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Captain Sherwill, the revenue surveyor, in 1851, closely watched the life of the Santhals. “ The Santhal,” he wrote, “ or lowlander, is a short, well made and an active man, quiet, inoffensive and cheerful; he has the thick lips, high cheek bones, and spread nose of the Bheel, Kol and other hill tribes of Southern and Central India; he is beardless or nearly so; he is moreover an intelligent, obliging creature, and an industrious cultivator of the soil, and he is unfettered with caste, he enjoys existence in far degree greater than does his neighbour.”

“From Burhyte (refer map), large quantities of rice, bora beans Indian corn, mustard and several oil seeds are conveyed away in carts by Bengalis to Jangipore, on the Bhagiratti; and in return for these grains, the Santhals are paid in money, salt, tobacco, beads or cloth. “ Once Captain Sherwill went to a village called Gowpara and meet with the village headman (Manjhi), on entering the village he found all the villagers were alarmed by his arrival and everyone seem to avoid his proximity. Somehow he convinced the village headman that he meant no harm, a wonderful conversation developed, followed by exchange of gifts. He noticed that while they were talking a crowd had started to build up slowly, and he says, “I threw a quantity of the hair ornaments consisting of tufts of Tuasser silk, dyed scarlet, and tied with a black cotton; to the children in Manjhi’s house I distributed a quantity of copper money, bargained with the Manjhi with a quantity of empty bottles, and money for poisoned arrows, and grass hammocks.”

Captain Sherwill had given the Manjhi a gift- an empty bottle, which the Manjhi accepted rather hesitatingly. He repeatedly asked Sherwill whether he gave the gift out of his own will or he had any intentions, but Sherwill assured him that he had no other interest other than the pleasure to gift. Before parting, he asked the headmen not to fear any European but to consider them as friends. But this friendship will no longer remain with the breaking of the revolt of 1855.

Santhal village

Ten thousands Santhals assembled in the field of Bhognadih, on 30th June, 1855, and unanimously passed a resolution to fight the corrupt government officials, the “Dikus”. The “Dikus” had betrayed them, forced them to slavery and abused their women; they had no choice but to fight them. They assembled under their leaders, Sidhu, Kanu, Chand, Bhairo and pledged to fight till their Independence is secured.

The rebels did not have much grievance against the “Whites” or “Sahibs”, their main enemy was the “Dikus”. The rebels caught the enemy in surprise; no one was expecting that the innocent and timid “Santhals” could ever take up arms. But when they eventually took to arms, it seemed the days of Mongol conquest have come back. Village after village fell to them, money lenders were put to death, Jamindars were killed, and hundreds of villages became human less.

Map of Santhal Revolt, click to enlarge

The British weren’t ready for this, a small contingent of force under Major Burrough was called to suppress the rebels but he meet tremendous resistance and was defeated at Pirpainati. The victory of the Santhals over the all mighty British further fuelled the rebellion and it spread like wildfire. The below table shows the major skirmishes up to end of January 1856, when the revolt finally came to an end.
As you can see in the map, that the Santhals divided themselves into three different groups and fought in three different places. Their main objective was to reach Calcutta and inform the Government about the atrocities of the “Dikus” , they believed that the British immediately would come to their help and put a stop to their age old oppression. They were uninformed about the complex politics that run the huge machinery of imperialism. However one group (a) left their stronghold of Berhait and marched towards Calcutta by the way of Birbhum district. The other group (b) choose to enter through Murshidabad. The chocolate colour lines shows the various routes taken by the rebels.

Although they had initial victories but soon the English replied back strongly. I will present some interesting perspectives from the British side about the revolt and the rebels. Madras Christian Herald in 27th May 1857 issue mentions of a poor Santhal who was pursued by the British infantry, he had a child in his arm, as volley of fire were shot at him, he replied back shooting arrows and each time he shot he laid down the child on the ground. Finally he died saving the child, and the British took the child unharmed. “They don’t understand yielding,” said Major Jervis, he further observed that as long as the Santhal drum kept beating, the Santhals kept on fighting. Such discipline was rarely seen in any native army, and Santhals never fought in an army.
Major Skirmishes of Santhal Revolt

The English observed that the Santhals never used poisoned arrows against them, although they used such arrows for hunting. Even Charles Dickens writing in “Household Words” praised the Santhals over the Russians. The officers recalled that the Santhals usually gave warning before they attacked sometimes even sending exact date of assault. Once the Santhals caught hold of a postman, “dakiya” they didn’t harm him instead they ordered him to carry three leaves to Suri, signifying an attack on Suri in three days.

Major Commanders British
58th Regiment Major Middleton
31st Native Infantry Col Norman
2nd Bengal Regiment Major Forbes
81st Native Infantry Major Sitwell
unknown Captain Anderson

Major Ryall

There are reports that Santhals plundered every village they came across, but this may not be fairly true, or even if it is it may only be partially true. In an account in Calcutta Review 1856 I find that the few hill tribes were responsible to defame the Santhals on this. The Pahariyas would follow the Santhals for some distance, and when the latter had driven away all the villagers of the village, they would pounce upon the situation looting everything they could find. In this way the Santhals had lot to fight, but little to plunder.
A page from east India Company's account book showing expenses during the suppression of Santhal Revolt.

Most of the fights as Major Jarvis say, “not war” but simply murder. When a rebel group was encircled and asked to surrender, they would not yield, forcing the English fire each volley and ask for surrender, but even then they would fire, till the last man, till the last arrow. They were some important observation as well, a Muslim officer in British service wrote in Times, 1st April,1858, “ The Santhals would make excellent materials for soldiers. I have seen a great many kinds of men but I have never seen men like the Santhals...They have no prejudices of caste or religion to fight against; for this reason, I conclude, they would do anything and go anywhere the Government desires. It is true these men are savages, but they would be taught even other men are, for it is a well known fact civilization begets civilization.”
The British were aware that the Santhals were not against them, but against the “Dikus”. Ironically the same treatment the British had offered to the natives (mainly upper castes) of India, the natives had offered the same to the lowest bunch in the caste hierarchy. So in a way the exploitation was not one dimensional it had many faces, but always directed to the immediate weakest section of the society.

The revolt was crushed brutally, hundreds of Santhal villages were levelled to the ground, the heroes were put to death, but one thing which all these extreme punishments could not take away is the spirit of Santhals. Even after the Independence of India the Santhals continued to take part in the struggle against oppression.

Santhal Revolt

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