Bengal’s archives trace colonial footprints

In 1833, Purandhar Singh, an aspirant to the throne of the Ahom (Assam) was placed in charge of upper Assam even as lower Assam continued to be under the direct control of the British. In 1836, he sought permission from the colonial government to mint coins in his own name to perform a royal ritual. The permission was given for only a few days “intended merely to commemorate his accession”, but Purandhar Singh defaulted and the British pensioned him off and annexed his territory in 1839. The British also played a paternal role to the royal family of Manipur. After the death of Gambhir Singh, who along with the British had defended Manipur against the Burmese invasion, his infant son Chandrakirti ascended the throne. Captain Gordon, who was appointed the first political agent of Manipur, took the responsibility of the education of the young king. “A Hindoo youth brought up at the Hindoo College at Calcutta will shortly be sent to Muneepoor (Manipur) to act under Lieutenant Gordon as Tutor of the Rajah on a salary of 100 rupees,” records a communication. These little known stories about colonial footprints in northeast India have remained hidden among thousands of pieces of correspondence and records of British India, until the State Archives of West Bengal, which is the inheritor of all these documents, published its first volume titled North East (1830-1873) Select Documents (Part-1) earlier this year. “While such snippets of information might provide fodder for imaginative fiction, the publication of documents of the North East is more likely to serve another purpose. No standard textbook on the history of modern India incorporates any account of British presence in the northeast and its consequences,” said Simonti Sen, Director of the State Archives. Interactions with tribes The 300-page publication not only deals with boundary formation and survey operations carried out by the colonial rulers but also talks about their ties with the indigenous population. There are records pertaining to colonial interaction with tribes like Abor, Mishmee, Dufflas and others. The attire and weapons used by the different tribes were objects of curiosity. Another interesting story in the published documents is about the abduction of a child of an European planter in February 1872. “The child appears to have been taken great care of by the Howlongs, and is in capital health and spirits. I am informed that the grief she showed at parting with her captors was fully reciprocated by them, and the young and old joined in a sort of a general lament,” a document states, referring to the reunion of the child with her family. Documents compiled in this volume also refer to the murder in 1855 of two French missionaries by members of the Mishmee tribe in what is now Arunachal Pradesh. This was followed by a military expedition, leading to the arrest of the Mishmee chief. Correspondence pertaining to that incident suggest that the French Catholic missionaries did not want the death penalty for the murderer; they wanted him to be detained as a hostage so that it could serve a strong guarantee for the security of the lives of future travellers for missionary work in the region.

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