This series has seven easy 5 minute installments. This first installment: The Black Hole of Calcutta.
Robert Clive is recognized as the man to whom, above all others, England owes the establishment of her empire in India. In war he was England’s top general. In peace he stands in English history distinguished among great administrators.
This selection is from Lord Clive; the foundation of British rule in India by Sir Alexander Arbuthnot published in 1899. For works benefiting from the latest research see the “More information” section at the bottom of these pages.
Sir Alexander J. Arbuthnot’s career was spent in India. He was a British administrator and historian.
Place: Calcutta, India
Clive returned to the Madras Presidency at a critical moment. War with France was imminent, and broke out in the course of a few months. The very day that Clive assumed the government of Fort St. David, Calcutta was captured by the Nawab of Bengal, and the tragedy of the Black Hole took place. [1756 – jl] The acquisition of Calcutta by the East India Company was somewhat later than that of Madras. It dates from 1686, when the representatives of the company, driven by the Mogul authorities from Hugli, where they had established a factory, moved under the leadership of Job Charnock some twenty-six miles down the river to Satanati, now one of the northern suburbs of Calcutta. Ten years afterward they built the original Fort William, and in 1700 they purchased the villages of Satanti, Kalikata, and Govindpur from the son of the Emperor.
In 1707 the East India Company declared Calcutta a separate presidency. Here, surrounded by the richest districts in India, amid a teeming population, on the banks of a river which was the chief highway of Eastern commerce, the servants of the company drove a thriving trade, threatened only, but never actually assailed, by the raids of the Mahrattas, the memory of which is still kept alive by the famous Mahratta ditch. They were in the same relation to the Nawab of Bengal as the servants of the company at Madras were to the Nawab of the Carnatic. In April, 1756, Aliverdi Khan, who was a just and strong ruler, died, and was succeeded by his grandson, Suraj ud Daulah, a youth under twenty years of age, whose training had been of the worst description. One of the whims of this youth was hatred toward the English, and he had not been two months on the throne when he found a pretext for indulging this sentiment in the fact that the English, in anticipation of difficulties with the French, were strengthening the fortifications of Fort William. On June 4th he seized the English factory at Kasimbazar, and on the 15th attacked Calcutta. The women and children in the fort were removed on board ship on the 18th, and on the same day the Governor, Mr. Drake, and the military commandant, Captain Minchin, deserted their posts, and to their lasting disgrace betook themselves to the ships. Mr. Holwell, a member of the council, assumed command in the fort, but on the 25th the place was taken.
All the Englishmen in the fort, one hundred forty-six persons, were thrust at the point of a sword into a small room, the prison of the garrison, commonly known as the Black Hole, only twenty feet square. The Nawab had promised to spare their lives, but had gone to sleep after a debauch. No expostulations on the part of the prisoners, not even bribes, would induce the guards to awake the Nawab and obtain his leave to liberate the prisoners, until the morning, when, having slept off his debauch, he allowed the door to be opened. By that time, out of one hundred forty-six prisoners, one hundred twenty-three had miserably perished. The survivors, among whom was the acting Governor, Holwell, were brought before the tyrant, insulted and reproached by him, and detained in custody in wretched sheds and fed upon grain and water. An Englishwoman who was one of the survivors, was placed in the Nawab’s harem. The details of this terrible tragedy and of the sufferings which the survivors subsequently underwent, are given in a letter from Mr. Holwell, from which it appears that his eventual release was brought about by the intercession of Aliverdi Khan’s widow, who had in vain endeavored to dissuade the Nawab from attacking Calcutta, and had predicted that his doing so would be his ruin.
Intelligence of the outrage did not reach Madras until August 16th, when it was at once decided to send a force under Clive to Calcutta to avenge it. Clive was appointed commander-in-chief, with full military and political control. He took with him 900 English soldiers and 1200 Sepoys and some artillery. Owing, however, to the obstinacy of Admiral Watson, and to jealousy of Clive on the part of Colonel Aldercron, who had recently arrived at Madras in command of the Thirty-ninth foot, a delay of two months took place before the expedition sailed. Watson declined to undertake it at all unless the government of the Bengal settlement, which the Madras council proposed to assume pending orders from home, was intrusted to the survivors of the Bengal Council, the leaders of which had so shamefully deserted their posts; while Aldercron, on being informed that Clive was to exercise the military command, actually went so far as to disembark the greater part of his regiment, together with guns and stores which had already been put on board ship, allowing only two hundred fifty men to remain, who were to serve as marines under Watson.
The delay was unfortunate; for before the squadron sailed the northeast monsoon had set in, and in consequence none of the ships reached the Hugli until the middle of December, and even then two of the largest ships were missing; the Marlborough, with most of the artillery, and the Cumberland, with Admiral Pocock and two hundred fifty English soldiers, having failed to make their way against the monsoon. Clive’s orders were to recapture Calcutta, to attack the Nawab at his capital, Murshidabad, and, in the event of war between England and France being declared, to capture the French settlement of Chandernagor (Chandranagar). When the expedition reached the Hugli, Clive wished the men under his command to be taken on in the ships as far as Budge Budge (Bajbaj) — a fortified place about ten miles from Calcutta, which it was necessary to capture; but Watson, with his habitual perversity, insisted upon the troops being landed at Mayapur, some miles farther down, thus obliging them to make a most fatiguing night march through a swampy country covered with jungle. The result was that they reached Budge Budge in an exhausted condition, and being surprised by the Nawab’s troops shortly after their arrival, had a very narrow escape from destruction, which was averted only by Clive’s presence of mind and readiness of resource.
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