Monday, 1 June 2015

The Calcutta Collectorate and The Black Hole of Calcutta, Dalhousie Square

The Calcutta Collectorate Building on Clive Street (now Netaji Subhas Road), at the North Western corner of Dalhousie Square (now Binay Badal Dinesh Bagh or BBD Bagh), is one of the many unfortunate victims of Calcutta’s (Kolkata) unplanned and uncontrolled green drive. Large trees have been planted at random along the pavements of many of the city’s streets, which completely blocks of the view of the architectural marvels behind them.

When the English bought the villages of Kalikata, Sutanuti and Gobindapur from Sabarna Roychowdhury in 1698, and established their factory here, they also had to take over the tasks of tax collection and policing. For this task, a European collector or zamindar was appointed who would have a native as his deputy. During the tenure of John Zephaniah Holwell, the “black zamindar” was the notorious Gobindram Mitter (or Gobindaram Mitra) who was famously rich and, legend says, the first native in the town to have a horse carriage. Gobindram Mitter was the man who built Chitpur’s famous “Black Pagoda”, a “nava ratna” or nine turreted temple that was so huge, it was used as a navigational aid by ships on the Hooghly. It was knocked down by a cyclone in 1820, and its ruins can still be seen.

Constructed in 1892, just 10 years after Writers’ Building acquired its present Greco-Roman look, when Sir Charles Elliot was Lt.-Governor of Bengal; the Collectorate Building was path-breaking for its time. In terms of architectural style, it was a harbinger of what we now know as the Edwardian style. The arched entranceway opens up to a central courtyard, with the building rising two storeys above it. The rooms on the 1st and 2nd floors are recessed, the broad veranda being an Indian improvisation to shield the occupants from the stifling heat of the summer months. And you see that sloping roof with the black tarred fabric on it? That is called a Mansard roof. Because of the steep angle of the roof, and the windows poking out from it, it creates and extra floor of habitable space, although given that the tarred fabric absorbs light and heat, in the summer months the temperature in this space, called a garret, must be absolutely unbearable. On the two corners of the building are seen two beautiful towers, with their tops painted silver. I don’t know if there is any specific name for these towers, but they seem to have some resemblance to the tower atop the main dome of the Nizam Palace. The mansard roof, with its meter high metal railing lends the Collectorate Building some architectural uniformity with its neighbours in Dalhousie Square, although it is somewhat eclipsed by both Writers’ and the GPO. There was a proposal in 1973 to demolish the building and erect in its place an 18 storey skyscraper. The good citizens of Calcutta (Kolkata) would have none of it, and the furore forced the government to shelve the project.

The Calcutta Collectorate (left), dwarfed by the Soviet style RBI (centre) and Greco-Roman Writers' Building (right)


The current Collectorate Building was built on the site of the old one and occupies 2 bighas, 11 cottahs and 5 chittacks of land. But before either of the Collectorates was built, this was the site of the Old Fort William of Calcutta. The Old Fort William was constructed between 1696 and 1706 and it housed 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. Along the Eastern curtain wall of the fort, roughly where the Collectorate stands today, was a room known as the Black Hole. The Black Hole was a military prison about 18 feet by 14 feet, and was completely bricked up, save for two very small, barred windows (hence the name).

Inside the Calcutta Collectorate
In 1756 Incensed by the Fort’s Governor, the arrogant and foolish Roger Drake’s refusal to halt additions of new fortifications to Fort William, the Nawaab of Bengal, Siraj-ud-Daula, attacked Calcutta, and the fort fell. What then happened, on the night of 20th June, 1756, is a matter of great controversy. Drake had fled the fort, and was then replaced by John Zephaniah Holwell. Siraj-ud-Daula ordered the captured European survivors to be confined for the night. While there is nothing out of the ordinary about such and order, it is likely that these instructions filtered down through several subordinates, and hence its 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. Its 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 Subhas Chandra Bose.

Over time, the Old Fort William was dismantled and new buildings rose in its place. On his way to India, Lord Curzon was reading Busteed’s account of the 1756 conflict, and decided to have the position of the old fort marked. Historian C.R. Wilson in 1891, using a 1753 map of Calcutta drawn by Lt. Wells, traced the bastions, curtain walls, and finally the Black Hole prison of the old Fort William. The map may be seen below. Please note its unorthodox orientation; North is to the right.

The empty spot where a plaque used to be
Curzon had 10 plaques placed at various points around the Dalhousie Square area, marking the bastions and walls of the fort, most of which are gone today, making the job of locating the exact position of the Black Hole a difficult one. The Black Hole would have been in what is now a garbage dump between the GPO and the Collectorate Building. On the North East corner of the GPO, was a plaque which said “BEHIND THE GATEWAY AND IMMEDIATELY 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. If we proceed further North on Charnock Place (now Netaji Subhas Road), there is a gap in the ornamentation on the walls of the Collectorate. Here used to be a tablet which 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”. This tablet is missing, and its present location is unknown.

Coming back to the garbage dump between the Collectorate and the GPO, according to Wells’ map, this is where Southern end of the Black Hole would have been. 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 its present whereabouts. But some enterprising fellow has marked the position of the Black Hole of Calcutta on Google Maps! The following “then and now “style comparison should make the exact position of the Black Hole abundantly clear.

Access to the Black Hole is out of the question for outsiders today, and given its present state, even insiders would want nothing to do with it. Even though it is a contentious issue with debates still raging on the internet and in academic circles about whether or not the events of 20th June, 1756 happened at all, the government would do well to clean the place up and put up markers and fences around the spot for tourists and urban explorers. Unlikely you say? I can only hope.

-  by Deepanjan Ghosh

  • I am grateful to Brian Paul Bach for his help with this post. Brian has written several books, including a scholarly volume on Calcutta entitled “Calcutta’s Edifice”. Check out his Goodreads page here, and his blog here.
  • Lt. Wells’ map courtesy
  • Black Hole postcard courtesy


Calcutta’s Edifice – Bach, Brian Paul
European Calcutta – Banerjea, Dhrubajyoti
Echoes from Old Calcutta - Busteed, Henry Elmsley
Calcutta Old and New - Cotton, Sir Harry Evan Auguste
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