Rambles and recollections of an Indian official!
Major-General Sir W. H. Sleeman, K.C.B.
Supplementary notes by the Editor
Captain J. L. Sleeman, who had intended to contribute an account in some detail of his grandfather's operations for the suppression of Thuggee, has been ordered on active service, and consequently has been unable to write more than the short note printed above.
The editor thinks it desirable to supplement Captain Sleeman's observations by certain additional remarks.
The earliest historical notice of Thuggee appears to be the statement in the History of Fīrōz Shāh Tughlak (1351-88) by a contemporary author that at some time or other in the reign of that sovereign about one thousand Thugs were arrested in Delhi, on the denunciation of an informer.
The Sultan, with misplaced clemency, refused to sanction the execution of any of the prisoners, whom he shipped off to Lakhnauti or Gaur in Bengal, where they were let loose. (Elliot and Dowson, Hist. of India, iii. 141.) That absurd proceeding may well have been the origin of the system of river Thuggee in Bengal, which possibly may be still practised.
The next mention of Thugs refers to the reign of Akbar (1556- 1605). Both Meadows Taylor and Balfour affirm that many Thugs were then executed, and according to Balfour, they numbered five hundred and belonged to the Etawah District, I have not succeeded in finding any mention of the fact in the histories of Akbar—the memory of the event may be preserved only by oral tradition. Etawah, between the Ganges and Jumna, in the province of Agra, has always been notorious for Thuggee and cognate crime.
In the year 1666, towards the close of Shahjahān's reign, the traveller de Thevenot noted that the road between Delhi and Agra was infested by Thugs. His words are:
'The cunningest Robbers in the World are in that Countrey. They use a certain slip with a running-noose, which they can cast with so much slight about a Man's Neck, when they are within reach of him, that they never fail; so that they strangle him in a trice.' (English transl., 1686, Part III, p. 41.)
After the capture of Seringapatam in 1799 the attention of the Company's government was drawn to the prevalence of Thuggee. In 1810 the bodies of thirty victims were found in wells between the Ganges and Jumna, and in 1816 Dr. Sherwood published a paper entitled 'On the Murderers called Phānsigars', sc. 'stranglers', in the Madras Journal of Literature and Science, which was reprinted in Asiatic Researches, vol. xiii (1820).
Various officers then made unsystematic efforts to suppress the stranglers, but effectual operations were deferred until 1829. During the years 1881 and 1832 the existence of the Thug organization became generally known, and intense excitement was aroused throughout India.
The Konkan, or narrow strip of lowlands between the Western Ghāts and the sea, was the only region in the empire not infested by the Thugs. (See H. H. Wilson in supplement to Mill, Hist. of British India, ed. 1858, vol. ix, p. 213; Balfour, Cyclopaedia of India, 3rd ed., 1885, s.v. Thug; and Crooke, Things Indian, Murray, 1906, s.v. Thuggee.)
The records summarized above prove that the Thug organization existed continuously on a large scale from the early part of the fourteenth century until Sir William Sleeman's time, that is to say, for more than five centuries.
In all probability its origin was much more ancient, but records are lacking. It is said that a sculpture representing a Thug strangulation exists among the sculptures at Ellora executed in the eighth century. No such sculpture, however, is mentioned in the detailed account of the Ellora caves by Dr. Burgess.
The magnitude of the organization with which Sleeman grappled is indicated by the following figures.
During the years 1831-7 3,266 Thugs were disposed of one way or another, of whom 412 were hanged, and 483 were admitted as approvers.
Amīr Alī, whose confessions are recorded in Meadows Taylor's fascinating book, The Confessions of a Thug, written in 1837 and first published in 1839, proudly admitted having taken part in the murders of 719 persons, and regretted that an interruption of his career by twelve years' imprisonment in Oudh had prevented him from completing a full thousand of victims. He regarded his profession as affording sport of the most exciting kind possible.
V. A. S.
1. Pronounced 'T'ug', a hard cerebral t, with some aspiration.