Philip Meadows Taylor’s 1839 novel Confessions of a Thug captured the imagination of 19th-century Britain with its chilling depiction of an organized death cult preying upon the hapless travelers of India’s wild and desolate roads. Based upon real accounts Taylor gathered during his work suppressing the Thuggee cult for the Nizam of Hyderabad, the book is ominously introduced as an authoritative exposé in which true events have been faithfully woven into a fictionalized narrative.
As portrayed by Taylor, the Thugs are the votaries of Bhowanee (Kali); the destructive aspect of the Supreme Being. Endowed with superior intelligence and cunning, they are sent forth to make “sacrifices” on her behalf. The reward for their piety is the plunder they gather from their victims. In so far as they observe her omens and obey her taboos, Bhowanee grants them protection from earthly authorities.
Their modus operandi is to inveigle wealthy marks into joining their camp, or to merge with travelling caravans who seek protection in numbers while making treacherous journeys through foreign lands. “Thug” being the Hindi word for “conman,” they proceed to charm and manipulate their travelling companions into lowering their guards. Then, at some remote, well chosen-spot, a signal is given and each Thug simultaneously strangles his assigned victim with a roomál (hankerchief). The bodies are quickly stripped and deposited in preprepared graves, which are then skillfully disguised, as by building fire pits over them to explain the disturbance of the earth. In order to quietly and routinely commit mass murder, the Thugs must operate with military efficiency. Each man is trained to perform a repertoire of specialized roles, including those of strangler (bhuttóte), grave-digger (bélha), inveigler (sótha) and those who bury the dead (lugháees).
The anti-hero protagonist of Confessions of a Thug is Ameer Ali (based upon Syeed Amir Ali, a prolific Thug who turned King’s evidence). As a small child his parents are murdered by Thugs, but one, Ismail, chooses to spare him and raise him as his son. After Ameer forgets his parents and learns his stepfather’s vocation, he is initiated into the cult. The ensuing narrative reads much like a conventional adventure story of a boy heading off to sea, or running away with a band of gypsies, except for the stark fact that the protagonist is repeatedly committing acts of cold-blooded murder.
His victims are sometimes villains in their own right, but they are just as often hapless merchants, as well as the women and children who accompany them. Throughout the book, he gleefully recounts how he inveigles each victim into his confidence, delighting as they break bread with him in blissful ignorance of the fact that they are about to die at his hands. Here he relates the killing of his first victim:
I was eagerly waiting the signal; I tightly grasped the fatal handkerchief, and my first victim was within a foot of me! I went behind him as being preferable to one side, and observed one of the other Thugs do the same to a servant. The sahoukar moved a step or two towards the road—I instinctively followed him; I scarcely felt that I stirred, so intensely was I observing him. “Jey Kalee!” shouted my father: it was the signal, and I obeyed it!
As quick as thought the cloth was round his neck; I seemed endued with superhuman strength. I wrenched his neck round—he struggled convulsively for an instant, and fell. I did not quit my hold, I knelt down on him, and strained the cloth till my hand ached; but he moved not—he was dead! I quitted my hold, and started to my feet. I was mad with excitement! My blood boiled, and I felt as though I could have strangled a hundred others, so easy, so simple had the reality been. One turn of my wrists had placed me on equality with those who had followed the profession for years,—I had taken the first place in the enterprise, for I had killed the principal victim! I should receive the praise of the whole band, many of whom I was confident had looked on me as only a child.
I was roused from my reverie by my father.
“You have done well,” he said…
Ameer is a killer and a swindler, but he is also faithful family man and a fair-minded leader who generally eschews acts of sadism and barbarity. By convincing himself that his victims have been delivered unto him by providence, he is able to compartmentalize his “profession” as separate from ordinary standards of behavior. In justifying himself to his confessor, he argues:
“Have I not ever been a kind husband and faithful friend?…Where is the man existing who can say a word against Ameer Ali’s hounour, which ever has been and ever will remain pure and unsullied? Have I ever broken a social tie? ever been unfaithful or unkind to a comrade? ever failed in my duty or in my trust? ever neglected a rite or ceremony of my religion? I tell you, sahib, the man breathes not who could point his finger at me on any of these points. And if you think on them, they are those which, if rigidly kept, gain for a main esteem and honour in the world.”
And so his vignettes are scattered with such darkly humorous phrases as “We agreed to put the men to death immediately after evening prayer,” or, when he asks a fellow Thug how he has been spending their visit to Hyderabad:
“…in the first place, I have made a series of poojahs and sacrifices at the different temples around this most Mahomedan of cities; secondly, I have seen and mixed in the Mohorum; and lastly, I have assisted to kill seven persons.”
Ameer professes no remorse for practicing his vocation, but we are not always sure whether to believe him. In places he is met by “accusing eyes,” or afflicted by an “evil spirit” at an auspicious moment. There is much that is left open to interpretation; is he explaining his actions, or merely rationalizing them? Ameer Ali is not a reliable narrator.
Nor is he is a two-dimensional character. Though he has “forgotten,” or rather repressed, the memory of his parents, he still lives with the emotional imprint of their murder, and this sometimes leads him to respond to situations in seemingly uncharacteristic ways. Over the course of the three-volume novel, we follow him through a process of self-discovery that leads to a personal catharsis, but also reveals tragic ironies and leaves him, still, a morally ambiguous figure. At its heart, this is a deeply psychological story, written decades before the birth of Freud.
As a historical document, Confessions of a Thug is interesting, but unreliable. As an adventure story, it holds its own alongside any other novel of the period, but does not deliver the tension and suspense to which modern readers are accustomed. When read as a character study of a man who kills for a living, however, it is endlessly fascinating. Each chapter offers up curious new ambiguities and intriguing paradoxes that invite one to ponder the nature evil and the duality of Man. In his incisive portrayal of Ameer Ali, a man who is at once a hero and a monster, Taylor has accomplished something of true literary merit.
Taylor, Philip Meadows. Confessions of a Thug. (1839).