These days, the expression ‘thugs’ tends to be used mostly by tabloid journalists and/or politicians, as one of the many antonyms (cf. bankers, benefit scroungers, tax-avoiders, immigrants) of ‘hard-working families’. In the 1840s, however, it was a frightening word, newly introduced from India, and redolent with horror and barbarism.
It was popularised by a three-volume novel, The Confessions of a Thug, published on 1839 by Philip Meadows Taylor (1808–76), who was employed in the army and the civil service of the Nizam of Hyderabad. But this melodramatic tale was based on the factual investigations of another officer, William Sleeman (1788–1856) of the East India Company’s army.
Sleeman went out to India as a cadet in 1809, and saw action in the Anglo-Nepal war of 1814–16. In 1820, he moved sideways into local administration, but retained the right (as was usual in the circumstances) to military promotion, so that while serving as a magistrate and district officer, he was promoted by stages from captain in 1825 to major-general in 1854.
Undoubtedly, his most significant activity in India was his part in eliminating thuggee – the killing of travellers by professional murderers who were claimed as followers of Kali, the Hindu goddess of death and destruction. The word ‘thug’, or ‘deceiver’, refers to their modus operandi: a group would pose as travellers and befriend their intended victim, passing several days on the road with him, before, one night, he would be strangled, robbed, and tipped into a pre-prepared grave, with his stomach slit open (to avoid stench from the gases built up during decomposition drawing the attention of passers-by).
Thus the bald outline: but the fascination lay in the detail. The instrument of strangulation was ‘a noose of twisted yellow or white silk knotted in one corner with a silver coin dedicated to Kali’; the spades used for digging the grave were ‘sacred pickaxes’, also dedicated to Kali. In 1836, Sleeman published Ramaseeana, Or a Vocabulary of the Peculiar Language Used by the Thugs, the vocabulary being compiled from informers and the interrogation of prisoners. It also contains an appendix of cases and depositions, and it all makes fascinating reading.
The year before the book was published, Sleeman’s efforts to track down the bands of thugs had been encouraged by the new governor-general, Lord William Bentinck, who placed him at the head of a commission charged with the eradication of thuggee and other types of banditry. By 1840, more than 14,000 thugs had been tracked down: some were hanged, others transported or sentenced to life imprisonment. By 1848, Sir John William Kaye, the military historian of India, was able to talk in terms of the ‘extirpation’ of the cult.
Sleeman continued his administrative work until 1854, when his health failed: he died at sea on the way home to England in February 1856. Meanwhile, he had published an account of over thirty years of service in India in his two-volume Rambles and Recollections of an Indian Official in 1844, and in 1852 he produced another two-volume work, A Journey Through the Kingdom of Oude in 1849–1850, which was originally published in Lucknow: we have reissued the posthumous 1858 London edition.
Sleeman had accepted the position of British resident at Lucknow in 1848, and his survey of the kingdom of Oude [Awadh], though acknowledging maladministration, lawlessness and corruption, nonetheless stressed that illegal annexation by the British would lead to resentment and rebellion. He was ignored; and the consequence was that, just over a year after his death, Lucknow became one of the major centres of rebellion in what used to be called the Indian Mutiny, the siege and its relief entering British imperial legend.
It is difficult to know the extent to which the whole phenomenon of thuggee is itself a legend. In the post-imperial context, Sleeman has been accused of indiscriminate cruelty in his pursuit of the alleged thugs, and of imprisoning or killing their families, and the British in general of using ‘ordinary’ robbery and occasional murder to attack the Hindu religion and brand its followers as bloodthirsty barbarians.
There has also been a debunking of the supposed ritual nature of the killings: Muslims as well as Hindus practised thuggee, so it could not be part of a Hindu religious observance. On the other hand, the first accounts of thugs date from the fourteenth century, and some stories justify their murders as necessary sacrifices, without which Kali would destroy all of humanity. On the third hand, the idea of sacrifice is rather tainted by the robbery which inevitably accompanied it. On the fourth hand, it does seem clear that Sleeman’s campaign against thuggee did do much to make life safer for travellers in India – and, NB, it was Indian travellers who benefited. There does not seem to be any instance of a European becoming a sacrifice to Kali.