Family documents set Al McLeod on the trail of a tragic incident that occurred during the 1921 Malabar Rebellion.

“My dearest little wife,” wrote Stanley Patrick Eaton, manager at Pullangode Rubber Estate, Nilambur (Kerala), at 11.45 a.m. on August 22, 1921. “It is a bad show here. They started this morn to set fire to lots of places.” A few minutes after writing to his wife Winifrid, Eaton was killed by a violent mob that chased him from his bungalow at Pullangode. He was one of the thousands of victims of the Malabar Rebellion of 1921.

Over 85 years later, Eaton’s last letter has come to light. Last September, Winifrid’s grandson, Al McLeod stumbled upon the letter and a few other documents regarding that tragic incident. He got in touch with the current manager, Y. Raghavan, and recently paid a visit to the estate where his grandmother’s husband met his tragic death.

Old documents

“I came across the letter following the death of my father’s sister, Patricia Cranwill McLeod,” said McLeod, who works with an independent children’s charity based in U.K. “Hidden in the attic of her house for nearly 40 years (since the death of my grandmother Winifrid Helen Cranwill McLeod in July 1968) were suitcases of old photographs and letters from her childhood, through her time in India, to later years; a catalogue of her life. Among the documents were photograph albums of Winifrid and Stanley Patrick Eaton’s brief time in South India (1919-1921) and letters written to friends about their life and the events of August 1921, which ended in Stanley’s death. “My Aunt Patricia was, until her death last year, the only surviving child of my grandparents, Winifred and Eric McLeod. My father Iain had died when I was a boy in 1954. This is why all this information from the past had remained with her.”

Among the documents McLeod came across (‘a gold mine of precious information’), is a detailed, well-written account by Winifrid of what happened to her husband. Titled “What Happened?”, it runs into five typed pages. She gives a graphic description of the circumstances that led to the murder of her husband.

Winifrid writes: “When the unrest started the District Commissioner, Mr. Thomas, in Calicut advised the handful of rubber planters in the Nilambur Valley that it might be advisable to get their wives and families up to Ootacamund in case there were any disturbance. That there was every cause to fear just such a happening was amply justified by the reports of religious unrest coming in from the local police posts all around us.”

So Eaton took his wife and her mother, who was staying with them, to his friend Nicoll’s tea estate at Devarashola, Nilgiris. He returned to Pullangode because he had urgent business and was given the “O.K. to go back” by Thomas.

Violence begins

A few hours after he reached the bungalow at Poullangode, he saw smoke coming up from the direction of the rubber factory in the valley, some hundred feet below. That was when he began to write the letter. Winifrid writes: “At this Stanley Pat ordered the boy (chief servant) and the other servants to make off into the jungle above the bungalow while he raced down to the apothecary’s house, which was a little away from our bungalow. There he gave Raman Nair a short letter for me, and helped them to make haste away through several rubber ‘fields’ up hill towards the jungle, which ringed the estate close to the upper fields.

“Then he told Raman Nair to get off and lie low and he would run down hill and make a diversion, and draw the pack on a false trail while Raman Nair and his family and our houseboys got well into the jungle. This they did and eventually reached safety and the letter was duly delivered to me by Raman Nair but, of course, many weeks later, and he told me the course of events until he saw Stanley going down hill again after he saw them on their way to hiding.

“Had his plan matured for himself — which Raman Nair said was to make his way to the next estate of ‘Kerala’ where the Browns lived and to warn them; and for the three men, himself, Charlie Brown and his assistant to get away up the Nadhgani Ghat to safety — come off, all might have been well, but he forgot one small thing and that was that his own estate ranger (or watchman) also a Moplah, had a gun, and it was he — racing up towards the now yelling mob seeking the people from the bungalow — who saw Stanely running toward ‘Kerala’ and shot him in the hip. By that time the vanguard of the fanatical mob were in sight and they closed in on him as he lay helpless and hacked him to bits.”

Winifrid came to know of her husband’s death only several days later at Ooty, where the planters and their wives moved to from Devarashola following the growing alarms, through a newspaper report that said “Planter Murdered; Wife escapes, believed safe in Hills.”

McLeod said he had no hard feelings towards those who were responsible for Eaton’s death. “These things happened a long time ago in a different age... Nobody alive today is to blame,” he said.