ON 16 JUNE, 1756, Nawab Siraj-ud-daulah of Bengal arrived in Calcutta, with a force of 30,000 soldiers and heavy artillery, to lead an assault on the East India Company. Incensed by the news that the Company was abusing its trading privileges and constructing new fortifications, he was determined to teach the upstart traders a lesson in military power. With just 5,000 soldiers, only half of whom were European, the Company’s position was precarious. Therefore, the Company’s Council of War decided to concentrate its defensive efforts on Fort William. European women and children, and the families of the Company’s Indo-Portuguese and Armenian soldiers, were given refuge in the fort. In addition, all European houses outside the fort were blown up and native houses and bazaars were set on fire in order to allow the fort’s defenders to fire unhindered at the Nawab’s troops. But panic struck as the Nawab’s forces closed in. As morale in the fort sank, desertions became endemic. On 18 June, Governor Roger Drake himself deserted, ingloriously fleeing on a boat. The stranded council in the fort elected John Zephaniah Holwell as the temporary Governor of Fort William. But depleted by desertions and mutinies, the Company was in a hopeless position. On 20 June, Holwell asked for a truce.
The Nawab’s forces occupied the fort. Indians, Indo-Portuguese, Armenians and 15 Europeans were allowed to leave, while the remaining Europeans, along with Holwell, were incarcerated overnight in a 14 by 18-foot cell. According to Holwell’s account written a year later, it was a night of unbearable confusion and agony. Packed tight in a dark dungeon, the captives suffered grievously. Soaked in perspiration, they stripped off their clothes, fought for water, and trampled over each other, clawing for breathing space in the pitch-black darkness of the dungeon. When the cell doors were opened the next morning, there were only 23 survivors out of the 146 jailed Europeans. Later historians have disputed Holwell’s account and drawn attention to his embellishments and exaggerations. They have determined that the cell was not a dungeon, that only 64 men were imprisoned, and that no more than 43 died. But no matter what the facts were, the legend of the ‘Black Hole of Calcutta’ was born.
Fort William’s fall convinced the Company that its commercial interests demanded the control of Bengal, by hook or by crook. As we know, it was mostly by crook. Having found a pretext for breaking the peace with Siraj-ud-daulah, Robert Clive, the Governor of Bengal, employed intrigue and treachery to defeat the Nawab at the Battle of Palashi (Plassey) in 1757. All this could be justified, as later histories written by the British did, as just retribution for the barbarity of the Black Hole. But what justified the subsequent conquest of the Bengal territories and of India? Could the defence of commercial interests alone legitimise the chicanery and the violence involved in imperial conquest?