Arthur Rowland Knapp – An unpopular ICS bureaucrat

Posted by Maddy Labels: , ,

The Knappan of Malabar

Knapp is well known in Kerala, not as the person, but more from the connotation 'Knappan' which in colloquial Malayalam slang, means an incompetent man, prone to erroneous or unsuccessful acts, apparently a testament to Knapp’s poor administrative skills. Now how on earth did this person, a knighted civil servant, well decorated and so highly thought of in Britain, later a member of the executive council, get such a reputation? I thought it should be quite interesting to trace out this bloke’s story.

Sir Arthur Rowland Knapp (b. Dec 1871 -1954), the third son of Major Charles Barett Knapp served as the Revenue Member of the Executive Council of the Governor of Madras from 1923 to 1926. He graduated from Christ Church Oxford in 1889 and passed into the ICS (Indian Civil Service) in 1889, thereafter getting an appointment as Assistant collector of Calicut, Malabar. He arrived at Madras in Nov 1891, worked his way through various challenges, got promoted to the Undersecretary to the Madras government and later became a member of the executive council, earning the CSI, KCIE and CBE, along the way.

As a greenhorn, just 20 years old, Arthur Knapp was posted to Malabar as the Assistant Collector and Magistrate at Calicut, at a time when it was all quite difficult in Malabar with the British settling down after taking over the administration from Tipu Sultan and trying to rake in the spoils. The powers of the Zamorin had declined to a mere titular position as well as collecting some taxes from the area, and the EIC was slowly tightening the noose and bilking the area of taxes, raw material and riches, like they were doing, from the rest of the country. While some early administrators such as T Baber were exemplary in their performance and attitude to the locals, others who followed after the British Crown took over from the EIC post the mutiny in 1857, were not quite of the same quality.

With the rule of the land, and the perceptions of Hindu law and matriliny getting eroded on a regular basis, Malabar, part of the Madras presidency, was a turbulent zone. The Moplahs continued to be turbulent and rebellious, while the Pazhassi revolt had been quelled quite some time ago. The people were still confused and worried, their age-old practices getting challenged on a daily basis, and caste segregation was being frowned upon. The old ‘nattu nadappu’ was undergoing a rapid reformation, much to the dislike of the upper classes, while at the same time, the lower castes though somewhat nervous, were waiting on the wings, eager to move up and assimilate. Missionary movement on the edges, as well as the spread of education across classes and castes, was diluting caste polarization.

As I wrote before in my piece about ICS collectors - Many of you would still imagine that these officers had a fascinating time, only people who have lived as expatriates in another country would understand their difficulties and challenges. I am confident that many a reader would have imagined that the life of an officer typically began with his waking up and stretching his hand for his cup of tea held at a ready by his chaprasi, then going about on a morning ride on his magnificent stallion, or his Morris minor or whatever car, taking care of issues along the way, sorting out matters even-handedly, listening to the wah wah’s from the lowly Indian peasant populace, coming back and signing off on land issues and criminal cases, going off to shoot a tiger or deer, or even an elephant, supervise its skinning, having a pint or two and supping at the club as the sun set, and lounging at home and writing his journal or a few poems before a bath, eventually retiring to a camp bed and dreaming of his younger days in the Scottish highlands.

Well, in reality it was far from that and was unflattering, for he had to work with very tight budgets, face disease, survive a rough climate not suited to them, as well as deal with hostile people, so also a large number of corrupt, bureaucratic, opinionated and self-serving superiors who hated the land they had to govern and its people. On top of all that, they were not well rewarded and that is why many were prone to building up their own retirement nest eggs and making hay while the sun shone. Disease and sickness were rampant and quite a few of them succumbed to Malaria and other tropical diseases.

But the case of a collector in the North during the early days of the 19th century would be vastly different –John Beames explains - a hard, active man in boots and breeches, who almost lived in the saddle, worked all day and nearly all night, ate and drank when and where he could, had no family ties to hamper him, and whose whole establishment consisted of a camp bed, an odd table and chair or so and a small box of clothes such as could be slung on a camel. Nevertheless, while life at the outpost was difficult, the posts at the headquarters and presidency secretariats was quite different. This was where bureaucracy was born and perfected. Ridiculous practices re-developed: letters were placed in docket covers and their contents 'summarized' at greater length than the original; documents were printed only to be sent a few yards down the corridor. As we can readily imagine, officers often rose by seniority, family status, connections and relations, rather than by merit. The money earned was not commensurate to living expenses, the officer’s dowry market had declined, the fishing fleet had dried up while a push was on to get more Indians employed in the service.

Many administrators were appointed, they came and went. In 1841 Henry Valentine Connolly, the first of the benevolent administrators of Malabar took charge and did some real good with his teak plantations, water canals and many other related activities. However, as we studied before, his involvement in the Moplah outrages resulted in his getting hacked to a brutal death in 1855. William Logan came in 1869. We traced his story in a previous blog, but what is noteworthy is his seven transfers, perhaps for his forthrightness and refusal to toe the line.

Two collectors who came later deserve singular attention are CA Innes and Knapp. The former prepared the popular gazettes and went on to become the governor of Burma. The second is the ‘knappan’ governor Arthur Rowland Knapp, who left behind the ever-popular usage ‘knapp’ in colloquial Malayalam.

It was said that in his first posting in Malabar at the young age of 21, Knapp set in motion various administrative, policy and police reforms that were at best, quixotic in nature. His efforts were apparently futile, garnering no benefits, despite looking good on paper. The word Knapp-'an' which describes a person who is incompetent and a failure, lives on to this day. Now what was it that he did? Tracing out his early career in Malabar was incredibly difficult, he seems to have been involved with nothing much of importance, nor later on, while posted at Nilgiris - there was nothing mentioned about him until he got to Madras after which of course, as a special administrator, he was deputed back to Malabar during the 1921 Moplah rebellion. So, for all practical purposes, we can assume that his early work in Malabar is not related to the derogatory usage prevalent in Madras. His handling of the 1921 revolt, the train tragedy the prisoners in India and Andamans and of course the destitute after the events were not very well taken by the people and I believe this fetched him that everlasting link to ‘knappism’. Sadly, he was awarded honors for those very postings and actions by the British crown! Let’s take a look.

He served with the Indian Civil Service between 1891 and 1925. A summary follows

Ø  1891 Malabar – Assistant Collector & Magistrate Malabar - Calicut

Ø  1899 Undersecretary Board of Revenue -Madras Govt

Ø  1899 Arthur married Florence Annie Moore, on 9th Aug

Ø  1903 Nilgiris related activities – plantations

Ø  1904 Collector Malabar – Short posting

Ø  1906 Collector Malabar – Short posting

Ø  1905 Margaret- Elfreda Knapp was born

Ø  1907 W Francis takes over as Collector of Malabar

Ø  1907 Back to Madras

Ø  1916 Overseeing the De-brahminization threat

Ø  1919 Award - CBE Commander, Order of the British Empire

Ø  1921 Madras – Malabar special commissioner, Malabar affairs, Martial Law

Ø  1922 Wagon tragedy investigation

Ø  1922 Award - Companion, Order of the Star of India (C.S.I.)

Ø  1923 on Leave 6 months to UK

Ø  1923 Awarded - Knighthood

Ø  1923-26 Executive council Madras

Ø  1924 Award Order of the Indian Empire (K.C.I.E.)

Ø  1925-26 Resigned his Membership of Council & returned to Britain, 1926

Tenure in Calicut, Malabar

We see some reports about revenue collection from Laccadives, and his attempts to resolve their issues related to payment in good quality Muscat rice for coir, institute tree taxes rather than coir tax which was difficult to implement,

In 1905, we can see a mention of him presiding over the Commerce school annual day in Calicut – He, supporting education for the masses said, very properly - In the Vernacular section, the attendance of the Mappilas is striking and is extremely creditable to that portion of the community. In the English section, Brahmins are in preponderance, but the attendance of the other Hindus is poor. It seems to me disappointing that the Nayars and the Tiyyas, who form a large proportion of the educated classes of Malabar, should show little desire to take advantage of the opportunity afforded to them by the school of travelling a little out of the beaten track of the official or professional career. But if this is disappointing, much more so are the statistics relating to Eurasians, to which the Headmaster has rightly called special attention in his report. Only one Eurasian boy attended the school during the year. The Eurasian community is strongly represented in Calicut, and I think I am right in saying that they form a considerable portion of the employees of the more important firms. This being the case, it seems to me strange that they so seldom take the opportunity of training their sons and relatives for the occupation by which they themselves live, and for which they are, I think, in some respects particularly well-suited. I hope this matter will be taken up by the branch of the Eurasian and Anglo-Indian Association recently formed at Calicut, and that it will be found possible to induce the Eurasians to open their eyes to, and take advantage of, the opportunity for practical education which lies at their very doors."

Some noteworthy Knappan acts

De-brahmanisation – Madras Administration

The communal division between Brahmins and non-Brahmins began in the presidency during the late-19th and early-20th century, mainly due to caste prejudices and disproportionate Brahminical representation in government jobs. In 1916, a non-brahmin representation movement started by TM Nair in Madras (I will write about this illustrious gent separately) under the auspices of the Justice party, petitioned the imperial administrative bodies and British politicians demanding more representation for non-Brahmins in government. The Justice Party's foundation marked the culmination of several efforts to establish an organization to represent the non-Brahmins in Madras and is seen as the start of the Dravidian Movement.

This initially came to a head in 1920 and AR Knapp who returned as Chief secretary (he was also taken out for the special duty of arranging and arranging the visit of Sir Connaught) after special duty and a stint at reforms, was tasked with finding a solution and working out reforms. To make the segregation inconspicuous, the term ‘non-brahmin reserved seats’ was to be discussed, as it was in vogue with the Govt of India, though not in Madras. Knapp consulted Sir CP, who chanced by to opine that such a usage signified an artificial arrangement.

Continued support for Brahmins (Southern Brahmin Babus were considered to be relatively more efficient) mainly came from AR Knapp and RA Graham. AR Knapp’s decision to drop that usage and maintain the status quo then, was much appreciated, but I am sure TM Nair, the Justice party and the non-Brahmins a.k.a. Dravidians were quite unsatisfied, perhaps terming that resistance to de-Brahminisation a ‘knappan’ arrangement.  In 1921 he had to acquiesce and compromise, but only after expressing intense dismay. A solution was found only after Knapp was moved out to oversee the rebellion in Malabar in Nov 1921 (his role was taken over by Lionel Davidson).

Madras labor strike, Police reforms

Earlier, in May 1920, A.R. Knapp was tasked to investigate the pay claims of the constables and other low-ranking state policemen. The claims rested on the inadequacy of pay, duty allowances and travelling allowances (batta), non-reimbursement of washing and ironing expenses incurred to keep the white uniforms spotless, corporation charges for water and conservancy, poor housing, unsatisfactory prospects for promotion and many related difficulties. At the end of November 1920, Knapp recommended to the Government a minimum pay of just Rs 18 per month for constables and Rs 26 for head constables, a paltry increase, which the policemen found unacceptable. The net result was that the force continued demands to form a union and so on for many more months. AR Knapp became very unpopular as a result, and his stinginess resulted in yet another Knappism.

1920 Madras Education bill

As an administrator, with a budget to work with, one can understand that Knapp was involved with many unpopular decisions. However, he did quite a bit of good work too, in hindsight, and one such act was the Madras Education bill. This is a really complex topic and all I want to do is just touch upon it. It meant that children’s education, a private family decision and affair was structured around government mandates. Children had to attend elementary school and show a minimum attendance. Elementary education was taken from District Boards and entrusted to Taluk Boards and Municipalities and the power of according recognition to aided elementary schools was transferred from the Education Department to the District Education Councils. In addition, resulting costs had to be paid out of hefty taxes (cess) levied on the common man who was already impoverished. As you can imagine, this would have been really unpopular and considered a Knappism!

Binny Mills strike

This well-reported strike, which lasted from June to October 1921, caused severe losses to the Madras economy and as a result, the Madras authorities adopted a ruthless policy to suppress the agitation. On 29 August 1921, the police opened fire, killing six workers. The strike sputtered and collapsed when a caste split was engineered among the strikers by vested interests. As a result, the Dalits and Christians abstained, and a rift was created in the ruling Justice Party as well. We can see that Knapp was involved in the final resolution of the matter, but I did not see any negative steps from him.

1921 Malabar Rebellion

While it is not possible to cover the complete involvement of AR Knapp in the Moplah revolt or the so-called Malabar Rebellion, in this short article, it must be mentioned that he was the person at the helm of most affairs and decisions, the ‘British political hammer’ responsible to the British -Madras presidency on everything that took place. In theory, all blame for misdirection, heavy-handedness or whatever, from a political point of view, rested with AR Knapp, as the special commissioner for Malabar affairs.

Knapp was dispatched to Malabar in Aug 21 to meet with Collector Thomas, a disturbed individual. Knapp was the one who ordered decisive action at Tirurangadi, through Thomas and ensured the arrest of various leaders. In Sept he was formally appointed as Special commissioner and asked to relocate to Malabar. Though he refused to recommend the implementation of martial law initially, he reserved the right to use it and did support imposition, eventually. As the police and the military worked its way through the cleanup operations, Knapp soon found himself presiding over the wagon tragedy committee while EF Thomas, the collector went on long leave.

1922 Wagon Tragedy investigation committee

In Nov 1921, some 100 prisoners were transported in a closed goods wagon #1711, from Tirur to Bellary, via Podanur. As the ventilating nets had been painted over, the journey resulted in disaster when 70 prisoners suffocated to an agonizing death in the airtight wagon, and no escorting policemen opened the doors until it reached Coimbatore, despite a hue and cry raised by the hapless prisoners, at all stops. An uproar ensured at Malabar and Knapp was ordered to form and head a committee, to investigate.

But when Knapp was appointed to lead the committee, there was a furor in the legislative assembly SC Sahani caustically demanded an answer to how a person responsible for the event could lead its investigation - This was struck down stating that Knapp was being supported by an impartial team comprising Manjeri Rama Iyer, KV Raja, Kalladi Moideen. As expected, Knapp (in spite of the impartial team) produced a whitewashing report absolving everybody, but for the two escort policemen terming it an unfortunate accident. In summary, it said that using such luggage wagons was routine during emergencies, that it could not be properly inspected under the exigency, that the responsibility was with those who (Evans) had not created proper transport regulations, in the first place, that Police Chief Hitchcock had other pressing matters to take care of so he is not directly responsible. They also faulted the Southern railway company for having supplied unsuitable vans and laid specific blame on Sergeant Andrews for not tending to the noisy cries of the hapless prisoners. I am quite sure that this whitewash report was considered the ultimate ‘Knappism’.

Kalpathy incident Palghat 1924

Kalpathy got into the news for wrong reasons during the self-respect movement period 1924-26 when caste rivalries took place in South India. As I mentioned in the Palghat Iyers article - An Ezhava officer was supposedly deputed in 1924 to oversee the chariot festival, and the Brahmins of the agraharam took offense. They contended that the Kalpathy streets are not the King's highway but private property. Arthur Knapp the home member was asked to enquire into the matter. The Samajists complained that if Christians and Moslems could enter such villages, they as Hindus could. When a breach of the peace was anticipated, the Madras government served prohibitory orders on the Samajists during the event. In 1925, some violence occurred when another attempt was made, but eventually, the Samaj movement seems to have fizzled out.

Quoting Rupa - Knapp’s concern appears to be that nothing would be achieved by marching on this thoroughfare save for the very act of doing so: it would serve no “utilitarian or material” purpose. Thereby this was also a statement that the most legitimate kind of right was only one whose exercise led to material betterment. Indeed, Knapp reproved Ezhavars for not “concentrat[ing] on removing restrictions which actually cause material detriment.

Perhaps the Ezhavas considered this a classic case of Knappism, but I will get to this entire story, with a detailed article.

Post 1921 rebellion – Moplahs at Jails, Anadaman

As head of the reconstruction efforts Knapp provided exhaustive reports to Madras, on steps being taken to reconstruct damaged households, buildings, issues with reconversion of the forcibly converted, deportation of prisoners etc. In a way he was the responsible authority over the placement of some 9,000 Moplah prisoners in various jails in Malabar, Bellary and Palayamkottai. We can observe that due to overcrowding, he closed down and moved Moplah adolescents to regular jails and later on proposed the use of Moplah exiles for development works at the Andamans. We can also see that he was quite tough when it came to any early release of prisoners, and continued to insist that there was little distress among the Moplahs after the revolt. This too would have been considered a Knappan act!

So, looking at all these, we can see that his governance was quite perfect in the eyes of the ruling British, so also his authoritarian acts during a rebellion, which helped establish and maintain control, but were very unpopular with the masses thereby ensuring he got tagged with the ‘knappan’ usage. It obviously came from his dealing of the non-Brahmin movement at Madras and eventually the Moplah Rebellion. As we can see, his tenure before the 1920’s hardly attracted any great attention – neither good nor bad. But I could be wrong and if any reader can provide leading information, I’d be obliged.

AR Knapp was back in England in 1926, after serving 35 years in the ICS, and he continued his association with the DOGH (DOGH MacDonnell Gardens, created as a community of homes on the outskirts of Watford, England, for disabled married officers and their families after WW1) as its chairman. Knapp passed away in 1954.

But well, he will be remembered in Malabar as a terrible administrator, as the original ‘knappan’


The making of the Madras working class – D Veeraraghavan
Madras Gazetteer – Malabar – CA Innes
Moplah Train Tragedy – Knapp report
Malabar Reconstruction Scheme – Knapp report
The Indian Annual Register-1922-Vol-II-1923
The Pariah Problem: Caste, Religion, and the Social in Modern India -Rupa Viswanath
Historic Alleys – Related articles - Wagon Tragedy , Palghat Iyer’s, ICS collectors

Photo courtesy NPG, by Walter Stoneman, bromide print, 1936, NPG x168782, © National Portrait Gallery, London - reproduced under license. Do not copy


  1. Calicut Heritage Forum

    Maddy, An interesting post, but you seem to have been a bit unfair to friend Knapp. You have worked very hard indeed to find Knappanism in almost all his actions. Considering that the word 'Knappan' is in use only in Malabar ( to describe a foolish or credulous person) obviously his actions in Madras or elsewhere could not have led to this moniker. Knowing the Eranad Muslim sense of humour, I have no doubt that this was coined by one of them to describe the quixotic measures of Mr. Knapp ( aided generously by the naive Collector Thomas)
    Anyhow, a very entertaining discussion, covering, as usual, a broad canvas. Great writing!

  1. Maddy

    Thanks, CHF.
    I am not sure if I was unfair, for I was indeed focusing on the word knappan and trying to find out potential reasons why Knapp got saddled with the moniker. I am sure he did quite a few good things too, but I concentrated on the bad acts here and summarized a few. Now considering that he got various citations, a knighthood, and awards just after a terrible period, I did point out the gross incongruence.
    Regarding the de-brahmanisation involvement at Madras, this was mentioned only to set the scene for the later issue which reared up in Palghat.
    As an administrator following the rules of the law and the rule book, as well as guidelines to measure efficiency, he may have been strict and matter of fact, but as we saw these resulted in unpopular decisions, flareups and eventually the moniker.
    From this point of view (following the rule book), I agree, I did not accord him the benefit of the doubt. The bureaucrat, I guess, follows the rules, only the politician can water the decision down or strengthen it, based on the ground situation!