John Zephaniah Holwell (September 17, 1711 – November 5, 1798), who lived at Pinner Place, was the man whose first-hand account of the Black Hole of Calcutta gave the excuse for the imperial subjugation of the whole of Indian. For years the East India Company had been making a fortune from its dealings on the sub-continent. But its arrogant indifference towards the regional leader Siraj ud-Daulah, the Nawab of Bengal, so infuriated him that he ordered his army to attack the East Indian Company’s base at Fort William. In June 1756, they launched an assault on the stronghold. The company’s officers, realising that there was little chance of repelling the enemy, retreated leaving just a small force to give them time to escape. Holwell, who had been employed as a military surgeon but was now a senior bureaucrat was put in charge of the garrison’s defence. Inevitably this token force succumbed to the Nawab’s forces. According to Holwell’s later account what happened next was to go down in infamy. The captured 146 officers and men and a few civilians, who had sought shelter at the base, were herded into a tiny poorly ventilated chamber overnight. So terrible were the conditions that the next day only 23 survived. The nawab who had been unaware of the prisoners’ deprivations freed them the next day. The base was recaptured by the British the following year and Holwell later replaced Robert Clive (of India) as temporary Governor of Bengal in 1760. By then his vivid description of the night’s events had been read back home. He was elected Fellow of the Royal Society in 1767.
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