The lakhs of people who rush around Dalhousie Square, Kolkata’s central business district, have no idea that they are walking around on a historic battleground. It is here that a battle was fought which would set off a chain of events that would later, change the course of South Asian history. Just like the assassination of Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo was the spark which set off World War I, the siege of Calcutta by armies of the Nawab of Bengal in 1756 CE, would lead to the battle of Plassey a year later, thereby marking the beginning of the British rule over India.
Most people in Kolkata, if asked about Fort William, would point to the present structure in the Maidan, and yet, it was here, in Dalhousie Square that the original Fort William once stood and where the East India Company first faced off against the last Nawab of Bengal, Siraj-ud-Daula in June 1756 CE.
Constructed between 1696 CE and 1706 CE, the original Fort William was a somewhat unusual structure. It’s southern curtain wall was longer than the northern one, and western curtain wall, longer than the eastern. It stood between modern day Fairlie Place and Koila Ghat Street (renamed BTM Sarani), taking up the space now occupied by the GPO, the Calcutta Collectorate, RBI Headquarters and Eastern Railway Headquarters.
The Hooghly river had not yet begun its retreat towards Howrah and therefore where Strand Road is today, there was then, only water. The lowest level of the fort consisted of warehouses, around 18 feet high. The roof of these warehouses, made of stone slabs and strong enough to accommodate any building above them, created a sort of deck, a ground floor, which was considerably higher than ground level. If one were to enter from the north, the first structure inside the fort would be the armoury, followed by ‘the long row’, a row of apartments from east to west, housing the ‘writers’ or clerks of the East India Company. Then came the factory from where the EIC traded, and the magnificent governor’s apartments. The vast open space on the deck formed a parade ground. With each corner bastion mounting 10 guns, the old Fort William must have seemed impregnable to the European residents of Calcutta.
– The original William Fort stood in present day Dalhousie Square, where the East India Company first faced off against the last Nawab of Bengal.
Not only was it a symbol of security, the fort also formed the center of ‘white town’. From its north-eastern bastion extended ‘the avenue’, Calcutta’s main street, which forms BBD Bagh North and BB Ganguly Street today. On the avenue and surrounding the fort were the houses of the European residents of Calcutta. A small distance away, where the main rotunda of Writers Building stands today, stood St. Anne’s, Calcutta’s first Anglican Church. To the east of the fort stood ‘the park’. This was where the Englishmen and women took their evening stroll and at its centre was a large pond, which we know as Laal Dighi today. It was the very fact that the fort was the centre of the city, that would prove to be its undoing.
On the 9th of April, 1756 CE, Mirza Muhammad Siraj ud-Daulah ascended the throne of Bengal. His grandfather Alivardi Khan had had three daughters, and soon after his birth, Alivardi had been appointed the deputy governor of Bihar. As such Alivardi came to regard Siraj ud-Daulah as a fortune child and named him his successor. While his grandfather had been a wise administrator and an able commander, Siraj, according to Muslim historian Ghulam Hussain Khan, ‘carried defilement wherever he went, and, like a man alienated in his mind, he made the house of men and women of distinction the scenes of his depravity’ and ‘in a little time he became detested as Pharaoh, and people on meeting him by chance used to say, ‘God save us from him’.’
His grandfather had warned him that the European trading companies were like bees, ‘of whose honey you might reap benefit, but if you disturbed their hive, they would sting you to death.’ Siraj seems to have had it in for the English from the moment he ascended the throne. But as with the greased cartridges in 1857, a pretext was needed, and as it happened, fate provided not one but two.
The first was the case of Kissendas, or Krishnadas. He was the son of Raj Ballabh, the Dewan of Dhaka. Not only had Raj Ballabh been plotting with Alivardi’s eldest daughter, Mehar-un-nisa Begum, a.k.a. Ghaseti Begum about the succession as Alivardi lay dying, but he had also been ‘cooking the books’, so to speak, and when Siraj had him detained, his son escaped to Calcutta with vast amounts of treasure and a pregnant wife.
– Due to the seven years war between England and France in Europe there was hostile behavior between the two trading companies in India as well.
The English, unwisely, chose to shelter him, being under the impression that Calcutta was only a rest stop, and that his real destination was the pilgrim town of Puri. The second pretext was provided by the fact that the English were expanding their fortifications in Calcutta. The French were doing the same in Chandannagore and the reason for it was that the two nations were engaged in the seven years war in Europe, which made it likely that hostilities would break out between the two trading companies in India as well.
Siraj sent a sternly worded letter to the English and the French, asking them not only to halt all construction work, but also to dismantle whatever fortifications had already been built. The French sent an extremely diplomatic reply, saying that they had built nothing new, but had simply repaired some damage caused by lightning. But unfortunately for Calcutta, Fort William was headed by the arrogant and pompous Roger Drake, who wrote to the Nawab a reply which amounted to saying that the fortifications were none of his business, since they were meant to protect them from French attacks. The implication here was that the Nawab was incapable of maintaining law and order in his province. The enraged Siraj decided to teach the English a lesson and marched on Calcutta with some 50,000 troops.
THE COMING STORM
On the 3rd of June, 1756 CE, William Watts, the chief of the English factory at Cossimbazar woke up to find himself surrounded by the Nawab’s troops. Two days later, the factory fell without resistance. The only shot that was fired was by Lieutenant Elliot, the leader of the garrison of 50 defending the factory, into his own head! Watts was taken prisoner, the Nawab’s men seized some 80 guns from the factory and marched on Calcutta.
– Nawab Siraj ud-Daulah marched on Calcutta with some 50,000 troops and only after two days of attack the factory fell without resistance.
When the news reached the city, there was panic. In the 50 years since the Fort had been built, large parts of it had been allowed to decay. Some of the bastions were in such bad shape that guns could not be mounted on them. Holes had been cut into the walls to create windows for ventilation. Several cannons inside the fort were missing their wheels and a large consignment of them from England, had been left by the river banks to rot. No one had even deemed it necessary to keep the gunpowder dry and therefore much of it was now useless.
The East India Company was, at this point, merely a trading body, and as such had made preparations only to defend themselves against bandits, and not for a full-fledged war. Calcutta had, at most, 250 Europeans to defend itself. Then there was the problem of the mansions – splendid and large as they were, the fact that they surrounded the fort on all sides, meant that the defenders did not have a clear field of fire and any attacking force would use them as vantage points to fire upon the fort itself. Nonetheless, preparations were made and three batteries were set up to the north, south and east, blocking the approach roads to the fort.
The first obstacle for Siraj’s army was the Maratha Ditch, a 7-mile-long and 12-feet-wide trench that was dug to protect Calcutta from Maratha raiders, or ‘borgi’. Curiously, Siraj chose to attack the only part of the ditch that was well defended - ‘Perrin’s Redoubt’. This was a minor fortification, somewhere near the spot where the Bagbazar Durga Puja happens today, commanded by Ensign Francis Piccard, with 25 men, mostly Portuguese or Dutch.
Siraj’s commander Rai Durlabh, was tasked with simply overwhelming the Redoubt with wave upon wave of infantry attacks. But when Piccard with his 7 guns and backed by the ship Prince George, floating on the adjacent Hooghly and mounting heavy guns, held back the attackers and caused heavy casualties, the plan had to be abandoned. The Nawab and his forces camped on the edge of the Maratha Ditch, in the garden house of one of Calcutta’s richest (and fattest) merchants, Omichund.
– ‘Perrin’s Redoubt’ was a minor fortification, near the spot where the Bagbazar Durga Puja happens today.
That night, 17th June, a spy turned up in Omichund’s house, to inform Rai Durlabh and the Nawab that at a place known as the ‘Bread And Cheese Bungalow’, (around modern day Sealdah station) the Maratha Ditch was incomplete and could be crossed by man and elephant. As the moon rose over the city, residents of the fort observed a massive fire breaking out in the city’s ‘native’ quarter. Advance parties of raiders from Siraj’s army had set Bagbazar on fire! As the market burned, thousands of natives fled to the Fort seeking safety. The ‘great fire of Calcutta’ was bright enough, it is said, for guards in the fort to read by.
The following morning, the Nawab’s army proceeded West, roughly along modern day B.B. Ganguly Street, until they came to ‘the cross roads’, around the crossing of Rabindra Sarani today. Here a formidable Frenchman by the name of Lebeaume with only 2 cannons and 40 muskets held them up for some 9 hours. But Lebeaume was eventually overwhelmed and Siraj’s army now faced the Fort’s east battery, which stood in front of the space where St. Andrew’s Church stands today.
Fierce house to house fighting now followed and although the east battery’s 18 pounders initially proved effective, by dusk the position had been overrun and the defenders retreated to the Fort. The following day, as the Fort was being bombarded by the Nawab’s army, Governor Roger Drake chose to abandon his men to their fate and escaped to a ship floating on the Hooghly behind the Fort. Command now fell to the Fort’s magistrate, John Zepheniah Holwell. With less than 200 defenders left within the Fort and the Nawab’s men pounding it from all sides, there was little choice left. Holwell surrendered and Siraj-ud-Daulah entered Fort William through the North River Gate on the evening of 20th June, 1756.
The immediate aftermath of the capture of Fort William was the infamous Black Hole tragedy, in which Holwell alleges that 146 European prisoners were confined by Siraj in a room measuring 18 feet by 14 feet, with only two small windows. In this room, known as the ‘Black Hole’, 123 suffocated to death in the night. The claim is widely contested, with many alleging, that he made the whole thing up. Siraj renamed the city Alinagar in honour of his grandfather and left it under the command of his general Manikchand. But vengeance would be swift. Admiral Charles Watson and Robert Clive would retake Calcutta in January 1757 CE. The following June Siraj himself would be routed in Plassey and the British would take control of the Diwani of Bengal. But 261 years after the battle, do traces still remain?
As a matter of fact, they do. The old fort had fallen into disrepair and had eventually been demolished, but after being appointed Viceroy in 1899, Lord Curzon, the man Bengalis love to hate, took a great interest in the matter. Using a map created by C.R. Wilson in 1891 CE, he had the position of the old fort and the Black Hole marked with brass lines on the pavements and marble plaques on the walls.
Of the brass lines, only two sets are known to survive, with one being clearly visible on the steps of the GPO. Of the tablets, 5 survive, with those marking the southeast, northeast and northwest bastions, still in their original place and visible to the public. Cannons from the battle are strewn around the Dalhousie Square area even today, especially around the spot of the former Black Hole. Holwell had erected a memorial monument at the crossing of modern day BBD Bag North and NS Road, which eventually fell into disrepair and was dismantled. Curzon had it recreated from drawings and added more names of casualties from the battle and confinement, based on research. This new monument too had to be dismantled and moved thanks to protests from the likes of Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose, and today stands on the grounds of the St. John’s Church. A closer look at it reveals that one of the people who perished in the Black Hole was Stair Dalrymple, ancestor of historian William Dalrymple.
Inside St. John’s Church, on the south wall are plaques honouring another of his ancestors, James Pattle as well as James Achilles Kirkpatrick, hero of his book ‘The White Mughals’. Also to be found there is the grave of the much married ‘Begum’ Frances Johnson, whose first husband was William Watts, the chief of the Cossimbazar factory. It was her influence over the women in Siraj’s family that saved her husband from a grisly fate. Mrs. Mary Carey, one of the survivors of the Black Hole, lies buried in the Portuguese Church on Brabourne Road, the position of her grave marked by a marble tablet to the left of the altar.
Omichund’s garden house was wooden and it is long gone, but his great wealth and great weight have become legend. Manikchand, whose real name was Manik Ram Basu, had his headquarters in Behala in South Calcutta. While the magnificent building is long gone, the North Calcutta neighbourhood of Maniktala gets its name from him. As for Nawab Siraj-ud-Daulah, historian Amalendu De says that his bloodline still survives in a Hindu family!
Deepanjan Ghosh is a broadcast professional from Kolkata, India. A history buff, a landscape and architecture photographer and blogger, he has has been writing about Kolkata since 2013 and hopes to release a book on Kolkata's history soon.