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On This Day… The Black Hole Of Calcutta

Written by: George Chittenden : 27 Jul 2019

It was on this day, 20th June back in 1756 when dozens of prisoners were thrown into a small cell at Fort William, India, for a night of hell in an incident the history books remember as “the black hole of Calcutta.”

The actual number of prisoners that faced the horrific conditions varies from account to account. We do know that the cell measured 14 feet × 18 feet, and that the next morning when it was re-opened most of the poor prisoners had died from either suffocation or heat exhaustion. Many reports state that 146 were placed in the cell, and only 21 survived imprisonment, however some accounts report that the number of people forced into the famous black hole was lower, but either way, when the cell’s door was opened the next day the guards faced a mound of dead bodies.

So, what led to the incident in the first place? Well, The East India Company, who were relatively new to India, had established a trading base in Calcutta and had increased the defences of its main fort in the city, Fort William. On hearing of this, the Newab of Bengal, Siraj ud-Daulah, raised a small army consisting of 50,000 troops, fifty cannons and 500 elephants. When he marched on Calcutta, the British were caught off-guard. Unfortunately for them their mortars were too damp to be used and their British Commander, John Zephaniah Holwell, who had little military experience was forced to surrender the fort. The surviving defenders who were captured and made prisoners-of-war numbered between 64 and 69 and were placed in the cell along with an unknown number of Anglo-Indian soldiers and civilians, including several women.

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