On Thuggery – A Brief History of a Racialised Term

When Boris Johnson condemned Black Lives Matter protesters as ‘thugs’ recently (1), he may or may have not fully realised the racialised significance of what he was doing. Thug – as a term – has a long colonial history which, ironically, further paints the Prime Minister as having a somewhat romanticised view of colonialism (8).

A brief history of the word ‘thug’:

‘Thug’ comes from Thuggee, who were groups of armed robbers who were said to roam the Indian subcontinent during the period of British colonialism in India. These groups of itinerant soldiers would wander from place to place, robbing and murdering travellers on roads and highways, offering their victims as human sacrifices to the Goddess Kali. Part-highwaymen, part-death cult, they were a group to be feared by colonisers, and supressed by the British colonial state.

But they probably didn’t exist.

Modern scholarship on the subject of Thuggee suggests that they were an invention of British colonialists.

‘There is no doubt that thuggee – the system of deceit, robbery and murder practised by the thugs, held responsible by the British for over a million murders in India in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries – inspired one of the strongest and most long-lasting orientalist discourses ever invented.’ writes Alexander Mcfie (2)

Whilst this cultural influence has been incredibly enduring (think of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom) Mcfie questions the veracity of the concept, identifying an archive single-handedly compiled by a William Sleeman, a British East India Company official, that was ‘itself an orientalist construction – that is to say, the product of a deep-seated European inclination to make an ontological and epistemological distinction between the Occident (Europe, the West) and the Orient (the East), which leads Europeans (westerners) to characterise the Oriental as mysterious, backward, degenerate, irrational and inferior.’

Further to this, Professor S. Shankar sceptically writes that Sleeman both ‘discovered’ and ‘supressed’ the Thuggee, and this was done in a particular way as to advance Sleeman’s career (3). Shankar continues ‘Sleeman’s discursive invention of the Thuggee was taken up […] because it meshed well with emerging ideas regarding the shape of the state of colonial India [and] permitted the argument that this state should be a colonial law-and-order state, a state that saw its primary activity as that of restraining a criminal and violent population’.

Sound familiar?

The Tory party have historically described themselves as the law and order party (4). This is exemplified by the Home Secretary Priti Patel (5), who until recently supported the death penalty, and echoed Johnson’s words; describing BLM protestors as ‘thugs and criminals’(6). When we look at the context of the UK during COVID, we see an unprecedented level of policing, and the demonization of the public as irresponsible ‘Covidiots’. But more than this, is the typical characterisation of communities of colour as violent and lawless (7) which, in turn, leads to a justification of policies which are ‘tough on crime’.

To conclude, Johnson’s invocation of ‘thuggery’ is, wittingly or unwittingly, steeped in colonialist history. Just as the bogeyman of colonial India – the Thug – was both racialised and criminalised, so too is the Black Lives Matter movement specifically, and Black communities more generally. The sadistic irony of Johnson’s comments cannot be lost when Britain attempts to reckon with its monolithic history of colonialism.


  1. https://www.thestandard.com.hk/breaking-news/section/6/148751/Boris-Johnson-rips-into-thugs-after-slave-trader-statue-torn-down
  2. Macfie, A. L. (2008). Thuggee: An orientalist construction? Rethinking History, 12(3), 383-397. doi:10.1080/13642520802193262
  3. Shankar, S. (2001). Textual traffic: Colonialism, modernity, and the economy of the text. SUNY Press. https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=g9iDCfufZTUC
  4. https://www.spectator.co.uk/article/the-tories-are-risking-their-reputation-as-the-party-of-law-and-order
  5. https://www.theguardian.com/politics/video/2019/oct/01/the-party-of-law-and-order-priti-patel-addresses-the-conservative-party-conference-video
  6. https://www.theguardian.com/politics/live/2020/jun/08/uk-coronavirus-johnson-says-anti-racist-protests-were-subverted-by-thuggery-live-news-covid19-updates?page=with:block-5ede5d048f08bd75dbb6443b
  7. https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/crime/7856787/Violent-inner-city-crime-the-figures-and-a-question-of-race.html
  8. https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2017/sep/30/boris-johnson-caught-on-camera-reciting-kipling-in-myanmar-temple