Brothers in Arm: the days of the great Rebellion

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It is difficult to portray a man, about whom we know very little, whatever information we have is unsystematic, unorganized and shrouded in mystery. Yet the hero of the Santhal Rebellion is an unrecognized towering figure in Indian history. This extraordinary character changed everything that was becoming so usual in India, the collapse of Empires, and Emperors, the downsizing of rulers and their estates, the forced austerity upon nobles and fiefs. And lo, here is the man armed with the most primitive weapon went on to take the mightiest power on the planet, the English! He is not afraid of consequences; he is not worried about the superiority of his enemies, or anything else. In him and his band of followers the English found the glorious enemy, “the most truthful, faithful, gentle and harmless race in India.” In fact when the first news of the rebellion was conveyed to the Commissioner of Bhagalpur, he could not believe his ears, “report seemed so strange and unlikely that at first little credit was attached to it”![i] The uprising was so sudden and spontaneous that it lead to astonishing speculations someone even suggesting that, ‘a Frenchman is said to be among the Santhals and a suspicion is abroad that Russian agents and Russian money have been employed to fan the discontent of the hill into the fame of insurrection.’[ii] So without a doubt the rebellion, ‘has most seriously weakened the prestige of the Government’.[iii]

However when reports of Santhal uprising began to arrive everyday the administration had to believe it. As a prelude to this rebellion there was this divine revelation which actually provided the stimulus to go for the uprising. One night while Seedo and Kanhu were pondering many things in their house a bit of paper fell on Seedo’s head and suddenly the Thakur appeared before the two brothers. He was like a white man dressed in native style, on each hand he had ten fingers, he held a white book, and wrote therein, the book, and with it 20 pieces of paper in 5 batches, four in each batch, he presented to the brothers, ascended upwards and disappeared. Another bit of paper fell on Seedo’s head and then came two men each having six fingers on each hand hinted to them the purport of Thakur’s order and they likewise vanished.[iv] This went on, the revelations, and each day the brothers were presented with symbolic objects, a flame of fire, a book, some white paper, a knife and a soild cart wheel. By then the Manjhis of neighbouring villages had been talking about ways to tackle the extortion machinery, the mahajuns, the landlords, corrupt traders etc. A mound for the Thakur was erected and sheltered beneath an elegant canopy. The figure of the Thakur was a circular mound of mud, two feet in diameter, raised couple of inches above the ground, on the centre it had another circular top about two inches in diameter, it basically resembled a cart wheel. The villagers graced by this amazing presence of Thakur offered gifts to the shrine. A day was fixed when the mandate from heaven, the papers which fell from the sky would be produced to the Santhals of Damin-i-koh.

The village of Bhognadih, Jharkhand with the Rajmahal Hills in the backdrop.

On the appointed day, 30th June 1855 about 10000 Santhals meet at Bhognadih, the Thakur’s orders were announced. Letters were written by Kirta, Bhado, and Sunno Manjhees at Seedo’s direction addressed to the Government, to the Commissioner, Collector, and Magistrate of Bhagalpur, The Collector and Magistrate of Birbhum, to the Daroghas of Thana Dighee, and Tikree and to several Zamindars and others, from the Daroghas and Zamindars replies were called within 15 days. The order was pretty clear- the revenue was to be collected by the Santhals themselves and paid to the State. The revenue for every buffalo-plough was to be 2 Annas, a half Anna on cow-plough, and the rate of interest for money burrowed was to be 1 paise for a Rupee yearly. The orders further instructed the extermination of Mahajuns and Daroghas, the traders, Zamindars, and all the Bengalis connected with money lending to be banished from the country and to fight all resistance.[v] The Thakur’s perwanah assured a supernatural war, ‘the Sahibs and white soldiers will fight. Therefore you Sahibs and Soldiers fight with the Thankur himself Mother Gnages will come to Thakur’s ressistance. Fire will rain from the heaven, if you are satisfied with the Thakur then you must go to the other side of the Ganges…the reign of truth has begun true justice will be administered. He who does not speak the truth will not be allowed to remain on the Earth.’[vi]

The Santhals after the meeting at Bhognadih proceeded to Panchkhetia Bazar to propitiate a local Godesess much venerated in that part of the country. The arrival of the Santhal army caused a great turmoil in the Bazar, and the mahajuns, the traders all trembled in fear. In the words of Kanhu, “the Mahajuns complained to Buroo Darogah that Seedo and Kanhu were collecting men to commit a plunder, the Mahajuns gave him Rs. 100 to come and catch us. The Darogah was sitting at Babupur he sent a Barkandaz to me before. He counted the men I then gave a parwanah (order) to the Barkandaz saying that the Thakur has descended and we are assembled for the purpose of making a complaint why do interfere, the darogah remained two days and went. Then I sent for him and he came with the Mahajuns into a maidan. He asked me where are you going. I said-I have come about a parwanah I sent you. He said that he had seen the parwanah but that he did not come to through fear and the Mahajuns showed a parwanah forbidding him to come to me also and told him to bring soldiers with him or else the Santhals would take his head off, then I said I did not send that parwarnah the Mahajuns have altered my parwanah and sent you that. I said-why have you come? He said-I have to come to investigate a snake bite death. Then he said that, you are collecting me a plunder. I said prove it, if I have committed a theft or plunder put me in jail. The Mahajuns said if it costs us Rs. 1000 we will do that to get you imprisoned. The Mahajuns and the Darogah got very angry and ordered them to tie me up. The Mahajuns began to tie Seedo my brother, then I drew my sword then they left off tying my brother and I cut Manick Chowdhury’s head off and Seedo killed the Darogah and my army killed five men whose names I do not know, then we all returned to Bhognadih.”[vii]

 From there on the rebellion spread like wildfire, within a week it spread all over the places between Borrio and Kahalgaon. In fact when the news of the outbreak reached Bhagalpur the Hill Rangers were called out they advanced to Pyalapur, but they were beaten off by the Santhals armed with only bows and arrows. The Santhals were left masters of the country they had under the whole tract of land from Kahalgaon on the West to Rajmahal on the East, and nearly as far as Raniganj and Synthia on the South![viii] Armed with bows, axes, swords and probably few guns they attacked Kadamsair, the zamindars of Maheshpur, and the Raja of Lakhanpur, there was no one to stop their fury it went on unabated.

By then Berhampore had been informed of the Santhal uprising, the 7th Native Infantry moved out and on 13th July they arrived in Kadamsair in pursuit of the rebels. In the morning of 15th July the Berhampore troops under Mr. Toogood first meet the Santhal army at Maheshpur and a fierce battle started where about 200 Santhals were killed. Seedo was shot through the right wrist, he gallantly led the Santhals on to the field, and was the last to leave the field fighting all along with his comrades.[ix]  Kanhu and Bhyro were also shot in the abdomen and on the back respectively but the wounds were not fatal. Seedo was carried away off the field on a charpoy and the four brothers returned to Bhognadih. On the 24th of July the brothers heard of the Berhampore troops making way into Bhognadih sacrificed two buffaloes and ten goats. Kanhu left Bhognadih with seventy odd men to fight with the troops at Raghunathpur. At Raghunathpur, Chand and Kanhu with their followers afterwards met another similar but less extensive reverse. A portion of the troops attempted to oppose the march of the 7th NI to the Santhal capital Berhait but failed. However after the defeat of Kanhu at Raghunathpore news was brought by retreating Santhals that he had fallen in battle, hearing this Seedo and the two brothers retired into the hills.[x]

On capturing Bhognadih the Santhal headquarter, Mr. Toogood made a thorough inquiry into the rebellion, he questioned the villagers about the nature and causes of the rebellion and personally saw the shrine of the Thakur in Seedo’s house. However he says with tactlessness, “I have burnt the village of Bhognadih and with it the whole of the Thakur Bari and issued the in closed proclamation…the four books which it is reported fell from heaven and in which the orders of Thakur were written and which books were read at the Thakur Bari everyday are the translations of the Gospels of Saint John into Bengali and other languages. They were found on the verandah of Seedo’s house where he used to sit and dictate his orders and close to the verandah was the Thakur. The books were wrapped up in a white cloth and tied round with a piece of gold string.”[xi] In the same house Mr. Toogood found,”a tin box and in it several of the papers and documents of the ringleaders, the seals of the Darogah of Thana Dighee who was murdered, some orders of the Magistrate of Bhagalpur, Sedoo’s written orders, copies of some of which I send for your perusal. They are chiefly written in the Hindi language.” These papers were produced in the court during the trial of Seedo at Bhagalpur.

It is here in this old Illustrated London News February 23rd, 1856 edition we see a picture of Seedo, sketched from life. The portrait of Seedo was taken while he was in prison after being taken to Bhagalpur following his capture. He is a short, thin, active little fellow very unlike a Santhal in appearance.[xii]

Towards the end of July all the troops available had been mobilized and placed under the command of Brigadier General Llyod, who already had acquired some fame as the founder of the Darjeeling and subsequently tarnished his reputation by his failure to suppress the Mutiny at Danapur in 1857. Colonel Bird was shortly afterwards appointed to the special command of the troops employed in Bankura and Birbhum districts.[xiii] It was due to this pincer movement the Santhals were crushed both in the Western and the Eastern theatre and by the end of October the English military operations were reaping success. Seedo was caught along with Kisto Santhal by one Tulsi Santhal sent by Ashley Eden from Aurangabad.[xiv] Another version about the arrest of Seedo throws light into a peculiar character in almost all rebellion that is treachery and defection, although the Santhals were attributed to be of unquestionable integrity and loyalty yet there are instances of deceit. It was reported as early as in the first week of August 1855, ‘we are given to understand that the Santhals have offered to give up the three survivors of the four brothers who were their leaders’.[xv] The report was not incorrect and this incidence was reported by Major Shuckburgh from Camp Gutiari on 20th August 1855, the arrest officially took place on the day before i.e 19th August 1855-

“On our road here yesterday about three miles from this is a Runjunnite (Runjun Parganait, a Santal chief due to surrender later on[xvi]) Bhugun Manjhee (Bhagna Manjhi) of the village Punderha Pergannah Pusye voluntarily came to me and said he had never joined the insurgent party and would assist in quelling the insurrection. Shortly after our arrival in camp a man came in to say to say that he had got the Head Chief Sedoo Manjhee bound in cords in a neighbouring village and if ordered to bring him in he would do so. It was done and the celebrated robber chief and rebel is now a prisoner in the camp and will be sent to Bhagalpur.’[xvii]

Kanhu was furious and ordered the murder of Bhagna Manjhi, his order was duly executed by Domom Darogah, whose mere mention send shivers down the residents of Damin-i-koh. In this act of violence and counter violence more blood was to be shed, as a sequel to vengeance retribution was conducted Domon Darogah was murdered by Baijnath Manjhi son in law of Bhagna. ‘To my surprise’, wrote Money in his report on the incident, ‘on the following morning he [Baijnath Majhi] returned . . . bringing with him the Head of Domun Darogah.’[xviii]

Sedoo was tried along with other prisoners at Bhagalpur on the 29th, 30th, 31st October and on 1st November 1855 before Mr. W Bell session judge of Bhagalpur. The Session Judge of Bhagalpur referred the trials of the Santhal prisoners to the Nizamut Adalat (case addressed on December 4th) where final verdict was given.[xix] The accusations against Seedo were severe, he was charged on 4 counts, those were-

  1. During the months of July and August 1855 assembled men for purpose treasonable to the state and subversive for the public tranquillity.
  2. In having of the 15th of the same month unlawfully resisted with arms the officers of the Government thereby causing bloodshed.
  3. In having between 5th and 7th July wilfully murdered Mohesh Dutta, Naib Suzawal and eight others with a sword.
  4. In having during the months of July and August laid waste a large tract of the country plundering and burning villages and putting all to the sword and placing the officers of the Government at defiance.[xx]

Eleven witnesses gave testimony that Seedo personally murdered Mohesh Lal and headed the rebels against Government troops.In defence Seedo denied having risen against the Government and states his grievance to be against the Muhajuns on account of their unreasonable extractions. Seedo said that he had complained to Mr. Pontet and the Darogah but they would not listen to his complaint, and therefore he killed the Darogah. It may be worth mentioning here that not only Seedo and Kanhu almost all the Santhal leaders displayed an amazing sense of fortitude on trial. ‘You forced us to fight against you,’ said one of their leaders in the Birbhum jail. ‘We asked only what was fair, and you gave us no answer. When we tried to redress by arms you shot us like leopards in the jungle.’[xxi]

Seedo did acknowledge that he and rebel army plundered many villages however he denied he fought with the troops at Maheshpur, he said he only went to Salam while seeing the troops but was shot. The Session Judge at Bhagalpur Mr. W Bell convicted Seedo guilty of all crimes and as the leader of the insurrection sentenced him to death. He suggested that Seedo to be hanged not at the jail but  he to be handed over to the Assistant Commissioner who will choose the site of execution according to his wisdom, and then conduct the execution in full public view so that it sends a message across Damin-i-koh the futility of raising arms against English Government. The Nizamut Adalat headed by Sir R Barlow, and Mr. B J Colvin was of the opinion that Seedo was one of the leaders of the insurrections who personally murdered Mohesh Lal Dutta and being guilty of these offences the court sentenced him for capital punishment.

Eventually Seedo along with Moocheea Santhal was hanged at Babupur where on 7th July the insurrection had started with the murder of Mahesh Lal Dutta. The exact date of execution is not known but this can only be speculated and at the moment as records point is linked with Kanhu’s post arrest statements.[xxii] Kanhu was probably caught on the last week of November 1855, and brought to Raniganj on 2nd December, a report says, ‘on Saturday morning Ensign Allen of the second Grenadiers came into Raniganj from Uparbandha with a party of his regiment having as prisoners Kanhu, Chand, Bhyro, and nine of their followers.’[xxiii] Kanhu was later transferred to Suri for the inability of personnel in Raniganj to find proofs against him, and on 5th General Llyod ordered the prisoners to be handed over to him. This was duly done as per the letter from the Magistrate of Birbhum Mr. Thompson to the Major General Llyod who was commanding the entire military operations against the insurrection. It says, ‘I have the honour to forward to you the Santhal prisoners….I beg to transmit different articles of property which were found in the possession of the prisoners…the clasp belonging to the late Lieut. Toulmen which the prisoner Kanhu was wearing on his arm at the time of his capture.’[xxiv]

Kanhu, ‘is a small-limbed man, about five feet six inches in height, with small features, and there is nothing in his appearance to denote either the hero or assassin, he is about 35 years of age. Kanhu speaks very freely upon being questioned, and says that they had been so much oppressed by Mahajuns and Zamindars, that he and other Manjhis advised his countrymen to rebel, and kill all the enemies and then proceed and lay all their sorrows and complaints before the Governor General and that they had none of them any intention or wish to injure Europeans. He asked after his brother Seedo, evidently not knowing that he has been executed and when informed of it he remarked that it was his fate and now he was quite indifferent to himself.”[xxv] From these reports if we sum up the story then, Seedo was arrested on 19th August and tried on Nizamat Adalat on 4th December, on 2nd December Kanhu was arrested and brought to Raniganj, few days later he was transferred to General Llyod, it is there where he was informed of Seedo’s execution, so we can assume that Seedo’s execution occurred few days after Kanhu’s capture.

Kanhu’s date of execution is however pretty clear, as mentioned from a correspondent at Camp Birheit on 24th February, 1856[xxvi]– “You will hear no more of Kanhu Manjee, the celebrated Santhal chief, as we hung him yesterday at 2’o clock, p.m (which means he was executed on 23rd February 1856) at his own village, where the gallows was all ready for him. We afterwards burn him so there is precious little left of him now. We were afraid that there might be a row when we arrive at Kanhu’s village Bhognadih, so the guard was increased to 120 men, and about twenty men of the 2nd Irregular cavalry accompanied him. Although there was a nice party, as eleven gentlemen from the neighbouring parts accompanied us to the place of the execution. Kanhu says that he will come to life again in six years, and then that all the country will rise again. He did not seem to be a bit afraid of being hung, nor did he conceal anything that he knew about the Santhal insurrection.”[xxvii]

As for the two other brothers Chand and Bhyroo who were arrested along with Kanhu, underwent trial and was awarded imprisonment for life. The reason for narrowly escaping a capital punishment like their unfortunate brothers was, ‘the two younger brothers may perhaps been less blood thirsty and less active because they are young and less experienced.’[xxviii]

So that was the end of the two brothers who led thousands of their people against oppression, extortion and slavery. One of the most important features in this rebellion is unity, it is simply astounding how and why the rebellion spread so fast in the days of no Facebook and Twitter. J R Ward the Special Commissioner paid an indirect tribute when saying, ‘I have failed to ascertain when and how communications had been made prior to Seedo’s first act (murder of Mahesh Darogah). Indeed I cannot find that there was any other than the usual intercourse between the Bhagalpur Santhals and their fellows of Birbhum till the former were in arms.”[xxix] In another occasion when the Company forces were to arrest Kowlia Santhal, a sand in the eyes of the Government who was valued ten thousand, over Seedo was only valued at five thousand.[xxx] When Kowlia was caught he was quite composed and said that his names was Cherkah, every man in the village swore the same, until they were pressed hard to confess that it was indeed Kowlia, who was, ‘taller than Seedo and appears more intelligent, his countenance is even of intellectual cast.’[xxxi]

I am quite in a dilemma about how should I end, should I end like a proper historian and talk about the aftermaths of the rebellion, or like a storyteller end in a melodramatic mood. Well I have decided to do a little bit of everything! Perhaps you will understand that it is just not possible to touch everything in this little write-up, but what is possible is to tell you that why this event is quite singular in World History. Before that I would like to ask point on one thing very practical which is Seedo was arrested on 19th August 1855, maybe he was executed on the first or second week of December 1855, and during this all time he was imprisoned in the Bhagalpur jail. A couple of months after Fredric John Mouat who visited the Bhagalpur jail in February 1856 reports, ‘I also find a considerable number of the untried Sonthal prisoners, fettered (chained) either by the hands or feet to prevent their escaping. It is I believe, illegal to fetter an untried prisoner…the Sonthal prisoners who are very numerous many of whom died during the past year….the hospital is the worst feature of this jail….the Sonthal prisoners should be placed in pals, marched out every morning under a strong guard to the maidan to defecate in a trench which they should fill in and dug daily…..the Sonthal prisoners are awaiting trial are very numerous. A large of them are mere boys who ought not, I think to have been sent in. Speedy arrangements should be made for their trial and disposal. Their detention is costly and hazardous, for they are beginning to die off already.’[xxxii]

In the days of no Human Rights Commission, the situation there must have been something which words would fail to describe.  I mean you wake up in the morning and you go to answer Nature’s call which is so simple, but then you have to be lined up like sheep, followed up by digging of trench for defecation, with all that cramping and bloating from harsh food going in your stomach! There are people, your own countrymen dying before you like rats, out of the spread of cholera. What must have been your thoughts? But here is a report,’200 prisoners after the Santhal insurrection were allowed to go free on parole, to work for wages at a certain spot. Compelled to leave by a visitation of cholera, 200 savages walked thirty miles back to prison, with money in their girdles, rather break their word!’ [xxxiii] And it says further, ‘Santhal truthfulness here withstands temptation’. It changed all, not only the hateful perception that Santhals were, ‘the most bloodthirsty wretches ever disgraced the face of Earth’[xxxiv] but questioned Sir J Lubbock’s[xxxv] notion that, ‘without temptation, mere innocence has no merit’. In effect only Kanhu was right in saying that only Truth will remain and he will come back, and decade after decades we have seen so many Kanhu’s come back to life, probably we will see more!

PS: I really had a hard time with the orthography of the Santhal names which the English have documented in their report, in some places I have corrected those for easy understanding.


[i] The Santal Insurrection Of 1855-57, K Dutta, page 38.

[ii] The Indian News, September 19, 1855.

[iii] Allen’s Indian Mail October 2nd 1855.

[iv] Calcutta Review 1856, volume 26-27.

[v] Ibid

[vi] Judicial Proceedings October 4 1855, The Thakur’s Perwanah.

[vii] Extracts from the statement of Kanoo Sonthal, 20th December 1855, Examined by Ashley Eden.

[viii] Santal Rebellion LSS O’Malley 1910.

[ix] Illustrated London News February 23, 1856.

[x] The Indian News, Sept 19, 1855, extract from a letter of Mr. Toogood from camp Bhognadih on 25th July 1855.

[xi] Ibid.

[xii] Illustrated London News February 23, 1856..

[xiii] Santal Rebellion LSS O’Malley 1910.

[xiv] Report of the Cases determined in the Nizamut Adawlut, Volume 5.

[xv] Indian News, October 2, 1855.

[xvi] Ranajit Guha Elementary Aspect of Peasant Insurgeny in Colonial India

[xvii] Judicial Proceedings  4 Oct. 1855: Shuckburgh to Becher (30 Sept. 1855).

[xviii] Judicial Proceedings  , 4 Oct. 1855: Money to Bidwell (6 Sept. 1855).

[xix] Report of the Cases determined in the Nizamut Adawlut, Volume 5

[xx] Ibid

[xxi] The Annanls of Rural Bengal, Sir William Wilson Hunter.

[xxii] Allens Indian Mail February 5, 1856.

[xxiii] Allens Indian Mail January 15, 1856

[xxiv] Letter of R Thompson to General Lyod, dated 6th December 1855.

[xxv] Illustrated London News February 23, 1856.

[xxvi] Allens Indian Mail April 18,1856.

[xxvii] Bengali Harkaru March 1.

[xxviii] Judicial Proceedings No 131, dated 20.12.1855.

[xxix] Ranajit Guha Elementary Aspect of Peasant Insurgeny in Colonial India.

[xxx] The Indian News and Chronicle of Eastern Affairs 1855.

[xxxi] Ibid.

[xxxii] Reports on jails visited and inspected in Bengal, Behar, and Arracan,  By Frederic John Mouat.

[xxxiii] The Contemporary Review, Volume 15

[xxxiv] The Illustrated London News, Volume 29.

[xxxv] ‘Sir Lubbock discovered that ants were sensitive to light in the near ultraviolet range of the electromagnetic spectrum’.

Sumit Soren is the founder of Livelystories. Basically an Agricultural Engineer, Sumit has interest in varied topics. He regularly writes on tribal history, internet and science related topics.

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