It is one of the most infamous events in the history of British India: the jamming of a bewildered crowd of men and women into a single, poorly-ventilated, 14x18ft prison cell, on a sweltering Bengal summer’s night.
CALCUTTA in 1756 was an uneasy trading centre within Bengal, home to French, Dutch and English merchants; but it was wealthy, growing, and tended not to pay its exorbitant taxes, and the young Nawab of Bengal, Siraj ud-Daulah, saw it as a threat.
After one of his disloyal subjects sought asylum with the British, Siraj descended in force on Fort William, the town’s modest garrison, and following a short siege it fell on 20th June.
Scorning the merchants’ desperate bribes, Siraj’s men rounded up over a hundred soldiers and civilians, men and women, and herded them into a single prison cell designed for no more than three.*
The door was closed, with difficulty, at 8 o’clock on a stifling summer’s evening. When it opened next morning at 6am, only twenty-three had survived the night, and some did not survive the day.
Robert Clive was sent to exact vengeance on Siraj. He defeated him soundly at the Battle of Plassey on 23rd June, 1757.
* Though modern scholars have questioned it, the official number was 146, certified by a survivor, John Zephaniah Holwell, along with the names of those he knew personally. Holwell, a surgeon, stated that he did not believe that Siraj himself gave the order.