This particular column is only about knowledge of the Bug Pit, not the actual pit itself. The actual Bug Pit is far too brutal for this column. Remember the thing I wrote four months ago about some things that are labelled brutal actually being far, far beyond brutal? This is one of those things. Sorry!
In 1839, a British Colonel named Charles Stoddart travelled to the Central Asian hinterlands, to what is now Uzbekistan. He was on a diplomatic mission for Queen Victoria. This was probably an exciting thing in 1839. Perhaps he considered himself a modern day Marco Polo, or a precursor to James Bond. What he did not consider was that foreign dignitaries like to get gifts. Khan Nasrullah, Emir of Bukhara, was understandably irked when he saw that Stoddart bore no presents, so he tossed the poor Brit into the Bug Pit.
Accounts vary as to the exact size of the pit. Reports describe a stone chasm somewhere between 12 and 40 feet deep. Some versions have the pit open for inspection, others cite the sole entrance as a hole in the ceiling through which horse manure and the occasional rope were dropped. What is known for certain is that the pit was filled with "vermin." Rats were part of the mix, but mostly it was just a big hole filled with insects. Stoddart served the next two years of solitary confinement in the Bug Pit.
But how? It's the kind of mind puzzle I can't switch off as I’m falling asleep at night. For example, how did Stoddart fall asleep? Was he able to lie down on the floor, or were there just too many bugs? And if it was the latter, did he just sort of lean back as you would into a beanbag, only a beanbag that was all beans and no bag and instead of beans it was living, squirming insects, some of whom were biting you? Also – again, sorry for this – how did he go to the toilet? Since he was kind of living in a toilet to begin with? What did he wipe with? More bugs?
In 1841, a British captain named Arthur Conolly trekked east to rescue Stoddart. Conolly was a bit of a big shot in the writer-adventurer circles of Victoria's British Empire. Perhaps he fancied himself a modern day Indiana Jones. Which makes it a little inexplicable that he would forsake a daring nighttime escape caper and instead opt for one more giftless appeal to the Emir's mercy. After a bit of negotiation with Khan Nasrullah, Conolly was tossed down with Stoddart. Both men lived together in the pit for another year. By the time they were hauled up into the sunlight for a public beheading, their "bodies were covered with sores, their hair, beards and clothes alive with lice."
That puts Stoddart in the pit for three years. Ponder that. Three years is a long time. Three years ago Bush was still president. There was no Tea Party. You were six pounds lighter. Now imagine that instead of doing all the stuff you packed into the last 36 months – all the meals and texts and sexual escapades you participated in – you were confined to a small dungeon filled with gnashing insects. No tables, chairs, or beds. There was no way to get clean, because there was no shower. Unless you count the occasional shower of horse poop.
Stoddart and Conolly became household names in Britain just a few years after their deaths. Could they have conceived of how loopy their story would make everyone feel even 170 years later? Did they ever talk about how their predicament would affect others? Or did they not talk, ever, because if they did, bugs would get in their mouths?