Ursula Graham Bower belonged to the last generation of those well-bred missy-sahibs who came out to India at the start of the cold-weather season in search of genteel adventure and a husband. But unbeknown both to herself and to those about her, the gawky, ‘well-covered’, Roedean-educated Miss Bower was of that stern stuff upon which empires are built. Having arrived at a frontier outpost of Assam in the autumn of 1937 as the 24-year-old guest of a
friend housekeeping for her elder brother, she set about carving out her own niche as an anthropologist. Her chosen subject was the Nagas, a lose confederation of tribes much given to raiding and head-hunting.
Bower’s timing was spot-on. India’s north-east frontier was the ‘forgotten’ frontier, a buffer zone where few cared what the hill tribes did provided they behaved themselves and acknowledged the authority of the Raj. Thanks to an indulgent Governor’s secretary, Bower was left to her own devices and, in her own words, ‘The further I went and the more I saw of the Nagas, well, frankly, the more hooked I got’. Her forthright character charmed the previously hostile Zemi Nagas of the north Cachar hills to the extent that she came to be seen as the benevolent reincarnation of a priestess-cum-goddess who some years earlier had fomented an anti-government uprising.
Four years later, when the Japanese took Singapore and began a rapid advance through Burma, this friendship proved invaluable. With the support of General Slim, Bower was recruited as the only female member of V Force and tasked with setting up a scouting network from the local tribes. From April 1942 to November 1944 Bower and her 150-strong band of Zemi and Kuki Naga scouts acted as intelligence gatherers and as dispensers of law and order.
Inevitably, the press got to hear of her and stories began to appear in the papers of the ‘White Queen of the Nagas’. Despite her protestations, Bower found herself mythologised as a female Lawrence of Arabia, a beautiful English rose who had led savage, head-hunting Naga war-parties on daring raids against the Japanese.
Fortunately, she kept a diary in which she set down the day’s events in the same no-nonsense style in which she went about her business. It is this diary which forms the core of Vicky Thomas’s biography, the somewhat inappropriately titled The Naga Queen. Bower herself set the right tone when she wrote her own down-to-earth account of her war in her book Naga Path, now long out of print.
It is a most unusual story and one that deserves to be retold. Thomas sets the scene well with her account of the Bower family and the very ordinary middle-class milieu from which this remarkable woman emerged. She goes on to provide a readable account of the war years and the inevitable anti-climax that followed. Yet it has to be said that her subject might have been better served had her biographer stuck to Bower’s diary.
The complexities of the political system that operated on the Assam-Burma border areas before and during the second world war are not easy to grasp today. Even so, it is hard to understand why Thomas chose to locate the Subansiri Frontier Division of the North East Frontier Agency, where Bower’s husband was posted in 1946, in Tibet, or why she should have described Tibet as the scene of their
Rather more seriously, she fails to make clear that the region in which Bower and her Naga scouts operated was not Nagaland but north Cachar, and that this area was never occupied by the Japanese. As Bower herself states at the most critical point of her war, ‘We were left with a handful of troops . . . and had to do the best we could for about a week . . . but the Japs failed to arrive’. This was after she had been ordered to pull back but had chosen, Nelson-like, to disregard the order and request that some weapons be sent instead.
Gallant as they were, Bower’sscouting force played no more than a peripheral role within V Force, which really only came into its own after the Japanese had been turned back at Kohima and Imphal — and after her scouts had been disbanded.
Nevertheless, this is a remarkable story about a thoroughly remarkable woman.