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, unsuspect