Treachery and murder in Manipur: Media perception of the Anglo-Manipur War of 1891

Dr Kakchingtabam Ruhinikumar Sharma *

 Beheading of Mr Quinton and the officer
Beheading of Mr Quinton and the officer.
Warning: These images CANNOT be reproduced in any form or size without written permission from the RKCS Gallery

The Anglo-Manipur War of 1891, one of the extensively researched areas of Manipur history continues to draw attention of the academics as well as general public. Both apologists and critics of British imperial rule dwelt at length regarding the cause, course of events, nature and character and aftermath of the war or uprising.

To the imperialists, Manipur was a subordinate ally of the queen Empress of India who rebelled against the Empire by mercilessly killing high ranking British officials at a single instance which call for immediate justice and revenge, hence the reason for invading the kingdom of Manipur as a befitting reply.

To the Manipuris, it was the repeated interference on the part of the British authorities in the internal affairs of the kingdom which not only needed to be checked but also teach a befitting lesson to those who betrayed the trust reposed on them by invading the Manipur palace, desecrating places of worship, and also for killing innocent persons including women and children.

This narrative founds ready acceptance among a large segment of people since it was popularised through art forms like theatre, courtyard plays and a new genre of folk ballad popularly known as Khongjom Parva touching upon valour, sacrifices and subsequent defeat of the native people in an unmatched fight with the mighty British Empire. Generation after generation of Manipuri nationalists have drawn their inspiration from the 1891 saga.

Of the earliest literatures concerned with the Anglo-Manipur episode of 1891 was the detailed and spirited argument put forth by Mano Mohan Ghose, an Indian nationalist and prominent lawyer at the Calcutta High Court where he put up a strong defence in favour of the Manipur princes and nobles wherein he argued that the Manipuris were within their right to defend against the invading force as the kingdom was a sovereign which did not have any treaty relation pledging allegiance to British Empire.

Janaki Nath Basak's Manipur Prahelika (Calcutta, 1891) was the only non-official eye witness account of the trial proceedings of the military tribunal as he was called to act as interpreter cum pleader of Tikendrajit and other persons accused by the British authority. Though somewhat favourably disposed towards the British military actions in Manipur and critical of acts of murder of British officials committed by the Manipuris, Surendra Nath Mitra's The Manipur War (September, 1891) very succinctly and aptly analyses the political status of Manipur on the eve of the outbreak of war.

He wrote; "This beautiful little state was virtually independent of the Government of India. It has never paid a single cowrie as tribute to the Paramount Power. But being very close to, and in fact, surrounded by British India, it has always sought to win the good-will, and cultivate the friendship of the British. Its political status was far better than that of any other Native State in India. Hyderabad with its vast resources does not enjoy one-tenth of the independence which this country enjoyed until the entry of British soldiers in Imphal on the 27th April 1891. It was as independent as the State of Nepal or of Afghanistan.

"The Governor-General in Council has received with the deepest regret which leaves no room for doubt of the news of the cruel and tremendous murder at Manipur on the night of 24th ultimo (March, 1891), of Mr. J.W. Quinton, C.S.I., Chief Commissioner of Assam ......" along with four other high ranking Imperial officers including Mr. Frank St. Clair Grimwood, the Political Agent in Manipur for which "The Governor-General in Council has taken the necessary steps to exact the full and signal retribution for this atrocious outrage, are now converging in on Manipur from Burma, Cachar and Kohima with this object."

The above piece of information is from a public notification published in the Gazette of India dated Simla, the 16th April, 1891. With this notification, retributive action, that was already set in motion to avenge the massacre of British officials at Manipur palace on the midnight of 24th March, 1891.

Prior to this, Government of India at its highest level had arrived at the decision to carry put Field Operations in Manipur and gave approval to despatch a Manipur Field Force consisting of the aforementioned three columns under the overall command of the Brigadier-General Collett.

The month of April 1891 in Manipur, witnessed intermittent fighting between the invading British forces and Manipuris, one for exacting revenge and the other for protecting its freedom and sovereignty in an unmatched duel where Manipur, 'an Asiatic power in alliance with Queen Empress of India' tried its best to resist a unilateral decision of the government of India but in vain.

The course of events that followed, the arrest, trial and execution, the deportation and banishment of the dramatis personae are well known to be retold as volumes of information are continuously pouring out now and then as this tragic event continued to draw emotion, invocation and condemnation on both sides.

In this brief write up a humble attempt is made to explore and analyse the way how print media, especially English language newspapers perceived and reflected upon the turn of events concerning British imperial history.

To begin with, the Anglo-Manipur War of 1891 was one of the major events in the British imperial history after the revolt of 1857 that received wide media attention across the continents. It was also one of the most seriously debated issues in both houses of the British Parliament where informed and reasoned discussion taking place setting aside petty party politics.

Inspite of the vast repository made available thanks to rapid strides made in information technology and resultant explosion of information in recent years, media attention and their perception to this tragic event in imperial-colonial history of the British Empire is yet to draw due attention, it deserves of the scholars on one of the widely reported events of nineteenth century.

It is pertinent to ask and answer why the Manipur war or the uprising of 1891 was able to draw so much media coverage in different parts of world including United States of America, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa etc., apart from Britain, India, France, Canada and Singapore etc.

This essay endeavours to make a humble submission that almost all the contemporary reports that appeared in print media, especially English language press is informed by official position or statements as almost all the reporters filling reports were either based at Calcutta or Simla are merely replicating what the officials said through the Gazette of India or the London Gazette and other official correspondents.

Except for the reports that appeared in the columns of Pioneer, Allahabad, no correspondents of any news agencies dared to visit Imphal as the government of India tried to cover up its ill-advised military operations by depicting people of Manipur as barbaric, treacherous and murderer etc.

To illustrate the point further it would be interesting to quote a report under the caption "MASSACRE IN INDIA - British Officers and Many Native Soldiers Butchered. Their Camp Besieged by Natives for Two Days" published in the Daily Alta California, dated 31st March 1891.

The report which was filed from Calcutta, 30th March of the year reported that "A despatch from Manipur, Province of Assam, says that James Quinton, the Chief Commissioner of Assam, has been investigating some of the troubles which have occurred among the native chiefs, with the view of arresting one of them who has been instrumental in deposing the Rajah.

The Commissioner occupied a camp garrisoned by a strong force of Goorkhas, native infantry in the British service. Suddenly this camp was attacked by a number of hostile tribes. A two days' battle, during which desperate fighting took place, followed the onslaught. The Goorkhas fought most determinedly against heavy odds, and according to report 470 of them were killed. The Commissioner and seven British officers who accompanied him cannot be found.

News of the massacre was brought to Kohima, on the Assam frontier, by two Goorkhas. The fight originated in a feud between the Rajah of Manipur and a leading tribal chief. The Rajah was deposed and appealed to the Viceroy. Mr. Quinton was sent to settle the trouble and started from headquarters at Shillong, escorted by the Forty-second and Forty-fourth Goorkha Light Infantry.

After crossing the frontier Quinton summoned the chiefs to a durbar at Manipur for the purpose of arresting the rebellions chief. The tribesmen, pretending to obey the summons, mustered in force, and at midnight on the day before that on which the durbar was to be held, suddenly attacked the camp of Commissioner Quinton, which lay between Kohima and Manipur.

The attempt to surprise the camp failed and the tribesmen were driven back. They returned, however, and kept up the attack and the siege continued night and day for fortyeight hours. Finally the ammunition of the Goorkhas gave out and Commissioner Quinton was obliged to give the order: "Sauve gui pent."

During the fight scouts were sent out to try to communicate with Shillong, but they never returned. The Manipur natives out the telegraph wires and killed the messengers. The fugitives report that a general massacre followed the taking of the camp..... One account of the affair reports that Commissioner Quinton and his staff were made prisoners.

Another account says that Colonel Skene, the Commander, Commissioner Quinton, with his son and daughter. Captain Boileau and six officers were killed, the natives refusing to give them quarter. The rebellious tribe is famous for cunning, cruelty and bravery. Immediately upon receiving the news of the disaster the Viceroy at Simla summoned a council.

Two native regiments stationed in Assam have already been dispatched to Manipur. The Third Bengal Infantry will start for the scene tomorrow. The Viceroy of India has abandoned his tour and started for Simla. Five regiment and a mountain battery have been ordered to Manipur." The British army's unsuccessful military campaign to arrest leaders of the palace uprising appears in the Illustrated as a "military disaster" against "half-savage tribes.

Pictures of "native groups", the residency, palace and cantonments etc. are not only described but also depicted in drawings with such headline as "THE MASSACRE AND CONFLICT IN MANIPUR."11

The Illustrated (London) includes many features associated with popular military reporting - danger, fighting, atrocities and escape. One report says that the Manipur leader ordered his captives to be killed and a witness confirmed seeing "the mutilated bodies of British officers, with their heads, hands and feet cut off," while another version stated "the officers were killed in action, and there was room to hope that they were not murdered in cold blood, but were killed while resisting their seizure, and that mutations were effected after death."

Thus the press were reporting the events of 1891 based on the narratives of those who had a harrowing experience in Manipur but without verifying or hearing the other side of the story. Cheitharol Kumbaba, the royal chronicle of Manipur on the other describes how the British authorities, who were on friendly terms with them had forced the Manipuris to retaliate as the former had invaded them.

Based on the arguments of Mano Mohan Ghose R.C. Majumdar wrote, "Arguing on the merits of the case, Mr. Ghosh pointed out that the accused did not invade British territory, nor committed any hostile act against the officers and men of the British Residency; they merely defended the palace which was attacked by the British without any declaration of war. The Maharaja did not wage war against the Queen and had no wish to do so. The moment the British forces invaded the palace it became the duty of the King, the soldiers and officers of Manipur to resist the troops of another Power."

This side of the Manipur story and how the British officials were executed and their bodies were disposed off with customary rites and rituals had yet to be taken into account by the scholars working on the subject. The question that remains to be answered is whether the Manipuris had committed an act of treachery against the British or vice versa.

* Dr Kakchingtabam Ruhinikumar Sharma wrote this article for The Sangai Express
The writer can be reached at kruhinikumar(AT)gmail(DOT)com
This article was webcasted on August 25, 2020

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