The Unsung Martyrdom and underplayed assassination
We the Indians today are in a rapid spree of changing names and rewriting our history. The name of ALLAHABAD has been changed to PRAYAG RAJ. “Alfred Park” is now called “Chandrasekhar Azad Park” but the SPORTS COMPLEX still has a Colonial fervor “MAYO Hall”. Why this delay? Are we not able to find a suitable name for it? Not only a hall in Allahabad but Bangalore also has a town hall by the same name and to top it all “The MAYO college of Ajmer”, built in 1875 stands at its grandeur as The ETON of the east well patronised by the descendants of Maharana Pratap Singh Ji and many Rajput Royalties of Rajasthan. The most suitable replacement for Lord Mayo appears to be his assassin who single handedly killed the well-guarded Viceroy of India without a proper weapon.
I discussed the issue with a number of well-read and patriotic Allahabadis, nay-nay Prayagrajis but everybody was surprised Why Sher Ali? Do you want our sport persons to have the killer instinct of a Lion? Same was the reaction of the ex-Rajas of Rajasthan who happen to be board members of Mayo College.
Leicester historian Professor Claire Anderson from the school of Historical Studies says that though heavily protected Lord Mayo made an impromptu stop to admire the view of the setting sun at the foot of Mount Harriet. Before stepping on to the Jetty for boarding his ship, he was stabbed to death by a convict. This caused great disturbance in diplomatic circles but the decision was made to play down the incident, quickly hang the murderer, appoint a new Viceroy and get on with it. Fuss might give an impression that there was widespread unrest against British rule and turn the assassin into a MARTYR.
Just a few months earlier i.e. 21st September 1871 Sir John Paxton the acting Chief Justice of Calcutta High Court was also stabbed to death by a Wahabi named Abdullah (Ram Narayan Kumar Martyred but not tamed; The Politics of Resistance in the Middle East). This style of killing led to the creation of India’s First Intelligence Bureau for collecting Civil Intelligence.
Sir Richard Southwell Bourke 6th Earl of MAYO (1849- 1867) became the Viceroy of India in January 1869. He was invited to inspect the jail for the life convicts at the penal colony by the Superintendent of Andaman Islands General Stewart. Lord Mayo did not want to miss this opportunity as he happened to be a keen traveller and a nature lover. He is said to have covered a few thousand miles on horseback. On 24th Jan 1872 a large entourage including Lord and Lady Mayo, the diplomats, security personnel sailed from Calcutta Port by the ship H.M.S. Frigate Glasgow arriving Rangoon on 28th January. After spending a few days in Burma the party reached Andamans via Moulemein on 8th February 1872 early morning.
Andamans then had a population of 8000 residents at the Penal colony (beside the tribes in jungle area). There were 7000 male convicts, 900 females and 200 police personnel. The Superintendent and other jail authorities had made special arrangements for the Viceroy’s protection in quarters like Viper and Ross islands. After inspecting the jail Lord Mayo decided to see Mount Harriet to ascertain the suitability of building a Sanatorium for the convicts and also to enjoy the splendid sunset. While descending the hill he was fascinated by the beautiful scene. He uttered Ah! How beautiful! It is the loveliest thing, I Think, I ever saw. (The Heroes of Cellular Jail – Justice S. N. Aggarwal).
Sher Ali, a life convict in the jail had worked for the British administration in Punjab mounted Police in 1860s and worked for Commissioner of Peshawar. Earlier he served in Ambala in a cavalry regiment and in the Presidency armies in Rohilkhand and Oudh during 1st War of Independence. Major Hugh James had awarded him with a certificate and Reyn Taylor gifted him a horse and a pistol .But he was falsely implicated in a murder charge of a relative and all his loyal service to British did not pay any dividends. He was sentenced to death on 2nd April 1867 and during appeal this was reduced to life imprisonment and he was deported to Andamans to serve his sentence.
The grudge against the white started here and the inhumane treatment given to prisoners added fuel to fire. Maulana Md. Jafar Ali Thanesvri who was in the Andaman jail as a political prisoner, has written in his autobiography later published in Urdu that Sher Ali waited to kill a white top brass just to show to the British that they cannot take law in their hands and they were not invincible. He was excited to get the news of Viceroy’s inspection and treated the jail mates a day earlier. Throughout the day Sher Ali tried his best to cross the waters and get across to the Viceroy, but he could not get permission to go to Ross island where Lord Mayo was staying. When the English party was descending from Mount Harriat he hid himself in a bush near the jetty. As darkness set in Lord Mayo surrounded by a human shield of 12 guards, a large entourage and torch bearers advanced towards the shore.
Lady Mayo was waiting for her husband’s return and as she saw the party nearing she asked the bands men to strike up “RULE BRITANIA”. Lord Mayo quickly stepped forward to descend the jetty stairs to board the launch. With the speed of lightening Sher Ali pounced upon the Viceroy and stabbed him in the back with just a barber’s knife. The sea ahead, the jungle behind, loud sound of the drum and commotion amongst torch bearers gave him enough opportunity to escape. Sher Ali instead stood calm and quiet because he had achieved what he had intended. He readily posed for a photograph. In fact he wanted to be clicked along with his KILL but the helpers hurriedly took bleeding Mayo to the ship from where the body was taken to Mainland India and from there to Ireland where he was buried with full State honour.
Sher Ali was the one man Army who combined the bravery of Maharana Pratap with the swiftness and Gurilla technique of Shivaji. He had the zeal of a self respecting patriot and the commitment of Azad and Bhagat Singh. The Viceroy was no easy game. Well equipped with the best possible weapons and a host of security guards, he was outsmarted by a Pathan who was much older in age and confined to jail for more than 6 years eating half cooked rotten food not fit for human consumption. The condition of Andaman Jail had given terminal illness and death to a lot of other jail inmates.
The English party was well equipped with the latest arms and ammunitions while Sher Ali had just a barber’s knife at his disposal. Yet his commitment made it possible to do the impossible. He said that he killed the Viceroy on the instructions of God and his partner in this act was only God. The British found no links to the Wahabis or Jihadis in this murder. Still the Andaman jail records include him in the list of Wahabis. Since they had decided to underplay the event he was quickly and quietly hanged to death at Viper Island prison on 11th March 1872. The trial was completed in less than a month’s time. (Kapse Ram, 21st Dec, 2005, the Hindu. Hundred years of the Andamans Cellular Jail). This is a story of an unsung Martyrdom and underplayed assassination during India’s Struggle for freedom.
Retired IRTS Officer, Motivator & Columnist