William Henry Sleeman

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William Henry Sleeman
Born8 August 1788
Died10 February 1856 (aged 67)
At sea near British Ceylon
Occupation(s)Army officer, civil servant
Known forThuggee suppression

Major-general Sir William Henry Sleeman KCB (8 August 1788 – 10 February 1856) was a British soldier and administrator in British India. He is best known for his work from the 1830s in suppressing the organized criminal gangs known as Thuggee. He also discovered the holotype specimen of the sauropod dinosaur Titanosaurus indicus in Jabalpur in 1828.[1]

Early life and career[edit]

Sleeman was born in Stratton, Cornwall, the fifth of eight children of Philip Sleeman, a yeoman and supervisor of excise of St Tudy.[2]

In 1809 Sleeman joined the Bengal Army and later served in the Nepal War between 1814 and 1816. He contracted malaria in 1813, symptoms of which occasionally reappeared for the remainder of his life (with sometimes debilitating intensity).[3]

In 1820 he was selected for civil employ, and became junior assistant to the Governor-General's agent in the Saugor and Nerbudda territories. In 1822 he was placed in charge of Narsinghpur District, and would later describe his two years in the role as by far the most laborious of his life.[4] He was gazetted to the rank of captain in 1825, and in 1828 assumed charge of Jubbulpore District. In 1831 he transferred to Sagar district to cover for a colleague on leave. Upon his colleague's return, Sleeman continued with magisterial duties in Sagar until 1835. He displayed a facility for languages, becoming fluent in Hindi-Urdu and developing a working knowledge of many other languages of the subcontinent. Later in his life, Sleeman was described as "probably the only British officer to address the King of Oudh in correct Urdu and Persian."[5] His 800-page report on Oudh is still highly regarded as among the most accurate and comprehensive studies of the kingdom during the 1800s.[6]

Sleeman made the first recorded discovery of dinosaur fossils in India in 1828. While serving as a captain in the Narmada valley region, he noticed several basaltic formations which he identified as having been "raised above the waters." By digging around in the Bara Simla Hills, part of the Lameta formation near Jabalpur, he unearthed several petrified trees, as well as some fragmentary dinosaur fossil specimens.[7] Subsequently, he sent these specimens to London[8] and to the Indian Museum in Calcutta.[9] In 1877 the genus was named Titanosaurus Indicus by Richard Lydekker,[10] but the taxonomic position is in doubt.

Sleeman wrote about wild children who had been raised by wolves with his notes on six cases. This was first published in the first volume of his Journey through the kingdom of Oude in 1848-1850 (1858)[11] and reprinted in 1852 as An Account of Wolves Nurturing Children in Their Dens, by an Indian Official and in The Zoologist (1888 12 (135): 87–98).[12] This discovery inspired Rudyard Kipling's Mowgli character in The Jungle Book.[13]

Thuggee suppression[edit]

Sleeman is best known for his work suppressing the Thuggee secret society. Dating back as early as the 1300s, Thugs were a secret criminal group, partly hereditary in membership, who specialized in the murder by strangulation of travelers as a prelude to theft. Thugs had been known to native rulers and occasionally to Europeans, but the scope of their crimes was not appreciated (later estimated at least in the tens of thousands of victims across India). In 1835, Sleeman captured "Feringhea" (one of the inspirations for the character Syeed Amir Ali in Confessions of a Thug is based) and got him to turn King's evidence. He took Sleeman to a grave with a hundred bodies, told the circumstances of the killings, and named the Thugs who had done it.[14] After initial investigations confirmed what Feringhea had said, Sleeman started an extensive campaign, being appointed General Superintendent of the operations for the Suppression of Thuggee and in February 1839, he assumed charge of the office of Commissioner for the Suppression of Thuggee and Dacoity. During these operations, more than 1400 Thugs were hanged or transported for life. One of them, Bahram, confessed to having strangled 125-931 persons with his turban. Detection was only possible by means of informers, for whose protection from the vengeance of their associates a special prison was established at Jabalpur (at the time Jubbulpore). Sleeman had a Government Report made in 1839.[14] Sleeman wrote three books about the Thugs: Ramaseeana, or a Vocabulary of the peculiar language used by Thugs; Report on the Depredations Committed by the Thug Gangs of Upper and Central India; and The Thugs or Phansigars of India.[15] The first of these books offers a detailed vocabulary of words having special meaning to the Thugs, which would be incomprehensible to their victims. These include secret exchanges of greetings that mutually identified one Thug to another.[16]

Colonial Construction (Fabrication) of Thuggee to Legitimize British Judicial Power in India[edit]

In recent decades, historians have begun to revisit the British administration's campaign against thuggee, with many arguing that thuggee was an orientalist construction formed with the intention of legitimizing increased British judicial power in India.[17] Upon India's independence in 1947, there were 128 tribes, constituting 3,500,000 individuals, officially classified as criminal tribes.[18] Established in Regulation XXVII of 1871, the Criminal Tribes Act (CTA) sought to identify, surveil, and 'rehabilitate' groups of Indians who, due to their itinerancy, presented a challenge to British authority. As such, tribes deemed 'criminal' typically included travelling craftsmen, traders, entertainers, and displaced peasants, and measures to combat their itinerancy included forced settlement, roll calls, and travel passes.

Thuggee Act of 1836, which set a legal precedent because it allowed individuals to be convicted based solely on affiliation to a criminal group, with no evidence of having committed a crime.[19]

British Resident and later life[edit]

Sleeman served as Resident at Gwalior from 1843 to 1849, and at Lucknow from 1849 to 1856. Whilst Resident at Lucknow he survived three assassination attempts. He was also opposed to the annexation of Oudh by Lord Dalhousie, but his advice was disregarded. Sleeman believed that British authorities should annex only regions of India that were plagued by violence, unjust leadership or poor infrastructure and thus maintained that native leadership should be left in place when their rule was even-handed.[20]

Sleeman also took an interest in phrenology and believed that the measurements of the skulls could help him identify criminal ethnic groups.[21]

He died and was buried at sea near Ceylon on a recovery trip to Britain in 1856, just six days after being awarded the Order of the Bath.

The village Sleemanabad in Madhya Pradesh, India was named in his honour.[22]


Whilst in Jubbulpore, he married Amélie Josephine, the daughter of Count Blondin de Fontenne, a French nobleman. They had seven children.[4] His second daughter, Henrietta, was married to William Alexander Ross, an uncle of Sir Ronald Ross.[23] A grandson of Sleeman, Colonel Sir James Lewis Sleeman, who also wrote about thuggee and shikar (big game hunting), became a pioneer of wildlife photography in India.[24][25]

In popular culture[edit]

  • The 1959 Hammer film production "The Stranglers of Bombay" recounts a story based on Sleeman suppressing criminal gangs although his part is not mentioned until the finale of the film.
  • Sleeman is featured as a supporting character in the book Terror in the Sun by Barbara Cartland (1979), a romantic novel in which Thuggees are the overarching antagonists.
  • Sleeman is featured in the novel The Strangler Vine by Miranda Carter (2015), Firingi Thuggee (2015) by Himadri Kishore Dasgupta and Ebong Inquisition (2020) by Avik Sarkar.
  • Sleeman features in the novel The Tigress of Mysore (2022) by Allan Mallinson.
  • Sleeman is the main antagonist in the 2016 video game Assassin's Creed Chronicles: India. In the game, Sleeman is depicted as the leader of a group of Knights Templar seeking to acquire the Koh-i-Noor diamond.
  • Sleemanabad is a village named after him in Katni district in Madhya Prades.[26]


  1. ^ R. Lydekker. 1877. Notices of new and other Vertebrata from Indian Tertiary and Secondary rocks. Records of the Geological Survey of India 10(1):30-43
  2. ^ "Pedigree Chart for Major General William Henry Sleeman: Geneagraphie – Families all over the world". Geneagraphie. 10 March 2010. Retrieved 4 March 2014.
  3. ^ Dash, p. 113
  4. ^ a b "W. H. Sleeman – Rambles and Recollections of an Indian Official".
  5. ^ Dash, p. 114-115
  6. ^ Dash, Mike. Thug: the true story of India's murderous cult ISBN 1-86207-604-9, 2005, p 115
  7. ^ William Sleeman. "Rambles and Recollections of an Indian official" (PDF). p. 127. Retrieved 4 March 2014.
  8. ^ Sahni, Ashok (2001). Dinosaurs of India. National Book Trust, New Delhi. ISBN 81-237-3109-4.
  9. ^ "Background". Personal.umich.edu. Retrieved 4 March 2014.
  10. ^ [1] Archived 4 February 2015 at the Wayback Machine
  11. ^ Sleeman, W.H. (1858). A journey through the kingdom of Oude in 1849–1850. Volume 1. London: Richard Bentley. pp. 206–222.
  12. ^ Zingg, Robert M. (1940). "Feral Man and Extreme Cases of Isolation". The American Journal of Psychology. 53 (4): 487–517. doi:10.2307/1417630. JSTOR 1417630.
  13. ^ Hotchkiss, Jane (2001). "The jungle of Eden: Kipling, wolf boys, and the colonial imagination". Victorian Literature and Culture. 29 (2): 435–449. doi:10.1017/s1060150301002108. S2CID 162409338.
  14. ^ a b Twain, Mark; Produced by David Widger (18 August 2006). Following the Equator (ASCII). Project Gutenberg. p. Chapter xlvi. Retrieved 27 February 2011. This file should be named 2895.txt or 2895.zip {{cite book}}: |work= ignored (help)
  15. ^ Masters, John. 1952. The Deceivers. The Viking Press, 237 pages
  16. ^ Commencing at page 67 in Ramaseeana, or A vocabulary of the peculiar language used by the Thugs Sleeman, W. H. (William Henry), Sir (1836) Calcutta : G. H. Huttmann, Military Orphan Press https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Ramaseeana,_or_A_vocabulary_of_the_peculiar_language_used_by_the_Thugs_(IA_b29302730).pdf Retrieved 25 August 2023
  17. ^ Reid, Darren (2017). "On the Origin of Thuggee: Determining the Existence of Thugs in Pre-British India". University of Victoria – via journals.uvic.ca.
  18. ^ Major, Andrew J. (2000). "State and Criminal Tribes in Colonial Punjab: Surveillance, Control and Reclamation of the 'Dangerous Classes". Modern Asian Studies. 33 (3): 657–688. doi:10.1017/S0026749X9900339X. S2CID 144677364.
  19. ^ Singha, Radhika (1998). A Despotism of Law: Crime and Justice in Early Colonial India. Oxford University Press. pp. 214–215. ISBN 9780195640496.
  20. ^ Dash, p. 115
  21. ^ Bates, Crispin (1995). "Race, Caste and Tribe in Central India: the early origins of Indian anthropometry". In Robb, Peter (ed.). The Concept of Race in South Asia. Delhi: Oxford University Press. p. 230. ISBN 978-0-19-563767-0. Retrieved 2 December 2011.
  22. ^ Dash, Mike Thug: the true story of India's murderous cult ISBN 1-86207-604-9, 2005, page ?
  23. ^ Ross, Ronald (1923). Memoirs with a full account of the Great Malaria Problem and its solution. London: John Murray. p. 7.
  24. ^ Martine van Woerkens; Catherine Tihanyi (2002). The Strangled Traveler: Colonial Imaginings and the Thugs of India. University of Chicago Press. p. 263.
  25. ^ Sleeman, Sir James L. (1947). From Rifle to Camera. The reformation of a big game hunter. London: Jarrolds.
  26. ^ Mondal, Bidyut (28 December 2020). Adventure of the Deadly Book. Notion Press. ISBN 978-1-63745-436-7.

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