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27 March 2020

Witch Trials in British India

Papers at the British Library shed light on the belief in witchcraft in 19th-century India.  The India Office Records contain a wealth of correspondence and reports about the processes for discovering witches and the brutal techniques used to determine guilt or innocence.  The proceedings of criminal trials offer a unique insight into attempts by the British administrators to stamp out these practices.

File cover from a witchcraft murderIOR/F/4/830/21967 A Kol Sirdar in Sambalpur murders an entire family because of their alleged witchcraft, Feb 1822-Sep 1823


Commonly, villagers sought advice from a local witch hunter, or Bhopa, who would identify the witch. The favoured punishment was witch swinging. One report offered the following description:
‘Without trial or being heard in defence, the supposed witch is seized, her eyes stuffed with red chillies and bandaged and ropes are tied firmly round her legs and waist.  She is then taken to a tree and swung violently, with her head downwards …till she confesses to a falsehood or dies under the barbarous infliction’.

In 1842, a woman in Palachpoor was murdered in the jungle close to her village by her stepson. When cross examined, he claimed she had been practising witchcraft and had ‘eaten two buffaloes of mine and 10 persons of the village, including my brother’s wife and sister’s daughter’.  The victim’s daughter admitted her mother had been a witch, announcing ‘she used to bite people and they died in consequence’.  It emerged the unfortunate woman had reported her stepson’s involvement in a robbery.  In his fury, he forced her into the jungle and beat her to death.  Despite this knowledge, the witchcraft accusation meant a short prison sentence and hard labour was agreed upon as punishment.

In the village of Chapra in 1849, a woman called Eullal was accused of witchcraft.  It was claimed her eye had fallen upon a villager who contracted an illness and died eleven days later.  A gathering of village officials concluded Eullal was guilty.  Once they had agreed to distribute her possessions and properties amongst themselves, Eullal was seized and charged.   She had chili paste rubbed into her eyes and bandages applied to prevent her evil glare afflicting further victims.  Eullal survived this ordeal and was tied to a tree at 6pm.  By 9pm she was dead.   It was argued a slave killed Eullal under the instruction of the Thakore.  A punishment of 25 Rupees was suggested by the Raja.

Report of the murder of KunkooIOR/L/PS/6/567, Coll 240 Papers regarding a case of 'witch-swinging' and murder which took place at the village of Rohimala, Udaipur State

In 1868, a Bhopa accused an elderly lady, Kunkoo, of making a soldier’s wife sick.  Villagers seized Kunkoo, forced her hands into boiling oil and swung her for days.  The soldier’s wife died and the old lady was released, only to be murdered shortly afterwards.  During questioning the soldier denied killing Kunkoo, exclaiming ‘Nugga told me that she had eaten his uncle and his mother and a cow, so he killed her’.

These and other cases were reported by British authorities.  Captain John Brooke wrote in 1856: ‘I would remark that there is little hope of the custom ceasing till it becomes dangerous to follow the profession of Bhopa’.  The reports indicate the government was keen to stamp out the practice, but were wary of interfering with indigenous beliefs and traditions.  Local leaders admitted that in some areas 40-50 women a year could be punished as witches. The response was to target Bhopas.  By convicting ‘professed sorcerers’ and fining community leaders, the authorities hoped to quell the torture and murders.

Craig Campbell
Curatorial Support Officer, India Office Records

Further reading:
IOR/L/PS/6/567, Coll 240 Papers regarding a case of 'witch-swinging' and murder which took place at the village of Rohimala, in Panurwa District, Udaipur State, on or about 9 August 1868
IOR/R/2/700/39 File Q/6 6 Witch craft cases from 1850
IOR/F/4/2016/90185 Mahee Caunta [Mahi Kantha]: Political Agent's Court of Criminal Justice, case No 1 of 1842, trial of Narajee Ruggajee charged with putting his stepmother to death on account of her being accused of witchcraft, Sep 1841-Jun 1843
IOR/F/4/830/21967 A Kol Sirdar in Sambalpur murders an entire family because of their alleged witchcraft, Feb 1822-Sep 1823

25 March 2020

Lady Day

25 March is Lady Day, Feast of the Annunciation and the first quarter day of the year.  Traditionally on quarter days tenants paid their rents to landlords and servants were hired.  Lady Day was also the first day of the calendar year in England and Wales until 1752.

 

Tulips T00048-12Early-flowering tulips from Edward George Henderson, The Illustrated Bouquet, consisting of figures, with descriptions of new flowers, illustrated by Miss Sowerby (London, 1857-64) © The British Library Board Images Online

William Hone tells the story of a country gentleman in the early 19th century who wrote a letter to a woman of rank in London. He sent it through the general post addressed to
The 25th of March
Foley Place, London

The postman delivered the letter to Lady Day for whom it was intended.

Margaret Makepeace
Lead Curator, East India Company Records

Further reading:
William Hone, The Every-day Book (1826) vol.1, p.195

 

24 March 2020

General John Jacob ‒ A Man of Strong Opinions

Somerset-born John Jacob sailed to India in 1828 aged just 16 as a second lieutenant in the Bombay Artillery of the East India Company.  He never again set foot in England and died 30 years later of ‘exhaustion’ brought on from over-work.

Portrait of John Jacob

Portrait of John Jacob, from an engraving by T L Atkinson, (photographed by Walter L Colls, Photographic Society). Reproduced in Alexander Innes Shand, General John Jacob, Commandant of the Sind Irregular Horse and founder of Jacobabad (London: Seeley and Co. Limited, 1900)

Jacob is primarily known for his ‘pacifying’ achievements as political and military governor in Upper Sindh, which in the 1840s and ‘50s formed the ‘unruly’ north-west frontier of British India.

Map of SindhMap of Sindh from Sir Richard Francis Burton, Sindh, and the Races that inhabit the Valley of the Indus; with notices of the topography and history of the Province. (London,1851) BL flickr

An expert administrator and inventor, Jacob built roads, irrigation systems and canals, turned arid desert into fertile land and improved the local economy.  His attitude towards the local Baloch inhabitants was unusually progressive, his benevolence causing them to name his headquarters ‘Jekumbad’ which the British converted to ‘Jacobabad’.

John Jacob’s house at JacobabadJohn Jacob’s house at Jacobabad.  Reproduced in Alexander Innes Shand, General John Jacob, Commandant of the Sind Irregular Horse and founder of Jacobabad (London: Seeley and Co. Limited, 1900)

Jacob’s accomplishments and ‘eccentric’ nature are well documented. His correspondence in the India Office Records, however, provides some less well-known insights into a dogmatic man who would brook no challenge, perceived or otherwise, to his authority.

In March 1857 Jacob arrived in Bushire to assist his old friend Lieutenant-General James Outram, commanding the British forces fighting Persia.  A few days later he was placed in charge of the forces at Bushire after the previous incumbent committed suicide.  When news of an armistice came in April Jacob had to organise the British evacuation.

He soon came into conflict with of Charles Murray, HM British Ambassador to the King of Persia.  Murray was a well-travelled diplomat with a privileged, aristocratic background. He and Jacob clashed repeatedly over who was the superior representative of the British Government in Bushire, and over the timing of troop shipments back to India.  Their quarrels spilled over into other operational matters.

Portrait of Charles Augustus MurrayPortrait of Charles Augustus Murray by Willes Maddox from an engraving by George Zobel (photographed by William H Ward & Co Ltd Sc).  Reproduced in Sir Herbert Maxwell, The Honourable Sir Charles Murray KCB, A Memoir (Blackwood, 1898)

Jacob dismissed Mirza Agha, a Persian official who acted as secretary to Murray at the British embassy.

Jacob objects to Mirza Agha’s letter of complaintJacob objects to Mirza Agha’s letter of complaint, 26 April 1857 (IOR/H/549, f 604v)

Murray went to great lengths to defend his secretary, arguing he was neither intentionally insolent nor deserving of the public censure and humiliation to which Jacob subjected him.

In May 1857 Jacob arrested and imprisoned two messengers sent to the British camp by the Persian Commander-in-Chief on charges of spying.

Image 7 - Jacob to Persian Cmdr in Chief  IOR_H_550_f295r

Extract from Jacob’s letter to the Persian Commander-in-ChiefExtracts from Jacob’s letter to the Persian Commander-in-Chief, 13 May 1857 (IOR/H/550, ff295-296)

The Persian Commander-in-Chief attempted to placate Jacob:

Extract from a letter from the Persian Commander-in-ChiefExtract from a letter from the Persian Commander-in-Chief, 16 May 1857 (IOR/H/550, f 312)

He reminded Jacob that ‘Friendship requires genial intercommunication and not severity that is freezing of relationships’.

Murray, condemning Jacob’s ‘extremely offensive expressions’ refused to forward copies of Jacob’s letters to the Persian Government, fearing they would inflame Anglo-Persian relations.

Extract from a letter from Murray to Lieutenant-General Sir James OutramExtract from a letter from Murray to Lieutenant-General Sir James Outram, 9 June 1857 (IOR/H/550, f 340)

In August Jacob poured scorn on Murray’s warnings of a Persian plot to attack departing British troops at Bushire. Believing the smooth-talking diplomat was trying to protract negotiations with the Persian Government, he wrote to Captain Felix Jones, Political Agent in the Persian Gulf: ‘the contemptible soul of the man was laid bare to me in the Meerza Agha affair. Everything I have seen of him since is in accordance with his base nature..’

Whilst Jacob could be irascible, high-handed and given to hyperbole, there is evidence that Charles Murray was regarded with considerable contempt, even in high circles, as this extract shows:

Extract from a letter from Henry Bartle Frére, Governor in Sindh, to Jacob

Extract from a letter from Henry Bartle Frére, Governor in Sindh, to Jacob, 6 June 1857. Quoted in Alexander Innes Shand, General John Jacob, Commandant of the Sind Irregular Horse and founder of Jacobabad (London: Seeley and Co. Limited, 1900), p.274.

Back at his post in Sindh in December 1858, an official letter arrived for Jacob from Lord Clarendon, Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, entreating the two public servants to ‘allow any differences which may have arisen to be buried in oblivion’.  It is probably just as well they never worked together again!

Amanda Engineer
Content Specialist, Archivist
British Library / Qatar Foundation Partnership