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Confessions of a Thug
Philip Meadows Taylor
Oxford University Press, 557 pages

Confessions of a Thug
Philip Meadows Taylor
Philip Meadows Taylor was born in 1808 in Liverpool, England. In 1824 he went to India to apprentice with a Bombay merchant. When the firm went bankrupt, he became a lieutenant in the Nizam of Hyderabad's army and learned Persian and Hindi. He was transferred to the post of Superintendent of Police for the south-western districts of the Nizam's territory, where he began to uncover evidence of the mass murders and robberies committed by a band of Thugs. On the basis of hundreds of confessions of captured Thugs turning "state's evidence," Taylor wrote his first and most famous novel, Confessions of a Thug (1839). Its bestseller status eventually led him to a secondary career as an author of novels about India: Tipoo Sultan: A Tale of the Mysore War (1840), Tara: A Mahratta Tale(1863), Ralph Darnell (1865), Seeta (1862), A Noble Queen: A Romance of Indian History (1878). From 1841 to 1853 Taylor served as official Indian correspondent of the London Times. In 1832 Taylor married Mary Palmer, a "half-breed" Moghul princess, who died in 1844. His administrative work culminated during the Indian Mutiny of 1857-58, when with limited soldiery he maintained order in Berar, and thus helped the rebellion from spreading into the Nizam's domain. Failing health and poor eyesight led him to return to England in 1860, where he pursued his literary career until his death in 1876.
Past Feature Reviews
A review by Georges T. Dodds

Confessions of a Thug is first and foremost an absolutely terrific Adventure novel. For a lot of people the term literary classic, particularly when associated with an ancient staid institution like Oxford University, may suggest endlessly tedious novels they were forced to read in high school or college -- the result: instant avoidance. However, in the case of Philip Meadows Taylor's Confessions of a Thug one has, besides a hugely influential novel, a novel that remains an adventure-thriller that could never be accused of being dull or tedious. You'll say a 160-year-old novel isn't really topical in today's world of gang crime, serial killers and dangerous religious cults. Well, meet Ameer Ali, Thug, confessed though non-penitent murderer of close to 750 people, adventurer, free-booter, leader amongst many in a close-knit secret religious community practising ritual mass murder under the auspices of the goddess Bhowanee (a.k.a. Kali). Remind you a bit of movies like Gunga Din or Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom? Maybe you see a hint of Rudyard Kipling or Talbot Mundy?

I'll get to all the reasons why Confessions of a Thug is a great literary work in the next paragraph, but first I'll tell you why it deserves a review here and why you'll want to read it. Taylor's book is bursting forth with exotic adventure -- no wonder it was a huge bestseller in 1839. We first meet Ameer Ali when his family is slaughtered by Thugs, and only the Thug leader's intervention and adoption of Ameer save him from a similar fate (this becomes quite ironic when an adult Ameer's attempt to replace a lost son are shattered by Thuggee code). He quickly forgets and soon whole-heartedly joins the group. He is initiated into the beliefs, tactics and roles of the Thug: the sotha who lures the unsuspecting victim(s) into a trap, the bhuttote who performs the ritual strangulation, the lugha who has gone ahead and prepared the bhil (grave). He quickly catches on, and rises swiftly in the ranks through his bravery. Whether he is fighting tigers, double-crossing corrupt officials, leading Thug operations or advanced army troops bent on plunder, releasing damsels in distress or avoiding love-struck ones bent on seducing him, trading stolen goods for gold or silver, Ameer Ali is always in the thick of adventure and intrigue. Ali is a straight-arrow kinda guy (albeit a mass-murderer), tempted in various ways, but strong enough to be a man of honour and to punish the wicked and perverse when appropriate. He and his associates are much more than simply cold-blooded killers; they are emotional men who can be devastated when forced to kill a child or innocent young woman and who are ready to risk everything to punish evil sadists and torturers (of which there were plenty).

Confessions of a Thug was certainly not the first English novel set in India, but it was the first to refrain from treating Indian culture and society from a racist, Euro-centric point of view. From all appearances, while Taylor himself was an almost Elliott Ness-like character in terms of cleaning up the Thug problem in 1830s India, he was apparently fairly open-minded about other cultures (he married a half-Indian princess, something that must have been fairly controversial in 1832). Besides the plentiful peripheral details of early 19th century Indian culture, what makes Confessions of a Thug such a good read is that, unlike many authors of his era, Taylor keeps his comments in Ameer Ali's narrative very brief, and on a strictly secular level. Taylor places very few value judgments on Ali's religion or Thuggee code, except inasmuch as they contravene British order and security concerns. Ameer Ali and his Thug associates aren't depicted as moral degenerates, barbarians, psychopaths, or sadistic thrill-seekers -- they are men with a code of honour, a respect for leaders, and a ritualized practice of mass murder in which they believe they are tools of the goddess Bhowanee -- they are simply agents of Fate. One might argue that this is a convenient way of rationalizing mass murder, but the Thugs made their kills cleanly by strangulation and/or breaking the neck of their victims, and unlike some of the non-Thug characters portrayed in Confessions of a Thug, did not practice torture, sadism or rape, and seldom killed women or children. Taylor wonders at, and cannot explain within his own societal context, Ali's pride and evident lack of remorse, but nonetheless doesn't moralize about it. He even presents Ali as a loving, kind and respectful husband and father. Taylor also finds it remarkable that for all the violence associated with the Thuggee cult, Hindus and Moslems co-exist within it with no animosity.

Confessions of a Thug is a novel, but from all accounts the book is more a docudrama or expanded police report than a novel -- but then truth is often stranger and more exciting than fiction. Patrick Brantlinger, in his introduction, finds that Confessions of a Thug has much more in common with Norman Mailer's The Executioner's Song (about executed murderer Gary Gilmore) than with bestselling novels of arch-criminals by Taylor's contemporaries like William Harrison Ainsworth's Rookwood (1834) and Jack Sheppard (1840). When I first sighted Taylor's book, I hesitated in picking it up since much of the late Gothic era literature I had read in the past, while not without its rewards, was painfully melodramatic, with page-long sentences of arcane construction and tortuously slow-moving plots. Taylor's book, on the other hand, is presented in an unambiguous manner with linear (chronological) plotting, and a simple, straight-forward English, which any reader of modern imaginative literature would have absolutely no trouble with.

If you derive any enjoyment from adventure literature whatsoever, you'll want to read this book. Once you've read it, then you'll realize what a debt authors like Rudyard Kipling, Talbot Mundy, Mark Channing, "Ganpat" and others have to Taylor. You'll also realize that great adventure novels transcend the time they were written in. However, be forewarned, you may be remain nervous around Indian men with colourful scarves offering directions.

Copyright © 2000 Georges T. Dodds

Georges Dodds is a research scientist in vegetable crop physiology, who for close to 25 years has read and collected close to 2000 titles of predominantly pre-1950 science-fiction and fantasy, both in English and French. He writes columns on early imaginative literature for WARP, the newsletter/fanzine of the Montreal Science Fiction and Fantasy Association.

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