The Emden Saga- Shelling the British Raj Off
Intro : This post was written as part of my madras day series…but got misplaced on my hardrive…yeah, you are probably scratching your head and wondering “how in hell?”…but suffice to say that I saved it under a wrong/bizarre file name and hence it took me a while to dig this out and once I discovered it I coudnt resist showing it off to the world at large and specifically you my dear reader..ps..i almost said you poor son-a-of-a-damn….so go on and read this – even if it feels a bit dated….
The dawn of the twentieth century was also a dawn of sorts for India as a country. I say “of sorts” because the conception of the country as an independent nation was still in the minds of a few leaders and not even a figment of imagination in the consciousness of the vast majority of the toiling millions who finally turned the freedom struggle into reality by their mass participation later on. The few freedom fighters who were struggling alone like Lala Lajpat Rai and Bal Gangadhar Tilak were all playing the waiting game- waiting for the British to come to reason and acknowledge the truth of self governance. The Congress party under its puissant leadership was busy petitioning the local crown representatives about its grievances and patting themselves on the back for having done a good job. After all what else can you expect from a party led by a bunch of lawyers like Mohammed Jinnah and Motilal Nehru who were taught to respect duly constituted authority above else, including, if I may add self respect and national pride. But this state of stasis was not to last long- the turning points of the struggle were coming along in the guise of two unrelated incidents- the landing of Mk Gandhi on the shores of Bombay –the premiere port city of the west and the bombing of Madras port on the east coast by the German battle cruiser Emden. These two were the bugle call to action – to awaken a moribund organization like the Congress into the path of mass disobedience and to enmbolden the patient masses to take on the might of the British Empire in the quest for their freedom from the foriegn yoke.
Indians have always been labeled an insular people who never bothered to keep abreast of the rest of the world. This like all throwaway statements has a large measure of truth in it. The Islamic conquest under the brutal Mongols and Tartars had destroyed the rich fabric of cultural assimilation of the country under the Mauryas and Guptas. The medieval period of Indian history was a long struggle for mere survival of the masses laboring under unjust rulers and brutal warlords each struggling to carve out an independent existence away from a weak central authority. The mughal emperors ruled over the conquered masses by granting feudal fiefs to their most able (and blood thirsty) commanders regardless of their religion and they maintained their misrule by the principle of might is right. Even the arrival of the Europeans failed to bring the much needed renaissance to rejuvenate the country and it took an hundred years of British rule to consolidate the warring pieces into one country- willing or unwilling.
But still the masses of India- the working millions were not bothered about their rulers. Why should they? For whoever ruled them, be it the local jagirdar, the zamindar, the Mughal Emperor or Queen Victoria, their sweat and toil was not their own to benefit from. It was all took away as tax by their rulers to maintain their massive palaces and their Rolls Royces. There was no feeling of solidarity for the toiling telengana peasant struggling to grow cotton for the Manchester mills in the conscousness of the indigo farmers of the champaran region who were the producers of the dye to color that very same cotton. The Indian, as he was then, was content to think only about his neighborhood and his village for his life revolved around them. For him the local seat of government Delhi was as far away as London probably was. And Europe? What’s Europe? Was the awareness level of the vast majority of the people. To expect such a people to be aware of the Great War being fought on the European mainland was expecting a mite too much.
But it did happen- the Great War ceased to be a struggle between white men- European killing European and became an Indian issue on a balmy night in September, 1914. It was on 22nd September – almost a hundred years ago to this day – that the light cruiser Emden of the German navy coasted off the Madras port and started its bombardment of Madras city. It was probably helped by the flashing beacon on top of the light house in the Madras High Court premises. The bombardment resulted in little damage in actual terms but its psychological effect was massive. The British government which had been lulled into complacency believing their own tales of the invincibility of the royal navy from the times of Admiral Nelson was shaken to the core to realize that the Germans could assault their eastern colony with such ease. The myth of the royal navy’s superiority on the high seas received a massive blow.
For the unsuspecting populace of madras city it was the much needed wake up call to make them realize that though they may close their eyes to the world the world will come knocking at their doors. The captain of the Emden Capt. Muller, it was later learnt, had deliberately avoided targeting civilian areas but a few stray shells did land inside the city limits – fortunately in lightly populated areas. One of them – an unexploded shell- can still be seen inside the madras high court premises- cordoned off from the public and with an almost indecipherably worn out plaque commemorating the bombing. Though the civilian population escaped unhurt from the bombing- the very fact that the city had been shelled caused a massive panic attack and mass exodus from the city. Many families- including my grandparents- left the city the very next day – to get away from- in the picturesque words of my grandpa “as far away from the coast as possible”. Because the citizens of madras city strongly believed that the bombing of the port was not just a coincidence but an advance softening before landing troops on the ground. Entire areas of the city like royapuram and chintadripet were evacuated and people fled by whatever mode of transport was available- even walking all day- into the neighboring towns like chingleput and kancheepuram to get away from the soon to be coming German army.
If there was one group of citizens who welcomed the German invasion it was the looters and freebooters who found the lure of the hastily vacated houses too rich a temptation to resist. The police force was also busy in organizing a cordon sanitaire around the port area and in organizing civil defense forces to give much care to preventing local looting. The citizens who fled in panic later returned to find entire homes looted and bare. The local British government imposed strict rationing of essentials which did more to plummet their popularity than any other single step as the people despaired of supporting a war effort which did nothing to protect their very homes from bombardment by the enemy. The might of the British empire stood exposed as mere words and people lost their fear of London- which alone had kept the millions of India at awe of the British and subservient to the British raj.
Meanwhile the assault on madras city brought a rare awareness to the people of India that they were not as isolated from world affairs as they had thought hither till. The vernacular newspapers highlighted the struggle between the allied and axis powers to assert their supremacy as a world war on their own doorstep. The overseas shipment of Indian sepoys as canon fodder to the battlefields of the Middle East and Africa brought the war home in a very personal way to even otherwise unaware Indians. The vast populace which till then had only worried about putting food on the table began to realize that their fate was not their own and a sudden death could visit them for reasons unknown and wars which had nothing to do with them. A new awareness dawned on the people that they were being exploited for fighting others wars and the situation was ripe for ferment. And then Mk Gandhi landed on the shores of India and spoke to the masses in their own language and about their own issues igniting the flame of freedom finally. But that is a story for another day.
So let me conclude by giving the local Tamil translation of the word “Emden”- referring to a cunning person who is often implacably vindictive. Thus the German Cruiser Emden after a single action still lives on in popular Indian consciousness as not only the first and only enemy ship to shell mainland India but also to unshackle the minds of the Indians from the fear of the invincible British army which had decimated them during the mutiny. The Germans in the end won out- they may have lost the First World War and their quest for colonies on a par with the British Empire but they made sure that the British Raj lost out too- in a mere thirty five years the British lost the crown jewel of their colonial empire and India stood free as an independent nation. In the end Emden had stuck a blow for Indian independence too.