Payback And The Raj: The Kidnapping Of Mollie Ellis By Ajab Khan

Payback And The Raj: The Kidnapping Of Mollie Ellis By Ajab Khan
Exactly a hundred years back in April 1923, a 16-year-old English girl Mollie Ellis, the daughter of Major Ellis, was kidnapped from Kohat cantonment by Afridi tribesmen, but was soon recovered unharmed. The kidnapping was the outcome of a ‘barampta’ raid on the home of a gang of Adamkhel Afridis of Darra, led by Ajab Khan and his brother Shahzada. The British authorities suspected them of stealing rifles and directed the Frontier Constabulary to arrest those responsible. It was feared that the main accused would flee the house wearing women’s clothes. The Constabulary, therefore, started checking all inmates, which included some women who were leaving the area.

Ajab Khan considered this searching of the women to be insulting, and an affront to local conventions. He promised revenge, and shortly thereafter, led a gang at night who entered the house of Major Ellis in Kohat Cantonment. The Major was away on military exercises but his wife, on hearing footsteps, blew the whistle provided for such an emergency. To prevent the alarm being raised, Shahzada stabbed and killed Mrs Ellis and forcibly took away Mollie.

On being led away, she recognised the surroundings hills, spotting the peak locally called the ‘old woman’s nose.’ The gang travelled westwards towards the Orakzai tribes, finally taking refuge with the Mamuzai tribe. The Akhunzada of Mamuzai was a spiritual leader of great significance, and enjoyed wide esteem. This was a lucky break for Mollie.

The kidnapping of an English girl from the well-protected cantonment was deeply humiliating for the government, and in response, two Army divisions started being mobilised. Simultaneously, three prominent Pakhtun government officials, Sheikh Mahboob Ali, Quli Khan Khattak and Mughal Baz Khan Afridi, organised tribal jjrgas to negotiate her release.

The Chief Commissioner NWFP Sir John Maffey personally supervised the recovery effort from Shinawari Fort, which was the gateway to the Orakzai tribe.

Once the jirga had established contact with Mahmud Akhundzada, an exceptionally brave volunteer nurse Lillian Starr, from the Mission Hospital in Peshawar, travelled deep into the Tribal Areas with some supplies to comfort Mollie. The devoted efforts of the tribal jirgas coupled with the threat of the army divisions being assembled had the desired result. Lillian Starr was soon able to bring Mollie back through the Yakho Kandao Pass and was received in great style by the Chief Commissioner and the military officers. Mollie later recalled, “my father was waiting. I don’t think we said a word, we just fell into each other’s arms.” She was unharmed and unmolested, to the great relief of everyone, as mentioned by Lillian Starr in her book Tales from Tirah and Lesser Tibet.
Ajab Khan and Shahzada died natural deaths in Afghanistan. Much later, I was informed that six persons from their extended family were killed resisting the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan; the rest arrived in Pakistan as war refugees

Mollie in the front row, and nurse Lillian Starr who travelled to care for her may be seen in the back

“I knew the Pathans didn’t molest women. They’d kill you, but they wouldn’t molest you.” The Pakhtun kidnappers behaved ‘honourably’ on this count.

Mollie and her father returned to England, after Mrs Ellis’s burial in Kohat cemetery, where her tombstone reminds one that life “tis but a little while” and no more.

The kidnapping issue, however, did not end with the return of Mollie, as the British administration made sure that they punished the gang by exiling them all to northern Afghanistan and then razing their houses in Darra Adamkhel to the ground. One from the gang was arrested, tried and executed. Ajab Khan and Shahzada died natural deaths in Afghanistan. Much later, I was informed that six persons from their extended family were killed resisting the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan; the rest arrived in Pakistan as war refugees.

In 1979, when the author was in England for an advanced degree course, Mollie Wade was contacted through the courtesy of the grand old man of the Frontier, Sir Olaf Caroe, the last British Governor of NWFP. (His reply was deeply moving, mentioning his pleasure in writing to a “Durrani,” the “rulers of Afghanistan from Ahmad Shah to Zahir Shah and Sardar Daud”).

I then travelled to Suffolk to meet her. She was quite frail by then. In one breath, she spoke of the sad events of the early part of the century, and then in the next switched to apples growing in her small garden. She did wonder how ordinary people through sheer chance could shape history and how many thousands could have been killed as a result. She provided me with a penned-down version of her account. She still felt the pain of her mother’s murder after all those years, and was angry with some of the film producers for falsifying her role in the tragedy.

After sixty years, “a little while” later, Mollie Wade née Ellis visited Pakistan, mainly to see her mother’s grave in Kohat cemetery. A new tombstone was created from a photograph provided by Mollie. Brigadier Zafar Hayat, a former hockey Olympian, then posted in Kohat, also placed a tablet commemorating her visit.

On her visit to her mother's grave in 1983, Kohat, Pakistan

Later, the Khyber Rifles in Landi Kotal invited her to an elaborate tribal lunch in their mess complete with a pipe band and its accompanying protocol. There I learned of a dinner invitation for Mollie from the Governor of NWFP, Lt General Fazle Haq. Someone not very familiar with her had planned to act in a great reconciliatory role, and suggested to the Governor to invite both Mollie and the sons of Ajab Khan, who were living as Afghan refugees in Pakistan, to the dinner. The Governor was thrilled and looked forward to a historic handshake which would end 60 years of rancour. I was not so sure about her response. When she was informed of the proposed dinner invitation, she unapologetically declined to meet or shake hands with the family members of those who had caused her so much grief. The dinner was attended only by Mollie.

Close to a century later, the event can be seen in different contexts as neatly spelled out in the words of the historian Elizabeth Kolsky:

From the colonial perspective, the kidnapping was seen as an “outrage” that demonstrated the lawless savagery of the tribes who inhabited this strategically significant Indo-Afghan borderland. From the local perspective, the kidnappers led by Ajab Khan Afridi were valiant heroes who boldly challenged an alien and oppressive regime. In the British empire, the idea of the frontier signified a racial line dividing civilization from savagery. This space defined the colonial system where ‘no signs of weakness’ could be shown.

Shakil Durrani has served as Chief Secretary KP, Sindh, AJK and GB and was also Chairman Wapda. He can be reached via