The Moplah Resettlement at Andaman

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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.

TSS Maharaja

It was here that many of these people from Malabar’s Ernad areas would continue their lives to create towns named after places they came from, places such as Calicut, Wandoor, Mannarghat, Tirur and Manjery. Today there is no Calicut except in history books as well as in the minds of older people like us, for as far as mainland India is concerned, Calicut has formally been changed to Kozhikode… So perhaps only one Calicut exists on the world map today, apparently in the Indian union territory of South Andaman islands, around 20km north of Port Blair!!

Lower deck accomodations
We are now at Andaman & Nicobar Islands, where in ancient epics, it is mentioned Hanumanji took a breather during his leap across to Lanka from the abode of Sugriva and his tribe. In fact the name Andaman, is associated with Handuman or hanuman… the Andamans – is a series of scenic tropical islands mentioned by early travelers and writers such as Sulaiman, Buzurg and Ptolemy, later by Marco Polo, an abode to naked man eaters in their mind, now a vast archipelago of 572 islands in the Bay of Bengal. It is a popular tourist destination these days, but once upon a time, it was also a home for political prisoners, for rebels and a place abhorred by the occupants, where many were wasted by disease. That was kalapani..a place from where there was no return…A penal colony established by the British late in the 18th century, briefly occupied by the Japanese, where Bose made a visit to unfurl an INA flag, before finally forming part of the Indian union. It hides many stories and mysteries, and is also home to a Moplah community who were displaced from Ernad and replaced there. These were the people who elected to remain in the Kalapani, people who still talk in the old Moplah dialect of Malayalam, somewhat frozen in time…

Moplah prisoners - Malabar
The story of the movement of people to Andaman is a sad and cruel one; especially the initial century of its existence, as Andaman was to serve as the English Penal colony for Indians who acted against them. The English had chosen isolation to be a part of incarceration and in early days many a white convict was transported to Australia. As far as the Indians were concerned, the Andaman islands and the Hijli camp (near Kharagpur) were particularly infamous and followed the earlier days when they were sent to Singapore and a few other places like Botany bay in Australia, where they were tasked with clean up as well as hard labor (some even say that ‘klings’ is a derogatory usage for Indians that came from that period due to the sound of the chains that Indian convicts wore). Interestingly, the aspect of isolation was arrived at as people abhorred the prospect of back breaking labor in faraway places from which there was no return (for lifers), especially in the case of Hindu middle class caste conscious political prisoners not used to work or doing things like crossing the black waters or Kala Pani, against the tenets of early religious texts (see my article on ocean crossing taboo).

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 British reaction was forceful and with a firm intent to stop the Moplah problem. Collector Clarke was clear about taking strong handed action. The emergency act was applied and many prisoners were taken, many died, many were sent to other prison camps like Cannanore and Bellary. Some were released, some languished and a few were transported to Andamans and places like Botany Bay – Australia. Heavy fines were imposed on them and their villages as well. Slowly the land tried a return to the pre Mysorean situation. Finally things boiled over, post Khilafat movement in 1921 (a subject that is better explained in many books on the subject) and major outbreaks, also classified as rebellions, took place in Malabar. The British retaliation was severe. Some 252 were executed; many lost their lives in the rioting and close to 4500 were imprisoned at Bellary. But there were facilities for only 1500 in that camp and as a result, a decision was taken (Hitchcock seems to have promoted the idea) to transfer a good number to Andamans. In addition a final solution or the Mappila scheme was planned to transport even more Moplahs to Andaman, but due to fierce resistance by the Indian national congress, the plan was dropped in 1925.

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


  1. Anonymous

    Wonderful article. Reminds me of the movie Kalapani in malayalam. David Barry was quite a terror in that.

  1. drtejnaik

    interesting article... m curious 2 knw the reason for the following -"A very interesting fact is that the very first batch of Moplah prisoners included a Nambudri and four Nairs as well"

  1. AA

    Very cool stuff. Thanks for writing these.

    A chennai born Tiruvalla/Thalasherry mallu, from Richmond VA.

  1. Maddy

    Thanks Nidheesh..
    Andamans had an interesting role in those days, some more stories on the way

  1. Maddy

    Thanks drtejnaik..
    I have been working on that story, I think I know about most of those, but one of them is proving to be a mystery..
    more on it in a separate blog

  1. Maddy

    Thanks AA
    glad you are enjoying it..

  1. P.N. Subramanian

    Very interesting post. I was also wondering about the Namputhiri and Nairs and calmed myself down prsuming that thy could have been perceived to have instigated the Moplahs.

  1. Maddy

    hello drtejnaik..

    There is a slight error here. During the Moplah rebellion, the first arrests included a nambudri and 4 nairs, who were sentenced for transportation. Detailed study showed that most of them escaped subsequent transportation and spent their years in Cannanore, Calicut, Madras, Coimbatore or Bellary.
    Some of the people are well known, Brahmadattan Nambudiri, Elaya Unni Nayar, MP Narayana menon, Kesavan Nair & Kelu Nair.

  1. Maddy

    no PNS, you are wrong here..
    Brahmasdattan nambudri's & MPN menon's story is interesting, i will cover it another day.

  1. ashraf

    Anybody Having the mapila list deported from Kerala to Andaman