An Emperor, an Indian and an Englishman

The story of Mariam Shah - first Indian to visit and live in England

I covered the story of the Portuguese and English tussles with the Mughals and the hijacking of the Queen (Begum Maryam uz Zammani) mother’s ship Rahimi in a more serious tone earlier. As I was studying that topic, I got sidetracked by this interesting account related to a protagonist in the Rahimi story, one of the early Englishmen came to India to set up a trading post for the EIC.

His story is certainly interesting, pioneering, and partly tragic but his wife’s story is even more adventurous. While one came and settled briefly in Agra to understand life in India and to get closer to the emperor to achieve his means, the other accompanied Hawkins all the way back to England. It is the story of both these people; especially the latter who incidentally was our very first NRI, the first Indian to visit and live in the Blighty or the Island of Britain.

I do not want to write too much about the Mughals, their rule from Agra, the splendid Mughal courts and their intrigues, their luscious harems and the lovely gardens, for many know about them, after regular doses during school. But a quick rejoinder- The Mughals ruled over a wide swath of land and established control with, military conquests, inter marriage with local leaders and by establishing a line of suzerainty with the regional leaders. In the west coast, the Portuguese controlled the Arabian seas and frequently had tussles with the Mughals. A quick whiff of the times can be had if you read the previously mentioned rahimi story. But then, there were other interested people, namely the Dutch and the English, who had been sniffing around for a while, trying to find places where they could establish themseves o n the West coast of India and take part in the prosperous trade with the Indies.

One person who ventured out for the east India Company in this search was a young lad named William Hawkins. William was born Bet. 1565 - 1585 in Tavistock at Devon. He duly married Agnes Edgcombe in Sep 1590 in St. Stephens. She died around 1607 (some say 1608 which would be after Hawkins left for India) and just after that Hawkins decided to man the EIC sails of the ship Hector and set out on voyage to the Indies. There is some controversy around this point, for some experts opine that he was asked to join the Hector only because he spoke Turkish which was understood in the Mughal courts and that he was just a bluff sailor. He carried with him a letter addressed to the Governor of Gujarat (Actually emperor Akbar Who was by then dead) from King James. Assisted by Reave and Marlow, he set sail to the Surat area of Cambay. Though a second to William Keeling who commanded the fleet of ships, he was provided clothing meant to signify power and dignity once he landed in India. Scarlet and violet gowns, taffeta and silver lace to top an image of the then not so powerful English – and not as the Portuguse later explained to the Mughals that Britain was just a island of no import with just some fishermen…. The vessels set out from Plymouth around April 1607. After a difficult voyage, where they spent time playing Shakespeare plays on boars for entertainment….they reached the mouth of Tapti river in Cambay and anchored at Suvalli or Swally during Aug 1608.

Hawkings was a different type, liking pomp and swagger, as soon as he landed, he announced himself as a British Ambassador. The governor did not meet him straight away (as Hawkins put it -an old man under the influence of opium) and referred him to the Shabandar. Later he was pushed to (you can see how the bureaucracy in India worked even then) Mukkarrab khan, inspector of the ports. The next day he met the governor who however again sent him back to Khan who eventually granted trading permission for that particular landing. Hawkins proceeded to load his ship with the exports, but the Portuguese who controlled the seas arrived and took the laden boats over with his people and sent them to Goa. Finch and Hawkins remained in Surat. In the meantime, Mukarrab khan seized the pricey goods Hawkins had offloaded from his ship and offered to pay only a price he thought was right. No compromise was reached and the Portuguese it appears tried to assassinate him on a couple of occasions when they heard he was planning a trip to meet Jahangir..Hawkins though one is not sure how much exaggeration he put into his texts, escaped and had to wait.

By Feb 1609, Hawkins had slunk out to Delhi, leaving a sick Finch in charge of the remaining goods in Surat. He was in Agra by April and kept a low profile for a few days. Jehangir, sent out a summons for him to attend this court, after hearing that a British ambassador was in town. Hawkins, who had only courage and bluster, went in, presented the James letter and asked for trading rights. Jahangir was willing to give it right away but was stopped by some Portuguese friars in attendance who impressed Jahangir with the argument about England being an island of fishermen with nothing of importance to give to the great Mughal. Hawkins promised many presents when other ships would land in Surat.

Seeing that Hawkins spoke Turkish, the two soon retired to Jehangir’s Diwani Khas or private quarters where the emperor offered to sort out all of Hawkins difficulties. It appears that Mukkarab Khan’s enemies had already updated Jahangir of the man coming to Delhi. Soon the emperor sent a letter to Mukarrab khan castigating him and asking him to be courteous with the English. Impressed with his visitor, temporary lodgings were provided by the emperor and Hawkins was asked to attend court daily. The jealous Portuguese continuously tried to warn the emperor that he should not listen too much to the young English man’s stories of pomp.

Jahangir now wanted Hawkins to stay in Delhi as resident ambassador till another ambassador was sent from England. To further entice the young single Englishman, Jahangir offered him a ‘mansab of 400 horses’ rank. He was also allowed to stand ‘within the prestigious red rails’ i.e. closer to the throne where only great nobles usually stood. He was also titled the Engriz or Ingliz Khan.

And so Hawkins took his place among the gentry, dressed in Mohammedan cloaks and turban, an Ingliz khan in the Mughal court. But his stay was far from joyous for the Portuguese and Mukkarrab khan tried hard to poison the ears of the emperor as well as his food. When he complained to the emperor, he scolded the Portuguese, then laughed and suggested that Hawkins get married to a girl from his palace so that his food and comforts would be the women’s responsibility. Hawkins, as some accounts state was initially taken aback and tried to counter it with what he thought was an impossible demand. He stated that he would marry, not a recently converted Christian or a moor, but only a regular Christian.

The emperor thought for some time, working his royal brain, and after clapping his hands grandly announced that there was one such. It was none other than the daughter of Mubarak Shah (Some say Khan, not Shah), a deceased captain of Akbar. The young maiden’s name was Mariam.

In the meantime another ship named Ascension was nearing Surat. Based on Hawkins’s assurance that many gifts were on the way for Jahangir, a new firman to trade was granted to the English by Jahangir. But the ship ran aground and much was lost. To top that Hawkins had too many enemies in the court who kept on telling Jahangir that Hawkins was nothing but a bluff. When a bunch of disorderly survivors reached Agra, Jahangir knew that Hawkins was making a fool of him, a belief abetted by his courtiers who were regularly bribed by the Portuguese and Mukarab khan.

Soon Hawkins was moved out of the red rail position by Jahangir’s chief Wazir Abdul Hassan. Hawkins entreated Jahangir to either reinstall him with his previous privileges or allow him to depart. Jahangir accepted his resignation. Hawkins tried once again when news of another three ships at Surat was received, but the palace politics was not something he could counter and he had to leave.

So in Nov 1611, Hawkins and his wife Mariam left Delhi and boarded Middleton’s ships that were returning to England. Hawkins biggest problem was his arrogance and his lack of diplomacy , he did not know how to be a diplomat, instead he instigated the Emperor often against Mukarab khan who by the way had many friends in the court. Mukkarab khan had in the meantime offered to compromise, but the Hawkins arrogantly declined it and pissed Khan off even further. Mukarrab khan on the other hand was well regarded by Jahangir and knew him since childhood, earning his place with bravery, being a good fighter and with his skill with surgery. Khan eventually prevailed. Then there was the Finch Indigo case and the rahimi ransom that I mentioned in the Rahimi story where Finch outbid the emperors mother. The courtiers and the queen mother used all of that against Hawkins. Abdul Hassan further informed Jahangir that all English were drunkards and Jahangir promptly warned Hawkins not to come after drinking. The problem was that Hawkins indeed drank a lot as testified by Jourdain and smelt of drink if anybody approached him. Jahangir soon found this out himself and that went against Hawkins.

Now we get to Mariam the other person in the story. But before that let us figure out what Armenians were doing in the Mughal terrains. Akbar the previous emperor had invited Armenian traders to settle in Agra in the 16th century, and by the middle of the 19th century, Agra had a sizeable Armenian population. By an imperial decree, Armenian merchants were exempted from paying taxes on the merchandise imported and exported by them, and they were also allowed to move around in the areas of the Mughal Empire where entry of foreigners was otherwise prohibited. In 1562, an Armenian Church was constructed in Agra. Later they settled down in Surat as well where much trade with Basra was conducted. Armenian Churches were built in Surat as well. Mubarrak Shah or Khan as the case may be, served Akbar and had a rank higher than that of our friend Hawkins. Some books say that after his death, Mariam was adopted by Jahangir, or perhaps she was a member of the royal harem. Anyway she was offered to Hawkins.

Of the event Hawkins says thus - This past, the King was very earnest with me to take a white Mayden out of his Palace, who would give her all things necessary with slaves, and he would promise mee shee should turne Christian : and by this meanes my meates and drinkes should be looked unto by them, and I should live without feare. In regard she was a Moore, I refused, but if so bee there could bee a Christian found, I would accept it : At which my speech, I little thought a Christians Daughter could bee found. So the King called to memorie one Mubarique Sha his Daughter, who was a Christian Armenian, and of the Race of the most ancient Christians, who was a Captaine, and in great favour with Ekber Padasha, this Kings Father. This Captaine died suddenly, and without will, worth a Masse of Money, and all robbed by his Brothers and Kindred, and Debts that cannot be recovered: leaving the Child but only a few Jewels. I seeing shee was of so honest a Descent, having passed my word to the King, could not withstand my fortunes. Wherefore I tooke her, and for want of a Minister, before Christian Witnesses, I marryed her : the priest was my man Nicholas, which I thought had beene came over with lawfull, till I met with a Preacher that came with Sir Henry Middleton, and hee shewing me the error, I was marryed againe : so ever after I lived content and without feare, she being willing to goe where I went, and live as I lived.

According to writer Du Jarric, Hawkins applied to the Jesuit Father to perform the ceremony, but was told that this could only be done if he would acknowledge that the Pope was the head of the Church; whereupon he got his servant Nicholas Ufflet to officiate.

But well, they were soon out of favour with Jahangir and had to leave. But there was a problem. How would he leave? He did not want to leave overland via Persia and put Mariam in troubles way. Sea was the only course, and for that he had to reach a port where west bound ships plied. He asked the Portuguese who were glad to help get rid of the Englishman who was against their interests. But Mariam’s brothers and mother would not allow it. Eventually Hawkins bluffed them that he was going to settle in Goa and that he would take her no further than Goa. But he secretly got two passports from the Portuguese, one that allowed him to settle in Goa and the other that would allow them to travel to Lisbon and onto London. This does signify that his wife was by now very dear to him, for him to go to all these lengths. Meanwhile the Nurjahan faction came to the fore and Hawkins remained in Agra for awhile.

Soon came the news (1611) that British bound ships were reaching Surat and Hawkins decided to take the chance. To hoodwink the Mariam family, they went first to Goa and then went north to Surat to catch the ships. After touching bantam, the ships returned to London via South Africa, but tragedy was awaiting the eloping couple. Sickness hit the ships during this return voyage and Hawkins died enroute, onboard the Thomas. The ships finally reached Waterford in Ireland where Hawkins was buried.

The Pyer family maintains a very fine website with a lot of information on such matters. In fact they have a good amount of data on the Hawkins voyage – From there, we read about the trip as follows - Having finished his business in the Red Sea, Middleton departed in August 1612 for Sumatra and Java. Hawkins [S. 69] and his household were on board the Trade's Increase, which, after running aground near Tiku (in Sumatra), reached Bantam four days before Christmas. There they found the Hector, the Solomon, and the Thomas, all preparing to start for England. Hawkins and his wife embarked on the last-named, and the vessels sailed in January 1613. The Hector and Thomas reached the Cape of Good Hope in April, and after a month's respite the voyage was resumed on the 21st of May, Next day the two ships lost company, and of the rest of the voyage we know but little. Sickness broke out on board the Thomas, with the result that most of the crew died ; while at one time the vessel was in danger of being plundered by 'certain Newfoundland men'—probably rough traders tempted by the sight of a richly laden ship weakly manned. Fortunately, this danger was averted by the appearance of the Pearl, an interloping vessel homeward bound from the East. Her captain not only rescued the Thomas from the danger that threatened her, but also supplied her with much needed provisions. With this assistance she staggered home, arriving sometime in the autumn of 1613 ; but Hawkins did not see his native land, for it was his fate to 'dye on the Irish shoare in his returne homewards' (Purchas His Pilgrimage, p. 521). When and exactly where, this happened we are not told.

Mariam was alone when she reached England in 1614. She had no money, friends or any form of support, but she had over 6,000 pounds worth fine diamonds with her. And by then a suitor had appeared, none other than an opportunist trader who was with them during the voyage named Gabriel Towerson. By 1614, Mariam had married Towerson in Britain and went on to live there for the next 3 years, the first Indian NRI in Britain.

Peyer explains - His widow came on to London in the Thomas. Besides her claim to her late husband's property, she was reputed to have many valuable jewels ; and these considerations probably had a share in leading to her second marriage, early in 1614, to Gabriel Towerson, who had been captain of the Hector in the recent voyage. There was some haggling with the East India Company over the settlement of Hawkins's accounts. The 'Committees' who examined these reported that they included heavy charges for housekeeping, presents, 'goeinge to the campe with 60 horse,' and so on ; and that, after allowing his full salary of £200 a year up to the day of his death, with £300 for the expense of bringing his household down to the coast, there still remained a balance due from his estate of £600. However, the Company, considering that the widow was 'a straunger', and that liberal treatment of her might have a good effect in India, agreed to forgo all claims ; while in addition they presented her with a wedding gift of 200 jacobuses (about £240) as a 'token of there love'.

In 1617, the two of them returned to India and Mariam lived with her family. I am sure they must have been shocked to hear of all the events that transpired in the life of their dear Mariam and to see a brand new husband in tow, who was less interested in his wife and more interested in how he could get special treatment at the Mughal court and advance his business interests. This time, they had an English Ayah Frances Webb, a female companion Mrs Hudson and many more servants. However Towerson was not like Hawkins, for he treated Indians very badly, so much so that Towerson’s staff complained to the English factor in Surat. Not only that, Towerson found to his dismay that Hawkins’s investments in India had diminished in value by the time they returned. When Towerson left back for England, Mariam had only one English servant, a small boy. All Towerson left for her was 200 rupees.

As Peyer explains about their final days, In 1617 Mr. and Mrs. Towerson obtained permission from the Company to proceed to India in a private capacity, hoping to improve their fortunes by the aid of her relatives. From the journal of Sir Thomas Roe (who was much vexed by their vagaries) we learn that these hopes were disappointed. Towerson himself returned to England with the ambassador in 1619, leaving his wife with her friends at Agra, where, a couple of years later, we find her pestering the Company's factors for maintenance. Her second husband had evidently no intention of rejoining her, for in 1620 he obtained employment from the Company as a principal factor for the Moluccas. Three years later, while holding this post, he was put to death in 1623 by the Dutch in what is termed 'the Massacre of Amboyna'.

With the death of Towerson, the final English connection, no further information is available about Mariam. Perhaps she lived her final days in Agra with her family, coming to terms with the difficult 10 years of her life, the two husbands who died violently, the long voyage across the continents to the dark and dank Britain, new customs and languages, the politics of trade and the days when intrigue and scheming took much part of the living days. But it appears that her family continued to have connections with the English even later. John Dryden made Mariam his heroine in his play Amboyna, naming the character Ysabinda though the story line was changed considerably.

Hawkins was a pioneer in many ways, but sometimes more vain than practical, arrogant when diplomacy was required and not surprisingly, Thomas Roe the next ‘accredited’ ambassador to the Mughal court called him a ‘vayne foole’.

Armenians in India: from the earliest times to the present day: By Mesrovb Jacob Seth
Early English travellers in India: By Ram Chandra Prasad
Counterflows to colonialism: Indian travellers and settlers in Britain By Michael H. Fisher
Purchas his pilgrimes – Samuel Purchas
Early travels in India 1583-1619 William Foster
Payer’s pages
Visions of Mughal India: an anthology of European travel writing By Michael Herbert Fisher
Europe observed: multiple gazes in early modern encounters By Kumkum Chatterjee, Clement Hawes

The Ashe Murder case

Sir CP’s role in it……
The eminent historian Sreedhara Menon in his books on Sir CP mentions that he was unable to find the exact connection that Sir CP had with the Ashe murder case. I assumed, but naturally that Sir CP as a barrister was involved with the pleading of the case and many ‘knowledgeable’ sites and people nodded in agreement. But the official record is cryptic, it says - It is worthy of note that Travancore was the first State in all India which requisitioned his (Sir CP’s) services. That was in connection with an off-shoot of the Ashe murder case. His services were retained when a very important side issue was engaging the attention of the Madras High Court. While some persons know about the Ashe case, especially Tamilians, what connection would it have with Travancore? Don’t you think we should find out?

While I started out on this article considering it to be relatively straightforward, I found a number of twists and turns in the story, which kept me fully engaged. So let me now take you along, to those days when the Indians were staging a feeble revolt against British tyranny. Interestingly you will find that every single person connected to this story had violent events impacting their own lives. While one was stabbed, two others were killed by bullets; a third was stuck by a temple elephant. As we can see, their stars were crossed during that period and it was so fated. Curiously all of them except one Irishman were Brahmins, not otherwise associated with violence. But in the end this research turned out to be a bigger mystery than it was when I started out.

There are some who would wonder who Sir CP is. To answer them in a few lines, in describing a volcano of a character that shaped the Travancore scene between 1931 and 1950, will be pretty difficult, but I will give a simple introduction. CP Ramaswami Iyer, an up and coming barrister of the Madras Bench had already obtained an insight into the governance of neighboring Mysore during his school vacations. Later he worked with Annie Besant and the IN Congress and as advocate general of the Madras High court was instrumental in many reformative measures in the state of madras. In 1931 he caught the eye of the Travancore monarchy and after that he was closely aligned to them and shaped the future of that Southern state, now part of Kerala. But how did he get involved with the Thirunals of Travancore? Therein lay the connection to the murder case of historical repute, otherwise known as the Ashe murder case. So let us now turn our sights at the Ashe story. As is said, Sir CP’s ability marked him for the Madras High Court at a very early age, but when the offer of a judgeship came he wrote, in refusing it, "I prefer, Mr. Chief Justice, to talk nonsense for a few hours each day than to hear nonsense every day and all day long." A caustic character, hated by many, loved and trusted by a few in high office, Sir CP did more good than bad in hindsight. In the course of time, I will write a few more articles on him, and that is another story. Now who was Ashe? For that we now leave Madras and go to the southerly Coromandel Coast and zoom in at Tuticorin and Tinnevelly (Tirunelveli).

Chalapathy in the Hindu (See link under references) explains - In 1894 Robert William Escourt Ashe passed fortieth among 61 successful candidates in the Indian Civil Service (ICS) examination. On December 4, 1895, he arrived in India, where he began his career as an Assistant Collector and rose up to be District Magistrate and Collector. In 1907, Ashe found himself posted in the southernmost corner of the Presidency, in Tirunelveli. After a period of long leave he rejoined duty on February 17, 1908. The two months he spent officiating in the Tuticorin division were to be fateful. Tuticorin, a major port in the Presidency, also had a major spinning mill, the Coral Mills, managed by the European firm A. and F. Harvey. The Harveys were also the agents of the British India Steam Navigation Company BISNC, which had a virtual monopoly over the trade between Tuticorin and Colombo. After the eventful months in Tuticorin, Ashe was posted out to Godavari. He took charge of Tirunelveli district on August 2, 1910, as Acting Collector.

So what were the events occurring in Tuticorin? The country was stirring in revolt against the British and the seeds were taking root at any place the British became autocratic. In the 1890s and 1900s India’s independence movement and the Swadeshi movement, initiated by Bal Gangadhar Tilak and Lala Lajpat Rai of Indian National Congress (INC), were at their peak.Many a young soul joined in this outcry against the white man who ruled him and took away his grains while he was struggling for food. There was a specific thorn in the British flesh , a lawyer named VO Chidambaram Pillai a.k.a VOC or Kappalottiya Tamizhan, he was the champion for the oppressed. Soon he started the Swadeshi steamship navigation company flouting the monopoly of the British. VOC had great difficult in starting up the company and leasing ships, but finally he had two and went head to head with the BISNC offering cutthroat fares. Even though free tickets with umbrellas were offered, people used the Sawdeshi ship plying the Sri Lanka route. The British tried to buy him out, but VOC would not agree. Next he incited a strike at the Coral mill. VOC was later convicted by Pinhe and sent to Coimbatore, imprisoned for life. An appeal resulted in reduction of the sentence. He was later moved to Cannanore. The shipping company went bankrupt and the ships were taken over by BISNC. The people of the South were angrier with all these rapidly evolving events.

VVS Aiyer enters the scene around this time – then in Britain, V.V.S. Aiyar came into contact with VD Savarkar, an Indian revolutionary, at the India House. Under Savarkar's influence Aiyar began to take an active role in the militant struggle for Indian independence. Aiyar's militant attitude prompted the British Government in 1910 to issue a warrant for his arrest for his alleged involvement in an anarchist conspiracy in London and Paris. Aiyar resigned from the Lincoln's Inn and escaped to Paris. Aiyar landed in Pondicherry, the hotbed for such anti British revolutionaries around December 1910 disguised as a Muslim to escape arrest and remained there as exile. Poinditry or Pondicherry, North of Madras, was then a French colony. This was where a number of Anti British revolutionaries were holed up, acting with impunity and living under French political asylum. Aiyar remained in Pondicherry for over ten years. Aiyer started revolver practice for young Indians in certain gardens and preached the necessity of violence and assignations to free the country. As later events were to show, he trained them well and was also involved in hatching the plot to murder Ashe.

Meanwhile a conspiracy against the British Government was being worked up in the Madras Presidency by Nilakanta Brahmachari (the first accused in the Tinnevelly conspiracy case of 1911). He had been going round Southern India both in 1910 and in previous years in company with Shankar Krishna Aiyar, preaching swadeshi and sedition, and induced various persons in the Presidency to take a blood oath of association for the purpose of obtaining swaraj. In June 1910 Shankar introduced Nilakanta to his brother-in-law, Vanchi Aiyar. Vanchinathan was born in 1886 in Shenkottai to Raghupathy Iyer and Rukmani Ammal. Raghupathy Iyer worked with the Travancore dewaswom. Vanchi’s actual name was Shankaran. He did his schooling in Shenkottai and graduated in M.A. from Moolam Thirunal Maharaja College in Thiruvananthapuram. Even while in college, he married Ponnammal and later obtained clerkship in the Travancore forest department.

On the 9th of January 1911 Vanchi Aiyar took three months' leave and visited Pondicherry, where he associated with V. V. S. Aiyar and indulged in revolver practice under his instructions. Evidence was given in the Tinnevelly conspiracy case that Vanchi had told one of the witnesses that English rule was ruining the country, that it could only be removed if all white men were killed, and suggested that Mr. Ashe should be first killed as being the head of the Tinnevelly district and an officer who had taken a leading part in the events of 1908. Vanchi returned to Tinnevelly and closely shadowed the target, he was in a bad state of mind, and his infant daughter had died recently. The original intention was to kill Ashe on 11th June 1911, synchronizing with the Coronation of George the V. But Ashe was not to be seen on that day. He thus escaped death but just by a week. The fateful day arrived on 17th June, 1911. By then Ashe had been promoted as acting collector of Tinnevelly.

Chalapathy adds - In a sense, Ashe was an unlikely target of the conspiracy. There were no casualties in Tuticorin, while four persons were shot dead in Tirunelveli. In any case, Wynch, as the Collector of the district, was in charge. Even in the press it was Wynch rather than Ashe who was the target of criticism. Ashe was criticized in the press but not so much as Wynch. Another railed figure in the whole affair was A.F. Pinhey, who sentenced VOC to two terms of life imprisonment. But was there another reason? Perhaps… read on…

On June 17, 1911, Ashe boarded the 9-30 a.m. Maniyachi Mail at Tirunelveli junction. With him was his wife, Mary Lillian Patterson, who had arrived from Ireland only a few days earlier. They had married on April 6, 1898, in Berhampore; Mary was about a year older than Ashe. They were on their way to Kodaikanal where their four children, Molly, Arthur, Sheila, and Herbert, lived in a rented bungalow. The whistle blew after they were seated in their first class compartment. Just then a skeletally thin man, later identified as Vanchi Iyer dressed in a green jacket, white dhoti and forehead smeared with vibhuti jumped into the compartment and shot Ashe point blank with a Belgian made browning. Ashe died soon after in the lap of his wife. Chased out by bystanders and police, the young man shot and killed himself in the platform lavatory. The police found a note in his pocket.

The mlechas of England having captured our country, tread over the sanathana dharma of the Hindus and destroy them. Every Indian is trying to drive out the English and get swarajyam and restore sanathana dharma. Our Raman, Sivaji, Krishnan, Guru Govindan, Arjuna ruled our land protecting all dharmas and in this land they are making arrangements to crown George V, a mlecha, and one who eats the flesh of cows. Three thousand Madrasees have taken a vow to kill George V as soon as he lands in our country. In order to make others know our intention, I who am the least in the company, have done this deed this day. This is what everyone in Hindustan should consider it as his R. Vanchi Aiyar, Shencottah

Quoting Chalapathy again - A massive manhunt followed the assassination, this being yet another collector’s assassination after Arthur Conolly at Calicut many decades ago ( there were a few more). Raghupathy Iyer even refused to perform his last rites. The investigation showed that Vanchi had been a forest guard in Punalur and had been to Baroda (now Vadodara) and Pondicherry (now Puducherry) in the recent past. In Senkottai, Ottapidaram and Tuticorin, seized correspondence indicated the existence of a secret society, complete with blood oath and Kali puja. Also found was extremist literature, especially two pamphlets printed in the Feringhee Destroyer Press, calling on Indians to kill Europeans. Investigations also indicated that the assassination had a direct link (did it?) with the political events in the district in 1908. Madasamy, widely believed to be Vanchi's accomplice and who was seen running away after the assassination, was never traced.

In the April number of Madame Cama's paper called Bande Mataram which was published in Paris about the end of May, there was some indication in one of the articles that a crime of this nature was in contemplation. It concluded with these words: "In a meeting or in a bungalow, on the railway or in a carriage, in a shop or in a church, in a garden or at a fair, wherever an opportunity comes. Englishmen ought to be killed. No distinction should be made between officers and private people. This article and the letter found on the murderer seem to show that the murder was designed to take place on the day of the Royal Coronation ceremonies. Madame Cama and V.V.S. Aiyar correspond regularly, and she would have no difficulty in sending him the automatic pistols which she is rumored to have done on two occasions in the last two years.

Fourteen persons were arrested and charged with conspiracy to murder Ashe. Two others committed suicide - Dharmaraja Aiyar took poison, while Venkateswara Aiyar slit his own throat.

Because an Englishman was killed, a three-judge bench, led by the Chief Justice, conducted the trial. White, Ayling, and Sankaran nair were the judges. Anyway the case went on for many months and while Ayling and white delivered an unanimous judgment against all accused, Sankaran Nair set himself apart with a brilliant brief which is used by students even today and considered a masterpiece. Justice Nair came to the conclusion that the charge of murder had not been legally proved against the accused, but he held that the charges of waging war against the King were proved against Nilakanta and another but not the rest. Finally, the Court, by a majority decision, awarded Nilakanta seven years’ rigorous imprisonment and Sankar¬a¬krishnan four years. The remaining accuseds were sentenced to varying terms of lesser imprisonment.

The Travancore kingdom had unwittingly entered into the high profile case. The plotters and killers were from Travancore. Vanchi Iyer worked for the Travancore forestry department, his father worked for the temple Dewaswom. The ruling family wanted to be sure that they were not sullied or implicated in anyway, I suppose. Anyway the high court deployed barrister CP to Shenkota, I presume to find out some of the details and exonerated any involvement of the state in the sordid affair. The trip is still a mystery. How did Shankaran Nair confirm in his judgement that…. The murder of Mr Ashe was a direct consequence of this bitter hostility. [T]hat Mr Ashe's conduct at Tuticorin with reference to the conviction of Subramania Siva and Chidambaram Pillai and with reference to the [Swadeshi] Steam Navigation Co. was one of the main causes of the murder". Did something else happen in Shenkottai? Anyway the judgment had connected Vanchi to the events of Tinnevelly and patriotic fervor. And with the excellent fashion in which CP handled the issue, he became a trusted fellow in the eyes of the Travancore Raja Moolam Tirunal. His future was set in Travancore….and how… we will see in forthcoming articles.

Now enters the next important man in the case. It was none other than Subramanian Bharati, who was also holed up in Pondicherry. Bharatiyar as he is more popularly known, was born in Ettayapuram, a palace I covered at length in my article about Kattabomman, and a place of much ,musical repute. After a trip to Benares, his spiritual and nationalistic fervor increased. By 1904 he was a active journalist espousing the causes of the downtrodden and writing against authority. He was soon aligned to the Tilak brand of militancy and sometimes engaged with VOC at nearby Tuticorin. When Ashe took up the cudgels against VOC, Bharati testified in support of VOC. This put him also into the bad books of the British and soon, faced with imminent arrest, he fled to Pondicherry. He continued his strident tone in an immense volume of literary output from Pondicherry. While there he got involved with Aurobindo & VVS Iyer and teamed up in many anti British activities. It so happened that two of the pamphlets he authored were found in the house of Vanchi Iyer after security guards ransacked it for evidence. The government suspected Bharati and VVS Iyer of having had a direct hand in the planning of the murder. Officials of the Secret Police Service were posted near the house of Subramania Bharathi to watch his movements. Though not directly connected with the Ashe murder, the police perhaps believed that he knew what was going on.

The French police report stated - Lettres du C.I.D.I.F. - Lettre n°37 - In 1911, shortly before the murder of Mr Ashe on 17th June, two seditions pamphlets entitled ‘ A word of advice to the Aryans’ and ‘oath of administration into the New Bharata Association’ were distributed in the Tinnevelly and Madras district, and it has since been ascertained that they were published and printed by Subramania Bharathi in Pondicherry. He also issued about the same time two other seditious tamil pamphlets entitled “Kanavu“and “Aliropangu“. All four pamphlets have been proscribed by Government. He is one of the principal members of the anarchist gang and is a constant companion of V.V.S. Aiyar.

Arron Raman states it well - Deprived of an outlet for his political writings, Bharati turned inwards. The years of exile in Pondicherry from 1908-1918 that constituted the third main phase of his life define Bharati for posterity; when his genius burst forth in song, poetry and prose. Some of the greatest works to flow from his pen happened between 1911 and 1913. …Despite days filled with activity, it seems likely that his confinement within Pondicherry, the ever-present surveillance by British agents, gnawing poverty and also ostracism from the orthodox sections of his own community combined to place enormous psychological stress on Bharati. He had always possessed a latent ascetic streak, and he now began to keep company with local siddhars—mendicants. From them he took to the habit of using psychotropic substances that weakened his already frail constitution.

In November 1918, in an act of final desperation, he broke exile and entered British India at Cuddalore. He was promptly arrested and lodged in Cuddalore jail from where he wrote to Lord Pentland, the Governor of Madras, seeking his release: “I once again assure your Excellency that I have renounced every form of politics and I shall ever be loyal to British Government and law abiding.” He was imprisoned in the Central prison in Cuddalore in custody for three weeks from 20 November to 14 December.

It is at this juncture that CP Ramaswamy Iyer intervened together with A Rangaswamy Iyer and Annie Besant and got Bharatiyar released from jail on 14th December. He had spent less than a month in custody, but the collective events of the previous decade had impacted the poet. He returned to Tirunelveli and spent his next years in Kadayam. From a letter that he wrote to Iyengar soon after his arrival, it is clear that Mrs. Annie Besant, Dr. Subramania Iyer, and CP Ramaswamy Iyer had helped to secure Bharati's release. It was a few days after the end of the First World War.

And that was how the Swadeshi movement affected the people we talked about. But a look at the entire story still does not show why Ashe was selected as the target. A Christian reverend Dr Ravikumar Stephen provides this interesting but ‘rumored’ tidbit and I have no idea if it is the truth, for it does seem a bit farfetched to be a motive for a capital crime.

Ashe's wife Mary was a social worker. One day during her visit to Shencottai, along with her husband, spotted a Dalit (socially marginalized) women suffering in labor pain. She arranged a bullock-cart for this dalit lady and the bullock-cart carried her through the Agraharam (street where Brahmins alone can reside), the shortest route to the hospital. The Brahmins demanded an apology from Ashe for supporting his wife in sending the dalit woman in a bullock-cart through the Agraharam and the Brahmins believed that the act of Mrs Ashe brought sacrilege to them. Ashe refused to apology and justified the act of his wife. This infuriated the Brahmins and led to the plan to assassinate Ashe.

The new Indian express article adds - Vanchinathan was peeved by the collector's interference in the local affairs. Ashe expressed his dismay over people of a dominant caste refusing to let a pregnant woman, belonging to a lower caste, being taken through their street for medical treatment, said Josephine Jeyashanthi, Professor in the Department of Tamil, Loyola College.

Was that what Sir CP went to investigate at Shenkottai? What was his report? Nothing is known about the trip, all we know that it was a sensitive and secret issue being investigated by the High court. It is unlikely that the above angle warranted it, but then again, they may have wanted to crush the Swadeshi movement and get rid of minor issues like caste rivalry. Anyway we do know that Sir CP was instrumental in getting Bharatiyar quickly released from a British jail.

And so, Ashe died from the bullet; Vanchi died from another bullet from the same gun that Madame Cama perhaps sent from Paris, Bharatiyar died some years in Triplicane, Sir CP was stabbed by another Iyer Mani after the Punnapra Vaylar episode. VVS Iyer died mysteriously while saving his daughter from drowning at the Papanasam falls. Madame Cama lived in Paris until 19355 and after a stroke, returned to Bombay and died soon after. All tragedies that befell people who should have been leading peaceful lives…

Chalapathy concludes - Mary and her children returned to Exeter, her hometown, in April 1912 on a decent government pension. She never remarried. Their four children were aged 12, 10, eight and six at the time of Ashe's death. Arthur went on to become a colonel in the Indian Army and retired in 1947. It is curious that he should have chosen to work in a country that had claimed his father's life. Robert said his father had a deep love for India even though he or his family never visited Maniyachi or Tirunelveli. Herbert died in combat during the Second World War. The girls remained unmarried. Janet thought that their spinsterhood had much to do with Mary. Apparently, Mary, who died in 1954, never let people forget the tragedy she had suffered, of seeing her husband being shot at point-blank range right in front of her eyes.

Ex Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi renamed the Maniyachi junction after Vanchinathan. But railway tickets apparently do not bear the name of Vanchi and not many trains halt at the station

As for me, I used to live for a couple of years not far from where Bharatiyar lived, in Triplicane on Pycroft’s road or Bharatiyar salai, but now sit back and enjoy some of Bharatiyar’s poetry – like the simple one below…

theertha karayinile therku moolayin..shenbaga thotathilee..paarthirunthaal varuven vennilavilor..
paangiyodendru sonnaall..vaarthai thavari vittai adi kannamma..maarbu thudikkuthadi..paartha idathilellam unnai polave…paavai theriyuthadi

and extend a small thanks to Sir CP for getting him released from jail..


All too human at the core – Aroon Raman in Hindu
Frontline – An Irish link – AR Venkatachalapathy
Vanchi Assassinates Ashe –Bharatiya vidya bhavan
Aurbindo ashram documents – The political situation in Pondicherry 1910-1915
The press in Tamil Nadu and the struggle for freedom, 1917-1937 - By A. Ganesan
Ashefamily website

pics - Hindu,Deccan Herald - thanks