We know how the Britishers ruled India for 200 years and during this time they made the people of India miserable. But there was a time when Nawab Sirajuddaulah, a king of Bengal, carried out a very shameful and painful accident with the British soldiers, and this incident was named “Black Hole Tragedy“. The black hole tragedy took place at Fort William in Calcutta during the rule of Nawab Sirajuddaula.
Every child in the school in England may or may not know any other thing related to India, but he knows these three things. The first was the Black Hole Tragedy of Calcutta, the second was the Battle of Plassey, and the third was the Revolt of 1857 (India’s First War of Independence). Now you can guess that the black hole tragedy was an important history in India for England.
Further, the Black hole tragedy was one of the main immediate factors for the Battle of Plassey. The Battle of Plassey was an event that completely changed the map of medieval India. After the battle, the British started establishing their full authority over India.
Now you must be wondering what was the story of the black hole tragedy, and what was the reason behind it is. Did he brutally kill British soldiers in 1756 by putting them in a dungeon in Calcutta? In this article, we will try to know the answers to all these questions.
What is a Black Hole Tragedy?
The black hole tragedy was such an incident in the history of India on 20th June 1756, when Siraj-ud-Daulah locked 170 British shoulders in an 18*14 feet dungeon for about 12 hours, and only 23 soldiers came out of that cell alive, rest died due to suffocation.
How did Fort William come into existence?
As we know, Europeans entered India in the 17th century and the outbreak of the Austrian succession war in 1740 brought hostilities between the Britishers and the French companies to India. After the death of Aurangzeb, the Mughals starts to decline and regional powers begin to rise in India. Similarly, Bengal was also emerging as an independent province. It was the powerhouse of India, attracting all the major European powers.
During this, the British started developing military defense systems at various places in Bengal to secure their empire. One of these forts was “Fort William” which was built in 1690. Fort William is situated on the eastern bank of the Hooghly river and it was named after King William III of England. This fort is one of the finest monuments of Kolkata but it became the site of unfortunate incidents like the Black hole tragedy and the Battle of Plassey.
Bengal, at that time, was contributing around 60% of the total trade of India. British officers used to give costly gifts to Indian Kings to get special privileges for trade. Further, the British East India Company was generating huge profits while it meant a huge loss to the provincial exchequers. Nobody was happy with such activities of the Britishers.
Siraj-ud-Daulah became Nawab of Bengal
After the death of Alivardi Khan in 1756, Sirajuddaula, the son of Alivardi’s youngest daughter, succeeded to the throne of Bengal. Nawab Sirajuddaula understood that the officials of the East India Company were making rampant misuse of its trade privileges. Because of this, Sirajuddaula started questioning the Britishers.
However, the British said that he was building the forts only for the protection of his company. But Nawab Sirajuddaula had come to know that the purpose of the Britishers was not only trade and profit, but they gradually established their administration in these forts.
There were two main reasons for the Black Hole Tragedy:
- The company was not giving any part of its profit to Nawab of Bengal.
- Britishers were also preparing to take political control of Bengal.
After the victory of the British in the Carnatic war, this suspicion of Sirajudaulah turned into a belief. But Siraj-ud-Daulah could not afford to let this happen. He immediately passed an ultimatum to the governor of Calcutta to stop fortification. Although the French East India Company stopped with fortification despite such an ultimatum Britishers continued with fortification works. Sirajuddaulah became very angry and decided to teach a lesson to the Britishers.
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Events leading to Black Hole Tragedy
To teach a lesson to the British, Sirajuddaulah prepared his army and attacked Calcutta on 16th June 1756. His army is said to have consisted of more than 50,000-foot soldiers, 500 elephants, and 50 cannons which could easily outrun the army of the British East India Company.
When the British began to feel that their defeat was certain, then governor, John Derek with his commanders and others, saved themselves by crossing river Hooghly. He left 170 soldiers under the leadership of John Holwell to guard the court. On 20th June 1756, Sirajuddaula occupied Fort William.
After this, Siraj-ud-Daulah set up his court in the middle of Fort William and made two announcements, first that Calcutta was being renamed Alinagar and second, Raja Manikchand was declared as the protector of the fort.
JZ Holwell, a British war criminal, wrote how they were presented before the Nawab. Nawab Sirajuddaula didn’t misbehave with war criminals. But he expressed his displeasure against the British, and after that, the Nawab would get up from there and go to the British house to rest.
Nawab’s Army started a controlled plunder with war criminals. Further, A British prisoner under the influence of alcohol shot one of the nawab’s sepoys. Then Sirajuddaula suggested putting all of the prisoners in a cell. This cell was present in the basement of Fort William and all 170 prisoners were put in an 18*14 feet cell without considering anything. Although this cell was meant to keep only three or four prisoners, Sirajuddaulah put 170 prisoners in it.
All these were kept from 7:00 pm to 6:00 am and we can imagine how the condition inside that cell must have been in such heat. Historians tell that the soldiers who were assigned to supervise these prisoners, None of them dared to go and wake up the sleeping Nawab and tell him about their condition. It is said that only 23 of the 170 prisoners were alive in the morning. JZ Holwell was also one of these 23 prisoners. This incident was named Black Hole Tragedy in history.
In this response, Robert Clive was sent to India to avenge. In January 1757, Robert Clive again took control of Calcutta. Further, Robert Clive started the Battle of Plassey with Nawab Sirajuddaula. Robert Clive conspired with the army commander of Nawab and defeated him in the Battle of Plassey.
Black Hole Tragedy: Myth or Reality?
- Various historians have rejected the story of the Black Hole tragedy. They believe that in reality the number of these prisoners was very less and the number of prisoners who died was even less.
- As per some historians, people who were considered killed were killed in some previous Battles. So in Holwell’s writings, people were shown in huge numbers.
- Similarly, Vincent a Smith in his book “ Oxford History of India: From earlier time to the end of 1911”, validated this event but as per him, Sirajudullah was not fully responsible.
- Contemporary historians also talk about no punishment by Sirajuddaula to those who were responsible for the black hole tragedy.
- Various historians also report that the black hole tragedy was just a rumor to attack Bengal. As soon as the news spread to England, people got angry. It is said that after this the fire of revenge was raging in the chest of every Englishman, they wanted to take revenge for this scandal from Siraj-ud-Daulah.
One thing is certain, whatever may be the truth, the Britishers use this event to validate their expansion in India. In addition, the Black hole tragedy became a trigger point for the Battle of Plassey, which laid the foundation of the British Empire in India, and after this, the British completely ruled India for the next 200 years.