June 20, 2015

It Happened on June 20th

British Soldiers Die in the Black Hole of Calcutta, 1756

The area inside the fence contained the cell and 146 prisoners.
The East India Company had established Fort William in Calcutta, India, for the purpose of the protecting the Company and its trade. In 1756, the British, expecting trouble from the French, began to build up the fort's defenses. The Nawab of Bengal objected, seeing the British presence as a threat to his own power. He insisted that they stop the upgrade immediately. The British refused.

The Nawab then laid siege to the fort. Most of the men escaped, leaving a token force inside the fort. The fort was quickly taken by the Indian forces.

There were about 65 to 70 British soldiers in the fort, and a number of Anglo-Indian soldiers and civilians. All were taken prisoner. Some managed to escape quickly, and some others attacked the guards. The guards decided that it would be a good idea to lock them up.

The room they used was a small cell, about 14 by 18 feet. It was intended for use to lock up two or three men at a time. They forced in 146.

The room had two small windows, one of which opened onto a veranda, where a guard was stationed. Some of the men offered the guard 1000 rupees if he would have them moved to a larger room. He left to check on that, and then returned, saying it was impossible. They doubled the bribe. He left again and returned to say no. The Nawab was asleep, and no one wanted to wake him.

The Nawab was not to be disturbed.
Several men had died in the first few hours, and the rest were desperate for water. One of the guards brought some to the window, where the men closest to the window put it into hats, and attempted to pass it back. The men were frantic, and nearly all of the water was spilled. The men farthest in the back pushed forward, trying to get to the window, and crushed and suffocated those in front of them. Some fell to the ground, and were trampled and suffocated where they lay.

The Nawab rose the next morning at 6:00 am and ordered his men to open the door. Of the 146 men, only 23 were still living. One of the survivors was John Zephaniah Holwell, whose account of the incident is the basis of most of our information. (Other survivors basically agreed with him, but differed as to details. Modern historians think the whole story may have been exaggerated.) The Nawab expressed no regret over the incident. He did, however, offer the British commanding officer a glass of water and a chair.

The Sack of Baltimore, 1631

Pilchards were big business in Baltimore
In the 17th century Baltimore, Ireland, was an important site of the pilchard industry. Pilchards are oily fish, similar to sardines -- in fact, in some areas, sardine is just another name for a young pilchard. The fish were collected and then heaped into piles, with each layer covered with salt. After they had been piled in this fashion for a month, they would keep for up to a year, and could be placed into hogshead barrels. The barrels were then pressed for their oil, which was used for lamp oil, among other things. The fish, of course, were good eating, and kept well. Both the fish and the oil could be exported.

The pilchard industry in Baltimore was under the control of the O'Driscoll chieftain, Sir Fineen O'Driscoll. Most of the residents of Baltimore were English Protestants who had come there for the pilchard trade. They were resented by the local Irish Catholics.

The Barbary Pirates were feared with good reason.
On June 20th, 1631, Algerian pirates from the Barbary Coast sailed into the harbor of Baltimore. The pirates were under the command of a renegade Dutchman named Jan Janszoon van Haarlem, also known as Murat Reis the Younger. They had been led there by an Irish captain, John Hackett. Hackett had been captured by the Barbary Pirates and had agreed to lead them to Baltimore in exchange for his freedom. He was no doubt also motivated by the idea of leading them away from his own village.

They took the villagers entirely by surprise. There were 200 armed pirates, who torched the thatched roof cottages and took away men, women, and children. It was the worst raid ever made by the Barbary pirates on the mainland of Ireland or England. They took 108 English settlers, and undoubtedly a few of the local Irish as well. Three of the women were later ransomed, but the rest were never heard of again. Most would spend the rest of their lives as laborers or concubines in the Sultan's household, or sold as galley slaves.

One theory that has been suggested is that the raid was engineered by Sir Walter Coppinger, a rival of Fineen O'Driscoll, who wanted to control the village himself, and to send the English packing. If it was his plan, it worked. Most of the remaining settlers moved to Skibbereen, and Coppinger did eventually gain control of the village.

John Hackett, who led the pirates to Baltimore, was captured and arrested, and ended his life by being hanged on a cliff just outside of the village.

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