Port Blair had been selected as a strategic outpost and penal colony in 1789, but had been abandoned seven years later due to a malaria outbreak. Moreover, the indigenous tribes there had a habit of killing any sailor who found himself shipwrecked. Port Blair served as a staging post for the forces of the East India Company for their attack on Burma in 1824, but no real settlement had been set up. The death of Lord Mayo, Viceroy of India was an unfortunate one. Earlier, an officiating Chief Justice of the High Court, Calcutta the Honorable John Paxton Norman on 20th Sept. 1871 was stabbed to death on the steps of the Town Hall on his way to Court to do his official duty. His assassin was one Abdulla from Punjab province. Less than six months after this incident, one Sher Ali Afridi assassinated Lord Mayo, Viceroy of India on 8 February 1872 at Hope town, Port Blair. He was a prisoner at Andaman and Nicobar Islands at that time. These two murders of higher British officials by the Indian natives created the impression that everything was not well in the Indian subcontinent. The prison complex was used by the British especially to exile political prisoners to the remote archipelago. Today, the complex serves as a national memorial monument. Built between 1896 and 1906, this jail had been in use since the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857. This changed after the 1857 Uprising and the penal colony was revived. The first 200 prisoners arrived there in 1858.
In 1872, the superintendent of Andaman Island, General Stewart invited Lord Mayo, the then viceroy of India, to visit the settlement in order to see for himself the progress made, in pursuance of his plans. The viceroy reached Andaman Island via Moulmein by H.M.S. Frigate Glasgow on the morning of 08 February 1872. The prisoners had been kept at their regular tasks, but adequate provision was made for the viceroy’s protection. The authorities had made special arrangements for his safety in quarters like the Viper & Ross Island.
In the evening on that every day, shortly before it was dusk, Lord Mayo decided to see Mount Harrietto ascertain the suitability of building a sanatorium for the convicts and also to enjoy the splendid sunset. After rounding of his official programme there, Lord Mayo sat down facing the west , looking across the sea at the setting sun. While enjoying he was totally unaware that destiny was bringing him closer to death trap laid down by one Sher Ali who was a Pathan from the North West Frontier he was in the Punjab mounted police and convicted at Peshawar for murder
Sher Ali’s death sentence had been commuted for transportation for life and he was sent to the Andamans. On the basis of his good conduct in the jail, he was placed by the authorities among the ‘ticket of leave’ at Hope Town. Sher Ali was deeply influenced by the Wahabi Movement. But in the booklet published by the Andaman & Nicobar administration, Mohammad Sher Ali has been listed among the Wahabi rebels deported to the Andamans in 1860-1870.
Maulana Muhammad Jafar Ali Thaneswari who was in the Andamans at that time as one of the political prisoners and who had later published an autobiography in Urdu wrote that for years, Sher Ali had long been waiting to kill a white man of high rank and he got the opportunity to execute his plans. He took the prison officials into confidence with his balanced behavior and could secure an appointment of hair cut work of the co prisoners. The man was given the material which can be used for hair cutting work, in which there was a sharp knife, which he wanted to use the avenge the enemy. Perhaps, he intended to kill both viceroy and the Superintendent on. Throughout the day, Sher Ali had tried his best to cross the waters and get across to the Viceroy to lay his hands upon him but he could not get permission to go to the Ross Island where Lord Mayo was staying.
In disgust, Sher Ali had almost given up hope for that day. But when Lord Mayo decided to go to Mount Harriet, it was as if, the fate had brought him to his assassins trap. Without being detected, Sher Ali went up the hill when Lord Mayo was on his way up to Mount Harriet but the former could not get the opportunity. He conceived a plan; after climbing down, he hid himself near the jetty at a place from where he could attack the Viceroy.
As darkness set in, Lord Mayo accompanied by the torch bearers advanced towards the shore as the guests on board were eagerly waiting to Viceroy’s return. Lady Mayo was feeling terribly anxious for the safety of her husband. Peering intently through the darkness, she saw the party nearing the shore. She asked the bandsmen to strike up “Rule Britannia”. Lord Mayo stepped quickly forward to descend the jetty stairs and board the launch.
This was the moment, Sher Ali, was waiting for. With the speed of lightening, he pounced upon Lord Mayo and stabbed him in back grievously before he was caught. Writes F.A.M Dass: “In a second, twelve men were on the assailant; an English officer was pulling them off, and with his sword hilt kept back the guards, who could have killed the man on the spot. The torch had gone out, but the viceroy, who hard staggered over the pier side, could be dimly seen rising up in the knee deep water and clearing the hair of his eyebrow with his hand as if to recover himself.
His private secretary was instantly at his side helping him up the bank. ‘Byrne’ he said quickly, ‘they have hit me’. Then , in a louder voice, which was heard on the pier, it’s all right, don’t think I am much hurt. In another minute, he was sitting under the smoky glare of the re-lit torches, in a rude native cart at the site of the jetty, his legs hanging loosely down. As they lifted him bodily on to the cart they saw a great dark patch on the back of his coat. The blood came streaming out, and men tried to stop it with their handkerchiefs. For a moment or two , he sat up in the cart and then fell heavily backwards. ‘Lift up my head’, he said finally. Those were his last words.
After a while, Sher Ali was brought on board where the dead Lord Mayo was lying. The foreign secretary, Capitan Atichson, asked him as to why he had committed the murder. Without flinching, he replied “God so wished it”. Then he was asked who his accomplice was, and he answered “among men I have no accomplice; God is my accomplice”.
Next morning, when he was called to plead, he said “Yes I did” and I left all hopes of my life when I entered in the movement for freedom of my country. I could ,at least , eliminate one of our enemies. I could perform my duty. All of you would be the witness for my noble duty in the court of God. Sher Ali was convicted by the Chief Commissioner, Port Blair, sitting as session judge & he was sentenced to be hanged by the neck till death. The High Court of Bengal confirmed the sentence.
Sher Ali was executed at the Viper Island. The notorious convict settlement on the Andaman Island surrounded by the Bay of Bengal was a sort of maximum security prison and the chances of convicts escaping from the prison were remote. Little is known about this infamous prison complex by the present generation and in the 19th century till 1930, countless Indian convicts and freedom fighters were sent to this prison. They were subject to harsh punishments and mercy is a word never used there. Many were killed without any trace, according to some reports. The purpose of Lord Mayo’s visit was to see for him the prison conditions and how the convicts were being treated there by the stone-heated jailers. Lord Mayo was an efficient administrator and introduced many reforms for the benefits of the Indian natives. He also wrote certain prison regulations for this penal colony. Fate had it that it was his last trip to the island never to be returned to the main land.