Australian historian and author Peter Stanley’s new book Hul! Hul! (Bloomsbury) provides a unique insight into the oft-overlooked Santal rebellion of 1855, led by the brothers Sidhu and Kanhu Murmu. For the first time, the rebellion, popularly known as the Hul, has been explored largely through the military records of the East India Company and has thrown new light upon the nature of the tribal uprising.
In an exclusive interview with Frontline, Stanley spoke about various aspects of his latest book and argued that the Hul was indeed a ‘war’ and not just an ‘execution’ of tribal rebels as is widely held. Excerpts from the interview...
While the Santal (Santhal) rebellion of 1855 has been a relatively under-explored chapter in Indian history, there were books like Kali Kinkar Datta’s The Santal Insurrection (1940) andSantal Village Community and the Santal Rebellion by Narahari Kaviraj (2001). What prompted you to write this book?
I approached it through my interest in British India’s military history. If it has been relatively neglected by Indian historians, it has been totally neglected by British military historians. Because I had worked on the East India Company’s army, I knew there were records in London and New Delhi which literally no one had ever used before. I realised by using these unused records, we could get a new insight into a neglected and misunderstood conflict. So, really I approached it as a military historian.
But in order to write a military history of the Hul, I had to understand both the Indian and the Santal history, and the Santal experience. So it was an interesting challenge for someone with my background—monolingual, Australian—working on British records relating to India, affecting a tribal rebellion. But the main motivation was the realisation that there were unused resources that could tell us more things.
This is the first time that the Santal rebellion of 1855 is being explored largely through the military records of the East India Company. Does it throw any new light or new perspective on the essential character of the uprising?
I think it does. Many people assumed that because the records were created by British military officers, they would be biased, prejudiced, partial and useless; they are biased, prejudiced and partial, but not useless. The records, created by men whose job was to suppress the rebellion, contain a huge number of references to not just the Santal experience as a whole, but also to Santal individuals. For example, a civil officer describes the last days and execution of one of the great Santal leaders; now, you can’t get that from Santal records.
Santal sources are wonderful , they’re rich, poetic, full of songs, proverbs and stories. You have to use them and be aware of them. But the British records tell you different things. Being western records, they are very specific. While it is true that these records are from the British perspective, that does not mean they only reflect the British experience.
The important contribution this book makes is to reveal new evidence, which leads us to a clearer understanding of the nature of the Hul. There has been terrific work done by Santal historians, using Santal folk memories. I’m a great believer in the value of history from an oral tradition. But these records can also tell us new things that the oral and traditional sources cannot tell us.
On the one hand, there is a huge amount of material from military records, and, on the other, there is a dearth of records from the Santal end. Did this imbalance pose problems in your research?
Santals are of great interest to anthropologists. There is literally a century of anthropological evidence, which I used. There is also a great interest in the folk tradition of the Santal. Both these sources, which I used, provided wonderful understanding of Santal culture. But I had decided pretty early on that I was not going to pretend to be able to do as much justice to the Santals as I could to the British.
The subtitle of the book is “The Suppression of the Santal Rebellion in Bengal, 1855.” The book deals with the reasons why the Santals rebelled, their experiences in the rebellion, and the reasons for the failure of the rebellion; but I don’t pretend to get inside the Santal culture. In the late 19th century, Christian missionaries interviewed Santal survivors of the Hul and these were translated into English. I could use them and also the works of anthropologists. But I couldn’t do what Santal historians can, which is to tell the story of the Santal experience from within the Santal culture.
Equally, though, I have been able to do what Indian or Santal historians could not, due to my inside knowledge of the way the British military system used to work. The records are very hard to use. Though they are available in London and New Delhi, in order to use them you need to be able to understand the way in which those records were created and the people who created them. Of course, they reflect the prejudices and the assumptions of the colonial military and civil officials; but that does not make them unusable, only hard to use.
But what I tried to do was at least try to understand the Santal context; so you can see the chapter structure is based on the Santal year as well as the western year. This was to acknowledge that there was a Santal perspective to this which we really can’t forget.
What did you get from your visit to India?
I found part of the anthropological ethnographic Santal evidence in Britain. I came to India because that’s also where ethnographic evidence can be found. I twice made journeys around the Santal regions of West Bengal, Jharkhand, and Bihar. Though many of the environments have changed, with urbanisation and agriculture taking over the Santal country as it existed in the mid-19th century, it was of vital importance to see it.
As I drove through Jharkhand, I saw memorials in every village to Sidhu and Kanhu. It is important to understand that the Hul is an integral part of Santal memory, and people from outside, like me, have to be very sensitive about the way they tell that story. I went to Bhugnadihee (Bugnadee) towards the end of my second trip to India and there, in the village where the Hul began, I met a man who was descended from the brothers. When I told him why I was there, the first thing he told me was that this was a part of his family history. I realised that it was not just an academic matter, but a profoundly human and cultural matter for the Santal people.
One of the things the book does is to locate the Santal rebellion in a place. If you go to Jharkhand today, you can see all those statues in villages. People there know the history of the Santal rebellion. One of the things I was keen to do was to identify the places of the Hul. For example, one of the biggest and most successful Santal actions was the siege of Koomerabad (Kumrabad). Koomerabad does not exist anymore as it was submerged with the construction of a dam. Or Peer Pointee (Pirpainte), where the British suffered their first defeat. But I could not find the actual place. I did find Moheshpore (Maheshpur), now a town in Jharkhand. It would be great if something could be done with these places in Jharkhand, West Bengal and Bihar to keep alive the memory of what happened there.
There have been peasant and tribal uprisings against the East India Company from the late 1700s, the most serious being the Kol rebellion of the 1830s. But the Santal Hul of 1855 appeared more a reaction against, as you yourself put it, “the unmitigated dishonesty and extortion of the Mahajans”. So how accurate is it to label it, as some Indian historians do, a ‘proto-nationalist’ uprising against the British, rather than a violent reaction to social oppression?
You are absolutely right. The thing that connects the two rebellions—the Kol and the Hul—is that both of them are reactions to the way in which new systems disturb traditional patterns. The Kol rebellion is interesting because it provided the model for the suppression of the Hul. The Kol rebellion was smaller, lasted a shorter time and required less military effort. The Hul, on the other hand, was a major challenge to the British rule in Bengal, not because it was directed at the British, but because they both disturbed the stability the East India Company needed to make its profits from India.
The great epic of modern Indian history is the freedom movement and Indian historians have, quite understandably, incorporated the Hul into that story of struggle and triumph. But I think it is an exaggerated interpretation, because I don’t think Santals were rebelling against the British; they were rebelling to protect their traditional way of life. It was not just the Santals, but also other Hindus who were attracted to the rebellion, as they felt oppressed as well. It was in a way a retrograde movement. It was not looking for unity, freedom and autonomy, though it was looking for autonomy in a decentralised, cultural sense. So I don’t think it is legitimate to label it proto-nationalist.
The book states that the sepoys, who were mostly privileged upper-caste Hindus, preferred shooting the Santal rebels rather than taking them captive. Do you see it as caste prejudice at work?
I think it is very important to understand that there is not one hierarchy of oppression. It is not just British officials against Indians; it’s like an Indian civil war overlain in a colonial context. There isn’t just one oppressor. The Santals quite reasonably looked to the company as their protector.
To me, one of the greatest failures of the East India Company is exemplified by the attitude of George Brown, the Collector in Bhaugulpore (Bagalpur), and James Pontet, the official in the Santal country. They did not protect the Santals from oppression; in fact, they did not even realise that the Santals were being oppressed, even though the Santals had told them that they were drowning in debt, bondage and oppression. They just did not listen. Some officials did respond sympathetically, but, overall, the East India Company absolutely failed to provide protection from oppression.
There were enough warning signs that a rebellion was imminent, but these were ignored. In fact, neither Lord Dalhousie nor the Commander-in-Chief William Gomm was present in Calcutta for the entire duration of the Hul. Even the initial brutal attacks like beheadings and plundering of villages did not raise much outrage. Did the company underestimate it? Or just not care?
They absolutely underestimated it. In the absence of the Governor General and the Commander-in-Chief, the government was being administered by the deputies and delegates of the Supreme Council. They clearly did not understand what was happening, and when they did they were paralysed by indecision. They did not understand for a whole month how serious this was and dismissed it as a local rebellion.
This is emblematic of the nature of the East India Company’s regime—it was legalistic, very cautious, and the men responsible for it were almost paralysed by the responsibility. In the book, I argue that the reason why the Hul collapsed was not because of the military force brought against it, although that helped to contain it, but because of the nature of the rebellion. The Santals were settled, agricultural people who were profoundly traumatised by oppression, rose up in anger and rage, and started to ravage the countryside, destroying the source of their own subsistence in the process. It was a tragedy on all counts and the British response was inadequate at every level.
Major Vincent Jervis of the 56th Bengal infantry is quoted saying “it was not a war… it was an execution”. Yet, the book argues that it indeed was a war of sorts. Please explain why you thought so.
Thank you for focussing on that because that is really important. Vincent Jervis’ comment was about one incident in a little village in eastern Birbhum; but historians, anthropologists and Santals have taken that to be a comment on the entire conflict. If it was an execution, it takes away from the Santals their agency, their ability to act for themselves.
What I saw from the records was that the Santals were not a war-like people; the weapons they used in the Hul were what they used to feed themselves. But these un-warlike people began to understand how to wage war and how to make decisions in just six months. They had no overall leader and the fact that the brothers were wounded and captured early on meant that Santal leadership had soon evaporated. There were a lot of leaders, but very small-scale leaders. But in the course of the Hul, they devised tactics, moved to get what they wanted, and responded to the actions of the company.
You can see in the officers’ accounts of the battles, the way in which the Santals improvised on the spot. For example, they realised that the muskets were very slow to reload. So when the sepoys would raise their musket, the Santals would throw themselves on the ground, allow the bullets to go over their heads, and then the sepoys were defenseless until they reloaded. These were sensible reactions to the sepoys’ military tactics. It’s really impressive and says something about Santal culture too—they were a people who could come up with new ways of doing things even at a time of crisis.
Calling it an execution means they were victims, which of course they were; but they were not just victims. They tried to take control of their own destiny. The tragedy is that they failed, at the cost of 10,000 lives. That’s why I disagree with Vincent Jervis’ emblematic phrase. The entire rebellion, I think, was a war. The army certainly treated it as a war.
At one point in your narrative, the Santal rebels, as they marched on, reminded one of the slave revolt of 71 BC. According to various depictions, Spartacus’ army was also joined by runaway slaves, just as other marginalised caste Hindus joined the Hul as it marched from village to village. Did you feel that way about it at any point?
I think that is a very apposite parallel, though I never thought about it. In fact, it was never very clear to me whether Hindu blacksmiths and other marginalised castes joined the Hul because they shared the cause as they were also oppressed; or whether they were being conscripted by the Santals. It is clear that the Santals did make some Bengali villagers carry rice for them. But were all Hindus forced into joining the rebellion? I think not. But you are absolutely right though—it was a reaction against oppression, and the Santals were not the only ones oppressed.
- Australian historian and author Peter Stanley’s new book Hul! Hul! provides a unique insight into the Santal rebellion of 1855.
- His account makes use of unused records from The East India Company which are available in the archives in New Delhi and London.
- The book deals with the reasons why the Santals rebelled, their experiences in the rebellion, and the reasons for the failure of the rebellion.
- One of the points the book makes is that Santals were rebelling to protect their traditional way of life, not against the British.