In 1890, PW Currie, Britain’s Under-Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, was informed by the colonial administration in what was then called Ceylon that one Abdul al-Helmi had died. Al-Helmi, an Egyptian, was among a group of compatriots who had been exiled to the Indian Ocean island, more than 5,000 kilometres away from their homeland.
According to a memo sent by Currie to the Under-Secretary of State for India, al-Helmi died of a cerebral haemorrhage and “suffered from asthma attributable to the climate in Ceylon”. The health of some of the other exiles was also “impaired”, Currie added. It had been seven years since the group was shipped off to Ceylon as punishment for fighting against the British in the Anglo-Egyptian War of 1882.
This band of outcasts was led by revolutionary Ahmed Urabi, popularly known as Orabi Pasha, who was the prime minister of Egypt for around two months in 1882. Urabi had led the revolt in 1879 against a regime that was largely controlled by the British and French. It was this uprising that culminated three years later in the Anglo-Egyptian War and the British getting control of Egypt and Sudan. By exiling the popular leader, the British Empire was repeating a long-favoured strategy, which it had employed in 1815 when it sent Sri Vikrama Rajasinha, the last King of Kandy, to Vellore and after the 1857 Indian War of Independence, when it sent Mughal Emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar to Burma.
Revolutionary and reformer
Born in a village north of Cairo in 1841 to a family of relatively well-to-do peasants, Urabi studied at the Al-Azhar University. Right after graduating, he joined the army, quickly rose up the ranks and fought in the Ethiopian-Egyptian War of 1874-’76.
Urabi became the War Minister under Tewfik Pasha in what was then the Khedivate of Egypt, an autonomous tributary state of the Ottoman Empire. He led what came to be called the Urabi Revolution against Tewfik, who called on the British for help. Only too happy to intervene, the British defeated Urabi’s army and exiled him and six of his supporters, along with their families, to Ceylon in January 1883.
“The exiles established good relations with the Ceylonese, particularly with the Muslims,” Udumbara Udugama wrote in a 2008 article for Sri Lanka’s Sunday Times. “This association influenced the language and dress of the Muslims who began to wear the Egyptian trousers and the fez (Turboush), imitating the Pashas.”
Urabi and his family lived in Colombo first and then moved to Kandy. He inspired Ceylonese Muslim leaders to build the Hameed Al Husseinie College, the first Muslim boys’ school on the island. It was also under his patronage that another famous Islamic educational institution, the Zahira College, was founded. His home in Kandy now houses the Orabi Pashi Cultural Centre.
Seven years after Urabi and his supporters landed in Ceylon, they asked the British authorities to be allowed to move to a country whose weather suited them better, suggesting India as the main option. The colonial authorities were open to this idea at first. They were well aware that Urabi remained popular in Egypt and had kept a close watch on his activities in Ceylon. They had a fear that, if permitted an opportunity, he would escape from the island and return to his homeland to lead another revolt.
“The place to be selected should be one where the climate is dry, and where the movements of exiles could be kept under observation without the necessity of placing them under restraint,” Currie wrote in his 1891 memo. Not all options suggested by the colonial authorities were in the Indian subcontinent. Their recommendations included Aden in modern-day Yemen and Zayla, a historic port town in the unrecognised republic of Somaliland. At that time both these places were governed as part of British India. Other potential hosts for the exiles included Kurrachee (Karachi) and Bangalore.
The distant ports seemed to have been ruled out immediately, with the focus resting on the two cities in the subcontinent. “If it were not a port, I should say Karachi would be the best place,” an official signing off with the initials HMD wrote in an August 1891 telegram to the Secretary of State in London. “As it is a port, I would suggest some place in Sind, other than Karachi.”
The Garden City, as it was justifiably called at the time, was seriously considered by the British as a potential home for the Egyptian exiles. Communication between officials in August 1891 suggest they preferred it over other options.
“The Resident in Mysore may be asked whether he sees any objection to the exiles being sent to Bangalore?” an official by the name of FA DeBeaufort wrote to the Deputy Secretary of the Government of India’s Foreign Department. “The Government of India will not have to pay their maintenance.”
In response, the Deputy Secretary, signing off as CA, said he couldn’t think of any place more suitable than Bangalore, noting that it was in the princely state of Mysore and not British territory. This was seen as an advantage.
The file moved up to the Secretary, who commented on the conditions in the city: “Bangalore is dry, salubrious and a pleasant place where the Egyptian exiles, looking at the question, from their point of view, would probably be comfortable.”
English-language newspapers in the 1880s showered Bangalore with generous praise. An article in The Graphic: An Illustrated Weekly Newspaper in October 1884 spoke of the slow-paced life in the city that was spread over a considerable area and where every house had a “compound or small garden of its own”. Like many other stations, the paper said, Bangalore offered a fine horse ride “under lofty banyan and tulip trees, and an immense green parade-ground, on which the… garrison periodically presents a splendid appearance”. To top it off, “it also has a lake, the reservoir of the station, on which there are boats, and even yachts, and it has some interesting public gardens called the ‘Lall Bagh.’”
Even then Bangalore had its fair share of problems. The Secretary’s note on the suitability of the city for the Egyptian exiles came with an asterisk: the city had a poor water supply and was subject to outbreaks of smallpox and enteric disease. The press too was writing about Bangalore’s water woes. “If it were not for the unlucky fact of its having an indifferent water supply, Bangalore would perhaps have a garrison of ten thousand troops,” The Graphic wrote in the October 1884 article.
For the British, there was a big advantage, other than weather, to keeping the exiles in Bangalore. “It is not British territory, and we can make what rules we like in respect to the observation under which they should be kept,” the Secretary wrote. “There are three and soon will be four railway routes leading from Bangalore, and the exiles could pretty easily get away if not under restraint; but that might be said perhaps of any place.”
The Secretary wanted to know the exact number of exiles who would be moved to India from Ceylon. “We would have to take houses for them, and the Resident cannot answer the proposed enquiry unless we tell him what he is asked to undertake,” he said. “House accommodation may be difficult to get or going begging in Bangalore for aught I know; and the party of exiles may be two or three or fifty for anything the Secretary of State tells us.”
As was the protocol, this information went to the Viceroy of India, Henry Petty-Fitzmaurice, who contacted the Secretary of State Robert Gascoyne-Cecil, better known as Lord Salisbury. The latter telegrammed the Viceroy to say the plan was abandoned without elaborating further.
Urabi lived in Ceylon until 1901, finally returning to Egypt when Abbas II, the last Ottoman Viceroy of the country, allowed him back. Given how he inspired Muslim activists in Ceylon, it is not hard to see why the plan to shift him and other exiles to India was dropped. A charismatic revolutionary from Egypt could have easily inspired Indian Muslims to revolt against the British Raj.
Ajay Kamalakaran is a writer, primarily based in Mumbai. His Twitter handle is @ajaykamalakaran.