Life of the British in Colonial Assam

Assam was brought under the British colonial bondage in 1826, as a right, legalized by the Treaty of Yandaboo. Her eventual liberation came collectively in 1947 along with the other Indian powers. The British left the land as the situation became such that no treaty or engagement could prolong their occupation and stay here. 

The British were the fourth in the row of the European powers to establish colonial possession in India. The others being the Portuguese, the French and the Dutch. But the English were the first and the only power to extend colonial dominion to Assam. 

Occupation of Assam did not figure in the contemporary British colonial policy. ‘Non-intervention’ was their prevailing principle of administration. The ambitious plans of the Burmese in the British frontier ultimately made David Scott, the then Commissioner of Rangpur to suggest to the British authority that “… the best and cheapest defense of this frontier would be the invasion of Assam”. It was done and the ‘military occupation’ of Assam at the time of the expulsion of the Burmese from the Brahmaputra valley was subsequently transformed into a ‘territorial ownership’ of the British.

This gradually opened Assam to the Europeans who came variously as administrators, merchants and missionaries. Many of them recorded their experiences in the form of official reports, travel accounts, private letters, memoirs and newspapers. These throw much light on the colonial life of the British officers in Assam.

Assam was occupied in the nineteenth century and the temperament of the British officers in India of this period was different from that in the eighteenth. In the eighteenth century, the officers under the East India Company regarded the rapid colonial expansion in India as their personal achievements and many were found to be involved in all kinds of corruption for personal gain. However, the authority did not hesitate to take action against them if the allegations were substantiated. Warren Hastings, whose administration was highly admired by the British Parliament for the significant expansion and consolidation of British power in Bengal, was impeached later on, when sufficient evidence was found against him to convince the authority that he had been involved in corruption.

The disgrace earned by the first generation of the administrators was sought to be cleared by an ideal of ‘moral integrity’ among the new administrators in Assam. They regarded their power as a public trust and displayed the particulars of British traits patriotism, and commercial interest. There was an additional order from the Parliament to secure the loyalty of the people py affection, by interest, by law and by winning the people to Christianity. All these were to be obtained without losing the distinction between the ‘Europeans’ and the ‘natives’.

The criteria for recruitment of the British officers were based on some qualities like devotion to duty, honesty, discipline and integrity. Resourcefulness and good health got preference to age. It was therefore not unusual that there were British assistants who had not even attained the age of eighteen years. Generally they started their career as writers or apprentices and were promoted gradually to higher ranks according to their service and merit.

As many of them were bachelors and posted far away from their homeland, their desire for family life was fulfilled in a different way. The young energetic officers were restricted from contracting legal marriage with the natives during their period of active service, but they could enter into marital relations with concubines and bring up families. There was also provision to convert such relation into legal marriage and to legitimize their children when their term of service was over. This type of relation proved to be a consolation to the Europeans who had to devote their service life to India, without making her, their home. There was still, a lack of security of the administrative servants. They could be dismissed or suspended on flimsy grounds and generally the decision was not subject to revision or appeal. Attractive salaries and the future prospects bound the administrators to maintain a moral integrity as far as possible. However, the European managers in the tea gardens, mostly unmarried and with little education, were almost free from such tensions. In their isolated life for from the general people, many of them used to keep the wives and grown up daughters of the tea garden labourers as concubines and without caring for the consent of their husbands or fathers.

The offsprings of such mixed blood failed to equate themselves with the social status of their father – with European names and English as their mother tongue they were equally uncomfortable in the native society. Subsequently, they formed themselves into a separate community. Though the concubines or their children were not given a legal status, the managers generally returned home leaving a huge compensation for the future management of these families. They were not answerable to any one for such immoral practices.

In the Anglo-American colonies, the life-style of the British officers had some similarity with that in their motherland. In America, the British built towns to meet the need of their growing population. Their American subjects possessed the energetic European character with the flavour of Europe. There was a presence of oneness between the rulers and the ruled with a common language, religion and physical character. The only problem of the British in America was to assert themselves to be the superior political power. In the Asiatic colonies, their life-style was entirely different.

Robert Clive

The conquest of Assam made way for the British to extend their “progressive mastery” over a country frequently visited by flood, earthquake and epidemic cholera, and inhabited by a people who were found to have possessed an aversion towards drastic changes. The general lethargic characteristics of the people made them think that all kinds of material improvement to the society in Assam should be done only under European management, for “… to trust such works to native hands would be to protract for centuries what under European supervision could be done within a few years”.

The termination of the ‘primitive rudeness’ was an achievement of the colonisers no doubt, but it also had a negative consequence. The mildness of punishment under the British law led many people to take to crime. The official reports of the following years showed a remarkable increase in crimes among the poverty-stricken people. Another factor which demoralised the people was their addiction to opium.

Besides, in their process of contact with the Assamese, the British officers found a peculiar source of conflict between their European outlook and the native tradition . During the Burmese reign of terror, the panic-stricken people from all sections of the society had become fugitives. Before their flight to the neighbouring countries, many of them, especially the well off class had burried their valuable properties. After the expulsion of the Burmese, many of them returned. Some were settled in lower Assam by the new authority, but those who reached upper Assam, their ancestral home, they found that heavy rainfall and floods during the years of their absence had swept away everything. In their struggle for survival, some of them tried to recover their family treasure from beneath the earth. Those who did not possess any such property, but had heard about it, also tried to obtain them by digging at possible places. The two former capital cities of Rangpur and Gargaon were worst affected by such mass diggings. These were mostly in vain, and even a chance discovery of such wealth led to arguments among the labourers resulting in severe injury or even death to the involved.

The tombs (Maidams) of the late Ahom kings were also not spared. Nathan Brown, the American Baptist missionary wrote in his diary that thirteen royal tombs were excavated during his stay in Assam (1836- 1855). A huge amount of treasure was explored from them. A few of these tombs were excavated at the instance of the erstwhile Swargadeo Purandar Singha. He immersed the mortal remains of his forefathers in the Ganges. Another reason for this initiative appears to be that the wealth unearthed from them would reduce his pecuniary hardship caused by the loss of power. The British administrators generally kept themselves aloof from direct interference to stop such diggings and explorations as it might hurt the religious sentiment of the people. However, sometimes the local people used to catch the culprits and handed them over to the police.

Apart from the racial and religious distinctions, the Europeans in Assam experienced the barrier of language. Knowledge of the local language was very essential for them especially for the doctors, teachers and administrators. They were required to take an examination in this language and had to possess the capacity to converse in it. However, their performance in this aspect was very poor. Frequent transfers of the British officers to different parts of India was the main handicap.

Even though Assamese was the dialect of the people, yet till 1864 Bengali was the medium of instruction.

The difficulty, in Assam, to pick up the local language was that, though Assamese was the dialect of the people, yet till 1864 Bengali was the medium of instruction. Moreover, heavily burdened with official duty, they could afford little time to learn the local language properly. Further some officers considered it to be below their dignity to learn the local language from a native interpreter. The missionaries were free from such complex and with their zeal they picked up the language and even made contributions to it. For an officer, who could pass the examination in the local language there was an award of rupees five hundred. In spite of it, their performance was not satisfactory, and as the continuity of administration was essential, in 1865 the compulsion to pass the examination was relaxed to the ability to converse in the local dialect.

From the very beginning, the British administrators were fully conscious about their security and were aware of the possible roots of discontent among the people. The Assamese had rejoiced at the defeat of the Burmese and bestowed upon the British every possible distinction there could be for the restoration of peace to their country. Such a situation proved to be  temporary as the linking up of Assam with British India offended a section of them. This handful minority refused to sell their liberty for the British favour. Though their scattered anti-British campaigns were crushed before they could collect much strength, the presence of these desperate characters taught ·the authority that the support of the local people was essential for the safety of their life in this country.

The next element to diminish the security of the British officers was the surrounding hill-tribes. These ferocious people, by some hit-and-run raids killed a number of Europeans. Captain White, the Political Agent of upper Assam and the Commandant of the Assam Light Infantry, lost his life in a Khamti insurrection in 1839. The missionaries also fell sometimes at the hands of such assassins. Once, two Roman Catholic missionaries, on their way to Tibet via the Mishimi hills, were killed by a gang of Mishimi miscreants. In spite of such deadly experiences, the Europeans with their sense of duty and tremendous self-confidence, never hesitated to put their immediate future at risk; in case of initial failure, they re-engaged themselves in their struggles till the enemies were defeated or the obstruction was removed.

Instances are there when natives came to their rescue. Sometime in 1849, Captain Hemilton Vetch, the successor of White, was attacked from behind by a native with a dao, in Dibrugarh, during a ride with his wife. He escaped unhurt as the miscreant was captured immediately by his native orderly. Vetch survived another attempt on his life in 1853 when he was attacked by a tiger while hunting.

European administrators maintained a dignified isolation from the subjects

With their military superiority, the European administrators maintained a dignified isolation from the subjects. But circumstances sometimes forced them to mingle with the local people. Epidemics, fire, earthquakes and the yearly flood were equally dangerous to the rulers  and the ruled; they had no other way but to fight against these natural calamities jointly.

Cholera epidemic in the Brahmaputra valley in 1853 left sixteen thousand people dead only in Sibsagar. Captain Reynolds, the Principal Assistant Commissioner of Tezpur, Mr Strong, the sub-assistant of Nagaon and G. C. Dauble, the German missionary in Nagaon were among the victims.

In the absence of any veterinary surgeon, Captain Holroyd, the Deputy Commissioner of Sibsagar, tried to develop consciousness among the local people. In the November 1853 issue of Arunodoi, he contributed an article where he prescribed some easy methods for the treatment of cholera in cattle. The role played by Holroyd in breaking the spirits of the rebels during the mutiny days in 1857, and the opinion that his hanging order of Maniram Dewan was biased and myopic, sullied his image. Still, he is remembered for his active devotion to the public welfare. This helped him to recreate his own image among the natives, in later times.

The saddest part of the service life of the British administrators was that official regulations forbade them to express their personal difficulties. Excessive labour in unsuitable climatic conditions, caused many of them to suffer from failing health. The isolation caused by his most dignified post haunted Dalhousie all the time. One of his private letters bears his sensitivity to the loneliness of his personal life where he wrote, “How can a Governor General ever have a friend?” Dalhousie was ill almost from the moment he arrived in this country. He knew that it was of no use of his reporting home that he was not well, for, “… it would surely have gone abroad that I am dying.” David Scott, the first Commissioner of Assam took rest only when he was in his death-bed with severe illness. He died in Cherrapunji at the age of forty five. From his death bed he requested his attendants, “I wish you gentlemen to bear witness to the Government, that I am no longer able to conduct the affairs of the country.” Captain Neufville, the -Political Agent of upper Assam, also met with a premature death at Jorhat, when he was only 38 years old.

By virtue, the British officers found happiness in their lot and the decent salary made them bear the hardship and exiled feeling of a colonial life. It would not be irrelevant to mention here that Dalhousie received a yearly pension of rupees fifty thousand from the East India Company since 1856. Approvals and confirmations of their activities by the supreme authority worked as the “best tonic” to those depressed in body and mind.

Appointment of native assistants in the administration gave a local touch to its alien character. This process opened a new way to the Europeans who desired to make their service life enjoyable, by making the place of their work a source of interest and inspiration. The frequent intercourse helped them to keep a dynamic social relationship with the people. In their official proceedings and efforts to prepare reports on the land and the people, the British officers discovered many old inscriptions, religious writings and the Buranjis. With their keen historical sense, the colonisers felt that a “systematic endeavour to arrest the process of destruction of such historical manuscripts as still survived” should be made.

A pioneer in the field of historical exploration of Assam was Sir Edward Gait. He engaged himself in such works when he was a sub-divisional officer in Mangaldoi. With a financial grant from the Government he tried to decipher the contents of the Buranjis written in the Ahom language. In order to translate them into English, a committee of five Deodhais (Ahom priests) was appointed. They were to teach one educated young Assamese, Babu Golap Chandra Barua (afterwards a clerk in the D.C. Court), the Ahem language. The task was not easy as the Deodhais were found not to be proficient in the language. Still Gait let the process to be continued and got all the Buranjis translated. In order to get an accurate picture of the events he made a comparative study of all the Buranjis translated from the manuscripts. To decipher the data written in Sanskrit was also equally difficult. Such attempts were often discouraged by the Brahmins. as they wanted to confine the knowledge. of this sacred language exclusively for themselves. The sense of caste orthodoxy kept the Brahmins unapproachable inspite of the offerings of alluring rewards. Gait showed extraordinary spirit to overcome these difficulties and in the midst of his busy official life, continued to collect the available data for a systematic narrative of the history of Assam. He did the compilation.

David Scott had official interpreters speaking Assamese, Manipuri, Burmese, Lepsa and Tibetan to keep himself aware of the local problems.

In general, the British officers led a literary life. David Scott preserved in his shelves, translations from classical authors. He had official interpreters speaking Assamese, Manipuri, Burmese, Lepsa and Tibetan to keep himself aware of the local problems. Francis Jenkins, the most popular Commissioner of Assam, with his great interest in the history and antiquities of Assam, contributed a number of articles on them to Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal. As official duty gave him little time for such works, he inspired others to devote themselves to subjects like history, mineralogy, topography etc. of Assam. It was at his instance that William Robinson, the Headmaster of Guwahati School compiled a history of Assam. It was published in 1844. The natives were also encouraged by him. Maniram Dewan thus contributed a few articles on the resources of Assam to the Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal.

The cultural heritage of the land impressed the colonisers greatly. Edward Tuite Dalton, the Political Assistant Commissioner-in-charge of Kamrup wrote an article for the Asiatic Society, Mohapurushyas, a sect of Assamese Vaishnavas in 1851. He contributed another article on the ruined temples of Assam. Captain Lloyd, a Deputy Commissioner of Kamrup knew Sanskrit and had proficiency in the Vedas, the Bhagavat Geeta and the Puranas.

As the British officers were inspired by the approvals of the higher authority, they also showed similar appreciation to the native officials. Sometimes material rewards were given to them. Harakanta Sharma Barua, a Sadaramin under the British, mentioned in his autobiography that the Deputy Commissioner of Kamrup being satisfied with his duty as a Serastadar, presented him a life-size mirror, a book named Babu Bilash, a copy of the history of India and one Anglo-Bengali Dictionary.

A significant factor that linked the administrators with the local people was the activities of the missionaries. In 1845, Sindhruam Das, a student of Guwahati Government School was baptized. The missionaries successfully perceived into the minds of the Hindu intelligentsia through their language. However, the educated class was critical about conversion and ridiculed the marriages of the natives to Christians as “commercial wedding”. Such criticism could not desist the missionaries from evangelization.

Attitudes of the wives of the British officers to the colonial life and their reactions to the strenuous life of their husbands found their expression in various manners. Major Simon Frasser Hannay, the Commandant of the First Assam Light Infantry, in his private capacity, gave his brick residence to the missionaries. His wife devoted her time to the missionary causes. She was interested in painting and drawing and thus tried to bring liveliness to their life. She even sketched one bronze Buddhist Lama, dug up near the old palace at Rangpur the August 1854 issue of Arunodoi. Mrs Jenkins was devoted to her husband and with her sociable nature maintained a cordial relation with his native assistants. On the other hand, in 1911, while a British officer was sent on an expedition against the Abors his wife showed her reaction to it as, “It is such a bore that my husband has to go off on that silly Abor expedition to fight these stupid aborigines with their queer arboreal habits.”

The British colonisers witnessed a departure of the Ahom nobility from their traditional social behaviour after the Sepoy Mutiny. The feeling of revenge born out of their humiliation for the loss of political right was gradually substituted by a sense of injustice to ‘the whole population. As no prayer or petition to the authority helped them to regain their privileged status and to maintain the customary distance from their former subjects, the circumstances forced them to link up their destiny with the common people.

After the abandonment of the policy of non-intervention, the principle adopted by the British administrators with relation to Assam was “If we are superior to the natives in every branch of knowledge, it must be our duty to assist them in their enquiry after those things in which we are superior, and which must be profitable for them …” This principle attempted to evict the traditional autocratic rigidity and religious dogma from Assam. The land of caste was slowly converted into a democratic territory under the cosmopolitan influence of Western ideas and thoughts. The people welcomed Europeanization though later on they revolted against their authority.

In spite of the difficulties of the colonial life, the British did not allow their characteristics to be affected by circumstances. The classical remains hidden for ages were discovered. Perhaps the bringing of the people to a profound understanding about their own identity was the greatest compensation of the Europeans to the Assamese for their loss of sovereignty caused by the colonial rule in Assam.

This article was first published in The Sunday Sentinel on 29 November 1992.

Cite this article as: Meena Barkataki, "Life of the British in Colonial Assam," in Explore Assam, February 13, 2021,

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