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Updated: June 7, 2013 17:32 IST
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Secrets in a sword

P. ANIMA
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The photograph of a painting of H.V. Conolly at the Teak Museum in Nilambur. PHOTO: SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT
The photograph of a painting of H.V. Conolly at the Teak Museum in Nilambur. PHOTO: SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

When the piece of a broken sword turned out to be a vital clue in the murder of Conolly

(A weekly column on the region’s past culled from historical documents.)

Henry Valentine Conolly’s murder marks a bloody chapter in the history of Malabar. Killing a Collector was unheard of and the instance became a much-debated one, spurring research, speculation and analysis. We will spare the causes, political and social, which led to the event. Instead, through two letters find the state of the British administration in the immediate aftermath of the murder. The British predictably were rattled by the act and the letters depict their search for the culprits. The investigation here is centered on a sword which turns out to be a vital piece of evidence.

The first letter which mentions the murder is written in the wee hours of September 12, 1855, by S. B. Tod, the Assistant Collector of Malabar to C. Collett, the Sub Collector. Written at 1 a.m., he breaks the news of Conolly’s death. “This is my melancholy duty to inform that Mr Conolly, the Collector of the district was barbarously murdered this evening by three moplahs,” he writes. Collett is expected to arrive at Calicut as soon as possible.

After this cryptic message, Tod writes a detailed letter to the T. Pycroft, Chief Secretary, Ootacamund, two days after the murder. The focus has shifted to the investigation and the search is on for the murderers. Tod narrates his experiences on visiting Conolly’s residence after the death. Though he took depositions from the employees at the bungalow, no concrete evidence seems to have emerged. “I took depositions from the servants, peons and who were in the house when the murder was committed but regret to say that very little could be brought to light,” he writes.

The workers were scattered across the house and while all came running hearing Conolly’s cries, none seem to have been in state to nab or identify the attackers. “Our servant and peon who came before the ruffians escaped were severely wounded by them.”

Tod quickly comes to the matter of the evidence. “The most important evidence as yet procured is the discovery on the floor of the room in which the murder took place of a piece of a sword of the kind that is used in the jail and supposed to have been used by one of the prisoners who escaped from the Calicut jail about a month ago,” he writes. Tracing the sword piece to the jail, he says the sword was among the weapons which included pistols that were taken from the guard by the fleeing prisoners.

Simultaneously, the British also receive intelligence on 12 moplahs who wounded a Namboodiri Brahmin in the Koduvally taluk. While one Vasoodevan Namboodiri was injured, the attackers later took up the house of his brother who is also the amshom adhikari, writes Tod. The official writes on the need to gear up a force to tackle the insurgency. This attack proves a distraction to the British and while a force proceeds to the Namboodiri’s house they receive their next intelligence message saying the moplahs have left the house in the night. Since the direction undertaken by them is unclear, Tod writes that the troop is instructed to march back to Calicut.

On the morning of September 14 when he writes the letter, Tod mentions getting other linking clues. It follows the visit of the tahsildhar to the Namboodiri household. The attackers had apparently carried off “382 rupees in jewels and money and two swords, bow and arrows.” He comes to the point soon. They “had left behind a sword with an end broken off and some clothes covered with blood stains but that it was not known in what direction they had gone.” The British immediately piece together the facts. The attackers of Conolly had ventured into the Namboodiri’s house after killing the Collector.

“The fact of the broken sword being discovered … is a strong and importance piece of evidence,” writes Tod. The peculiarity of the sword makes identification easier, according to him. “The shape of the weapon being a peculiar one, not generally in use except by the government servants. The clothes had been washed as if with the intention to efface the stains of blood with which they were covered,” says Tod.

Consequently, the search is accelerated, but Tod warns that the task is not easy. “I have little doubt that the insurgents will ere long be put an end to.” But it is the social impact of the incident that will be hard to erase, he believes. “The dread these men have inspired is so great that I am anything but sanguine of them being captured alive by civil powers.”

Tod also discusses the reward for informers. “I have referred of 1,000 rupees for such information,” he writes. In the file is also a notice to the people of the region. It says “that any person of persons who may give any aid, assistance, information or shelter to the four escaped prisoners who are suspected of the murder of the late Collector and their comrades are if convicted of the same liable to be punished with death.” They are warned against admitting strangers into their house. It does not take the British more than couple of days to get to the men. That of course, makes for another story.

(Source: Regional Archives Kozhikode)

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