On Sunday, the Union government rechristened Mount Harriet, a historical tourist spot in the Andaman and Nicobar islands, as ‘Mount Manipur’. The announcement was made during Union Home Minister Amit Shah’s visit to Port Blair, where he referred to the “significant contribution” the Northeastern state had made in resisting the British, especially during the historic 1891 Anglo-Manipur war. Manipur goes to polls in 2022.
After the Anglo-Manipur War of 1891, several Manipuris who had fought the British in the war, including Maharaja Kulachandra Dhwaja Singh, were exiled to the British penal colony in the Andaman Islands. Since the cellular jail (Kalapani) was yet to be built, Kulachandra and the prisoners were kept on Mount Harriet, a hillock in what is now the Ferragunj tehsil of South Andaman district.
According to a British-era document from the Manipur State Archives, 23 men, including King Kulachandra and his brothers, were “transported for life” to the Andamans. While some died there, Kulachandra was released and shifted elsewhere before his death.
“The 23 are considered war heroes in Manipur. That is why Mount Harriet is an important symbol of the Anglo-Manipur War of 1891,” said Wangam Somorjit, an Imphal-based historian who specialises in the war.
Considered an epoch in the history of Manipur, the Anglo-Manipur War was fought between the kingdom of Manipur and the British over a month in 1891.
The battle was triggered by a coup in the palace of Manipur, which had been marked by internal factionalism in the years leading up 1891. According to the Manipur State Archives website, the British government took advantage of the “internal dissension” among the princes of the royal family.
In 1886, when Surchandra inherited the throne from his father Chandrakirti Singh, the kingdom of Manipur was not under the British rule but had links with the crown through different treaties.
However, Surchandra ascension to the throne was controversial and his younger brothers — Kulachadra, Tikendrajit — revolted against him.
According to an essay, “A forgotten war of British Raj that became an International scandal”, authored by Wangam and Imphal-based curator and author, Somi Roy and published on the Penguin India website, the 1890 coup by the rebel faction deposed Surchandra, and proclaimed Kulachandra, the next oldest brother, the king. Surchandra fled to Calcutta seeking British help to reinstate him.
“Instead, the British dispatched James Quinton, the Chief Commissioner of Assam, with an army to Manipur. His mission was to recognise Kulachandra as the king under the condition that they be allowed to arrest the coup leader Crown Prince Tikendrajit and deport him from Manipur. This aggressive imposition of British law in a sovereign state was rejected by the king, precipitating the Anglo-Manipuri War of 1891” Wangam and Roy wrote.
In the first phase of the war, the British surrendered and their officers — including Quinton — were executed in public. In the second phase, the British attacked Manipur from three sides, and finally capture the Kangla Fort in Imphal. Prince Tikendrajit and four others were hanged by the British, while Kulachandra, along with 22 others, were banished to the Andaman Islands.
Many say the war was described as a “blow to British prestige”. Despite their victory, it had led to the death of five important officers. In India, it was viewed as being part of the general uprising against British rule in the country, soon after after the Revolt of 1857.
The war led to Manipur officially becoming a princely state under the indirect rule of the British crown.
In Manipur, historians say there is not much information available on the war, especially about the prisoners who were exiled. “After the British took over, the narrative changed considerably and there was little documentation of such episodes,” said Wangam.
In February 2003 and 2013, two representations from the All Manipur Working Journalists’ Union (AMWJU) visited Mount Harriet to “find out more” about the prisoners. A Mubi, the then Vice President, AMWJU said they were able to confirm that Kulachandra was housed in Mt Harriet, based on some records available.
Manipur Art and Culture director Ng Uttam said the state had been in talks with the Andaman and Nicobar authorities to allocate a site to build a memorial for the war heroes. While in 2019, the authorities agreed to provide an area near the cellular jail but the pandemic delayed the process. Before Independence Day in 2021, the Manipur government unveiled a monolith in Imphal, in the memory of the “unsung war heroes”.
Uttam said the rechristening of Mount Harriet to Mount Manipur was a long-awaited, befitting tribute to the exiled heroes.
Mount Harriet is the third highest peak in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, and served as the summer headquarters of the Chief Commissioner during British Raj.
It is believed to be named after British artist and photographer, Harriet Christina Tytler, who was the wife of Robert Christopher Tytler, a soldier who served in the British Indian Army. Between 1862 and 1864, Tytler was the superintendent of the penal colony at Port Blair.
District officials from South Andaman said Mount Harriet houses a colonial bungalow, which now functions as a forest guest house. Close by is the Mount Harriet National Park known for its wide variety of birds.
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