Sir William Henry “Thuggee” Sleeman
by Nana Osei-Opare
Sir William Henry “Thuggee” Sleeman (1788 – 1856) was a “Thuggee” fighter and colonial administrator. Sleeman was born on August 8, 1788 to Captain Philip and Mary Sleeman in Stratton, Cornwall, England. Sleeman was their fifth son; he had seven brothers and a solitary sister. Familial warmth consumed the Sleeman household. Philip Sleeman was his sons’ strongest critic and supporter. William’s mother, Mary Sleeman, was known as a caring and energetic woman, who understood her children’s “disappointments and difficulties.” Until William was ten, his family lived in Stratton before moving to Bideford, Devon.
It was here that misfortune befell William. In 1799, his elder brother, Lewis Sleeman, perished at sea a few days after John Sleeman, William’s brother, and William bid him farewell upon embarking the naval vessel, H.M.S. Weasel. Three years after Lewis’ death, William’s father also died. The family returned to Cornwall consequently. During this period, William became the proverbial “man of the house” as financial hardship gripped the family. Mary Sleeman consulted William on numerous items. Although in economic difficulties, Sleeman began to think about going to India as an officer. He began reading “Hobbes, Ricardo, Adam Smith, the military campaigns of Turenne, Marlborough,” and Sweden’s Charles XII. In 1808, through family connections, Sleeman became a cadet in the East India Company’s Bengal Army. After a weather delay, on April 26, 1809, Sleeman bid his mother, family, and England farewell, and headed to India on the Devonshire.
Warfare greeted Sleeman in India. As an officer, he participated in the Gorkha War, 1814-16. After the war, Sleeman was stationed in Allahabad and Pratapgarh, Oudh. Four years later, Sleeman became the Governor-General’s assistant agent, where he was required to collect land-revenues and administer justice, in the newly-annexed central Indian territories of Sagar and Narbada. From 1826 onwards, Sleeman joined the campaign against what came to be known as “the Thugs” in Central India. Thugs were a group of people, sometimes related, who skillfully concealed their identity from travelers, gained their confidence and then killed them, usually via strangulation. It was discovered that women–particularly mothers and wives–and children played roles within these expeditions. Sleeman learned, however, that Thugs were not permitted to murder women and other specific groups; many, however, neglected these rules. In the 1830s, Sleeman successfully convinced Lord William Bentinck to wage a concerted attack against the Thugs in which he, over time, came to play a major role. Largely due to Sleeman’s efforts, the anti-Thuggee campaign included not only “specially-trained and mounted police, but also judicial methods with regard to both the admission of evidence and the trial of prisoners.”
In 1830, Sleeman’s responsibility increased when he was appointed to prosecute thug activity in Jubbulpore. His responsibility in this arena only increased in 1835 when he was appointed Superintendent of the Thuggee Department, which entailed launching campaigns against Thugs in northern and central India. Through informants and captured Thugs, Sleeman penetrated the Thugs’ modus operandi, habits, and practices. For instance, Sleeman learnt that Thugs worshipped Bhowani, or Kali, made human sacrifices to her, and sought her approval. It was through this work that Sleeman garnered the nickname, “Thuggee.”
Furthermore, Sleeman’s work unraveled the interconnectedness and complicity between Thugs, village chiefs, and villages. Chiefs and landlords protected Thugs as long as they did not commit murders within their spaces, whilst some Thugs were bowmen, who protected villages from raids and overzealous landlords. Sleeman even discovered that some of the local officers were Thugs themselves. Ultimately, under Sleeman, the British were able to severely undermine Thug and gang robbers’ activities.
In 1841, as a reward for defeating the Thugs, Sleeman was offered the Lucknow’s Government’s Resident’s position to replace the retiring Colonel Low. However, Colonel Low’s resignation was short-lived as financial problems, resulting in depleted savings, forced him back into his former position. Consequently, in 1842, Sleeman was offered the chance to suppress rebellions in Bundelkhand, India. Due to Sleeman’s success in this endeavor, the British Resident’s position at Gwalior was offered to him. Sleeman accepted and subsequently fought in the battle of Maharajapore in December 1843 and was again victorious. With his stock increasingly rising, in 1848, Governor-General Dalhousie again offered Sleeman Lucknow’s Government’s Resident position. There was to be no reprieve, apparently, for the famed vanquisher of the notorious thugs. Sleeman accepted the offer. From 1849 to 1850, Sleeman traveled across the Kingdom of Oudh and wrote a series of diary entries severely lambasting the King’s failure to govern his state. This was not Sleeman’s first series of diary entries, indeed, in 1836, while journeying from Jabalpur to Meerut, he wrote Rambles and Recollections of an Indian Official and during the same year he published Ramaseeana, or a Vocabulary of a Peculiar Language used by the Thugs.
During his Oudh tour diary entries, known as “A Journey Through the Kingdom of Oude in 1849-50,” Sleeman argued that the Oudh kingdom was severely inclined towards corruption and depravity. Sleeman remarked how Oudh was blessed with wonderful, fertile land, but due to the king’s willful disregard for governance the land was underutilized. According to Sleeman, other indicators of the Oudh’s governance failures were systemic corruption, women infanticide, large landlords’ punitively burning and pillaging down villages and villagers, and landlords bribing the judiciary and court members to turn a blind-eye to their acts. Furthermore, Sleeman noted that the king’s soldiers, those who risked their lives for the Oudh government, and had been maimed or killed consequently, but neither they nor their families received their due compensations. Instead, their compensation was shared amongst court members. Consequently, Sleeman maintained that if the British managed Oudh that the local peoples would be able to build their homes in peace, acquire prosperity, education, protection and be more productive.
Ultimately, despite Sleeman’s contestations to the opposite, his views became fodder for pro-annexation advocates in the British parliament to advocate for Oudh’s absorption into British India. Sleeman’s health deteriorated during the last years of his position and by 1854 he retired to the hill stations in northern India. On February 10, 1856, four days after the annexation of Oudh, and a year before the Indian rebellion in 1857, Sleeman died off Ceylon. To commemorate Sleeman’s life, a village in Madhya Pradesh, India, was named Sleemanabad and he is now referred to as Sir William Henry “Thuggee” Sleeman.
Sleeman, W. H., and Peter Reeves. 1971. Sleeman in Oudh; an abridgement of W.H. Sleeman’s A journey through the kingdom of Oude, in 1849-50. Cambridge [England]: University Press.
Sleeman, James Lewis. 1933. Thug; or, A million murders. London: S. Low, Marston & Co.
Tuker, Francis. 1961. The yellow scarf: the story of the life of Thugee Sleeman or Major-General Sir William Henry Sleeman, 1788-1856, of the Bengal army and the Indian Political Service. London: J.M. Dent.