On a hot spring morning in 1831, a strange company was encamped just outside the village of Selohda, in northern India. Several large tents, a number of horses, and some bullock carts contained the provisions for an English officer, a blue-eyed, resolute gentleman in his early 40s, and his young French wife. Attending them were more than a dozen Indian soldiers, or nujeebs, who kept careful watch over a tall, well-built young Indian man with the bearing of nobility, who wore heavy ankle shackles. A small crowd of curious villagers was also gathering.
As the morning sun began to heat the dusty tropical air, mynahs and parakeets chattered in the mango trees growing around the camp. Insects busied themselves around the crimson flame-of-the-forest blossoms. From one of the tents came the sounds of breakfast being prepared.
Yet the attention of the English officer was distracted by none of these things. Instead he was quietly interrogating the handsome young prisoner in fluent Hindi. After a few moments of discussion, the prisoner pointed toward a patch of ground near where the horses were tethered. At a command from the Englishman, the nujeebs began digging in the ground near the horses.
Within a few minutes, they made a grisly discovery: a human skeleton with a few strips of tattered cloth clinging to otherwise bare bones. After a few more spadefuls of earth were tossed aside, a second skeleton was uncovered, lying beside the first. As the sun rose higher, the grim work continued, until five skeletons had been exhumed from the shallow grave.
The skeletons were, the young prisoner revealed, the remains of five minor local police officials who had been killed there seven years previously.
Nor was this all. At a signal from the prisoner, the nujeebs began digging at a new spot, near where several of the ropes of the Englishmans tent had been staked into the powdery soil. Here seven more skeletons were unearthed and laid out in the sun. These unfortunates, a pundit and six attendants, had been murdered there more than a dozen years before.
By this time, the lovely young wife of the Englishman in command had emerged from the tent where she had been preparing breakfast, drawn by the gasps and horrified murmurs of the onlookers. She gazed on the macabre scene without reaction, for this grim pageant had become for her all too familiar in recent months.
Now the tent itself was taken down, and the ground on which the Englishman and his wife had slept the night before was turned over. Before long, five more skeletons were exhumed, the remains of four Brahmins and a woman, who had met their fate at about the same time as the pundit and his attendants.
By this time, the temperature in the mango grove had reached 105° Fahrenheit, and the nujeebs were exhausted and dehydrated. Having done his best to establish the identities of the 17 murder victims, which he carefully recorded in his notebook, the English official ordered the nujeebs to rebury the skeletons and break camp. By midday the party had moved on to a similar grove a few miles down the road, where the gruesome labor resumed.
The above episode was typical of a remarkable and dramatic campaign, carried out in the 1820s and 1830s, to stamp out a terrifyingly ruthless and efficient secret society of murderers whose depredations had made roads in India unsafe for generations, yet whose very existence had gone unsuspected by most Indians and British alike for centuries. The story of their detection and eventual suppression by the British is a textbook case of the routing of an ancient, entrenched conspiratorial enemy, and an instructive example for those who would oppose conspiratorial forces at work today.
India at the turn of the 19th century was not much different from India in previous ages: a vast amalgam of castes, religions, races, tongues, and tribes, overlain by a constantly shifting checkerboard of principalities, feifdoms, enclaves, and territories controlled by foreign interests. The British in particular had been gradually expanding their colonial interests from trading ports originally established in the 17th century the great cities of Calcutta, Madras, and Bombay. Like most outsiders coming to India, the British were baffled by the vastness and complexity of this strange country, coupled with the peculiar impenetrability for outsiders that the Hindu caste system and associated social and religious practices conferred. For the most part, India epitomized the exotic and mysterious East; those Europeans who lived there for any length of time generally preferred to accept the incomprehensibility of Indian society and remain aloof.
There were a few exceptions, however. Late in the 18th century, a brilliant young Englishman, Sir William Jones, was appointed judge in Calcutta. Trained in classical languages at Oxford as well as in the law, Jones became the first Western scholar to recognize the relationship of Sanskrit, the classical language of India, to Latin and Greek in Europe, and to suggest a common linguistic ancestor. As a result of this discovery, the attention of many European scholars was drawn to the vast literature in the Sanskrit language, and much of the recondite lore of the Vedas, the Upanishads, and other ancient Hindu writings became objects of study in the West. Yet a veil of secrecy and exclusion still hung over much of India. For example, the fact had passed almost unnoticed that, every year, for as long as anyone could remember, tens of thousands of travelers disappeared without a trace on highways and waterways throughout India.
Rumors of a secret society of murderers in India were not entirely a novelty, but given the impenetrability of Indian society, as well as the activities of large groups of highwaymen and bandits (known as Dacoits and Pindari), these rumors were not deemed worthy of official concern, and were dismissed by the British. Even when a British officer named John Maunsell vanished while en route to Agra in October 1812, no cry was raised. Yet this indifference was about to change, and the agent of this change was an earnest, sober-minded young English soldier named William Sleeman.
William Henry Sleeman was born in 1788 in Stratton, Cornwall. From a young age William wished to serve abroad in the Army. He had studied both Arabic and Hindustani for three years in England before reaching the minimum age for direct entry, and so was already quite proficient in two difficult Oriental languages when he arrived in Calcutta in October 1809. In the ensuing years, he learned several other Oriental languages, including Persian and Gurkha. He also dedicated himself to the task of mastering the complexities of the many sects and cults that made up the confusing patchwork of Hinduism. In a few years, Sleeman had achieved a unique perspective on India and her culture, a perspective he gained through disciplined scholarship and a strong affection for the Indian people.
Sleeman, it should be noted, evinced no tendency to "go native," despite his sincere love and respect for the Indians and their alien ways. He was noted, even as a young man, for his avoidance of the vices that typically beset British soldiers abroad: He drank very little, eventually abstaining completely, and had nothing to do with the women of easy virtue who abounded in British Calcutta. He was by all accounts an upright, principled, and dedicated soldier, qualities that would serve him well in the trials that lay ahead.
Even in his early years in India, Sleeman must have wondered at the peculiar practices of those Hindus who worshiped the goddess Kali, the dark consort of Shiva who is said to feed on the blood of mortals and to haunt the burning-grounds (or ghats) where Hindus are cremated. Her hideous image is to be seen in temples throughout India. She is typically represented as black (one of her epithets, Kali Ma, means "black mother"), many-armed, and garlanded with human skulls with a long red tongue protruding from a screaming mouth. In temples dedicated to Kali, human sacrifices were once carried out, though by Sleemans time they had been discontinued in favor of goats. Worshipers invoked her with the words: "Terrific-faced Kali, holding a drawn sword and a noose and a club, wreathed with human skulls, lean, emaciated, and terrible, wide-mouthed, tongue dreadfully protruded, maddened, blood red-eyed, and filling the four quarters of the globe with hideous cries...."
Many devotees allowed themselves to be suspended by hooks inserted into the muscles of their backs, a procedure that is still practiced today. Indeed, the very name "Calcutta" is a shortened version of "Kali Ghat," meaning "burning-ground of Kali."
In association with his study of Hinduism, Sleeman began to hear rumors of a terrible secret society of Kali worshipers, old as India itself, who practiced ritual murder and the spoliation of travelers. Already in the 17th century, one Thévenot, a French traveler, had observed: "Though the road I have been speaking of from Delhi to Agra be tolerable, yet hath it many inconveniences one had best not to suffer any body to come near one on the road. The cunningest robbers in the world are in that country. They use a certain slip with a running noose, which they can cast with so much sleight about a mans neck, when they are within reach of him, that they never fail, so that they strangle him in a trice."
In 1816, an article appeared in the Madras Literary Gazette, authored by Dr. Robert C. Sherwood. Sherwood, like Sleeman, was well-versed in Hinduism, and had gotten wind of a mysterious society of assassins from a gang of suspects who had been arrested and then released by an unbelieving judge in Madras in 1815. Sherwoods article was the first major testimony confirming the existence of a cult which committed murder in the name of Kali, and it attracted Sleemans immediate attention. Among other things, Sherwood wrote:
While Europeans have journeyed through the extensive territories subject to the Government of Fort St. George, with a degree of security nowhere surpassed, the path of the native traveller has been beset with perils little known or suspected, into which numbers annually falling, have mysteriously disappeared, the victims of villains as subtle, rapacious and cruel as any who are to be met with in the records of human depravity. The Phansigars, or stranglers, are thus designated from the Hindustani word Phansi a noose. In the more northern parts of India, these murderers are called Thugs, signifying deceivers: in the Tamul language, they are called Ari Tulucar, or Mussulman noosers: in Canarese, Tanti Calleru, implying thieves, who use a wire or cat-gut noose.... Skilled in the arts of deception, Phansigars enter into conversation and insinuate themselves, by obsequious attentions, into the confidence of travellers of all descriptions.... When the Phansigars determine to attack a traveller, they usually propose to him, under the specious plea of mutual safety or for the sake of society, to travel together and on arriving at a convenient place and a fit opportunity presenting one of the gang puts a rope or sash round the neck of the unfortunate persons, while others assist in depriving him of his life.
Thus an account of the Thugs, as they came to be known, and Thugee, their body of secret beliefs and practices, was first made available to outsiders. Perhaps not surprisingly, the account was all but ignored by British officialdom. Who could give credence to such extravagant rumors? And even if there was an element of truth to them, surely this was a matter for the Indians to resolve among themselves.
Sleeman, however, decided to dedicate his attention to the detection and eradication of Thugee, all obstacles notwithstanding. Before he could tackle the Thugs themselves, though, he faced a stone wall of official indifference, disbelief, and outright opposition. He resolved to alter his circumstances so as to have enough clout to make the system work in his favor. Accordingly, he applied for a transfer from the Army to the Civil Service, and was appointed in 1820 as junior assistant magistrate in the northern territories of Saugor and Maratha.
After two years, Sleeman was appointed magistrate in charge of the Narsinghpur district. At last, equipped with the authority of a magistrate, and backed by a force of more than a dozen thanadars, or Indian policemen, William Sleeman had the authority and the resources to enable him to pursue his long-anticipated campaign against the Thugs. As he rode from town to town within his district to hear cases, he gathered information on reports of bodies found in well shafts, ravines, and dried-up riverbeds, all possessing the same types of cuts on the neck and torso. For the most part, the corpses were quietly buried and grieving friends and relatives maintained frightened silence.
At first, natives were reluctant to give information, suspecting the existence of a dreadful secret evil that would silence any who tried to expose it. Years later, when Sleeman began to appreciate the true scope of Thugee, he found out that, even as he traveled about building his files and gathering information, the cunning killers were plying their ghastly trade literally within yards of his own residence in Narsinghpur. Emboldened by long immunity and a devilishly clever method of killing without leaving evidence, the Thugs doubtless assumed that the upstart foreigner would be easily thwarted.
Bit by bit, Sleeman began to assemble a detailed picture of Thugee and its practitioners. Thugee was primarily a hereditary system associated with Hindus and Muslims that transcended both religion and caste. As mentioned, it revolved around the fanatical worship of the goddess Kali. While not all Kali devotees were Thugs, Sleeman estimated that there were at least 5,000 Thugs in India. The cult was obviously ancient, and Sleeman suggested that a cryptic mention in Herodotus of a people (the Sagartians) in central Asia proficient in strangling with a cord might possibly refer to a source of Thugee more than two millenia earlier. The Thugs themselves believed that their activities were depicted in the eighth-century cave temple carvings at Ellora, but such carvings have not been found. It is established, however, that during the reign of Jalal-ud-din Khilji, the Sultan of Delhi, towards the end of the 13th century, around a thousand Thugs were arrested and deported from Delhi to Bengal. Early in the next century, a leading Thug named Nizam-ud-din assisted in the repulsion of invaders in Delhi. Evidently by this time Thugee was already a powerful, pervasive organization.
The Thug method of killing was strangulation, usually from behind the victim with a skillfully handled yellow silk cloth called a rumal. The name "Thug" came from the Hindi verb thaglana, "to deceive," and reflected the uncanny ability of Thugs to befriend their intended victims and to lure them into a state of complacency and vulnerability. As Sherwood had discovered, they usually did this by posing as traveling merchants in search of security in numbers. Since roads in India were perilous enough owing to bandits like the Pindari, most travelers were only too eager to accept offers of respectable-looking companies to travel together.
Once a group of Thugs had insinuated itself into a company of merchants, religious pilgrims, or even police officials, they would often travel with them for days, earning trust and friendship. Should their intended victims become suspicious of their intentions, and refuse to travel with them, the Thugs often had backup groups who would conveniently meet the company of travelers further on. One way or the other, once an individual had been marked for murder, seldom did he escape the murderous hands of the Thugs.
Thugs typically chose the spot for murder ahead of time, and used certain groves, called beles, repeatedly. When the location chosen for the killing was reached, the Thugs waited until a predetermined moment, when every Thug was conveniently positioned beside or behind his pre-appointed victim. A secret command, such as "Bring tobacco!" was uttered, and, with practiced efficiency, the Thugs sprang into action, casting their rumals around their victims necks and garroting them, swiftly and silently, from behind. Where victims were strong enough to put up a struggle, three Thugs were typically employed, one to use the rumal, and the other two to throw the victim on the ground, kicking him in the genitalia to nullify resistance. Sometimes Thugs would assault a traveler riding on horseback, yanking him from the saddle with uncommon skill, and then dispatching him on the road. Whatever the individual circumstances of Thug activities, the result was nearly always the same: a group of unsuspecting travelers engaged one moment in pleasant, innocent conversation with charming fellow travelers, and dead by strangulation and a broken neck the next.
Immediately after the murders had been carried out, the Thugs robbed the bodies of their possessions and placed them in graves, which often had been dug in advance. They characteristically cut deep gashes in the bodies to hasten decomposition and thereby reduce the likelihood that jackals or other carrion-eaters would find and uncover the evidence. Then they carried out the tuponee, a sacrificial rite involving the consecration of a type of sugar and the blessing of the sacred pickax or kussee, a totemic object that all Thug gangs carried with them on their forays.
What possible motivation could drive such a horrific organization? Thug lore, as recounted by Sleeman, offered the following rationale:
Once on a time the world was infested with a monstrous demon named Rukt Bij-dana, who devoured mankind as fast as they were created. So gigantic was his stature, that the deepest pools of the ocean reached no higher than his waist. This horrid prodigy Kali cut in twain with her sword, but from every drop of blood that fell to the ground there sprang a new demon. For some reason she went on destroying them, till the hellish brood multiplied so fast that she waxed hot and weary with her endless task. She paused for a while, and, from the sweat brushed off one of her arms, she created two men, to whom she gave a rumal, or handkerchief, and commanded them to strangle the demons. When they had slain them all, they offered to return the rumal, but the goddess bade them keep it and transmit it to their posterity, with the injunction to destroy all men who were not of their kindred.
A tradition is current among Thugs, that about the period of the commencement of the Kali Yug [the 19th century], Kali co-operated with them so far as to relieve them of the trouble of interring the dead bodies, by devouring them herself. On one occasion, after destroying a traveller, the body, as usual, was left unburied; and a novice, unguardedly looking behind him, saw the naked goddess in the act of feasting upon it, half of it hanging out of her mouth. She, upon this, declared that she would no longer devour those whom the Thugs slaughtered, but she condescended to present them with one of her teeth for a pickaxe, a rib for a knife, and the hem of her lower garment for a noose, and ordered them, for the future, to cut and bury the bodies of whom they destroyed.
A more hideous mythology to justify the monstrous evil of Thugee can scarcely be imagined.
While he had learned a great deal about Thugee, Sleeman was for some time unable to make much progress in bringing the Thugs to justice. The Thugs, smugly secure in the belief that their dark benefactress would protect them, continued to exact a terrible toll on India. It is now estimated that a few thousand Thugs, a tiny minority by Indian standards, accounted for 30,000 to 40,000 deaths per year in India.
But in the late 1820s, two pivotal events changed the course of Sleemans lonely crusade as well as his personal life. The first, in 1828, was the appointment of Lord William Cavendish Bentinck as governor-general of British India. Under Bentinck, proselytizing by Christian missionaries in India, long opposed by a colonial regime studiously committed to non-interference in cultural matters, was legalized. There followed an official prohibition on the practice of suttee the self-immolation of widows on their husbands funeral pyres which had always been regarded as an abomination by the British in India. With Bentinck in office, Sleeman at last found a sympathetic ear for his plans for a concerted anti-Thug campaign.
The second significant event occurred in 1829, when, at the age of 41, Sleeman married Amélie de Fontenne, the daughter of a French nobleman whom he had met in Mauritius. Their marriage was by all accounts a devoted relationship. Amélie came to share her husbands zeal for eradicating Thugee, and accompanied him on many of his expeditions. Aside from the obvious dangers posed by the Thugs themselves, these journeys would have tried the mettle of any human being, let alone a young French woman accustomed to the comforts and sea breezes of Mauritius. No one who has not experienced India firsthand can fully imagine the snakes, leeches, mosquitoes, torrential rains, dust clouds, and, above all, the searing heat that afflict all who live on the Subcontinent. Over time such extremes bring disease, debilitation, demoralization, and death to foreigners from gentler climes. By the time he was in his 40s, Sleeman had already been in India 20 years, and had suffered from malaria and rheumatism. Yet despite all this, by 1830 the Sleemans were aggressively pursuing the Thugs, rounding them up in large groups and assembling mountains of new information on their practices, beliefs, and genealogy.
The plan Sleeman formulated was simple in concept. Backed by the authority of the colonial government, he sent forth his sepoys and nujeebs (both names for Indian soldiers) to arrest Thugs and transport them to a prison facility in Saugor for eventual trial. He used certain captured Thugs, termed "approvers," as informants to identify not only other Thugs, but also the locations of the bodies of murdered victims. Knowing that a death sentence was a likely alternative, more than a few leaders of Thug gangs were willing to turn informer on their partners in crime. In this way, what began as a trickle of arrests turned into a flood. Sleeman learned the names of entire families who had practiced Thugee for generations. His work expanded across India as Thug networks were arrested and imprisoned, from the steamy jungles of the south to the borders of the Himalaya in the north.
As he questioned his Thug approvers, Sleeman discovered the name of the man said to be the Prince of Thugee, one Feringeea, who lived in the independent state of Gwalior, to the northeast of Narsinghpur. Having determined that Feringeea must be apprehended, Sleeman sent an expedition to Gwalior. Feringeea, hearing that he was pursued, fled his home scant hours before Sleemans men closed in. Frustrated, the sepoys arrested Feringeeas mother, wife, and child, whereupon the Prince of Thugs gave up the game and allowed himself to be captured.
Having taken one of the leading figures in the Thug hierarchy, Sleeman had at last turned the corner. Feringeea immediately offered to become an approver, and cooperated thoroughly with Sleemans efforts. He was by all accounts an arresting figure: an aristocratic young man, tall, well-built, and charming. To prove his good faith, he directed Sleeman to the mass graves outside Selohda, mentioned at the beginning of this account. He was also, along with several other captured Thugs, astonishingly candid, and responded willingly to all of Sleemans questions about Thugee. From Sleemans interviews with Feringeea and other Thug leaders, documented in his copious personal papers, there emerged a remarkable, if shocking, picture of the dark, amoral existence of the Thugs.
The Thugs had developed a secret language, which they called Ramasee, enabling them to converse amongst themselves and discuss their plans even in the presence of outsiders. While some of the morphology, such as auxiliary verbs and infinitive endings, were clearly Hindi, many of the words were of obscure origin. For example, an adhoreea was someone who had escaped being murdered by the Thugs; a bhurtote was a Thug who was a strangler per se, as Thugs were not permitted to strangle until they had participated in many expeditions and had acquired the requisite skill with the rumal; dhurdalna meant "to strangle"; a tonkal was a party of people larger than a gang of Thugs could destroy; and thibana meant "to cause travelers to sit down on some pretense, so they could be murdered."
Thugee completely transcended both religion and caste, normally insurmountable barriers in Indian society. The following remarkable exchange, which took place between Sleeman and a Muslim Thug named Sahib Khan, is revealing in this connection:
Sleeman: You are a Musulman?
Khan: Yes, most of the Thugs of the south are Musulmans.
S: And you still marry; inherit; pray; eat and drink according to the Koran; and your paradise is to be the paradise promised by Mahommud?
K: Yes, all, all.
S: Has Bhowanee [Kali] been anywhere named in the Koran?
S: Then has Bhowanee anything to do with your paradise?
S: She has no influence upon your future state?
S: Does Mahommud, your prophet, anywhere sanction crimes like yours; the murder in cold blood of your fellow creatures for the sake of money?
S: Does he not say that such crimes will be punished by God in the next world?
S: Then do you never feel any dread of punishment hereafter?
K: Never; we never murder unless the omens are favourable; we consider favourable omens as the mandates of the deity.
S: What deity?
S: But Bhowanee, you say, has no influence upon the welfare or otherwise of your soul hereafter?
K: None, we believe; but she influences our fates in this world and what she orders in this world, we believe that God will not punish in the next.
The omens mentioned by the Muslim Thug are indicative of the world of meticulously observed rituals and superstitions in which the Thugs lived. Every Thug expedition was planned in careful consultation with omens and signs. The call of a crane betokened good fortune, while owl calls were inauspicious. A wolf crossing the road from left to right was a bad omen, but crossing from right to left was good. The bark of a jackal was also a very bad sign.
During the first week of an expedition, Thugs were not allowed to bathe, shave, clean their teeth, have sexual intercourse, wash their clothes, eat any animal food besides fish, or dress any food in ghee (clarified butter). Throughout the course of their travels, a company of Thugs kept a close eye on the signs and omens, certain of which were considered so severe that they could cause the Thugs to instantly leave an area or discontinue an expedition altogether.
While Thugee was in part a perverse expression of religious faith mingled with primitive superstition, Thugs also were undoubtedly motivated by the immense potential for enrichment. Thugs often targeted large caravans of merchants transporting gold, silver, and jewels from one commercial center to another. Because of the secretive and hereditary character of Thugee, most Thugs did not spend their ill-gotten gains lavishly, but hoarded immense treasures that grew larger with each succeeding generation. Most led double lives, their wives usually unaware of the purpose of their frequent long forays away from home. (All Thugs were men, although Sleeman did document a few cases of wives participating in Thug murders.) They typically held occupations and even political offices that earned them respect in their communities, and were as loyal and compassionate towards family and friends as only upstanding citizens could be.
This macabre masquerade had been perpetuated across generations, as Thug fathers inducted their sons, by small steps, into the mysteries of Thugee in their early teens. Typically sons were first taken on a Thug safari, without being told anything as to its purpose. On a subsequent outing, they were given to know that robbery was the objective. Next they were allowed to view a strangulation. Finally, they were allowed to participate in Thug activities in some limited degree, eventually acquiring the rank of bhurtote, when they themselves became stranglers.
Not all Thugs were born into the brotherhood, however. Ample provision was made in the code of Thugee for the recruitment and induction of outsiders. This was especially the case in areas where the local political leadership was sympathetic to Thugs activities.
Perhaps the most extraordinary trait shown by the Thugs captured by Sleeman was the rank callousness they displayed as they candidly discussed the details of their appalling crimes and then defended their conduct with the most tortured reasoning imaginable. One Thug named Buhram gave this account of the fruits of 40 years of Thugee as Sleeman questioned him:
"Nine hundred and thirty-one murders? Surely you can never have been guilty of such a number?"
"Sahib," replied this courtly Thug, "there were many more, but I was so intrigued in luring them to destruction that I ceased counting when certain of my thousand victims."
"Do you never feel remorse for murdering in cold blood, and after the pretence of friendship, those whom you have beguiled into a false sense of security?"
"Certainly not! Are you yourself not a shikari (big-game hunter) and do you not enjoy the thrill of stalking, pitting your cunning against that of an animal, and are you not pleased at seeing it dead at your feet? So with the Thug, who regards the stalking of men as a higher form of sport.
"For you, sahib, have but the instincts of the wild beasts to overcome, whereas the Thug has to subdue the suspicions and fears of intelligent men and women, often heavily armed and guarded, knowing that the roads are dangerous. In other words, game for our hunting is defended from all points save those of flattery and cunning.
"Can you not imagine the pleasure of overcoming such protection during days of travel in their company, the joy of seeing suspicion change to friendship, until that wonderful moment when the ruhmal completes the shikar [hunt] this soft ruhmal, which has ended the life of hundreds. Remorse, sahib? Never! Joy and elation, often!"
Judge Curwen Smith, who oversaw hundreds of Thug trials at Saugor, reported in a letter to Lord William Bentinck an almost overwhelming revulsion: "In all my experience in the judicial line for upwards of twenty years I have never heard of such atrocities or presided over such trials, such cold-blooded murder, such heart-rending scenes of distress and misery, such base ingratitude, such total abandonment of every principle which binds man to man, which softens the heart and elevates mankind above the brute creation."
A major impediment to Sleemans efforts was the sympathy and outright protection that Thugs often enjoyed from local political figures, especially in territories not under British jurisdiction. Many nabobs saw in the Thugs a way to acquire spoils indirectly, and shielded them from arrest and persecution in return for ample remuneration. In the historical climate of extreme corruption that plagues India even to this day, many Thug bands had apparently enjoyed alliances with political powers for many generations. On several occasions, when confronted with outright defiance from local officials at his request to surrender known Thugs, Sleeman resorted to direct and forceful response. In June 1831, the Raja of Jhansi, who occupied a well-fortified castle on a hilltop defended by two cannons and at least a thousand men, refused to surrender to Sleeman Thugs. In response, Sleeman called on the resources of the Army, and the castle was attacked with artillery and infantry. In the smoke and confusion, the Thugs managed to slip away, but this erstwhile Thug sanctuary was leveled.
More curious still were the shadowy ties that existed between the Thug fraternity and certain prominent members of the Indian banking community. One particularly wealthy and influential banker, Dhunraj Seth, was relieved of a large shipment of gold and silver by Thug marauders. Through his own agents, he quickly discovered the identity of the Thugs responsible, and recovered much of his stolen wealth with the help of Indian authorities. However, Sleeman discovered that this man actually had close ties to the Thugs himself, and was attempting to become (or had succeeded in becoming) a major financial backer of the Thugs. Sleeman wrote:
It is essentially necessary for the success of this or any other plan for the suppression of Thugee that we should prevent Dhunraj Seth, the great banker of Omrautee, or any of his partners or numerous agents from having communication with the Thugs seized; or any attempts to indemnify themselves, to profit by their murders, to effect their release by bribery, corruption, intrigue or solicitation from all the native chiefs in whose dominions they have found them imprisoned; and to send them again upon the roads with advances of money or subsistence till fresh murders have brought them fresh treasure for division.
Had their attempts not been providentially checked by our operations I declare before God that I believe that this House would have become the great capitalists and patrons of murder from Lahore to Cape Comorin; and that the price of blood would have flowed into their coffers from every road throughout this enormous empire.
Comments George Bruce, a modern authority on Thugee: "It is tempting to wonder to what extent the Thug secret societies were dependent on a central banking source for their working funds. Then, as now, bankers worked in concert. It is possible therefore that Dhunraj Seth sought to get a bigger share of Thug profits." Fortunately, Seths major agent, Bearee Lal, was arrested and imprisoned for collaborating with the Thugs.
Throughout the 1830s, hundreds of Thugs were imprisoned, dozens of gangs broken up, and the roads of India were gradually becoming safe for travelers. Sleemans method of using Thug approvers yielded spectacular results. By 1838, Sleeman had captured and tried a total of 3,266 Thugs, while several hundred more were in prison awaiting trial. Many had been executed, while many more were serving life sentences. By no means had all Thugs been brought to justice. Yet Sleeman had effectively broken the back of Thugee by aggressively pursuing the leadership and developing such a successful system of getting Thugs to finger other Thugs that those who avoided capture were completely demoralized. The rigid, fatalistic system of idolatry and superstition that had so sustained them over the centuries now turned to their disadvantage, as droves of Thugs became convinced that Kali no longer approved of their devotion, and surrendered in many cases without a struggle.
But the "river Thugs" posed a much greater challenge. These particularly violent and ruthless Thugs, who plied their dark trade on the Ganges River among the riverboat passengers, were probably the direct descendants of the Thugs deported from Delhi by Sultan Jalal ud-din Khilji in the 12th century. Unlike their land-bound brethren, they typically strangled from the front and mutilated the sexual organs of their victims before throwing their bodies into the river. Not only was the evidence of their crimes usually washed away, but river Thugs were more reluctant to betray one another. They were much more scrupulous in observing proscriptions in the Thugee code of behavior, such as the prohibition on the murder of women. Their devotion to Kali and to Thugee was absolute and unshakable.
In spite of these difficulties, however, Sleeman and his agents eventually cracked the river Thug network, bringing to an end the last redoubt of the Thug conspiracy. During the course of 1840 and 1841, a series of letters from magistrates across India revealed that, for the first time anyone could remember, no bodies of strangled travelers had been found in any of their districts. Thugee as an active force had become extinct.
Throughout the 1840s Sleeman worked on the suppression of various gangs of Dacoits, though with less successful results. After four decades in India devoted to stamping out an ancient evil against seemingly impossible odds, Sleeman must have begun to long for the cool sea breezes and the quiet cottages and gardens of his long-ago boyhood home in Cornwall. Finally, in 1856, he and his wife Amélie set sail for England, where Sleeman doubtless anticipated a well-deserved retirement. But it was not to be. After nine days at sea, Sleeman died of heart failure and was buried at sea off the coast of Ceylon.
William Sleemans life was an odyssey of tremendous sacrifice and determination, sustained by sound scholarship, an irreproachable character, and a love for the people he served. More importantly for today, his life and methods provide instructive examples for modern patriots who would fight the conspiratorial evils that threaten us.
The history of secret societies and conspiratorial organizations seldom offers much cause for optimism as to the likelihood of their exposure and defeat. Their existence and influence are generally marginalized or denied outright by "responsible" scholarship. Yet in Thugee there is solid documentation of an immensely powerful and widespread secret society that lasted for at least 600 years, with possible evidence for much greater antiquity. This in itself is quite significant, inasmuch as the Western view of conspiratorial organizations, when their existence is acknowledged at all, is that they are typically of brief duration and negligible influence.
Moreover, on those rare occasions when conspiracies and combinations have been exposed, they have all too often succeeded in merely going underground, metamorphosing and emerging anew after a "decent" interval, to resume their subversive, murderous activities. This apparently was the case with the Cathars, the Templars, the Bavarian Illuminati, and, of course, with the American communists and their sponsors following the McCarthy era.
Yet the history of the successful British detection and suppression of the Thugs is a significant exception to a generally disappointing record. It is in fact, as has been demonstrated, largely the tale of a single courageous, principled man, who literally gave his life to exposing and wiping out this extraordinarily successful secret society, whose very existence was unknown to the British for the first two centuries of their commercial and colonial relationship with India.
Sleemans example illustrates the proper way to fight a conspiracy. First, gather evidence to educate the people, especially those wielding legal and political authority, and so expose it. Then, enlist the aid of good men and women to uproot and destroy the conspiratorial organization. It is doubtful that Sleeman could have achieved his aims without the support of his wife Amélie, Governor-General Bentinck, and, most especially, the valiant sepoys and nujeebs in his employ, whose courage Sleeman frequently praised.
The methods Sleeman used sometimes caused him misgivings, since they relied on granting leniency to hardened killers in order to expose the Thug network. Sleeman struggled often with the inadequacy of human justice in this regard. Yet human justice frequently falls short of the mark. In a struggle against a combined enemy, the most important priority is to expose and capture the leadership in order to disrupt the organizational structure and sow demoralization in the ranks of its membership.
Sleemans example also teaches us the value of character in such a struggle. In addition to the evidences of good character previously mentioned, he was a religious man, though, excepting his righteous indignation at Thugee abominations, he was unusually tolerant of native customs and beliefs. We suppose that his extraordinary perseverance in the face of great adversity and personal danger was a direct outgrowth of his upright, moral, and religious disposition.
We, therefore, must also strive to be men and women of character and dedication as we confront a modern conspiracy that has assumed far greater scope and power than the Thugs of long ago. We must seek to better educate ourselves, to arm ourselves with the truth about the enemy that confronts us. Above all, we must be willing to persevere and endure ridicule and harassment, and to make whatever sacrifices necessary to bring the Insiders outside and expose their secret crimes and devious designs.
THE NEW AMERICAN - Copyright 1998, American Opinion Publishing, Incorporated
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