The Noctes and the Americans made contact in the beginning of 1839, when a Baptist missionary and his family decided to live with the Noctes and learn their ways.
After winning the Anglo-Burmese war, the British East India Company annexed Assam in 1826. Fort William, at Calcutta (now Kolkata), was the commanding post for all the activities carried out by the Company in the North East Frontier of India.
The frontier tribes were violent and the Company authorities found it difficult to pacify the warlike tribes. At first, Fort William decided to ignore the tribes, except to conduct punitive expedition against the tribes who undertook raids against the Company’s interests. However, this ignorant policy backfired because the tribes kept on raiding. David Scott, the first Commissioner of Assam, who reported to the Governor of Bengal or Fort William, attempted to “civilise” the frontier tribes by converting the heathens to Christianity. However, Scott’s plan was rejected by the higher authorities at Fort William. Scott’s successor, Francis Jenkins seconded with Scott’s plan, and concluded that the frontier tribes can not be civilised and their country rendered of importance to the Company unless and until they received Western education and converted to Christianity. Fort William authorities did not officially accept Jenkins’ idea too, but they did not actively block Jenkins and allowed him to invite Christian missionaries to educate and convert the heathens.
In the first half of 1835, Jenkins officially invited the American Baptist missionaries, under Rev. Nathan Brown, who were currently working in Burma. The Reverend accepted Jenkins’ invitation and he and his missionaries reached Sadiya, Assam on 23 March 1837. However, Rev. Brown forwarded the invitation, as soon as he received it, to Miles Bronson and Jacob Thomas.
Upon receiving the invitation, the two young missionaries, with their families, left Boston, USA in October 1836. After reaching Calcutta, they all set for Sadiya by boat in April 1837. During their journey, many members of the team fell sick, including Bronson. To get medical help, Thomas took a lighter boat and searched for a health centre nearby, but unfortunately, he drowned when a treefall sunk his boat.
After reaching Sadiya, Bronson and his family moved to Jaipur (now Jeypore), Assam in April 1838 to meet the Singphos. But Bronson found them as extremely difficult people and abandoned them. Bronson had heard of another tribe who lived nearby and who sold salts to the Ahoms and who collected human heads as trophy. He was attracted towards this particular tribe and it was none other than the Noctes of Namsang chiefdom, whom the Assamese called Namsangias.
Unsure of how the Noctes will treat an outsider at first contact, Bronson made his family stay at Jaipur and started his journey for Namsang on January 7, 1839 taking a rubber tent, some gifts and an interpreter with him. On reaching the vicinity of Namsang, Miles Bronson wrote in his diary, verbatim – “The village approach often carefully planted with mangoes and jack fruit trees and bamboos and under the shade of those groves are miniature houses which curtain or cover the bones of their dead.”
At that time, the frontier tribes were suspicious of the Company men, and in their eyes, they were all white men and being an American or a British did not matter. As expected, Bronson was not allowed to enter the chiefdom at once because the Namsangias suspected him to be the spy of the Company, sent to collect information before annexing their territory. Therefore, he and the interpreter had to set up their tent at the side of the chiefdom and waited.
After seven days, the Ngongthun, the Chief’s Council, allowed Bronson to enter. The Khunbao or Chief summoned Bronson, and he told the ruler that he had come to learn their language and to preach the messages of the Gospel. Bronson presented useful gifts and artifacts to the Chief and gained his goodwill. Since the Namsangias traded with the Ahoms, they knew Assamese and therefore, Bronson was able to talk with them in broken Assamese. The Namsangias began to trust him and the Chief even allowed his two sons to teach Bronson the Nocte language. Bronson had to leave Namsang on 29 January 1839 and hurried back to Jaipur because he feared for the safety of his family when the Khamptis, another frontier tribe, revolted against the Company and attacked and killed several Europeans in Sadiya. During his stay, Bronson was preparing a catechism in Nocte and had also built a school building, but had no students yet.
After the Khampti resurrection was crushed, Bronson started his second tour to Namsang on 20 December 1839. On his return, Bronson found out that the Namsang Chief had died and since his heir was too young to rule, the eldest male relative of the deceased Chief was made the ruler. Bronson recollected, verbatim - “the school broken up and the whole population distracted with alarms and rumours of approaching war.” And on 14 March 1840 and this time he had brought his family with him to reside permanently at the chiefdom.
The Acting Chief allotted Bronson a plot on a hilltop, overlooking Namsang, to build a house. This time he planned to build a Chapel and rebuild the school. Bronson’s second visit was actively supported by Charles Alexander Bruce, who is best known for being the Father of Indian Tea Industry, who had given Rs. 600/- to Bronson in the beginning of his journey in December 1838. Bruce even provided Bronson and his family with elephants to undertake the journey to Namsang. Captain SF Hannay, Commandant of the Assam Light Infantry, also gave material support to the project as said, verbatim – “such work would contribute to the British policy of pacifying the Naga* tribes without having to assume administrative control over them.” Before Bronson’s first visit to Namsang, Hannay had also given him a sum of Rs. 240/-. Bronson’s pet project of Romanising the Nocte language was supported by all the local officials and European residents. Jenkins also greatly supported Bronson’s work.
The youths of Namsang were not ready to work and preferred to work in the fields, in the salt-wells and in the Pang, a dormitory for unmarried men where the human skulls were also kept. To enrol girls in school was beyond their comprehension and argued that they were only meant to collect firewood, water and to do other household works.
In addition to that, Bronson had to tackle with the difficulties of communication, inhospitable climate, absence of medical facility and loneliness. In a letter to the authorities at Jaipur, he wrote, verbatim – “We have never been quite as much alone as just now having always had some brother missionary or at least some English person with whom to associate.” After receiving this letter, Jenkins designated Rev. Cyrus Barket and his wife to Bronson’s mission. Rhoda Bronson, sister of Miles Bronson, came along with the Barkers and reached Jaipur on 7 May 1840. But the Barkers were more interested in working in the plains than the hills, so they never went to Namsang to help Bronson. Rhoda reached Namsang on 18 May 1840, and busied herself with the school affairs and engaged herself in studying Nocte.
On his second journey towards Namsang, Bronson brought a printing press to Jaipur from Sadiya. After his first visit to Namsang, Bronson had completed a Catechism in Nocte (16 pages and 300 copies). The book was published in 1839 at Jaipur and it was followed by “A Spelling Book and Reading Lessons in English, Assamese, Singpho and Nocte” (64 pages and 500 copies). Bronson presented the two books to the Acting Chief of Namsang who was pleased beyond words. He wrote two more books in Nocte language: “Vocabulary and Reading Lessons in English, Assamese, Singpho and Nocte” in 1840 (56 pages and 250 copies), and “Phrases in English and Nocte” also in 1840 (30 pages and 300 copies). In an attempt to teach English to the children of Namsang, Miles Bronson’s wife, Ruth Bronson, translated “Worcester’s Primer” into Nocte in 1840. The title of the book is "Natahema Herang Kabanva Nyaprang", which means – “For the children to learn – the first book.” and it has a total of 56 pages.
Miles Bronson and his wife also wrote diaries on the Noctes.
Bronson wanted to teach the Namsangias to cultivate tea on their lands. To persuade them, Bronson assured the Namsangias that the Commissioner of Assam would assist them to get their Barries (meaning lands under cultivation) and would also send up qualified persons to teach them how to manufacture tea and afterwards would secure the same to them as hereditary property and pay them a good price for all their tea.
Salt-wells were like the gold mines of the Noctes and they frequented the plains of Assam to trade them for necessary goods. Hence, they expressed their unwillingness to undertake this profession by saying that “from the old days they had always lived on their salt that God gave them as a means of subsistence and this work suits them and allowed them to rest when they wished and to hunt and sport when they pleased, but tea would require them to labour incessantly.”
Namsang was a powerful chiefdom and it received tribute from multiple villages in the area. Based on this, Bronson suggested that the Namsangias should form a workforce of labours by asking for men from the tributaries, who will do the work. The Namsangias were not convinced and said that they “handed the business of tea to the Ber Sahab (referring to C.A. Bruce) and as far as we have salt, why do we want the tea.”
In reality, the American Baptist missionaries had come to Assam at the invitation of the Company Government, with patronization from the British officials. The British administration and tea planters like C. Bruce had invited them, having political and economic ends, and aided the missionaries both with financial and moral support. Bronson had close relationships with British officials from his arrival in Assam. When he moved to Joypore for the first time, Bruce gave half of his residence over to Bronson for temporary settlement. In consultation with Captain Hannay, Bronson decided to work among the people of Namsang. He had donations from different British officials for the Namsang mission. From a letter of Bronson's, it is known that he received 600 rupees from Bruce and 240 rupees from Hannay in 1838, 50 rupees from Lieutenant Sturt and 200 rupees from T. C. Robertson in 1839, and 240 rupees from Hannay and 60 rupees from Lieutenant Brodie in 1840.
After the British occupation, Jaipur became important for tea cultivation. Bronson saw the prospect of tea cultivation among the adjoining tribes of Jaipur, particularly the Noctes. He seriously discussed the matter with Bruce. He hoped that it would help to civilize the peoples, improve the country, and bind the Nagas to the Company by another strong link. He was also in favor of introducing the cultivation of wheat, potatoes, garden vegetables, cotton, and apples.
At the request of Bronson, Jenkins wrote to T. H. Maddock, Secretary to the Government of India, about Bronson’s plan and requested a small amount for the cultivation:
"I conceive that by a proper cooperation with that gentleman (Bronson) and the encouragement of the Nagas to cultivate the products of their hills and tea in particular, we may hope ere long to see civilization greatly advanced among these Nagas, and our supremacy gradually extend over the hills, without which, and the consequent suppression of the constant feuds amongst the tribes, there seem to be little hope of effecting any great change in the habits of the people, or of our being able to avail ourselves of the great natural resources of the fine tract of mountainous country."
In this letter, Jenkins requested the Secretary to give him permission to allow him to spend 100 rupees in aid of the mission. In his letter to Jenkins dated June 29, 1840, Bronson assured Jenkins that he would do as much possible as he could to successfully carry on "the proposed plan for the civilization of the wild Naga tribes." In the same letter, Bronson informed Jenkins that the Noctes suspected the expansion policy of the government (or the "Onward March"). In his letter, dated August 24, 1840, Bronson wrote to Jenkins that he had informed the Noctes about the tea plantation proposal of the Company, but they did not give consent about the implementation of the plan.
Bronson was convinced that the introduction of tea would somehow make the Noctes more “civilised” and so, when they did not agree to Bronson’s proposal of introducing tea cultivation, he wrote to the Commissioner of Assam, not verbatim -
“Nocte chiefdoms viz. Namsang, Paniduar (now Paniduria) and Berduar (now Borduria) are rich in salt-wells. The economy of these three chiefdoms depended upon the manufacture of salt and then retail the excess to the people of the plains. This arrangement has made them feel economically independent. Therefore, I suggest the Government to take over the management of these salt-wells and employ the Noctes to work at those sites and pay them the due reward for their labour. A more passive action to cripple the Nocte salt trade would be to quickly inject commercial salts from the sea in their economy and that of Assam.”
Bronson’s letter was forwarded to the Government of British India, but in 1841 it instead abolished all duties imposed by the Ahoms on the Nocte salt-wells and gave the tribe full autonomy to run their ancestral property as they wished. As a result, the abolition of salt tax brought peace and goodwill among the Noctes.
Bronson mentioned the process of salt making by the Noctes, verbatim:
“The water was drawn from deep wells by buckets made of leaves, which was poured into large wooden troughs nearby for the purpose of boiling. The Noctes then built a long arch of stone and clay. On the top, thin but single joints of spread bamboo were placed closely together. These held up to three quarts each. The joints were kept full of brine and a large fire was kept blazing under them. When the water boiled away, it turned into salt. Making salt in this process took at least 6 men, wrote Bronson. It took one man to attend the arch, one to bring the brine, and four to gather wood.”
The school opened by Bronson was successful and many Noctes were able to read and write Romanised Assamese and Romanized Nocte. However, no matter how hard he tried, the Namsangias did not accept Christianity. It was mainly because the Namsangias already had a religion since 1700s when their first chief, Lotha Khonbao, a Nocte saint, accepted the Hindu Vaishnavite religion, after the Chief had a number of heavenly visions.
Bronson would have stayed in Namsang for a longer period, but the climate there did not suit him or his family. His sister Rhoda had frequent attacks of fever and forced Bronson and his sister to return to Jaipur on October 2, 1840. After their arrival, they suffered again. There was no medicine and no doctor, either in Namsang or Jaipur. Without proper treatment, Rhoda Bronson died on December 8, 1840. Afterward, Bronson was no longer eager to work in Namsang, moving to the plain areas of Assam. He went to Nowgong (now Nagaon) and opened the Nowgong Orphan Institution in 1843. The continued illnesses in his family brought an end to Bronson’s Namsang mission. Bronson and his family spent 8 months among the Noctes. When leaving the Noctes to their own fate, Bronson lamented and said, “We could not but weep as we turned from the spot – bereft of health – and leaving behind us no one to carry on the labours of love among this perishing people.” Miles Bronson died on 9 November 1883 at Michigan, USA .
Though Bronson was unsuccessful in spreading Christianity among the Noctes, he surely had made some profound impact upon their social life. His accounts on the Noctes of the 19th Century is a goldmine for modern researchers. Bronson remarked, verbatim –
“The change in the people is striking, when I first came up here, men, women and children were running this way and that, leaping down precipices and fleeing to the woods for their lives. Now, they are ready to keep about my house all the day and each one seems desirous to supply me with something which I need. I never received so much hospitality from strangers in a heathen land before.”
Bronson’s unfinished work on the frontier tribes was not picked up until Rev. E.W. Clark came to join the Sibsagar Mission in 1871. In spite of the short duration of Bronson’s missionary work among the Noctes, he achieved more than what was expected. For the first time, Bronson was able to obtain a personal knowledge of the Noctes living on the border of the British territories. His visit enabled Europeans to reside constantly amongst the frontier tribes, especially the Nagas.
A British official named Downs made a remark, verbatim – “If he had been able to remain at Namsang for another year or two, it is likely that the first church among the Nagas would have been established in 1842, rather than 1872. The Nagas remember Clark or Rivenburg today, but it is doubtful that any of these would have had the opportunity to render service they did if it had not been for the foundations laid by Miles Bronson.” In fact, by his pioneering services, Bronson paved the way for other Christian missionaries in the North East Frontier of India.
1. Wikipedia on Miles Bronson.
2. The Baptist Missionary Magazine, February 1841.
3. Descriptive Ethnology of Bengal (1872) by Edward Tuite Dalton.
After the Wanchos massacred 80 men of the British East India Company in February 1875, the Noctes held talks with the Britishers and negotiated for peace and to cease their punitive expeditions against the Wanchos.