentator interested in Indian civilization and Hindu scriptures and culture, drafted massive essays titled "An account of the manner of inoculating for the Small Pox in the East Indies with observations on the mode of treating that disease in those parts" (1767) and "Interesting historical events, relative to the Provinces of Bengal, and the Empire of Indostan with a seasonable hint and persuasive to the honorable the court of directors of the East India Company. As also the mythology and cosmogony, fasts and festivals of the Gentoo's, followers of the Shastah. And a dissertation on the metempsychosis, commonly, though erroneously, called the Pythagorean doctrine" (3 vol., 1765-1771). The latter exhorted fellow British clergy, scholars and administrators to consider Hinduism as equivalent to Christianity and, in distant future much to the chagrin of his corrupted, hell-bound soul, was particularly used by Indian nationalists during the Independence Movement. Revenge is best served cold!

Location: Inside St. John's Church complex, BBD Bagh area (refer Pixelated Memories - St. John's Church),  approximately a kilometer from Esplanade square.
Nearest Metro station/bus stop: Esplanade
How to reach: Walk/take a taxi from Esplanade.
Open: All days, 10 am – 5 pm
Entrance Fees: Rs 10 for visitors on foot; parking charges applicable.
Photography/Video Charges: Nil
Time required for sightseeing: 10 min
Other monuments within the church complex -
  1. Pixelated Memories - Charnock's Tomb 
  2. Pixelated Memories - Lady Canning Memorial 
  3. Pixelated Memories - Lady Johnson's Memorial
  4. Pixelated Memories - Rohilla War Memorial
Relevant Links - 
  1.  Pixelated Memories - General Post Office
  2.  Pixelated Memories - Writers' Building
Suggested reading - 
  1. - "Calcutta: A Cultural and Literary History" by Krishna Dutta 
  2. - "India Tracts" by J.Z. Holwell 
  3. - "The Black Hole of Empire: History of a Global Practice of Power" by Partha Chatterjee 
  4. - Article "A Return to the Black Hole" (dated Oct 01, 2012) by Gyan Prakash 
  5. - Early views - Hinduism 
  6. - Article " MYTH OF EMPIRE - The story about the Black Hole of Calcutta refuses to die" (dated June 25, 2006) by Rudrangshu Mukherjee 
  7. - Black Hole of Calcutta 
  8. - John Zephaniah Holwell
  9. - Robert Clive
  10. - Siraj-ud-Daulah
  11. - Holwell, John Zephaniah

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