The transformative arrival of British rule in the years after the Anglo-Burmese War broadly coincided in the Naga Hills, as in Assam, with the arrival of Christianity. It was from neighbouring Assam, where the American Baptist missionaries had set up base in Sivasagar, that Christianity made its way into the Naga Hills. “As each cold season came around, hill men came in for trade and sight-seeing”, wrote Mary Mead Clark, wife of the missionary EW Clark who succeeded the Browns and Bronson in Sivasagar in 1868:

Our press building with its typesetting, printing, and binding of books was for them the wonder of wonders. Some of the great men, dressed in their military costumes, came one day to our schoolhouse door, and manifesting much interest in what we were doing, were asked, “Wouldn’t you like us to come up to your village and teach your children as you see these being taught?” A chief replied, “Yes, and we will send our children to learn”. There was however a concern that needed to be addressed. “But we hear that you take heads up there”. “Oh yes, we do”, he replied, and seizing a boy by the head, gave us in a quite harmless way an object-lesson of how they did it.  

Naturally, this was a dampener, but the Naga Hills, visible daily from the mission press compound, beckoned. The first step in their direction was taken by Godhula Barua, an Assamese convert who had been christened Godhula Rufus Brown after Nathan Brown. A former soldier, he converted in 1860 through baptism in the Sivasagar tank next to the Siva Dol temple. The missionaries found an Ao Naga living near Sivasagar who was persuaded to visit Godhula in the evenings and teach him a bit of the Ao language.

In the winter of 1871, Godhula and his Naga companion set out for the tea gardens at the base of the Naga Hills. At the Amguri Tea Gardens, he met Naga men from a village that Mary Clark in her account called Dekha Haimong. He persuaded these men to take him with them to their village. There, upon arrival, Godhula, though unharmed, was made a prisoner, but he had a good singing voice and gradually won the villagers over with his singing. When he finally returned to the Sivasagar mission compound, it was in style – with an escort of 40 armed Ao Naga warriors. The following April, Godhula and his wife Lucy, another early convert, went up to spend the rainy season in the Naga village. They set up a bamboo chapel there and returned in November with a band of “wild men, battleaxe and spear in hand”, of whom nine were baptised in the Dikhow river in front of the Sivasagar mission’s bungalow.

Mary Clark wrote:

These Naga Christians, now very desirous of taking Mr Clark up to their mountain home, and having no calendar save the wet and dry season, seed time and harvest, and the moon’s changes, fixed upon a certain phase of the next moon as the date when they would come and take him up to their savage wilds. At the appointed time sixty warriors appeared to escort him.  

Mr Clark was taken up to the same village, a distance from Amguri of about 40 kilometres as the crow flies, which was reached on the second day of the march. He returned after twelve days, but from then on, Godhula and his wife began to spend part of the year in the Naga village, with Clark making occasional trips. In 1876, Clark decided to move there. As Mary Clark explained, “To live beyond the English flag at that time required a permit from the Viceroy of India, residing in Calcutta. On making the application, Mr Clark received the reply that he must do it at his own risk, with no expectation whatever of protection from British arms.”

Clark was not dissuaded; he went. It was a decision that would have an impact on the history of the Naga Hills that was no less significant than the influence Brown’s battles on behalf of the Assamese language had on the history of Assam.

The increasingly peaceful Ao Naga areas came under the British flag in December 1888, when the Governor General finally gave his consent to extend administration to these areas. By then, some Lotha and Angami villages had also come under British administration – a process that began in 1874, when Captain J Johnstone, officiating for Captain Butler, took three villages under his protection on condition that they pay revenue to the government. Creeping village by village and tribe by tribe, more and more of the Naga Hills gradually came under British rule. It was a process that continued despite opposition from senior officers in the British administration then and for several years after. On November 25, 1896, Sir William Ward, the Chief Commissioner of Assam, wrote a letter which runs as follows:

I have always been opposed to extending our area of political control, which is always followed by annexation, as in the case of Mokokchung subdivision [the Ao Naga area]. To annexation succeeds a further area of political control, and further annexation, etc. All this annexation means further expenditure. North Lushai [in the Mizo Hills] is bad enough, with its expenditure of 5½ lakhs [Rs 550,000] a year and revenue of Rs. 7,000 only…

His successor, Sir Henry Cotton, endorsed this position. “I agree entirely with Sir William Ward’s views, and would object strongly to any extension of political control, if it can possibly be avoided”, he wrote, “But there is always the risk of our hands being forced at any time.” The hands of officials at the local level apparently continued to be forced every now and then. Under the growing influence of the Church, on the one hand, and the expanding British administration on the other, the days of headhunting and feasts of merit in Naga villages gradually began to recede. The written word entered the formerly oral culture. Languages were, as everywhere else, standardised by the advent of the printing press. Education followed. Dress began to change. With the end of headhunting raids in the administered areas, travel became safer. The sense of larger identities, going beyond clan and village, began to grow. The economy changed completely, from barter and self-sufficient villages to money and the ideas of capitalism.

Excerpted with permission from Northeast India: A Political History, Samrat Choudhury, HarperCollins India.