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Manipur Mischief (Review)

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William Wright. 2018.
Manipur Mischief: Rebellion, Scandal, and the Dark Side of the Raj, 1891
Amberley Publishing
ISBN 9781445671933

Sources and general approach
The conflict with the independent state of Manipur in 1891 was a disastrous event for the British Raj. British inference after a palace coup and the abdication of the king Sura Chandra a year earlier resulted in the calamitous defeat of force of Gurkhas and the execution of five high ranking British officers. After the inevitable retribution the Crown Prince, Tikendrajit Bir Singh, and the senior military officer, Thangal General, were publically hanged. William Wright claims to have uncovered ‘secret’ archival material that leads him to reinterpret the conflict. In particular he argues that the Political Agent in Manipur, Frank Grimwood, and his young wife, Ethel Grimwood, bear part of the responsibility because of their ‘orgies, sexual infidelities, miscegenation, and implied paedophilia’ (p. 8). In fact there is very little that is new here: the two previous books published on the event were well aware of the scurrilous assertions promulgated by Viceroy Lansdowne’s entourage. These accusations will be dealt with below. Firstly, some general comments on Wright’s book.

Wright has a somewhat dated approach to colonial history. The author has investigated his archival sources reasonably adequately, but he does not appear to have paid much attention to the important transcripts of the trials of the princes and Thangal. Where the archival sources are silent Wright feels free to fill in the gaps either with (sometimes fanciful) speculation or from popular biographies and reminiscences of British officers, which is problematic. Manipur, in its culture and history, was (and still is) quite distinct from mainland India (it did not become part of India until 1949). This has led Wright to make several false judgements about Manipur (especially about the place of women, see below). Furthermore, too much space is given to extraneous excursions into aspects of the Raj (especially its buildings) which have no relevance to the conflict itself. Most of the photographs and illustrations are unacknowledged.

Wright clearly has very little understanding of Manipur. He does not reference the book which is the foundation of Manipuri studies even today, long serving political agent William McCulloch’s Account of the Valley of Munnipore (Calcutta: Bengal Printing, 1859), nor does he seem to be aware of the large amount of historical research by Manipuris during the last few decades (Jyotirmoy Roy’s book, on which Wright relies, first published in 1958, is often inaccurate and well out of date). His spelling of Manipuri names (no doubt taken from colonial writing) is mostly inaccurate (and includes the strange use of ‘Methei’ for ‘Meetei’ (the official form) or the commonly used ‘Meitei’. There are too many factual inaccuracies, unreferenced controversial statements, and unidentified quotations. Wright’s style, too, is disconcertingly journalistic and sometimes descends into half-mocking (he describes Charles Grant, the only real hero on the British side, as a ‘cheeky’ and ‘a plucky fellow’(!) and some of his comments on the Manipuris betray more than a hint of colonial distain).

Unproven assertions against the Grimwoods
The real aim of the book, to give the both Grimwoods a thorough character assassination, comes out explicitly in Chapter 12 (The Dark Side of the Raj), though there are broad hints of this agenda throughout. Wright’s case against them is based on the allegations of some of Lansdowne’s staff, especially Henry Mortimer Durand and John Ardagh. These can be traced directly back to a submission to Durand by Prince Paka Sana (not Pucca Senna, as Wright has it). He was a younger brother of Maharajah Sura Chandra, who accompanied him into voluntary exile after his abdication. Ardagh’s splenetic ‘secret’ note is usefully printed in full as appendix B (one wonders whether it was marked secret, and was not included in the official archival files of the events, because it is potentially libellous). According to it Frank Grimwood had spent his time ‘amusing himself’ with ‘native girls’ and taking obscene photographs of them, and he and W. H. Simpson (a friend of the Grimwoods’s who visited Imphal from time to time) regularly engaged in sexual activities with a daughter of Thangal. The fact that these accusations originated from Paka Sana (and also, it is claimed, from an undocumented letter of exiled royal women, who would almost certainly have been illiterate) should have alerted Lansdowne’s men (and of course the author) to their intrinsic improbability. It was no secret that Paka Sana was a bitter enemy of Tikendrajit Bir Singh and of Grimwood, who was on good terms with him. But Ardagh and others found it opportune to grasp at any straw which would alleviate the pressure on their master, the Viceroy, for responsibility for the disaster, and proceeded to milk Paka Sana’s scurrilous accusations to the full. Wright goes along with these charges, describes Thangal’s daughter as Frank Grimwood’s ‘mistress’, and even postulates that in his younger life ‘sensuous’ Frank must have used prostitutes because he lived in London! Ethel Grimwood fares just as badly. She was accused by Ardagh of absenting herself from her husband for long periods (which facilitated Frank’s licentious behaviour) and herself engaging in an incestuous affair with her step brother, Alan Boisragon. Ardagh also ridiculed the claims that Ethel had acted with courage under fire and tended to the wounded (contrary to the clear evidence of surgeon Calvert and Edward Lugard, who were actually there). Whether Lansdowne’s men were really naive enough to believe all this is perhaps debatable. But truth became a casualty of expediency. Paka Sana’s accusations provided ammunition for a character assassination of both Grimwoods in the desperate attempt to get the Viceroy off the hook on which his incompetence had impaled him.

In fact there are much simpler explanations for these rumours. Ethel was absent from Manipur for three Summer months in 1890, when she said she ‘went to the hills’. This quite obviously means she escaped the heat of the unhealthy monsoon period in Imphal, probably at Frank’s suggestion. It is furthermore quite natural she should spend time in the company of her stepbrother, whom she had known from childhood, who was also in Shillong. There is nothing remotely improper here. Frank’s supposed lewd photography has an equally simple explanation. The custom in Manipur at the time was for women to wear the phanek (long skirt) covering the breasts and fastened under the armpits; pre-pubescent girls, however, wore the phanek around the waist, leaving the top part of the body bare. It is easy to understand that those unfamiliar with Meetei custom might mistakenly conceive taking pictures of such children as unseemly (the second paragraph on page 204 is Wright’s own erotic fantasy). Nudity was never permissible (as events in 2004 dramatically demonstrated). In any case the princesses would always have been accompanied by relatives or servants on expeditions to the Residency. The supposed ‘affair’ with Thangal’s daughter is equally incredible. It presumably originates from the fact that women in Manipur were not sequestered as in India proper, but played a large part in public life and freely interacted with menfolk without any suggestion of impropriety (a Bengali feminist anthropologist, Manjusri Chaki-Sircar, as late as the 1980s could still express amazement at the freedom of Manipuri women). William McCulloch (who was legitimately married to a daughter of a previous Maharajah) remarked favourably on the virtuous behaviour of Meetei women (there is in fact no word for ‘prostitute’ in Manipuri, a loan word has to be used). A further point: there is no trace in Manipuri oral tradition of any such allegations against the Grimwoods. This is remarkable since the affair of John Maxwell (who became Political Officer after the defeat of Manipur in 1891) with a daughter of Sura Chandra lived on in oral memory and even inspired a well-known novel in Manipuri.

Conclusion
No doubt sexual content helps to sell books (which is presumably why this book has such a salacious title). But it cannot be said to be a serious contribution to understanding the events in Manipur in 1891. The author’s conspiracy theory of ‘orgies, sexual infidelities, miscegenation and implied paedophilia’ is a chimera based on his failure to interrogate and evaluate his sources critically, and on his defective understanding of Manipur in the 19th century.

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