Anindita Mazumder
2023-03-13 08:49:04

Holwell Monument A Forgotten Tale

Holwell Monument A Forgotten Tale

To an average Calcuttan, the word “monument” refers to the Ochterlony Monument located in the vicinity of the Maidan. But historically speaking, although not-so-grand looking, it is the Holwell Monument, built by the British to commemorate the deaths in the Black Hole tragedy during Nawab Siraj-ud-Daula’s attack on Calcutta which should have occupied a far more significant position in Calcutta’s history and heritage.

So far the relic had a chequered fate, oscillating between being hailed as a symbol of British imperial power and neglected as a reminder of defeat and shame. The Indians considered it be a monumental symbol of slavery and humiliation which ultimately led to its removal from public view after a Satyagraha by Subhas Chandra Bose. In this issue, we trace the fascinating history of the Holwell Monument.

 At present, the Holwell Monument lies forgotten and neglected at the cemetery behind St John’s Church quite near Charnock’s mausoleum. Years of neglect are evident with plants striking roots yet one can read the following words etched in the front tablet:

“This monument was erected in 1902 by Lord Curzon, Viceroy and Governor General of India in 1902 upon the site and reproduction of the original monument to the memory of 123 persons in the black hole prison of Old Fort William on the night of June 20, 1756. The former monument was raised by their surviving fellow sufferer, JZ Holwell, Governor of Fort William on the spot where the bodies had been thrown in a ditch of the ravelin.” It was removed in 1821.

But first we may dwell upon the Black Hole tragedy itself which led Holwell, a Magistrate at that time who later went on to become the Governor of Fort William to raise the monument. HE Busteed in his Echoes from Old Calcutta deals in the subject quoting freely from Holwell’s account of the event which as many historians point out, evidently suffers from exaggeration.

After the fall of the Old Fort William on June 20, 1756, a total of 146 prisoners were locked by Siraj’s soldiers in a military prison of the size of a cube of about 18 feet. It was bounded in the east and south by dead walls, on the north by partition wall and door and on the west was the windows strongly barred with iron - the only insufficient inlets for light and air. Busteed observes “this chamber, a vile and stupid importation of western barbarity, went by the name, which through an awful calamity has become historic- the Black Hole.” There was only one woman among the prisoners, many of whom were wounded and all of them exhausted. Apart from Holwell only a few others were aware of the size of room and could not react to the suddenness of the event. Realising what lied ahead Holwell even tried to bribe an old guard but could not secure their release.

Only those who were near the windows had access to air and the sultry heat, unbearable stench, perspiration and the claustrophobia - all caused terrifying agony and suffocation for 10 hours till the Nawab himself intervened and set the prisoners free in the morning. According to Holwell, out of the 146 only 23 including a woman walked out alive. The Magistrate also recounted in detail how the prisoners, overpowered by unquenchable thirst fought for water and the amused guards in order to watch the British fight like animals kept up a steady supply of water.

Historians are divided on the veracity of the account which was written by Holwell nine months after the incident on his way back home. Many regard this as an attempt to defame Siraj and an excuse for establishing British dominion over India which was the direct result of the fall of Calcutta. The incident was looked upon as a justification for establishing the rule of the civilised British over the savage Indians.

Even Busteed exonerated Nawab of the responsibility of the tragedy: “....... the Nawab had nothing to do with the measures adopted for securing those who fell into his power. He very probably gave orders that they should be confined for the night. This order was delegated as usual, to the East, to several gradations of ignorant subordinates.”

Holwell erected the monument at the spot where the dead had been flung in the ditch the next morning. In old paintings (James Baillie Fraser- Views of Calcutta and its Environs) of Calcutta Holwell Monument clearly appears at the corner of Writers Buildings which still had a barrack-like facade. At one end is the newly built St. Andrews Church and at the other (opposite to present day GPO) is the brick and plaster structure constructed by Holwell at his own expense.

In other paintings (Thomas Daniell 1749-1840, painted in 1786) the Eastern wall of the old fort which was now used by as Customs House can be seen along with the new play house. Holwell even got himself painted before the half built obelisk directing the works. The painting shows him in a purple red coat and yellowish waist coat pointing to a plan of the obelisk and instructing a half-naked Indian labourer who stoops over a basket indistinct in the monument’s shadow. The obelisk functioned as a triumphalist symbol of Company’s control.

However, the Holwell obelisk structured like a phallic symbol also came to be regarded as a sign of British impotence and death. It was associated with the shame of defeat and disaster. The octagonal obelisk, struck by lightning was allowed to fall in ruin. In 1821, it was brought down on the orders of Marquis of Hastings because of its increasing “unsightliness”.  It had evidently turned into a lounging place for “lower class loafers” and where barbers plied their trade under an improvised tent with one end of the cloth tied to the ledge of the pedestal.

For the next 80 years or so Calcutta was without a tablet dedicated to the memory of those who died in the siege but Lord Curzon whose interests were revived by Busteed’s book, ordered a white marble replica of the original brick and plaster monument to be built on  the spot. Sir Ashley Eden’s statue at the same spot was removed to Dalhousie Square to make way for the Holwell Monument.

In his passionate speech delivered on the occasion of unveiling the monument Curzon said: “ If among these forerunners of our own, if among these ancient and unconscious builders of Empire, they are who specially deserve commemoration, surely it is the martyr band whose fate I recall and whose names I resuscitate on this site and if there be a spot that should be the dear to the Englishman in India it is that below our feet which was stained with the blood and which closed over the remains of the victims of the night of destiny 20th of June, 1756. It is with these sentiment in my heart that I have erected this monument and that I hand it over to the citizens of Calcutta to be kept by them in perpetual remembrances of the past.”

He also made changes in the inscription. Apart from the 50 names included by Holwell (which he could remember later, somewhat inaccurately) Curzon added 20 more who died in the prison after consulting records and other documentary evidences. There are in all six tablets and Curzon included even those who died in the siege or of wounds or from the effects of that night in the prison.

More importantly, Curzon left out the bitter reference to Siraj‘s personal responsibility in the tragedy since it is not “wholly justified by our fuller knowledge of the facts.”

The monument erected by Curzon as a tribute to the builders of Empire also became a weapon in the hands of Subhas Chandra Bose who embarked on a Satyagraha for its removal and mobilised support among the people. As an astute leader, Bose realised that he could achieve remarkable Hindu-Muslim unity through this agitation against Holwell Monument. Bose organised a meeting at the Town Hall to vindicate the memory of the Nawab and give a true account of his life and achievements.

Bose said: “The Holwell Monument is not only a stain on the memory of the Nawab but it has stood in the heart of Calcutta for the last 150 years or more as the symbol of our slavery and humiliation. That monument must go.” He declared July 3, would be marked as Siraj-Ud-Daula Day.

During the meeting he demanded that the mischievous and derogatory references to the Nawab in history books should also be deleted. He even set a deadline of July 15, but on the very next day he was arrested along with other leaders.

Subhas Chandra Bose was imprisoned for his agitation but the Bengal government under Muslim League capitulated and ordered the removal of the monument to St John’s Church cemetery from its original site at the North West corner of Dalhousie. Although the monument was removed Bose remained imprisoned till December, shortly after which he went into exile. Whatever is its present fate it had been a strategic weapon in the hands of Subhas Chandra to achieve that momentary unity among the Hindus and Muslims although it proved to be a fragile one and ripped apart during the riots on Direct Action Day, only six years later.

Holwell Monument, once a symbol of slavery and shame for Indians has been undeniably associated with the history of Calcutta - the British dominion of 200- long-years and our fight for independence. It was a witness to the rise and fall of Imperialism and does not deserve the neglect it had been subjected to by Calcutta, indifferent and oblivious of its historical past.


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