The Nagas

Hill Peoples of Northeast India

Project Introduction The Naga Database

typescript - memoir of time in the Naga Hills as a Deputy Commissioner, 1919-1920

caption: description of the Semas; revised edition of Hutton's 'Sema Nagas', 1968
medium: articles
person: Hutton
ethnicgroup: Sema
person: Cantlie/ Keith
date: 1919-1920
form: private collection
refnum: loaned by Dr Audrey Cantlie
text: They were mostly in Mukokchung Subdivision and Hutton published his book on the Angamis in 1922 must have written his book on the Semas published in the same year while he was S.D.O. at Mukokchung before going as Deputy Commissioner at Kohima among the Angamis. There were a few Sema villages in the headquarters Subdivision (Kohima) and I heard a few cases but knew very little about their customs nor did any of the Deputy Commissioners before me know anything unless they had been S.D.O. Mukokchung and I know of no such holding of the Mukokchung post. Hutton was the first to understand their language and write it down. He published a second edition in 1968 after his retirement from the Professorship of Anthropology at Cambridge. He says there that the customs of the Semas differed so much from the other tribes in the Naga Hills District that they seemed more akin to the Chin-Kuki tribes in Manipur and the Naga Hills. The pivotal person in a Sema village was the Chief. Nearly all Sema villages were small. If a Sema father had several sons one of them, often the eldest, would take some friends or landless Semas to found a new village. He would be chief and would take as much land as he could get for himself and any surplus he would give to his friends. In return they would do work in his field. There was no community land in the Sema country or indeed in the Naga Hills as a whole. All cultivable land was deemed to be private property. The Chief arranged marriages for his followers and fed them in sickness and old age if they had no family. He had some entertaining to do and needed domestic help.- This he could get usually by taking another wife to help his first wife. They had separate houses to prevent quarrels. I was consulted upon whether a second wife be taken and my test was whether the first wife agreed or objected. The Sema women wore a skirt but nothing above the waist. Such a custom attracts crowds at night clubs in London but after a week in Sema villages one looks on it as a normal feature of life. The Sema girl does not usually indulge in sexual license before marriage and is faithful as a wife.
text: Hutton in his second edition in 1968 says that Sema custom resembles that of the Chins in Burma and of the Kukis in Manipur more than that of other tribes of the Naga Hills. In his first edition portraying the conditions in my time the Semas did not do iron work save that a few were being trained at the Fuller Technical School at Kohima which started at the beginning of the 20th century. I myself witnessed one Sema at the school at Kohima making a Sema dao watched with amusement by the Gurkha instructor as a rarity. But by 1968 a small number of Semas could work in iron in some villages. Women in some villages did no weaving cotton but in others had been taught and had been supplied with cotton looms of the more advanced type provided for plainspeople. Oaths are taken light heartedly and without care whether they are true or false. A tiger's tooth was carried about by me but seldom used as the meaning of the oath is that "if it be false let a tiger come and eat me". But nowadays tigers are scarce and there is little risk of being attacked by one, so the other party to the case is not willing to allow his opponent to win by taking oath on a tiger's tooth, devoid of any expectation of a serious consequence. But a Sema will never take an oath on the Doyang River as he can never go to it again, in the belief that he will drown in it nor will he take oath on the village water pool or spring as he thinks he will be poisoned by it.
text: The book of Hutton is packed full of curious customs many of them intricate and mythical stories abound. Hutton in his introduction to his second edition published in 1968 says it is fortunate that these pagan customs and beliefs were recorded by him. They have become a historical record. What has happened now is unknown to me or to anyone else as nobody is allowed to visit and observe after the rebellion of recent years and because of the guerilla warfare still existing in the newly occupied country east of the old "Inner line". Hutton merely says "Fidem non animam mutant". (They change their faith but not their mental outlook) but he means what I have heard from others that in my days few if any of the Semas became Christians, nowadays all Semas have become Christians. The Congress Government expelled all white missionaries from the Naga Hills as also from the other hills districts in the belief that they helped the British in the "Divide and Rule" policy. The Semas, so I guess, objecting to be ruled by Assamese plainsmen, widened the gap by becoming Christians. There were some educated Semas as the Chief Minister under the Home Rule Government was a Sema. He was murdered last year for reasons unknown to me.
text: They were agile little fellows able to walk great distances. Their main trouble was insufficient land and Mills employed Angami instructors to show them how to construct irrigated terraced cultivation of rice. Some went across the old "Inner Line" boundary and cleared hillside jungle and made villages, so relieving some of the congestion. How many perished in the recent rebellion against India is not known to me. Many went to France in world war 1. My few lines here shows my small acquaintance with their customs.
text: The revised edition of 1968 was published by direction of the Government of Nagaland which now after Independence in 1947 has extended far beyond the District of my day. No mention is made in the introduction of the rebellion and slaughter of recent years since Independence in 1947 in order to avoid any entanglement in recent politics. The statement is made that much of these customs are past history. There were very few Semas in 1922 who were Christians but nearly all had become Christians of the Baptists in 1968. The driving out of all white missionaries by the Assam Government had for its object the bringing of the hillmen under the rule of the plains Assamese. The missionaries and the British District Officers were blamed for encouraging separation of the races. This was done in the Khasi Hills, the Garo Hills and in Mizo (the Lushai Hills). It failed in its object everywhere and to my mind the conclusion is irresistable that the wholesale conversion of the Semas was a measure of self defence against the policy of turning them into "second class Assamese". But Hutton cannot say this in his second edition published by the Nagaland Government who existed on funds supplied by the Government of India. What mixture of old and new exists in the minds of the Ao and Sema converts is unknown as nobody is allowed to enter the hills to make an anthropological study. The conversions must apparently be the work of the Sema Pastors.