Coupon Accepted Successfully!


Colonial Rule and Tribal Lives

As the British established political power in India and enforced laws, the lives of the tribals changed dramatically.

Change was apparent on many fronts, namely

  • The status of Tribal chiefs
  • Position of Shifting Cultivators
  • Forest laws and its impact on tribals
  • Trade and its problems
  • Labour
  • The status of Tribal chiefs

First, let us see the position of the Tribal chiefs before the British established power.

  • Many tribal chiefs were important people.
  • Tribal chiefs had economic power and had control over their territories.
  • Some chiefs had their own police force and laid down rules on land and forest management.

The position of Tribal chiefs after the British established power.

  • The powers of the tribal chiefs changed after the British came to power.
  • The chiefs did not have any administrative powers, they were only allowed to keep their land and rent them out if they wanted to.
  • The tribal chiefs had to pay tribute to the British, and discipline the tribal groups on behalf of the British.
  • The chiefs lost the authority they had earlier enjoyed amongst their people, and were unable to fulfil their traditional functions.
  • Position of Shifting Cultivators
  • The British did not like people moving from place to place, as was the case with shifting cultivators.
  • They wanted tribal groups to settle down and become settled cultivators as it would be easier to control and administer people who were in one place.
  • The British found it easy to collect revenue from people who were settled in one place and maintain records on them.
  • Land Settlement Act which was enforced by the British defined the rights of each individual to a measured piece of land, and fixed the revenue for that piece of land, which had to be paid to the British. The British enforced this law as they wanted a regular revenue source from the states.
  • Some peasants were declared landowners; others were declared tenants.

    The tenants had to pay rent to the landowner who in turn paid revenue to the British. The British were not able to control the Shifting Cultivators completely. Water was scare in many areas and the tribals had to move from place to place so that they could grow crops where water was available. So the jhum or shifting cultivators in north-east India insisted on continuing with their traditional practice. Facing widespread protests, the British had to ultimately allow them the right to carry on shifting cultivation in some parts of the forest.

Jhum Cultivators of North-east India

  • Forest laws and its impact on tribals

    Forest laws introduced by the British affected the life of the tribals in a big way as the livelihood of the tribals depended mainly on forests and forest produce.


  • The Forest laws gave the British total control over the forests which were now considered as Government property.
  • Some forests were classified as Reserved Forests as they produced timber which the British wanted.
  • The tribals were not allowed to move freely in the forest and practice Shifting cultivation. They were also not allowed to collect fruits or hunt animals.

The restrictions imposed by the forest laws forced the tribals to leave the forest and go to other places in search of livelihood. This created a problem for the British, as they could not find the labour force to cut down forest trees that were needed to make railway sleepers, which was in great demand in all European countries.

So, to ensure a labour force, the British gave the tribals small patches of land they could cultivate for their livelihood and in return the tribals had to work for the British forest Department.

The British thus established Forest villages and got a regular supply of cheap labour.


Many tribals were against the Forest Laws and rebelled against it. Some tribals also rose in open rebellion against the British.

Let us have a look at 2 of the rebellions against the British

  • Songram Sangma in 1906 in Assam
  • The forest Satyagraha of the 1930s in the Central Provinces.
  • Trade and its problems

Tribals trading their wares

Traders and moneylenders started coming to the forests to buy forest produce. The tribals were given cash for the products and offered wages for jobs they did for the British. This change in system was new to the tribals.


Let us have a look at the silk growers during the 19th Century.

  • Indian silk was in demand in European markets.
  • The fine quality of Indian silk was highly valued and exports from India increased
  • The East India Company encouraged silk production to meet the growing demand.
  • The Santhals tribe in Jharkhand reared cocoons.
  • The traders dealing in silk sent in their agents who gave loans to the tribal people and collected the cocoons.
  • The growers were paid Rs 3 to Rs 4 for a thousand cocoons and it was sold at a cost that was five times more. The middle men made huge profits. The silk growers earned very little.
  • Many tribal groups saw the market and the traders as their main enemies.

                                        The Santhals Tribe - An Overview

A Santhal Tribal
Santhals are the third largest tribe in India. They are mostly found in the states of West Bengal, Bihar, Orissa, Jharkhand and Assam. Santhals belong to the Pre Aryan period. They were the great fighters during the British regime in India.


They wagged war against the Permanent Settlement Act enforced by Lord Cornwallis in 1855. During the late 1850s, Santhals hero Sidhu had accumulated around 10 thousand Santhals to run a parallel government against the British government.

Santhals speak Santhali language, which belongs to the Austro- Asiatic language family. The livelihood of the Santhals revolves around the forests they live in. They fulfil their basic needs from the trees and plants of the forests. The also cultivated silk warms.

An animal sacrifice to the Gods was a common practice among the Santhals to appease the Gods and Goddess.

Santhals mainly celebrate the Karam festival which falls in the month of September and October.

It is the tradition among the Santhals to grow the Karam tree outside their house after the purification process.

Karam Tree


During the late nineteenth century, tea plantations started coming up and mining became an important industry. Tribals were recruited in large numbers to work the tea plantations of Assam and the coal mines of Jharkhand. They were recruited through contractors who paid them miserably low wages, and prevented them from returning home.

The tribals who had to go far away from their homes in search of work had a difficult time during the British regime.

Test Your Skills Now!
Take a Quiz now
Reviewer Name