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Phillip Meadows Taylor
Book Review with commentary

19th Century India was largely feudal; much of it was under the boot of British imperialism. Terror in the contryside was rampant. Queen Victoria heard of a first-hand account Philip Meadows Taylor was writing about terror in India and asked for a copy of the manuscript before publication. It was entitled "Confessions of a Thug", pronounced "Tug." Its principal character, Ameer Ali, was one of the most notorious of the Indian Thugs, who were equivalent to a guild of pirate bands on land complete with passwords by which one group recognized another. They captured and killed travelers for booty. They spread terror for centuries before being wiped out by persistent and classical police methods over the course of a decade.

Taylor's narrative was unique, rare even today, in that he gives us a profound and full profile of the terrorist personality, thinking, and beliefs. Taylor achieved this by writing in a monologue format quoting the central character, Ameer Ali, verbatim. Taylor skillfully blends the proud braggart, tender father with the cold-blooded, deceitful killer into an all-too-human composite. Ali typically strangled his victims with his roomal (very large handkerchief). Taylor's story of how a closed society can distort a personality is as illuminating as it is gut-wrenching. At the same time it is also part memoir and romanticized. One has to read other sources to get a feel for what is Taylor projecting and what is Ali's memoir. This does not detract from the power of his book and the insights that can be derived through its reading.

Taylor wrote his book as an inside look to make the British public aware of the terrorism/murder threat that had been endemic in India. The Crown had already responded in concerted fashion, and the Thug era came to its end during the decade of 1828-1837 just before Taylor's book was published. The British used the time-proven method of reducing a sentence-to death-by-hanging to life in prison in exchange for information. From the few, they were able to nail the many. It worked, but it still took a decade working through the local Indian authorities. "During the 1831 to 1837 period, over three thousand Thugs were hanged, transported, or imprisoned." See Preface by Nick Mirsky in the 1986 Oxford reprint of Taylor's classic: "Confessions of a Thug". According to the account of Ali Ameer, the British also attacked Thug villages, killed Thugs who resisted, dispossessed their families, and dispersed survivors.

See Ameer Ali for a fuller account of the life of Thuggery and how innocent youth become "radicalized" -- to use a modern term.


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