Of all the memorial plaques in Chennai's Anglican cathedral, this is the one that most caught my eye: Ralph Horsley, a civil servant in his mid-20s, killed 'by the hand of an unknown assassin'. And look at the date: 1856, a year before the great uprising which Britain came to describe as the Indian Mutiny.
The timing, and the use of the word 'assassin', makes you wonder whether the young Mr Horsley was the victim of a politically-motivated attack.
The church which houses this memorial - St George's Cathedral - dates back to 1815 and is one of the grandest of the colonial-era churches in India. Inside it is sumptuous, and a treasure-trove of high colonial plaques, memorials, statues and tablets ... which will be the subject of my next post on this blog.
But what of Ralph Horsley and his seemingly brutal demise? Well, he was India-born in 1831. His birthplace was Courtallum, a small resort in the Western Ghats in the far south of the country. His father was also a member of the Madras Civil Service.
At the time of his death, Ralph rejoiced in the title of Acting Head Assistant Collector at Bellary - a city now with a population of 400,000 and in the state of Karnataka but then part of the Madras Presidency.
Horsley is buried in the cantonment cemetery at Bellary, apparently one of the last interments there. And a Raj antiquarian, J.J,. Cotton - who listed all the British graves in the Madras Presidency, a resource now online - set down what he understood to have befallen this stalwart of Empire. Here's his account:
'The murder took place in the whist room of the present Bellary Club, then a private house, into which the deceased and his younger brother, W.D. Horsley, a student at college, had recently moved. The situation was lonely, the house standing by itself and being commanded on three sides by hills. On the night of the July 4th, at about half past twelve, Mr. Ralph Horsley was heard to call to his servants sleeping in the verandah, and was found a few minutes later lying dead in his writing room, which opened out of the bed room. An office box was then missing from its usual place under the cot, and was subsequently discovered broken open on the rocks some 300 yards away, the only object stolen being the silver handle of a seal. On an examination of the deceased’s body, it was seen that the wound, a stab in the back, must have been sufficient to cause instantaneous death. No trace of the murderers was discoverable. The peons and servants had apparently heard nothing to attract their attention, although four of them were sleeping in the front verandah of the house. An inquest was held and an exhaustive enquiry instituted by Mr. C.R. Pelly, the Collector, but the crime long remained a mystery. It seemed probable that robbery and not murder was the motive of the intruders, and that Mr. Horsley was stabbed while endeavouring to prevent the theft of his month’s pay. Several persons were arrested at the time on suspicion, but were subsequently discharged. At last in 1864, a man, about to be hanged at Delhi for another crime, made a full confession of Horsley’s murder, giving such details and so correct a description of the treasury then in the Fort and of Horsley’s house that the Collector and Horsley’s brother William had no doubt that his statement was true and had cleared up the whole secret.'
Curiously, another resource - also happily online - seems to have a different wording for Horsley's memorial in the cathedral (perhaps there's a second tablet somewhere) as well as listing several other violent deaths, some at least of which were clearly political even if Horsley's was not.
The Horsley family seems to have been steeped in Empire and in the East India Company. Ralph's father, John Horsley, was born in Calcutta; the birthplace of his mother, Elizabeth Story, was Cawnpore (now Kanpur) in north India; Ralph's younger brother. W.D. Horsley - the one who was a student at the time of the murder - gave his name to the Horsley hills or Horsley-konda in Andhra Pradesh.
I wonder if Ralph ever saw Britain, the country he chose to serve?
And on a different note - this piece has been posted on the tenth anniversary of this blog's first post. And by the way, Horsley died a century to within a handful of days of my birth. What about that!
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