A Viceroy’s Assassination that served No Purpose


Richard Southwell Bourke was a travel fiend. The Sixth Earl of Mayo spent three years in India as the Viceroy of the Crown and covered almost 20000 miles on foot, horseback, trains, bullock carts, boats and ships. No location was too remote for him, no journey not worth undertaking. Be it the call of duty, or the promise of adventure, or even travel for the sake of it, Lord Mayo was always up and raring. He could sleep in bullock carts, wade through marshes and climb mountains to get the idea of relief. He was a keen horseman and an adapt foxhunter. In early 1872, Lord Mayo travelled to British Burma, and from there sailed to Port Blair, the penal colony of the Raj.

It was in the Andamans that Time was waiting to cut short the earthly sojourn of this energetic administrator and keen adventurer. An assassin, five feet ten inches tall, lay hidden behind rocks, a long-bladed iron kitchen knife in hand, and blackness in his heart. Sher Ali Afridi was a 25 years old ex-cop from Punjab Police, who had served as a cavalry trooper and a mounted orderly in Peshawar. He was serving life imprisonment at Kalapani, and harboured deep-seated grievances against the British, who he felt had been too harsh upon him, despite him proving to be a loyal servant of the white man. Sher Ali had been convicted for killing one of his relatives in broad daylight. Since this act was just another episode in a running family feud, the perpetrator refused to acknowledge it as a crime, and felt hard done in by the British jurisprudence. He had served in Rohilkhand and Oudh during the Revolt of 1857, and was so popular among the Europeans because of his honesty and amiable nature that he was awarded a horse, pistol and certificate, and even deployed to take care of the children of a senior officer. Even in jail, he was allowed to play his trade as a barber.

On the fateful day, that is February the Eighth, 1872, Lord Mayo finished the scheduled inspection of Viper, Chatham and later Ross Island by late afternoon, and then restlessly suggested that they track to the top of Mount Harriet, the 1100 Ft. peak across the harbour at Hopetown. It was a steep climb, having a hard rocky terrain, but the Viceroy refused to sit on the horseback, suggesting that someone needier could help himself instead. It was atop this peak that Lord Mayo, not yet fifty years of age, and at the prime of his career, savoured his last sunset for ten luxurious minutes. As the hapless sun spread its gold into the treacherous sea, the touring party began its climbdown, but not before the industrious Viceroy had selected a site for a proposed sanatorium.

All this while, the assassin lay in wait for his chance, despite the directions that all prisoners were to be kept busy at their tasks. How was he able to bypass the security detail, and get so close to the Viceroy, shall remain a mystery. It was not that the authorities were not aware of the threat to the Lord’s life. Barely five months back, Acting Chief Justice of the Calcutta High Court, Sir John Paxton Norman, had been stabbed to death on the steps of the Calcutta Town Hall by a Wahabist fanatic. Since the Viceroy’s visit was not clandestine, the convicts were also aware about his impending arrival. Sher Ali had said his final goodbyes to the fellow convicts by offering flour cakes to the Muslims and sugar to the Hindus, and had thereby exhausted all his provisions. He was prepared for the final act.

After coming down the peak, a chance presented itself just as they were about to step into the launch to take them back across the harbour to Port Blair, when his security chief turned aside to speak to some subordinate, and left the Viceroy unattended. Sher Ali leaped from his hiding place behind a rock and stabbed his target twice in the back. At that very moment, the Viceroy cried out “They’ve got me” (They, who?). Lord Mayo ran a few paces forward, and fell over the pier into some shallow water. Assisted by his subordinates, the stabbed Lord raised himself out of the water, and still had his senses about him. Bleeding copiously, walking firmly, holding his shoulder tightly, he declared, “I don’t think I’m much hurt”. But the wound inflicted were deep, and blood rapidly gushed out of him. As he began to lose consciousness, all he could manage to murmur was “Take me to the ship”, and “Lift up my head”. Once upon the ship, the lights were switched off to avoid the news from breaking out and causing mayhem. Lord Mayo was taken to his cabin where he faded into the oblivion. The assassin was immediately apprehended after the attack. He had pledged to hurt the British by killing some senior official. He had fulfilled his misplaced revenge.

The British Empire was shaken to the core. Sher Ali Afridi maintained that he was a lone wolf and received no help in planning his misdemeanour, save from Allah, who stood solidly by his side. Was it a Wahabist conspiracy, or a case of jihadist fanaticism, or merely an expression of hatred by a disillusioned man? Wahabis had been formenting trouble in NWFP and Afghanistan since the first quarter of 19th century, and their influence had percolated in and around Punjab, Delhi, UP and Bihar (then part of Bengal) after the 1850s. The Acting CJI of Calcutta High Court was stabbed by a fanatical Muslim named Abdoolah in September 1871. Three hardcore Wahabi preachers were incarcerated in Andaman at the same time as Sher Ali was there. But whether they acted in cahoots, or did he receive any help from them, could not be proved in the inquest. Sher Ali was hanged a month after the assassination which is now considered an act of misplaced jihad.

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