RH Hitchcock, the individual  

Posted in

In the 20’s, after a troubled period with cries of Khilafat, freedom, Gandhi and so on, a large number of misguided attacks took place on both (religious) sides of a divided Malabar. During this phase, a person held the unenviable position of being the most hated and feared Englishman in power. That was Richard Howard Hitchcock, the district superintendent of police, Malabar. While his confidential accounts covering those troubled days are reference material for today’s historian dealing with the Moplah revolts, his life and times are hardly known to the lay Malayali. In fact other contemporary writers like Gangadhara Menon, Brahmadattan Nambudiri, Gopalan Nair, Tottenham, AR Knapp etc mention him briefly with references to his role in the matter, but hardly as an individual of flesh and blood.  The only place where he is described without rancor is the Malabar Special Police website, that too in the briefest terms.

I decided to pick up this individual today because I read the other day that the medals and effects of Hitchcock were under auction (asking price £1400-£1800) in England, though it is not clear if somebody picked them up. Anyway, it is close to a hundred years since Richard came to Malabar. He may have been iron fisted; he may have been cruel, he may have been following orders from the Military who were in control, so as to maintain law and order. Whatever said and done, he ended up as part of Malabar history and did add his own thread, good or bad to the fabric of Malabar. Interestingly, nobody has covered his character so far, I wondered why, when a number of Englishmen of his period, good, bad and terrible have been talked about and analyzed at will! So without further ado, let’s see what we can unearth about him from those musty old archives. I do not promise an extensive study, but just a brief caricature based on little data that I could unearth.
Richard Howard Hitchcock - that was his full name. He hailed from the East Midlands area of Britain, bordering South Yorkshire. The fella was born on 12 March 1884 at Basford - Nottinghamshire, but grew up in Fordwich in Kent. His father Richard happened to be a Rector of Fordwich for many years and as the auction notice indicates, there is a window commemorating the father’s memory in the parish church. RH was educated at King's School Canterbury, 1894-1903, had been termed academically bright, and he sat for the competitive examination to join the Imperial Indian Police coming ‘first’ in the results. As an indication of the times, a position in British India was coveted and competition was severe. Compared to Sandhurst where 200 places were annually available, only 15-20 places were available per year for entry into the Indian Police. Hitchcock got into the Indian police in 1903 and was posted to Bengal. But he was to soon find himself in the balmy, hot and rainy land of spices, Malabar. Well, his staid life was soon spiced up, as we know….

We see that he had been around in Malabar since the first days of the revolt, for in 1916 he was awarded the Kings Police Medal for heading off an uprising by the Mapillas. What was that about? We know that in 1915, KP Kesava Menon returned from England to take up the INC leadership and lead the home rule movement. We know also that the Malabar Tenancy association was formed and the tenant leaders took control of the INC. So that was the start of the organized agitation and Annie Besant had participated in the Palghat conference. But what did Hitchcock do to get a medal? The Moplah’s at that time apparently believed a rumor that the British were losing the war and that Turks and Germans were coming to liberate them. Also at that point of time a Tiya boy who was converted, got reconverted to Hinduism though that was not the cause for what happened next.  Well as it transpired, CA Innes the collector was attacked by five people. It failed and they took refuge in a temple near Alanellur only to be shot dead in a Special Police Force Police retaliation. Hitchcock was involved in the quick suppression and resolution (The special police force MSP1 was originally formed under HV Conolly in 1884). In addition two youths committed arson, pillage and murder at Pandalur and they were quickly hanged, but all this resulted in loss of public support for the British. So it is clear that he was in Malabar from the second decade of the 20th century and as Intelligence chief, had collected much information on the trouble makers.
We then see that he was involved in recruiting officers for the English army from Malabar, around 1915. RH employed Malayali officers to recruit a huge number of high quality men for the British army, topping the presidency polls and was able to repeat the feat even during the rebellion, with people from both the Hindu and Muslim sides. In the final year of the Great War, Hitchcock was seconded to the Army and granted the temporary rank of Captain. The LG March 1918 states that as of Oct 17th he was awarded the rank of captain but without the pay and allowances of that rank. He then helped raise the 2/73 Malabar Battalion at Cannanore for which he was awarded the M.B.E. in 1919.

By 1919 the war had ended, there was a usual amount of robbery and unrest in South Malabar, Ernad and Valluvanad areas. The Zamorin, my great grandpa had passed on, and the new Zamorin was in place. My grandfather on my mother’s side had returned from the war…Jobs were scarce, timber prices had fallen, the Moplah population had risen, and life was not looking too rosy.
The Khilafat movement in Malabar (we will detail this another day) was the next trigger in 1921, when all kinds of wild rumors that Afghans were on the way (offshoot of a comment by Gandhi about foreign invasion being welcomed) to liberate their wretched lives and help them get land, started a frenzy.

At the end of April came the two Conferences, at Calicut and Ottapalam. A lot of talk resulted from the latter about the collision between the Police and some Khilafat volunteers at Ottapalam which led up to the filing of a civil libel suit by Mr. Hitchcock against the five authors of the non-official report and the Hindu. The sub-Judge, Calicut, decided it in favour of Mr. Hitchcock, the defendants being ordered to pay Rs 30,000 damages to him. The Judge recorded a finding that the assault was committed by the men of the Special Force and that, to that extent the facts stated in the report are true," but the charge of conspiracy was groundless.
Soon he was to be involved in what was according to the historian Charles Townshend, ‘the most serious insurrection since the mutiny of 1857 or the Malabar Rebellion, a.k.a. Moplah revolt.

Khilafat-Non-cooperation meetings were held with increasing frequency, and these were sometimes accompanied by incidents of violence. Some incidents were resulting from the picketing of toddy-shops, a part of the non-cooperation campaign that particularly appealed to Muslim sentiment. There were stories, too, that in anticipation of Swaraj, Khilafat leaders had already parceled out the land among poor Mappillas and were only awaiting the movement to take actual possession.
Hitchcock sneered at all this - It was 'pure mockery,' Hitchcock wrote, to deck the excitable Mappilla 'in the garb of a soldier and yet tell him that he should attain his aims by spinning!!

He was a sharp guy indeed for he quickly identified the methods used by the Moplah’s for communication. He said - Perhaps far more important than the network of the Khilafat movement, however, was the traditional system of communications among the Mappillas, something which constituted a major difference between the Hindu and Mappilla. The few bazaars that exist are entirely Mappilla and most Mappillas do congregate at least once a week for Friday prayers and often at other times in Mosques. They can therefore form some kind of a public opinion of their own and combine but the fact that this is done under the cover of religion makes it difficult for Hindu or European even to become aware of it. Except at very occasional festivals the Hindus have no such opportunity of meeting.
This was to become a source of all kinds of problems. Hitchcock focused time and again on this problem, the mosque as a source of news and motivation. It was to play havoc in the minds of the Moplah, who was led to believe that their religion was under attack, while Hitchcock was trying to stop the flow of orders to revolt and jihad and bring about peace.

In the autumn of 1921, the revolt boiled over. Late July, I92I, in the village of Pukkottur north of Malappuram in Ernad taluk, a dispute arose between the Nilambur Raja and a Mappilla active in the Khilafat movement. Tension grew in the village, and on August 1, drums began to beat in the mosques of the area, and in the course of the day, several thousand Mappillas shouting war cries, had gathered in Pukkottur before the palace gates. The district collector EF Thomas said - 'the crowd was heard to express a desire or determination to add the heads of Mr. Hitchcock and myself to the bag.' As you can see, Hitchcock was by now already identified as the face of the British retaliation, for he had provided information and local police support to precipitate the actions and was always at the head of the physical force that confronted them, fielding European and Malyali constables to beat them up.
Accordingly Thomas reported to the Governor of Madras that the Moplahs were organizing a resistance using force and that it will not be possible for the police to quell the unrest. He requested a battalion of infantry for support together with two companies of British troops. ET Humphreys of the Leinsters regiment came in August and was soon joined by other officers such as CG Tottenham and AR Knapp. They decided to act at Tirurangadi and arrest 24 or so identified persons in connection with the unrest. By this time, Mohammed Haji was proclaimed the Caliph of the Moplah Khilafat and flags of Islamic Caliphate were raised and Khilafat kingdoms declared. Martial law was not introduced until three weeks after the rising began, and then in such a diluted form that the civil authorities retained much of the responsibility for its suppression and the restoration of government control. The commander of the Madras Military District, General Burnett-Stuart, had under his command a British cavalry regiment, a brigade of Field Artillery, two British battalions, including 2nd Dorsets and seven Indian battalions (including a battalion of Pioneers), and a company of the Madras Sappers and Miners. Malabar.

Though the police went into a secondary role as soon as the military took over, their conduct was not exemplary. As later enquires revealed, many of them took advantage and TK Madhava Menon the police inspector was dismissed. Neelakantan Nair was found to be extorting people as well and thrown out. As they all reported to Hitchcock, he was culpable.
His moves against mosques and the Khilafat flag have been cited as the very reasons for subsequent armed revolt, whatever be the underlying reasons agrarian or religious motivation by Syed fazil’s exhortations. Nevertheless we do find evidence in the many documents that first Thomas and later Evans vacillated often and this resulted in large losses of life and a bloody revolt. But we will study this separately when we get to the analysis of the revolt itself and its many after effects. Hitchcock was the British instrument, the person involved in collecting field and inside information as the head of the CID and also partially responsible to suppress counter insurgency, which he did effectively, looking at it from the British angle, for within 6 months, law and order had been implemented and a sullen peace was restored.

Hitchcock had during the revolt spearhead the formation of the regular MSP and clarified the reasoning - the extent of the rebellion and the spirit of the rebels soon made it obvious that a force would be required to maintain peace after the rebellion and the value of such a force would depend on the experience it might have in the present rebellion.
Hitchcock organized a new Police force on the model of the British Army and this came into existence on 30th September 1921 as Malabar Special Police-2. Hitchcock himself was the first Commandant of M.S.P. In 1932 the strength of the force was increased to 16 companies. Thus 300 extra police were added, 12 Indian officers, and 30 NCO’s. By October all had been trained, armed and ready for field operations. The force then comprised fully of Hindus and Christians from the Ernad and Valluvanad areas, some from Calicut. Hitchcock also makes it clear that this firmly dispelled the notion that Hindus would stay away from such action and were cowardly in hostile situations. Soon enough this was increased to 600 following William Vincent’s visit and they were owing to Tottenham’s efforts - in place by Jan 1922. The M.S.P. was equipped with magazine Lee-Enfields because the single-shot Martini Henry rifles of the Malappuram Specials had been disastrously ineffective against the Moplahs. Towards the end of the rising each company was supplied with two Lewis guns to increase its fire power. Recruitment of the first three M.S.P. companies (almost entirely from recently demobilized Malayali sepoys) was very rapid and by November I92I they were in action) following behind army thrusts into Moplah territory and tracking down isolated guerrilla bands.

Underlying the development of the MSP as a striking force was the belief prevalent in government and army circles that the Malayalis of the west coast were the finest fighting material in the presidency and were in great demand to stiffen Tamil and Telugu forces.
If you were to dispassionately read the reports of Hitcock, you will realize the seriousness in which they were written, and though many say this was very biased, does remain an account recorded with little malice or partiality. He holds the people he dealt with, both Muslims and Hindus in the right level of respect though often viewing them from a higher plane, wearing glasses with a British tint. He has done a serious amount of introspection and analysis and I would at no time call him a fanatical suppressor of the people involved and one who acted with utter contempt of the masses, like Gen Dyer at Jalianwala Bagh. In fact I found him as a man who did his job, ruthlessly, clinically and well, perhaps with a “Himmler bent”. But it is a matter widely known that the smooth working of martial law was largely due to Messrs Evans and Hitchcock.

A British report explains - It has already been noted that the special police working under the Martial Law commander gave a very good account of themselves. Its company commanders were C.G.Tottenham, l.M.Farser, King Colebrook, Charsley and Bayzand. Elliot and Bishop also worked with the troops during the martial law period, but the services of Mr Hitchcock stood apart as altogether exceptional. With his unique local knowledge and splendid devotion to duty, he might be truly said to have been the mainspring of the suppression of the rebellion both as the Chief Intelligence officer of the martial Law Commander and as the superintendent of Police after the abrogation of the martial law. The magnitude of the devastation caused by the rebellion can be seen from the fact that, during its progress, 19 Police stations had been sacked, 8 revenue officers including sub treasuries looted, 10 sub registrar’s offices destroyed and 16 post-offices pillaged. The destruction of village office, travelers’ bungalows and bridges was terrific. Railway lines and stations also did not escape the hands of rebels.
But then those were turbulent times and it is not really possible to be impartial in a period of Martial law. Everybody had cross purposes. Today when we see the revolt through words, it is not possible to realize the pain, suffering, fear, revulsion and so on that the witnesses and participants went through. So from that angle, Hitchcock was at the inflicting end and the only one seen by the masses, leading the armed constabulary. And that resulted in him getting the brunt of the blame.

In November 1921 Hitchcock was involved in the 'Moplah Train Tragedy'. Hitchcock was the police officer who ordered the transportation of Moplah prisoners in an enclosed wagon, during which 70 prisoners died in a terrible fashion. The subsequent enquiry found that the deaths were due to a defect of the van (painted mesh which prevented air from coming in) but also that that Hitchcock and Evans (the civilian in joint charge of the operation) failed to exercise proper supervision of the vans containing the prisoners. Police and railway officials of lesser rank were found guilty of culpable negligence.  
However it should also be noted that Sgt Andrews had previous experience in this kind of transportation and had transported 112 people once in a luggage wagon without problems. In this case the air vents were painted over and that was the reason for the deaths. Nevertheless the escorts should have taken care of the prisoners and their wellbeing, in general terms. That one event destroyed his name, in posterity.

Mr.  Hitchcock's Responsibility as concluded by the Knapp report.
We have considered whether some part of the indirect responsibility would fall on Mr. Hitchcock, It is not certain that he was present at the first selection of a van, but we have it on his own statement that he did witness and take part in the despatch of prisoners on September 3 and saw no reason to object to the arrangements made. The actual care of prisoners during their journey and responsibility for their safe delivery at their destination lay upon the Police and to this extent at least it was for Mr. Hitchcock to see that the arrangements made for their transport wore safe and satisfactory. But the obscurity arising from the Martial Law arrangements is again found here, for Mr. Hitchcock and his force were themselves under the orders of the Military Commander, We shall not, however, labour this technical point. Mr. Hitchcock having been continuously employed from the beginning of September with the troops in active warfare with the rebels, it would be unreasonable to expect that he would have had time or opportunity to give personal attention to the local arrangements at Tirur.

After he left, a Hitchcock Memorial was erected at Mongam – Evans outlived him and oversaw the inauguration of the memorial. The police training college was named the Hitchcock Police School, Malappuram.  The memorial statue in Malappuram was removed after popular protest after 1936.
It looks like he moved to Salem in Coimbatore district as DIG. Not much more is known about him as a person and no accounts can be seen of a family with him or outliving him. We note that he was a keen hockey player at Calicut and played for the ‘Early closers’. We also note that during the latter half of July, at a very critical juncture, Mr Hitchcock was not in the Calicut district, but at Coonoor undergoing treatment for dog-bite.

In June 1922 he was awarded the C.l.E and was also made a Member of the British Empire. Hitchcock eventually died of a perforated ulcer on 31 August 1926, aged 42 years, whilst on home leave in Tunbridge Wells. A memorial was erected to his memory at Vizagapatum.
After the rebellion, the Malabar Special Police was not allowed to rest on its laurels. Its fame as experts in guerilla warfare spread. When a similar rebellion broke out in the Gudem Hills in the Vizagapatam Agency, the local reserves could not make any headway and the Government wisely thought of utilizing the Malabar Special to put down the insurrection in preference to a martial-law administration.

References
Mappila Muslims of Kerala – Roland E Miller
The Moplah rebellion and its genesis – Conrad Wood
The Mappilla Rebellion, 1921: Peasant Revolt in Malabar: Robert L. Hardgrave, Jr.
The Mappilla Outbreaks: Ideology and Social Conflict in Nineteenth-Century Kerala Stephen F. Dale
The Moplah Rebellion 1921 – C Gopalan Nair
Khilafat Smaranakal- Brahmadattan Nambudiri
Jividhakatha –Moyarath Sankaran Nambiar
Malabar Kalapam – Madhavan nair
MP Narayana Menon – MPS Menon
Peasant revolt in Malabar: a history of the Malabar rebellion, 1921– RH Hitchcock
See Historic alleys – Wagon tragedy articles 1 and 2