BLACK HOLE, in 18th-century Calcutta, the soldiers' name for the dungeon in the East India Company's citadel, Fort William: 18X 14 5/6 feet, with two heavily barred win dows and a low veranda outside; almost airless and meant only for two or three men. The Subandar of Bengal stormed the fort 20 June 1756, and believing it to hold vast hidden treas ures, twice ordered the commandant, J. Z. Hol well, to disclose them; failing, he desisted till morning, but ordered all, the company's serv ants kept secure and obviously alive—outsiders knew no secrets and were not mentioned. The amazing sequel is Holwell's story, all others being derived from or simple echoes of his: The Subandar's guards drove and locked all the white inmates, non-combatants and all (later Holwell included a woman), numbering 146, into this cell till morning, knowing all would probably die and their secret with them; and refused heavy bribes to ask their master for a larger room, in fear of waking him! Packed standing, with 1 5/6 square feet per man, no new air, and fires in the fort making it worse, despite stripping themselves the flood of sweat soon began to madden them with thirst, and death came fast. Water brought by a guard and passed in hats was mostly spilled, and the rest of little service. Suffocation and terror broke all restraints: the prisoners fought for places at the windows, and many were crushed or trampled out of life. By 11 one-third were dead; at 6 A.m., when the Subandar called for them, only 23, including Holwell, were alive. The potentate expressed neither concern for the tragedy, nor anger at the defiance of orders that might have robbed him of the treasure; but Holwell graciously acquits him of intending it, and later thought the guards revengeful for their losses in the storm. He and three others
were sent prisoners to Muxadavad, the rest set free, and the corpses thrown into a ditch, now commemorated by an obelisk 50 feet high. The cell is now a storeroom. The story is suspicious on its face; Holwell was given to lying and had motives for it here; his details are rife with contradictions and impossibilities, and at least much decorated; and a Calcutta Englishman, J. H. Little, supported by scholarly Hindus, has lately denounced the whole story as a fic tion. On his theory the Black Hole incident really occurred, but comprised only the com pany's officers, nine in all, two already wounded, who died with one other; the guards therefore did not defy a master they so dreaded; his promise of sparing the prisoners' lives was fairly kept, and the other 114 dead lost theirs in defending the fort, and should be commemo rated as heroes, not as spiritless victims of a cowardly massacre. The facts that the com pany's council never sent home any account of the tragedy, that Clive and his army never at tempted to revenge it and seem not to have known it till long after, and many other like fact, all cohere with these. On the other hand, the difficulties of admitting it are nearly as cogent and in some ways unanswerable, and judgment as yet must be held in suspense. Con sult the Calcutta Historical Society's magazine, Bengal, Past and Present, July-September 1915 and January-March 1916.