Confessions of a Thug
CAPTAIN MEADOWS TAYLOR,
IN THE SERVICE OF H.H. THE NIZAM.
I have heard, have read bold fables of enormity,
Devised to make men wonder, but this hardness
Transcends all fiction.
IN THREE VOLUMES.
RICHARD BENTLEY, NEW BURLINGTON STREET.
PRINTED BY RICHARD AND JOHN E.TAYLOR,
RED LION COURT, FLEET STREET.
THE RIGHT HONOURABLE
GEORGE, LORD AUCKLAND, G.C.B.
GOVERNOR-GENERAL OF INDIA,
WHO IS VIGOROUSLY PROSECUTING THOSE
FOR THE SUPPRESSION OF THUGGEE,
WHICH WERE BEGUN BY THE LATE
LORD WILLIAM CAVENDISH BENTINCK,
G.C.B. AND G.C.H.,
ARE, BY PERMISSION, AND WITH GREAT RESPECT,
The tale of crime which forms the subject of the following pages is, alas! almost all true; what there is of fiction has been supplied only to connect the events, and make the adventures of Ameer Ali as interesting as the nature of his horrible profession would permit me.
I became acquainted with this person in 1832. He was one of the approvers or informers who were sent to the Nizam's territories from Saugor, and whose appalling disclosures caused an excitement in the country which can never be forgotten. I have listened to them with fearful interest, such as I can scarcely hope to excite in the minds of my readers; and I can only add, in corroboration of the ensuing story, that, by his own confessions, which were in every particular confirmed by those of his brother informers, and are upon official record, he had been directly concerned in the murder of seven hundred and nineteen persons. He once said to me, "Ah! Sir, if I had not been in prison twelve years, the number would have been a thousand!"
How the system of Thuggee could have become so prevalent,—remain unknown to, and unsuspected by, the people of India, among whom the professors of it were living in constant association,—must, to the majority of the English public, who are not conversant with the peculiar construction of Oriental society, be a subject of extreme wonder. It will be difficult to make this understood within my present limits, and yet it is so necessary that I cannot pass it by.
In a vast continent like India, which from the earliest periods has been portioned out into territories, the possessions of many princes and chieftains—each with supreme and irresponsible power in his own dominions, having most lax and inefficient governments, and at enmity with or jealous of all his neighbours,—it may be conceived that no security could exist for the traveller upon the principal roads throughout the continent; no general league was ever entered into for his security; nor could any government, however vigorous, or system of police, however vigilant it might be in one state, possibly extend to all.
When it is also considered that no public conveyances have ever existed in India, (the want of roads, and the habits and customs of the natives being alike opposed to their use)—that journeys, however long, have to be undertaken on foot or on horseback—that parties, previously unknown to each other, associate together for mutual security and companionship—that even the principal roads (except those constructed for military purposes by the Company's government) are only tracks made by the constant passage of people over them, often intersecting forests, jungles, and mountainous and uncultivated tracts, where there are but few villages and a scanty population—and that there are never any habitations between the different villages, which are often some miles apart,—it will readily be allowed, that every temptation and opportunity exists for plunderers of all descriptions to make travellers their prey. Accordingly freebooters have always existed, under many denominations, employing various modes of operation to attain their ends; some effecting them by open and violent attacks with weapons, others by petty thefts and by means of disguises. Beyond all, however, the Thugs have of late years been discovered to be the most numerous, the most united, the most secret in their horrible work, and consequently the most dangerous and destructive.
Travellers seldom hold any communication with the towns through which they pass, more than for the purchase of the day's provisions: they sometimes enter them, but pitch their tents or lie under the trees which surround them; to gain any intelligence of a person's progress from village to village is therefore almost impossible. The greatest facilities of disguise among thieves and Thugs exist in the endless divisions of the people into tribes, castes, and professions; and remittances to an immense amount are known to be constantly made from one part of the country to another in gold and silver, to save the rate of exchange; jewels also and precious stones are often sent to distant parts, under the charge of persons who purposely assume a mean and wretched appearance, and every one is obliged to carry money upon his person for the daily expenses of travelling. It is also next to impossible to conceal anything carried, from the unlimited power of search possessed by the officers of customs in the territories of native princes, or to guard against the information their subordinates may supply to Thugs, or robbers of any description.
It has been ascertained by recent investigation that in every part of India many of the hereditary landholders and the chief officers of villages have had private connexion with Thugs for generations, affording them facilities for murder by allowing their atrocious acts to pass with impunity, and sheltering the offenders when in danger; whilst in return for these services they received portions of their gains, or laid a tax upon their houses, which the Thugs cheerfully paid. To almost every village (and at towns they are in a greater proportion) several hermits, fakeers, and religious mendicants have attached themselves. The huts and houses of these people, which are outside the walls, and always surrounded by a grove or a garden, have afforded the Thugs places of rendezvous or concealment; while the fakeers, under their sanctimonious garb, have enticed travellers to their gardens by the apparently disinterested offers of shade and good water. The facilities I have enumerated, and hundreds of others which would be almost unintelligible by description, but which are intimately connected with, and grow out of, the habits of the people, have caused Thuggee to be everywhere spread and practised throughout India.
The origin of Thuggee is entirely lost in fable and obscurity. Colonel Sleeman conjectures that it owed its existence to the vagrant tribes of Mahomedans which continued to plunder the country long after the invasion of India by the Moghuls and Tartars. The Hindoos claim for it a divine origin in their goddess Bhowanee; and certainly the fact that both Mahomedans and Hindoos believe in her power, and observe Hindee ceremonies, would go far to prove that the practice of Thuggee was of Hindoo origin. Though very remote traditions of it exist, there are no records of its having been discovered in any of the histories of India until the reign of Akbur, when many of its votaries were seized and put to death. From that time till 1810, although native princes now and then discovered and executed the perpetrators,—I believe it was unknown to the British government or authorities. In that year the disappearance of many men of the army, proceeding to and from their homes, induced the Commander-in-Chief to issue an order warning the soldiers against Thugs. In 1812, after the murder by Thugs of Lieut. Monsell, Mr. Halhed, accompanied by a strong detachment, proceeded to the villages where the murderers were known to reside, and was resisted. The Thugs were discovered to be occupying many villages in the pergunnahs of Sindousé, and to have paid, for generations, large sums annually to Sindia's Government for protection. At this time it was computed that upwards of nine hundred were in those villages alone. The resistance offered by the Thugs to Mr. Halhed's detachment caused their ultimate dispersion, and no doubt they carried the practice of their profession into distant parts of the country, where perhaps it had been unknown before.
It appears strange, that as early as 1816 no measures for the suppression of Thuggee were adopted; for that the practices of the Thugs were well known, we have the strongest evidence in a paper written by Doctor Sherwood, which appeared in the Literary Journal of Madras, and which is admirably correct in the description of the ceremonies and practice of the Thugs of Southern India. One would suppose that they were then considered too monstrous for belief, and were discredited or unnoticed; but it is certain that from that time up to 1830, in almost every part of India, but particularly in Bundelkhund and Western Malwa, large gangs of Thugs were apprehended by Major Borthwick, and Captains Wardlow and Henley. Many were tried and executed for the murder of travellers, but without exciting more than a passing share of public attention. No blow was ever aimed at the system, if indeed its complete and extensive organization was ever suspected, or, if suspected, believed.
In that year however, and for some years previously, Thuggee seemed to have reached a fearful height of audacity, and the government could no longer remain indifferent to an evil of such enormous and increasing magnitude. The attention of several distinguished civil officers—Messrs. Stockwell, Smith, Wilkinson, Borthwick, and others,—had become attracted with great interest to the subject. Some of the Thugs who had been seized were allowed life on the condition of denouncing their associates, and among others Feringhea, a leader of great notoriety.
The appalling disclosures of this man, so utterly unexpected by Captain (now Colonel) Sleeman, the political agent in the provinces bordering upon the Nerbudda river, were almost discredited by that able officer; but by the exhumation in the very grove where he happened to be encamped of no less than thirteen bodies in various states of decay,—and the offer being made to him of opening other graves in and near the same spot,—the approver's tale was too surely confirmed; his information was acted upon, and large gangs, which had assembled in Rajpootana for the purpose of going out on Thuggee, were apprehended and brought to trial.
From this period, the system for the suppression of Thuggee may be said to have commenced in earnest; from almost every gang one or more informers were admitted; and when they found that their only chance of life lay in giving correct information, they unequivocally denounced their associates, and their statements were confirmed by the disinterment of their victims in the spots pointed out.
In this manner Thuggee was found to be in active practice all over India. The knowledge of its existence was at first confined to the central provinces, but as men were apprehended from a distance, they gave information of others beyond them in the almost daily commission of murder: the circle gradually widened till it spread over the whole continent—and from the foot of the Himalayas to Cape Comorin, from Cutch to Assam, there was hardly a province in the whole of India where Thuggee had not been practised—where the statements of the informers were not confirmed by the disinterment of the dead!
Few who were in India at that period (1831-32,) will ever forget the excitement which the discovery occasioned in every part of the country: it was utterly discredited by the magistrates of many districts, who could not be brought to believe that this silently destructive system could have worked without their knowledge. I quote the following passage from Colonel Sleeman's introduction to his own most curious and able work.
"While I was in civil charge of the district of Nursingpoor, in the valley of the Nerbudda, in the years 1822, 1823, and 1824, no ordinary robbery or theft could be committed without my becoming acquainted with it, nor was there a robber or thief of the ordinary kind in the district, with whose character I had not become acquainted in the discharge of my duty as a magistrate; and if any man had then told me that a gang of assassins by profession resided in the village of Kundélee, not four hundred yards from my court, and that the extensive groves of the village of Mundésur, only one stage from me on the road to Saugor and Bhopal, was one of the greatest bhils, or places of murder, in all India; that large gangs from Hindostan and the Dukhun used to rendezvous in these groves, remain in them for days together every year, and carry on their dreadful trade all along the lines of road that pass by and branch off from them, with the knowledge and connivance of the two landholders by whose ancestors these groves had been planted, I should have thought him a fool or a madman; and yet nothing could have been more true; the bodies of a hundred travellers lie buried in and among the groves of Mundésur, and a gang of assassins lived in and about the village of Kundélee, while I was magistrate of the district, and extended their depredations to the cities of Poona and Hyderabad."
Similar to the preceding, as showing the daring character of the Thuggee operations, was the fact, that at the cantonment of Hingolee, the leader of the Thugs of that district, Hurree Singh, was a respectable merchant of the place, one with whom I myself, in common with many others, have had dealings. On one occasion he applied to the officer in civil charge of the district, Captain Reynolds, for a pass to bring some cloths from Bombay, which he knew were on their way accompanied by their owner, a merchant of a town not far from Hingolee: he murdered this person, his attendants, and cattle-drivers, brought the merchandise up to Hingolee under the pass he had obtained, and sold it openly in the cantonment; nor would this have ever been discovered, had he not confessed it after his apprehension, and gloried in it as a good joke. By this man too and his gang many persons were murdered in the very bazar of the cantonment, within one hundred yards of the main guard, and were buried hardly five hundred yards from the line of sentries! I was myself present at the opening of several of these unblessed graves, (each containing several bodies,) which were pointed out by the approvers, one by one, in the coolest manner, to those who were assembled, till we were sickened and gave up further search in disgust. The place was the dry channel of a small water-course, communicating with the river, not broader or deeper than a ditch; it was close to the road to a neighbouring village, one of the main outlets from the cantonment to the country.
Once awakened to the necessity of suppressing, by the most vigorous measures, the dreadful system only just detected in its operation, the officers who were first appointed to investigate the reports and accusations of the informers, used their utmost efforts to arouse in the Supreme Government a corresponding interest, and happily succeeded. The matter was taken up most warmly by the Governor-General, Lord William Bentinck, and the Supreme Council, and highly intelligent officers were appointed to superintend the execution of measures in those districts where Thuggee was discovered to be in practice. Most of the native princes gave up claims upon such of their subjects as should be apprehended upon charges of Thuggee, or who should be denounced by the informers; and although in many parts the landholders and Potails of villages protected the Thugs, and resisted their apprehension, yet the plans for the suppression of the system were eminently successful. As suspicion was aroused, no body of men could traverse the country in any direction without being subject to the strictest scrutiny by the police, and by informers who were stationed with them upon all the great thoroughfares and in the principal towns.
The success of these measures will be more evident from the following table, which was kindly supplied to me by Captain Reynolds, the general superintendent of the department.
From 1831 to 1837, inclusive, there were
Transported to Penang, &c.
Imprisoned for life with hard labour
Imprisoned in default of security
Imprisoned for various periods
Released after trial
Escaped from jail
Died in jail
Convicted but not sentenced
In jail in various parts not yet tried
Added to the above, Captain Reynolds mentioned that, at the time he wrote, upwards of 1800 notorious Thugs were at large in various parts of India, whose names were known: how many besides existed, it is impossible to conjecture.
How enormous therefore must have been the destruction of human life and property in India before Thuggee was known to exist or was only partially checked! How many thousands must annually have perished by the hands of these remorseless assassins! Awful indeed is the contemplation; for, during the whole of the troublous times of the Mahratta and Pindharee wars, their trade flourished; nor was it till 1831 that their wholesale system of murder received any serious check: and after its general discovery, the countless and affecting applications from families to the officers of the department to endeavour to procure them some knowledge of the places where their missing relatives had been destroyed, that they might have the miserable satisfaction of performing the ceremonies for the dead—showed how deeply the evil had affected society.
And not only as described in the following pages has Thuggee existed: since they were written, it has been discovered under several other forms and been found to be extensively practised on the Ganges, by men who live in boats, and murder those passengers whom they are able to entice into their company in their voyages up and down the river. But the most refined in guilt are those who murder parents for the sake of their children, to sell them as household slaves, or to dancing women to be brought up to prostitution.
Throughout the whole of India, including all territories of native princes, only eighteen officers are employed as superintendents and agents for the suppression of Thuggee; many of whom besides the labour of this office, which is excessive, have other civil and political duties to fulfil. By a reference to any map, it will at once be seen what enormous provinces or divisions of India fall to the superintendence of each person. Whether it is possible for each to extend to every part of that under his charge the extreme attention and scrutiny which are so imperatively necessary to put an end to this destructive system (for there is no doubt that wherever one well-initiated Thug exists, he will among the idle and dissolute characters which everywhere abound in the Indian population, find numbers to join him), must be best known to the Government of India. It is only sincerely to be hoped that æconomical considerations do not prevent the appointment of others, if necessary.
The confessions I have recorded are not published to gratify a morbid taste in any one for tales of horror and of crime; they were written to expose, as fully as I was able, the practices of the Thugs, and to make the public of England more conversant with the subject than they can be at present, notwithstanding that some notice has been attracted to the subject by an able article in the Edinburgh Review upon Colonel Sleeman's valuable and interesting work.
I hope, however, that the form of the present work may be found more attractive and more generally interesting than an account of the superstitions and customs only of the Thugs; while for the accuracy of the pictures of the manners and habits of the natives, and the descriptions of places and scenes, I can only pledge the experience of fifteen years' residence in India, and a constant and intimate association with its inhabitants.
If this volume in any way contribute to awaken public vigilance in the suppression of Thuggee, or if from the perusal of them any one in authority rises with a determination to lend his exertions in this good cause of humanity, my time will not have been occupied in vain.
London, July, 1839.
- The word Thug means a deceiver, from the Hindee verb Thugna, to deceive;—it is pronounced Tug, slightly aspirated.
- I take this opportunity of acknowledging the obligations I am under to Colonel Sleeman for much valuable information, and also for a copy of his work.
- As the last sheets of this work are passing through the press, the melancholy intelligence of the death of Lord W. Bentinck has reached England. I am thus prevented having the honour of placing his name in conjunction with that of Lord Auckland, in the Dedication of these volumes.
- I select at random from a list in my possession two of the Superintendents:—Capt. Elwall, Bengal Infantry, at Bangalore, has Mysore and the whole of the southern peninsula of India; Capt. Malcolm, the whole of the territories of H.H. the Nizam.
- A slight sketch of my own also upon this subject, appeared in the New Monthly Magazine some years ago.