On 20 June 1756 Patrick Johnston(e) (1737-1756), my 7th great uncle, died in the prison of the Nawab Siraj-ud-daulah, later known as the “Black Hole of Calcutta” in India.

Three years previously, at the age of sixteen, Patrick had joined the East India Company as an accountant. He was eighteen when he died.

Memorial to the victims, St John’s Church Calcutta
Photograph in 2011 by Pdr123 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Patrick’s name is listed on a memorial to victims.

One of the prisoners, J. Z. Holwell, wrote an account of the incident. He reported that 146 were imprisoned and in a room only 4.30m. x 5.50 m (14 feet x 18 feet) 123 died overnight from overcrowding. It is suggested that Howell exaggerated these numbers and that probably only 69 men were imprisoned. Howell listed P. [Patrick] Johnston in his account.

Patrick was the thirteenth of the fourteen children of Sir James Johnston.

In 1753 Patrick Johnstone petitioned to be admitted as a writer, that is, a junior clerk, in the East India Company and on 31 October 1753 he was approved as a writer for Bengal.

In his petition to join the company Patrick stated that he had been “educated in writing and Accompts,” and he presented a certificate showing he had undergone “a complete course of Mathematick and Book keeping” with a teacher in Edinburgh.

Also at the age of sixteen, Patrick’s older brother John (1734-1795) had been admitted as a writer in 1750.  Two of John’s maternal uncles gave their security for his appointment. John’s teacher in Edinburgh certified his capacity to be able to discharge his duties as a clerk. John arrived in India in 1751.

Patrick’s appointment in 1753 was on the security of two London merchants: Peter Linehup of St George’s Hanover Square and Alexander Grant of London, Merchant. Lord Elibank, the brothers’ maternal uncle, seems to have declined to provide security for Patrick. Lord Elibank had previously provided security for Patrick’s older brother John.

From 1741–1846 the East India Company required a bond for faithful service. Becoming a Writer was the passport to great riches but riches were not always acquired without dubious dealing and corruption. A young man who survived ten years, exiled in a trying and dangerous climate, expected to go home rich and the East India Company allowed leeway for creative personal trading as long as its own profits were not affected.

In September 1755 Patrick wrote to his brother William (1729-1805):

My very worthy brother Johny & I are trying to establish & carry on a Good Trade Tho We want Money to make it an extensive one. (Rothschild, The inner life of empires, page 27)

When the fighting began in 1756 in the so-called ‘Carnatic Wars’, a three-way conflict between the local rulers of the Moghul Empire and the French and British East India Companies, John and Patrick were captured. Patrick was imprisoned and died. John, however, was in Dhaka in East Bengal, and was released into the custody of the French.

John later fought in the 1757 battle of Plassey in which the British East India Company under Robert Clive defeated the Nawab of Bengal.

Further reading