What makes people interested in genealogy and family history? Do they want to find out where they came from and what sort of lives their ancestors lived? Are they interested in where their ancestors fitted into Australian or local history? Or is there some artefact which has been passed down through generations of their family which sparks the initial interest and makes them want to find out more about its owner?
Personally I find that a name, an address on an old letter, a photo can often be enough to start me wondering who this person was and why this item was important to them or their descendants. So when I discovered an old letter dated 10 December 1893, addressed to ‘My dear little Sibyl’ and sent from Sadiya, Via Dibrughur, Assam, India, I was completely intrigued and needed to find out who the author was. It seemed such a fascinating address and it made me think of the times when I was young when my mother read us one of the stories from Rudyard Kipling’s Jungle Book or the Just So Stories. For a child from the bush, I found stories such as the abandoned ‘man cub’ Mowgli who is raised by wolves in the Indian jungle very exotic and mysterious.
The letter was among an assortment of letters, photos and other memorabilia which were given to me after my aunt died. She had obviously prized this letter as it was protected in acid free paper but not before it had deteriorated badly. I knew the recipient, Sibyl, was her mother and my grandmother, but who had lived at this exotic address?
There were a number of clues to help me in my quest. On the left hand corner of the letter is a crest with the motto Nunc aut nunquam (Now or never). It did not take me long searching the net under British crests and mottos to discover that this was the motto of my grandmother’s family, the Needhams. Next I examined the signature at the end of the letter and found that it had been written by Francis Jack Needham in December 1893 to his niece Sibyl Needham who was living near Warwick in Queensland. Francis was my great, great uncle and I knew nothing about him except that his brother Francis Henry Needham (my great grandfather and yes another Francis!) had been a midshipman and had come to Queensland in the mid nineteenth century to try his luck on the Darling Downs.
Francis Jack Needham was born in December 1842 in Britain (I think he was born there although my grandfather had been born on Jersey in the Channel Islands) and was the third son of Francis Henry Needham and Fanny Hubbard. Francis entered the civil service in 1867 and spent most of his life in India which is where many of his British compatriots lived following the rapid expansion of British power throughout India in the 19th century. After the Indian Mutiny in 1857 the British Government had nationalised the East India Company and took over its Indian property, administrative powers and its army. This gave the British government control over almost all of India by the middle of the 19th century and it became known as ‘the jewel in the British crown’.
He entered the Police Service (not sure whether this was in India or Great Britain), became a British officer in the Bengal Police and was posted to the Eastern Himalayan region of Assam (the north-eastern state of current India) to serve as an assistant Superintendent of Police from 1876. In 1882, the Chief Commissioner of Assam, Mr Elliott, wrote that:
..a suitable officer should be selected to conduct our relations with the Abors in particular, and also with all the tribes bordering in Sadiya. Such an officer, if intelligent in his instincts, quick in his sympathies, and a good linguist, might in the course of two or three years obtain influence on the frontier, and might from the vantage-ground use any opportunities that may occur to opening friendly communications and convincing the Abors not only of our strength to resist and our unwillingness to attack, but also of the advantages they may gain by the markets we can open to their produce… [but]… there are not many points of contact between us and a hill tribe that lives chiefly by hunting and fishing and that the best consummation would perhaps that they should let us, and we them, alone as much as possible’.
Mr Elliott proposed the creation of a new position of Assistant Political Officer Sadiya; a political agent was an officer of the British civil administration and they were often spies for the British Government! Elliott decided that ‘…Mr. J. F. Needham of the Bengal Police…’ was a suitable person to fill this position and he was appointed in 1882. In this position he had orders to cover ‘… all matters relating to affairs on the Amor, Mishmi and Singpho-Khampti frontiers, and the arrangements regarding the location of the frontier outposts, their supplies, the patrolling between them, etc. as well as the political relations with the Abors and Mishmis will be carried on through him as soon as he has acquired sufficient local knowledge’.[i]
It appears Francis was deeply interested and already becoming familiar with the customs and the language of the Miris and Abors which is probably why he was appointed. He was posted to Sadiya which had been garrisoned by detachments of native infantry and military police and was the base of a chain of outposts. There was a bazaar, to which the hill-men beyond the frontier —Mishmis, Abors, and Khamtis—used to bring down rubber, wax, ivory, and musk, to barter for cotton cloth, salt and metal goods. It would have been, and still must be, a beautiful but cold place surrounded by the Himalayan Mountains.
Between December 1885 and January 1886, Francis set out on an expedition from Sadiya to the Zayul valley of Eastern Tibet mainly to discover the source of the Brahmaputra River. He was accompanied by Captain E. H. Molesworth, the Commandant of the Lakhimpur frontier police battalion. Normally the British Government discouraged political officers from making journeys outside the administrative boundary of British India but this was considered an exceptional case so permission was granted. They were able to travel 26 miles into Tibetan territory but were stopped at the village of Rima by local authorities. They claimed that they were the only Europeans who had gone into Tibet via the Brahmaputra River with the exception of two French missionaries who were killed. Francis was able to establish the identity of the Sanpo and Dihong Rivers, the source of the Brahmaputra River and increase the knowledge of the Mishmi people. His diary is still available, at a price, through Abe Books.[ii]
My aunt had also kept another well-worn piece which was a typed out copy of his obituary which had appeared in The Statesman, 14 November 1924. In it the writer explained that ‘In those days explorers had none of the aids, scientific and personal, that it is now possible to obtain. Needham plunged into the jungle with scarcely any instruments, no prepared foods, no trained assistants, and with only a few coolies’. It appears that his main purpose in life was exploration and ‘Ostensibly a police officer, who ought to have been compiling statistics and filling in returns, he somehow made for himself opportunities for exploration work…[and]…when planters on the North Bank said Jack Needham was “away again”, they meant he was away with a few coolies. Presently he would return travel-stained and muscular, and for the moment satisfied’. ’
Needham wrote at the time ‘I am in the proud position of being able to settle satisfactorily a great geographical question.’[iii] He was awarded the Gill memorial medal (given by the Royal Geographical Society for excellence in geographical research and fieldwork) in 1887 and made a fellow of the Royal Geographical Society[iv] in 1889 for penetrating into the Zanjul Valley and into Tibet from Assam. He was also invested as a Companion, Order of the Indian Empire.
In this letter to his niece, Francis relates the story of an incident that had just taken place ‘Some time last April they (the Abors a tribe who lived between Sadiya and Tibet along the west and east banks of the Dihang River) seized two boats belonging to the Miris (another tribe)…’. He continues the story which unfolded over the next few months until he says that in November he ‘received the news that the boys had been waylaid & murdered in cold blood while on patrol. This was close to the spot where I had interviewed in rather wet conditions the Abors’.
Unfortunately the letter is very difficult to read, and there are parts missing, but he is telling the story of an event in November 1893 where three sepoys (Indian soldiers serving under British or other European rule) were murdered in the area. Another sepoy was killed on 23 December 1893 (after this letter was written) and Francis Needham strongly recommended action against the offenders.
He left Sadiya in 1905 after 23 years service. Interestingly in family genealogy charts there is no record of him marrying or that he had any children. But in my research I found evidence he did have a son and he was in India too as ‘On 23rd June 1910 Mr J. Needham, Sub-divisional Officer, Mokokchimg (a son of F. J. Needham of Sadiya fame) reported a raid by the Konyak village of Chinglong from across the newly annexed Konyak terrritory…’. [v] It appears the way he handled this incident was ‘…unjustifiable as it was certainly against orders…’ and he was transferred from the subdivision.
Francis Jack Needham had spent his life exploring above the Brahmaputra River and writing a treatise on the grammar of the Miri, Singpho and Khamti languages. He had been encouraged to learn their languages particularly that of the Abors when he was appointed to the position at Sadiya and he certainly did just that. Reprints are still available for the1886 editions by Frank Needham of Outline Grammar of the Sha’iyang Miri Language: As Spoken by the Miris and Outline Grammar of the Singpho Language: As Spoken by the Singphos, Dowanniyas and Others, Residing in the Neighbourhood of Sadiya.
His obituary from The Statesman explains that after retirement he had one final ambition which was to ‘…discover if the alleged Brahmaputra falls existed or not…In 1911 he believed that although he had retired the opportunity had come. But the expedition marched without him, for the Government said his active days were over.’
Francis stayed in India on his retirement living at Shillong in Meghalaya which is next to Assam. He lived ‘in circumstances which are not without a great pathos…practically forgotten by the present generation of residents’. The obituary made the point that ‘as a rule Englishmen who have made great for themselves in India cannot bear to remain upon the scene of their past exploits’. But apparently Jack Needham could not tear himself from Assam because if ‘he could not live amongst his beloved Singphos he would at least be surrounded by types of the Mongoloid races’. The obituary did not mention that he had a son who was also in India. His final days were not only lonely but embittered as he regretted that he had not gone back to Britain
This letter has led to me finding out about a great, great uncle who I would not have known existed except through a name on a genealogy chart. Of course now I want to find out what happened to his son and who his mother was but that will need to wait. I wonder what Sibyl made of her uncle’s letter and whether she found the names of strange tribes and her uncle’s adventures as exotic and mysterious as I had when my mother read us the story of Mowgli.
[i] Robert Reid, Governor of Assam 1937-1942), History of the Frontier Areas Bordering on Assam, 1883-1941, Delhi, Eastern Publishing House, First published 1842 reprinted1983, p. 182-3.
[ii] https://www.abebooks.com/Needhams-Journey-along-Lohit-Brahmaputra-Sadiya/5110851319/bd Accessed 12 August 2017.
[iii] Robert Reid, Governor of Assam 1937-1942), History of the Frontier Areas Bordering on Assam, 1883-1941, p.185
[iv] The Royal Geographical Society was founded in 1830 to promote the advancement of geographical science. In the early years it was particularly allied with colonial exploration in Africa, India, the polar regions and central Asia
[v] Robert Reid, Governor of Assam 1937-1942), History of the Frontier Areas Bordering on Assam, 1883-1941, p. 146.