The battle of Kikrüma
15 December 2015
How a single Naga village took on the British Empire
Images of popular resistance against British rule across the Subcontinent readily invoke the Indian Mutiny of 1857, Subhas Chandra Bose and his Indian National Army, Gandhi’s civil disobedience movement, as well as the rise of the Indian National Congress. Of course, there were other smaller, though significant, uprisings and rebellions, including the Vellore Mutiny in 1806, the Paik Rebellion in Odisha in 1817, and the Tana Bhagat resistance movement in 1914. Such acts of revolt have been well documented, often incorporated into history syllabi, and part of our common historical imagination on colonial resistance. However, there are tales of resistance and rebellion against British officers and offices that have long been forgotten, or have never been told, especially when they occurred in lesser-known faraway places. This is about one such story of resistance as it unfolded in the rugged, forest-clad uplands of what is today the state of Nagaland in India’s Northeast – by a people now known as the Chakhesang Naga tribe.
The year was 1851, the month February. In the hilltop village of Kikrüma (invariably spelled in colonial documents as Kekree-Mah, Chekrimi, and Kekrema), tucked away deep within the rolling Naga Hills, Sukrunyi, the main annual festival had just been celebrated, lavish with lumps of meat and gallons of rice-beer. Preparations were now underway to start the sowing of new seeds. It would not be long before the village thüvo-o, or priest, would settle on an auspicious day to placate the spirits by performing an age-old ritual only he was entitled to do. After that, he would ceremonially sow the first seeds, which would announce the beginning of the year’s agricultural cycle. Like every year, much work needed to be done on the many paddy fields, neatly and painstakingly excavated from the rocky, slanting soil, and over which the village, built on a mountain crest, stood guard vigilantly.
However, one month on, few of the seeds had been sown. Instead most of the village’s thatched and bamboo houses were now smouldering debris, as were the granaries which stored the remains of last year’s harvest. Most of the livestock had died or had been scattered deep into the jungle, while Kikrüma’s long thriving population had dwindled significantly.
By the time the ‘friendly Nagahs’ were done, the village was reduced to ruins and smouldering ashes, except for six houses in the slightly elevated centre of the village; it was where the troops sought shelter for the night.
The 1851 battle of Kikrüma, fought between spear-wielding Naga warriors and rifle-toting British-led troops remains a story little known outside Kikrüma. The villagers of Kikrüma have long preserved, in their tradition of story-telling, the details of what happened, which they narrate with pride. These match the few accounts of the battle penned down by British officers such as Major John Butler, who filed the Kikrüma onslaught in Travels and Adventures in the Province of Assam, during a Residence of Fourteen Years (1855) as “one of the most bloody battles ever fought in Assam”. While clashes between Naga villages and colonial forces were many, what makes the battle of Kikrüma different, and especially worth retelling, is that this battle was not the outcome of colonial forces seeking to attack and subdue the village, as they had reduced to rubble and burned many Naga villages, but because Kikrüma warriors had openly challenged British troops to a fight. This is the story of a single Naga village deciding to challenge the British Empire.
To historically situate the battle, we must first take a step back. The British had occupied Assam and Manipur in the aftermath of the first Anglo-Burmese war fought between 1824 and 1826, which had ended in a decisive British victory. As a result, Manipur ceded into a British protectorate, and in Assam, the last Ahom nobles, who had ruled over much of the Brahmaputra Valley for over six centuries, were substituted for British officers, mercenaries, and magnates. With the British Empire moving in, a new political mood dawned on the region, one which came to set the stage for colonial incursions into Naga-inhabited uplands. The Naga Hills was an area known for its intractability. Made of foothills and steep slopes that sweep up into forested ranges, one dissolving into the other, torn here and there by a wild chaos of spurs, ridges and gaping gorges, Nagas had lived in a world of their own, although never completely cut off from their hilly neighbours and kingdoms in adjacent valleys.
This history of relative seclusion was in parts due to the friction of the terrain and because the general inhospitality of the rugged and rocky hills offered little to nothing to the kingdoms and dynasties of the adjacent and more fertile Brahmaputra, Imphal and Barak Valleys. Rulers of these regions were therefore never tempted to permanently expand their sway upward. Second, the ‘fierce’ and staunchly ‘independent’ dispositions of most Nagas allowed but few strangers into their lands. Plain dwellers back then both scorned and feared Nagas as hunters of heads, found their behaviour to be fickle as the upland winds, and generally looked upon the hills as a fortress of savagery, nakedness and barbarity best kept far away from. This was also the opinion of the few British travellers who had ventured into Assam before it was formally annexed. They painted the Naga highlands as the place where civilisation ended and ‘unruly savages’ took over.
While navigating Assam’s lush meadows, marshlands, and undulating, forest-clad foothills, the new British rulers soon ‘discovered’ the tea plant, and the possibility of its lucrative exports attracted the arrival of ambitious speculators. By the 1840s, official correspondence started to report in detail about the promise of tea production, especially in the lower ranges of the Naga Hills. Thus, Major Butler wrote about the “great number of tea trees… growing luxuriantly in the jungle, some twelve to fourteen feet high.” Such ubiquity of tea notwithstanding, Major Butler “did not discover that the Nagahs ever drink tea”, instead preferring large quantities of rice-beer. One Mr Browne Wood was equally enthralled about the potential for tea-production in Naga lands, as can be seen in his ‘Extracts from a report of a journey into the Naga Hills in 1884’ published in the Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal: “I cannot say how much tea there may be in these hills, but I am of the opinion, that it extends over a great part of these low hills.” While another officer, John Owen, in Notes on Naga Tribes in Communication with Assam published in 1844, cited “reports from scientific gentlemen” to claim that “these Naga Hills must undoubtedly bear better sorts of tea than is found in the plains of Assam.” Owen notes how a British company, in turn, submitted its following conclusion on the ‘Naga tea’ it had examined:
We have just had some tea of gunpowder quality shewn to us, the produce of Hookon Juri one of the Naga Hills, and consequently the first tea manufactured north-eastward of Assam. The specimen has a strong high flavor and a remarkable aroma, which will, there is no doubt, prove a strong recommendation to it in the home market, where also, being capable of landing at a cheap rate, it will come in serviceably to revive and strengthen the China article, and give the poorer classes especially a strong wholesome beverage within their means of obtaining.
Besides dubiously aligning Naga produce with ‘the China article’, this report sheds light on how in the erratic logic of imperialism and capitalism, the Naga Hills could become linked with the British poor, and Naga flora with taste-buds in places far away. Soon, the commercial production of tea etched itself at the forefront of colonial policy-making towards the Naga. To enable the systematic cultivation of tea, the colonial government declared especially fertile tracts as ‘wastelands’, thus allowing tea-planters to claim and fence off acres and acres for the cause of tea production.
Even if the slanting meadows and lower foothills were not always inhabited, this was not meant to be a no-man’s land for grab. It housed complex and overlapping arrangements of access and ownership. For nearby Naga villages, the foothills which had made fertile hunting-grounds, provided much needed forest-products, regulated access to salt-mines, had been conferred upon them as part of intricate arrangements of suzerainty, submission, and containment vis-à-vis the Ahom princesses and nobles ruling the plains. Having thus always had access to the foothills and plains, Nagas now refused to be penned up in the hills, and answered the expansion of British capital with resistance and ever ferocious raids and plunders on the plains. Tea-planters and labourers were attacked, some were killed, harvests were destroyed before they could be reaped, and profits, if any, looted. At first, colonial officers tried dialogue and diplomacy. This, however, was never smooth, and tea-planters and colonial officers such as Sir Alexander Mackenzie never ceased to complain about upland Naga villages, clans, and tribes seeming ever “ready to raid indifferently upon neighbouring villages or upon British territory as opportunity offered or the prospect of plunder prompted.”
To once and for all quell such raids, the British resolved to retaliate with punitive expeditions, leading entire Gurkha, Sikh, and Assamese regiments into swathes of uplands marked on their maps with the white of un-administrated areas. The first such expedition, as Major Butler recorded, took place in 1832 and was led by Captains Jenkins and Pemberton with “a party of 700 soldiers, and 800 coolies”. As they explored a trail from Manipur through the Naga Hills and down to Assam, they were attacked by Angami Naga villagers who “rolled down stones from the summit of the hills, threw spears, and did their utmost by yelling and intimidation to obstruct the advance of the force.” Their resistance was in vain, and as a British officer remarked: “Cunning, treacherous, vindictive, and warlike, the Angami Nagas had hitherto never encountered a foe equal to contend with them, and in utter ignorance of the effect of fire-arms, they vainly imagined no party could penetrate through their territory.”
Even though Nagas could not halt British expeditions into their territories, they certainly possessed the strength and bravery to resist submission to them. Whenever British forces took to the hills, and, at first, tried to negotiate Nagas into submission, headmen and warriors would merely respond that “their spears were their rajahs”. What followed was violence. And although Naga villages fought with great daring, the conflict was never an equal one and Naga warriors “were astounded at perceiving that their wooden shields were no protection against leaden balls.” Still, they refused to surrender to British rule, or even cease their regular inroads into the Assam plains, and between 1832 and 1851 colonial authorities deemed it necessary to launch as many as ten punitive expeditions to quell the Nagas.
In such expeditions, always well-prepared and well-armed, ‘hostile’ villages were routed, their thatched houses and granaries set ablaze, and objects of value and curiosity confiscated as ‘war booty’, some of which are now on display in museums in Zurich and Oxford. In response, Naga villages resorted to strengthening their defence walls, and as one British officer reported:
Every side is stockaded, and a ditch generally encircles the most exposed part of the village, which is studded with panjies [bamboo spikes, often smeared with poison]. The sloping side of the hill is likewise not uncommonly cut down so as to form a perpendicular wall, and thus fortified, these villages could offer serious resistance to any force assailing them without firearms.
But the British carried firearms, and recalcitrant villages were shelled into submission. Of the many clashes that took place in the hills, one village which long proved undefeatable was the Angami Naga village of Khonoma. Its warriors ambushed British-forces on multiple occasions and when British troops advanced, they successfully barricaded themselves behind heavily fortified stockades. Khonoma’s strength and stamina frustrated the British, and soon the locus of punitive expeditions was to bring this village down, assuming that if Khonoma surrendered other Naga villages would follow suit. But while Khonoma warriors were hotly pursued, and their village surrounded and attacked, it could not be defeated. In 1850, after unsuccessfully concluding the ninth expedition, Lieutenant Vincent wrote an appeal to British India’s Governor-General to request that “a force of not less than four or five hundred bayonets, accompanied by a gun” to be send into the hills “in order that this hitherto successful rebellion may at once be brought to an issue.”
Reluctantly the Governor-General heeded. Reluctantly, because a relatively small number of hill peoples had apparently managed to keep British forces at bay for several years. A force of 500 soldiers, and even more ‘coolies’, was assembled and took to the hills under the headship of several British officers in 1850. First taking up position in Mezoma, a village the British had brought under their nominal control during earlier expeditions, they then advanced to Khonoma, propelling mortar after mortar into the village whilst attacking its stockades. The shelling and fighting continued until Khonoma’s warriors finally accepted the futility of their spears and shields against the much superior weaponry tried on them, and fled the village at night. An official report concludes: “Thus fell one of the strongest Forts ever seen in Assam, after a siege of sixteen hours’ duration.”
While Khonoma had finally succumbed, the ten punitive expeditions into the Hills had incurred tremendous expenditures and energy on part of the British, and which made Major Butler reflect:
The experience of this expedition has shown very clearly the great difficulties that have to be encountered in carrying on warfare in this woody and mountainous country. Unable to move with less than 600 coolies, if opposed, we should suffer serious loss without the possibility of being able to injure the enemy.
With the job of reducing Khonoma accomplished, Major Butler retired to the plains to appraise the Agent to the Governor, but ordered Captain Reed to stay put in the hills to await final orders. To the Government, Major Butler advised against any permanent occupation of the hills as this would require “the employment of at least a regiment of 500 men, with several European officers, guns and mortars; and the enormous expense attendant on such a measure”. In the present state of affair, so he continued, “I do not recommend violent measures, unless we are openly opposed. We have driven the enemy from his stronghold, and he must now be sensible of our power; and it is a question to be considered, whether it would not be more advisable not to interfere with the internal affairs of the Nagahs.”
Soon, the commercial production of tea etched itself at the forefront of colonial policy-making towards the Naga.
While Major Butler tried to persuade the Government into adopting a Non-Interference Policy towards the Nagas, Captain Reed, up in the hills, used his time and the forces at his disposal to trot eastwards, towards the country of the Eastern Angamis (today known as Chakhesang), in order to secure their submission to British rule. However, soon sensing hostility all around him, he put up camp and “resolved on not proceeding to make further discoveries”, but to await the much anticipated Government order allowing him to return to the plains. However, just as Captain Reed had firmly resolved to close his campaign, on 5 February 1851 two heralds from Kikrüma came to seek his audience. They carried with them an open challenge to the British Government from its villagers.
If in pre-colonial days, the village of Khonoma controlled much of the foothills directly adjacent to the Assam plains, and often executed raids on the plains, Kikrüma had established itself as a powerhouse deeper inside the hills, closer to the plains of Manipur than to the Brahmaputra Valley. The village’s location, perched on a hilltop, while of inconvenience in several ways, had helped the village grow to supremacy; enemies could be spotted from afar while the steep, rocky slope made for a natural defence wall. While the village had not been visited by a British officer, a report estimated it to consist of approximately 1000 houses. Its warriors were many, and were known and feared widely for their daring, determination and ferocity. Over the years, they had exerted their control over a large number of villages in its vicinity, extracted tribute from them, and raided and pillaged those reluctant to accept its sway. British officers were aware of Kikrüma standing and strength: “[Kikrüma] was said to contain about 1,000 houses, and they were dreaded by all around as a bloodthirsty people, who think nothing of murder for the sake of plunder: they boasted of having a man in their village who had killed seventy men.”
True to its reputation, and ever confident of its prowess, Kikrüma warriors had anxiously anticipated an opportunity to confront the strange-looking invaders, certain that they would defeat them. However, to their frustration the British-led troops failed to advance into its vicinity, and with them now showing signs of retreating, the villagers resolved to take over the initiative. The words spoken by the two messengers have been translated and preserved in the colonial archive. Addressing Captain Reed, they invited him “to come and prove who had the greatest power in these hills, they [Kikrüma] or our government.” The Manipuris from the Imphal Valley, under the leadership of Gumbheer Singh, the messengers further stated, “were afraid to fight them”, and the British now “seemed afraid also”. They spoke with confidence and remained unperturbed at the sight of the muskets, mortars and guns stalled out in the camp. “Your Sipahees are flesh and blood as well as we, and we will fight with spear and shield, and see who are the best men.” Before departing, they presented Captain Reed with a specimen of their weapon, a handsome spear.
It all confounded Captain Reed. While both circumstances and the anticipated policy change towards non-interference hardly favoured another battle in the hills, he reasoned that was he to withdraw his forces, Kikrüma would certainly take it a sign of weakness and cowardice. Thus, Captain Reed was “determined at once to uphold the name and honour of the Government by accepting the challenge” and told the two messengers to inform their fellow villagers that “they would soon have an opportunity”.
He immediately started making preparations and dispatched a messenger to order Lieutenant Campbell, who was camping in Mezoma village, to join him with 50 more men. This brought the tally of forces and weaponry at Captain Reed’s disposal to “150 muskets, two three-pounders and a mortar, and about 800 friendly Nagahs to fight on our side with their spears.” These so-called ‘friendly Nagahs’ belonged to surrounding villages which had by then pledged allegiance to the British. Not a few of these villages had previously suffered at the hands of Kikrüma, whose warriors had repeatedly raided them, killed and maimed several, or had extracted heavy tribute. In a characteristic exercise of ‘divide and rule’, British officer used their long-lingering antipathy and desire for revenge against Kikrüma to mould them into a strongly motivated fighting force.
Having assembled and readied his forces on 9 February, Captain Reed guided them to the village of Kidima, situated at about two miles from Kikrüma. From here they could see the village, and saw Kikrüma warriors labouring hard to put in place impediments, barriers, and traps on the path leading to the village, which moreover looked so steep and difficult to scale that it made Captain Reed resolve to alter his strategy. Instead of approaching the village via the south end of the hill as initially planned, as well as anticipated by the villagers, he directed his troops about a mile north. This move puzzled and worried the Kikrüma villagers. Their north gate was not as strongly fortified compared to the south entrance to the village, and with the troops already on their advance there was no time left to strengthen its northern defences.
On 11 February 1851, at break of dawn, Captain Reed’s forces started its ascent towards Kikrüma. Encountering few obstacles on its way up, its advance guard soon reached an elevated ground from which they started firing their rifles into the village. Kikrüma warriors, a colonial report on the battle reads, “hotly engaged with our friendly Nagahs, fighting with the greatest desperation, and in the heat of battle attempted to cut off the heads of the Nagas as they killed them.” However, if in face-to-face encounters Kikrüma warriors had proven near undefeatable, the spears and shields they carried provided little protection against the bullets fired at them. The report noted:
The Sipahees of the 1st and 2nd Assam Light Infantry, however, soon drove them out of the village, killing and wounding many of them. The guns were fired, which created the utmost consternation, and the enemy fled in every direction, utterly discomfited, leaving 100 slain on the field of battle, including many of their most noted warriors.
With Kikrüma warriors withdrawing to the jungles and fields beyond, the so-called ‘friendly Nagahs’ saw their opportunity, venting their anger long held back. They wrecked the village, looting it, setting fire to its thatched roofs, destroying the granaries, and pursuing any remaining villagers, killing as many as they could. Characteristically eloquent in tracing genealogies, village elders today can tell names of those ancestors killed in the onslaught, and narrate with great detail the story of the battle as they had heard it from their elders. “Do you see this path in front of my house?” an elder asked me and pointed his finger. “Earlier this was a small stream. During the battle, I heard, the water streaming down was reddened by blood.”
By the time the ‘friendly Nagahs’ were done, the village was reduced to ruins and smouldering ashes, except for six houses in the slightly elevated centre of the village; it was where the troops sought shelter for the night. Sleeping however little they could as the remaining Kikrüma warriors refused to surrender:
So determined and hostile were the enemy, that several times during the night they attempted to attack the troops, and it was found impossible to procure water for the troops during the night without great risk, the enemy lying in ambush in all directions. Even in the evening, when the Sipahees were on the alert, and when the mortar was being fired, a cook sitting close to it was wounded by a spear being thrown at him.
If many Kikrüma warriors had fallen during the first attack, another and more lurid massacre was to follow the next morning. Having declared victory, the troops, while vacating the village through its south-west gate, noticed hundreds of old men, women, and children hiding themselves in a secluded paddy-field. Showing no mercy, the ‘friendly Nagahs’ immediately initiated an assault, significantly increasing the body count. All in all, estimations have it that “about 300 [Kikrüma] Nagahs were killed and wounded upon this occasion; and doubtless many women and children were murdered by our ruthless barbarian allies, who show no mercy in battle, and delight in bloody warfare, exterminating young and old.”
On 12 February, the British-led troops returned to their outpost in Mezoma village, and “Thus fell Kekre-mah, after one of the most bloody battles over fought in Assam.” While the Colonial Government, after being intimated about the battle, considered the attack “unavoidable” and “most creditably conducted by Captain Reed”, it simultaneously stated how “the expedition itself seemed scarcely to have been called for” and the burning of the village, “an unnecessary piece of severity”.
Hardly a month after the battle of Kikrüma, Major Butler’s persistent advice was promoted into policy, and a non-interference approach was formally adopted to guide the British’ dealings with the upland Nagas. Certainly the fierce and determined resistance offered by villages as Khonoma and Kikrüma in large parts contributed to this decision. Kept at bay, it took the British at least a few more years to return to a ‘Forward Policy’. For Kikrüma, the consequences of the battle, the loss of lives, houses, and grains stocked up was severe and long felt. Yet, the village proved resilient and gradually grew back to its earlier prominence, although with the eventual British pacification of the hills, it ceased its raids on surrounding villages and slowly surrendered its claims on tribute.
Today, well over 160 years on, the story of the battle lives on amongst the Kikrüma villagers, who can’t but feel awe at their forefathers daring and determination to challenge the British Empire. It was a decision that cost them dearly. And yet, Kikrüma’s challenge to the British remains a monumental act of resistance against colonial rule: a remarkable story of a single Naga village taking on the British Empire. It is a story that deserves to be remembered, shared much more widely, and indeed, given its rightful place in the history of colonial resistance.
Writer’s note: Apo Kühüpoyo Puro has long worked locally to preserve the tale of the battle of Kikrüma, and this writing only builds upon his insights. I remain deeply grateful to the villagers of Kikrüma, in whose midst I stayed for well over year as part of a doctoral project I am pursuing, and whose never failing hospitality and kindness is unforgettable.
~Jelle J P Wouters is a lecturer at Royal Thimphu College, Bhutan, and a PhD candidate at North-Eastern Hill University, India. Previously he taught at Sikkim University and Eberhard Karls University.