Hundreds of additional titles available for
online reading when you join Gateway to the Classics
THE BLACK HOLE
 WHILE these things were passing in the Carnatic the
British at Calcutta had been trading quietly, growing
rich and prosperous, at peace with their Nawab. But in
1959 the Nawab died. He was succeeded by his adopted
grandson, Suraj-ud-Daula, or, as the British soldiers
and sailors called him, "Sir Roger Dowler."
Suraj-ud-Daula was bad and cruel. He hated the British
and soon managed to pick a quarrel with them. He had
several make-believe reasons for quarrelling with them.
One was that they had sheltered some of his enemies.
Another was that they had begun to strengthen their
fortifications without leave. The real reason was that
he believed that the British were very wealthy and that
vast treasure was gathered in Calcutta. He was greedy
as well as cruel, and he wanted this treasure for
He now suddenly seized a factory at Cossimbazar which
was near his capital. He plundered it and took all the
British prisoner. Among his prisoners was a young man
named Warren Hastings. Of him we shall hear again.
Having plundered and destroyed Cossimbazar,
Suraj-ud-Daula marched in haste against Calcutta with
fifty thousand men.
The walls of Calcutta were weak, the guns on Fort
William old and very nearly useless. Around the town
 was a half-dug ditch, begun years before but never
finished. Of the garrison not two hundred were British
soldiers and not ten of them had ever been in battle in
their lives. Among them was no man with knowledge or
courage enough to be a leader.
When the news that the Nawab and his army were coming
reached Calcutta, everything was thrown into wild
disorder. Batteries and earth-works were built in
haste, but without any real knowledge of how best to
defend the fort. Messages were sent to the Dutch and
French factories near, begging for help. It was
On Wednesday, the 16th June, the Nawab's army swarmed
into the native town around the fort, and fighting
began. It was a fight at fearful odds. There were
less than two hundred white men against a rabble of
fifty thousand dark-faced heathen, mad with hate and
On Friday night the women and children, of whom there
were many in the fort, were all taken safely to the
ships which lay in the river. With them, to their
shame be it said, went the president and the captain of
the garrison. Then they sailed away leaving their
comrades in the fort to their fate. In vain those left
behind made signs to the ships to stop and wait. It
would be dangerous the captain said, and he sailed on.
Had they waited another tide every man in the fort
might have been saved.
Forsaken by their leader, the garrison chose a Mr.
Holwell to be their head, and for two days longer the
fort held out. But although Mr. Holwell did his best
he was neither a soldier nor a leader of men. He could
not keep the men in order, or make them fight and hope
when all was hopeless. They became unruly, broke into
the store, and were soon helplessly drunk. The Nawab's
 soldiers swarmed everywhere. Resistance was useless,
and on Sunday afternoon the British yielded.
There were one hundred and forty-six prisoners, among
them on lady who had refused to leave her husband. For
a short time they were gathered in the square of the
barracks. There they stood and talked together,
watching the flames from the burning town leap and
flicker against the fast darkening sky, listening to
the wild cries which reached them from without, and
wondering what would be their fate.
Then suddenly they were all ordered to march into a
small prison house at the end of the barracks. This
was a room about eighteen feet square with only two
tiny barred windows. It was known as the Black Hole.
At first the prisoners refused to believe the order.
But striking them with their clubs, driving them at the
sword's point, the Indians forced them in. Then the
door was shut.
In the tiny space there was no room to move. The
prisoners were packed tightly against each other. The
evening was hot and still. The breathless heat of an
Indian summer night was made worse by the flames and
smoke from the burning buildings all around. In a few
minutes the heat became intolerable. Gasping for
breath, raging with thirst, the wretched prisoners beat
upon the door and shouted to their jailers to let them
out. They threatened, they implored, all in vain.
Instead of opening the door the natives brought lighted
torches to the windows, so that they might the better
see the agonies of their victims.
"Water, water," gasped the stifling wretches. Water at
last was brought, but the skins in which it was carried
could not be passed through the bars of the windows.
It was poured into hats, it was spilled upon the
 fought for it like beasts, trampling each other down in
their eagerness for a few drops which in the end only
made their thirst the more unbearable.
Then came the bitter cry for "Air, air." Those who
were far from the windows struggled and fought like
demons to get near. Some fainted and slipping to the
ground were trampled to death. Many went mad with
horror and pain, and in the morning when at last the
long agony was over, only twenty-three moaning,
stricken spectres crept out. Among them was the lady
who would not leave her husband. But she was alone,
for he lay among the dead.