HOLWELL, John Zephaniah. Dublin 17.9.1711 — Pinner near London 5.11.1798. British Physician in India. Son of Zephaniah H., a timber merchant, and Sarah Bott. Educated at Richmond and at Iselmond near Rotterdam. Studied surgery at Guy’s Hospital in London, left for Calcutta in 1732 as surgeon’s mate on an Indiaman. He worked as surgeon in E.I.C.’s ships to the Patna factory, at Dacca factory and 1736-48 in Calcutta. He became alderman, principal surgeon and twice Mayor, in 1751 perpetual Zamindar of the 24 Parganas; Seventh in the Council. “When the fort at Calcutta was attacked by the nawab Suraj-ud-daula on June 18, 1756, and the Governor Drake and others retreated down the river on 19th, Holwell was called to take charge of the defence. He was one of the 23 survivors of the 146 persons in the Black Hole on the night of June 20-1, was sent to Murshidabad and kept in irons there, set at liberty, July 17. Joined the ships at Fulta, went to England in Feb. 1757. Returned to Bengal in the Council, succeeded Clive as temporary Governor of Bengal from Jan. 28, 1760, until Vansittart assumed office on July 27, 1760. In 1761 he and others were dismissed by the Court of Directors for signing a despatch remonstrating against Vansittart’s appointment, but he had retired in Sep. 1760.” In retirement devoted to literary work. Married, children.
In his time Holwell was exceptionally well informed of Hindu religion and customs and thus considered an important predecessor of Indology. However, Brockington (in Carnall & Nicholson, The Impeachment of Warren Hastings. 1989) calls the Hist. Events “a rambling and uncritical compilation of material”. It is indeed often confused and in his opinion Hindu scriptures completed and proved the Biblical revelation. It was soon translated into French (1768).
Publications: Historical, philosophical and social works.
– A Genuine Narrative of the Deplorable Deaths of the English Gentlemen and others who were suffocated in the Black Hole in Fort-William, at Calcutta, in the Kingdom of Bengal, in the Night Succeeding the 20th Day of June, 1756, in a Letter to a Friend. 56 p. L. 1758.
– Indian Tracts. 1758, 2nd ed. 7+285 p. L. 1764, 3rd 1774.
– Interesting Historical Events relative to the Province of Bengal and the Empire of Indostan With a seasonable hint and perswasive to the honourable the court of directors of the East India Company. As also the mythology and cosmogony, fasts and festivals of the Gentoo’s, followers of the Shastah. And a dissertation on the metempsychosis, commonly, though erroneously, called the Pythagorean doctrine. 1-3. 210+152+227 p. L. 1765-71.
– An Account of the Manner of Inoculating for the Small Pox in the East Indies with … Observations on the … Mode of Treating that Disease in those Parts. 40 p. L. 1767.
– Thoughts on East-India affairs: most humbly submitted at this critical conjuncture, to the consideration of the legislature, and the proprietors of East-India Stock. By a quondum servant of the Company. 51 p. L. 1784.
– A familiar epistolary journal of a voyage from Bengal, in the Syren sloop, burden eighty tons, in the year 1757. Evan Jones, master. 151 p. Bath 1791.
Sources: Buckland, Dictionary; *Charu Sheel Singh, “Holwell, Dow and Halhed: A note on their contribution to Indology in the 18th century”, JOIB 33:3-4, 1984, 291-297; Trautmann 1997, 68-71; Wikipedia with portrait and further references.