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«IJAPS, Vol. 5, No. 2 (July 2009) THE ASSASSINATION OF LORD MAYO: THE 'FIRST' JIHAD? Helen James * Australian National University, Australia e-mail: ...»

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IJAPS, Vol. 5, No. 2 (July 2009)



Helen James *

Australian National University, Australia

e-mail: waldenent@hotmail.com


In February 1872, Lord Mayo, Governor-General of India, was assassinated at

the penal settlement of Port Blair in the Andaman Islands whilst paying a viceregal visit to the Province of British Burma. His assassin, a Pathan from North

West India who had been in the Peshawar police, made no attempt to escape. He had been serving a life sentence for murder, a murder of which he had declared himself 'Not Guilty'. The manuscripts and papers relating to the thorough investigation that was immediately launched into the death of the Viceroy use the word jihad ('struggle for the Faith') to explain the motivation for the assassination. However, intriguing unanswered questions remain that this paper will attempt to highlight. Was the alleged assassin a mere tool in a larger game of world politics? Was Lord Mayo's security detail deliberately slack in performing its duties? Based on the manuscript collections in the Cambridge University Library, this paper scrutinises the evidence and frames it within the colonial history of the loss of Burmese independence in three wars with Britain from 1824 to 1885.

Keyword: jihad, justice, muslim, Wahhabi, security


On 8 February 1872, the Viceroy of India, Lord Mayo, was assassinated at Hopetown, Port Blair, Andaman Islands, by a convict, a Pathan from the North West Frontier Province (NWFP) of India named Sher Ali (or Shere * Dr. Helen James is an Associate Professor (Adjunct) with the Australian Demographic and Social Research Institute and a Visiting Fellow in the Department of Anthropology, College of Pacific and Asian Studies, The Australian National University. She wishes to thank the anonymous referees of this article for their helpful comments. She also wishes to record her appreciation to Mr. Godfrey Waller, Manuscripts Librarian, University of Cambridge, for assistance in conducting this research, and to Dr. Philip Towle, former Director, and Professor Christopher Hill, Director, Centre of International Studies, Cambridge University, for Visiting Fellowships in 2003–2004 and 2007 during which this research was pursued.

IJAPS, Vol. 5, No. 2 (July 2009) Helen James Ali Khan). 1 The event shocked British India. It was entirely unexpected, and yet, given the context of the Wahhabi incitement of the 1857 Indian Mutiny, India's 'First War of Independence', (Allen 2006; Delong-Bas 2004) and the recent stabbing murder on 20 September 1871 of the Acting Chief Justice in Calcutta, John Norman, by a Wahhabi follower, a certain Abdoolah, itmight have been expected that the Government of India should have been alert to the possibility of such a disaster recurring, especially since the trials in India of leading Wahhabis found to be preaching jihad and violent overthrow of the colonial government had only recently been concluded. 2 In February 1972, Lord Mayo was on a vice-regal visit to the Province of British Burma, which, since the Second Anglo-Burmese War in 1852, had been administered by a Chief Commissioner as part of the East India Company's (EIC) domains headquartered in Calcutta. British Burma, in the outlook of the EIC officials, was an extension of their territories. 3 The Pathans or Pashtuns were one of many tribal peoples in the North West Frontier Province.

There are said to be some six main sub-groups, of which Shere Ali's Afridi tribe was one.

Pathans fought both for and against the British. During the civil disobedience movements of the 1920–1940s, the Khudai Khitmagar non-violent movement was formed by the Pathan leader, Abdul Gaffar Khan, in support of the Gandhian approach to achieving independence from the British (Bannerjee 2000).

Wahhabism originated in what is now Saudi Arabia by a reformer of Islam, an Arab named Muhammad ibn Abd Al-Wahhab. Born in 1702 or 1703 in Uyainah in Nejd, Al-Wahhab vigorously promoted monotheism and proscribed associationism as the 'true' form of Islam. In the intellectual tradition of the 13th century Sunni jurist, Ibn Taymiyya, Al-Wahhab was the author of two key texts, Kitab al-Tawhid (The Book of Unity) and Kitab al-Jihad (The Book of the Struggle). In 1744 Al-Wahhab and his vision of Islam were taken up by Muhammad ibn Saud, the progenitor of the Saudi clan that eventually, through violent conquest and forceful conversion, formed a united Saudi Arabia with Wahhabism as its ideological basis. Before AlWahhab's death in 1792, the scene had been set for the ongoing conflict between Wahhabism and other sects of Islam, Shia and Sufi, as well as Sunni and the non-Muslim world. During AlWahhab's lifetime, the Ottoman Turks were particularly in his sights. The intense enmity was mutual. Although Delong-Bas (2004) argues for a distinct difference between the original tenets of Al-Wahhab and contemporary expressions of Wahhabism as global jihad as professed since the mid-19th century by those Muslims who acknowledge being his followers, Wahhibism in the modern experience is inescapably associated with violent jihad, the forceful extirpation of those who disagree with its tenets. Delong-Bas argues that this is because contemporary fundamentalists like Osama bin Laden are in the line of the self-proclaimed Imam-Mahdi, Syed Ahmed (died in battle 1831), rather than Al-Wahhab himself; and that the injunction to jihad has changed from a defensive to an offensive concept and from a collective to an individual obligation that encourages martyrdom (Delong-Bas 2004: 242) for the purpose of overthrowing non-Islamic governments. Bin Laden himself is thought to have severed his connections with the current Saudi royal family after they permitted US troops to be stationed in Saudi Arabia during the 1991 Gulf War, thus creating what for him was a Dar ul-Harb instead of the Dar ul-Islam (Abode of Islam) as previously.

The transfer of power from the EIC to the British Government in 1858 only served to strengthen the notion of the incorporation of British Burma into Britain's Indian empire. These IJAPS, Vol. 5, No. 2 (July 2009) The Assassination of Lord Mayo Lower Burma, since the conclusion of the First Anglo-Burmese War in 1826 that saw the Burmese regions of Arakan and Tenasserim ceded to the EIC, had close administrative, economic and political ties with the British authorities in India. Arakan had been forcibly incorporated into Konbaung Burma (1752–1885) during the reigns of the first three rulers of that last dynasty of monarchical Burma: Alaungpaya, Hsinbyushin, and Bodawpaya.

It had long been a favourite destination for Muslim traders from Bengal and other parts of India and beyond (Bhattacharya 2007). The cross-border activities between British Bengal (Chittagong) and Burmese Arakan of a Muslim rebel, Chin Byan, had been a casus belli of the First AngloBurmese war in 1824, which the EIC had fought for strategic reasons, seeing Burma as an essential bulwark in protecting the Company's Indian possessions. Moreover, the EIC was acutely aware of Muslim rebel activity against its interests, originating from hideouts in Lower Burma (Bhattacharya 2007). As punishment for his support of the rebels and Wahhabi jihadists during the 1857 Indian Mutiny, in 1858 the aged last Emperor of Delhi, the Muslim Bahadur Shah, had been exiled to Rangoon, the main port and capital of British Burma. However, the Burmese Monarch of independent Upper Burma at the time of the 1857 Indian Mutiny, King Mindon, refused to take advantage of British difficulties, preferring to follow a policy of seeking to improve relations with his bellicose neighbours. Indian Sepoys (i.e., native infantry) had served with the British imperial forces in both the First and Second Anglo-Burmese Wars (Snodgrass 1827; Bruce 1973), and Indian immigration had increased since the incorporation of Burmese territories within British Indian domains. At the time of Lord Mayo's visit, there were 16,000 Indians living in Rangoon, 16 per cent of the city's population, who were engaged in both labouring and ties were further strengthened after the 1885/86 Annexation of the formerly independent kingdom of Upper Burma, centered on Mandalay. The Burmese Nationalist movement, after the 1906 formation of the Young Men's Buddhist Association and related Burmese Buddhist associations, had close ties with the Indian National Congress (INC) (established in 1885) and the Gandhian civil disobedience movements of 1920–1940, with some of its leading figures, such as U Ottama, travelling to India to confer with Gandhi, Ghosal, Chandra Bose and other INC leaders. During the debate over the 1937 dyarchy reforms, which gave the Province of Burma some measure of self-government through its own elected Legislative Assembly modeled on those introduced in India during the Montagu-Chelmsford reforms of the 1920s, there were a number of Burmese politicians who did not wish to separate from India (Bhattacharya 2007). The present renaissance in India-Myanmar (Burma) relations arising from India's need to access the oil and gas resources of its neighbour thus builds on a long history of commercial, cultural, intellectual and political interactions between the two countries.

IJAPS, Vol. 5, No. 2 (July 2009) Helen James the professions (Bhattacharya 2007: 77) 4 It was not unusual, then, given the mixture of strategic issues commanding his attention, that Lord Mayo should form a plan to visit this part of the territories for which, as Viceroy, he had administrative responsibility.

With a large party, Lord Mayo and his wife set sail from Calcutta on the Glasgow on 24 January 1872 5, arriving in Rangoon, Burma, on the 28th, where he received a rapturous reception. The vice-regal party then proceeded to Moulmein in eastern Burma on 3 February, where Lord Mayo and his party again received a warm reception. He professed himself well pleased with the results of his visit, which he had evidently planned for some time, and for which he had consciously deferred other engagements in India. Since coming under British control at the end of the First AngloBritish War in 1826, Moulmein had become a key administrative centre that hosted the American Baptist mission in Burma and particularly the mission to the Karen. While stopping here, Lord Mayo specifically checked, in case any telegrams had arrived from India that required his attention. He was evidently concerned lest any untoward disturbances occur in India during his absence and was especially concerned about any events relating to the North West Frontier, where in the recent past (1827–31, 1838–40; 1853, 1856, 1858, 1863), Britain had fought a series of savage military offensives against various coalitions of tribesmen and 'Hindustani fanatics' (Allen Bhattacharya (2007: 83) points out that Rangoon underwent a rapid demographic change as Indian immigration increased throughout the period of British rule in Burma. By 1911, the Indian population (both Hindu and Muslim) in Rangoon amounted to 162,984 out of 293,316 persons, or over fifty percent of the total. The rapid increase in Indian immigration throughout the period of British rule in Burma caused deep resentment and eventually communal riots.

The activities of the Indian chettiars, or moneylenders, during the 1930s, when land dispossessions increased, were a major motivating factor in the newly independent government of Burma. In 1948, it enacted the Land Nationalization Act, which remains in force.

Those included in the vice-regal party were Marquis and Marchioness of Drogheda, Major and Mrs. Burne, Miss Milman, Miss Norman, Captain de Robeck, and an Aide-de-camp. The remainder of the party followed the next day in the steam ship Dacca, which had been placed at the Viceroy's disposal by the British Indian Steam Navigation Company. It consisted of: the Honourable Mr. Ellis, Earl of Donoughmore, Mr. and Mrs. Horace Cockerell, Col., Mrs. and the Misses Thuillier, Capt. Lockwood, Aide-de-camp, Major Taylor, Aide-de-camp, Dr. and Mrs. Barnett, Mr. Gerald Fitzgerald, Colonel and Mrs. Rundall, Mr. G Allen, Mr. and Mrs.

Aitchison, Mr. and Mrs. Eustace Smith, Colonel Jervois, C. B., Count Walstein, and Mr. and Mrs. Halsey. University of Cambridge Library, Add. MS 7490/94/13, 'Record on Reason for Visit by Viceroy', made by Major Burne, Secretary to Viceroy, page 1 of 11 printed foolscap size pages.

IJAPS, Vol. 5, No. 2 (July 2009) The Assassination of Lord Mayo 2006). This term referred to Wahhabi inspired jihadists (such as Syed Ahmed, the self-proclaimed Imam-Mahdi or Saviour, finally killed in 1831 by the Sikhs of Maharaja Ranjit Singh) who were seeking to cleanse the South Asian subcontinent of the British infidel forces and restore a Dar ulIslam, or Abode of Faith. Annexations such as that of the Kingdom of Oude in 1856, the last independent Muslim kingdom in northern Hindustan, by the

EIC under Lord Dalhousie, 'angered Muslim and Hindu alike' (Allen, 2006:

122). In the 19th century, as in the 20th and 21st centuries, these areas—the NWFP, Punjab, and Afghanistan—formed a key bastion in British/Western policy to contain Russian expansion into Central Asia and the Indian subcontinent. The current war in Afghanistan is but the latest in a series of military offensives in this region launched with this objective in view. With such issues concerning the strategic security of British India on his mind, Lord Mayo was anxious to see for himself the situation in British Burma, the eastern flank of his dominions, where, it was reported, fleeing mutineers and jihadists had taken refuge (Bhattacharya 2007).

Before leaving Calcutta, and in response to Judge Norman's assassination, Lord Mayo had reportedly declared his intention of destroying the Wahhabis (Allen 2006: 161). They had indeed suffered major losses during the British operations to punish the rebellious native infantry regiments in September 1857 as the authorities restored order after the massacres of the Indian Mutiny. As Charles Allen, whose great grandfather, George Allen, proprietor of the newspaper The Pioneer, was standing next to Lord Mayo at the time of the attack by Shere Ali, describes the situation, 'By the end of September 1857, Delhi was a ghost town, entirely cleansed of Muslims, who were now increasingly viewed by the British as the real enemy' (Ibid.). As Lord Mayo set out on his ill-fated journey, there were thus many sources of resentment arising from the conflicts with those over whom he had the power to administer British justice.

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