March 11th, 2013 Headsman
Little remembered today, Great Britain shipped tens of thousands of Indian convicts to that Bay of Bengal archipelago in the latter half of the 19th century (and continuing into the 1930s).
One of them was Sher Ali.
This former cavalryman in the UK’s Indian military forces had murdered a relative in a private feud, and was dispatched to the prison colony for his trouble. Evidently he nursed a terrible grudge at being judicially punished for what, in his opinion, was no crime at all. The standard story* is that he dreamed of wreaking revenge on the person of “some high British official.”
They don’t come much higher than the Viceroy to India.
So despite his sterling conduct record as a prisoner, Sher Ali was ready with an opportunistic blade when Lord Mayo took the wrong pause at the wrong spot.
Notwithstanding the enormity of the blow — the Viceroy of India was literally one of the most powerful figures in the British Empire — the incident was relatively downplayed, perhaps to avoid stoking any wider sectarian martyr-making or conveying the impression of colonies in turmoil. Arrested on the spot, Sher Ali was condemned quickly and hanged with little fanfare.
An Indian paper quoted by the April 15 London Times reported the assassin’s last hours thus:
I had a long interview with the prisoner the evening previous to his execution. He talked quite freely, and appeared to think he had done a fine thing. He had been told about an hour before I saw him that he was to be hanged next morning. We got up steam early next morning and went to Chatham, passing him with his police guard in a boat on the way. As soon as we were moored we got over to Viper Island, where the gaol is. There was no unusual preparation for the affair, and the convicts were at work as usual. Indeed, it was not generally known that it was to be. There were from 30 to 40 Europeans present, no natives except the police and sepoys, and no European soldiers. About a quarter to 8 the fellow was led out. He was smiling and quite collected. The police officer who came down to investigate the affair, as he ascended the steps leading up to the scaffold, asked him a question. He shook his head with a smile, as he said nahin sahib. As soon as he got up he asked the hangman to turn his face towards Mecca, and then began to pray very loudly and quickly. He said two prayers, and kept on repeating the Mussulman’s creed. The drop fell at seven minutes to 8 o’clock exactly. The knot slipped round to the back of his neck, and although he had nearly seven feet of a drop, his neck was not broken, so he died very hard. He was hanging about ten minutes before he ceased to struggle. As he was scantily clothed, and his legs and most of his body naked, his struggles were distinctly visible. We were quite close to the scaffold. After he was dead we adjourned, and returned to see him cut down at 9. His face was not distorted in the least, but wore an expression of pain. We afterwards went to see the post mortem examination. There were only eight persons present. The prisoner’s lungs, liver, heart, &c., were taken out and weighed. The top of his head was cut off, and his brain taken out: the latter weighed 47 ounces.
Despite not making a particularly big deal about Lord Mayo’s murder, the Empire did favor its Indian subjects with a Calcutta equestrian statue of the assassinated viceroy.
This monument and other former public memorials from the British imperial period now squirreled out of view in independent India can be found on a fun Flickr gallery, Forgotten Statuary of the British Raj. Brits can find the Earl of Mayo in marble closer to home in Cockermouth.
Mayo was also the namesake of the Mayo School of Arts in Lahore, present-day Pakistan (it’s now known as the National College of Arts). The school’s first principal was Lockwood Kipling, and this man was able to hook his 16-year-old son up with an assistant-editorship at a Lahore newspaper … from which young Rudyard Kipling launched his literary career.
* The “lone nut with a grudge” version has been latterly disputed with attempts to reconstruct Sher Ali as an Islamic revolutionary.
Also on this date
- 1941: Twenty-one hostages for Igo Sym
- 1686: James Morgan, a Warning to you all
- 1997: The last execution in Ukraine
- 2006: Two al-Qaeda militants for the murder of a U.S. diplomat
- 1961: William Morgan, the Americano
- 859: St. Eulogius of Cordoba
- 1963: Jean-Marie Bastien-Thiry, model for the Jackal