The Black Hole of Calcutta
From 'A History of the British Nation' by AD Innes, 1912
In 1754 the two leading actors in the Anglo-French struggle in India were withdrawn from the scene - Dupleix to suffer from shameful ill-treatment at the hands of his countrymen, the victor of Arcot to seek parliamentary honours, which, happily, he failed to obtain. The strife had been restricted to the Carnatic; and the British and French governors in that province came to an amicable agreement that they would leave native politics alone and fight no more.. Still it was anticipated that when France and Britain went to war again there would be some difficulty in preserving the peace in India. In 1756 Clive was returning to the East, and there was I a small British squadron in Indian waters under the command of Admiral Watson. In conjunction with the admiral, Clive destroyed a pirate's stronghold at Gheriah on the west coast and then proceeded to take up his command at Fort St. David. No active steps against the French were possible under the existing agreement, and it must be noted that the declaration of war between England and France was not known in India until early in 1757.
The Black Hole of Calcutta
But in August there came to Madras the news of a ghastly tragedy at Calcutta. The events in the Carnatic had attracted little attention in Hindustan. The Mogul reigned at Delhi, but in effect the whole north-west was dominated by Ahmed Shah, the master of Kabul. From Central India the Western Marathas had pushed their power up to the banks of the Jumna, the river on which stand the Mogul cities of Delhi and Agra. The whole Maratha confederacy recognised as its head the hereditary Peishwa, a sort of mayor of the palace, who was nominally the minister of the royal house of the Marathas. The peishwa's headquarters were at Puna. The chief of the Eastern Marathas was the Bhonsla, the Rajah of Berar or Nagpur, which is as nearly as possible the central point of the Peninsula; and the eastern Marathas raided the Ganges provinces as far down the river as Calcutta itself. Between Ahmed Shah on the north-west and the Marathas on the south the Mogul was practically without power at all, and the two nawabs of the great Ganges provinces, of which the upper was Oudh and the lower Bengal with Behar, had made themselves independent princes. The Nawab of Oudh, however, claimed the title of Wazir or Chief Minister of the Mogul.
Now at the beginning of 1756 Ali Vardi Khan, the old experienced Nawab of Bengal, died, and was succeeded by his grandson Snraj ud-Daulah, a half mad youth of nineteen, full of an inordinate vanity and a lust for blood, very much like the Roman Emperor Caligula. Sufaj ud-Daulah, possibly at the instigation of the French, chose to take offence because the British at Fort William were strengthening their fortifications in case they should find themselves involved in hostilities with their French neighbours at Chandernagur. The nawab ordered them to demolish their fortifications, the governor replied with a remonstrance; and the nawab responded by despatching an army to Calcutta. The governor and some others fled on some British ships which were in the Hugli; those who remained behind had no choice but to surrender.
The unhappy prisoners one hundred and forty-six in number, were packed into a chamber twenty feet square, three human beings to the square yard, with one small grating to let in air, on a sultry July night in Calcutta. Then Suraj ud-Daulah forgot them till next morning, when twenty-three of the hundred and forty six were found to be still alive. Such was the tragedy of the Black Hole. One course only was possible for the British in Madras. At whatever cost the perpetrator of so ghastly an outrage must be punished. Clive, with the company's forces and Watson's naval squadron of ten ships, were despatched to the Hugli. In the first week of January Clive had stormed and captured the forts of Baj-Baj and Hugli, and had driven the nawab's troops out of Calcutta. The nawab, who was beginning to discover that traders were more use to him alive than dead, was surprised to find that the British could fight as well as trade. He had collected an army to wipe them out, but that army in turn was scattered; he began to treat.
But while he was making promises to Clive of restitution and compensation, he was secretly imploring the French at Chandernagur, and even Bussy at Haidarabad, to come to his aid. The way was cleared for Clive by news of the declaration of war between France and Great Britain. He gave no time for a combination to be formed against the British, but at once struck at Chandernagur, which fell on March 23rd. All the military stores and five hundred prisoners of war fell into his hands. That settled the question of French intervention in Bengal, and decided Bussy to confine his activities to the south. The question now was whether Clive had done enough for British honour and should return to the south, where the Carnatic was threatened with a French war. If he did so, Calcutta would be left defenceless, and there was every probability that Suraj ud-Daulah, free from the immediate terror inspired by the presence of the British forces, was sufficiently insane to seek revenge.