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Rambles and recollections of an Indian official!
Major-General Sir W. H. Sleeman, K.C.B.

The Sleemans, an ancient Cornish family, for several generations owned the estate of Pool Park in the parish of Saint Judy, in the county of Cornwall. Captain Philip Sleeman, who married Mary Spry, a member of a distinguished family in the same county, was stationed at Stratton, in Cornwall, on August 8, 1788, when his son William Henry was born.

In 1809, at the age of twenty-one, William Henry Sleeman was nominated, through the good offices of Lord De Dunstanville, to an Infantry Cadetship in the Bengal army. On the 24th of March, in the same year, he sailed from Gravesend in the ship Devonshire, and, having touched at Madeira and the Cape, reached India towards the close of the year.

He arrived at the cantonment of Dinapore, near Patna, on the 20th December, and on Christmas Day began his military career as a cadet. He at once applied himself with exemplary diligence to the study of the Arabic and Persian languages, and of the religions and customs of India. Passing in due course through the ordinary early stages of military life, he was promoted to the rank of ensign on the 23rd September, 1810, and to that of lieutenant on the 16th December, 1814.

Lieutenant Sleeman served in the war with Nepal, which began in 1814 and terminated in 1816. During the campaign he narrowly escaped death from a violent epidemic fever, which nearly destroyed his regiment. 'Three hundred of my own regiment,' he observes, 'consisting of about seven hundred, were obliged to be sent to their homes on sick leave. The greater number of those who remained continued to suffer, and a great many died. Of about ten European officers present with my regiment, seven had the fever and five died of it, almost all in a state of delirium. I was myself one of the two who survived, and I was for many days delirious.[1]

The services of Lieutenant Sleeman during the war attracted attention, and accordingly, in 1816, he was selected to report on certain claims to prize-money. The report submitted by him in February, 1817, was accepted as 'able, impartial, and satisfactory'. After the termination of the war he served with his regiment at Allahabad, and in the neighbouring district of Partābgarh, where he laid the foundation of the intimate knowledge of Oudh affairs displayed in his later writings.


In 1820 he was selected for civil employ, and was appointed Junior Assistant to the Agent of the Governor-General, administering the Sāgar and Nerbudda territories. Those territories, which had been annexed from the Marāthās two years previously, are now included in the jurisdiction of the Chief Commissioner of the Central Provinces.

In such a recently-conquered country, where the sale of all widows by auction for the benefit of the Treasury, and other strange customs still prevailed, the abilities of an able and zealous young officer had ample scope. Sleeman, after a brief apprenticeship, received, in 1822, the independent civil charge of the District of Narsinghpur, in the Nerbudda valley, and there, for more than two years, 'by far the most laborious of his life', his whole attention was engrossed in preventing and remedying the disorders of his District.

Sleeman, during the time that he was in charge of the Narsinghpur District, had no suspicion that it was a favourite resort of Thugs. A few years later, in or about 1830, he was astounded to learn that a gang of Thugs resided in the village of Kandēlī, not four hundred yards from his court-house, and that the extensive groves of Mandēsar on the Sāgar road, only one stage distant from his head-quarters, concealed one of the greatest bhīls, or places of murder, in all India.

The arrest of Feringheea, one of the most influential Thug leaders, having given the key to the secret, his disclosures were followed up by Sleeman with consummate skill and untiring assiduity. In the years 1831 and 1832 the reports submitted by him and other officers at last opened the eyes of the superior authorities and forced them to recognize the fact that the murderous organization extended over every part of India. Adequate measures were then taken for the systematic suppression of the evil. '

Thuggee Sleeman' made it the main business of his life to hunt down the criminals and to extirpate their secret society. He recorded his experiences in the series of valuable publications described in the Bibliography. In this brief memoir it is impossible to narrate in detail the thrilling story of the suppression of Thuggee, and I must be content to pass on and give in bare outline the main facts of Sleeman's honourable career.[2]

While at Narsinghpur, Sleeman received on the 24th April, 1824, brevet rank as Captain. In 1825, he was transferred, and on the 23rd September of the following year, was gazetted Captain. In 1826, failure of health compelled him to take leave on medical certificate. In March, 1828, Captain Sleeman assumed civil and executive charge of the Jabalpur (Jubbulpore) District, from which he was transferred to Sāgar in January, 1831.

While stationed at Jabalpur, he married, on the 21st June, 1829, Amélie Josephine, the daughter of Count Blondin de Fontenne, a French nobleman, who, at the sacrifice of a considerable property, had managed to escape from the Revolution. A lady informs the editor that she remembers Sleeman's fine house at Jabalpur. It stood in a large walled park, stocked with spotted deer. Both house and park were destroyed when the railway was carried through the site.

Mr. C. Eraser, on return from leave in January, 1832, resumed charge of the revenue and civil duties of the Sāgar district, leaving the magisterial duties to Captain Sleeman, who continued to discharge them till January, 1835. By the Resolution of Government dated 10th January, 1835, Captain Sleeman was directed to fix his head-quarters at Jabalpur, and was appointed General Superintendent of the operations for the Suppression of Thuggee, being relieved from every other charge.

In 1835 his health again broke down, and he was obliged to take leave on medical certificate. Accompanied by his wife and little son, he went into camp in November, 1835, and marched through the Jabalpur, Damoh, and Sāgar districts of the Agency, and then through the Native States of Orchhā, Datiyā, and Gwālior, arriving at Agra on the 1st January, 1836. After a brief halt at Agra, he proceeded through the Bharatpur State to Delhi and Meerut, and thence on leave to Simla. During his march from Jabalpur to Meerut he amused himself by keeping the journal which forms the basis of the Rambles and Recollections of an Indian Official.

The manuscript of this work (except the two supplementary chapters) was completed in 1839, though not given to the world till 1844. On the 1st of February, 1837, in the twenty- eighth year of his service, Sleeman was gazetted Major. During the same year he made a tour in the interior of the Himalayas, which he described at length in an unpublished journal. Later in the year he went down to Calcutta to see his boy started on the voyage home.

In February, 1839, he assumed charge of the office of Commissioner for the Suppression of Thuggee and Dacoity. Up to that date the office of Commissioner for the Suppression of Dacoity had been separate from that of General Superintendent of the measures for the Suppression of Thuggee, and had been filled by another officer, Mr. Hugh Eraser, of the Civil Service.

During the next two years Sleeman passed much of his time in the North-Western Provinces, now the Agra Province in the United Provinces of Agra and Oudh, making Murādābād his head-quarters, and thoroughly investigating the secret criminal organizations of Upper India.

In 1841 he was offered the coveted and lucrative post of Resident at Lucknow, vacant by the resignation of Colonel Low; but that officer, immediately after his resignation, lost all his savings through the failure of his bankers, and Sleeman, moved by a generous impulse, wrote to Colonel Low, begging him to retain the appointment.

Sleeman was then deputed on special duty to Bundēlkhand to investigate the grave disorders in that province. While at Jhānsī in December, 1842, he narrowly escaped assassination by a dismissed Afghan sepoy, who poured the contents of a blunderbuss into a native officer in attendance.[3]

During the troubles with Sindhia which culminated in the battle of Mahārājpur, fought on the 29th December, 1843, Sleeman, who had become a Lieut.-Colonel, was Resident at Gwālior, and was actually in Sindhia's camp when the battle unexpectedly began. In 1848 the Residency at Lucknow again fell vacant, and Lord Dalhousie, by a letter dated 16th September, offered Sleeman the appointment in the following terms:

The high reputation you have earned, your experience of civil administration, your knowledge of the people, and the qualifications you possess as a public man, have led me to submit your name to the Council of India as an officer to whom I could commit this important charge with entire confidence that its duties would be well performed.

I do myself, therefore, the honour of proposing to you to accept the office of Resident at Lucknow, with especial reference to the great changes which, in all probability, will take place. Retaining your superintendency of Thuggee affairs, it will be manifestly necessary that you should be relieved from the duty of the trials of Thugs usually condemned at Lucknow.

In the hope that you will not withhold from the Government your services in the capacity I have named, and in the further hope of finding an opportunity of personally making your acquaintance,

I have the honour to be,

Dear Colonel Sleeman,

Very faithfully yours,


The remainder of Sleeman's official life, from January, 1849, was spent in Oudh, and was chiefly devoted to ceaseless and hopeless endeavours to reform the King's administration and relieve the sufferings of his grievously oppressed subjects. On the 1st of December, 1849, the Resident began his memorable three months' tour through Oudh, so vividly described in the special work devoted to the purpose.

The awful revelations of the Journey through the Kingdom of Oude largely influenced the Court of Directors and the Imperial Government in forming their decision to annex the kingdom, although that decision was directly opposed to the advice of Sleeman, who consistently advocated reform of the administration, while deprecating annexation. His views are stated with absolute precision in a letter written in 1854 or 1855, and published in The Times in November, 1857:

We have no right to annex or confiscate Oude; but we have a right, under the treaty of 1837, to take the management of it, but not to appropriate its revenues to ourselves. We can do this with honour to our Government and benefit to the people. To confiscate would be dishonest and dishonourable. To annex would be to give the people a government almost as bad as their own, if we put our screw upon them (Journey, ed. 1858, vol. i, Intro., p. xxi).

The earnest efforts of the Resident to suppress crime and improve the administration of Oudh aroused the bitter resentment of a corrupt court and exposed his life to constant danger. Three deliberate attempts to assassinate him at Lucknow are recorded.

The first, in December, 1851, is described in detail in a letter of Sleeman's dated the 16th of that month, and less fully by General Hervey, in Some Records of Crime, vol. ii, p. 479. The Resident's life was saved by a gallant orderly named Tīkarām, who was badly wounded. Inquiry proved that the crime was instigated by the King's moonshee.

The second attempt, on October 9, 1853, is fully narrated in an official letter to the Government of India (Bibliography, No. 15). Its failure may be reasonably ascribed to a special interposition of Providence. The Resident during all the years he had lived at Lucknow had been in the habit of sleeping in an upper chamber approached by a separate private staircase guarded by two sentries.

On the night mentioned the sentries were drugged and two men stole up the stairs. They slashed at the bed with their swords, but found it empty, because on that one occasion General Sleeman had slept in another room.

The third attempt was not carried as far, and the exact date is not ascertainable, but the incident is well remembered by the family and occurred between 1853 and 1856. One day the Resident was crossing his study when, for some reason or another, he looked behind a curtain screening a recess.

He then saw a man standing there with a large knife in his hand. General Sleeman, who was unarmed, challenged the man as being a Thug. He at once admitted that he was such, and under the spell of a master-spirit allowed himself to be disarmed without resistance. He had been employed at the Residency for some time, unsuspected.

Such personal risks produced no effect on the stout heart of Sleeman, who continued, unshaken and undismayed, his unselfish labours.

In 1854 the long strain of forty-five years' service broke down Sleeman's strong constitution. He tried to regain health by a visit to the hills, but this expedient proved ineffectual, and he was ordered home. On the 10th of February, 1856, while on his way home on board the Monarch, he died off Ceylon, at the age of sixty-seven, and was buried at sea, just six days after he had been granted the dignity of K.C.B.

Lord Dalhousie's desire to meet his trusted officer was never gratified. The following correspondence between the Governor-General and Sleeman, now published for the first time, is equally creditable to both parties:


January 9th, 1856.


I have heard to-day of your arrival in Calcutta, and have heard at the same time with sincere concern that you are still suffering in health. A desire to disturb you as little as possible induces me to have recourse to my pen, in order to convey to you a communication which I had hoped to be able to make in person.

Some time since, when adjusting the details connected with my retirement from the Government of India, I solicited permission to recommend to Her Majesty's gracious consideration the names of some who seemed to me to be worthy of Her Majesty's favour. My request was moderate.

I asked only to be allowed to submit the name of one officer from each Presidency. The name which is selected from the Bengal army was your own, and I ventured to express my hope that Her Majesty would be pleased to mark her sense of the long course of able, and honourable, and distinguished service through which you had passed, by conferring upon you the civil cross of a Knight Commander of the Bath.

As yet no reply has been received to my letter. But as you have now arrived at the Presidency, I lose no time in making known to you what has been done; in the hope that you will receive it as a proof of the high estimation in which your services and character arc held, as well by myself as by the entire community of India.

I beg to remain,

My dear General,

Very truly yours,


Major-General Sleeman.

Reply to above. Dated 11th January, 1856.


I was yesterday evening favoured with your Lordship's most kind and flattering letter of the 9th instant from Barrackpore.

I cannot adequately express how highly honoured I feel by the mention that you have been pleased to make of my services to Her Majesty the Queen, and how much gratified I am by this crowning act of kindness from your Lordship in addition to the many favours I have received at your hands during the last eight years; and whether it may, or may not, be my fate to live long enough to see the honourable rank actually conferred upon me, which you have been so considerate and generous as to ask for me, the letter now received from your Lordship will of itself be deemed by my family as a substantial honour, and it will so preserved, I trust, by my son, with feelings of honest pride, at the thought that his father had merited such a mark of distinction from so eminent a statesman as the Marquis of Dalhousie.

My right hand is so crippled by rheumatism that I am obliged to make use of an amanuensis to write this letter, and my bodily strength is so much reduced, that I cannot hope before embarking for England to pay my personal respects to your Lordship.

Under these unfortunate circumstances, I now beg to take my leave of your Lordship; to offer my unfeigned and anxious wishes for your Lordship's health and happiness, and with every sentiment of respect and gratitude, to subscribe myself,

Your Lordship's most faithful and

Obedient servant,



To the Most Noble

The Marquis of Dalhousie, K.T.,

Governor- General, &c., &c.,


Sir William Sleeman was an accomplished Oriental linguist, well versed in Arabic, Persian, and Urdu, and also in possession of a good working knowledge of Latin, Greek, and French. His writings afford many proofs of his keen interest in the sciences of geology, agricultural chemistry, and political economy, and of his intelligent appreciation of the lessons taught by history. Nor was he insensible to the charms of art, especially those of poetry.

His favourite authors among the poets seem to have been Shakespeare, Milton, Scott, Wordsworth, and Cowper. His knowledge of the customs and modes of thought of the natives of India, rarely equalled and never surpassed, was more than half the secret of his notable success as an administrator. The greatest achievement of his busy and unselfish life was the suppression of the system of organized murder known as Thuggee, and in the execution of that prolonged and onerous task he displayed the most delicate tact, the keenest sagacity, and the highest power of organization.

His own words are his best epitaph: 'I have gone on quietly,' he writes, '"through evil and through good report", doing, to the best of my ability, the duties which it has pleased the Government of India, from time to time, to confide to me in the manner which appeared to me most conformable to its wishes and its honour, satisfied and grateful for the trust and confidence which enabled me to do so much good for the people, and to secure so much of their attachment and gratitude to their rulers.' [5]

His grandson. Captain J. L. Sleeman, who, when stationed in India from 1903 to 1908, visited the scenes of his grandfather's labours, states that everywhere he found the memory of his respected ancestor revered, and was given the assurance that no Englishman had ever understood the native of India so well, or removed so many oppressive evils as General Sir W. H. Sleeman, and that his memory would endure for ever in the Empire to which he devoted his life's work.

This necessarily meagre account of a life which deserves more ample commemoration may be fitly closed by a few words concerning the relatives and descendants of Sir William Sleeman.

His sister and regular correspondent, to whom he dedicated the Rambles and Recollections, was married to Captain Furse, R.N.

His brother's son James came out to India in 1827, joined the 73rd Regiment of the Bengal Army, was selected for employment in the Political Department, and was thus enabled to give valuable aid in the campaign against Thuggee.

In due course he was appointed to the office of General Superintendent of the Operations against Thuggee, which had been held by his uncle. He rose to the rank of Colonel, and after a long period of excellent service, lived to enjoy nearly thirty years of honourable retirement. He died at his residence near Ross in 1899 at the age of eighty-one.

In 1831 Sir William's only son, Henry Arthur, was gazetted to the 16th (Queen's) Lancers, and having retired early from the army, with the rank of Captain, died in 1905.

His elder son William Henry died while serving with the Mounted Infantry during the South African War. His younger son, James Lewis, a Captain in the Royal Sussex Regiment, who also saw active service during the war, and was mentioned in dispatches, has a distinguished African and Indian record, and recently received the honorary degree of M.A. from the Belfast University for good work done in establishing the first Officers' Training Corps in Ireland.

The family of Captain James Lewis Sleeman consists of two sons and a daughter, namely, John Cuthbert, Richard Brian, and Ursula Mary. Captain Sleeman, as the head of his family, possesses the MSS. &c. of his distinguished grandfather. The two daughters of Sir William who survived their father married respectively Colonel Dunbar and Colonel Brooke.


1. Journey through the Kingdom of Oude, vol. ii, p. 105.

2. The general reader may consult with advantage Meadows Taylor, The Confessions of a Thug, the first edition of which appeared in 1839; and the vivid account by Mark Twain in More Tramps Abroad, chapters 49,50.

3. The incident is described in detail in a letter dated December 18, 1842, from Sleeman to his sister Mrs. Furse. Captain J. L. Sleeman has kindly furnished me with a copy of the letter, which is too long for reproduction in this place.

4. This letter is printed in full in the Journey through the Kingdom of Oude, pp. xvii-xix.

5. Letter to Lord Hardinge, dated Jhansee, 4th March, 1848, printed in Journey through the Kingdom of Oude, vol. i, p. xxvii.

The book




1893 1915




Annual Fairs held on the Banks of Sacred Streams in India


Hindoo System of Religion


Legend of the Nerbudda River


A Suttee on the Nerbudda


Marriages of Trees—The Tank and the Plantain—Meteors—Rainbows


Hindoo Marriages


The Purveyance System


Religious Sects—Self-government of the Castes—Chimneysweepers—Washerwomen —Elephant Drivers


The Great Iconoclast—Troops routed by Hornets—The Rānī of Garhā—Hornets' Nests in India


The Peasantry and the Land Settlement




The Silver Tree, or 'Kalpa Briksha'—The 'Singhāra', or Trapa bispinosa, and the Guinea-Worm


Thugs and Poisoners


Basaltic Cappings of the Sandstone Hills of Central India—Suspension Bridge—Prospects of the Nerbudda Valley—Deification of a Mortal


Legend of the Sāgar Lake—Paralysis from eating the Grain of the Lathyrus sativus


Suttee Tombs—Insalubrity of deserted Fortresses


Basaltic Cappings—Interview with a Native Chief—A Singular Character


Birds' Nests—Sports of Boyhood


Feeding Pilgrims—Marriage of a Stone with a Shrub


The Men-Tigers


Burning of Deorī by a Freebooter—A Suttee


Interview with the Rājā who marries the Stone to the Shrub—Order of the Moon and the Fish


The Rājā of Orchhā—Murder of his many Ministers


Corn Dealers—Scarcities—Famines in India


Epidemic Diseases—Scape-goat


Artificial Lakes in Bundēlkhand-Hindoo, Greek, and Roman Faith




Pestle-and-Mortar Sugar-Mills—Washing away of the Soil


Interview with the Chiefs of Jhānsī—Disputed Succession


Haunted Villages


Interview with the Rājā of Datiyā—Fiscal Errors of Statesmen—Thieves and Robbers by Profession


Sporting at Datiyā—Fidelity of Followers to their Chiefs in India—Law of Primogeniture wanting among Muhammadans




The Suicide-Relations between Parents and Children in India


Gwālior Plain once the Bed of a Lake—Tameness of Peacocks


Gwālior and its Government


Contest for Empire between the Sons of Shah Jahān


Aurangzēb and Murād Defeat their Father's Army near Ujain


Dārā Marches in Person against his Brothers, and is Defeated


Dārā Retreats towards Lahore—Is robbed by the Jāts—Their Character


Shāh Jahān Imprisoned by his Two Sons, Aurangzēb and Murād


Aurangzēb Throws off the Mask, Imprisons his Brother Murād, and Assumes the Government of the Empire


Aurangzēb Meets Shujā in Bengal, and Defeats him, after Pursuing Dārā to the Hyphasis


Aurangzēb Imprisons his Eldest Son—Shujā and all his Family are Destroyed


Second Defeat and Death of Dārā, and Imprisonment of his Two Sons


Death and Character of Amīr Jumla


Reflections on the Preceding History


The Great Diamond of Kohinūr


Pindhārī System—Character of the Marāthā Administration—Cause of their Dislike to the Paramount Power


Dhōlpur, Capital of the Jāt Chiefs of Gohad—Consequence of Obstacles to the Prosecution of Robbers


Influence of Electricity on Vegetation—Agra and its Buildings


Nūr Jahān, the Aunt of the Empress Nūr Mahal, over whose Remains the Tāj is built


Father Gregory's Notion of the Impediments to Conversion in India—Inability of Europeans to speak Eastern Languages


Fathpur-Sīkrī—The Emperor Akbar's Pilgrimage—Birth of Jahāngīr


Bharatpur—Dīg—Want of Employment for the Military and the Educated Classes under the Company's Rule


Govardhan, the Scene of Kriahna's Dalliance with the Milkmaids




Declining Fertility of the Soil—Popular Notion of the Cause


Concentration of Capital and its Effects


Transit Duties in India—Mode of Collecting them


Peasantry of India attached to no existing Government—Want of Trees in Upper India—Cause and Consequence—Wells and Groves


Public Spirit of the Hindoos—Tree Cultivation and Suggestions for extending it


Cities and Towns, formed by Public Establishments, disappear as Sovereigns and Governors change their Abodes


Murder of Mr. Fraser, and Execution of the Nawāb Shams-ud- dīn


Marriage of a Jāt Chief


Collegiate Endowment of Muhammadan Tombs and Mosques


The Old City of Delhi


New Delhi, or Shāhjahānābād


Indian Police—Its Defects—and their Cause and Remedy


Rent-free Tenures—Right of Government to Resume such Grants


The Station of Meerut—'Atālīs' who Dance and Sing gratuitously for the Benefit of the Poor


Subdivisions of Lands—Want of Gradations of Rank—Taxes


Meerut-Anglo-Indian Society


Pilgrims of India


The Bēgam Sumroo



Abolition of Corporal Punishment—Increase of Pay with Length of Service—Promotion by Seniority


Invalid Establishment


Thuggee and the part taken in its Suppression by General Sir W. H. Sleeman, K.C.B., by Captain J. L. Sleeman

Supplementary Note by the Editor

Additions and Corrections

Maps Showing Author's Route


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