The number of persons who perished in the so-called Black Hole of Calcutta in 1756 has long been a matter of controversy, especially intense since the Indian viceroyalty of Lord Curzon of Kedleston. Two scholars, C. R. Wilson and S. C. Hill, and their patron, Lord Curzon, have maintained that HolwelPs narrative declaring that 123 persons perished in the Black Hole is substantially true. On the other hand, J. H. Little has argued that the Black Hole tragedy is a “gigantic hoax,” exaggerated beyond all proportions, since only a few men, in his opinion, were confined in the Black Hole, and of them only those who had received severe wounds during the actual fighting died. While English scholars have generally followed the Curzon- Wilson-Hill school, Indian scholars have recently come to accept Jadunath Sarkar's opinion that probably not more than sixty were confined in the Black Hole.



See C. R. Wilson, Old Fort William, Indian Records Series, 2 vols. London, 1906; Bengal in 1756-1757, ed. S. C. Hill, Indian Records Series, 3 vols. London, 1905—cited hereafter as Hill Collection; The Marquis Curzon of Kedleston, British Government in India, 2 vols. London, 1925.


J. H. Little, “The Black Hole: Question of Holwell's Veracity,” Bengal Past and Present, XI, 75-104; Little, “The Black Hole Debate,” ibid., XII, 136-49; Akshaya Kumar Mitra, “The Black Hole Debate,” ibid., XII, 156-71.


Among the English scholars is Henry Dodwell. See his Dupleix and Clive (London, 1920), and also the Cambridge History of the British Empire (Cambridge, England, 1937), Vol. IV, Chap. vii. Sarkar's view, rather a guess, is in History of Bengal (Dacca, 1948), Vol. II, Chap. xxv.


This is not, however, exactly true. Although the Indian chroniclers make no mention of the incident, two Armenian merchants do. Emin Joseph Emin in his biography, Life and Adventures of Emin Joseph Emin (London, 1792), p. 119, mentions that 400 (? 40) Englishmen were suffocated in the Black Hole. Thomas Khojamall in his history of Industan (Allahabad, ca. 1764), p. 292, mentions that fifteen Europeans lost their lives in the Black Hole.


Cambridge History of the British Empire, IV, 156.


Dodwell, Dupleix and Clive, p. 122.


However, it seems certain that Mills was not in the Black Hole.


All these accounts are in Hill Collection, I, 48-53, 61-62, 73-89, 106-09, 109-16, 62-66, 118-62, 163-73, 185-92, 248-301, 40-45; III, 131-54, 290-303. Hill misdates John Young's letter as July 10th. Since it mentions Holwcll's release from Murshidabad, it must have been written after July 17th.


Mills and Grey reached Chandernagore on July 2. (Hill Collection, I, 194.) Holwell left Calcutta on June 24 and arrived at Santipur, north of Chandernagore, on June 30. During this journey he had freedom of movement and utilized this freedom to talk to Europeans. (Holwell to William Davis, February 28, 1757, Hill Collection, III, 147-49.)


Hill Collection, I, 61.


Hill Collection, I, 65-66.


Hill Collection, I, 62.


Hill Collection, I, 88. Holwell later abandoned this story of firing, and changed it to “insulting us the whole night.” See Hill Collection, I, 186.


Mills' account must have been written after Grey's and not vice versa, because: Mills provides more details than Grey, which he probably secured as the information became available to him from time to time. He has left several blank spaces in his pocketbook. Grey would not have failed to mention Mills as a survivor of the Black Hole, which Mills' account does, had Grey copied from Mills. See Mills' account in Hill Collection, I, 40 ff. and Grey's account in Hill Collection, I, 109 ff.


RHill Collection III, 72, 105.


Mills' Account, Hill Collection, I, 194.


S. C. Hill, List of Europeans and Others in the English Factories in Bengal at the Time of Siege of Calcutta in 1756 (Calcutta, 1902), entries under the aforementioned names; Curzon, British Government in India, I, 167-68, and Holwell, “Genuine Narrative,” Hill Collection, III, 153.


For others who claimed the “honor” of being in the Black Hole, see Hill Collection, I, xciv-xcvii.


Cooke's Evidence, Hill Collection, III, 302.


Holwell, “Genuine Narrative,” Hill Collection, III, 146-47.


Mills' Account, Hill Collection, I, 194.


Holwell, “Genuine Narrative,” Hill Collection, III, 136-42. This account would have us believe that some non-Europeans were also confined in the Black Hole. This seems erroneous.


Holwell, “Genuine Narrative,” Hill Collection, III, 144-46.


Drake's Narrative, Hill Collection, I, 135.


Tooke's Account, Hill Collection, I, 255.


Lindsay to Orme, July (?), 1756, Hill Collection, I, 171.


“Summary of a List of Inhabitants, &c, who Bore Arms in the Late Siege of Calcutta,” dated I July, 1756, Hill Collection, III, 415-16. The list gives the names of all Europeans except 25 artillerymen and 35 infantrymen.


Albert, Austin, Baillie, Baldrick, Beaumont, Billers, Burton, Campbell, Carvalho, Champion, Charlton, Cruttenden, Douglas, Drake, Ellis, Elvis, Frankland, Fullerton, Grant, Helmstead, Holmes, Laing, Leycester, Lindsay, Ling, Lord, Mackett, Mannigham, Mapletoft, Margass, Minchin, Nicholson, Nixon, O'Hara, Orr, Putham, Pyefinch, Rannie, Rider, Ridge, Senior, Strousenberg, Summers, Sumner, Tooke, Vassmer, Walmsley, Wedderbum, Whaley, Whatmoug, Wood and Young. Holwell also mentions Stephen Page, but Page died during the siege. Holwell further adds that Captain Nicholson, Austin and Whatmoug left with their crews. (Hill Collection, I, 189-91.)


Barnard, Carr, Child, Jacobs and Smith. (Mills' Pocketbook, Hill Collection, I, 41.)


Tooke's Narrative, Hill Collection, I, 265.


Drake's Narrative, Hill Collection, I, 152, 154.


Robert Clive to William Mabbot, January 31, 1757, Hill Collection, II, 186; Robert Lindsay to Robert Orme, July (?), 1756, Hill Collection, I, 168; Edward Ives, A Voyage from England to India in the Year 1754 &c (London, 1773), p. 93.


Holwell to Fort St. George Council, July 17, 1756, Hill Collection, I, 113. All volunteers were Europeans.


Cooke's Evidence before the Select Committee of the House of Commons, Hill Collection, III, 299. One of the volunteers was Lewis. We do not know what happened to the other members of the crew of the Prince George. It is hardly likely that they returned to the fort to fight. Most probably they escaped with Pearkes and Morris.


Grey's Account, Hill Collection, I, 108. Holwell (Hill Collection, I, 114) mentions these desertions but docs not give any figures. Grey, however, witnessed these desertions.


Holwell to Fort St. George Council, August 3, 1756, Hill Collection, I, 185; Holwell to Fort St. George Council, July 17, 1756, Hill Collection, I, 114.


Cooke's Evidence before the Select Committee of the House of Commons, ibid., Ill, 301. Among them were: Alsop, Andrews, Collins, English, Grey Sr., Grey Jr., Henderson, James Johnstone, Kerwood, Knox Sr., Knox Jr., Savage, Taylor and Tedcombe. (Mills' Pocketbook, ibid., I, 44; Grey's Account, ibid., I, 108.) Mills was also among them, though he does not mention this fact, the reasons for which are discussed above. This makes the number of the escapees fifteen. Mills also mentions Pearkes and Lewis in his list. However, they both had escaped the previous day.


Hill, List of Europeans, p. 5. The twenty-one included: Aillery, Angel, Arnd, Boirs, Burdett, Burgaft, Clelling, Cooke, Cosall, Court, Dickson, Gatliff, Holwell, Jones, Lushington, John Meadows, Thomas Meadows, Moran, Roop, Thomas, and Walcott.


Fifty-two names of deserters are provided by Holwell (n. 28), five additional by Mills (n. 32), one each by Tooke and Drake (nn. 30, 31); of the six men who escaped to Chinsurah we know the names of four (n. 34); then we have the name of Hedelburgh who betrayed to the enemy, names of fifteen persons who escaped soon after surrender (n. 37), and names of the twenty-one survivors of the Black Hole (n. 38). This gives us 100 names. On the basis of Orme's “Summary List of Inhabitants, &c, who Bore Arms in the Late Siege of Calcutta,” dated I July 1756 (Hill Collection, III, 415-416) and Hill's scholarship (List of Europeans, entries under the names mentioned) it is possible to say that the following thirty-three also survived the siege: Aston, Atkinson, Baldwin, Beanto, Best, Blaney, Carstairs, Caytano, Cockylane, Cole, Costelly, Coverley, Cozens, Dean, Dundas, Fletcher, Freze, Iver, Joam, Johnson, Law, Macpherson, McLaughlane, Montague, Montro, Nicholson, Parson, Pennatz, Sanders, Surman, Tod, Toole and Witherington.

I have discovered seven additional names of survivors on the basis of signatures on a petition, dated July 10, 1756, addressed to the governor of the Fort William council. The signatories explicitly mention that they were in Calcutta when the siege began. These men were: Coatsworth, Duncan, Moor, Marner, Prider, Pritter and Raitt. (The petition is in I.O., Orme Papers, O.V., XIX, fol. 59, with another copy in I.O., Home Miscellaneous Series, Vol. DCCIX.).

Bengal General Journal and Ledger mentions in its July 1756 entries the name of Thomas French. He was paid a salary for June 1756, so he must have been in Calcutta during the siege. Public Consultations for December 4, 1759, and June 6, 1757, mention the names of Samuel Howitt and George Williamson. This gives a total of 143 names.


Hill points out that “in the careless talk of Calcutta, the Black Hole and Fort William [losses] seem to have been confounded.” (Hill Collection, I, xcvi.) We can trace the names of 76 persons who lost their lives. Twenty-two persons died during the course of fighting: Baillie, Bellamy, Bishop, Blagg, Bruce, Carey, Carse, Derrikson, Guy, Macpherson, Montrong, Park, Piccard, Pickering, Smith, Smith, Stephenson, Talbot, Thoresby, Whitby, Wilkinson and Wilson. Holwell gives us the names of fifty-two persons who, he declares, died in the Black Hole. Of these, Hill has established, eight died during the course of fighting. These eight are: Baillie, Bishop, Blagg, Carse, Guy, Parker, Piccard and Stephenson. (See entries under these names in Hill's List of Europeans.) Of the remaining forty-four, two, Atkinson and Law, were alive after the Black Hole incident, (n. 39) The remaining forty-two names are: Abraham, Ballard, Bendall, Bellamy, Bellamy, Bleau, Buchanan, Byng, Carey, Cartwright, Caulker, Clayton, Coles, Dalrymple, Dodd, Drake, Dumbleton, Eyre, Gosling, Grub, Harrod, Hastings, Hays, Hunt, Jebb, Jenks, Johnstone, Knapton, Leech, Osborne, Page, Page, Porter, Purnell, Revely, Scott, Simpson, Street, Torriano, Valicourt, Wedderburn and Witherington. (Hill Collection, III, 153-154.)

To the above list Hill adds thirteen more names. Of them John Meadows survived the Black Hole, (n. 38) The remaining twelve are: Alsop, Barnett, Burton, Frere, Hillier, Jennings, Lyon, Reid, Stopford, Stopford, Tilley and Wilson. (Hill Collection, I, xciv.) Added to the forty-two names given by Holwell, this would raise the number of Black Hole victims to fifty-four. It is hardly possible that so many people could have died in the Black Hole. Many of these persons obviously died in the course of fighting.

We are left with a strong impression that the total number of Europeans during the siege of Calcutta was 235—a figure given by Tooke and supported by our arithmetic. We have established that 159 persons survived and 76 died. These add up to 235.


Grant's Account, Hill Collection, I, 79.


Drake's Narrative, Hill Collection, I, 145.


Mills, Grey and Holwell mention the casualties to be two, Tooke mentions seven. The accounts of Drake and Grant are to be considered more reliable because the former was the adjutant-general and the latter the civilian commander of the English forces. Holwell, Grey, Mills and Tooke did not have as good facilities for learning about the casualties as Drake and Grant did.


Tooke's Narrative, Hill Collection, I, 260. Tooke was a member of this detachment and saw Smith and Wilkinson die.


Grant's Account, Hill Collection, I, 79, corroborated by Drake.


Grant's Account, Hill Collection, corroborated by Holwell, ibid., I, III, and Drake, ibid., I, 148.


Grant's Account, Hill Collection, I, 80.


Drake's Narrative, Hill Collection, I, 148.


Hill Collection, I, 259.


Lindsay to Orme, July (?), 1756, Hill Collection.


Holwell to the Court of Directors, August 10, 1757, Hill Collection, III, 358. A similar but less clear statement is made by him in his letter to Fort St. George Council, dated July 17, 1756, Hill Collection, I, 114.


Grant's Account, Hill Collection, I, 88.


Lindsay to Orme, July (?), 1756, Hill Collection, I, 168.


Drake's Narrative, Hill Collection, I, 159.


Holwell erroneously says that they died in the Black Hole (Hill Collection, HI, 153-154), but Hill has established (List of Europeans, entries under these names) that they died before the Black Hole incident.


Mills' Pocketbook, Hill Collection, I, 43.


Little, “The Black Hole Debate,” Bengal Past and Present, XII, 139; Hill Collection, I, lxxxix.


This is quite close to Jadunath Sarkar's intelligent guess of “about sixty.”


Collection, I, III.


Collection, I, III.


Hill Collection, I, 186.


This is so in spite of his own contradictions. For example, in his letter of August io, 1757, he declares that after the desertions of Drake and others, only 170 persons were left in the factory, of whom twenty-five died on June 20, 1756. This leaves 145 persons, to which if we add Mrs. Carey, we get the figure of 146. But Holwell throws away his story. In his letter of August 3, 1756, he declares that on June 20 a man, Hedelburgh, betrayed himself to the enemy, and “a great part of the garrison military and militia rushed out.” This would considerably reduce his figure of 146.

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