Calcutta: Past and Present/Chapter 2
THE SIEGE AND CAPTURE
The Mahratta Ditch—Aliverdi Khan, and Suraj-ud-Dowlah—The siege and capture of Calcutta—The Black Hole, and Monument—Holwell and companions at Murshedabad, and their release.
WHILE the English settlement in Bengal grew and prospered, the Mogul Empire at Delhi was waning fast. Year after year fresh troubles arose, and, torn by internal dissension and the treachery of domestic foes, ravaged and spoiled by foreign invaders, the court had lost all control over its distant provinces. Successive nawabs of Bengal kept up a nominal allegiance to Delhi, but grew constantly more independent and more despotic in their rule, till, in 1742, when the tyranny and oppression of the then reigning nawab had become intolerable, his court and army revolted, and, selecting one of their own number, Aliverdi Khan, to be their ruler, placed him on the gadi as Nawab of Bengal.During this period of lawlessness the Mahratta horsemen of Central India began to invade Orissa and Bengal, and to lay waste whole tracts of country. Terror and consternation spread through the land, and everywhere the people fled into the jungles, or gathered in the towns and larger villages in the hope of obtaining some protection by their numbers. In Calcutta the native population undertook to dig a wide ditch which cavalry could not readily cross, round the three villages which formed the town. The ditch was to extend for seven miles, forming a semi-circle round three sides of the town, the fourth side being protected by the river. It was begun in 1742, at Chitpore, and followed the line of Circular Road southward as far as Jaun Bazar Street; here it turned to the south-west, and was intended to take a line which would have crossed the Chowringhee Road at the junction of Middleton Street, and, continuing in the same direction, would have reached the river at Hastings, about where the Commissariat buildings and jetty are now situated. This latter part, however, was not completed; for by the time some four miles of the ditch had been dug the Nawab of Bengal had come to terms with the Mahrattas, who agreed to leave Bengal unmolested in return for a yearly tribute, or chout. The unfinished Mahratta Ditch, which obtained for many generations of Calcutta citizens the soubriquet of Ditchers, continued as a ditch for nearly sixty years, by which time it had become a pestilential drain, unsightly and unsavoury to a degree. In 1799 it was filled up, and the Circular Road was made, which included in its width the ditch and a narrow road which had followed its course, on the town side for the entire length, and continued beyond it in a much wider sweep than the ditch had originally been intended to take. The improvement was greatly appreciated by Calcutta society of the period, and a newspaper paragraph quoted by the Rev. Mr. Long described how "in the Circular Road the young and the sprightly, in the fragrance of morning, wafted in the chariot of health, enjoy the gales of recreation."
From the time of his election as nawab in 1742, till his death in April, 1756, Aliverdi Khan ruled Bengal with strength and justice. He was succeeded by his grandson, a youth of twenty, whose name, Suraj-ud-Dowlah ("Lamp of the State") is infamous in history as the author of the terrible tragedy of the massacre of the Black Hole in Calcutta. This young man had been adopted when a child by his grandfather, the late nawab, who lavished on him a passionate tenderness which overlooked and forgave every fault. Such was the old man's infatuation, that, when the boy at the age of fifteen rebelled against him, he was distracted by fear that the lad might be wounded by his officers in defence of his authority, and himself hurried to the hostile camp, and brought the undeserving rebel home with every mark of tenderness and affection. The festivities which took place on the occasion of the double marriage of Suraj-ud-Dowlah and his younger brother, shortly after their grandfather became nawab, were "spoken of with admiration by the inhabitants of Bengal to this day," says Stewart, writing in 1813, and possibly they are still commemorated in the songs and proverbs of the country people. There were brilliant illuminations, splendid pageants, and grand processions of the two young bridegrooms. Upwards of two thousand rich dresses were distributed among the courtiers, while for a whole month the populace feasted at the expense of the nawab.
Some idea of the luxury and the high standard of living at the court of the nawabs of Bengal at Murshedabad at this period may be gathered from the following extract from the work of an anonymous Mohammedan writer, translated by Gladwin in 1788. Writing of Nawab Murshed Cooly Khan, the founder of Murshedabad, who died in 1724, the author says—
"He despised all the refinements of luxury, particularly in dress, and refrained from everything that is prohibited in the law. No high-seasoned dishes were served up to his table, neither frozen sherberts nor creams, only plain ice. During the winter Khyzir Khan, his house steward, used to collect, in the mountains of Rajmehal, a sufficient stock of ice for the rest of the year: and the whole was done at the expense of the zemindars of that district. In the mango season there was stationed at Rajmehal an overseer who used to keep a regular account of the choicest mango trees in Maldah, Kutwalee, and Husseinpoor; and his guards were placed over them to see that no one purloined the fruit, and that it was regularly sent to Murshedabad. The zemindars furnished everything that was required for these purposes, and they durst not cut down a mango tree nor touch any of the fruit that the overseer had appropriated to the use of the nawabs table."
Reared in this luxurious court, indulged to excess by his doting grandfather, flattered and fawned upon by idle and dissolute courtiers, Suraj-ud-Dowlah grew up narrow-minded, obstinate, and impatient of check or control. He appears to have had a violent dislike to the English as foreigners and interlopers, and his cupidity was roused by tales of the great wealth they were said to have amassed, and the rich spoil which might be obtained by sacking their town and factory. At the time of his accession a dispute had arisen between the English Company and the nawab, regarding a wealthy Hindu who had left Murshedabad with his family, and had settled in Calcutta under the protection of the English, who refused to surrender him to the nawab's officer. Suraj-ud-Dowlah seized the pretext to announce his intention to punish the English. His first act was to plunder the Company's factory at Cossimbazar, near Murshedabad, and to imprison the English merchants stationed there, among others being Warren Hastings, then a young writer in the company's service. Most of the prisoners were shortly released through the intercession of the French and Dutch merchants at Cossimbazar, who became bail for them, and kept them in safety until they were allowed to leave and to make their way down country to join their fellow-countrymen.
When news of the nawab's intentions reached Calcutta, the unfortunate English there were thoroughly alarmed. The long years of security had made them careless; the Fort, never very strong, had fallen into disrepair; the defences were dominated by the church, and by the private houses of the merchants, that of the Governor in Bankshall Street, of Mr. Eyre about the middle of Fairlie Place to the north of the Fort, and of Mr. Cruttenden to the north of the church, at the junction of Lyons Range with Clive Street; while the thickly populated native town, spreading far to north and east of the Fort, was a source of serious danger. There were a very large number of Portuguese in the settlement, the degenerate descendants of the Portuguese who from very early times had tried repeatedly and unsuccessfully to establish colonies in India. These people took refuge in the Fort, and the men were armed; but, as events proved, instead of being of service, they were a terrible hindrance, and a fatal weakness in the defence. Some fifteen hundred Hindu matchlock men were also enlisted and armed, but they deserted in a body as soon as hostilities commenced.
While making such hurried preparations for defence as they could, the English continued their efforts to appease the nawab, without avail. He was bent on their destruction, and, on the 15th of June, 1756, arrived at the English outposts at Chitpore, with an army of fifty thousand men and heavy artillery, and began the assault of the town. With barely five hundred men, only one hundred and seventy of whom were trained soldiers, and not a dozen even of these had ever seen real warfare, the garrison defended themselves for five long days, under the vertical sun of June; and so well did they fight, that the nawab lost five thousand men besides eighty officers.
Though surrounded on three sides by the nawab's forces, the English still retained command of the river, and when the outer defences of the settlement were driven in, most of the ladies and children were placed on board of the ships which lay off the Fort. It seems to be clear that some women and children remained in the Fort, and were among the prisoners who perished when it was taken. They were probably some of the subordinates' families, and were overlooked in the confusion, as all the officers' families were embarked safely. It had been intended that the ships should continue to lie by, and that, when the Fort could no longer be defended, the garrison should escape by the river gate and join them; but, to the endless discredit of the Governor, Mr. Drake, and the senior officers, they were seized with panic, and, hurriedly getting into the boats which lay ready, they hastened on board the ships with the announcement that all was lost. Under their orders, the ships, on the 19th of June, weighed anchor, and dropped down the river with the ebbing tide, leaving to their fate a greatly reduced garrison of brave men under John Zephaniah Holwell, the senior officer left on shore, whose courageous conduct has imperishably associated his name with the story of the Black Hole.
In spite of the desertion of the senior officers, the defence was maintained all through Sunday, the 20th of June, when only one hundred and fifty fighting men were left, and of these more than a third were wounded. Even then Holwell would have kept the enemy at bay till night, and have tried to escape down the river under cover of darkness, but, at six o'clock in the evening, a number of men, who had broken into a spirit-store and been drinking heavily, opened the river gate with the idea of escaping to the ships—the enemy at once rushed in, the stubborn resistance was broken, and Calcutta was lost.
The fighting being at an end, the nawab was carried into the Fort in his palanquin, and to him Holwell surrendered his sword, and was ordered to immediately deliver up the key of the Company's treasury. To Suraj-ud-Dowlah's great disappointment and anger, fifty thousand rupees was all the money in the treasury; he refused to believe that there was no more, and was convinced that the greater part of the vast riches which he had expected to secure must have been concealed. Twice during the evening he sent for Holwell, questioning him closely, and urging the disclosure of the concealed treasure. At the second interview he gave Holwell his assurance, on the word of a soldier, that no harm should come to the prisoners, and, ordering his officers to guard them securely for the night, he retired to rest.
The tragedy that followed is too well known in all its details to need recapitulation. It may have been caused by gross carelessness on the part of the officers in charge of the prisoners, but Holwell, whose vivid narrative of his experiences in the Black Hole is the only reliable and full account, says that it was "the result of revenge and resentment in the breasts of the lower officers, or jemadars, to whose custody the prisoners were delivered, for the number of their order killed during the siege."
Whatever may have been the reason, at about eight o'clock in the evening the prisoners were all driven into a small room which had been used as a prison for soldiers, and which was known by them as the Black Hole prison. This room was about eighteen feet square, and, situated against the curtain wall of the Fort, had no window nor door on two sides. On the third side was one small door which opened inwards, and on the fourth two small iron-barred windows. One hundred and forty-six men and women with some children, some sick, others wounded and dying, all worn out with the exertions and anxieties of the week's siege, thrust into this confined space on a sultry night in June, with the blaze of burning buildings within and around the Fort to add to the heat and dense closeness of the atmosphere were soon a prey to every horror. A fierce fever seized them, delirium set in in many cases, and the weaker members were crushed down and trodden to death in a wild struggle to reach the windows for air.
An old jemadar of the guard, seeing the desperate condition of the prisoners, and moved by Mr. Holwell's entreaties and offers of liberal reward, went twice to try and get permission to remove them to another building, but returned saying that it could not be done without an order from the nawab, who was sleeping, and no one dared to wake him. The same man, who alone showed any humanity, ordered water to be supplied to the prisoners through the windows. The unfortunate people received it eagerly in their hats thrust through the bars, but such was the struggle for a draught, that more than half was spilt and wasted before it reached their parched lips. The water only added to their sufferings, the sight of which the inhuman soldiers enjoyed, holding up blazing torches that they might see them fighting for a drink. When the maddened victims found that water but increased their agonies, they showered every imaginable abuse on their tormentors, and the nawab and his officers, in the hope of inducing the guard to fire on them and so end their sufferings, but without effect.
As the night wore on, one after another the prisoners sank and died, many even in that hour of supreme trial showing admirable calmness and fortitude. Among these were the Rev. Jervas Bellamy, the white-haired chaplain of the settlement, and his son, a young lieutenant, who laid them down hand clasped in hand and died; and Mr. Edward Eyre, a member of the Council, who, staggering over the dead, came to Mr. Holwell, and, asking him with his usual coolness and good-nature how he did, fell down and expired before he received a reply. Holwell himself, determining to die apart from the struggle at the windows, made his way back from the throng, assisted by the great strength of a ship's officer named Carey, whose girl-wife shared his prison and was the one woman who survived that night of horror. The two men laid themselves down, and poor Carey died at once; but death not coming to Holwell, his sufferings drove him to the window again. From there he once more retired, but was brought back to life and consciousness in the morning when he was drawn from under the dead and carried to the window to be shown to the nawab's officers.
Suraj-ud-Dowlah, on learning of the events of the night, sent to inquire if the chief survived, and, finding that he still breathed, he ordered the release of the unhappy remnant of his prisoners, who, scarcely able to stand, took twenty minutes to clear away the bodies of their dead comrades from against the door, so as to admit of its being opened. At six o'clock in the morning, twenty-two ghastly men and one woman staggered out from that charnel-house into the fresh morning air.
Though Suraj-ud-Dowlah may not have been primarily responsible for the inhuman massacre of his defenceless prisoners, he expressed no concern for their fate. His one thought was the treasure of which he imagined he had been cheated. Mrs. Carey and all the men, both European and native, with the exception of Messrs. Holwell, Court, Walcot and Burdet, were given their liberty; but on these four officers fell the full force of the nawab's resentment, and he ordered them to be loaded with chains and conveyed to Murshedabad, there to await his return.
The bodies of the poor creatures who perished in the Black Hole were carried out of the Fort, and thrown into the ditch of an unfinished ravelin, which the English had hastily begun opposite the main gate, but had been unable to complete before they were driven within the walls, and were covered with earth. Holwell, when he returned to Calcutta, after the town had been recovered by Clive and Admiral Watson, erected, at his own cost, over this common grave of his fellow-sufferers a monument, on which he inscribed their names and a vigorously worded record of their fate.This monument, standing at the north-west corner of Dalhousie Square at its junction with Clive Street, was long a conspicuous object in Calcutta. Nobody, however, seemed to be responsible for its upkeep, and in the course of years it fell into disrepair and became unsightly. New sentiments and fashions had arisen too; the predominant feeling at the beginning of the nineteenth century appears to have been a desire to forget all that was disagreeable in the past, and, in 1821, the monument was taken down, and its commemorative tablet mislaid and lost.
[Face p. 44.
The same spirit of indifference which allowed the Holwell monument to perish led to the Black Hole prison being treated as an ordinary godown. When Calcutta was recovered by the English it was thought desirable to build an entirely new Fort, apart from the residential quarter, and the old Fort was therefore not repaired. The houses and other buildings were adapted for immediate use, and in 1766 the whole was handed over to the Customs authorities, in whose occupation it remained till 1818, when the old Fort was pulled down to make way for new warehouses. Although the Black Hole prison continued to be known by that name, and was visited by occasional sightseers, no attempt was made to preserve it as an historical spot. Lord Valentia, who visited Calcutta in 1803, wrote of it as being "part of a godown, or warehouse" filled with goods, so that he could not see it. When the Fort was demolished, in 1818, the site was built over and all remains obliterated.
In 1883, excavations which were made for the foundations of the East India Railway Company's Office in Fairlie Place uncovered portions of the masonry of old Fort William, and roused an interest in the identification of its exact position. Since that date additional information has been gained from time to time as old buildings have been removed and new ones erected on portions of the site, and by this means a plan of the old Fort has been constructed with reference to the position of modern buildings. These have been marked with memorial tablets to indicate the principal spots of interest, and so to keep in memory those who laid the foundations of the British Empire in India.
The oft-quoted rhyme, "Ghora pur howda Hathi pur ghin," which has so often been said to have had reference to Warren Hastings' hurried retreat from Benares to Chunar, appears to have had a much earlier origin in connection with the fall of Calcutta, and to have run—
"Hathi pur howda, Ghora pur ghin
Killa moorcha pur dhunka
Calcutta lia chin."
"Howda on elephant, saddle on horse,
On fort bastion the war-drum
Snatched Calcutta by force."
Very possibly a sarcastic version of the jingle may have been applied to Hastings' retreat, and it may also have been varied in the same way to suit other occasions.
Calcutta having been pillaged and the garrison destroyed or driven away, Suraj-ud-Dowlah changed the name of the town to Allynagore, and appointed a native Governor, a Hindu, Raja Manickchand. He then returned in triumph to his own capital, exacting payment as he went of large sums of money from the French and Dutch settlements at Chandernagore and Chinsurah, as the price of their exemption from similar treatment.
Holwell and his companions had, in the mean time, been carried to Murshedabad. The rains broke over Calcutta the day after its capture, and the wretched prisoners, journeying by boat, were given no shelter, but lay on a platform of bamboos at the bottom of the boat, exposed alike to the soaking rain and the scorching sun, laden with heavy fetters, covered with terrible boils the result of breathing the poisoned atmosphere during that night of agony in the Black Hole, and given only a little boiled rice for food. It is to this latter circumstance that Holwell attributed their escape from death, for, as he wrote afterwards, "could we have indulged in flesh and wine we had died beyond all doubt." Arrived at Murshedabad they were lodged in a stable near the palace, and, still laden with chains and strongly guarded, they narrowly escaped a second suffocation by "the immense crowd of spectators who came from all quarters of the city to gratify their curiosity, and blocked us up from morning till night."
On the return of the nawab to Murshedabad the old begum, his grandmother, interceded with him for the English gentlemen, and, a few days later, he ordered them to be set at liberty and allowed to go where they would; on which, as Holwell records, "as soon as our legs were free, we took boat, and proceeded to the Dutch Tanksall, where we were received and entertained with real joy and humanity."Eventually Holwell and his companions, with Messrs. Hastings and Chambers, who had been hospitably sheltered by the French and Dutch from the time the Company's factory at Cossimbazar had been destroyed, were able to make their way down country to Fulta, where they joined the refugees from Calcutta who there awaited succour.
[Face p. 48.