Fort William site of the Black Hole of Calcutta
Heritage

The Black Hole Of Calcutta

It's a saying that many of us are familiar with, but what are its origins?

Fort William site of the Black Hole of Calcutta

This article was originally published in November 2016.

It's a saying that many of us are familiar with, but what are its origins?

Well, it all stems from a single night 260 years ago, when a British fort in the Indian city of Calcutta was stormed by the Bengali Army.

Originally established to protect the East India Company's trade in 1756, Fort William was ordered to be reinforced because of a perceived threat from French military forces also operating in the area.

The move, though, upset the local ruler Siraj ud-Daulah, who was unhappy with British merchants interfering and undermining his political power.

After his calls for the works to be halted were ignored Siraj ud-Daulah ordered his army to lay siege to Fort William.

Black Hole of Calcutta
The Black Hole of Calcutta

With the British commander of the garrison ordering soldiers to try and escape and the desertion of allied Indian troops, the fort fell on June 20.

Accounts vary as to how many British troops, somewhere between 64 and 146, were captured but those that were found themselves imprisoned overnight in the fort's small prison, known as 'the black hole'.

Measuring just 14 foot by 18 foot, when the doors were opened again the next morning most of those inside were dead. 

The conditions were so cramped, fetid and hot that suffocation and heat exhaustion had claimed all but the strongest and those lucky enough to be nearest to the two small, barred windows. 

"By nine o'clock several had died, and many more were delirious... 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 suffocation put an end to their torments."

The bodies of the dead were thrown into a ditch, while the survivors were moved to a different city, eventually to be freed by the man who later became known as Clive of India. 

Siraj ud-Daulah himself was executed in 1757, targeted by a British Army fuelled in part by exaggerated claims of the numbers who had died on that infamous night. 

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