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The Assassination of Lord Mayo by Sher Ali Afridi: Unveiling the Conspiracy

This act sent shockwaves through the British government in India, making it one of the most high-profile assassinations of the era.
by TNN Editor - 06 Jul, 2023 1876

Hassam ud Din

Unbeknownst to the people gathered on the Andaman islands (black water/Kala Pani) alongside Lord Mayo, the Viceroy of India, they were unaware of the impending disaster that a frail-bodied Pathan in their midst would unleash in the next few moments.

Similarly, as Lord Mayo, the Governor General of United India, awaited his departure on the boat, little did he know that these were to be his final moments. The very prison he had visited to gain further acclaim could become his final resting place.

When Lord Mayo, wielding the full power of the British Government in United India, arrived on these islands accompanied by hundreds of his esteemed colleagues and companions, they had no inkling of the fate that awaited them. Fate had orchestrated their presence, and it would also decide that they would not be returning together; it would be Lord Mayo's lifeless body that would accompany them.

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The prison in the Andaman Islands, renowned as the Black Water Prison due to its geographical location surrounded by deep waters, was notorious for its harsh treatment of inmates. In her book, "The Assassination of Lord Mayo, the ‘First’ Jihad?" Dr. Helen James recounts the assassination of the Viceroy of India, Lord Mayo, on February 8, 1872, at the hands of Sher Ali Khan, a convicted Pathan. This act sent shockwaves through the British government in India, making it one of the most high-profile assassinations of the era.

Sher Ali Khan's Journey to the Black Water

Sher Ali Khan Afridi hailed from the picturesque mountainous region of Tirah in the then Khyber Agency, now part of Khyber District. However, he was employed by the Commissioner in Peshawar, serving as a loyal soldier of the British government and a member of a special cavalry unit. For his dedication and exceptional performance, he was bestowed with prestigious honors of that time, including a horse, a pistol, and a certificate.

In Sher Ali's family, conflicts among relatives often led to fatal outcomes. One fateful day, near Company Bagh on Mall Road in Peshawar Cantonment, just steps away from his office, he crossed paths with a member of an enemy family.

As the story goes, Sher Ali confronted and killed his relative. Consequently, he was arrested, charged with murder, and initially sentenced to death. However, due to his unwavering loyalty, commendable service, and impeccable character during his tenure, his officers pleaded for mercy, resulting in the commutation of his sentence to life imprisonment. Thus, he was sent to the infamous Kala Pani Jail to serve his life term.

Unveiling Sher Ali Khan's Motive and Inner Turmoil

While imprisoned at Kala Pani, Sher Ali Khan disclosed to his fellow inmates the truth behind his actions, claiming that he had not committed the crime for which he had been sentenced to life imprisonment. He revealed that since 1869, he had harbored a plan to assassinate a senior British officer. Upon his arrival at Kala Pani Jail, he was assigned the duty of shaving fellow prisoners, and he deliberately kept the razor or knife sharp, hoping for an opportunity to fulfill his long-held desire. Finally, on February 8, 1872, his wish was granted.

Sher Ali Khan recounted that when Lord Mayo visited Kala Pani, he had walked alongside him, taking advantage of the relative freedom he enjoyed compared to other prisoners. However, he had failed to find the right moment. Eventually, he managed to hide beneath the carriage and seize the opportunity to carry out his wish.

This account is sourced from the book "Kitab Tawarikh Ajeebea" by Maulana Muhammad Jafar Thanesari, an autobiography penned by the renowned leader of the Ahl al-Hadith school of thought. Maulana Thanesari himself was imprisoned at the time of Lord Mayo's assassination and documented the circumstances surrounding the murder by Sher Ali Khan.

The Enigmatic Andaman Islands (Kala Pani)

The Andaman Islands, often referred to as the Black Water or Kala Pani, encompass approximately one thousand mountainous islands located in the Bay of Bengal, around six hundred miles away from Calcutta. These islands are characterized by their rugged terrain, offering limited flat land, and lacking any freshwater streams.

In his book, Maulana Jafar provides insights into the nature of these islands, stating, "When I arrived at Kala Pani, I witnessed numerous imprisoned Rajas, nawabs, zamindars, maulvis, muftis, deputy collectors, and others, who had been confined here due to their involvement in the independence war of 1857. They were all following in the footsteps of the prophet Yusuf (Joseph), that's to say doing their time."

Feroze Khan Afridi, a prolific author, further sheds light on the history of the Andaman Islands in his research article on Sher Ali Khan Afridi.

He reveals that these black water islands served as a place of imprisonment for many leaders of the Khilafat movement, religious scholars, and Mujahideen. These prisoners endured a life of arduous labor within the confines of the British prison, secluded from the outside world. The limited and local media occasionally reported on the conditions faced by the prisoners, offering glimpses into their harsh reality.

The Tragic Encounter: Lord Mayo's Assassination

According to Dr. Helen James, Lord Mayo embarked on his journey with a group of friends, departing from Glasgow, Scotland on January 24. After arriving in Rangoon on January 28, they were greeted with grand receptions along the way. During this time, Lord Mayo diligently read the mail received from different parts of India to stay informed about any potential uprisings in his absence.

Throughout the day, Lord Mayo visited various locations, immersing himself in the sights of Rangoon. In the evening, a spontaneous desire arose within him to witness the beauty of Mont Huret, despite objections from his private secretary and the chief commissioner. Undeterred, Lord Mayo ventured to the bridge of Hope Tun, situated at the base of Mount Huret.

Maulana Jafar Thanesari recounts in his book that it was at this very spot that Sher Ali Khan, armed with a knife, encountered Lord Mayo. Sher Ali Khan had long harbored a desire to assassinate a high-ranking British officer, keeping his knife sharpened in anticipation. Meanwhile, Lord Mayo arrived at the hill, captivated by the mesmerizing sunset and lost in its enchantment, unaware of the impending danger.

Surrounded by an armed police guard and accompanied by numerous officers, Lord Mayo approached the vehicle parked near the ghat. Suddenly, Sher Ali Khan, who had been hiding nearby, launched a surprise attack from behind, stabbing Lord Mayo. The assault caused Lord Mayo to stumble and fall into the sea.

Amidst the commotion, the torches carried by the attendants were dropped and shattered. A prisoner stepped forward and apprehended Sher Ali Khan, while Lord Mayo was rescued from the water and placed on a cart. Unfortunately, he succumbed to his injuries, uttering only a few words before his passing.

In commemoration of Lord Mayo, Lahore pays tribute to his legacy with landmarks such as Mayo Hospital and Mayo College of Arts, now known as the National College of Arts.

Lord Mayo's Visit to Andaman Islands: A Historic Undertaking

In 1869, after receiving distressing reports about the conditions of prisoners in the Andaman Islands, Viceroy Lord Mayo made significant decisions that garnered immense popularity among the public and inmates alike. These reforms were implemented in 1871.

Notably, Lord Mayo himself expressed a strong desire to visit the prison on the island, making him the first Viceroy to do so. Accompanied by his wife and prominent government officials, he arrived on the island early in the morning, prompting heightened security measures.

Upon his arrival, Lord Mayo was greeted with a resounding 21-gun salute. Throughout the day, he meticulously toured the prison barracks and factories, taking firsthand observations of the facilities and interacting with the inmates. His visit marked a historic milestone, symbolizing the government's commitment to addressing the plight of prisoners in the Andaman Islands.

Sher Ali Khan Afridi's Reputation: A Double-Edged Sword

Sher Ali Khan Afridi, having served the British in the Ambela War, was granted a reprieve from his death sentence, leading to his life imprisonment in the notorious Andaman Islands. His reputation preceded him, even within the prison walls. Through his devout prayers, fasting, and acts of charity, Sher Ali enhanced his image and earned the trust of the authorities.

Consequently, he enjoyed certain privileges, such as greater mobility and fewer searches compared to other prisoners. This leniency unknowingly paved the way for his fateful encounter with the Viceroy.

However, the very experiences that shaped Sher Ali's perception of being a morally upright person eventually shattered his trust in the British. Witnessing the brutal treatment and suffocation of prisoners in the Andaman Islands, his disillusionment grew, fueling a desire for vengeance that culminated in his fatal act against Lord Mayo.

Unraveling the Conspiracy: Investigating the Links

The shocking murder of Lord Mayo instigated an intensive investigation by forensic teams dispatched to the Andaman Islands. Detectives and investigators were convinced that the assassination was not the act of a lone individual but rather part of a broader conspiracy. Suspicions arose regarding the involvement of three prominent Muslim religious figures held in custody: Maulana Muhammad Jafar Thanesri, Yahya Ali, and Maulvi Ahmadullah. These figures had been imprisoned prior to the 1857 War of Independence, charged with delivering anti-British speeches in mosques in Patna and Delhi.

Dr. Helen James reveals in her book that seasoned investigators were assigned to uncover any connection between Sher Ali Afridi and these renowned Muslim leaders. However, their extensive efforts yielded no evidence linking Sher Ali Afridi to the trio.

Furthermore, the assassination occurred in the wake of the killing of Acting Chief Justice John Norman by a self-proclaimed 'Wahhabi Muslim' in Calcutta a few months earlier. This earlier incident, along with ongoing cases against influential Wahhabi Jihadi leaders across India, raised concerns about further attacks. The government heightened security measures to thwart potential incidents, especially considering the incitement of rebellion against British rule by these prominent Wahhabi leaders.

Defiant Confessions and the Final Act

During his court appearance, Sher Ali Afridi openly declared that the decision to assassinate the Viceroy was solely his own, expressing initial doubt and disappointment in the preparation process. However, the unfortunate demise of Lord Mayo served to strengthen his resolve.

When questioned in court about who had instigated him to commit the act, Sher Ali Afridi could only respond, "I have killed him by Allah's command, and Allah has aided me in this."

Following the murder of Viceroy Lord Mayo, Sher Ali faced another trial and was once again sentenced to death. On March 11, 1873, as he was led to the gallows, witnesses noted a sense of satisfaction in his eyes and a smile on his face. He kissed the gallows, remarking, "When I planned to kill the Viceroy, I had already envisioned myself here."

Addressing the Muslim spectators who had gathered to witness his execution, Sher Ali boldly proclaimed, "Brothers! I have slain your enemy. Bear witness that I am a Muslim."