The Indo-German conspiracy to liberate India during World War I

On the night of July 30, 1916, the residents of New Jersey were awakened by a thunderous detonation accompanied by a very violent jolt: a thousand tons of munitions stored in Black Tom, an artificial island located at the mouth of the Hudson River, very close to the Statue of Liberty, which also received such damage to its torch that it was necessary to replace it. Likewise, the stained glass windows of the Cathedral of San Patricio were shattered and the wall of the City Hall was cracked.

The worst thing was that seven people died and hundreds were injured; immigrants waiting on Ellis Island had to be evacuated because ensuing fires continued to break out in minor outbreaks for hours.

Although at first two security guards were accused of having lit some lanterns, the investigations soon pointed in another, much more serious direction: it was an attack organized by German agents (the First World War was at its height) with the collaboration of two nationalist groups, one Irish (Clan na Gael) and another Indian (Ghadar Party), together with the support of some communist militants.

Black Tom Explosion Effects/Photo: Public Domain on Wikimedia Commons

This case would soon be related to another that occurred the previous year, in which the same groups participated and which consisted of a transport of weapons (2,400 Springfield carbines, 400 Hockoss rifles, 500 Colt revolvers, 250 Mauser pistols and millions of of cartridges) from the US to India to equip a rebellion against the British Raj. The ships where they were to be taken, called Maverick Y annie larsenwere intercepted and the second gave its name to the subsequent process, which lasted until 1917 in what was the longest trial in American history.

Surely more than one is wondering why the Indians (from India, not Americans) got involved in this and the reason is known by various names: Indo-German Conspiracy, Hindu Conspiracy, Ghadar Conspiracy or even just the German Plot. . They are not exact denominations because not all the participants were of the Hindu religion (Muslims and Sikhs were also involved), apart from Irish and Turks. In any case, the collaboration between one and the other against what they considered to be common enemies is obvious, even though at the time of the incidents described, the US was still officially neutral.

The desire for greater autonomy, and even to shake off British rule altogether, had been growing since the founding of the Indian National Congress in 1885, and in some places, such as the Punjab and Bengal, it took on violent overtones, especially after the division of India. last in 1905. That extremism was reflected in the creation of radical groups such as play either Anushilan Samitiwhich promoted political assassinations and even threatened the Viceroy of India himself in 1912. The repression was harsh but unsuccessful and when the First World War broke out, new possibilities opened up for Indian activists.

The Germans incited them into open rebellion, promising them arms and ammunition. Thus began to spread an exalted nationalism that opened offices in England (Indian houses, they were called) taking advantage of the wide community of compatriots established there; but also in the US, where they also contacted the Irish counterpart groups learning organization, logistics and diverse advice from them. In America (mainly on the West Coast and Canada) there was also a considerable Indian immigrant population, especially from the Punjab, and the marginalization to which they were subjected constituted a good breeding ground for spreading the idea and recruiting militants.

It was on the Pacific coast, especially in San Francisco, where this situation favored the founding of the Ghadar Party in 1913. It was led by Har Dayal and its president was Sohan Singh Bhakna; The first, a Punjabi, had a somewhat mixed ideology in which he mixed atheism with Buddhism, pacifism with revolution, and Marx with Bakunin. A good student, scholarship holder at Oxford, he traded his wealthy life for austerity and the cause. For his part, Sohan Singh Bhakna also came from the Punjab but emigrated to the US, where he worked in menial trades and felt betrayed by Canada’s restrictive anti-immigrant legislation.

The Ghadar movement was born with the idea of ​​driving the British out of India by force, encouraging the soldiers to revolt and promoting terrorist actions. Of course, London pressured Washington to put an end to those subversive activities, but with the outbreak of the world war, the so-called Berlin Committee, later renamed the Indian Independence Committee, was also formed in Germany, which received the support of the Foreign Ministry, which allowed mutual collaboration on American soil through the German consulate in San Francisco.

It was the German radio that in May 1914 publicly announced that the ship Komagata Maru, carrying four hundred Indian emigrants, was preparing to arrive in Vancouver. As they calculated, the Canadian government prevented his arrival and forced him to turn around, causing unrest in the Indian community; nothing compared to the riots that occurred when they returned to the starting point, after the British authorities arrested them. The situation was deemed dangerous enough to send a force of fifteen thousand men to the crown jewel.

This contingent was partly due to the fact that the Ghadar’s work spread to the Asian colonies: Hong Kong, Canton, Shanghai… Also to Korea, China and Japan, where they tried to buy weapons on a large scale or, in the Chinese case, allow the transport of these to India through its territory in exchange for Teutonic military advice. Sun Yat Sen’s refusal to form an alliance with the European country frustrated the operation. Then the most diverse plans followed one another, from attacking Lord Kitchener (with the help of Egyptian revolutionaries) or other leaders such as the Frenchman Poincaré or the Italian King Vittorio Emmanuel II (according to anarchists) to placing bombs in the port of Liverpool, attack the Lahore arsenal or incite the native troops to mutiny.

All failed, some due to practical impossibility, others when discovered by the secret services. As we have seen, neither the smuggling of arms from the US in the Annie Larson it went right. However, some minor armament thefts did succeed and a general uprising was projected for February 21, 1915: the horsemen of the Punjab cavalry they were to kill their officers as a signal to start the rebellion, which would continue in Delhi, Lahore and Bengal. A leak ruined everything and several suspicious regiments were disbanded while a wave of arrests broke out. Even so, some bodies mutinied, such as the Fifth Light Infantry or various units from the Malay States, in total some eight hundred and fifty troops who ended up executed or deported.

Sikhs aboard the Komagata Maru/Photo: public domain on Wikimedia Commons

The attempts continued. In April 1915, another large arms shipment was prepared from the United States, which included 7,300 Springfield carbines, nearly 2,000 pistols, 10 Gatling guns, and 3 million cartridges. the ship SS Djember It was supposed to take them to Surabaya (in present-day Indonesia) but once again the counterintelligence did its job well, frustrating the operation. Meanwhile, in Bengal the uprising planned by German agents for Christmas of that year failed, as all those shipments did not arrive and lacked means.

It wasn’t all down to the Indian subcontinent. In Afghanistan there was a continuation of the 19th century Great Game with Germany substituting for Russia in the role of destabilizing the region in order to force Britain to divert troops there. The Indo-German tares incited the Afghan tribes to rebel but there was no coordination and by mid-1916 the Germans had to throw in the towel (although they would still try to force the move in the following years, inviting the Soviets to a joint action that would not materialize either). ). Indian attempts in Egypt and Mesopotamia were also unsuccessful because they were seen as mere Berlin puppets.

In any case, after the Annie Larsen affair, arrests and the dismantling of pro-Indian groups were unleashed, trial after trial followed, thus drowning the movement. The infiltrators introduced into the Ghadar ended up giving it the last straw in 1919 and although there were outbreaks again in the Second World War (we saw it out of the blue in another article), we would have to wait until its end for decolonization to become a reality.


Indian history (Barbara D. Metcalf and Thomas R. Metcalf)/Freedom fighters from India (Lion MG Agrawal)/Echoes of Mutiny. Race, surveillance, and indian anticolonialism in North America (Seema Sohi)/Insurrection to agitation. The Naxalite Movement in Punjab (Paramjit S. Judge)/Spies, wiretaps, and secret operation (Glenn P. Hastedt)/Wikipedia