William Henry Sleeman

Birth: 1788


Sir William Henry Sleeman (1788-1856) was a British major-general and Indian administrator. He was born at Stratton, Cornwall, on 18 Aug. 1788, was the son of Philip Sleeman (d. 1798) of Pool Park, St. Judy, Cornwall, yeoman and supervisor of excise, and his wife, Mary Spry (d. 1818). In 1809 he was nominated to an infantry cadetship in the Bengal army, and, going to India in the same year, was gazetted ensign 24 Sept. 1810, and lieutenant 16 Dec. 1814.

He served in the Nepal war (1814-1816), when his regiment, the 12th Bengal infantry, lost five British officers by jungle fever, and he himself suffered severely from this ailment. In 1802 he was appointed junior assistant to the governor-general's agent in the Sagar and Nerbudda territories; nor did he again revert to military duties, being henceforth employed in civil and political posts, retaining, however, in accordance with the regulations, his right to military promotion. He was gazetted captain 23 Sept. 1825, major 1 Feb. 1837, lieutenant-colonel 26 May 1843, colonel 5 Dec. 1853, and major-general 28 Nov. 1854.

Between 1825 and 1835 he served as magistrate and district officer in various parts of what are now the Central Provinces. On being posted to the Jabalpur district in 1828, he issued a proclamation forbidding any one to aid or abet in a suttee, but hardly twelve months later a Brahmin widow was burnt alive in his presence, and with his reluctant assent, given when it became evident that the woman would otherwise starve herself to death. In 1831 he was transferred to Ságar, where, two years later, he displayed commendable firmness during a time of scarcity, refusing, though urged to do so by the military authorities, to put any limit on the market price of grain. In 1827 he had introduced the cultivation of the Otaheite sugar-cane in India. But his most memorable achievement was an exposure of the practices of the thugs, an organized fraternity of professional murderers.

In 1829, in addition to his district work he acted as assistant to the official charged with the special task of dealing with this crime; and in January 1835 he was appointed general superintendent of the operations for the suppression of thuggi. In February 1839, additional duties being assigned to his office, he became commissioner for the suppression of Thuggi and dacoity. During the next two years he was actively engaged in investigating and repressing criminal organizations in Upper India. During 1826 and 1835 over fourteen hundred thugs were hanged or transported for life.

One man confessed to having committed over seven hundred murders, and his revelations were the basis of Meadows Taylor's 'Confessions of a Thug,' 1839 (Introd. p. vi). Detection was only possible by means of 'approvers,' for whose protection from the vengeance of their associates a special gaol was established at Jabalpur. In 1841 Sleeman was offered the post of resident at Lucknow, but he refused to accept this lucrative appointment in order that it might be retained by an officer who, as he heard, had been impoverished through the failure of a bank.

In 1842 he was sent into Bundelkhand to inquire into the disturbances that had taken place there, and from 1843 to 1849 he was political resident in Gwalior. Three years after the defeat of the Gwalior troops by a British force at Maharajpur he was able to report that the measures initiated by Lord Ellenborough for the maintenance of British influence in Sindhia's territory had proved signally successful. The turbulent aristocracy had been brought under subjection, and the people, delivered from lawless violence, were able to pursue their avocations without fear of robbery or murder (General Letter, 6 March 1847). On the residency at Lucknow again becoming vacant, Lord Dalhousie offered it to Sleeman (16 Sept. 1848), who now accepted it.

The reports he submitted during a three months' tour in 1849-50 largely influenced Lord Dalhousie in his resolve to annex the kingdom, though this measure was opposed to the advice of the resident, who believed that reforms were possible under native rule [see Ramsay, James Andrew Broun, Marquis of Dalhousie]. In December 1851 an attempt was made to assassinate him. In 1854 he was compelled by ill-health to leave for the hills, but the change failed to restore him, and he was ordered home. He died on 10 Feb. 1856 on board the Monarch, off Ceylon, on his way to England. On the recommendation of Lord Dalhousie the civil cross of the Bath was conferred on him four days before his death.

He married, on 21 June 1829, Amelie Josephine, daughter of Count Blondin de Fontenne, a French nobleman, by whom he had a son, Henry Arthur, born 6 Jan. 1833, cornet 16th dragoons January 1851.

A portrait in oils of Sleeman, by Beechey, is in the possession of Mrs. L. Brooke. It hung on the walls of the residency, Lucknow, throughout the siege. Sleeman wrote: 1. 'Ramaseeana, or a Vocabulary of the Peculiar Language used by the Thugs,' &c., Calcutta, 1836 (cf. Edinburgh Review, January 1837, pp. 357-95). 2. 'History of the Gurka Mandala Rajas' (Journal Asiatic Society of Bengal, vi. 621, 1837). 3. 'Rambles and Recollections of an Indian Official,' London, 1844; reprinted London, 1893 (Constable's 'Oriental Series'). 4. 'An Account of Wolves nurturing Children in their Dens,' Plymouth, 1852. 5. 'A Journey through the Kingdom of Oudh in 1849-50,' London, 1858.

[Memoir prefixed to A Journey through Oudh, 1858; Memoir by Vincent A. Smith, prefixed to Rambles and Recollections, 1893; Calcutta Review, vol. xxxv.; Meadows Taylor's Confessions of a Thug, 1839, Introd. passim; Gent. Mag. 1856, ii. 243; Boase and Courtney's Bibl. Cornub.; Britten and Boulger's English Botanists.]


Stephen Edward Wheeler, Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900, Volume 52. pgs. 373-374.

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