History When the British gathered their military might and tapped local informers to get to Conolly’s attackers
(A weekly column on the region’s past culled from historical documents.)
The British, though taken aback by the murder of H.V. Conolly, waste no time in bouncing back. Conolly was killed at his home in the evening of September 11, 1885, and it takes the British just about five days to get to the assassins. What happens in the meanwhile is a combing operation of the most efficient kind. They tap the skills of the locals and create a multi-levelled information gathering system. The days were also marked by hectic administrative activities. Letters flew in thick and fast.
The letters dispatched in the days following the murder document the progress in getting to the attackers. In the early letters, the British hardly have anything to cheer about. C. Collett, the Sub Collector, writes a series of letters to T. Pycroft, the Chief Secretary — almost one every day. Collett writes from Manjeri where he stays put and where the attackers were finally killed. On September 14, he writes that though they have received no information of value, “the hope is that the assassins would surface here.”
Tracing the causes
In the meanwhile, Collett wonders about the motive of the murder. “The escaped convicts (if indeed they were the murderers) had no personal grudge against him (Conolly),” he writes. He believes the attackers were mere executers and there was a network of people involved in planning it. He drives in the point that the murder was instigated. “They lived at a distance from Calicut and must at least have been sheltered in the neighbourhood of Calicut. Further, the manner in which these men have been moving about in the country and no information given to the authorities is very unsatisfactory,” he writes.
Since the men could move faster than the troops, Collett suggests getting the troops ready. They expected the men to be nabbed at areas that included Ernad, Valluvanad, Shernad and Betutnad taluks of yore.
Collett suggests moving in the troops from Palghat and stationing them at Pattamby, from where the troops could easily move towards all part of the country.
To lure local information he also suggests a new set of rewards including that of Rs. 300 for each attacker found alive. Collett’s letter of September 15 says — “not succeeded in procuring any trace of the Moplahs.” Collett is uneasy for he believes the delay in nabbing them will give “further opportunities for doing mischief.”
Collett also describes the kind of a civilian army he has raised for the purpose. “I have sent out in every direction organised parties consisting of armed peons and villagers. Officers of the police are the heads of these,” he writes. He also organises the local strong men to lead teams thus tapping their influence. Such groups should be made, writes Collett, “in Calicut, Croombinaad and Wynad taluks adjacent to where the insurgents have already shown themselves.”
Collett also takes care not to let this incident grow into movement against the Moplah community. He writes, “I feel sure that the Moplahs as a caste regarded Mr. Conolly as their best friend who supported their interest against the old official superiority of the Nairs.”
Collett’s letter on September 16, again written from Manjeri, bears some good news for the English. He writes, “Men, five in number, having seen yesterday in a jungle two or three miles from here.” This time also marks a period of confusion for the British administration as information, some of those contradictory, flows in from all directions. A day later, Collett receives another letter from Tamarassery where they claim to have spotted the attackers. But at the same time, on September 17, we find unclear notes in the file, which talk about the “destruction” of the five Moplahs.
A confirmation to what happened on September 17 comes much later in the letter from Ootacamund from the Chief Secretary dated September 19. It states, “The five Moplahs had all been destroyed at Morar near Manjery on the evening of that day by a force consisting of a part of No.5 Company and a detachment of the Malabar Police Corps.” Though the British wished to nab some of them alive, it was not to be.
Imposing the Act
Just before the intimation about the death of the attackers reach the headquarters, they issue a notification imposing Act 23 of 1854 in the region. According to the Act strict action could be taken, including forfeiting property and stringent punishment under law, against those who assist the attackers in any way.
Despite the death of Conolly’s killers, the Chief Secretary announces that the Act will continue to prevail in the region. “The Act will continue until the motives which led to the perpetrators of the late barbarous murder have been thoroughly explored.” He wanted all those who were privy to or participated in the act indirectly to be punished, so that and “the recurrence of so vile a deed effectively prevented.”
But what draws our intention is his observation following the death of the attackers. He fears whether time will glorify them and writes, “You have of course taken precaution by burning the bodies of the Moplahs or burying them within the precincts of the jail or other similar locality against their remains becoming an object of veneration…”
(Source: Regional Archives Kozhikode)
Keywords: H.V. Conolly