Thug: Mike's view

This book tells the story of the Thugs of India, from the earliest days described in their own oral histories to the final months of the last surviving members of their gangs. It is based on three years of research among the voluminous records of the East India Company, which still fill literally miles of shelf space in archives in London, Delhi and Bhopal, and incorporates material exhumed from thousands of pages of centuries-old manuscripts – trial transcripts and official correspondence, private letters and legal memoranda – not to mention dozens of volumes of memoirs, travelogue and academic history. I have done my best to ensure that it takes account of the most up–to–date research on the subject.

At this point most readers will probably want to check out the opening pages of the book itself. But a few words of further comment may be of interest to those with knowledge of the historiography of India.

The pursuit, arrest and conviction of the Thugs caused a huge sensation in the Subcontinent of the 1830s. Their crimes were so monstrous, and the number of their victims so enormous, that they quickly assumed the stature of bogeymen. Several historical accounts of their depredations, based to a large extent on official papers, were published – albeit in relatively obscure journals or in books produced only in small editions. Many of the authors had been involved themselves in the campaign to eradicate ‘Thuggee’, and their works contained, as might be expected, a certain amount of exaggeration and glorification of the parts that the writers had played in the whole affair. The homogeneity of the Thug gangs and of their methods were exaggerated, making them seem still more formidable than they had been. The prisoners’ motives were also distorted, and in particular far greater stress was placed on their religion, and their devotion to Kali, the Hindu ‘goddess of destruction’, than had been the case when the Thugs themselves were brought to trial.

These early accounts influenced the way in which Thuggee was perceived, both in India and elsewhere. They were expanded on in a hugely successful contemporary novel entitled Confessions of a Thug written by Meadows Taylor, a British officer based in Hyderabad. Taylor turned his own experiences of the anti-Thug campaign into what was widely acclaimed as the greatest ‘chiller’ of its day, and his protagonist (a murderer named Ameer Ali, whose ‘confession’ was based on the deposition of a real Thug) was more ruthless, more successful and more free from the pangs of conscience than even the killers whose confessions had peppered the first historical accounts. Ali’s ‘guiltless confessions of multiple murder’ were – a reviewer in the Literary Gazette declared – ‘enough to freeze the blood in our veins’, and Taylor himself was flattered to hear that the young Queen Victoria herself was so impatient to read his final chapters that she could not wait for the pages to be bound, asking that the running sheets to be sent directly to her as they came off the press.

A few years later, the French writer Eugene Sue inserted another murderous Thug – this one a cultivated, clever man, lethal as a panther, who haunted the salons of Paris rather than the forest paths of India – into the pages of his novel The Wandering Jew. This book, too, was astonishingly successful, and by the second half of the nineteenth century the popular image of the Thugs themselves had become more or less fixed. They were perceived as fearsome a fearsome cult of religiously inspired killers, for whom the act of murder was akin to human sacrifice. The robbery of their victims — which captured Thugs had always acknowledged as their motive for murder — was relegated to the status of a secondary objective, and it was generally accepted that the Thugs themselves formed an hereditary fraternity, devoted to killing solely by strangulation and thus without shedding blood. At about the same time the number of killings assigned to the gangs became exaggerated, a consequence of the misinterpretation of some unpublished manuscripts and of some generous assumptions concerning the antiquity of Thuggee. By the time James Sleeman published his book Thug, Or A Million Murders in 1920, it was commonly accepted that the Thugs had accounted for somewhere between 40,000 and 50,000 victims a year over the course of perhaps seven centuries. Thuggee itself was now described as ‘a hideous religion of murder’.

Books and theses based on these early accounts continued to be published for several decades. (One of the last, by the German historian Gustav Pfirmann, set out a detailed account of the apparent religious beliefs of the gangs.) But beginning in the 1950s, historians began to reassess this portrayal of the Thugs. Since then Hiralal Gupta, Stewart Gordon, Christopher Bayly and Radhika Singha have all published critiques that portray the murderers as more or less ordinary criminals. For Gupta, the Thugs were a product of British dominion in India — mostly soldiers thrown out of work by the imposition of the Pax Britannica on the Subcontinent. For Gordon, they were marauders hired by minor rajahs and other landholders to generate the revenues required for state building. Bayly and Singha saw them as bandits of no fixed modus operandi given the label ‘Thug’ by their British captors.

These studies have been followed by those of a new generation of literary critics such as Parama Roy who — ignoring the mass of manuscript material contained in the East India Company archives, and arbitrarily designating a variety of published texts as a coherent ‘Thug Archive’ — assume that the ‘Thugs’ picked up by the British authorities in India were actually no more than a miscellany of ordinary bandits, thieves, rebels against British rule and innocent men. Thuggee, in the view of this group of revisionists, never existed at all.

The latter view has proved very influential. It is certainly ‘politically correct’, for it turns on their heads all the colonial histories of Thuggee — filled as they are with tales of corrupt, demonic Hindu devotees thwarted by altruistic British officers — and offers in their place a potent criticism of imperialism itself.

The revisionists do make valuable points. It is certainly true, as they suggest, that the thousands of men put on trial as Thugs after 1829 were scarcely the products of ‘organised crime’ in the modern sense. They possessed no central organisation; there was no ‘Chief Thug’ and no complex Thug hierarchy; nor were punishments meted out to traitorous stranglers or their immediate families. Captured Thugs admitted to killing in a variety of ways. Nor, it seems certain, were their crimes committed in the name of any religion. But it certainly does not follow, as the revisionists suggest, that Thuggee cannot be succinctly defined, and that it is therefore impossible to distinguish the Thugs themselves from other sorts of highwaymen and bandits. Yet rejection of the reality of Thuggee rests on precisely this assumption.

In fact, the criticisms advanced by Parama Roy and her colleagues betray their lack of familiarity with the primary sources. To suggest that Thuggee was a construct because not all the Thugs’ victims were strangled, because some Thugs shed blood, because far from every member of the Thug gangs was himself descended from a long line of murderers, or because few if any of their crimes were religiously inspired is to ignore the fact that the men captured and tried by the British did indeed possess a unique modus operandi. The distinguishing feature of the Thugs was the fact that they invariably murdered their victims before robbing them. This remarkable habit has no parallel, so far as I am aware, anywhere else in the world, and yet it crops up time and time again in hundreds of depositions and other accounts compiled by dozens of Company officers, travellers and others over a period of well over half a century. In the earliest cases, at least, it is clear that the writers of individual accounts were unaware that very similar reports were being made from elsewhere in India.

Nor is that all. By the 1830s a huge mass of evidence for the reality of Thuggee had been compiled, not only by British prosecutors, but also by the authorities in various independent Indian states who also tried and punished Thugs from time to time. It is certainly true that the most important statements against the alleged murderers came from ‘approvers’ — informers who had saved their own lives by turning King’s Evidence. But the officers of the East India Company went to considerable lengths to keep their informants isolated, and to check the testimony they obtained from each new source against that already obtained from other approvers. In addition, a considerable quantity of evidence was collected from the families of Thug victims. Finally, and perhaps most importantly of all, the bodies of nearly a thousand men, women and children killed by various Thug gangs were exhumed from the places where they had been buried — spots successfully identified by approvers who had taken part in the murders themselves. The Thug trials conducted in India between 1829 and 1848 may have been deficient by modern standards, not least in the entire absence of counsel for the defence. But they were far from unusual by the standards of the time. Thousands of men have been convicted of murder, in India, in Europe and America, on far less evidence than that assembled against many Thugs.

I am far from alone from finding myself convinced that Thuggee was very real. Stewart Gordon accepts the existence of ‘a small core of families, members of which had been murderers for several generations’; Radhika Singha acutely notes that ‘the existence of band lore, a common slang, and a shared knowledge of major attacks does suggest long terms of association, as does the ability to coordinate action in large gangs.’ Within the last year or two, moreover, a new generation of historians has returned to the manuscript sources and begun to take issue with the arguments advanced by the revisionists. Acceptance of the Thugs as worthwhile objects of study is thus growing once again. Given the controversial nature of the subject, however, I feel it is important to make my own position on the matter clear.

Mike Dash, London, May 2004