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"That solitary Englishman": WH. Sleeman and the Biography of British India Maire ni Fhlathuin W. H. Sleeman was an "eminent Victorian" whose name was widely recognized throughout the nineteenth-century. He was celebrated by association with the sensational cult of thuggee1 (religiouslymotivated murder accompanied by robbery) in India, which he was credited with discovering and with eradicating during a campaign spanning the 1830s and 1840s. The campaign against the thugs quickly acquired a significance wider than its immediate effects: it figures alongside the abolition of sati as one of the reforms characterising Lord William Bentinck's governor-generalship (1828-35), part of the establishment of order and justice in colonial India.2 The techniques used by the Thuggee and Dacoity Department - notably their reliance on the testimony of "approvers," or informers, to secure convictions in the absence of other evidence - were adopted by the regular police.3 Its activities, publicised by writers such as Sleeman and Philip Meadows Taylor, made the word "thug" part of the language (though it now signifies any violent criminal rather than the religiously-inspired robber and strangler of British Indian demonology). The element of narrative and textuality involved in the production of and rebanee upon the statements of informers has also been the focus of critical attention: Parama Roy uses an analysis of the writings on thuggee as the occasion for a discussion of the broader issues of representation, mimicry and the formation of identity in the colonial encounter. In this way, the texts produced during and about the campaign against thuggee have consistendy been incorporated into a series of larger (and often Victorian Review (2001) 69 M. Fhlauthuin competing) narratives of British India. One of these larger narratives, more prevalent up to the midtwentieth century than it is today, tends to describe the British role in India in terms of the benevolent, powerful rule of individual men, a style characterised by the "Punjab School" of government as practised by the Lawrence brothers (Metcalf 24-5, 38). The story of the thugs and their defeat is cast in this mould by a series of twentieth-century biographies of W H. Sleeman: the main focus of this paper. The first is a biography of Sleeman by his grandson, J. L. Sleeman: Thug: or, A Million Murders (1933); there follows A. J. Wightman, No Friendfor Travellers (1959), Francis Tuker, The YellowScarf (1961), and George Bruce, The Stranglers (1968). These biographies are, to varying degrees, popular rather than scholarly works, but several features make their study an essential part of any work dealing with the history of thuggee. Their writers frequendy reproduce or paraphrase unpublished and inaccessible manuscript records, making them important sources for later scholarship. At the same time, the biographers' organisation and presentation of material imposes a consistent pattern on the original content, most notably by constructing the edifice of thuggee around the central figure of Sleeman himself. As Parama Roy points out, the history of thuggee, in these biographies, is presented as "coextensive" with Sleeman's life; and he becomes "an almost Saidean figure of knowledge," establishing, recording and de-coding the texts of thuggee (56). This paper examines the creation of this omniscient figure, focusing on the process of selection and amendment of historical detail engaged in by all Sleeman's biographers. Three elements of this process become apparent: Sleeman is credited with the authorship of texts created by others; he is cast as the judge in trials held by others; the records of the Thuggee Department's dealings with certain prisoners are misrepresented to conform to a notion of Sleeman as a "detective" figure. The biographical narrative within which his portrait is constructed can thus be elucidated, and the appeal of this narrative to his biographers explained, tentatively, by reference to the role of the "thuggee" phenomenon in the myth of imperial power in the 70volume 27 number 1 "That solitary Englishman" nineteenth and twentieth centuries. This biographical narrative originates with J. L. Sleeman, who locates his grandfather within a literary genre which evolved almost in tandem with Sleeman's own life. This is the genre that became known as the detective story, although the term "detective" did not become current until the...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1923-3280
Print ISSN
0848-1512
Pages
pp. 69-85
Launched on MUSE
2015-10-07
Open Access
No
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