The end of the hot weather had seen towns, cantonments and towns doze under the beating sun, with many sepoys in their home villages on furlough. Now the month was “accompanied by much rain… the weather was often gloomy.”
Calcutta’s European community went on a sweaty round of entertainment in the humid heat, listening
to Madame Frery’s Violin Evenings at City Hall, the New York Serenaders at Dowley’s Family Hotel, Garden Reach or, for those with a taste for the grotesque, entertained by the famous ‘Indian Dwarf’.
Seemingly minor events heralded further changes: military consultations sent from Calcutta to London recorded a “report on greased cartridges for new rifled muskets”, but without commentary, ignoring how the rumors about the composition of the grease would eventually lead to the Bengal Army. trauma, while in Calcutta the Hindu College had just been renamed the Presidential College, heralding an even greater change.
Newspaper subscribers read of Dalhousie’s intentions to annex the kingdom of Oudh to India. And all the while, the rain was pouring down. “The rains continue to be heavy,” the Citizen reported, with “heavy showers” night and morning.
“It’s my authority”: the murder of Mohesh Dutta
Four brothers living near Burhyte, in the heart of Damin, became the instigators and leaders of the rebellion. Landless laborers – their father, a Manjee, had lost his land – perhaps they had seen Walter Sherwill when he visited in 1851, or at least had heard of him – they lived in Bhugnadihee, only a half mile south of Burhyte.
The two elder brothers, Sidhu and Kanhu, took it upon themselves to broadcast the visions they experienced during the hot weather of 1855. Their claim that Thakur Bonga, the great spirit, had appeared to them on several occasions touched a sensitive chord among Santals seeking a solution to their plight.
The fact that Sidhu and Kanhu speak on behalf of the Thakurs qualifies the Santal Rebellion to be considered what Stephen Fuchs called a “messianic movement”, representing them as “rebellious prophets”. Indeed, the Santals of 1855 met most – and certainly the most significant – of Fuchs’ criteria for identifying “messianic movements.” They were dissatisfied with their social and economic situation, reacted to this situation with “certain hysterical symptoms”, produced charismatic leaders who demanded implicit obedience in pursuit of radical change through violent rebellion, punishing both opponents and traitors.
Kanhu and Sidhu summoned the Santals to assemble in the valley of Burhyte, a summons which thousands obeyed. A Santal ‘spy’ (the first of many supposed spies arrested during the rebellion) told Ashley Eden that on the night of the last full moon – Friday June 29 – some 9,000 Santals were said to have gathered near Moheshpore, a village which was soon to become significant.
They had complied with an order from Kanhu, who, although not an elderly man himself, had addressed the manjees with authority, even threatening “if you don’t show up, your head will be cut off” . Heed these words…” Of the four brothers, Kanhu became the most dominant, followed closely by Sidhu, and they quickly achieved legendary stature among European newspaper editors. (And at least in retrospect among the Santals as well – Durga Tudu recalled that “the names of the two brothers…surpassed the names of the others”.
Their younger brothers, Chand and Bhairab, acted as lieutenants. Apparently, they were gathering to protest against the punishments inflicted on the “dacoits” who, it was well known, had acted in the name of the Santal community and not out of individual greed.
None of this, however, was apparent to the Damin’s superintendent, James Pontet, who usually spent the hot, monsoon weather at Bhaugulpore, 45 miles away. His cabin in the Damin was less than a mile from the four brothers’ native village, but he had no idea of the Santals’ grievances or intentions.
Santal crowds shouted ‘Hul! Whoop!’ (“Rebel! Rebel!”), but for the moment, it is not known why they rebelled, nor against what, nor how.
Around July 1, in Panchkathia, a bazaar three kilometers north of Burheyte, a group of Santals murdered no less than five mahajans, a crime that even the lazy Mohesh Dutta could not ignore. Dutta had been darogah in the Damin for about twenty years – as long as James Pontet had served – and was considered “notoriously corrupt”. He had acted harshly and often unjustly against those accused or suspected of Dacoism in 1854, and seemed determined to quell further unrest.
With a group of Burkendazes (village guards armed at best with matchlock muskets), he arrived in Panchkathia on the afternoon of Saturday July 7. There he met a crowd of Santals, headed by several of the brethren who had traveled from Bhugnadihee apparently to worship at a shrine, placing them almost by accident in Dutta’s way. They first received Dutta civilly, but then taunted him and dared him to stop them.
Digambar Chakraborti reported that Dutta beat the Santals with a dog whip, “treating them most cruelly and abusing them indiscriminately”. Dutta, surrounded and outnumbered, realized he had provoked the crowd, sought to pacify them, and seeing that it had failed, attempted to leave.
Jugia Haram said Dutta cried out, demanding to know how the Santals could hold him. ‘Where is your permission?’ he said, ‘Show me your authority’. Sidhu replied, “It is my authority”, and he raised his sword and slew the darogah. Kanhu cut off Dutta’s head and the brothers incited the crowd to fall on the Burkendazis. Dutta and up to nine of his men were killed and beheaded.
News of Mohesh Dutta’s murder first traveled on foot and by word of mouth. Two of his men, beaten and bloodied, fled.
They traveled to Bhaugulpore and arrived three days later. They informed the commissioner, George Brown or his officials about Sidhu and his brothers, a case confirmed by reports soon collected by other magistrates. Brown at first could not credit the news, nor the claim that the Santals had “expressed a determination to take over the country.” George Brown’s dilatory response cost the authorities several days and became another black mark against him during the rebellion. But other officials were equally reluctant to believe, let alone act, on the reports they began to hear from their darogahs.
Robert Richardson and James Pontet traveled to Rajmahal, apparently the Santals’ original target, on July 6, but for several days when other officials began discussing the news, rumors and hearsay.
distorted the image. ‘Are we going or are we going to stay?’ : joining the Hul Reading correspondence from officials and military officers responding to reports of unrest in the Rajmahal hills, Halliday remained confident: ‘I see no reason to believe that the uprising is anything but local.
According to testimonies collected by Digambar Chakraborti, the events of the following week showed that the Hul was, in fact, anything but a local rebellion. The Santals gathered around Burhyte “became very excited”, as Chakraborti put it with some understatement. They first went to nearby Kusma and looted the village, then flocked south to Litipara. Here they killed more of their oppressors.
The two mahajans (who were brothers) from the village escaped, leaving behind their gomasta (agent), who was known to have “exercised inhuman cruelties” on the brothers’ debtors. The Santals killed him and headed for Heerampore, on the trail of Pakaur. There the brothers met a manjee named Tribhuban, who joined the uprising. To the sound of drums, the leaders debated their next move, with the Thakur inspiring the brothers and their growing group of followers. They looted Heerampore: “this news quickly spread everywhere”, as a Bengali source put it.
Only ten miles east of Bhugnadihee was the railway being constructed, running north to south between Calcutta and Rajmahal. Within days of the outbreak, Santals threatened his Bengali and Santal workers, and looted and burned the bungalows of his European engineers and supervisors. A “Rajmahal Railway correspondent” wrote to the Citizen to report that “they are threatening to behead any man who lifts a stone for us” and that he has carried out their threat.
Santals joined the rebellion, either voluntarily or, as one source put it, “come out, one man from every house, and go fight” – in other words, had been practically conscripted.
Chotrae Desmanjhi described how once Sidhu and Kanhu led a force to plunder Moheshpore, the manjees Mani and Ram also “raised an army and went to plunder Narainpore”, near Rampore Haut. Desmanjhi, of Benagaria, about ten miles west of Rampore Haut, seems to have become part of this force. Conversations between civil officials and “natives” suggested that not all Santals joined the Huls by choice.
When Octavius Toogood addressed a group of men near Burhyte, he warned them of their “foolishness” in joining the rebellion. One man explained that “they had to obey”; they had no choice but to accept a decision made by their communities, as this was a culture steeped in tradition and unaccustomed to individual decisions.
Increasingly, the Santals across the Damin and soon beyond faced a fateful choice. A Santal song captured this moment of decision, so disturbing for the Santals, individually, for their communities and as a people:
The Sahib rule is full of problems,
Will we leave or will we stay?
eat, drink, dress,
For all we are troubled;
Will we leave or will we stay?
Excerpted with permission from Whoa! Whoa! The suppression of the Santal rebellion in Bengal, 1855, Peter Stanley, Hurst & Company.