The Malabaris of the Kalapani
The TSS Maharaja, a ship built in 1879 was on a slightly different route this time. It went south to Madras, with it usual load of Bengali and Punjabi convicts, together with inanimate provisions and mail loaded from the EIC and the P&T in Calcutta. At Madras, it loaded a motley group of confused souls, clothed in no more than dirty single dhotis and small bundles of belongings. They were mainly the Moplah convicts being moved out of Bellary. These convicts were consigned to the hot lower decks and the onboard jails, where they lounged for a day as the ship cut through the serene blue waters of the Bay of Bengal. The Moplahs were not sure where they were going, rumors were wild, some said Botany bay, some said Singapore, some felt it was Mauritius, many others were sure it was to the black waters – the Kala Pani, a place that had such a sinister reputation as a place of no return. Some of their lot were put in the prisoner cages, while others were asked to sit and lie on the floors or empty bunks. The Maharaja chugged along, the weather held good, heading to the destination - the port between the 92nd and 94th meridian E, and between 6th and 14th North – the penal colony of Port Blair - Andaman and Nicobar islands. Yes, they were headed to the Kala Pani.
|Lower deck accomodations|
|Moplah prisoners - Malabar|
The transfer of settlers started after the British established a colony to secure the eastern seaways in 1789, but due to the difficulties in maintaining it and curbing disease and death, it was closed in 1796. For the next 60 years, it was back to where it was - an isolated island. In 1857, after the sepoy mutiny, it was reopened due to the large numbers of political prisoners and jail overcrowding. After 1858, the events took a swift course, and a penal colony was built with prisoners being dealt with on a 3rd class category or lower and as self sufficient as possible without any drain on the state. Capt Walker and his successors set a stiff pace, which wore down even the strongest of convicts when it came to clearing land and forests and driving the Andamanese out of their meager settlements. But it was not too bad after the initial work, some of the reformed were promoted to 2nd class and allowed to settle outdoors as well, and news trickled back home that it was not too bad. When prisoners now started to opt to go to the Andamans, the administration got alarmed and decided to tighten things up and make it a tougher place to live. That was why the cellular jail was built for the non self supporters, for the worst criminals.
The star fish shaped cellular Jail at Port Blair when completed in 1910 included 698 cells designed based on the madras close prisons, for solitary confinement; each cell measured 4.5 m (15 ft) by 2.7 m (9 ft) with a single ventilation window 3 metres (10 ft) above the floor. The prisoners referred to the Island and its prison as "Kala Pani" (Black waters) mainly due to the remote possibility of return and because of the difficulties in survival. Even those who made it back were wasted by malaria and various other diseases and trauma of isolation and confinement. The tenure included 6 months of solitary confinement, next 4 ½ years of gang labor, five years of paid labor, and the last 10-15 years as a self supporter, setting up his own home (assisted by the state) after which he could return. Women convicts had a three year sentence, after which they could marry locally or return after 15 years or when their husband’s term was completed. The early years were tough for the convicts, mainly political prisoners, they were treated badly by a sadistic overseer named David Barry and their lives were pretty miserable, many regretted that they were born even.
All the convicts were made to carry out hard labor, mainly related to cleaning up the islands and creating new facilities. As you will note, a large number died in this effort, supposedly in the thousands, due to harsh treatment and diseases. It is said that the name, "cellular jail", was derived from solitary cells which prevented any prisoner from communicating with each other as they were all interred in solitary confinement. The lives of the prisoners were manly reconstructed from the letters they sent home, written by themselves or by scribes. I have not been able to access the Moplah letters, though Murali’s blog mentions details of their existence, but I have to make do for now without them.
By 1912, news got out into the newspapers of the inhuman treatment and the prisoners decided to revolt, by going on hunger strikes. Jail reformation started quickly and things started to look a little better. Many women prisoners were brought back, and clothing as well as permission to cook one’s own food was given by 1914-16. It was at this juncture that the Moplah rebellion started and by 1921 many thousands were interred at jails North of Malabar. Again overcrowding of jails meant that many had to be transported, where to but Andaman?
The Moplah rebellion or outbreaks is a long story but I had given a short summary earlier. So let us continue from the Conolly death which I wrote about in detail, and with a time stamp of Sept 15th 1955.
|Maharaja - Lower deck prison cells|
The TSS Maharajah docked at Port Blair and discharged the passengers. It was April 1922. At first sight, it was no different from the weather of Malabar, hot humid and full of greenery. The convicts were not taken aback, but they were yet to see the Cellular jail. Initially the cellular jail housed many convicts from the North and a few Moplahs from earlier Moplah outbreaks as they are termed, but the larger Moplah transfer started after the 1921 riots in Malabar. The stories from the cellular jail are many, but we will concentrate on the people from Malabar who ended up in Andaman and their life thereafter. This article mainly concerns the Moplah convicts sent to Andamans and not really about the others, who have been covered in detail in a few books.
This was a period when a few different types of rebels were transferred to Andaman, there were the Wahabi movement convicts, those convicted of the Rumpa revolt of Andhra and those from the Tharawady rebellion of Burma. The first batch of prisoners consisting of 160 convicts disembarked at Port Blair on 22 April 1922. A very interesting fact is that the very first batch of Moplah prisoners included a Nambudri and four Nairs as well!!
Richards replying Simpson in the British parliament during 1924 stated thus - In July last there were in all 1,235 Moplahs in the Andamans—all in Port Blair. Seventy-two were in the cellular jail, 12 in the adolescent gang, 40 agriculturists and self-supporters, and the rest in convict barracks. There were no special arrangements for segrating Moplahs from association with other convicts. They were treated like others, except that the initial period of cellular confinement was frequently shortened. The Government are willing to settle any who desire to stay, with or without their families; with this object agricultural and other tickets are issued freely, and the families of all who ask for them are sent to the islands at Government expense. Up to July, one family—a wife and four children—had been settled, and the settlement of three more was expected shortly.
In reality, except for the first few lots of Malabar prisoners who had to spend little time at the cellular jail, the others were luckier and had shorter solitary terms. In all about 1133 prisoners were transported from Malabar to Port Blair. By 1926 out of 1,133 Moplah convicts in the Andamans, 379 had been given the status of self- supporters. The British government had meanwhile abolished the penal colony and renamed it as a voluntary settlement. Wives and relatives were provided fares to travel; self supporters were allowed not to wear uniforms. They were also allowed to celebrate festivals, build places for worship etc.
In the first official report, there were 1302 out of which 90 had died, 79 had returned to the mainland, resulting in the 1133 out of which 754 were laboring convicts and 379 self supporters. The figures of Moplahs transported were thus 1133, which increased to 1885 by 1932.
Another report summarized the situation in 1932, thus - The Moplah were a group of 1885 Muslims from Kerala, who had fought in the Malabar rebellion against the colonial regime and Hindu landlords (Dhingra, 2005:161). They were brought to the Andamans for rehabilitation between 1921-6 and settled on agricultural land (Mukhopadhyay, C., 2002: 29). Under the circumstances of their settlement, they were given the possibility to practice their religion and to reconstruct a certain part of cultural traits from their homelands. They still speak a dialect of Malayalam, which, according to some interlocutors, is clearly reminiscent of their region in the 1920s. The Moplah are today the biggest Muslim community in the islands. The deportation began in February 1922 and continued till 1926. According to the census of 1931, there were 1885 Moplahs, of whom 1171 were males and 714 female. According to varying reports, around 2500 persons were deported here. Moplahs, who started as prisoners, planned to stay back even after the expiry of their sentences and brought their families from Kerala. They built villages and contributed their might for the development of these Islands.
The Mappila convicts on the whole are contended and most of them have resigned themselves to their fate, but I think they preferred life in Andamans considering the situation in Malabar then. A prisoner’s letters to his mother reveals that on June 20 1925 twenty-five Moplahs had been sent to Malabar to search for convicts' families which resulted in some 300 family members traveling to Andamans. After all, they were given land and buffaloes to start a new life with as well as occupancy rights, fish and meat rations, and tax relief. Two months later he was writing again to say that four hundred convicts from Bellary, north of Bangalore, had actually applied to be transferred to the Andamans with their families. Thus they settled in villages west of Mount Harrit, creating place names that we started to look at during the start of this article.
Abrahams visit to Port Blair and its impact on Moplah resettlement - Mr EH Abrahams who was appointed as a colonization officer was tasked in 1922 to submit a report on the situation of the Moplahs which he did after his return in Jan 1923. The details of his report can be read in Zubair’s article cited under references. It explains how he managed to get them work under the forest department and how allowances and promotions were arranged for hard workers. I have not been able to access the full report myself.
By 1926, over 468 had become self settlers, but the conditions were not really conducive for their well being and subsidies were not sufficifinet for growth. A fact finding mission as sent in 1925 to investigate. The first three were in agreement with the original assessment. However the second comprised a leading doctor from Calicut, the Parsi doctor KK Mugaseth. He was in favor of the system as existing and his contention was accepted by the British. However more Moplah convicts from the mainland jails did not move to Andaman in search of better living prospects
The southern part of the South Andaman was thus colonized, mainly by settling self-supporting convicts there. Soon many more Moplah convicts were directly classified into the 2nd class category and termed self supporters. However things took a turn for the worse in the cellular jails where strikes were resorted to, but things stabilized by 1939. But the whole structure and situation changed with the start of the 2nd world war and the entry of Japan by 1941 into it. Port Blair was bombed in 1942 and the British evacuated themselves in March 1942. By now there were a total of 6,000 convicts and about 12,000 local born population. The Japanese were good at the start, releasing all prisoners and stating that nobody had anything to fear. Things changed during the next few years and many Indians were tortured and butchered by the Japanese (to reduce headcount and maintain food reserves for themselves), a story that I will cover in a later day, for Operation Baldhead is an interesting story. In 1943 NSC Bose came to Port Blair, went to the cellular jail, but did not meet the local populace. Despite all that the killing of Indians suspected of supporting the British continued in large numbers.
Nevertheless, over time, the Moplahs settled down and form a major part of the Andaman populace, some remembering their legacy, others choosing not to. Perhaps they are right for it was a chapter to forget, a time when religion and agrarian struggles came together to foment a revolt, a rebellion of sorts that killed a lot of innocent people and resulted in the loss of homes for many, and their transfer to new homes so far away…
Strictly speaking Andamans is still talked about as a penal settlement extending the anti imperialistic struggles of the Indians, but as Strange puts it, those were only about 500 such political convicts. Many of them returned to India subsequently. The many thousand ordinary convicts which included the Moplah convicts were later settlers, and they were those who toiled through difficult conditions to later created these beautiful islands we know today. They have all been forgotten in the nationalistic fervor and are hardly mentioned except in passing, in history texts.
Isolation: Places and Practices of Exclusion - C. Strange
Mappila mulsims of Lkerala – Roland E Miller
Kalapani – LP Mathur
The Andaman & Nicobar Islands Gazateer – Kiran Dhingra
Further reading – Zubair Ahmed’s articles
A man frozen in time
Moplahs in 1922
The complete story - For those who want to know it all
The TSS Maharaja
The story of the TSS Maharaja that took the convicts is equally interesting. Studying the records of the owners Asiatic Steam navigation, it states that in 1925 the company returned to its pre war strength when they took delivery of other ships and two years later another Maharaja -II relieved her namesake on the Andaman mail run, the original ship was first renamed Maharani in 1926, then was sold to Japanese owners Machidi Shokai in 1927, renamed as Zuisho Maru, later the ship again changed hands, passing through Macao and Hong Kong owners, before being owned by the Japanese government and was eventually sunk by a US submarine USS Ray SS271 in August 1944 off the Borneo Ryuku Islands.
Ironic isn’t it?
Pics - from the net, many thanks to the uploaders..... TSS maharaja pics from merchant navy officers site - Source: Acknowledgement: W. Laxon & World Ship Society