Column | When a village near Varkala welcomed American Civil War refugees

The Anchuthengu Fort constructed by East India Company in 1699. Photo: Manorama archive

Anchuthengu, the southern Kerala coastal village whose name literally means five coconut trees, has seen its fair share of foreign visitors over the centuries. The Portuguese, who had an even tougher time pronouncing Malayalam words than the British, called the village Anjengo, making it sound like a place in Goa.

Villagers regularly interacted with the Portuguese and British and also met a series of journeymen and traders from other parts of Europe, but little could have prepared them for the events of April, 1864, when a ship came with what were essentially American refugees.

Citizens of what some papers then called the “Disunited States of America” carried their loyalties abroad during the American Civil War (1861-65). Ships manned by crew loyal to the southern part of the United States plied international waters under the flag of the breakaway Confederate States of America. Archival records show that such sharp divisions led to a clash in the waters off Kerala.

Confederate ship in Indian waters

On the afternoon of April 5, 1864, when the 1100-tonne Emma Jane set sail from Bombay, little did Captain Jordan know what was in store for his crew as it commenced its journey towards southern India, Colombo and the Burmese port of Moulmein. When Emma Jane was moving towards the southern tip of the subcontinent, it was spotted by Alabama, a ship flying the Confederate flag.

This led to an attack that extended the theatre of the American Civil War all the way to the coast of southern Kerala.

A report from the Cochin Chronicle described the sequence of events that followed the sighting of the Union ship by Alabama: “She approached the Emma Jane with American flag flying, and when a short distance from her fired a gun to make her heave to, and sent an armed boat on board.” The paper added, “The Emma Jane at this period also showed American colours, but the moment the armed boat reached alongside, the American flag was struck, and the Confederate banner hoisted on board the steamer, which at once proved her hostile character, to the amazement and dismay of the crew of the now helpless victim.”

Captain Semmes of Alabama demanded to see the papers of Emma Jane and when it was confirmed that the ship’s loyalty was to the Abraham Lincoln administration, he called it a war prize and said it would be burned!

Emma Jane’s crew was given 20 minutes to leave the ship.

“Mrs Jordan, the commander’s wife, was allowed to bring away all her wearing apparel, the commander a trunk, and each officer and man, a bag containing clothing only,” the Cochin Chronicle reported. “Several boats were then sent on board, all the provisions and stores, and other valuables removed to the Alabama, and the Emma Jane was set on fire.”

A total of 20 prisoners were taken on board Alabama from where they watched their ship burn. The Confederate steamer’s captain tried to recruit Emma Jane’s crew by offering high wages to the prisoners and even spoils of the loot from their ship. This offer was, however, turned down. Alabama then set sail for the port of Anjengo, as it was then called.

The group was given nine days-worth of provisions and asked to find their way to Cochin from the village. Residents of Anchuthengu must surely have been amused at the site of the Americans who were dumped in their fishing village. Nothing would have seemed more alien to them than the war being fought on the other side of the world by two groups of settler colonialists over the enslavement of the descendants of kidnapped Africans.

After its triumph over Emma Jane, the Confederate ship headed north. A report in the Times of India from April, 1864, said: “The Alabama is now reported to be cruising off Bombay harbour, lying in wait for the American ice ship now due, and for several American ships in this port under charter to put to sea within a few days.”

The paper added that it was “certainly a very awkward consideration” for the authorities in Bombay to potentially receive Captain Semmes.

No reports suggest that a further confrontation took place between Alabama and ships flying the American flag off Indian waters.

(Ajay Kamalakaran is a multilingual writer, primarily based in Mumbai)

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