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Narrative 12.1 (2004) 3-21

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Ambiguity and Historicism:
Interpreting Confessions of a Thug

Mary Poovey

One of the sensations of the 1839 London literary season was a three-volume novel, published in plain brown boards by the respected house of Richard Bentley and written by a previously unknown writer, the self-styled "Captain" Philip Meadows Taylor. 1 Entitled Confessions of a Thug, this novel purported to be the transcript of an actual Indian murderer's confession, as dictated to an unnamed English narrator. As we will see, the novel does not precisely specify the relationship between this narrator, who seems to be a servant of a large administrative organization like the East India Company, and the author, who was employed, as the title page proclaims, "in the service of H. H. The Nizam" of Hyderabad. 2 The novel capitalized on a series of revelations about the secret Indian religious society known variously as Thuggee, Thagi, and Phansigar. This organization had first attracted attention in England in 1836, when William H. Sleeman, an officer in the Company, published an exhaustive guide to Ramaseeana, the "peculiar language of the Thugs." Widespread English notice of Sleeman's Calcutta-published book had to await its first review, which appeared in the Edinburgh Review in early 1837, and the publication in that same year of Edward Thornton's Illustrations of the History and Practice of the Thugs, which was largely taken from Sleeman's book. 3 By the time Taylor's novel hit the bookstalls, then, the public was already fascinated by this mysterious Indian organization, and they embraced the novel with an ardor that surprised its author. "I found my book, 'The Confessions,' had been received with much greater interest and success than I had ever ventured to hope for," Taylor recalled, "and not only did the London papers and periodicals take it up, but the provincial press teemed with flattering reviews and long extracts from it. It was curious to hear people wondering over the [End Page 3] book and discussing it; and evidently the subject was a new sensation to the public. It passed rapidly through the first edition, and a second was in preparation" (Taylor, Story 109).

As is frequently the case, these public discussions are preserved primarily in the reviews that appeared in various periodicals in the months and years following the novel's release. If these reviews are a reliable indication, English readers viewed Confessions of a Thug as a relatively truthful account of a characteristic—but horrifying—subgroup of Indian society and, more importantly, as proof that the English presence in India was fully justified. As the anonymous writer for the British and Foreign Review explained in an early response, the novel proved "the influence which the energy of our government in India has had in extirpating crimes which appeared to be indigenous in the soil. . . . [W]herever the power of England extends, we trust that some sufficient marks are discernable of the progress of Christian civilization" (554). Writing in 1841, Frederick Holme, the well-known Greek scholar, was even more emphatic that Thuggee justified English rule: "To the vigilance of the British Government in India, has been due the first complete detection of Thuggee, in its real character of an organized and systematic fraternity; and, if under the same sway, this monstrous hybrid of superstition and cruelty is destined to be finally eradicated, a title will thus be earned to the gratitude of the natives of India, which will alone make the benefits of our later administration more than atone for the injustices and rapacity which marked our early acquisitions of Indian territory" (244).

In the century and a half since these comments were written, the meaning and the implications of Confessions of a Thug seem to have undergone a dramatic change. It is now possible to read the novel not primarily as an indictment of Thuggee—and certainly not as an unequivocal justification for British rule in India—but as an oblique critique of the East India Company and everything it represented: assumptions about the racial superiority of...


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