ECSAS 2023 – Turin 26-29 July

The Through Road No Whither: Indigenous Peoples and the Northeast Frontier of the British Empire in the Eastern Himalayas, 1830-1880


Ghosh Nabajyoti - Ashoka University, History, Sonipat, India


16 – Re-orienting Borderlands:Beyond spatial fixations in South Asia


 This paper will historicise how, in the 19th century, indigenous peoples, namely the Mishmis and Abors, politically managed the Eastern Himalayas and shaped how the British Empire in India envisioned and, in the end, constituted the North East Frontier. The Empire based their knowledge of the Eastern Himalayas on the information they gleaned from these indigenous people. The close relationship shared between the Mishmis and the Tibetans convinced the Empire that with some indigenous collaboration, a politically and economically profitable thoroughfare through the Eastern Himalayas into China was within reach. However, the Empire’s vision regarding the geopolitics of the Eastern Himalayas was disagreeable to both the Mishmis and the Abors.  Through the 1850s to the 1870s, the Mishmis and the Abors blocked any eastward British advance, through diplomatic non-cooperation and military confrontation, respectively. Unable to steamroll these groups, the Empire decided to seal the Eastern Himalayas off from the plains of Brahmaputra citing alleged reasons of security against the “raiding tribes”, a construct created to hide the inefficiency of the British Empire to contend with these groups.  By analysing the British “medical topographies” and internal communications between different branches of the Empire’s bureaucracy, this paper will demonstrate how indigenous groups protected their notions of the Eastern Himalayas and shaped the Northeastern frontier of the British Empire.