Anglo-Khasi War: Tribal Warriors & their Weapons
FEATURES | SHILLONG | Sept 18, 2019:
By Dr Valentine B Sohtun
Much has been studied and written about the Anglo-Khasi War (1829-1833) and the main focus of the subject has always been the causes that led to the conflict between the East India Company and the Khasi Tribal states and the exploits of U Tirot Sing Syiem, the Leader of the Khasis during this war.
This Article chose to digressfrom the exploits of the English or the Khasis and focus more on the militarycomposition and weapons of both the parties as there have been little or noaccounts on such.
It must be understood, that at that time, the British Forces in India are not the Crown's forces but the East India Company's forces or putting it in simple language, the armed forces in India then did not belong to the King of England but to the East India Company, and does not swear allegiance to the British Government.
- The British Infantry consistsof the1st & 2nd (later the 43rd and 44th) Assam Light Infantry, which consists mostly of Shans, (Burmese) and local Assamese people as well as other Assam tribals.
- 13th Native Infantry consists mostly of Hindustani soldiers (Which mutinied at Lucknow in 1857)
- 54th Native Infantry consist mostly of Hindustani soldiers (Mutinied at Delhi in 1857)
- 44th Sylhet Light Infantry initially recruited Manipuris but later recruited Gurkhas. (The regiment later became the 44th Meerwara Rifles and eventually became the 8th Gurkha Rifles)
- Some Khasis were recruited by the British from among the Khasi States allied to the British and from those who espoused its cause to fight against their own tribesmen.
The only recorded involvement of any personnel of this particular regiment was Lt. Bedingfield of the Bengal Artillery who became the first casualty of the war when the Khasi stormed the sanatorium at Nongkhlaw on 4th April 1829. The use of artillery by the British may not be ruled out, but it must be taken into consideration that the terrain of the region would have been an obstacle to move large guns into the conflict zones. However, there are records of the Bengal Artillery Rocket troop serving in Assam, during the Anglo-Burmese War, the same unit was later equipped with 6 and 12 pounder guns, which were small light guns used for mountain warfare. Maybe elements of this unit were involved in the campaign.
There are no records of the use of cavalry by the British Forces in this war, despite it having a large number of cavalry regiments, largely because the warfare took place in a rugged mountainous terrain covered with dense jungle which disallows cavalry tactics. However, it may be possible for individual mounted soldiers or warriors to be deployed (noting that infantry officers do mount on horses while on a march) but the actual deployment of regular cavalry may be ruled out.
Apart from theabove regiments and units, there were units of non-combatants called theSebundy Corps.
The exact numbers of the soldiers from the above regiments is unknown as no records were found. As Scott in his memoirs disclosed only the number of small parties which are usually platoon or company sized. Larger sized detachments were simply called 'Strong Force". Similarly, number of the dead and wounded is also not known. But it can be safely assumed that the total number of the British soldiers would have been of brigade size i.e. about 3000-4000 during the whole duration of the war if we look at the involvement of the regiments.
Military composition of the Khasi Forces
The Khasi states, on the otherhand, lack a standing army, let alone a modernised one. Most Khasi Syiems' domaintain armed followers but nothing as such to be considered an army. In timesof war, the syiem would request the villages under his jurisdiction to provideman power which usually are able-bodied men from the villages. Thus, the tribalwarrior was the backbone of the Khasi fighters.
The Khasi warrior was not acquainted with the modern concept of warfare. Military drill and discipline is unheard of. So, despite personal courage and martial skill, one of the reasons the Khasis were defeated in this is simply because they were not trained in modern military tactics and thus could not hold their own against a modern army. Unlike the British forces, the Khasi warriors were not divided into different branches all warriors fights individually, and not as a cohesive unit. The concept of military formations was unheard of. This may have its advantages in skirmishes but would falter in pitched battles. So basically, the Khasi fighters fought in a manner of the light infantry, with all sorts of weapons, ranging from bows and arrows, to firearms for the more affluent warriors.
The lack of a standing army doesnot mean that the Khasi states have no artillery, though they were not used inthat manner and that they were small in number. Despite the lack of firearms, there are villages which possessed cannonor two, some of these were locally manufactured and some were captured from theearlier encounters with other armies like the Mughals or from each other.
The Khasi states do not possescavalry unit, this is perhaps because the terrain and the dense jungle disallowthe development of the cavalry. Moreover, the local Khasi ponies, though sturdyand hardy, are used as pack animals rather than for any military purposes, andthey are also expensive to maintain which means that only the affluent canafford to own one. That being said, there is a possibility of mounted warriorswho used their steeds for ease and speed of transportation rather than forfighting.
Taking into account all of theabove, one can say that the Anglo-Khasi war is largely an Infantry affair withmost regiments and units of the British Army belonging to the infantryregiments, and that the lack of a standing army among the Khasi states meansthat they never developed a standard military force and thus did not develop andhad to depend on village warriors who mostly fought on foot.
Uniforms and Weapons
The East India Company, despite maintaining a military force independent from the Crown forces, was very much influenced by the British Military that it adopted the British pattern of uniform for its soldiers.
For the Line Infantry, (Heavy Infantry) the uniform was a distinctive regimental red tunic, white shirt, white breeches, shoes and caps, or turban, and coloured facings depending on the regiments. During the Anglo-Khasi war, this red coat uniform would stand out as such that it became easy target for the Khasi warriors to attack the soldiers.
For the light infantry, however, it's a different case. Trained as skirmishers, the Light infantry units wore a different uniform from that of the line infantry. The red coat and the bright facings were abandoned for more practical uniforms, usually to blend in with the surroundings. It is unlikely however for David Scott, who then personally commanded a detachment of 200 soldiers of the Assam Light Infantry, to have worn a uniform, as he was a civilian administrator.
As for the Khasi states, there is no records of them ever wearing a uniform, which is not surprising as there is no standing army as such among the states which therefore negates the need of a uniform, and would wear his usual clothes. However, it may be mentioned that unlike what has been commonly shown that Khasi warriors wear a long Jainboh (Dhoti) which almost reached to the ankles which would have snagged in the bushes and the brambles during warfare, a Khasi warrior, for practical purpose, would have worn his Jainboh up to his upper calves just below the thighs. This would give him freedom to move around fast enough, and would have worn gaiters made of cloth or straw in a manner of many Khasi farmers then, to protect him from bushes and brambles.
The Standard issue weapon of theBritish infantry was the No.2 India Land Pattern Brown Bess Musket, a 1.40mlong flintlock musket with a bore of 0.75 inch and firing a 0.69 lead ball froma 99cm barrel. A Spike bayonet is also used in conjunction with the musket forclose quarter combat. Officers carry a sabre and a flintlock pistol of the samepattern as that of the Brownbess musket.
It is recorded in his own memoirs that David Scott himself is usually armed with a double barreled gun apart from a sabre (Sword) wherever he goes. His double barreled gun could easily be mistaken for a double barreled musket, but taking into account Scott's physical structure and his health condition, i.e. he is a stout man weighing around 13-15 stone (82.5kgs -95.2 kgs) and that he has palpitations, it is unlikely that he would drag a heavy double barreled musket which weigh around 20 pounds or 9kgs (A standard musket weigh around 10 pounds).
Moreover, as heusually travels on his mule, a 1-metre long musket would be too cumbersome totraverse. Moreover, since it is most likely to be a flint lock gun, as metalcartridges and percussion caps were not invented then, loading a musket on amule's back is an ordeal, so much so with a double barreled which would betwice as heavy, and would take twice the time in loading. Again it could have been mistaken for ahowdah pistol, a favourite weapon of many European officers in India and Africa.But in one incident, Scott gave away the description of his gun as a 'fowlingpiece' which means that his gun is what one would call a shotgun in modernterms, which is shorter in length and lighter than a standard musket but longerthan a howdah pistol and fires buckshots. The fowling piece is a favouritewith the cavalry units for its devastating fire power at close range; its multishot ability and its ease of loading because of its shorter barrel.
It must be remembered, however, that at this point, metallic cartridges were not invented yet, and the powder and bullets /pellets were loaded separately from the muzzle which renders all guns being smooth bored, (Rifles were still at its infancy then and used only by special units such as the rifle regiments), and operated by a flint lock mechanism.
There arecertain disadvantages to the Brownbess musket, however, largely because it wastoo slow to load. A well trained soldier can fire only about three rounds perminute. The musket is also not accurate as it is a muzzle loader and the ballis not tight enough to fit around the groves, which reduce accuracy to a mere75 yards though its deadly up to 150 yards. Thus its effectiveness is reducedto a large extent that only by firing in volleys can its effectiveness beenhanced. The weather also plays foul to its effectiveness increasing the rateof misfires or when the gunpowder is wet, it simply does not function at all.In such occasions, however, the bayonet comes in handy.
Despite the disadvantages of theBrownbess Musket, it was a superior to small number of firearms used by theKhasis, largely due to its numbers, and mostly because it was an advancefirearm and also because of the superior quality of the gunpowder used comparatively to what the Khasis had.
The Khasis, on the other hand,relied principally on Bows, arrows and other weapons which were not affected bythe weather. The Khasi used two types ofbows during an event of war, the "Tiehbahor Tieh thma" and the Tiehpondeng which are large longbowsmade about the size of an average man (about 5'2inches -5'4inches) made out ofdense bamboo.
The arrows used were barbed arrows, (Nampliang), Rusty arrows (Namsarang) usually poisoned. David Scott in his memoirs recorded the death of a European Doctor by the name of Dr. Beadon, who was killed by a barbed arrow. He also recorded the use of fire arrows (Namding) by the Khasis against the British installations.
Khasi bows are self bows, as theyare made from a single material. They are neither composite nor compound bowswhich are affected by climatic change. For the same reason, the bow had anadvantage over the musket whose powder can be affected by humidity. Apart fromthat, the bow also had a higher rate of fire in comparison to the musket. Whilea trained musketeer fires three rounds a minute, an archer can let loose about12 arrows for the same period of time. The range of such bows differsconsiderably depending on the strength of the archer, the construction of thebow itself and the weight of the arrow and the placement of its fletching. Inthe hands of a resolute man, the range could be somewhere from 150-180 yardsand perhaps 200 yards. The disadvantage is that the bow penetrating and killingpower is inferior to the musket, unless the arrows are poisoned or hit a vitalorgan, while the musket can maim or kill an enemy instantly.
Apart from the bows and arrows,the Khasis used a variety of spears, swords and shields, the spear being usedfor both thrusting and hurling. Of the swords, the prominent one being a longtwo handed single bladed sword called Waitlam/Waitsumwhich can be more than 5ft long with a 36 inch blade. Short swords wereused in very close quarter combats. The main feature of these swords is thatthe blade and handle are of the same single piece of material.
P.R T Gurdon had described these swords as being useless for offence because they were being made of the same material; one differs because, though the handles of these swords are as what Gurdon describes, the usefulness is not hampered because the handles are wrapped in cane strips, a specimen of this cane strip wrapped sword can be seen at the State Central Museum, Shillong.
Furthermore, photo specimens ofsuch swords whose handles are made of brass/bronze were recorded by Mr. DonbokT Laloo, in his book "U Pantah" Perhapsother swords would have simply been wrapped in cane, or leather or even clothstrips to ease the handling during a battle.
It is also said that thesword of the U Tirot Sing had a handle made of gold and that the sword wasgiven to one of his relatives who removed the gold and threw the iron away.That can, however, be dismissed because such a sword if it had existed, wouldbe too expensive to be used in war and would be used for ceremonial purpose, assuch it would have been mentioned byDavid Scott or by other European officers who were at Nongkhlaw for years atthat time, about the existence of such a sword. Since there are no records ofTirot Sing having ever wielded such a sword, it can be dismissed as mere legendat best.
For defence purpose, the Khasi used a large circular shield made mostly out of animal hide, usually buffalo skin or rhino skin. Iron shield were also used in large numbers by the Khasis to protect themselves from musket balls. David Scott himself captured about 40 of these iron shields in one of the battles. There is no record of the Khasis using any other type of armour apart from the shield.
David Scott memoirs record thelack of firearms among the Khasis, but history tells us that the Khasis were nostrangers to firearms; this seems contradictory as British Records show thatwhen Tirot Sing surrendered, he came with a retinue of eleven musketeers apartfrom thirty archers and spearmen.
Again, Gurdon in his book states that the Khasis were familiar with the art of making gunpowder and that they were no strangers to the use of firearms. The rare usage of firearms by the Khasis can be explained by the fact that though they are manufactured locally, they are expensive and are of inferior design to those of the British forces and they have severe limitations that would limit their performance in war.
Called ka suloi khyndew, the Khasi firearms lacked a stock, the barrels were short, and they also lacked afiring mechanism. In short, they were simple iron tubes filled with gunpowderand lighted with a match. (By match it means any material that is simply usedto light a fire), the design of which were used in Chinaand Europe in the 13th and 14thcenturies. The specimens of such guns can be seen at the State Central Museum, Shillong.
These guns fires an assortment ofmaterials like arrowheads, stones, clay pellets, and iron fillings called "U Shara" as ammunition, unlike theBrownbess musket which fires a lead ball. Such guns are adversely affected in the wet climate of the Khasi Hillsand thus are used mostly for hunting rather than for warfare. Moreover, the productionof firearms was expensive that only a few can afford to own one.
The Gunpowder used by the Khasiswere locally manufactured by grinding charcoal, sulphur and potassium nitrateusing mortar and pestle which results in coarse grains in which the burningrate greatly varies from one batch to another. The EIC, however, uses theCorned Gunpowder which is manufactured in ordinance factories. These cornedpowders were ground by adding water on the mixture and then left to dry andformed into cakes. These cakes were ground again which results in more roundedgrains giving the powder even rate of burning and firing of the weapon
As mentioned earlier, the use of artillery by the British may or may not be ruled out as there is no records of the use of artillery guns in this war, It is however possible that a few batteries of artillery units equipped with small infantry support guns or mountain guns like the 2 pounders, 6 pounders or even 12 pounders cannons may have been deployed largely to support the infantry rather than to conduct bombardments on their own. For such a purpose, the projectiles used could have been round shot for destroying forts or fixed emplacements, the canister shot, the grape shot, or carcass shot for antipersonnel use.
As for the Khasi states, theyposses very few cannons which are mostlyhand cannons which are about 2ft long and has a 1inch or 2.5 inch bore. Theyare very much similar in operation to the smaller Suloi Khyndew they are in fact the larger version of the suloikhyndew. It is not known if these hand cannons are the legendary Ramshyngki cannons of the Khasis. Thespecimens which are at the State Central Museum,does not have the names cited. Largerartillery cannons about 7ft -9ft long with a 3-5inch bore. Gurdon mentioned inhis book, 'The Khasis' about the presence of such cannons in at Langkyrdem,Kyndiar and Mylliem villages as well asin Jaintia hills. Again, the specimens of such cannons are found at the State Central Museum.
The Anglo Khasi was very muchguerrilla warfare in which speed and mobility was the essential element. Suchcannons are heavy to be towed in a rugged terrain, and thus are of no use foroffensive purpose. They would need a large body of men and animals to carrythem, the assets that the Khasi states could not afford, they'd get stuck in themud and if would be useless if the powder gets wet. Such a weapon would be ahindrance in a highly mobile warfare. They would rather be used for defence ofa fort or a village if used at all.
One of the causes of the defeatof the Khasis was the lack of military infrastructure and manpower. The BengalPresidency Army was the largest in South Asia;it had around 200,000 men in all more than twice the entire population of theKhasis at that time. (The Khasi population was estimated to be at 82,000 approxas per records of A.J Mills in 1853). During the war, about 10,000 warriorsfought against the British. And it would be quite difficult to getreinforcements. The British ordinance factories produces thousands of musketsand tonnes of ordinance weekly, while the Khasi local forge would take twoweeks to produce one firearm, and a few kgs of gunpowder. The production of other weapons such asswords, spears, and arrowheads, were also limited due to the rural character ofthe forges. Moreover, the materials need for production of such weapons wasseverely limited because of the war. Some materials needed for ordinanceproduction can be obtained only from the British held territory, which imposedsevere restrictions on such items
The Anglo Khasi war was one of those early 19th century conflicts between a modern military and a technologically backward society. The war was not fought between two nations and the military were not national armies. It was fought between a mercantile company and its private army versus an economically backward society whose military is quite primitive and unsuitable in modern warfare. Though not technically a war, the political impact it had on the Khasi states later, bringing them under the East India Company and later, the Crown's rule, was not less than that of one, as treaties were formulated and signed by the Khasi chiefs, territories were seceded, and political and administrative powers were brought under the control of the British. The war paved way for modernisation to enter this remote part of the world.
(Dr Valentine Sohtun is a former Lecturer at Martin Luther Christian University (MLCU) and former Asst Lecturer at Pine Mount School)