An Irish link

Published : Sep 25, 2009 00:00 IST

With the family of Robert William Escourt Ashe, the only British official to be assassinated during the freedom struggle in South India.I ARRIVED at Dublin airport on a Ryanair flight on Bloomsday in 2006 - it commemorates events in James Joyce's Ulysses, all of which took place on June 16, 1904, in Dublin. My trip was to be punctuated by more than one such coincidence.

The man I had come to meet had no difficulty in spotting me; I was probably the only Indian in that crowd. He was a tall, handsome man with a grey beard and heavy spectacles. We exchanged pleasantries. After he paid for the parking ticket and jumped into the car we looked at each other, fumbling for the right words.

If I was a bit edgy and he a little inquisitive it was but natural, for the purpose of my visit was to research the man who had killed his grandfather.

On June 17, 1911, at Maniyachi railway junction, between Tirunelveli and Tuticorin in Tamil Nadu, Collector Robert William d'Escourt Ashe was killed by R. Vanchi Aiyar of Senkottai. Ashe was the first and, as subsequent history showed, the last British official to be assassinated during the course of the freedom struggle in South India. As Subramania Bharati remarked, \ldblquote The terrorist movement in the Madras Presidency was still-born." J.C. Molony, who succeeded Ashe, called it "the blackest political crime ever committed in South India".

A chapter in A. Sivasubramanian's Tamil monograph "The Ashe Murder and the revolutionary movement in India" (1986) has a chapter titled "Who is this Ashe?" Two decades of research into colonial documents in the Tamil Nadu Archives in Chennai, the National Archives of India in New Delhi, and the India Office Library of the British Library had failed to throw much light on Ashe.

Then, in Spring 2006, I was Charles Wallace Visiting Fellow at the Centre of South Asian Studies at the University of Cambridge. Among the holdings of the centre was a box called "Ashe papers". I pounced on it and with help from the archivist Kevin Greenbank traced the source of the papers. In the correspondence file was an Ashe address in Newmountkennedy, County Wicklow of Ireland, to which I shot off a letter. A few days later, one evening, I went to the Wolfson College computer room to check my mail. "J.R. Ashe" flickered in the inbox. Janet, 87, was the wife of Ashe's son Arthur. It was a pleasure making contact, she wrote. Could I possibly visit her? Her son and daughter-in-law would also love to meet me!

Now, a month later, I was in Dublin. The Ireland I knew through literature was one of poverty. I saw none of it though, Ireland being the fastest-growing economy since its integration with the European Union.

Some 50 miles (80 kilometres) south of Dublin, Robert Ashe took a detour to his country house, Griesemont. We drove past a deserted Quaker village complete with an abandoned mill. Carolyn, his wife, welcomed us. The house was big, and as I wandered through it I saw books everywhere, lined on shelves, stacked on landings and even in the toilet. I began to feel at home.

Curiously, for a family whose forebear had met with violent death in the line of duty in the colony, it had continued its colonial links. Robert's father had served in the Indian Army until 1947. But, surprisingly, a family with such a well-preserved cache of family papers and an evident interest in books knew little about the assassination except as family lore. David Davidar's The House of Blue Mangoes had kindled some interest fanned by their daughter studying history at Edinburgh.

Another coincidence struck me the next day, June 17. It was the 95th anniversary of the Ashe murder. Robert, too, remembered. I began rummaging through the papers and was fortunate to spot some real nuggets. As I pored over the manuscripts, we talked - I reconstructing the background to the assassination and Robert filling me in on family information. As the day passed, a genuine friendship had formed and there was little trace of the edginess of the previous evening.

It is also extraordinary how time can erase historical bitterness if only people chose to. When we opened a bottle of wine that evening and toasted to Ashe's memory, Robert movingly toasted to Vanchi as well. He had died the same day, barely minutes after Ashe's killing. (When, later, I sent Robert a picture of Vanchi, he wrote, "What a lovely young face he has! Have just been reading a novel in our book club - Bel Canto by Ann Patchett - in which the young revolutionaries all seemed to look like that and all got shot by the government soldiers in the end. Vanchi, on the other hand, took his own life: to protect his comrades? Or to become a martyr?")


Ashe came from an Anglo-Irish family that traced its origins to the 16th century. Until the disestablishment of the Church in Ireland, the Ashes were all Protestant Reverends. One St George Ashe had even been the provost of Trinity College, Dublin, in 1692. A certain Sir George Ashe was a member of Jonathan Swift's Trinity-based intellectual circle.

Robert William d'Escourt Ashe was born on November 23, 1872, to Dr Isaac and Sarah Ashe at Sprackburn, Letterkenny, Ireland. His father was resident medical superintendent of Central Criminal Asylum, Dundrum, until he was killed, in 1891, by an inmate. Ashe studied at the High School, Dublin. In 1892 he entered Trinity College, Dublin, winning the First Entrance Prize and also the Vice-Chancellor's Prize for a poem "On the Tercentenary of Trinity College, Dublin. In 1894 Ashe passed fortieth among 61 successful candidates in the Indian Civil Service (ICS) examination. On December 4, 1895, he arrived in India, where he began his career as an Assistant Collector and rose up to be District Magistrate and Collector.

In 1907, Ashe found himself posted in the southernmost corner of the Presidency, in Tirunelveli. After a period of long leave he rejoined duty on February 17, 1908. The two months he spent officiating in the Tuticorin division were to be fateful. Tuticorin, a major port in the Presidency, also had a major spinning mill, the Coral Mills, managed by the European firm A. & F. Harvey. The Harveys were also the agents of the British India Steam Navigation Company, which had a virtual monopoly over the trade between Tuticorin and Colombo. After the eventful months in Tuticorin, Ashe was posted out to Godavari. He took charge of Tirunelveli district on August 2, 1910, as Acting Collector.


On June 17, 1911, Ashe boarded the 9-30 a.m. Maniyachi Mail at Tirunelveli junction. With him was his wife, Mary Lillian Patterson, who had arrived from Ireland only a few days earlier. They had married on April 6, 1898, in Berhampore; Mary was about a year older than Ashe. They were on their way to Kodaikanal where their four children, Molly, Arthur, Sheila, and Herbert, lived in a rented bungalow.

At 10-38 the train pulled in at Maniyachi. The Ceylon Boat Mail was due to arrive at 10-48. As the Ashes sat facing each other in the first class carriage, waiting for the Boat Mail to arrive, a neatly dressed man with tufted hair and another young man wearing a dhoti approached the carriage. The former boarded the carriage and pulled out a Belgian-made Browning automatic pistol. The bullet hit Ashe in the chest and he collapsed. The sound of the pistol shot was absorbed by the howling wind.

Vanchi's letter

After the shooting the assassin ran along the platform and hid in the latrine. Some time later he was found dead, having shot himself in the mouth. In his pocket was found the following letter:

The mlechas of England having captured our country, tread over the sanathana dharma of the Hindus and destroy them. Every Indian is trying to drive out the English and get swarajyam and restore sanathana dharma. Our Raman, Sivaji, Krishnan, Guru Govindan, Arjuna ruled our land protecting all dharmas and in this land they are making arrangements to crown George V, a mlecha, and one who eats the flesh of cows. Three thousand Madrasees have taken a vow to kill George V as soon as he lands in our country. In order to make others know our intention, I who am the least in the company, have done this deed this day. This is what everyone in Hindustan should consider it as his duty.

sd/- R. Vanchi Aiyar, Shencottah

The contents of the letter indicated that the murder was political and caused great apprehension. The timing of the assassination indicated a protest against the impending coronation.

A massive manhunt followed the assassination. Vanchi, born c. 1886, was the son of Raghupathy Iyer, a former employee of the Travancore temple board. He was married to Ponnammal, and his infant daughter had died recently. The father and son were estranged; Raghupathy Iyer even refused to perform his last rites. The investigation showed that Vanchi had been a forest guard in Punalur and had been to Baroda (now Vadodara) and Pondicherry (now Puducherry) in the recent past. In Senkottai, Ottapidaram and Tuticorin, seized correspondence indicated the existence of a secret society, complete with blood oath and Kali puja. Also found was extremist literature, especially two pamphlets printed in the Feringhee Destroyer Press, calling on Indians to kill Europeans. It was clear that the society had links with other secret societies based in Bengal. Investigations also indicated that the assassination had a direct link with the political events in the district in 1908.

Fourteen persons were arrested and charged with conspiracy to murder Ashe. Two others committed suicide - Dharmaraja Aiyar took poison, while Venkateswara Aiyar slit his own throat. Madasamy, widely believed to be Vanchi's accomplice and who was seen running away after the assassination, was never traced.

As can be expected in conspiracy cases in the colonial context, testimony of approvers formed the backbone of the prosecution's case, which revealed the intent of the crime. O. Somasundaram Pillai, one such approver, testified that in a conversation Vanchi had stated that "English rule was ruining the country and that it could only be removed if all white men were killed, [and] went on to suggest that Mr Ashe should be first killed as he was the head of the district and an officer who had taken a leading part in the suppressing of the Swadeshi Steam Navigation Company [founded by the freedom fighter V.O. Chidambaram Pillai; Madasamy was one of his staunch supporters] and the events of 1908".

During the trial, if Chief Justice Charles Arnold White and Justice Ayling of the Madras High Court accepted this approver's testimony, the third judge, C. Sankaran Nair, went even further. He narrated the sequence of events, starting from the fervent swadeshi propaganda in Tirunelveli district, and elaborated on the efforts of VOC in launching the Swadeshi Steam Navigation Company and leading the Coral Mills strike and on the eventual arrest of Swadeshi movement leaders, which led to riots. He hit the nail on the head with the observation: "The murder of Mr Ashe was a direct consequence of this bitter hostility. \'85 [T]hat Mr Ashe's conduct at Tuticorin with reference to the conviction of Subramania Siva and Chidambaram Pillai and with reference to the [Swadeshi] Steam Navigation Co. was one of the main causes of the murder".

Though the conspiracy aspect of the case could not be proved to the satisfaction of the High Court bench, nine of the 14 accused were convicted and sentenced.

The Ashe murder case did not end with the trial and conviction. The government strongly suspected that the Indian nationalists who had sought refuge in the French enclave of Pondicherry were directly connected with the murder. A huge posse of policemen, spies and informers was stationed in Pondicherry. The Ashe murder remained, in the official mind, a spectacular example of what could go wrong.


Tirunelveli, where Ashe arrived in February 1908 was no ordinary district. The Swadeshi movement had burst out in 1905 in the wake of Lord Curzon's ill-advised move to partition Bengal in an effort to stem the rising tide of nationalism. As a response, the nationalist movement, after decades of constitutional efforts, began to take on the proportions of a mass movement with genuine popular participation. Madras, for long derided as "the benighted province", soon joined the swadeshi fray. In December 1906, the government found out that "the only district from which any suspicion of anti-British feeling is reported is Tinnevelly district and there only in the town of Tuticorin".

Ashe was stationed in Tuticorin. While the swadeshi enterprise across India was limited to such tokenisms as making candles and bangles, in Tuticorin it took the spectacular form of running nothing less than a steam shipping company. The man behind this, Chidambaram Pillai, was closely aligned to the extremist faction of the Congress and was a follower of Bal Gangadhar Tilak. VOC galvanised local merchants to launch the Swadeshi Steam Navigation Company. For VOC, the shipping company was a patriotic venture, a step on the road towards shaking off the colonial yoke. The company gave the British India Steam Navigation Company a run for its money.

Shortly after his return from the Surat Congress at the end of December 1907, VOC organised political meetings on Tuticorin beach and in Tirunelveli. A particularly fiery orator, Subramania Siva spoke in these meetings. Emotionally charged speeches directed against the European ruling classes and calling for a free and representative government were made. By all accounts - even those of the police and the CID - the effect was electrifying.

On February 27, 1908, about 1,000 workers struck work in the Coral Mills of Tuticorin. Section 144 of the CrPC was imposed and additional police were brought in. Ashe, as the divisional officer in charge, called for a meeting with VOC. In the face of a united workforce and strong leadership, the workers' demands were met and they returned to work. It is likely that Ashe took this as a personal defeat.

The daily swadeshi meetings continued, with thousands of people attending them. When the movement's leaders planned to celebrate the release from prison of Bipin Chandra Pal, the Bengali swadeshi leader, as "Swarajya Day", the district administration swung into action. VOC, along with his swadeshi colleagues Subramania Siva and Padmanabha Iyengar, was arrested on March 12, 1908.

The violence in Tirunelveli was more widespread than elsewhere and the damage more extensive and compounded by fatalities. How, then, did Ashe become unpopular, ultimately paying for it with his life? asked Robert. I mentioned a report in The Hindu that stated that Ashe had walked into the Swadeshi Steam Navigation Company after office hours and demanded to inspect the share register. As I narrated this to Robert, flipping through the family papers, I came across an extraordinary letter by the legal adviser of the company testifying to this transgression.

In the popular mind, Ashe was linked personally to the downfall of the Swadeshi Steam Navigation Company, the pride and symbol of the Swadeshi movement. The surviving personal letters from Collector Wynch to Ashe reveal also a personal, racial and colonial interest in suppressing the uprising and wrecking the company.

Despite his role being appreciated by his immediate boss, Collector Wynch, Ashe was transferred to Godavari district within a month of the "riots". In March 1910, and later in August 1910, he returned as acting Collector of Tirunelveli.

In a sense, Ashe was an unlikely target of the conspiracy. There were no casualties in Tuticorin, while four persons were shot dead in Tirunelveli. In any case, Wynch, as the Collector of the district, was in charge. Even in the press it was Wynch rather than Ashe who was the target of criticism. Ashe was criticised in the press but not so much as Wynch. Another railed figure in the whole affair was A.F. Pinhey, who sentenced VOC to two terms of life imprisonment.

Ashe, based as he was in Tuticorin, was, however, seen to have a direct and hands-on role in crushing the Swadeshi Steam Navigation Company. Hence, it is not surprising that he was hated more than Wynch, who was based in the district headquarters a good 80 km away. Along with the reality that in the Indian mind Ashe's role made a big and hateful impact, he fell victim probably to the fact that he was in the wrong place at the wrong time, with both Wynch (on furlough leave) and Pinhey (retired on annuity) out of reach of the fledgling revolutionary terrorist organisation.


News of Ashe's murder was received with outrage and disbelief. The moderates and the government-fearing intelligentsia, who thought that the events of 1908 were an aberration, panicked. A spectacular show of loyalty followed. Two memorials were planned and executed. At the English Church, Palayamkottai, where Ashe was interred, his fellow-officers erected a tombstone. The Tuticorin Municipality built an octagonal mantapam set in a garden at the eastern end of the main Great Cotton Road. The subscription of Rs.3,002 was collected almost exclusively from Indians. The 38 subscribers included a few who had backed the Swadeshi Steam Navigation Company and who had testified in VOC's favour in the Tirunelveli sedition trials.


Mary and her children returned to Exeter, her hometown, in April 1912 on a decent government pension. She never remarried. Their four children were aged 12, 10, eight and six at the time of Ashe's death. Arthur went on to become a colonel in the Indian Army and retired in 1947. It is curious that he should have chosen to work in a country that had claimed his father's life. Robert said his father had a deep love for India even though he or his family never visited Maniyachi or Tirunelveli. Herbert died in combat during the Second World War. The girls remained unmarried. Janet thought that their spinsterhood had much to do with Mary. Apparently, Mary, who died in 1954, never let people forget the tragedy she had suffered, of seeing her husband being shot at point-blank range right in front of her eyes.


The Ashe murder and Vanchi remain etched in Tamil memory. In some narratives it is seen as a watershed in the freedom struggle in Tamil Nadu. In a region short of patriotic martyrs, Vanchi, evoking the image of a selfless young man who laid down his life for a nationalist cause he believed in, secured a sacred halo. His name has been given to many radical characters in Tamil fiction and cinema.

As the centenary of the Ashe assassination approaches, it is likely that there will be some commemorative events. As he saw me off, Robert expressed the wish to visit Maniyachi in June 2011, but remarked in jest that he too might be shot. Perish the thought, I said, but if it came to that I promised a memorial.

A.R. Venkatachalapathy ( is a historian and Tamil writer.

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