Naval Chronicles from the Past
Navy Week / Day Special

S Balakrishnan *

  Rani Islonk's Grave, Nicobar
Rani Islonk's Grave, Nicobar

A Century-old 1924 Gazette on “Marine Fund”

Exactly 100 years back, a welfare fund was created for the men of Indian army and marine force by the British government. I stumbled on this archival document (Gazette) while scanning through my Pandora Box(es) to clear off unwanted things. Well, actually I never discard any old items but only regroup/rearrange them to the dismay of my wife, because my Pandora Boxes occupy the whole loft, the only loft in our house.

This and some old legal stamp papers (one dating back to 1872) and even a few palm leaves, I had salvaged from my grandfather’s wooden bureau. As a little boy of 12-13 years in late 1960s, I collected them just out of curiosity without realizing their value and importance. Now, after my retirement, as I leisurely go through them I find them to be invaluable papers, revealing the past.

This District Gazette Supplement of November 1924 explains why this “Indo-Burma Military Marine Fund” was created and for what purposes its reserve could be used. This Fund was created out of the balance of contribution by the public during various periods in the past for specific purposes after the Afghan War of 1879-1880.

The 28,000 sovereigns left in the Burma war fund have also been included in the corpus fund. It has been proposed to use the money for helping /assisting the army and Royal Indian Marine naval force men. Both combatant ranks (those who took part in the battle) and non-combatant servants (those who were not in the battle front) who served during the Great War (World War – I, 1914-1918), and those who crossed the seas to serve during the war, those who served in the borders, and those who participated in other wars in India and were disabled, and the families of those martyred would be eligible for welfare assistance from this Fund which will be maintained by Indian Soldiers Board.

Except these two categories, no one else would be assisted out of this Fund even under any special circumstances, the Gazette categorically asserts.

Till a firm opinion is formed about the functioning of this Fund, only the following type of assistance would be extended – only a lump sum would be granted; this could be used for the wedding of the daughter or for establishing a business/shop. Till pension is sanctioned, this lump sum could be used as a reserve for one or even up to a maximum of two years. The Board members are not inclined to extend the help in small amounts every now & then, the Gazette explains the modus operandi of the Fund.

Those desirous of seeking assistance from out of this Fund should apply to the President of the respective District Soldiers’ Board, explains the Gazette. The said President would enquire into the derails and, if found eligible, would recommend the application to the Secretary of Madras Soldiers’ Board at Fort St. George Secretariat (in Madras/ now Chennai), concludes the Gazette.

This 1924 District Gazette Supplement has been printed by the Superintendent, Government Press, Madras, and published by the Treasury Deputy Collector of the District. The written Tamil language of 1924 combined with the official style really sounds funny and odd.

The Royal Coat of Arms

Probably I was attracted by the Royal Coat of Arms of the British Kingdom in collecting this document. The majestic Royal Coat of Arms of the United Kingdom features a lion and unicorn with the motto "Dieu et mon droit".

This French phrase translates to "God and my right". It appears on a scroll beneath the shield of the coat of arms. The motto means that the king is "Rex Angliae Dei gratia" ("King of England by the grace of God"). It is used to imply that the monarch of a nation has a God-given (divine) right to rule.

Another Old French phrase also appears in the full achievement of the Royal Arms: the motto of the Order of the Garter, Honi soit qui mal y pense ("Shamed be the one who thinks ill of it"), appears on a representation of a garter behind the shield. Modern French spelling has changed honi to honni, but the motto has not been updated. The crowned Lion’s face resembles that of a man, perhaps representing the king?

A woman drives away Emden ship

We are celebrating Indian Navy Week (Dec. 01-07) and Navy Day (4th Dec.) to commemorate the daring exploits of this young Armed Force in the 1971 (Indo-Pak) operations. The missile era was heralded on the night of 03/04 Dec. 1971 in South Asia with the first launch of missiles on Karachi. The missiles, apart from sinking three Pak ships at sea, set the harbour ablaze. This fire further helped naval & air attacks.

As I write this, I am reminded of the daring exploits of a tribal woman in the remote Nicobar Island during World War I (1914-18). In October 1914, the German light cruiser SMS Emden was tasked to take on the British ships in the Indian Ocean and while sailing, it reached Nancowrie (in Nicobar Group of Islands). Then, the chief of the island was Princess Islonk, who was the British agent/representative there.

She welcomed Emden thinking it was a British ship but soon got to know of its real identity. Realising her mistake, she immediately hoisted the Union Jack flag. Commander Karl Friedrich Max von Muller, captain of Emden, thought that hoisting of the British flag signified that there were some batteries hidden in the jungle. So he quietly departed from Nancowrie, one of the world’s lovely and safe natural harbours.

She was later decorated by the British Government for her timely and courageous service to the Crown. Actually, there were no British soldiers in Nancowrie, nor even a rifle did she have. She was later conferred with the title of ‘Rani of Nancowry’ and served for 35 years. I was fortunate to spot her grave at Champion area of Nancowrie Island during my trip in 1979. She had died in 1954, aged 80.

As is the custom of Nicobarese people, her belongings – a steel trunk box and other items like plate & tumbler – were placed near the grave. As Commander Karl Friedrich Max von Muller fled the island with the light cruiser which had already destroyed several ships transporting troops and provisions for the British, Islonk tipped off the nearest British signal station about Emden.

Emden was destroyed in November 1914 by an Australian light cruiser. In Tamil language, Emden is still used as a nickname to indicate any person who is a terror.

* S Balakrishnan wrote this article for
The writer is from Chennai and can be reached at krishnanbala2004(AT)yahoo(DOT)co(DOT)in
This article was webcasted on December 05 2023.

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