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H. E. Marshall

The Black Hole

While these things were passing in the Carnatic the British at Calcutta had been trading quietly, growing rich and prosperous, at peace with their Nawab. But in 1959 the Nawab died. He was succeeded by his adopted grandson, Suraj-ud-Daula, or, as the British soldiers and sailors called him, "Sir Roger Dowler."

Suraj-ud-Daula was bad and cruel. He hated the British and soon managed to pick a quarrel with them. He had several make-believe reasons for quarrelling with them. One was that they had sheltered some of his enemies. Another was that they had begun to strengthen their fortifications without leave. The real reason was that he believed that the British were very wealthy and that vast treasure was gathered in Calcutta. He was greedy as well as cruel, and he wanted this treasure for himself.

He now suddenly seized a factory at Cossimbazar which was near his capital. He plundered it and took all the British prisoner. Among his prisoners was a young man named Warren Hastings. Of him we shall hear again.

Having plundered and destroyed Cossimbazar, Suraj-ud-Daula marched in haste against Calcutta with fifty thousand men.

The walls of Calcutta were weak, the guns on Fort William old and very nearly useless. Around the town was a half-dug ditch, begun years before but never finished. Of the garrison not two hundred were British soldiers and not ten of them had ever been in battle in their lives. Among them was no man with knowledge or courage enough to be a leader.

When the news that the Nawab and his army were coming reached Calcutta, everything was thrown into wild disorder. Batteries and earth-works were built in haste, but without any real knowledge of how best to defend the fort. Messages were sent to the Dutch and French factories near, begging for help. It was refused.

On Wednesday, the 16th June, the Nawab's army swarmed into the native town around the fort, and fighting began. It was a fight at fearful odds. There were less than two hundred white men against a rabble of fifty thousand dark-faced heathen, mad with hate and greed.

On Friday night the women and children, of whom there were many in the fort, were all taken safely to the ships which lay in the river. With them, to their shame be it said, went the president and the captain of the garrison. Then they sailed away leaving their comrades in the fort to their fate. In vain those left behind made signs to the ships to stop and wait. It would be dangerous the captain said, and he sailed on. Had they waited another tide every man in the fort might have been saved.

Forsaken by their leader, the garrison chose a Mr. Holwell to be their head, and for two days longer the fort held out. But although Mr. Holwell did his best he was neither a soldier nor a leader of men. He could not keep the men in order, or make them fight and hope when all was hopeless. They became unruly, broke into the store, and were soon helplessly drunk. The Nawab's soldiers swarmed everywhere. Resistance was useless, and on Sunday afternoon the British yielded.

There were one hundred and forty-six prisoners, among them on lady who had refused to leave her husband. For a short time they were gathered in the square of the barracks. There they stood and talked together, watching the flames from the burning town leap and flicker against the fast darkening sky, listening to the wild cries which reached them from without, and wondering what would be their fate.

Then suddenly they were all ordered to march into a small prison house at the end of the barracks. This was a room about eighteen feet square with only two tiny barred windows. It was known as the Black Hole.

At first the prisoners refused to believe the order. But striking them with their clubs, driving them at the sword's point, the Indians forced them in. Then the door was shut.

In the tiny space there was no room to move. The prisoners were packed tightly against each other. The evening was hot and still. The breathless heat of an Indian summer night was made worse by the flames and smoke from the burning buildings all around. In a few minutes the heat became intolerable. Gasping for breath, raging with thirst, the wretched prisoners beat upon the door and shouted to their jailers to let them out. They threatened, they implored, all in vain.

Instead of opening the door the natives brought lighted torches to the windows, so that they might the better see the agonies of their victims.

"Water, water," gasped the stifling wretches. Water at last was brought, but the skins in which it was carried could not be passed through the bars of the windows. It was poured into hats, it was spilled upon the ground, men fought for it like beasts, trampling each other down in their eagerness for a few drops which in the end only made their thirst the more unbearable.

Then came the bitter cry for "Air, air." Those who were far from the windows struggled and fought like demons to get near. Some fainted and slipping to the ground were trampled to death. Many went mad with horror and pain, and in the morning when at last the long agony was over, only twenty-three moaning, stricken spectres crept out. Among them was the lady who would not leave her husband. But she was alone, for he lay among the dead.