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Black Hole of Calcutta

The Black Hole of Calcutta was a 20 foot square chamber in Fort William, Calcutta which held overnight 146 British subjects by Surajah Dowlah[?], the Nawab of Bengal, June 20, 1756. Only 23 survived.

On the capture of Calcutta by Dowlah, the English garrison, consisting of 146 men, under the command of John Zephaniah Holwell, were locked up for the night in the common dungeon of the fortress. The dungeon was a strongly barred room and was not intended for the confinement of more than two or three men at a time.

There were only two windows, and a projecting veranda outside and thick iron bars within impeded the ventilation, while fires raging in different parts of the fort gave the atmosphere further oppressiveness. The prisoners were packed so tightly that the door was difficult to close.

One of the soldiers stationed in the veranda was offered 1,000 rupees to have them removed to a larger room. He went away, but returned saying it was impossible. The bribe was then doubled, and he made a second attempt with a like result; the nabob was asleep, and no one dared wake him.

By nine o'clock several had died. and many more were delirious. A frantic cry for water now became general, and one of the guards, more compassionate than his fellows, caused some to be brought to the bars, where Mr. Holwell and two or three others received it in their hats, and passed it on to the men behind. In their impatience to secure it nearly all was spilt, and the little they drank seemed only to increase their thirst. Self-control was soon lost; those in remote parts of the room struggled to reach the window, and a fearful tumult ensued, in which the weakest were trampled or pressed to death. They raved, fought, prayed, blasphemed, and many then fell exhausted on the floor, where snffocation put an end to their torments.

About 11 o'clock the prisoners began to drop off fast. At length, at six in the morning, Surajah Dowlah awoke, and ordered the door to be opened. Of the 146 only 23, including Mr. Holwell (from whose narrative, published in the Annual Register[?] for 1758, this account is partly derived), remained alive, and they were either stupefied or raving. Fresh air soon revived them, and the commander was then taken before the nabob, who expressed no regret for what had occurred, and gave no other sign of sympathy than ordering the Englishman a chair and a glass of water. Notwithstanding this indifference, Mr. Holwell and some others acquit him of any intention of causing the catastrophe, and ascribe it to the malice of certain inferior officers, but many think this opinion unfounded.

Holwell and three others were sent as prisoners to Muxadavad[?]; the rest of the survivors obtained their liberty, and the dead bodies were thrown into a ditch. The Black Hole is now used as a warehouse, and an obelisk, 50 feet high, was erected in memory of the victims. --- Adapted from The Americana



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