RSS Feed

The Conolly’s in British India

Posted by Maddy Labels: , , ,

And their tragic lives

Many have asked me questions about the Conolly family and over the years I had been trying to gather as much of detail as I could find. While I came across a reasonable amount of information on the father and his four sons, it was not really possible to go on any further in time, other than get a confirmation from a line of that family, presently resident in India, Australia and England, that they are indeed connected to the illustrious Conolly's of the 19th century.

Nevertheless it would be a good idea to take a look at the men of that family who lived a good part of their lives in India in the last half of the 18th and the first six decades of the 19th century. It was a family which as is prophetically stated in India, one which carried a curse resulting in the premature deaths of four distinguished Conolly offspring, in India. This is the story of Valentine Conolly the father, and his six sons - Captain Edward Conolly, Captain Arthur Conolly, Captain John Conolly, James Conolly ICS and Lt Henry Valentine Conolly. One of them were killed in action and two of them murdered. Captain Edward of the 6th Bengal Cavalry was killed by a sniper during battle in Afghanistan, October 1841. Captain Arthur Conolly was kept captive till his death and murder at Bokhara in 1842. Captain John Conolly was killed (or died in captivity) at Kabul in 1842, these three brothers perishing in Afghanistan within a year of each other. Henry Valentine was the last of the four brothers who served the British Indian establishment. He had entered the India service in 1824 and was posted to Calicut in 1840-41 only to meet an ill-fated death in 1855. James did well though. Valentine had one other son and a three daughters, but I do not know anything about them and information gathering was tough also because some of the family members spelled their name Connolly, while others used the version Conolly.

Perhaps the curse which the offspring carried on their head had something to do with the way in which their father had profited, from the miseries of his patients, or perhaps it was the Kohinoor curse. And that is a story which needs to be retold.

Valentine Conolly - The recorded story of the Conolly family in India starts with Dr Valentine Conolly, son of William Conolly (Bengal Civil Service), who arrived at Madras around 1788. As records put it, Valentine Conolly was appointed Assistant Surgeon in the Madras Medical Service on 16th June 1788 and a Surgeon on 1st June 1796. He also took part in the Fourth Anglo-Mysore War and was present at the capture of Seringapatam in 1799 and the death of Tipu Sultan, for which he won a medal (which was only recently actioned off in the UK) in the process. As the number of English who went nuts (dolally in British terms – one which I will explain in a separate article for that is a tale by itself) in historic Madras increased, he became the first to institute the premier lunatic asylum of South India sometime in Feb 1793, when he became secretary to the medical board. It was privately owned by him and the forerunner for the asylum in nearby Kilpauk. While he is listed and hyped up as the founder of the first asylum, public opinion of his involvement in this business of running a madhouse is divided between mention of personal profit on the one hand and public benevolence on the other. Anyway, as the story goes, Assistant Surgeon Valentine Conolly, of Fort St. George, saw business sense in the treatment of the mentally unsound and laid before the Madras Government in 1794 'Proposals for Establishing at the Presidency a Hospital for Insane Patients'. The business plan also covered the very important aspect of how ‘extremely beneficial the adoption of it would be to the Community at large by affording Security against the perpetration of those Acts of Violence which had been so frequently committed by unrestrained Lunatics'. So Conolly suggested the establishment of a home for mentally unsound Europeans and Eurasians (not natives) so that ‘those poor creatures’ could be confined to specialized houses and ensure at the same time ‘a good deal of peace and order’ and be rid of such public nuisances as were perpetrated by lunatics’.

He proposed something in the lines of a similar establishment in Calcutta - I purpose then, Sir, and hope my proposal will obtain the sanction of your Patronage, to erect at my own expense a commodious Hospital for the reception of Lunatics, consisting of sixteen separate and airy apartments, with warm and cold baths, and every other necessary out-office: the whole surrounded by a wall of a sufficient height in conformity to the plan which accompanies this address…That Government do take a lease of the House so to be erected for a certain time not less than ten years, at a rent proportionate to the expense that may be incurred in building it and the probable repairs during that period. The premises, for which the government paid a lease for Rs. 825 per month, comprised 45 acres of land rented to Conolly at a nominal quit rent of 51 pagodas per annum, and commenced operations in 1794.

Pending approval by the Court of Directors, Sir Charles Oakeley sanctioned the scheme on condition that the maximum monthly rates payable for each patient should be Pagodas. 30 for an officer, Pagodas. 25 for 'a person not in the Service but coming under the denomination of a Gentleman,' and for non-commissioned officers and privates the amount of their pay and batta. A 45 acre area in Puruswalkam was allocated to him and the madhouse was thus built (close to today’s Kilpauk). The villagers were to be compensated by Conolly for the land and inconvenience. This structure stood at the junction of Pursewaukum High Road with Brick Kiln Road. It was marked 'Lunatic Hospital' in the map of 1816, and 'Lunatic Asylum' in that of 1837. The edifice was eventually demolished when the asylum was transferred to larger premises in Kilpauk.

Madras Asylum 
Only one year after the opening of the asylum the first lunatic was reported to have been restored to sanity and Conolly's skill and attention were positively remarked on. Conolly went on to make a good profit from this venture, but towards the end of the century (around 1795) he felt it was time to retire and move back to England, as a wealthy ‘nabob’. The lease was in the meantime, extended due to its good performance and it passed hands at a price (Rs 26,000) three times the building value to either one J Goldie and perhaps later to Surgeon Maurice Fitzgerald who held charge till 1803 (or the other way around). Dr. Dalton, a later owner rebuilt it and from then on it was called ‘Dalton's Mad Hospital’. When he retired, 54 inmates were being cared for in its premises. As is recorded, all of these gentlemen profited handsomely from the treatment of the insane, and this continued to be so till it was finally decided by the EIC that a private asylum was not quite appropriate (it was due to public opinion and pressure from Britain). Did Conolly carry back a curse from his patients and peers? Perhaps!

The wealthy Valentine Conolly (after having been made a mason at the lodge in the meanwhile) married Matilda, the daughter of Sir William Dunkin (Judge, Bengal) and settled down in London at the turn of the 19th century after a final burst of excitement with his participation in the siege of Seringapatanam of 1799 and collecting a medal for it. His wealth was instrumental in comfortably seeing his five sons through education in prestigious British schools colleges and thus preparing them for promising careers - as military officers and members of the civil service in India. Valentine Conolly passed away in 1819, a few days after his wife expired.

Now it is time to get to know his illustrious sons.

I believe the eldest was Mr. William James Conolly, who arrived as a writer in 1822 and served for the revenue offices at Patna, Gorakhpur, Allahabad, and was appointed as the magistrate, opium agent and collector of Bareilly 1832-36 and later at Sehrunpore. He was later promoted as the commissioner of revenue and then to the Rohilkhand division, Bareilly and finally as an agent to the lieutenant governor in 1842. It appears he retired to the Cape of Good Hope, in 1845. All in all, he appears to have been a very efficient and scrupulous ICS man, but not involved with anything remarkable or dangerous, in his life.

Without doubt, the most famous of his sons (he was the 3rd son) was the devout Arthur Conolly (1807-1842), British Captain of the Indian Army, explorer of Central Asia, and one who penetrated Afghanistan, Khiva and Bokhara several times from 1829 to 1842. He is the man behind the popular usage ‘the great game’ and a pioneer in the intrigues and British attempts to secure control over the khanates of Afghanistan and build a buffer between India and Russia. This once shy youngster who hated his school days at Rugby, and who had failed in love, then sought excitement in the mountains and the arid terrain of the Afghans. He attempted to create a confederation of states in order to resist Russian expansion after the British had been evicted unceremoniously from Kabul. He tried hard to reconcile the three quarreling khanates of Khiva, Bokhara and Khokand but was fated for the worst death ever.

Often travelling in disguise, he used the name "Khan Ali" in a word-play (Con Olly) on his true name. By late 1829, he left Moscow for the Caucasus and Central Asia, arriving in Herat in September 1830 and in India in January 1831. In 1834 he published an account of his trip, which established his reputation as a traveler and writer. In November 1841 he was captured while on a rescue mission to free fellow British officer, Lieutenant Colonel Charles Stoddart, held in Bukhara. The two were executed by the Emir of Bukhara, Nasrullah Khan, on 24 June 1842 or 1843 on charges of spying for the British Empire. They were both beheaded in the square in front of the Ark Fortress in Bukhara. I will retell this macabre story in greater detail, some other day. He wrote a lot - The white-haired Angora goat, Journey to the North of India through Russia, Persia and Afghanistan (2 Vols.) were some of his works. The connection with the Kohinoor merits another article,

Captain Edward Barry Conolly (1808–1840), of the 6th Bengal Cavalry was killed by a sniper during battle in Afghanistan, October 1840. He was killed by a shot from the fort of Tootumdurrah, in the Kohat, north of Kabul, when acting as a volunteer with Sir Robert Sale, in an attack on that place on 29 Sept. 1840. William Kaye records - On the 29th of September, Sale invested the enemy's position. The resistance was very slight. The fire of our guns and the advance of the infantry column soon compelled its evacuation, and the place was speedily in possession of the British troops. The success was complete, and would have been cheaply purchased; but one fell there, who, mourned in anguish of spirit by the Envoy, was lamented by the whole force. Edward Conolly, a lieutenant of cavalry, one of three accomplished and enterprising brothers who had followed the fortunes of their distinguished relative, Sir William Macnaghten, and obtained employment under the British Mission, had on that very morning joined Sale's force as a volunteer. He was acting as aide-de-camp to the General; when, as the column advanced, he was struck down by a shot from the enemy's position. The bullet entered his heart. "My mind was in too disturbed a state all day yesterday," wrote the Envoy on the 1st of October, "to admit of my writing to you. Poor Edward Conolly (Arthur's next brother) has been killed by a dubious hand at a petty fortress in Kohistan. Never did a nobler or a kinder spirit inhabit a human frame. Poor fellow! he was shot through the heart, and I believe he was the only individual on our side killed during the operations of the 29th, when three forts belonging to the chief rebel in the country were taken.

The following papers from his pen and recording his exploring jaunts appeared in the 'Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal;' 'Observations on the Past and Present Condition of Orijein or Uijayana,' vol. vi.; 'Discoveries of Gems from Candahar,' 'Sketch of Physical Geography of Seistan,' 'Notes on the Eusofzye Tribes of Afghanistan,' vol. ix.; 'Journal kept while Travelling in Seistan,' vol. x.; 'On Gems and Coins,' vol. xi.

John Balfour Conolly (d. 1842), lieutenant 20th Bengal native infantry, a cadet of 1833, was afterwards attached to the Kabul embassy. He was involved together with Macnaghten on at three least assassinations, of which two were Meer Musjedee and Abdullah. He died of a fever while a hostage in the Bala Hissar, Cabul, on 7 Aug. 1842. It was his final will and testament that led me to his eldest brother whom nobody had so far mentioned as a family member. I.e. William James Conolly, of Bareilly, in the Presidency of Agra, a member of the Civil Service of the East-India Company, was stated to be the eldest brother of deceased.

The Conolly’s had at least three sisters, Ellen Conolly, being one of them, was married to Francis, the brother of Sir William Hay Macnaghten, the British envoy with Shah Soojah in Afghanistan. Matilda Frances was another. I could not get details of the remaining sister and a less illustrious son, the last also said to have been serving in India. Note here that John Conolly the psychiatric doctor of Madras is not a direct relation to this family.

Now let us spend a bit more of our time on Malabar’s collector Henry Valentine Conolly. Henry Conolly was born on 5 December 1806 to Valentine and Matilda Conolly at 37 Portland Place, London. He was, like his elder brother Arthur Conolly, educated at Rugby School, Warwickshire before moving to Madras, India and become a writer in the Madras Civil Service from 19th May 1824. He then started his next phase of education at the College of Ft St George Madras where he excelled in Indian studies. The June 1826 college reports states – Several weeks previous to the examination, Mr Conolly met with a serious accident, which materially interrupted his studies, and was the occasion of his being examined under great disadvantage; the result has nevertheless been highly satisfactory. In Mahratta, Mr. Conolly has attained a very high degree of proficiency, but his pronunciation of Hindustanee is defective, and he still wants practice in the colloquial use of that tongue. So in 1826, Mr. Conolly and Mr. Gardner were permitted to enter on the duties of the public service and he moved to Bellary for his posting. Varied postings followed, and one was as a cashier in the government bank!

He was the only one to stray south after his father, and was first married in 1831 to Jane, the eldest daughter of W Mooreson, June 24 th.  Unfortunately she passed away in 1835. In 1840 he arrived in Malabar as acting collector officiating in the place of Collector Clementson who went on leave. In 1841 he became the collector and married in 1841 Anne Birch the daughter of Chris Birch. Two sons and a daughter were born to them in Calicut during the period 1842-45. After his murder in 1855, Connolly was survived by wife Anne who returned to England. Some Rs 31,000 collected by way of fines from the Moplah locales was paid to the widow as compensation (she also received a pension). The family in total had four children of which two were sons, one of whom I read was named Edward and who became a lawyer. More details of the family are not available. Anne Elizabeth Conolly (not entirely sure if it is the same as HV’s wife) married a young man named Charles Valentine Smith who it seems was soon arrested and sentenced to prison for bigamy since his first wife was still living.

While we mentioned HVC’s connections to the Moplah insurgency of that period and his involvement in setting up the teak forests of Nilambur as well as the establishment of the Conolly Canal, we did not dwell much on some his other activities. He worked hard to improve the lot of the un-seeable un-touchable Nayadis of Malabar. A Basel mission article mentions this - A humane gentleman, of the name of Conolly, deeply sympathised with the miserable condition of the Nayadis, in the forests beyond Ponani. Mr. Conolly applied to the Basel Mission for assistance, and Missionary Fritz was sent to the chief town of Malabar, and a native catechist stationed among the Nayadis. These poor people rank in the community even below purchased slaves. They live only in the jungle like wild animals, they sleep in the branches of trees, and at the most only build the poorest hut for themsleves. They are looked upon by other branches of the community with the greatest contempt. If a Brahmin comes in their way, they must move off at least sixteen paces; and they must never dare to touch any one of a superior caste. Mr. Conolly formed a plan for drawing some of this degraded class within the bounds of civilisation. He built them houses, set apart some ground for them, and gave them fields to cultivate. The Government after a time relinquished this effort, and the Basel missionaries took it up.

Samuel Heibich the missionary records - Mr. H. V. Conolly was at that time Collector of Malabar; he proved a warm friend of the undertaking, which he supported with all his great influence. He had already been in correspondence with the mission, in the interests of a race called Naiadis—a small tribe, scarcely above the brutes in the scale of civilization. Mr. Conolly felt that the British government was bound to attempt the redemption of these poor savages from their degradation; as, however, he failed in getting the duty recognized and acted upon, he made it his own care, but did not live to see the result of his endeavors.

But he also shook up the British government when he suggested that they employ the lower castes for labor, at a time when they were frowning upon slavery in Malabar and were facing a restless issue of the Shannars in Travancore. A mention in the book Social Legislation of the East India Company: By Nancy Gardner Cassels, goes thus - In response to government requests for suggestions for improving the situation of the slave caste of chermars in Malabar, Conolly observed that inasmuch as Act of 1843 was to all intents and purposes a law for the abolition of slavery in its territory, the government might consider the the employment of emancipated cheramars on public works at the same rate as free laborers and with schools for their children and administered by a native Christian or Moplah (i.e. a person free from caste prejudice).

He was also very much involved in the improvement of the lot at the Laccadive Islands, pushing for a legal system there, helping out with natural disasters and sorting out certain issues involving the Bebee of Arakkal. The referred source as well as P Anima’s article will provide a lot of details to those interested.

HVC tried hard to get a collegiate school sanctioned to Calicut – P Anima writing in Hindu explains - When it came to starting the collegiate high school in the Malabar, there were a few contenders. While Kozhikode was earlier on mentioned as the definite option, two other names surface in later letters — Tellicherry and Cannanore. In a letter written in 1842 written by Conolly and his colleague Strange, they advocate Kozhikode. They write, “Calicut appears more suited for the purpose than either of the stations just named with reference to geographical position, population and importance, the latter of which will be much increased within the next five to six months, by its becoming the headquarters of all the civil establishments.”

After his passing away, two scholarships were instituted for the scholars of Calicut, one of which, designated the Junior Conolly Scholarship, was tenable in the Provincial School, and the other, designated the Senior Conolly Scholarship, was tenable in the Presidency College, and was to be conferred once in three years on the student who may pass first on the list of Malabar students at the university entrance examination. The first examination for the Junior Conolly Scholarship was held in July 1857, when it was awarded to Ramen Nair, a pupil in the Provincial School.

It should have been easy but tracing HV Conolly’s line down any further proved to be too difficult for it is mentioned that he had four children. I did get connected to his great great great granddaughter who lives in England and understood that her sister is the well-known actor and animal welfare/Greenpeace activist Amala Akkineni. Their mother June Conolly is the daughter of Samuel Conolly who served in the 2nd world war at Alexandria. I also got in touch with Vanya Orr of Nilgiris who provided me with copies of correspondence her great grandfather had with Henry Valentine Conolly, on estate matters.

But I cannot leave this without a tail piece. Many famous people were Conolly scholarship beneficiaries, but I have to name one person who was educated at Calicut and benefited from a Conolly scholarship. He was none other than Dewan Seshadri Iyer, the founder of Modern Bangalore. Iyer, a native of Palghat, was a recipient of the scholarship while (1863) at the Provincial school in Calicut. He went on to become the Dewan of Mysore and is credited with the establishment of the Victoria hospital, the glass house in Lalbaugh, the waterworks, the Shivasamudra hydel power unit, the Indian institute of science, the extensions at Basavangudi & Malleswaram to name a few. Shesadripuram is named after him.

So the next time you visit ‘namma ooru’ Bengaluru, spend a moment thinking about Iyer and Conolly….

Madras Lunatic Asylum: A Remarkable History in British India – Saumitra Basu (Indian Journal of History of Science, 51.3 (2016) 478-493)
The Madras Lunatic asylum in the early 19th century – W Ernst (BulI.lnd.lnst. Hist. Med. Vol. XXVIII~19.98 pp13 to 30)
The rise of the European lunatic asylum in colonial India (1750-1858) - Waltraud Ernst (Bull. Ind. Inst. Hist. Med. Vol. XVII. pp. 94-107)
The Anatomy of Madness: Essays in the History of Psychiatry, Volume 3 - Ed William F. Bynum, Roy Porter, Michael Shepherd
Life of the Amir Dost Mohammed Khan of Kabul: By Mohana Lāla (Munshi)
Report on the Laccadive Islands - By W. Robinson, esq.
Activists: Lessons from my Grandparents - Lisa Croft
When the Malabar Collector pitched in strongly for theCanolly Canal


  1. Devasahayam

    The article mentions about a Provisional School started by HV Conolly at Calicut. Which school is this?

  1. Maddy

    Thanks Devasahayam,
    I think it was started in 1854. The provincial school was the name

  1. Calicut Heritage Forum

    Maddy, you have packed so much information into this one post that one has had to read it several times to marvel at your skill in condensing facts without losing the storyline. Conolly was a social reformer first and an administrator next. The story of his seeking to improve the lot of Nayadis can be fully appreciated only by those who have seen their plight even as late as the 1950s. One has seen them begging for food from houses, by making strange noises. They would be served food ( mostly leftover) on big colocasia leaves, if not on plantain leaves. They were supposed to dig a pit in the ground one top of which the leaves with the food will be placed. Even this was served far away from the main house, preferably outside the compound! Conolly perhaps realised that the Hindu community would never agree to the rehabilitation of Nayadis ( their sin, being eating the carcass of dead cattle, which is ironically a prized item on some Malayali menus now!), and therefore handed over the task to Muslim/ Christian brethren. What a visionary!

  1. Maddy

    Thanks CHF
    Some day I will write about the Nayadis. Most people would not know that they were not just untouchable, but unseeable. I recall from my younger days, at Palghat, we would hear a howled out plea for food from an itinerant Nayadi and they always plead in the name of the head of the Tharavad for food. All children were shooed away indoors by the elders, and a bowl of food was placed by the servant which was picked up by the Nayadi who had to hide from sight until then...what a sorry plight they had! Conolly was tehf irst to try and alleviate their plight.