This is the first of several planned postings related to the 1879-80 Rumpa Rebellion in India, a setting in my novel The Tiger Warrior that I researched extensively using primary sources in the India Office Collections of the British Library. The rebellion was a tribal uprising in the jungle of southern India near the river Godavari, and was countered by a brigade-sized expedition of the Madras army including a company of sappers led by my great-great-grandfather Lieutenant Walter Andrew Gale, Royal Engineers. For my other postings, on counter-insurgency in the jungle and malaria, click here. Once these postings are complete a comprehensive account of the rebellion and the British military deployment with full references will be added as a PDF.
In my novel The Tiger Warrior, set partly in India during the Victorian period, Lieutenant John Howard of the Madras Sappers takes cover with his men on an armoured river steamer deep in the jungle of southern India, part of a force deployed against a tribal rebellion in the Rumpa district of the eastern Ghats in 1879. As bullets spatter off the metal plating, Howard watches a horrifying ritual unfold among the rebels gathered on the opposite river bank, one that leads him to pick up a rifle and take a course of action that he could never have thought imaginable:
A boy, not much older than his own son, was chained to the pole. His head was lolling like the man’s, but his body shuddered, still alive. Four of the women held out his little arms and legs. The man in the tiger skin approached, and took up a smaller pole, like the handle of an axe. He tapped the boy on the head with it, and then tapped each of the boy’s limbs. Only they were not taps. Howard had been seeing everything in slow motion, and as his mind replayed it, he saw the little limbs each crack and flop away, broken like boughs of dry wood. The women let go, and the small body hung like a rag doll from the chain that held his neck. A rope tied to the top of the pole was pulled, and the cock began to whirl round and round, followed by the women, who circled it. Among the swirling robes there were flashes of blades held in readiness, glinting. The boy raised his head, and Howard was sure he heard crying, the helpless crying of a child that seemed to reach out to him, that seemed to come from a child of his own. It was unbearable.
The fictional Lieutenant Howard is closely based on an ancestor of mine who served in the rebellion – Lieutenant Walter Andrew Gale of the Madras Sappers, pictured below – and the incident is inspired by actual accounts of ritualized killing carried out by the rebels. The 1908 Imperial Gazeteer of India reports ‘strong reasons for believing’ that two men were sacrificed at Dummagudem near Rumpa in 1876, and that men were ‘openly sacrificed’ during the Rumpa rebellion. First-hand accounts of ritualized killings are found in the reports of the Madras Judicial Proceedings in the India Office collection of the British Library. In March 1879, the rebel leader Tamman Dora took his police captives to a sacred place where he beheaded two of them with a sword in the presence of several hundred tribesmen. The killing was allegedly a ritual sacrifice in honour of Melveri, a goddess ‘very partial to human victims’. In September of that year, the sacrifice of a villager was recounted by a native eyewitness (reported in the Proceedings, 8 March 1880):
They sacrificed him to Gudapu Mavili. They made him sit down, then Chendrayya struck him with his sword. Zunapalu got up and began to run away; Chendrayya’s people threw stones at him; Zunapalu fell down and then Chendrayya’s men cut off his head.
The police later found the headless body. On 30 March 1880 the Proceedings reported an assault by troops on a village from which thirty rebels escaped, and where they found ‘three pariahs … who said they had been reserved for sacrifice’; they also found the headless body of the village ‘watcher’, ‘sacrificed.’ Another report notes that four pariahs were sacrificed by the rebels on 18 May. These accounts, identifying pariahs, ‘outcasts’ - traditional sacrificial victims - show beyond doubt that ritual sacrifice was involved, and that the sacrifices in the rebellion were not just executions in revenge against the police.
Human sacrifice appears to have been well-established among the hill tribes of the eastern Ghats before the 19th century. The sacrificial ritual recorded by the first Europeans to hear of it was known as meriah, in which a deity was propitiated and strips of flesh were torn off the victim. The policy of the East India Company had been not to interfere with native rituals unless absolutely necessary. However, along with thuggee - ritualised strangling - meriah became the focus of evangelical zeal in the early Victorian period, and an ‘Agency for the Suppression of Human Sacrifice and Female Infanticide’ worked to end the practice in 1837-54. Despite the apparent success of their efforts, the evidence of the Rumpa rebellion suggests that meriah was not fully suppressed, and well into the 20th century anthropologists studying the hill tribes heard rumours of its continuation deep in the jungle.
Only one European eyewitness account of a meriah sacrifice is known to survive, in Major-General John Campbell’s A Personal Narrative of Thirteen Years Service amongst the Wild Tribes of Khondistan for the Suppression of Human Sacrifice, published in 1864. You can read the full text of the book here. Campbell’s assistant, Captain Frye,
was informed one day of a sacrifice on the very eve of consummation; the victim was a young and handsome girl, fifteen or sixteen years old. Without a moment’s hesitation, he hastened with a small body of armed men to the spot indicated, and on arrival found the Khonds already assembled with their sacrificing priest, and the intended victim prepared for the first act of the tragedy. He at once demanded her surrender; the Khonds, half-mad with excitement, hesitated for a moment, but observing his little party preparing for action, they yielded the girl. Seeing the wild and irritated state of the Khonds, Captain Frye very prudently judged that this was no fitting occasion to argue with them, so with his prize he retraced his step to his old encampment …
Campbell was told about another sacrifice by a native eyewitness:
… the intended victim was dragged to the place of sacrifice, and his head and neck introduced into the cleft of a strong bamboo split in two, the ends of which were secured and held by the sacrificers. The presiding priest then advanced, and with an axe broke the joints of the legs and arms, after which the rest stripped the flesh off the bones with their knives, and each man having secured a piece buried it in the fields.
The victims could be kidnapped strangers, a practice reported near Rumpa as late as the 1870s. The woodcut shown at the top of this posting from Campbell’s book - undoubtedly based on Captain Frye’s account - portrays meriah in all of its horror: the female victim tied to a post, stupefied by toddy; the frenzied crowd, themselves intoxicated and excited by drumming; and the priest and other men bearing vicious knives about to tear the girl to pieces, cutting off flesh to take away and bury in their own jungle clearings as an offering to boost the fertility of the land.
The quoted extract in bold is copyright David Gibbins, from The Tiger Warrior (London and New York, 2009).