References to the able British soldier, administrator and thugee suppressor, Major General Sir William Henry Sleeman (1788-1856) are liberally strewn across pages of 19th century history. But his manifold contribution as an administrator has been generally overlooked by historians so far.
This may change, thanks to the initiative of low key, academically inclined IAS officer Pankaj Rag, who recently returned to his old job as Commissioner (Archaeology), after a stint as director at FTII, Pune. Rag, along with colleague Gita Sabarwal, will edit and publish the Sleeman Papers this July under the aegis of the MP State Archives. The documented correspondence covers Sleeman’s tenure as the “Jubbulpore-based assistant to the governor-general’s agent in the Saugor and Nerbudda territories” between 1824-46, before his move to Lucknow at the orders of Lord Dalhousie. The papers have been lying in the state archives since 2000 when they were brought from Nagpur, former capital of the Central Provinces and Berar.
Visibly excited, Rag said Sleeman’s varied career had him interested as a student of modern history at St Stephen’s College where he specialised in the 1857 Revolt at Oudh. It was, in fact, Sleeman’s Ramblings and Recollections of an Indian Official which first brought him to Rag’s notice.
The book is a contemporary journal on land revenue systems and rural disgruntlement inside Oudh, which led to the uprising. As the first British resident to travel extensively in rural areas, Sleeman’s observations did much to disabuse the prevailing British view that native taluqdars (landlords) were a “bunch of predatory robber barons, boorish, and uncultured”. (Quoted by Thomas Metcalf in Land, Landlords and the British Raj.)
Sleeman’s letters to his bosses during the period are filled with revealing detail. In one he writes: “I have the honour to request your sanction to the charge of 70 rupees Nagporee, incurred in the execution of 11 thugs on 30th August last, as a reward to the executioner who is not a regular servant, and has been in the habit of getting 10 rupees a head for those hung, paying all the costs for ropes etc...” Rag says he might have published the papers during his last tenure, but other assignments—publication of Mutiny documents in Urdu, Persian, Bundelkhandi and English—beckoned. All are currently in the India Archives.
The officer has already authored two books, one of which, 1857: The Oral Tradition, explores sources of oral history like folk songs and tales, to reconstruct aspects of the revolt in Bihar, eastern UP, Bundelkhand, and Oudh. Rag says he’d be happy if the publication of Sleeman Papers goads researchers to give the soldier-administrator his due place.
After all, he may have been the only important Englishman opposed to annexation of Oudh, the disastrous consequences of which he did not live to see. And this despite the fact “he reported at length on its chaos and lawlessness, and the misery of its people” to quote Philip Woodruff, author of The Men Who Ruled India. Sleeman’s success in checking law and order led to the formation of the anti-thugee and dacoity department. Disbanded in 1902, it was the forerunner of the Imperial CID.