Holwell, John Zephaniah (DNB00)

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HOLWELL, JOHN ZEPHANIAH (1711–1798), governor of Bengal, son of Zephaniah Holwell (d. 1729), a timber merchant, of London, and Sarah, his wife, and grandson of John Holwell [q. v.], was born in Dublin 17 Sept. 1711, and baptised 23 Sept. at St. Werburgh's Church. Holwell was educated partly at a school at Richmond in Surrey, and partly at Iselmond, near Rotterdam, where he acquired some knowledge of book-keeping and of modern languages. Afterwards he was for a time in a mercantile house at Rotterdam, but trade proving distasteful, he returned home and decided to become a surgeon. He studied under Andrew Cooper, senior surgeon of Guy's Hospital, and went to Calcutta as surgeon's mate to an Indiaman in February 1732. Here he settled, occasionally making voyages as medical officer on board of country ships, and interposing a sojourn at Mocha and Jedda, where he acquired a colloquial knowledge of Arabic; at the same time he also made himself acquainted with other oriental languages. After serving for a short time as surgeon to the company's factory at Dacca, Holwell returned in 1736 to Calcutta, where he lived for over eleven years, practising his profession and taking part in the municipal administration of the young settlement. In September 1749 he went to England for his health; during the voyage he drew up a scheme for reforming the zemindar's court at Calcutta, which on his arrival he submitted to the court of directors, who thereon appointed him 'zemindar' of the Twenty-four Parganas. Holwell returned to Calcutta in August 1751. In his new post he gave so much satisfaction that his salary was increased from two to six thousand rupees a year, and he rose to be seventh in the council by which the company's affairs were managed. On 18 June 1756 the settlement was attacked by Suráj ud Dowlah, the nawáb of Bengal; and, after a brief attempt of defence, which Holwell afterwards stigmatised as a 'tragedy of errors,' the governor and many of the senior officers went on board ship and escaped down the river, leaving the rest of the white people to their fate. Thus deserted, they called on Holwell to take charge, and under his guidance they fought for two days. According to the native historian, 'they were impressed with such a sense of honour that they fought till their ammunition failed.' When they were at length forced to surrender, the nawáb assured Holwell that they should be protected, but the survivors, 156 in number, were confined during the night in a small chamber called the 'Black Hole.' Holwell probably owed his preservation entirely to the unselfish services of his fellow-captives, who sustained him at the window. When morning came all but twenty-three of the number had perished. Holwell, who was so broken that he had to be carried out, was taken as a prisoner to the viceroy's capital, but on 31 July was released, at the intercession of the begum, the nawáb's grandmother, who recalled his upright treatment of the natives who had come before his court. Holwell was shortly after sent to England with despatches in the Syren, ninety-ton sloop. On his arrival in February 1757 he was offered the provisional governorship of his presidency, but declined in favour of a friend who was his senior. Holwell was then nominated second in the council, but before he could sail an election took place to the board of directors, and the new body reversed his appointment. Thus he returned to Bengal in his former capacity, but soon rose to be second, and on Clive's departure in February 1760 became temporary governor, which position he held till Henry Vansittart arrived from Madras on 27 July. Before Clive left, Holwell had drafted a remonstrance against Vansittart's appointment to the court of directors (dated 29 Dec. 1759), which was duly signed by almost all the council. The court, in a reply dated 21 Jan. 1761, directed the dismissal of the signatories. Holwell had already sent his resignation to the new governor, Vansittart, and now returned to England, where he devoted himself to literary pursuits. His contribution to Eastern knowledge called forth the warm acknowledgements of Voltaire, who said that he gratefully embraced the opportunity of thanking a man 'qui n'a voyagé que pour nous instruire.'

Holwell died at Pinner, near Harrow, 5 Nov. 1798, leaving the reputation of one 'in whom brilliancy of talents, benignity of spirit, social vivacity, and suavity of manners were so united as to render him the most amiable of men' (Gent. Mag.) He was a capable administrator, and during his tenure of office increased the revenue of the zemindary by 12,000l., and also checked a number of frauds. He was the first European to make a study of Hindoo antiquities. He erected at his own expense a monument in memory of his deceased fellow-sufferers of 1756. This, which was placed over the common grave of sufferers, has disappeared. His portrait was painted by Sir Joshua Reynolds. He was twice married; three of his children survived him, James, a lieutenant-colonel in the army, and two daughters.

Holwell write:

  1. 'A Genuine Narrative of the Deaths … in the Black Hole,' &c., London, 1758; translated into German, 1799.
  2. 'India Tracts,' London, 1758; 2nd edit. 1764; 3rd edit. 1774; this collection was edited and partly written by Holwell, it includes No. 1.
  3. 'An Address to the Proprietors of the East India Stock, setting forth the necessity and real motives of the Revolution in Bengal in 1760,' London, 1764.
  4. 'Refutation of a Letter … to the Secret Committee,' London, 1764.
  5. 'Historical Events relative to the Provinces of Bengal and the Empire of Indostan; also the Mythology of the Gentoos, and a Dissertation on the Metempsychosis,' pt. i. London, 1765; pt. ii. 1766; pt. iii. 1771; translated into German 1767.
  6. 'The East India Observer-Extraordinary,' London, 1766.
  7. 'An Account of the Method of Inoculating for the Small-pox in the East Indies,' London, 1767.
  8. 'An Address to Luke Scrafton, Esq., in Reply to his … Observations on Mr, Vansittart's Narrative,' London, 1767. 9. 'On a new species of Oak,' 1772; 'Philosophical Transactions,' abridged, xiii. 306. 10. 'Dissertation on the Origin … of Intelligent Beings, and on Divine Providence … To which is added … a Plan for the Relief of the Present Exigencies of the State, the Burdens of the People, and a more Honourable Mode of Supporting the Clergy. Also an Essential Sketch for a New Liturgy,' Bath, 1786. 11. 'A new Experiment for the Prevention of Crimes,' London, 1786.

[Busteed's Echoes from Old Calcutta; information kindly supplied by Major W. A. Holwell, the governor's great-grandson, and Winslow Jones, esq.; Elphinstone's Rise of the British Power in the East; Mill's British India, vol. iii; Macaulay's Essay on Clive; Asiatic Annual Register, vol. i. 1799; Brit. Mus. Cat.; Watt's Bibl. Brit.]

H. G. K.