Crime in Victorian India: the Incredible Cult of Murder and the Drug Trade

Cult members of thuggee

For three hundred years, the subcontinent harboured one of the most incredible religions conceived by the mind of man: Thuggee, the cult that gave it’s members a divine duty to commit murder. The mythological story of how this cult came to be is as follows: Once upon a time the world was infested with a monstrous demon named Rukt Bijdana, who devoured mankind as fast as they were created. So gigantic was his stature that the deepest parts of the ocean reached no higher than his waist. Kali cut this monster in twain
with her resistless sword but from every drop of blood that fell to the ground there sprang a new demon. For some time she went on destroying them, till the hellish brood multiplied to endless numbers. So she created two men and gave each a rumal or handkerchief and commanded them to strangle the demons. Then she said that the men should keep the handkerchief and destroy all men who were not of their kindred. About the period
of the commencement of the kali yuga, Bhowani or Kali cooperated with these men and their descendents so far as to relieve them the trouble of interring the dead bodies by devouring them herself. But one day a young Thug watched her while she ate and saw a body hanging out of her mouth. Kali did not like being seen thus and so she refused to eat anymore of their victims. Even so, the Thuggee still believed that the murders they
committed were a divine right and duty.

Now this yarn does have a spot of truth in it. The Thugs (practitioners of Thuggee), were often related. Thus, the ties that bound the cult together were often close familial ties. Add to this the fact that the cult had its own secret language called Ramasee , which was based on ancient Persian and that in time the cult became connected to families of wealthy landowners, and you can see how these weird, grisly beliefs took root and grew so successfully. Language was important because there are over one hundred tongues native to India. The common language which the English imprinted on India was in some ways a great service for the Indian nation’s development: it enabled large groups of Indians to talk to one another. Thuggee was remarkable, too, because it comprised Hindus and Moslems. So even in this bizarre cult, there were positive elements.

In 1839, William Sleeman, a British officer, was made head of  efforts to expose and suppress Thuggee. He was enormously successful and is known to history primarily for this reason. An account of Sleeman’s work, almost completely factual, is to be found in Philip Meadows Taylor’s book, Confessions of a Thug. Taylor was himself a Thug hunter and knew his subject very well.

Less well-known and now rarely adverted to is the opium trade which was based in India and developed and managed by the British. In Victorian times, trading in opium was not a crime, except in China,  Britain’s primary market for the drug. Opium factories were set up in Patna and Ghaziapur. The opium produced was sold to the Chinese to equalize the balance of trade for the huge amounts of tea the British bought from China.

The opium was auctioned in Calcutta to “independent merchants” who used some of the fastest sailing ships ever built (opium clippers like the “Sea Witch” shown above) to get the opium past the Chinese authorities. The standard of living in Victorian Britain rested to a large degree on the sale of opium to Chinese addicts, created to a significant extent by the British efforts to market the drug. Today, Indian opium is grown in the three states of Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan. There still exists a multinational company with revenues in the billions of pounds that was born directly from the opium trade.

In fact, opium  and the huge revenues it can generate continues to be a major factor in the politics of Afghanistan and other Asian countries. One cannot help but wonder how much smaller today’s opium trade would be if not for the actions of the British during Victoria’s reign.

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About hudsonhousemysteries

I am a graphic artist. My work is based on photography and I am also a writer of historical novels, specializing in the Victorian era with a strong emphasis on the historical connections between that time and this.I began writing by working with my late father, Alvin Schwartz, who wrote Superman and Batman comics for more than twenty years. Starting very early, about age six, I plotted comic book stories then moved on to writing film, advertising and fiction ranging from young person’s novels to my current historical novels http://hudsonhousemysteries.com/south.php. In addition to telling a good yarn, I like to use an historical perspective to comment on modern issues. I learned about art from my mother who was one of Hans Hofmann's students and had one of the last show at Peggy Guggenheim's in NYC. I have had one man shows in Montreal and Toronto. My art website is Alan McKee.com.
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