Naga Hills and the British
As the British East India Company expanded
its influence in north-eastern India in 1832 it came into contact with tribes
living in the strip of hills running along the eastern side of the Assam
Valley. These tribes were the scantily
but colourfully dressed and decorated Naga people who took heads off opponents
as a sign of warrior prowess. In 1835
Nagas raided some villages in North Cachar and the Company had to do something,
though it did not wish to administer Naga territory. Between 1839 and 1847 seven punitive expeditions
entered the Naga Hills but the raids continued.
In 1847 a British Resident, an Indian police officer named Bogchand
Daroga, was sent to represent the company at Samaguting (ii), but on a mission
to Mozema(iii) where he arrested raiders the Nagas ambushed and killed him and
21 of his men(iv).
Right: Naga 1879-80 obverse
The Company’s response was to mount a
punitive expedition from Assam under Captain Vincent and when that failed due
to the Nagas setting fire to the stores in Vincent’s camp, to send 334 men with
4 guns into the hills in 1849. This
expedition, again under Vincent who commanded men from the Assam Light
Infantry, the Cachar Levy and the Jorhat Militia, was able to inflict severe
punishment on Mozema and Khonoma villages.
The Company then decided that the best policy to take towards the Nagas
was one of non-intervention and the troops were withdrawn in 1857. The Nagas cheered and during the next 12
months made 22 raids into British territory.
Constant raiding then became the norm, British officials being ordered
not to intervene although they wanted to.
By 1866 this situation needed tidying up
and a British Deputy Commissioner, Lieutenant Gregory, was sent as Resident to
Samaguting; he immediately punished two groups of raiders. This stopped raids into British territory and
Naga energy was then expended on inter-tribal feuding. In 1874 Assam was taken over as a Province
and the Angami Naga territory around Kohima became British-administered
territory under Captain J. Butler. As
the British learned more about the Nagas they became aware of the village structures
that featured groups of men and women of similar ages; these age-groups were
all born within five years of each other.
Each age-group had a separate meeting place in its village where
decisions for that group were made; in a village some age-groups might wish to
fight the British whilst others did not.
Village leaders could find common village policies difficult to
formulate because of the strength and often differing attitudes of the age-groups.
British survey parties started entering the
Naga Hills, causing intense unease amongst the Nagas. Survey groups began to take large numbers of
casualties and this led in 1875 to a punitive expedition under Colonel J.M. Nuttall
CB, 44th Sylhet Light Infantry; Nuttall with 308 men of the 42nd
and 44th Native Infantry destroyed the implicated villages and
recovered arms and plunder taken from the survey parties.
Peace lasted for only a year until another
survey party under Captain Butler was ambushed, Butler being killed; the next
day his escort destroyed the villages involved in the ambush. Hostilities ceased again until 1877 when
Nagas raided North Cachar, resulting in a punitive expedition commanded by
Captain W. Brydon, 42nd Assam Light Infantry, marching with 210 men
and 50 policemen to Mozema. The Mozema
Nagas fired on Brydon and were joined by fellow tribesmen from Khonoma and
Jotsoma. Brydon was then in difficulties
as his force was not strong enough and the rough terrain allowed his enemies to
cut his line of communication and constantly harass him. Brydon stockade his force at Mozema and
requested support. Brigadier-General
Nation, commanding the Eastern Frontier District, sent from Shillong 100 men of
the 43rd Assam Light Infantry under Lieutenant MacGregor, 44th
Sylhet Light Infantry.
Above: Khonoma Village on its spur. The attack was from the right up the ridge.
As reinforcements arrived the Khonoma and
Jotsoma Nagas decided to seek terms, not wanting to lose all their stored crops
as had happened to the Mozema Nagas.
Unfortunately the Political Officer with Brydon, Mr. Carnegy, wandered
out of the Mozema stockade one evening and was shot dead by a sentry. Captain Williamson, an Assistant Political
Officer who had marched in with MacGregor, took over the negotiations with the
hostile Nagas and through ignorance of the prevailing local situation he was
far too lenient with the Khonoma and Jotsoma men, letting them off
scot-free. Brydon’s force then fell back
on Samaguting leaving some Nagas believing that they could act with impunity.
Left: Naga 1879-80 reverse
siege of Kohima
The Angami Nagas around Kohima, a frontier
post on the track from Dimapur in the Brahmaputra Valley to the Princely State
of Manipur, were industrious farmers, clearing selected jungle below the 1,500
metres-above-sea-level contour, and terracing the cleared areas for rice and
other crops. Once off the Dimapur-Manipur
track and away from the cultivated areas the terrain was steep with dense
jungle growth. Anybody traversing it was
constantly either climbing or descending almost vertical hill-sides, or else
marching up steeply-banked riverbeds that dissidents could easily ambush. The Nagas constructed their impressive
villages on hill summits and defensive tactics strongly influenced the
architecture, with entrance gates being very vulnerable to defensive volley-firing
and sniping. Naga villages tended to be
permanent in contrast to those of other tribes such as the Kuki and Lushai, who
were more nomadic people.
In 1879 the British Political Agent at
Kohima was Guybon Henry Damant, a studious man who researched and wrote about
many interesting facets of Indian tribal life that he observed. But he was also naïve and rather too sure of
his own judgement and opinions. Damant
had heard that Bengali traders were secretly supplying the hill tribes with old
muskets, and that the villagers at Khonoma had acquired several of these
weapons. On 13th October 1879
Damant set out to visit Jotsoma, Khonoma and Mozema with an escort of 65
constables of the Frontier Police and 21 rifles from the 43rd Assam
Light Infantry. He seems to have been
unaware that the men of these three villages deeply resented the fact that
coming under British administration involved the regular payment of tribute,
the cessation of head-hunting and the provision of labour whenever the British
When passing through Jotsoma a friendly
chief implored Damant not to go to Khonoma, but the chief’s entreaties were
ignored. At Khonoma Damant left his
baggage party at a stream below the village and with an escort climbed up the
path towards the village gate. The heavy
door was closed and Damant called out for it to be opened. In reply a large group of Nagas appeared over
the side wall and fired at close range into the bunched escort, killing Damant
and most of his group. The Nagas then
swarmed down onto the baggage party and cut it up; the remaining escort fled to
Kohima having lost 25 constables and 10 riflemen killed, plus Damant’s
servants, and 19 others wounded.
As survivors trickled in to Kohima the
garrison of 158 men there quickly erected defences, abandoning one of the two
stockades in order to concentrate the soldiers and the 240 non-combatants into an
area that could be adequately defended. Captain
D.G. Reid of the 43rd Assam Light Infantry was commanding but he
appears to have been ill throughout the siege.
Subadar Mema Ram and Jemadar Kurung Singh of the Field Police took
charge under Mr. Cawley of the Civil Police.
Although it was an advanced frontier post, Kohima was not prepared for a
combat situation as Guybon Damant had been unduly confident that there would be
no trouble with the Angami Nagas. The
area surrounding the stockades had not been cleared, the stockades themselves
were dilapidated, and the water supply was an external wooden aqueduct that was
soon cut; also and incorrectly for an advanced post, there were the wives of
Damant and Cawley and the two Cawley children residing at Kohima. The soldiers had rations for a month but the
non-combatants had only 125 kilograms of rice.
Messengers sent by Cawley to Samaguting were intercepted and cut up but
one messenger got through to Wokha just before the Nagas closed the track and
another reached Imphal.
The first Naga attacks on the stockade
began on the 16th October and warriors began using higher ground to
fire into the defences. This prevented
the defenders from drawing water from two weak springs inside the stockade
until a sortie drove off the snipers.
The Nagas then put up a sangar 500 metres from the stockade and for the
next two days attempted unsuccessfully to set alight the defenders’ store
houses. On 19th October Mr. H.M.
Hinde arrived with 43 soldiers of the 43rd Assam Light Infantry and
22 policemen; he had forced-marched from Wokha and by using the cover of
darkness and the assistance of friendly Nagas he entered the stockade without
Warriors continued assembling at Kohima
until several thousand were there, 500 of them with firearms. Organised attacks were mounted, with some
Nagas rolling boulders and logs downhill to make mobile fire positions whilst
others constantly projected flaming missiles onto the roofs of the defenders’
buildings. Inside the stockade the
occupants were now on quarter-rations, and groups of men stood-by every
building to sweep the flaming materials off roofs using long bamboo poles. The European women and children sheltered in
a large oven shed. This state of affairs
continued for ten days, with the Naga earthworks steadily approaching the
stockade until they were only 35 metres away.
In reply the defenders threw up their own breastworks to shelter
marksmen who could pick-off the approaching Nagas.
Eventually only 45 sepoys were fit to fight
from the stockade, sheltered areas were covered in wounded and sick men, and
the police were demoralised. Cawley was
about to surrender if allowed to have a safe passage to Samaguting – a dream
that would never have happened – when a messenger got into the defences to
report that Lieutenant-Colonel J. Johnstone, Political Agent Manipur, was
arriving from Imphal with 2,000 of the Maharajah’s levies, 50 of the Surma
Valley Field Police and 34 rifles of the 34th Native Infantry. Johnstone marched his men in on 26th
October and the Nagas faded away to their villages.
Above: Looking down the British attack route on the northern spur, Khonoma Village
British attack on Khonoma Village
Johnstone quickly exerted a military grip
on Kohima, clearing away both jungle and old Naga earthworks and preparing
proper defences. He ordered the return
of Damant’s head which was brought in and buried, the body having been
destroyed. Johnstone wished to move out
and attack Khonoma immediately, but he was ordered to stay where he was. The government gave General Nation a free
hand to deal with the problem, and Nation formed a column at Piphima (ii) of
all his available troops who totalled 1,135 men. Detachments came from the 42nd and
43rd Assam Light Infantry and the 44th Sylhet Light
Infantry. Two 7-pounder mountain guns
and 100 9-pounder rockets were added from the 16/9 Battery Royal Artillery and
the Royal Engineers, under the command of Lieutenant A. Mansel, Royal Artillery
and Lieutenant E. Raban, Royal Engineers.
The Manipur levies were available to Nation, as were some local levies
recruited from the Kuki tribe.
The Chief Commissioner of Assam decided that
the following policy was to be adopted to the Nagas:
‘Khonoma to be absolutely destroyed and
rebuilding prohibited. Headmen (v)
implicated in Damant’s murder to be captured and executed. All other villages concerned in the rising to
be subjugated, and complete disarmament of firearms enforced. Terms of submission should include payment of
substantial revenue in grain and nominal revenue in money, together with
contribution of labour. Dismantling of
village walls and defences left to discretion of Colonel Johnstone.’
On 14th November Nation ordered
Nuthall to advance on Secuma Village which was found it to be deserted; Nuttall
occupied it and then was immediately attacked from the surrounding jungle by
Nagas who fought violently until the main body of the column arrived on the
following day. Meanwhile Major H.M. Evans,
43rd Assam Light Infantry, was attacking Sephema Village, which he
rushed and destroyed on 16th November. The column halted at Secuma until the two
mountain guns arrived. These guns were
carried by porters and manned by men of the 44th Sylhet Light
Infantry under the supervision of three British gunners. More firepower was provided by the rocket
detachment, but as the elephant carrying the rockets had fallen down a hill the
accuracy of the rockets was affected by the shaking-up that they had received.
Leaving a firm base at Secuma Nation
advanced on Khonoma on 22nd November. The British were to be surprised by the
strong defences of the village, which were constructed along a narrow
ridge. Loop-holed stone walls and forts
built on terraces covered the approaches to the village, and beds of sharpened
panji sticks were liberally planted to slow down attackers. Large piles of rocks were positioned ready to
be rolled downwards.
AT 0600 hours on 22nd November
1879 Nation’s force advanced on Khonoma, attacking it up the northern
spur. The mountain guns and rockets engaged
Naga outposts and then moved forward to come in range of the village. Nation led the direct attack up the spur with
Major C.R. Cock, Deputy Assistant Adjutant-General, Eastern Frontier Section, Captain
Walker, Major Johnstone and Lieutenant Raban, whilst the advance on the right
was led by the Adjutant of the 44th Sylhet Light Infantry, Lieutenant
R.K. Ridgeway, and Lieutenant H.H. Forbes.
The British had greatly underestimated both
the strength of the physical defences and the number of Nagas with firearms
facing them. Both attacks failed, Major
Cock died of wounds, Subadar Major Narbir Sahi was killed, and Nuttall was
wounded. Lieutenant Ridgeway reached a
gateway and slowly forced it open but he then received a severe gunshot wound
in his shoulder, nevertheless he maintained his post and forced the door back
until men could get through; his gallantry was to be acknowledged by the award
of the Victoria Cross. However Forbes
was mortally wounded (iv) and the men who entered the doorway were either killed or forced to flee. As dusk was approaching Nation decided to
hold the ground already gained and to attack again at dawn.
At dawn scouts found Khonoma deserted, the
Nagas having moved higher up the ridge to the Chaka (viii)
Spurs on the northern slopes of Hophera Mountain where strong defences had been
constructed. During the battle this Naga
escape route to the higher ground to the south had been blocked by detachments
from the 43rd Assam and the 44th Sylhet Light Infantry,
and they had repulsed two Naga attempts to gain the higher ground, but at dusk
the detachments were withdrawn due to a message being misunderstood. Nation occupied Khonoma and garrisoned the
main fort inside the village. Apart from
the officer casualties already mentioned 44 sepoys had been killed or wounded;
Naga losses were believed to be double that figure.
Left: Lt H.H. Forbes' grave at Secuma
Naga hostile actions did not cease but were
reduced to ambushing and skirmishing.
Other villages that had supported Khonoma were punished, but the strong
Chaka Spurs fortifications were initially only blockaded, as Nation did not
want to lose more men by attacking them before further reinforcements arrived.
However the blockade could be avoided as was shown in January 1980 when a group
of 55 Naga warriors left their Chaka position, moved through Manipur territory
and attacked the Baladhan tea estates in North Cachar. Only seven of the Nagas carried firearms but
they killed the tea estate manager, Mr. Blyth, and 16 of his workers, plundered
and burned down the buildings and then returned to Chaka with their trophies;
this raid caused intense civilian panic throughout North Cachar. The final Naga action of the campaign was an
attack on the Nichuguard stockade when two sepoys were killed and six others
were wounded. But by the end of March
1880 the Nagas were ready to agree terms as they could see that preparations
were being made for an attack on their Chaka fortifications. Firearms were surrendered and reparations
made by the Khonoma Nagas who were dispersed and resettled elsewhere, although
later this policy was modified to allow a return to Khonoma. Some minor skirmishing and intrigue followed
but eventually those Nagas under British administration settled down and during
the Great War a Naga Labour Battalion was recruited for service in France. During World War II the Naga tribe was one of
Britain’s staunchest allies during the 1944 Japanese invasion of India.
In 1906 or 1907 a memorial to those
officers who fell during the 1879 attack on Khonoma was set up on the highest
point in the village by Sir William Reid KCIE, then Deputy-Commissioner at
Awards for the 1879-80 Naga Campaign
Although the attention of most people in
India was focused on the Second Afghan War (1878-80), several gallantry awards
were made to soldiers who had fought at Khonoma.
The London Gazette of May 11th
1880 notified the award of the Victoria Cross to Captain Richard Kirby Ridgeway
of the Bengal Staff Corps:
gallantry throughout the attack on Konoma, on the 22nd November, 1879, more especially
in the final assault, when, under a heavy fire from the enemy, he rushed up to
a barricade and attempted to tear down the planking surrounding it, to enable
him to effect an
which act he received a very severe rifle shot wound in the left shoulder.
For conspicuous gallantry at the action
at Konoma, on the 22nd November 1879, on which occasion when a
detachment of the regiment was advancing in skirmishing order to attack a
breast work held by the enemy, he rushed ahead under a heavy musketry fire and
showers of spears, and was the first to climb over the breastwork and jump into
Jemadar Rajman Rai, Havildar Jumon Sing Thakur and Sepoys Kubberaj
Karkie, Kubernidi Tewari and Madan Sing Bandari, all of the 44th
Sylhet Light Infantry, also received the Indian Order of Merit 3rd
gallantry at the attack on Konoma, in the Naga hills, on the 22nd November
Distinguished Conduct Medal
In 1890 Acting Bombardiers John Watts,
Harry McAndrew and Thomas Portman, all of the Royal Artillery, were awarded
Distinguished Conduct Medals: ‘In recognition of their
gallant conduct at the attack on Konoma on the 22nd October 1879,
during the Naga Hills Expedition’. The
medals were presented by Her Majesty Queen Victoria.
A clasp NAGA 1879-80 was
authorised for the India Medal. The
qualifying dates were later extended to commence with the 1875 expedition.
Above Left: The Damant memorial panel Above Right: The memorial panel to Lt. H.H Forbes, 44th Gurkha Rifles.
Above Left: The memorial panel to Major C.R. Cock. Above Right: The memorial panel to Subadar Major Nurbir Sahi, 44th Gurkha Rifles.
(Gratitude is expressed to the eminent Naga historian
Charles Chasie of Kohima who has advised on aspects of this article, and to the
Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge for the use of their images of the India Medal.)
SOURCES: (most economical shown)
Abbott, P.E.: Recipients of the Distinguished Conduct Medal 1855-1909. (J.B. Hayward
& Son, Polstead, Suffolk 1987).
Ryan D.G.J., Strahan G.C. and Jones J.K.,
compilers: Historical Record of the 6th
Gurkha Rifles. Volume I, 1817-1919. (Private Publication 1925).
Shakespear, Colonel L.W.: History of the Assam Rifles. (Naval
& Military Press reprint).
Whitehead, John: Far Frontiers. People and Events in North-Eastern India 1857-1947.
(BACSA, Putney, London 1989).
[i] The modern spelling of Khonoma has been used, but other locations
are spelt as on the attached map, and any differences in Naga spelling or
naming are detailed in the endnotes below.
[ii] Known to the Nagas as Piphema.
[iii] In fact Naga society did not have Headmen, but village leaders were
appointed from those men who had displayed leadership skills within their
[iv] Forbes’ grave, complete with headstone, is in Secuma Village.
[v] Known to the Nagas as Thephegai.