1756 - Siraj Ud Daulah expedition against Calcutta
The campaign lasted from April to June 1756
The Mughal Nawab Ali Vardi Khan had governed the Indian provinces of Bengal, Orissa, and Bihar since 1735. This nawab, like all others, had become virtually independent from the Mughal Empire.
At the death of Ali Vardi Khan, his great nephew Siraj Ud Daulah inherited the function. This new nawab was not a friend of the British. The fact that his most serious competitors for the throne received asylum at Madras (present-day Chennai) from the East India Company worsened the relations between Siraj Ud Daulah and the British even further.
At the beginning of April 1756, the British authorities at Calcutta (present-day Kolkata) began repairing the fortifications of the settlement in preparation for a likely war with France. Siraj Ud Daulah, fearing that such preparations could defy his supremacy in the region, sent a message to the British governor ordering him to cease all work immediately and to destroy the newly built defences. On receipt of the governor's reply, Siraj Ud Daulah rejected his explanations and ordered his troops to prepare for a campaign; and in a few days he left his capital, Murshidabad, at the head of an army 50,000 strong, and advanced on the British settlement of Calcutta.
On June 1, Siraj Ud Daulah's Army attacked the British factory of Cossimbazar (present-day Kasim Bazar), which was situated within a few km of Murshidabad, and garrisoned by some 50 men only, the defences being altogether inefficient. Mr. Watts was the chief at this factory, and he had constantly represented to the government at Calcutta that it was untenable. But reinforcements had been refused and the commander had been informed that, if he could not hold his position with the troops at his disposal, he had better effect a retreat as best he could. When the nawab arrived before the factory, he summoned Mr. Watts into his presence, receiving him with anything but courtesy and compelling him to sign an agreement, under severe conditions, that the new works at Calcutta should be forthwith demolished, and the servants of the Company, on duty at Cossimbazar, be given up. The factory was plundered and the officers subjected to such indignities that Lieutenant Elliot, commanding the troops of the Company's service, shot himself in order to escape from the hands of his torturers.
On June 9, the nawab proceeded on his march to Calcutta. On reaching the Dutch settlement of Chinsurah (present-day Hugli-Chuchura) and the French settlement of Chandernagore (present-day Chandannagar), he endeavoured to induce the troops at those places to join him in his expedition against the British. He failed in his attempts, however, so he levied a war-tax on the Dutch of £50,000, and on the French of a like amount, both being paid, partly in cash, and partly in munitions of war.
When the news of the capture of Cossimbazar reached Calcutta, the Council, sensing their vulnerability, became seriously alarmed, and dreading lest the nawab should be incensed against them, they abandoned the repairs of the fortifications. To add to the confusion, the Council were at variance among themselves, some strongly urging the necessity of placing the fort in temporary repair, others recommending that they should throw themselves on the mercy of the nawab – to whom a dispatch, couched in submissive terms, was sent.
The letters were dispatched, but they either did not reach their destination or were unheeded, and the nawab's march was unchecked. Such was his impatience that his soldiers were not allowed sufficient time for rest or food, so that many died on the road from exposure and fatigue.
The British authorities of Calcutta could count on the militia and on some 500 Europeans (among whom were 145 regular foot and 45 artillerymen) in the garrison. They also sent word to Bombay and Madras to ask for reinforcements. Help was even sought from the French at Chandernagore and the Dutch at Chinsurah but their requests were rejected. The walls of the fort, constructed of masonry, were 1.2 m thick and easily defensible by a few determined men. Moreover, the north-west face of the fort was in communication with the river, the passage to which was covered by the guns placed on the two flanking bastions, so that, should the fort be found untenable, and the enemy effect an entry, the defenders could easily retreat by the water-gate and get to the 7 or 8 ships at anchor within a convenient distance.
On June 15, the army of Siraj Ud Daulah crossed the Hugli
On June 16, the army of Siraj Ud Daulah was before Calcutta. It took up its position beyond the Maratha Ditch, which constituted the defences of the outskirts of the town. Fort William, the principal defence of the town, was abandoned as untenable. Captain Minchin, the British commandant of Calcutta, was lacking in all the qualities essential for a commander. He had neglected to make the best of his position. His conduct was not only unsoldierly, but also cowardly. Had he employed his time in strengthening his position, instead of throwing out works for which he had not men to defend; and had he concentrated his force instead of scattering it abroad, he might have kept the enemy at bay until the monsoon (daily expected) had set in; when the enemy, exposed to the constant rains, would be forced either to retreat or come to terms. But Captain Minchin did not possess sound judgment, nor had he the confidence of the soldiers who were serving under him.
On June 18, Siraj Ud Daulah launched an attack on the British outposts. Many of these were bravely defended, but the losses were heavy, and no reinforcements could be furnished. The defenders abandoned the hastily constructed outworks, and in some instances failed to spike the guns. These were turned upon the fort, while the enemy, taking up a position behind the newly-formed trenches which had been thrown across the park, kept up an incessant fire on the ramparts, doing much execution among the defenders.
On the evening of the first day's attack, the British determined to send the women and children, for security, on board the Company's ship "Dodaly" at anchor close at hand. Mssrs. Manningham and Frankland, members of the Council, were deputed to superintend the arrangements. But these men, who should from their position have set a bold example of self-denial and courage, so utterly failed that, reaching the ship with their charge, they steadily refused to return to their posts. Worse than all, after consulting with Captain Young, who commanded the vessel, they weighed anchor and dropped down the river, thus cutting off the principal means of retreat from the garrison, many of whom were defending their position, now threatened on all sides.
On the morning of June 19, it was found that many of the ships, following the example of the "Dodaly," had deserted during the night, so that there was but scanty accommodation for the remainder of the women and children who had not been sent on board ship the previous evening. It was, therefore, deemed necessary that their safety should be at once secured, but by this time a panic had taken possession of many in the garrison. Mr. Drake, the governor, Captain-Commandant Minchin, Captain Grant and a large portion of the militia, as well as some of the regular troops, deserted their posts and fled on board the remaining vessels. These, in their turn, weighed anchor, and left the defenders to their fate. The number of the troops in garrison was now reduced to fewer than 200 men.
A council of war was called; and Mr. Holwell, though not the senior, was appointed acting governor and entrusted with the supreme command. A redistribution of the force was ordered, and the breaches hastily repaired with bales of cloth and cotton. The personal courage displayed by the gallant band who had elected to remain in the garrison formed a noble contrast to the cowardice of the deserters. The enemy, emboldened by their success, and by the knowledge that the strength of the defenders had been reduced by desertion, attacked the weakest parts of the fort in overwhelming numbers, so that the defenders, as soon as they had succeeded in repulsing an attack, had to rush to render succour to their weaker comrades on the other side of the fort. Thus hour-by-hour their number was reduced, whilst the ranks of the attacking party were being constantly reinforced.
Still this courageous little band fought on until mid-day, when, to their surprise and relief, the enemy's fire suddenly ceased. Soon afterwards an officer from his ranks advanced, waving a flag of truce. A parley ensued, but it soon became apparent that the flag was simply a ruse on the part of the enemy to enable him to approach the defences, for, taking advantage of the cessation of fire, he attempted to seize the Eastern Gate. In the meantime Mr. Holwell had hoisted a white flag, but all to no avail, the enemy pressing on with unabated energy.
One hope of effecting an honourable retreat remained: the Company's ship "St. George," Captain Hague, having some days previously been sent up the river to assist in the defence of one of the outposts, called "Perrin's Point." A boat was sent off from the fort to Captain Hague, with instructions to drop down to the river-gate, where the defenders would embark. However, the "St. George," through the mistake of a nervous pilot, stuck in the mud, and the last hope of escape vanished.
Resistance was now hopeless. The enemy pressed on, and at 5:00 p.m. all was over. The fort was captured, and Siraj Ud Daulah entered with his troops. The defenders, many of them badly wounded, were bound with ropes and brought before the nawab. Amongst the prisoners was one lady, Mrs. Carey, who, when her husband (a commander of one of the ships) refused to leave his post in the fort, elected to share his fate rather than accompany the deserters. The nawab received the prisoners courteously, and ordered them to be unloosed. He at the same time promised Mr. Holwell that no harm should befall them. The prisoners were then handed over to a guard of Native officers, who marched them off to one of the verandahs of the barracks.
By this time the buildings in the vicinity of the fort were in flames, and the sultry air and hot smoke were becoming unbearable. About 8:00 p.m., a party of Spahis under Native officers arrived and ordered the prisoners to move into some place of security. The 146 captured Europeans were then packed into a small room with only two small windows that was previously used as a prison for the European soldiers. This room later became known as the "Black Hole of Calcutta." In the great heat of the summer night, they soon began to suffocate and to struggle for their lives. By the morning only 33 survivors remained. Meanwhile, the troops of Siraj Ud Daulah plundered Calcutta.
During this time, the deserters who fled from Calcutta with Captain Minchin found themselves exposed to many dangers during their passage down the River Hugli. In passing the forts of Tanna (unidentified location) and Budge Budge they were exposed to a heavy fire, and 3 of their ships were driven on shore.
On June 20, Siraj Ud Daulah freed the British survivors, with the exception of Mrs. Carey who was "too young and handsome."
It was not until June 26 that the fugitives reached Fulta (present-day Falta), a Dutch shipping port situated at the mouth of the river. This town was selected as a rallying point, as it was near at hand when relief should arrive from Madras, and it was improbable that the nawab would pursue them thus far over a difficult country. Furthermore, in the event of danger, they could at any time weigh anchor and drop further down the river or, if necessary, put out to sea.
The military portion of the British party at Fulta consisted of 4 officers and 100 regulars, as well as about 50 militiamen, who had been merchants and tradesmen in Calcutta. The names of the officers of the regulars were Captains Minchin and Grant, and Lieutenants Smith and Wedderburn.
Day by day, the British force at Fulta was augmented by accessions from the outposts: Ensign Carstairs and 25 men arriving from Balasore; Ensign Muir and 20 men from Jugdeah (unidentified location); and Lieutenant Cudmore and 24 men from Dacca (unidentified location). Then ultimately there were the brave survivors from the "Black Hole," Ensign Walcot and Mr. Moran with 13 men, so that in a few weeks the force numbered some 450 Europeans.
On July 2, Siraj Ud Daulah departed from Calcutta with his army, leaving a garrison of 3,000 men. On his way back to his capital of Murshidabad, he collected tribute from Chandernagore and Chinsurah.
This article incorporates texts from the following books, which are now in the public domain:
- Fortescue, J. W.: A History of the British Army, Vol. II, MacMillan, London, 1899, pp. 409-411
- Innes, P. R.: The History of the Bengal European Regiment, now the Royal Munster Fusiliers and how it helped to win India, 2nd ed., London: Simpkin, Marshall & Co., 1885, pp. 5-13