The end of the hot weather had seen cities, cantonments and towns somnolent beneath the beating sun, with many sepoys in their home villages on furlough. Now the month was ‘attended with much rain...the weather frequently gloomy’.

Calcutta’s European community pursued a sweaty round of entertainment in the damp heat, listening
to Madame Frery’s violin soirées in the Town Hall, the New York Serenaders at Dowley’s Family Hotel, Garden Reach or, for those with a taste for the grotesque, entertained by the famed ‘Indian Dwarf’.

Seemingly minor events heralded further change: the Military Consultations sent from Calcutta to London recorded a ‘Report on greased cartridges for new rifled muskets’, but without comment, unaware of how rumours of the composition of the grease would in time lead to the Bengal Army’s trauma, while in Calcutta the Hindu College had just been renamed Presidency College, heralding even greater change.

Newspaper subscribers read of Dalhousie’s intentions to annexe the kingdom of Oudh for India. And all the while, the rain poured down. ‘The rains continue heavy’, the Citizen reported, with ‘copious showers’ night and morning.

‘This is my authority’: the murder of Mohesh Dutta

Four brothers living near Burhyte, at the heart of the Damin, became the instigators and leaders of the rebellion. Landless labourers – their father, a manjee, had lost its land – perhaps they had seen Walter Sherwill when he visited in 1851, or at least heard of him – they lived at Bhugnadihee, just half-a-mile south of Burhyte.

The two elder brothers, Sidhu and Kanhu, took the lead in broadcasting the visions they experienced in the hot weather of 1855. Their claim that Thakur Bonga, the great spirit, had repeatedly appeared to them struck a receptive chord among Santals seeking a solution to their plight.

Sidhu and Kanhu’s speaking for the Thakur qualifies the Santal rebellion to be regarded as what Stephen Fuchs called a ‘messianic movement’, representing them as ‘rebellious prophets’. Indeed, the Santals in 1855 met most—and certainly the most significant—of Fuchs’s criteria for identifying ‘messianic movements’. They were intensely dissatisfied with their social and economic situation, responded to that situation with ‘certain hysterical symptoms’, produced charismatic leaders who demanded implicit obedience in pursuit of radical change through violent rebellion, punishing both opponents and traitors.

Kanhu and Sidhu called for Santals to assemble in the valley of Burhyte, a summons that thousands obeyed. A Santal ‘spy’ (the first of many supposed spies arrested in the rebellion) told Ashley Eden that on the night of the last full moon – Friday 29 June – some 9000 Santals were said to have gathered near Moheshpore, a village which would soon become significant.

They had complied with a command from Kanhu, who though not a senior man himself, had addressed manjees authoritatively, even threatening ‘if you do not attend, your head will be cut off. Heed these words ...’ Of the four brothers, Kanhu emerged as the most dominant, closely followed by Sidhu, and they soon achieved a legendary stature among European newspaper writers. (And at least retrospectively among Santals as well – Durga Tudu recalled that ‘the two brothers’ names...surpassed the names of the others’.

Their younger brothers, Chand and Bhairab, acted as lieutenants. Ostensibly, they gathered to protest against the punishments inflicted on the ‘dacoits’ who, it was well known, had acted on behalf of the Santal community and not out of individual greed.

None of this, however, was apparent to the Superintendent of the Damin, James Pontet who customarily spent the hot weather and the monsoon in Bhaugulpore, 45 miles away. His bungalow in the Damin was less than a mile from the four brothers’ home village, but he had no idea of the Santals’ grievances or intentions.

The Santal crowds shouted ‘Hul! Hul!’ (‘Rebel! Rebel!’), but for the moment it was not clear what they rebelled against, or for, and how.

About 1 July at Panchkathia, a bazaar two miles north of Burheyte, a group of Santals murdered no fewer than five mahajans, a crime even the lazy Mohesh Dutta could not ignore. Dutta had been darogah in the Damin for about twenty years – as long as James Pontet had served – and was regarded as ‘notoriously corrupt’. He had acted severely and often unjustly against those accused or suspected of dacoity in 1854, and seemed determined to suppress further unrest.

With a party of burkendazes (village watchmen armed at best with matchlock muskets), he arrived in Panchkathia on the afternoon of Saturday 7 July. There he met a crowd of Santals, at the head of which were several of the brothers who had travelled from Bhugnadihee apparently to worship at a shrine, placing them almost by accident in Dutta’s path. They received Dutta civilly at first, but then taunted him and dared him to arrest them.

Digambar Chakraborti recorded that Dutta beat the Santals with a dog whip, ‘treating them most cruelly and abusing them indiscriminately’. Dutta, surrounded and outnumbered, realised that he had provoked the crowd, sought to pacify them and, seeing that had failed, tried to leave.

Jugia Haram said Dutta blustered, demanding to know how the Santals could detain him. ‘Where is your permission?’ he said, ‘Show me your authority’. Sidhu replied, ‘This is my authority’, and he raised his sword and killed the darogah. Kanhu cut off Dutta’s head and the brothers incited the crowd to fall upon the burkendazes. Dutta and up to nine of his men were killed and decapitated.
News of Mohesh Dutta’s murder at first travelled on foot and by word of mouth. Two of his men, beaten and bloodied, escaped.

They made their way to Bhaugulpore, arriving three days later. They told the Commissioner, George Brown or his functionaries about Sidhu and his brothers, a matter confirmed by reports soon collected by other magistrates. Brown could not at first credit the news, nor the claim that the Santals had ‘expressed the determination to seize the country’. George Brown’s dilatory response cost the authorities several days, and became another black mark against him during the rebellion. But other officials were also reluctant to believe, let alone act upon, the reports they began to hear from their darogahs.

Robert Richardson and James Pontet travelled towards Rajmahal, seemingly the Santals’ initial object, on 6 July, but for several days, when other officials began to discuss the news, rumour and hearsay
distorted the picture. ‘Shall we go or shall we stay?’: joining the Hul Reading the correspondence of officials and military officers responding to the reports of unrest in the Rajmahal Hills, Halliday remained confident: ‘I do not see any reason to believe that the rising is anything but a local one.’

By the accounts gathered by Digambar Chakraborti, the events of the following week showed that the Hul was, in fact, anything but a local rebellion. The Santals gathered around Burhyte ‘became greatly excited’, as Chakraborti wrote with a degree of understatement. They first went to nearby Kusma and looted the village, then flocked south to Litipara. Here they killed more of their oppressors.

The village’s two mahajans (who were brothers) escaped, leaving behind their gomasta (agent), who was notorious for ‘exercising inhuman cruelties’ on the brothers’ debtors. The Santals killed him, and moved on Heerampore, on the track to Pakaur. There the brothers met a manjee named Tribhuban, who joined the rising. To the sound of drums, the leaders debated their next move, the Thakur inspiring the brothers and their growing band of followers. They looted Heerampore: ‘this news soon spread everywhere’, as a Bengali source put it.

Just ten miles to the east of Bhugnadihee was the railway being built running due north-south between Calcutta and Rajmahal. Within days of the outbreak, Santals were threatening its Bengali and Santal labourers, and plundering and burning the bungalows of its European engineers and supervisors. A ‘Rajmahal Railway correspondent’ wrote to the Citizen to report that ‘they threaten to behead any man who will lift a stone for us’, and reportedly had carried out their threat.

Santals joined the rebellion, whether willingly or, as one source had it, ‘come out, a man from each house, and go and fight’ – in other words, had been virtually conscripted.

Chotrae Desmanjhi described how once Sidhu and Kanhu led a force to loot Moheshpore, the manjees Mani and Ram also ‘raised an army and went to loot Narainpore’, near Rampore Haut. Desmanjhi, from Benagaria, about ten miles west of Rampore Haut seems to have become a part of this force. Conversations between civil officials and ‘natives’ threw out hints that not all Santals joined the Hul by choice.

When Octavius Toogood addressed a group of men near Burhyte, he warned them of their ‘folly’ in joining in rebellion. One man explained that ‘they were obliged to obey’; they had no choice but to accept a decision made by their communities, as theirs was a culture strongly bound bytradition and unaccustomed to individual decisions.

Increasingly, Santals across the Damin and soon beyond faced a fateful choice. A Santal song captured this moment of decision, so ominous for the Santals, individually, for their communities and as a people:

Sahib rule is trouble full,
Shall we go or shall we stay?
Eating, drinking, clothing,
For everything we are troubled;
Shall we go or shall we stay?

Excerpted with permission from Hul! Hul! The Suppression of the Santal Rebellion in Bengal, 1855, Peter Stanley, Bloomsbury India.