Inside India #32: The Indo-German Conspiracy in WW1

This article is one of a series of 50. Together they explore the history and culture of India from her most ancient civilisations to the nation’s ambitious space programme. All 50 articles will be collected into a digital book and published in due course. To receive a FREE copy of the book, simply register for my newsletter here.

On July 30, 1916, a massive explosion rocked New York harbour. The explosion – centred on a munitions depot housing some 100,000 pounds of TNT – killed four people – including a ten-week-old infant – wrecked warehouses, caused $20m worth of damage, and sent fragments hurtling across the harbour, damaging the Statue of Liberty.

Picture attribution: Wing Cheung, CC 4.0

Windows were shattered twenty-five miles away.

The attack took place on a small island in the harbour called Black Tom Island. The island is artificial, created by land fill, and linked to the mainland via a causeway. During the First World War, it served as a major munitions store for the Northeastern United States.

A little context: until 1915, US munitions companies were at liberty to sell their wares to any buyer of their choosing. With WW1 underway, and following the commencement of a blockade of Germany – aimed at preventing the supply of goods to Germany and her allies – this policy was overhauled, with sales restricted to the Allied Powers.

An incensed Germany responded by sending agents to America to disrupt the production and delivery of munitions to its new enemies.

Black Tom became an obvious target.

The initial American investigation into the explosion identified a Slovak immigrant by the name of Michael Kristoff as the mastermind behind the operation.

Under questioning, Kristoff admitted to working for German agents.

A later investigation – in the wake of a gun-running plot involving India’s Ghadar Party, the Irish Republican Brotherhood, and the German Foreign Office – part of the so-called ‘Indo-German Conspiracy’ – suggested an Indian connection.

The Indo-German Conspiracy, in essence, refers to a series of actions carried out between 1914 and 1917 by Indian nationalists to foment rebellion against the British Raj during WW1.

Indian exiles and rebels formed the Ghadar Party in America and the Berlin Committee in Germany. Their aim was to push for Indian Independence through any means necessary, including violence. The Ghadar Party was particularly incensed that the Gandhi-led Congress Party had agreed, in 1914, to back the British war effort, leading to a million Indians being conscripted. They took umbrage at the idea of Indian blood being spilled on behalf of India’s colonial overlords.

The Germans were only too happy to help.

A key tenet of the ‘conspiracy’ was the moving of arms, clandestinely, from America to the subcontinent in order to help Indian nationalists fight the Raj. Germany hoped to sap the British Empire, by attacking one of her strongest assets, the ‘jewel in the British crown’ – India.

In the country itself, Germany sought allies among the revolutionaries of Bengal and Punjab, and a smattering of Indian nobles disgruntled with British rule.

Meanwhile, in May 1917, following the Black Tom explosion and the investigation carried out in its wake, eight members of the Ghadar Party were tried in America on charges of ‘conspiracy to form a military enterprise against Britain’. The British hoped that the conviction of the Indians would result in their deportation from the United States back to India. To their intense dismay, the Americans refused. By then, public support had swung in favour of the Indians, and the Americans were loath to cave in to British demands.

Nevertheless, moments after the closing arguments were heard, one of the defendants, Ram Singh, pulled out a gun and shot his former comrade, Ram Chandra – Singh was incensed that Chandra had confessed and made a deal with the prosecution.

Singh was subsequently shot dead by a US Marshall.

The British – working with American intelligence agencies – expended enormous effort in combating the Indo-German alliance and managed to largely subdue the conspiracy by the end of the war. Nevertheless, the various actions undertaken by the conspirators played an important role in both the Indian independence movement and in re-evaluating British policies in India.

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This article is one of a series of 50 that I will be publishing on my website. Together these pieces explore the history and culture of India from her most ancient civilisations to the nation’s ambitious space programme. You can read all 50 pieces here.

All 50 articles will be collected into a digital book and published in due course. To receive a FREE copy of the book, simply register for my newsletter here. The newsletter goes out every three months and contains updates on book releases, articles, competitions, giveaways, and lots of other interesting stuff. 

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