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Author(s): Cynthia Ann Humes

Review by: Cynthia Ann Humes
Source: The Journal of Asian Studies, Vol. 69, No. 4 (NOVEMBER 2010), pp. 1294-1295
Published by: Association for Asian Studies
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/40929352
Accessed: 08-08-2015 14:11 UTC

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1294 The JournalofAsian Studies

thatwe alternatebetweenseeingthemin shininglightor blind-

ing glare?Are certainmysticalstatesoccasionedby psychologicalfactorsor
caused bythem?

McGill University

Stranglersand Bandits:A HistoricalAnthology

of Thuggee.Edited by
KimA. Wagner. New Delhi: OxfordUniversity Press,2009. xvi,318
pp. $49.95 (cloth).

Interpretationsofreality,meaning,and representations oí thuggeevary,Kim

A. Wagnernotesin Stranglers and Bandits.Whereastheconventional represen-
tationthatcrystallizedin the 1830sunderstoodthuggeeas a controversial cultof
highway murderers "discovered" by the some
British, scholarshave claimed that
thuggeewas a merecolonialconstruction inventedas a convenient pretextforthe
expansion ofBritishrule. Some opine that becausethe primary sources relatedto
thuggeewere, with few exceptions, producedby the British,the sources cannot
be used to gaininsightintoanyIndiansocialreality(p. 5). Indeed,the conven-
tionalBritishrepresentation thatheld swayformorethana centuryhas come
under such sustainedand diversescholarlycriticismin recentdecades that
Wagnerlaments,"The currentsituationof the historiography of thuggeeis
thusone of confusion:the interestedstudentof Indian history willencounter
whollyincompatible accounts that draw opposite conclusions from the same
material"(p. 2). The authorsintention, therefore,is thatthe anthology "bring
togethera wide rangeof primaryand secondarymaterial,whichit is hoped,
willopen thewayfordifferent approachesto the subjectand suggestnew lines
of inquiryintothiscontentious issue"(p. 3).
In bringing a
together lengthy introductionandselectedexcerptsfroma wide
rangeofindigenoussources,popularaccounts,and academicassessments on the
topic thuggee,Wagner has sought to ensurethat the reader is providedkey
primarysourcesfromarchivesthathave not been readilyaccessibleand may
provide new insights.I thinkhe is successfulin this quest. He includes
mention,forinstance,of D. E. U. Baker,C. A. Bayly,MarkBrown,AmaiChat-
terjee,Mike Dash, Paul Dundas, Maireni Fhlathúin,SandriaB. Freitag,Kath-
leen Gough,StewartGordon,HiralalGupta,WilhelmHalbfass,CynthiaAnn
Humes, Robert Johnson,ChristopherKenna, Tom Lloyd, Parama Roy,
RadhikaSingha,J.A. R. Stevenson,and MartinevanWoerkens.
Stipulativelydefiningthuggeeas "the people who engagedin the murder
and plunderof travelers,withoutany implicationof a religiouspracticeor
cult of hereditaryassassins"(pp. 4-5), Wagnercontendsthatwhile "colonial

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Book Reviews- SouthAsia 1295

knowledgeof thuggeewas informed by different voicesand ideas,bothBritish

and Indian,"it is possible"to examinethe primarysourcesas more thanjust
textualrepresentations of the 'other'"(p. 8). Further,while acknowledging
the methodological problemsinherentin such a task,"it is clear thatthere
was a social realityin termsof Indianbanditry, whichthe Britishin turnmis-
represented. It would be naïve to assume that the sources offera direct
access to the past,but it is equallynaive to assume thattheydo not in any
way reflectthe past fromwhichtheyemerged"(p. 8). While I agree with
Tom Lloyd (p. 297) thatreconstructive historiessuch as Wagner's2007 book,
Thuggee:Banditry and the British in Early Nineteenth Century(Basingstoke:
PalgraveMacmillan,2007), can be in dangerof pushing"the sources"too far
(p. 297), I thinkat least in Wagner'scase, he does not utterlyconfusethe
"realityof the past (how someone thinksit happened)"withthe "actualityof
the past (whathappened)"(p. 301).
Wagnerprovidesa comprehensiveintroduction to the topic of thuggee,
drawing largepart from his aforementioned manuscript.He takescare to
notethatthuggeewasa typeofbanditry thatemergedina specificsocioeconomic
and geographiccontext,and he convincingly showshow a phenomenonthat
initially perceived as no more than a typeof banditrygraduallyevolved
intoa sensationalized cultofreligiousstranglers. In particular,
he creditsthemis-
representation endemic in British accounts to the self-serving
opportunism of
officerssuch as William"Thuggee"Sleeman,who,in a bid to further his own
career,"sexedup" theinformation to promotea senseofurgency, therebyeffec-
tivelyreinventing thuggee and contributing to the developmentof the British
responseto thuggee(p. 23).
WhileI disagreewithWagnerthat"mostifnotall,ofthe elementsof Slee-
mans stereotype were deriveddirectlyfromthe approversthathe knewand
interviewed" (p. 23), I do agreewithmostofWagner'sfundamental assertions,
and I also thinkthat he has providedhere a detailed map layingout the
variousdirections(and faultlines) in the rockyterrainof this contentious
subject,and in resurrecting rareresources,he mayhelpthescholarly community
to fewerwrongturnson howbestto represent thephenomenathatwe nowknow
as thuggee.
Readersofthisworkwillincludemodernhistoriographers, studentsofIndian
and SouthAsianhistory in general,and,because of its accessiblestyleand the
sheerinterest ofthematerial, I wouldsuspecta greatnumberoflaypeople intri-
gued by the manytitillating accounts ofthuggee.

Cynthia Ann Humes


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