Fort William, Kolkata: Built as a Citadel - the main British Military Garrison and currently the Headquarters of the Eastern Command of the Indian Army is Fort William in Kolkata – West Bengal’s Capital. Located at 22°33 16"N 88°20 16"E this emblem of British Colonialism in India – Fort William sprawls over the eastern banks of River Hooghly, just by the Vivekananda Bridge. Fort William is on the north of the Race Course; South of Eden Gardens Cricket Stadium, East of River Hooghly, and West of the Maidan.
Fort William was built in 1773 by the British Military’s Officer – Major General Robert Clive (also known as Clive of India) – one of the key figures in the creation of British India who established military and political supremacy of the East India Company in Bengal. Clive named the Fort after King William III – a sovereign Prince of Orange of the House of Orange –Nassau of the Netherlands who overthrew King James II of England and ascended the English throne as King William III of England in 1688. It cost 2 million British pounds for the construction of this Fort.
The Fort encloses a whopping 5.2 square kilometres area and has the capacity to hold a garrison of 10,000 soldiers. It has six Gates namely – Treasury Gate, St. Georges, Water Gate, Plassey Calcutta and Chowringhee and is surrounded by a 9-metre deep and 15-metre wide moat running around its circumference. Moat, a preliminary line of defense from enemy is generally flooded with water in order to cut access to the Fort walls which are actually required for the effective functionality of the enemy’s siege weapons. In extension to this, Fort William’s moat was designed to be used for ‘flanking’ (a military tactic for engaging and defeating an enemy in battle) fire against the attackers who try to approach the Fort walls.
The formation of the Fort is that of an irregular octagon and was built of brick and mortar with the design of a Star Fort fortification (a military building designed for defence in warfare). Compared to the ring-shaped fortification of the Medieval Era, that was vulnerable to destruction or damage by cannon fire, the Star Fortress comprising several triangular bastions, overlapping each other offered better defence of counteracting the enemy’s cannonballs. And yet, it is said that Fort William is the only Fort in the whole world from where not a single bullet or cannonball was ever fired.
Underground tunnels and water reservoirs were constructed from the Fort to River Ganges in order to ensure perennial availability of water in the Fort. Initially developed as a 5-square kilometre parade ground for the armed forces – The 5-square kilometre Maidan was a part of Fort William and is currently Kolkata’s largest Urban Park which remains the property of the Indian Army.
Amongst other Military Facilities, Fort William houses the British Arsenal or Armory which showcases the British employed armour and armaments such as swords, muskets (muzzle-loaded long guns), machine-guns (fully-automatic fire-arm) etc. and is highly visited by the ‘ardent arms admirers’. For most of us, this is the closest we could get to arms – whether it is portable source of firepower or a bladed weapon, so don’t miss this opportunity of visiting the Fort Museum when in Kolkata. Another section of the Fort displays photographs of the ‘Burma Campaign’ (fought between forces of British Commonwealth, China and the United States against the forces of Indian National Army, Thailand and Empire of Japan during World War II) and the ‘Bangladesh Liberation War’ (an armed conflict pitting East Pakistan and India against West Pakistan that resulted in the formation of the independent nation of Bangladesh).
In 1750s, when the British saw a possibility of conflict with the French forces, they built Fort William and strengthened their defenses to protect the East India Company’s Trade in Calcutta. Displeased with the British intervention in the internal political affairs of the Bengal Province, and perceiving a threat to its independence, the then Nawab of Bengal – Siraj-ud-Daulah ordered against the Fort’s further military enhancement which was ignored by the British. It resulted in Siraj laying a military siege to the Fort and capturing it – also capturing 146 British soldiers.
The aftermath that followed – also called the ‘Black Hole of Calcutta’ – had the 146 prisoners-of-war (POW) thrown into the Fort’s prison which was 14 feet by 18 feet in size and was clearly not big enough to hold 146 prisoners. However, as a punishment, these 146 soldiers were locked-up in this prison overnight of which only 23 were alive the following morning. The balance 123 prisoners-of-war died of suffocation and crushing. John Zephaniah Holwell – one of the prisoners-of-war and British military Surgeon and Bureaucrat under whose command Fort William was left, by the garrison’s Commander (before he escaped in order to fetch reinforcements), stated that Nawab Siraj did not order this act and it was infact the resentment and revenge of the junior Indian soldiers that drove it. War ethics during those days were unheard of and it was only in 1929 that the Third Geneva Convention – a treaty under International Law, enforced in the International Court of Justice in The Hague, made legal rules to protect Prisoners-of-War in captivity.