A History of the Transactions of the British Nation in Indostan

Author: An Officer of the East India Company  | Date: 1778

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Robert Orme London 1778 II

The Black Hole of Calcutta


The principal officer commanded the prisoners to go into one of the rooms which stood behind them along the veranda. This was the common dungeon of the garrison, who used to call it The Black Hole. Many of the prisoners knowing the place, began to expostulate; upon which the officer ordered his men to cut down those who hesitated, on which the prisoners obeyed. But before all were within, the room was so thronged that the last entered with difficulty. The guard immediately closed and locked the door, confining one hundred and forty-six persons in a room not twenty feet square, with only small windows, and these obstructed by the veranda.

It was the hottest season of the year, and the night uncommonly sultry even at this season. The excessive pressure of their bodies against one another, and the intolerable heat which prevailed as soon as the door was shut, convinced the prisoners that it was impossible to live through the night in this hostile environment. Violent attempts were immediately made to open the door; but without effect, for it opened inward: on which many began to give [vent] to rage.

Mr. Holwell, who had placed himself at one of the two windows, exhorted them to remain composed both in body and in mind, as the only means of surviving the night. His remonstrances produced a short interval of quiet; during which he applied to an old Jemautdar, who bore some marks of humanity in his countenance, promising to give him a thousand rupees in the morning, if he would separate the prisoners into two chambers. The old man went to try, but returning in a few minutes, said it was impossible. Mr. Holwell offered him a larger sum; on which he retired once more, and returned with the fatal sentence, that no relief could be expected, because the nabob was asleep, and no one dared to waken him.

In the meantime every minute had increased their sufferings. The first effect of their confinement was a profuse and continued sweat, which soon produced intolerable thirst, succeeded by excruciating pains in the breast, with difficulty of breathing little short of suffocation. Various means were tried to obtain more room and more air. Everyone stripped off his clothes; every hat was put into motion; and these methods affording no relief, it was proposed that they should all sit down on their hams at the same time, and after remaining a little while in this posture rise all together. This fatal expedient was thrice repeated before they had been confined an hour; and every time several, unable to rear themselves up again, fell and were trampled to death by their companions.

Attempts were again made to force the door, which, failing as before, redoubled their rage; but the thirst increasing, nothing but "Water! water!" became soon after the general cry.

The good Jemautdar immediately ordered some skins of water to be brought to the windows, but, instead of relief, his benevolence became a more dreadful cause of destruction; for the fight for the water threw everyone into such excessive agitation and ravings, that, unable to resist this violent impulse of nature, none would wait to be regularly served, but each with the utmost ferocity battled against those who were likely to get it before him. In these conflicts many were either pressed to death by the efforts of others, or suffocated by their own.

This scene, instead of producing compassion in the guard without, only excited their mirth. They held up their light to the bars, in order to have the diabolical satisfaction of seing the deplorable contentions of the sufferers within; who, finding it impossible to get any water while it was thus furiously disputed, at length suffered those who were nearest to the windows, to convey it in their hats to those behind them. It proved no relief either to their thirst, or other sufferings; for the fever increased every moment with the increasing depravity of the air in the dungeon, which had been so often respired, and was saturated with the hot and deleterious effluvia of putrifying bodies; of which the stench was little less than mortal.

Before midnight all who were alive and had not partaken of the air at the windows were either at a lethargic stupefaction or raving with delirium. Every kind of invective and abuse was uttered in hope of provoking the guard to put an end to their miseries by firing into the dungeon; and whilst some were blaspheming the Creator with frantic execrations of torment and despair, Heaven was implored by others with wild and incoherent prayers, until the weaker, exhausted by these agitations, at length laid down quietly, and expired on the bodies of their dead or agonizing friends.

Those who still survived in the inward part of the dungeon, finding that the water had afforded them no relief, made a last effort to obtain air, by endeavoring to scramble over the heads of those who stood between them and the windows; where the utmost strength of every one was employed for two hours, either in maintaining his own ground, or in endeavoring to get that of which others were in possession. All regards of compassion and affection were lost, and no one would recede or give way for the relief of another. Faintness sometimes gave short pauses of quiet, but the first motion of anyone renewed the struggle through all, under whichever and anon some one sunk to rise no more. At two o’clock not more than fifty remained alive. But even this number were too many to partake of the saving air, the contest for which and for life continued until the morn, long implored, began to break; and, with the hope of relief, gave the few survivors a view of the dead.

The survivors then at the window, finding that the entreaties could not prevail on the guard to open the door, it occurred to Mr. Cooke, the secretary of the council, that Mr. Holwell, if alive, might have more influence to obtain their relief; and two of the company undertaking to search, discovered him having still some signs of life. But when they brought him towards the window, everyone refused to quit his place, excepting Captain Mills, who with rare generosity offered to resign his; on which the rest likewise agreed to make room. He had scarcely begun to recover his senses, before an officer, sent by the nabob, came and inquired if the English chief still survived; and soon after the same man returned with an order to open the prison. The dead were so thronged, and the survivors had so little strength remaining, that they were employed near half an hour in removing the bodies which lay against the door before they could clear a passage to go out one at a time; when of one hundred and forty-six who went in no more than twenty-three came out alive,—the ghastliest forms that were ever seen alive.

The nabob’s troops beheld them, and the havoc of death from which they had escaped, with indifference, but did not prevent them from romoving to a distance, and were immediately obliged, by the intolerable stench, to clear the dungeon, whilst others dug a ditch on the outside of the fort, into which all the dead bodies were promiscuously thrown.

Mr. Holwell, unable to stand, was soon carried to the nabob, who was so far from showing any compassion for his condition, or remorse for the death of the other prisoners, that he only talked of the treasures which the English had buried. Threatening him with further injuries, if he persisted in concealing them, he ordered him to be kept a prisoner. The officers to whose charge he was delivered, put him into fetters. The rest of the survivors . . . were told that they might go where they pleased; but an English woman, the only one of her sex amongst the sufferers, was reserved for the seraglio1 of the general Meet Jaffier.

The dread of remaining any longer within the reach of such barbarians determined most of them to remove immediately, as far as their strength enabled them, from the fort, and most tended towards the vessels which were still in [the] fight. A single sloop, with fifteen brave men on board, might, in spite of all the efforts of the enemy, have come up, and anchoring under the fort, have carried away all who suffered in the dungeon.


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Chicago: An Officer of the East India Company, A History of the Transactions of the British Nation in Indostan, ed. Robert Orme in History in the First Person: Eyewitnesses of Great Events: They Saw It Happen, ed. Louis Leo Snyder and Richard B. Morris (Harrisburg, Pa.: Stackpole Co., 1951), Original Sources, accessed July 23, 2024, http://originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=HT1CPUD8H8256X4.

MLA: An Officer of the East India Company. A History of the Transactions of the British Nation in Indostan, edited by Robert Orme, Vol. II, in History in the First Person: Eyewitnesses of Great Events: They Saw It Happen, edited by Louis Leo Snyder and Richard B. Morris, Harrisburg, Pa., Stackpole Co., 1951, Original Sources. 23 Jul. 2024. http://originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=HT1CPUD8H8256X4.

Harvard: An Officer of the East India Company, A History of the Transactions of the British Nation in Indostan, ed. . cited in 1951, History in the First Person: Eyewitnesses of Great Events: They Saw It Happen, ed. , Stackpole Co., Harrisburg, Pa.. Original Sources, retrieved 23 July 2024, from http://originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=HT1CPUD8H8256X4.