Reluctant Visitors

Not all visitors to the Nilgiris were happy about being there. Since the blue mountains were opened up, many foes, first of the East India Company and then of the Raj, found themselves held either in prison camps or under house arrest here.

Ketti Valley- Photo credit Joel Carol Bringle

The most notable were the Chinese prisoners from the Straits Settlements and the Boxer Rebellion, Afghans and finally the nationalists such as Sarat Chandra Bose the brother of Subhas Chandra Bose.   
One set of prisoners of war who don’t find much mention in Nilgiri lore are the burghers who were brought here after the second Anglo-Boer War (1889-1902).  This war was fought between the British Empire and two Boer colonies, the Transvaal and the Orange Free State.
The British had finally defeated the Boers after the long, drawn out guerilla operations which followed the actual battles. The British also rounded up the civilian population in these states to prevent civilian support for the guerillas. Boers, who were captured, were sent to camps in other Crown colonies such as India.
A letter postmarked Boer Camp, Kaity stamped on July 6. From John Ahmad's collection

John Ahmad, a retired University Math lecturer based in the UK, became interested in Boer War and the Prisoners of War (POW) as an extension of his stamp collecting hobby. He has taken a great interest in the POW camps in India and other places. 
He writes, “The Anglo-Boer War lasted from October 1899 to 31st May 1902, during which time the British captured some 32,500 prisoners. Due to concerns over keeping them in secure custody, 24,000 were sent abroad to camps in St Helena, Ceylon, Bermuda and India; over 9,000 of them being sent to India.
The first batch arrived in Bombay on 23rd April 1901, with the final batch arriving on 28th May 1902, just days before the Peace was signed”.
In January of 1901, St John Brodrick, the Secretary of State at the War Office wrote to the India office asking whether it was possible to set up a POW camp on the Nilgiri Plateau, west of Ootacamund. John Ahmad writes that Brodrick followed this letter with another note  a fortnight later, marked 'Most Pressing', asking for an early reply to the suggestion of a camp in the Nilgiris, as the situation was becoming acute with the camps in St Helena and Ceylon now full to capacity.
 The Viceroy, Lord Curzon, however, was not favorably inclined to this proposal.  He notified the India office that there would be problems with the site earmarked for the camp on the Nilgiri Plateau because of the poor water supply and the high incidence of diseases such as typhoid in that area.  He suggested that the War office should look at other sites in the Bombay and Madras Presidencies.
 Finally, three camps were established in the Madras Presidency; in Bellary, Kaity and Trichnopoly. The camp at Kaity or Ketti valley, as we now know it, opened on May 15 1902 and closed on August 5 1902. The former inmates of this camp were then moved to a camp in Wellington – most probably to the barracks- before being sent back home, to South Africa.
 The camp in Kaity had 821 burghers and was known as the parolers’ camp. The climate was described by them, most probably in letters home, as “cold and damp”.
The POWs were accommodated in huts made of corrugated iron. They were also given the same provisions and rations that were given to British troops.
 The camp authorities were not too strict. Some of the burghers worked for a short while at the Cordite Factory in nearby Aruvankadu. The behavior of the POWs was said to be “very good” with just a few incidents of drunkenness.
Confirming the fears expressed by the Viceroy, a number of the deaths in the camp were a result of typhoid; the dead were buried at the Ketti-Basel Missionary cemetery, the Wellington cemetery and in Ootacamund.
This information was sourced by John Ahmad from a report of the Quarter Master General in India which was published in 1904, in Simla.  

The last two  pictures are from John Ahmad's collection and are from theTrichnopoly camp. I have added it because I found it interesting. Take a look at the letter dated January 28 which was posted on March 4. The letter is so innocuous that, I am sure, it got the interest of the censors. 


  1. Great read. So much of history in the Nilgiris. And we grew up there totally unaware of all this.

  2. Wow...history at its best when woven with your writing style...!!!you've sure dug into some history here!!!good job...n now I am eagerly waiting for your blogs...keep wondering what your going to come with next!!!addicted now!!!

  3. Thanks a lot Nimi and Tessy.. really encouraging..

  4. Shalini Arun writes:
    Nina,so much of history and nobody knows about this. Wish you wd publish them as a book soon.Good Luck

  5. Really nice job and so very informative too. I keep wondering what you will teach me next about the Nilgiris. Love your literary style!


  6. Thanks Usha for reading and appreciating. Nina

  7. I am enjoying these blogs, nina! some old time fotos would add to its greatness, keep it up - prem

  8. Prem Nath Paliath: that is my problem.. dont have any pictures

  9. Hi Nina...that was a fascinating read. Nimmi did mention that you were working on this project. Incidentally I did send her a recent photo of a memorial erected in Ketti Valley by the South Africans in memory of the Boer POWs that you speak of. You could also find interesting old B&W Photos of some of the Handicrafts that the POWs made on the net. They also worked in the Beer factory in Ketti.
    Quote "While I have examined the meaning of the graves in South Africa, it must also be noted in passing that the graves have registered very faintly in India itself. In 1960, an official in the Nilgiris reported that the graves at Ketti were in disrepair and that it was important to maintain them “to vindicate our national honour, prestige and obligations in the eyes of the visitors from other countries

  10. Anil Mani.. thanks for the interest.


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