Darkness Beyond Despair

None More Black

World events can often be skewed into propaganda tools, used by governments as justifications for other plans.  Propaganda foments and it mobilizes: it is the tool of revolutions and tyranny. 

In the case of a particularly heinous abuse of human rights, an incident involving the imprisonment of over 140 British citizens in what has infamously become known in history as the Black Hole of Calcutta strengthened the resolve of Britain to conquer and subsume India.

Unfortunately, the incident that led to the subjugation of millions of Indians in expansionist retaliation over the next several decades never happened as originally, and exaggeratedly, reported.

Black Hole of Calcutta (interpretation)Credit: public domain
9/11 Lies
September 11, 2001: for the United States this was a black day in history when two aircraft were commandeered and flown into the twin towers of New York City’s World Trade Center.  Two other aircraft were similarly hijacked.  One crashed into the Pentagon in Washington, DC, on a kamikaze flight (doing significant damage to the structure).  The fourth plane (United Airlines Flight 93), however, was brought down well before its target, the US Capitol, was reached by truly heroic members of the plane’s passengers who overwhelmed the hijackers.  The death toll from all four hijackings and successfully targeted areas combined was 2,996 – 6,000 more people sustained injuries.

The September 11 attacks was the name assigned by the press (as if there had never been any other violent action in history to occur on that day – the September 11 attack in 1857, when a group of Mormon terrorists murdered the settlers of a wagon train in cold blood, says otherwise). 

The hijackings and destruction were used as a propaganda tool by the George W. Bush presidential administration of the time.  They served as an excuse in 2002 to create and bolsterDeath TowerCredit: Vic Dillinger, 2013 the most civil-rights’ abusive US Government organization ever formed, the Department for Homeland Security (whose civil rights abuses to date are worse than any similar acts by the FBI and the CIA combined in their entire histories). 

But, Bush also used it as a justification to start a war with a country – Iraq – that was not an active aggressor against the United States (nor had it ever been).  Furthermore, no Iraqi citizens were among the hijackers in the plot to bring down the Twin Towers (the terrorists who’d seized the aircraft were Egyptian, Saudi, and from other countries).

A tall, charismatic, and very wealthy Muslim leader named Osama bin Laden was the head of a group of Muslim fundamental ideologists who used terrorism as a means to its ends.  This faction, al-Qaeda, claimed responsibility for the attacks three years later in 2004 (though suspected of involvement earlier).  Osama bin Laden initially denied any involvement but later admitted helping to finance and to coördinate the assaults.  Thus, he quickly became America’s Number One enemy.  He took refuge in Afghanistan in the wake of the attacks, and much money was spent in military operations fruitlessly searching for him there and in adjoining countries.  The opportunity was also taken, however, to depose the Taliban, Afghanistan’s theocratic government that had provided safe harbor for al-Qaeda.  

Nonetheless, George W. Bush – in his “fight against terrorists” (who, like Communists in the 1950s, allegedly hid under every bed and lurked near every school) – went to war with Iraq, a country with no vested interest or hand in the 9/11 plot (although for form’s sake he did bolster the US more-than-a-decade-old presence in Afghanistan in a pretense of looking for the terrorist leader, bin Laden).  He would also claim the war with Iraq – which was sometimes quaintly referred to as the “War for Iraqi Freedom” – was to set the Iraqi people free from the despotic rule of dictator Saddam Hussein.

George W. Bush’s “intelligence” reports manufactured claims that Iraq had a lethal store of “Weapons of Mass Destruction” (whatever that oblique term means: any weapon – if wielded properly – can be a weapon of mass destruction).  Certainly, if true, that would be a valid reason for an incursion into Iraq.  But these reports were later discredited as exaggerated and inaccurate fabrications.  Regardless, Bush wanted a war, he wanted a war with Iraq, and he was determined to use any excuse to get it.  The September 11 attacks on US soil gave him all the justification he needed for American soldiers to go fight “the infidel” in Iraq.

Bush’s real reason for going to war in Iraq (costing several thousand military and civilian US lives not to mention an untold number of tens of thousands of Iraqi civilian lives) had nothing do to with capturing the terrorist leader Osama bin Laden or freeing the Iraqi people from a ruthless dictator.  It was about one-upping his father, former one-term President George Herbert Walker Bush.  George W. Bush wanted to “get” Saddam Hussein, a task his father failed to carry out a decade before.

George W. Bush’s Iraqi “war” (in contrast to his father’s failure) did result in the capture and execution (by an Iraqi tribunal) of the dictator Hussein.  But the war still dragged on needlessly for several years afterward.  It ended only when President Barack Hussein Obama mandated removal of troops in 2012.  [And it was President Barack Obama who, in 2011, successfully authorized a covert military operation that – after locating the fugitive Osama bin Laden in a protected compound in Pakistan – “got” bin Laden on May 2, 2011.  He was killed during the operation to capture him and his body was buried at sea to avoid Muslim martyrdom and to avoid creating a shrine of his remains and burial-place.]

More important than the collateral-damage “cost” of human life of the Iraq operation, though, was the very real monetary cost of maintaining this manufactured conflict.  As of this writing (February 9, 2013) the Iraq engagement has cost the United States’ citizenry almost $875 billion – that is roughly $3000 for every man, woman, and child living in America. And the cost of this war still climbs, daily – collateral fiscal issues (remuneration where warranted, medical expenses for the war wounded, etc.), all amount to a continually ticking fiscal bomb that beyond any doubt contributed mightily to the depressed economy of the United States from 2006 to the present (as does the ongoing, and unnecessary, presence of US troops in Afghanistan – the cost of that operation is nearly equal to that of Iraq).

And for what?  So George W. Bush could one-up his father, George Herbert Walker Bush, who (as President from 1989-1993) failed to “get” Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein during the Persian Gulf War (1990-1991) when Iraq invaded neighboring Kuwait in August 1990 and international forces allied to drive the Iraqis out.   

In the wake of what became known as simply “9/11” knee-jerk reactionary jingoism took over in America (already in a hugely frightening right-wing conservative mood) as well.  However, some reactions to 9/11 were just plain silly.

It is certain almost everyone who was alive and cognizant back then recalls the idiocy of “Freedom Fries”.  When France refused to allow the US to use its air space to fly into Iraq on sorties, some Americans took umbrage at the lack of “support” from foreign governments (certainly the expectation was absurd on its face – Iraq had no business being invaded by the US in the first place; thus, the international community had no obligation to abet the action). 

The “Freedom Fries” debacle arose from this refusal by France to allow US military flights into Iraq from its air.  A gung-ho restaurateur in New Jersey – who also happened to have mostly military personnel as his clientele from a nearby military base – was the “creator” of this inanity.  This genius decided in 2004, because of France’s lack of support for the anti-Iraqi American “cause”, that French fries in his restaurant should no longer carry the name they'd had for over a century.  Instead, he renamed them the absurd “Freedom Fries” (it is unclear to whose “freedom” this “patriot” was referring when re-naming them).  Other establishments took up the moniker (mercifully briefly), and many reactionary Americans ate “Freedom Fries” for awhile.

The ridiculous behaviors of the hyper-patriotic are not the sole milieu of the United States, though.  Other countries have had their idiotic moments of ethnocentric rage and glorification.  French-Canadians took up arms over the imposition of tighter British rule and British social norms upon their perceived independence.  This conflict (starting in 1837) was known as the Papineau Rebellion (for French-Canadian Party leader, Louis Jean Papineau) and was fought mostly by French-Canadian rabble (loggers and trappers) against British soldiers.  One of its real life French-Canadian rebel fighters served as the basis for what later became the manufactured folk figure, Paul Bunyan.

Like the United States, Britain had a pivotal “9/11” moment that changed British expansionist policy to include India well before Britain was ready to take on such a large political entity under its umbrella of Empire.  Its early terrorist moment in Calcutta, India, was a direct attack by a known enemy, and Britain’s response was devastating. 

At least the British – unlike the America of George W. Bush – had taken their fight to the doorstep of the correct (and known) terrorist enemy.  

Free Trade Agreement
Much of Britain’s early global expansion centered on exploitation of foreign resources and in establishing trading outposts in remote regions.  These trading posts served as cultural epicenters for traveling English and they were also global reminders of Britain’s power (and at the time of the Black Hole of Calcutta incident, Britain was the mightiest military force in the world).

The modern city of Calcutta, India, was founded on such a trade premise.  Bengal, the territory where the outpost was located, was originally dominated by a Buddhist dynasty from the 8th-12th Centuries.  Afterward, it was part of the Mughal Empire (beginning in 1576).  By the time of Britain’s presence there, Bengal was under the control of petty potentates called “nawabs” (a position like that of provincial governor). With permission from the Indian Bengali nawabs, Job Charnock established a trading outpost in 1690 under the aegis of the British East India Company (formed in 1600).  Troops were hired by the Company to protect the outposts from natives and from other European powers.  Within a short time, the British East India Company was a wealthy conglomerate with outposts around the globe, a commanding position in world markets, and its own private army.

The little outpost in Calcutta started by Job Charnock changed its face in 1696 when a fortified compound, Fort William, was built.  And, for the next roughly 120 years old Fort William stood stoically as a protector of the trade Britain coveted in that part of the world.

Armed & Dangerous
Britain to this time had business interests in the East Indies but was not agitating aggressively to colonize or conquer.  Fort William in Calcutta prospered and expanded.  It boasted strong walls and a full complement of staff.  Among it “amenities” was a dungeon or holding cell for punitive purposes, a room roughly 22 feet x 18 feet x 12 feet high (396 square feet on the floor, almost 4800 cubic feet in volume). The room had a heavy door and two windows (heavily barred). [Some accounts claim one window or even no windows, and the size of the room varies by as much as several linear feet, with floor dimensions of 14 feet x 15 feet – 210 square feet – claimed.]  It was designed to hold perhaps no more than three or four prisoners under the best of circumstances, and it was rarely in use.
view of Black Hole cell (at Fort William)Credit: romaticism-in-art.org; public domainConsidering trade was vigorous, and Britain had issues with France, in 1756 Fort William (accessible from the mouth of the Ganges) was fortified further.  This was to aid in its defenses in the event of conflict with French forces (in the area).  Additional armaments and personnel were installed.

Not understanding Britain’s fear of French incursion, a neighboring Bengalese nawab, a 23-year-old named Siraj-ud-daulah (also known as Mirza Muhammad), was alarmed by the Siraj ud-daulah (Mirza Muhammad)Credit: public domainadditional fortifications at Fort William.  He took the increases in defenses as a possibly belligerent act against his country.  He also took this as a threat to his rule (he had just assumed the position of nawab from his grandfather that year, and the British East India Company had tried to keep him from ascending to his throne in the first place as he was not sympathetic to their presence in his country).  Through mediators, Siraj-ud-daulah advised the British command at Fort William to cease their efforts at strengthening the occupied stronghold.  This, of course, was ignored.

Increasingly afraid and fearing subjugation, Siraj-ud-daulah massed an army of several thousand (some claim as many as 50,000), including 500 elephants and 50 cannons.  After plowing its way through Calcutta with little resistance the army arrived at the fort on June 16, 1756.  The fort was besieged for a few days – many of its company had scattered, escaping into the surrounding countryside.  Others were killed outright in combat.

The situation was very grim for the defenders as their food, water, and ammunition dwindled under the hot Indian summer sun.

The Doctor is In
John Zephaniah Holwell (1711 – 1798) had been born in Dublin, Ireland.  Raised in London, he later studied medicine.  He was employed by the British East India Company as a surgeon, and in 1732 he was sent to Fort William in Calcutta to serve as its chief medico until 1749.  He was appointed the position of zemindar (a Hindi word dating only to 1683 meaning “revenue collector”).  Then, he was appointed to Fort William’s governing council. And he was in the fort on the day the young nawab and his army set upon it.

The garrison’s commander, Roger Drake, had managed an organized escape of most of the fort’s occupants.  What remained was a token, and insufficient, force of 170 soldiers under Holwell’s command.  The fort’s cannon powder was wet and the grape-shot it had on hand had been worm-eaten and was unusable.  There were also some defections of these troops.  The men who stayed and fought ran out of ammunition. 

Holwell saw the hopelessness of a prolonged siege by the nawab’s forces; as he feared, the fort fell on June 20.  As spokesperson for the group inside the fort he parleyed with Siraj-ud-daulah who assured him no harm would come to him or any of the other defeated fort occupants. 

Darkness Falls
Holwell’s account, written by him in 1758 (two years after the fact) begins the nightmare of the Black Hole of Calcutta incident with a head count.  According to Holwell, there were 146 people English Officers Imprisoned in Black Hole of CalcuttaCredit: public domainremaining in the fort at the time of its capture on June 20, 1756.  Among these were British soldiers, civilian personnel, and sepoys (working for the British East India Company). There were also two women (one named “Mrs. Carey”).  Several of the prisoners were wounded.

The survivors of the siege were gathered up.  They were herded beneath a veranda that led to the heavy door of Fort William’s holding cell.  There, at 8 o’clock that Sunday evening, the 146 were pressed, shoved, and otherwise compelled to get into this cell, with nothing but body crushed against body, no room to move, and breathing difficult at best. 

The outside air temperature was 95°, and in June in India, the humidity was probably at 100%.  The narrative of the nightmare that followed is horrific:

“The dungeon was a strongly barred room and was not intended for the confinement of more than two or three men at a time. There were only two windows, and a projecting veranda outside and thick iron bars within impeded the ventilation, while fires raging in different parts of the fort suggested an atmosphere of further oppressiveness. The prisoners were packed so tightly that the door was difficult to close.

One of the soldiers stationed in the veranda was offered 1,000 rupees to have them removed to a larger room. He went away, but returned saying it was impossible. The bribe was then doubled, and he made a second attempt with a like result; the nawab was asleep, and no one dared wake him.

By nine o’clock several had died, and many more were delirious. A frantic cry for water now became general, and one of the guards, more compassionate than his fellows, caused some to be brought to the bars, where Mr. Holwell and two or three others received it in their hats, and passed it on to the men behind. In their impatience to secure it nearly all was spilt, and the little they drank seemed only to increase their thirst. Self-control was soon lost; those in remote parts of the room struggled to reach the window, and a fearful tumult ensued, in which the weakest were trampled or pressed to death. They raved, fought, prayed, blasphemed, and many then fell exhausted on the floor, where suffocation put an end to their torments.

About 11 o’clock the prisoners began to drop off fast. At length, at six in the morning, Siraj-ud-daulah awoke, and ordered the door to be opened. Of the 146 only 23 [including Holwell] remained alive, and they were either stupefied or raving. Fresh air soon revived them, and the commander was then taken before the nawab, who expressed no regret for what had occurred, and gave no other sign of sympathy than ordering the Englishman a chair and a glass of water.”

Panic & outrage in the Black Hole of CalcuttaCredit: public domain

Thus, 123 people died overnight in the guardroom that became known as The Black Hole of Calcutta. 

Interestingly enough, it was reported by Holwell that neither he nor many of the other surviving fort occupants held the nawab personally responsible for the mass death that had occurred in the cramped cell over a roughly 10-hour incarceration period in a sweat-box ending on the morning on June 21, 1756.  It was believed by some that the inhumane quartering was the workings of malicious under officers in the nawab’s army.  Regardless, many people died in one of the worst ways imaginable – suffocating, trampled, dehydrated, and crushed.

Scenes from the Black Hole of CalcuttaCredit: public domain images; composite by author
Light of Day
Holwell said it took about 20 minutes to get the door to the dungeon open because of the crush of bodies – both alive and dead – heaved against it.  The corpses were summarily thrown into a hastily dug ditch without much ceremony.  The relative importance of Holwell and three others was recognized by the young nawab, and they were sent as prisoners to Murshidabad (the capital of Bengal several miles up the Ganges River to the northwest), possibly to be ransomed back to the British government. 

Word had spread of the attack on Fort William, and a British retaliation effort was launched in October 1756.  Under Robert Clive (marching over land with ground forces) and Admiral Charles Watson (who commanded a fleet), Fort William was retaken in January 1757.  The remaining survivors were freed by the liberating British. In February 1757, Clive and his 3,000 men completely routed the nawab’s forces, driving them out of Calcutta. 

The nawab of Bengal fled to his capital of Murshidabad.  There he was overthrown and on July 4, 1757, he was killed by his own people (specifically, by a group of conspirators headed up by the son of the man who would succeed him to the throne).  His body was tossed into the Ganges.  He was 24 years old.

The grimmer details of the Black Hole incident were not known until Holwell told his story (later committed to writing and published in 1758).  The event confirmed what the British wanted to believe of the Indians: they were base, cowardly, and despotic.  The British Crown and the British public were outraged beyond belief.  Using Holwell’s story as a galvanizing force, the British supported any and all abuses by the British East India Company to suppress and otherwise exploit or subjugate the Bengalis in the area. 

The boy nawab was replaced on the throne by his uncle, Mir Jafar, thanks to a well-timed bribe of £235,000 paid to the conquering British hero, Robert Clive.  Furthermore, Jafar ensured Clive an annual salary of £30,000 (these are ridiculously large sums of money by the standards of the mid 18th Century, worth millions today). 

The British East India Company was also granted the right to tax Mughal lands and to also command Mughal troops.  Instead of merely being traders in a strange land, the Company was now its de facto ruler.  This turn of events was received favorably in the homeland – Brits saw it as a karmic justice for The Black Hole incident, and they also believed the British influence would “civilize” the “savages of India”.

The British had assumed control over Bengal by 1764.  From that time, with Bengal as a clearly British stronghold and base of operations, secured by the importance and power of the British East India Company, British expansion in India raged. The era of Britain’s Indian occupation was a brutal one, with many skirmishes, rebellions, and revolts by and among the natives.  Tens of thousands died over the decades as Britain wrested control of the dark sub-continent from the Indians one piece at a time.  Finally, with the end of British rule in India in 1947, the area of Bengal around Calcutta was divided: West Bengal, Bihar, and Orissa remained part of India while East Bengal reverted to Pakistan (in 1971 East Bengal became known as Bangladesh).

Site of the Black Hole of Calcutta (photo, 1905)Credit: public domain

As for the infamous Black Hole of Calcutta, it was destroyed along with the old Fort William in 1818.  A new, bigger, and better Fort William was built nearby.  The accepted site of the old fort’s guardroom – The Black Hole – is now in an alleyway.

Holwell had memorialized the site himself with a tablet carrying the names of the victims, but this was stolen sometime before 1822.  To keep the memory of the heinous atrocity alive, aHolwell Monument (photo, 1905)Credit: public domain 50-foot tall obelisk was erected in 1901 on the spot where Holwell’s tablet had been.  Due to changing times and nationalist fervor in 1940 the Holwell monument was taken from its original site and re-erected in a graveyard.  Today, there is nothing much to show where the Black Hole was. 

The “Hole” Truth
Holwell’s account of the Black Hole of Calcutta was accepted at face value for nearly a century.  It wasn’t until later that questions arose about the veracity of his story. 

When the tale was first doubted, a key point was that it seemed inconceivable that such a horrific event should go unregarded by contemporaries in the area.  It is not noted in any other accounts of the times, and no other survivors came forth with their own versions of the ordeal (any other survivors who heard Holwell’s account merely stated it “sounded right”).

This kind of after-the-fact storytelling is seen in the New Testament concerning Herod’s orders to kill all male children under a certain age in Bethlehem in the hopes of extinguishing the young infant Jesus in such a massacre.  In the first place, the town of Bethlehem then had perhaps 100 families in it.  This means, statistically, that there might have been ten male infants in the village at the time that fit Herod’s criteria.  While certainly appalling, ten murdered boy children hardly constitutes the vicious mass slaughter of babies as envisioned by the average Bible reader.

But more importantly is the fact this particular New Testament event – considering its grisly details – is recorded nowhere else by historians or other secular or non-secular sources of the time.  And it would certainly have been big news to the people living during Herod’s reign – they would have talked of such an event for years to come.  The simple truth is it didn’t happen (or, in the improbably unlikely event it did, it affected only a handful of children, not enough to write about).

So, too, was Holwell’s tale out of synch with what logic and common sense would dictate.  There is no doubt that the nawab attacked Fort William on June 16, 1757.  There is no doubt that Holwell and others were taken prisoner by the nawab’s forces and confined in Fort William’s too small dungeon. 

The real issue is just how many people were crammed into that space.  Holwell concluded the cell was a cube, 18 feet on a side (giving a floor space of 324 square feet).  Better information Site of Black Hole of Calcutta (right-hand image from stereo-optic slide)Credit: Stereo-Travel Co., NY, 1908; public domaingives the dimensions closer to 22 feet x 18.  Most scholars now believe that Holwell was either mistaken in his head count, confused and traumatized by the combat events, or he exaggerated his numbers to make his story more compelling.  The true number of prisoners is believed to really have been around 65 people (considering the number of evacuees, the people who slipped away, and the defectors from the troops). 

This number – much like the apocryphal dead babies at the hands of Herod – is horrific enough without embellishment.  The truth is that only 23 people survived the 10-hour stretch in The Black Hole – a 65% mortality rate!  That by itself should have been sufficient to strengthen British resolve and to rouse them to march on Bengal and use any amount of scorched earth destruction they saw fit.

The suffering in that cell was no doubt incomprehensible.  Holwell reported being fortunate enough to be near a window (he was able to speak to the guards and offer them bribes).  HeJohn Zephaniah Holwell (1711 – 1798)Credit: Dixon & Son, probably after Robert Edge Pine platinum print, 1887-1894 claimed he sweated so much, though, that another prisoner was able to suck on his shirt sleeves attempting to slake his thirst.  He said he tried drinking his own urine as a stopgap measure against dehydration, but its bitter taste was too much for him to swallow. 

People were trod upon as most tried to get near the windows to breathe.  Others vainly pressed against the door trying to break it down.  Some people died standing upright and, because of the crushing lack of space, the body could not fall prone to the ground.

There was also most certainly incompetence on the part of the inexperienced nawab (whom Holwell guessed was 18 at the time and not his true age of 23) to dictate orders effectively as well.  The prisoners were placed in the guardroom by a local commander under Siraj-ud-daulah.  But this was meant to be only temporary; it was because of confusion in the nawab’s chain of command that the captives were unintentionally left there overnight. [And it is likely Holwell was aware of this as he reported his feelings about where blame lay for the outrage, and he did not blame the nawab. He believed it was “the result of revenge and resentment in the breasts of the lower Jemmaatdaars [sergeants], to whose custody we were delivered, for the number of their order killed during the siege.”]

Holwell’s story for decades justified Britain’s presence in India and the over-lording of the Indian people.  They used The Black Hole in the same way that jingoistic Americans once yelled “Remember the Alamo!” (in memory for the defenders who in 1836 stood their ground in an abandoned mission compound fending off the Mexican Army while the defenders sat on foreign land – Mexico’s) or “Remember the Maine” (a ship that blew up in 1898 but was touted as being torpedoed by the Cuban Navy as it sat in Havana’s harbor; the incident fueled the Spanish-American War).

The Black Hole of Calcutta was a real place where a horrible tragedy occurred, but the account has much exaggerated detail.  It is not a myth. And the British Empire was made glorious with the acquisition of India, truly its Crown Jewel.

The British used The Black Hole incident as a propaganda tool to justify expansion into India; it used its “terrorist” attack as propaganda for empire building.  In the same way, George W. Bush later used 9/11 as a tool to manipulate the public into accepting – and championing in many cases – an expensive war with no point and no bone of contention, a war that only he wanted.  And got.

Black Hole of Despair(127816)Credit: 2013


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