Thursday, 19 June 2014

The Black Hole of Calcutta

Let me start by differentiating between the place and the event. The Black Hole of Calcutta was a place, and about it’s existence, no controversy exists. The Black Hole Tragedy was an event which, many historians say, did not happen at all. My search was for the place, and it’s existence does not in any way corroborate the events alluded to by John Zephaniah Holwell in his letter of 1758.

Now, to the beginning. The original Fort William of Calcutta stood where the GPO, the Collectorate, the RBI and the Fairlie Place offices of Eastern Railway stand today. It’s construction began around 1696, and continued through 1706. The fort housed, among other things, the East India Company’s factory, the Governor’s mansion, living quarters for the employees or factors of the company, and various offices and godowns. When the new Nawaab of Bengal, Siraj-ud-Daula attacked Calcutta in 1756, the fort fell. St. Anne’s Church, Calcutta’s first Church, which stood where the main rotunda of the Writers’ Building stands today, was also destroyed in the attack. The heavily damaged fort was ultimately torn down, and the GPO and other buildings took it’s place.

Now, what was the Black Hole? The Black Hole was a military prison, within the walls of the old Fort William. It was located along the Eastern curtain wall of the fort, was about 18 feet by 14 feet, and was completely bricked up, save for two very small, barred windows. What happened here on the night of 20th June, 1756, is a matter of great controversy. The acting Governor, Roger Drake, having fled the fort, it’s defenders chose a surgeon, John Zephaniah Holwell, to lead the defense of the fort against the far superior army of Siraj-ud-Daula. Outmanned and outgunned, the defenders ultimately surrendered, and the Nawab ordered the survivors to be confined for the night. It is most likely that these instructions filtered down through several subordinates, and hence it’s actual meaning was lost somewhere in the chain of command. Holwell claims that 146 people were forcibly driven into the Black Hole Prison, and in the night, through heat and suffocation, 123 of them died. Many eminent Historians argue that this event did not occur at all. However, Holwell did erect a monument to the dead just outside the site of the Black Hole prison, which eventually fell into disrepair and was dismantled. It’s place was taken by a replica built under orders of Lord Curzon, in 1901. That too had to be ultimately removed to the grounds of the St. John’s Church, due to energetic protests by Indian freedom fighters, led by Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose.

The GPO today


The Fort was taken down, and as new buildings were contructed in it’s place, it was all but erased from the public memory. Several civil servants attempted over the years to retrace the location of the old fort and the Black Hole, but the most successful of them all was C.R. Wilson, who in 1891, using a recently discovered 1753 map of Calcutta drawn by Lt. Wells, traced the bastions, curtain walls, and finally the Black Hole prison of the old Fort William. But it was because of the interest of Lord Curzon that a large number of markers, marble plaques and brass lines, were placed all over the site, marking, where possible, the various points of the old fort.

Wells' map of Old Fort William, overlaid with newer constructions

I am indebted to murshidabad.net who have put up a downloadable version of Wells’ map, and to Dhrubajyoti Banerjea, whose book European Calcutta lists all the plaques and the text they had. First, let me draw your attention to the map. The first thing we must note is it’s unorthodox orientation; North is to the right. The map overlays present day constructions onto Wells’ original plan. However, since it is pre-1960’s, the RBI building is not shown. In it’s place is the old Customs House. Now, if were to begin our walk from the South West corner of the old Fort William, we would need to begin at the corner of Koilaghat Street (now Babu Tarapada Mukherjee Sarani) and Charnock Place (now Netaji Subhash Road). On the Eastern steps of the GPO is where we would find our first relics.


TABLET NO. 1

The tablet on the wall, and the brass lines on the steps, of the GPO

The brass lines on the steps are still visible, and high up on the wall is a marble plaque which says “THE BRASS LINES IN THE ADJACENT STEPS AND PAVEMENT MARK THE POSITION AND EXTENT OF PART OF THE SOUTHEAST BASTION OF THE OLD FORT WILLIAM, THE EXTREME SOUTHEAST POINT BEING 95 FEET FROM THIS WALL”. We then proceed Northwards on Charnock Place, and the map says there should be another tablet here, on the GPO’s wall

TABLET

The next tablet however, is missing. It said “BEHIND THE GATEWAY AND IMMEDAITELY ADJOINING THIS SPOT IS THE SITE OF THE BLACK HOLE PRISON IN OLD FORT WILLIAM”. This tablet has been removed and is believed to be inside the Philatelic Museum, located behind the GPO.

We proceed further North, till we reach the vivid red walls of the Collectorate Building. The map says, there should be another tablet here.

TABLET NO. 2

Position of missing tablet on Collectorate wall

This tablet is missing, and has been presumably removed. But there is a curious gap in the stucco work on the Collectorate’s wall, where, we may reasonably deduce, the tablet once was. The tablet read “SIXTEEN FEET BEHIND THIS WALL WAS THE ENTRANCE OF THE EAST GATE OF OLD FORT WILLIAM THROUGH WHICH THE BODIES OF THOSE WHO PERISHED IN THE BLACK HOLE WERE BROUGHT AND THROWN INTO THE DITCH ON THE 21st OF JUNE, 1756”.

THE HOLWELL MONUMENT

Replica of Holwell Monument erected by Lord Curzon in St. John's graveyard today

The point on the map, at which Charnock Place becomes Clive Street, to our right, is where the original Holwell Monument had once stood. The replica, made under Curzon’s orders also occupied roughly the same space. The Monument has been removed to the grounds of the St. John’s Church, where it may be seen even today. Proceeding further North, our hunt is somewhat interrupted by the Stalinist monstrosity that is the RBI headquarters.

TABLET NO. 3

Where the RBI now stands, there once stood, as the map says, the old Customs House, and on it’s wall was a tablet which said, “TO THE WEST OF THIS TABLET EXTENDED THE RANGE OF BUILDINGS CALLED THE LONG ROW WHICH CONTAINED THE LODGINGS OF THE COMPANY’S WRITERS AND DIVIDED THE OLD FORT INTO TWO SECTIONS”.

We proceed further North till we reach the corner of Clive Street (now Netaji Subhash Road) and Fairlie Place (mercifully unchanged).

TABLET NO. 4

Tablet on Fairlie Place corner

Standing on the corner of Clive Street and Fairlie Street, facing North, to our left, on the corner of the East India Railway Office (now Eastern Railway) should be the next tablet on the map. Tablet No. 4 remains firmly in place, however the brass lines that should have been here, are nowhere to be found. The tablet says “THE BRASS LINES IN THE STONE ON THE ADJACENT GROUND MARK THE POSITION AND EXTENT OF PART OF THE NORTH EAST BASTION OF OLD FORT WILLIAM”.

We have now walked the entire distance of what was the Eastern side of the fort, covering the East Curtain Wall, the Eastern gate, and two bastions. We now turn West, or left, if you prefer, into Fairlie Place. Keeping left, we keep walking on the pavement, and encounter, before long, our next tablet.

TABLET NO. 5

Tablet on Fairlie Place wall

Once again, while Tablet No. 5 remains in position, the brass lines have disappeared. Concealed behind the flex of a biryani stall, the tablet reads, “THE BRASS LINES IN THE STONE ON THE ADJACENT GROUND MARK THE POSITION AND SIZE OF PART OF THE NORTH WEST BASTION OF OLD FORT WILLIAM”.

We proceed further West, till we come to Strand Road, at which point we turn left, or South. Within the Fairlie Place building, in the open space in it’s rear, there should be another tablet, and more brass lines.

TABLET NO. 6

The tablet should read, “THE BRASS LINES IN THE STONE OF THE ADJACENT GROUND MARK THE POSITION AND EXTENT OF THE NORTHERN PORTION OF THE WEST CURTAIN OF OLD FORT WILLIAM. THIS TABLET MARKS THE POSITION OF THE NORTH RIVER GATE THROUGH WHICH SIRAJ-UD-DAULAH ENETERED THE FORT ON THE EVENING OF THE 20TH JUNE, 1756. BEHIND THIS TABLET TO THE SOUTH OF THE GATE STOOD THE GREAT FLAGSTAFF OF THE FORT”. This tablet is not accessible to the public.

TABLET NO. 7

Tablet No. 7 is probably gone, although I have no way to confirm this. It was located within the walls of the old Customs House, which was torn down for the RBI headquarters. Somewhere on the western wall of the Customs House, Tablet No. 7 should have read, ““THE BRASS LINES IN THE STONE OF THE ADJACENT GROUND MARK THE POSITION AND EXTENT OF THE OF THE CONTINUATION OF THE WEST CURTAIN OF OLD FORT WILLIAM, NEAR WHERE IT WAS MET BY THE LONG ROW”. This tablet is not accessible to the public.

TABLET NO. 8

Also probably gone, and originally located near Tablet No. 7, Tablet No. 8 should have read “THE BRASS LINES IN THE STONE OF THE ADJACENT GROUND MARK THE POSITION AND EXTENT OF A PORTION OF THE NORTH WALL OF THE FACTORY, THE PRINCIPAL BUILDING IN THE CENTRE OF OLD FORT WILLIAM”. This tablet is not accessible to the public.

We continue Southwards on Strand Road, crossing the new Customs House. If you are observant, you will note that there are various imported goods, such as watches, perfumes and what have you, being sold at throwaway prices within the new Customs House, and the shop selling these items, is open to the public on weekdays. Coming to the corner of Strand Road and Koilaghat Street, we turn left, or East.  Crossing the Port Trust Office, the office of the Director of Postal Accounts, and the Philately Museum, we come to the gates of the GPO on our left. Inside, should be the next two tablets

TABLET NO. 10

We come upon Tablet No. 10 first, if we enter from the Southern gate of the GPO, and it should say, “THE BRASS LINES ON THE STONE ON THE ADJACENT GROUND MARK THE POSITION AND EXTENT OF THE SOUTH CURTAIN OF OLD FORT WILLIAM”. This tablet is not accessible to the public.

TABLET NO. 9

The last tablet, that we should come across, on our hunt, were we to enter the GPO from it’s Southern gate, should read, “THE TWO LINES OF TWELVE ARCHES TO THE WEST OF THIS TABLET ARE ALL THAT REMAINS ABOVE GROUND OF OLD FORT WILLIAM AND ORIGINALLY FORMED A PORTION OF THE ARCADE WITHIN THE SOUTH COURTAIN. THE BLACK HOLE PRISON WAS A SMALL ROOM FORMED BY BRICKING UP TWO ARCHES OF A SMILIAR BUT SMALLER ARCADEWITHIN THE EAST CURTAIN SOUTH OF THE EAST GATE”. The arches are, in all probability, gone, and this tablet too, is not accessible to the public.

Now, that we have walked around the entire fort, the question arises, where exactly was the Black Hole prison, and is it at all possible to locate it today? As a matter of fact, it is. Proceeding East, we come once again to the corner of Koilaghat Street and Charnock Place, and turn North, or left once again. Walking North, we stop at the point between the GPO and the Collectorate. There is a passage, with two iron gates, and, if one were to take a look at the map, and an old photograph of the area Curzon had marked off, it becomes clear, that this, is where the infamous Black Hole prison had once stood.

Old photograph of the location of the Black Hole prison. Curzon's plaque may be seen in the background

Curzon had the area paved with black polished marble, and protected by a railing. Above it was placed a marble tablet, which read, “THE MARBLE PAVEMENT BELOW THIS SPOT WAS PLACED HERE BY LORD CURZON, VICEROY AND GOVERNOR GENERAL OF INDIA, IN 1901 TO MARK THE SITE OF THE PRISON IN OLD FORT WILLIAM KNOWN AS THE BLACK HOLE IN WHICH 146 BRITISH INHABITANTS OF CALCUTTA WERE CONFINED ON THE NIGHT OF THE 20TH JUNE, 1756, AND FROM WHICH ONLY 23 CAME OUT ALIVE”. This tablet has been removed, and no information is available about it’s present whereabouts.

The Black Hole today, being used as a garbage dump. The canons are visible on the inside (left) and outisde (right)


The Black Hole today is in a truly deplorable condition. It is being used as a garbage dump. But it’s position is made clear by two canons, which are planted face up, into the ground, and may be clearly seen inspite of all the garbage dumped in the area. I can, however, find no information about these canons, who put them there, and why. Perhaps this mystery too shall be solved someday.


- by Deepanjan Ghosh


SUGGESTED FURTHER READING

SOURCES

European Calcutta                                                     – Banerjea, Dhrubajyoti
Echoes from Old Calcutta                                           - Busteed, Henry Elmsley
Calcutta Old and New                                                  - Cotton, Sir Harry Evan Auguste
Recollections of Calcutta for Over Half a Century         - Massey, Montague



Photographs of Fairlie Place plaques and Collectorate wall courtesy Amartya Saha
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