Morung Express review
Among the Headhunters:
An Extraordinary World War II Story of Survival in the Burmese Jungle
Review by Khrienuo Ltu
“Among the Headhunters: An Extraordinary World War II Story of Survival in the Burmese Jungle” by Robert Lyman is a well written narrative and highlights two completely different worlds coming into contact with each other. It describes the encounter of the Nagas with the Westerners who survived a plane crash in the Eastern Naga Hills during World War II in 1943. The Nagas at that time were barely clothed, lived in a world of head-hunting and regarded an aeroplane as a big alien bird. It is this encounter between the Westerners and the Nagas that constitutes the basis of Lyman’s narrative.
This flight, carrying mostly American personnel and a few Chinese Army officers, had taken off from the Allied air base at Chabua, Assam, in Northeastern India, and was intended to fly to China, over the Hump, when it crashed into the Naga Hills. The survivors were rescued by the Pangsha villagers who were hospitable, treated them well and helped them return to the British camp in Mokokchung. The Nagas were in awe of those who survived the ordeal as they believed they came from the sky and this probably was one of the reasons for their hospitality. Lyman brings to light the interaction that took place between the Nagas and the Americans and their experience of staying with the Panghsa villagers.
This book does not view this airborne disaster in isolation but situates the episode in space and time giving due attention to all the actors who either participated or evenly remotely contributed to its making – (i) the Americans, their role in the war and their relations with the Chinese in the period, (ii) the Japanese, their attack on Pearl Harbour, their invasion of Southeast Asia and their victory over the British in Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaya and Burma, (iii) British colonization of the Naga Hills. Lyman as a result builds a larger picture of the turbulent decade of the 1940s.
When reflecting on the World War and events shortly preceding it, he highlights the impact of this phenomenon on the Naga Hills. He details the topography, climatic conditions and the geography of the northeast India and emphasizes the challenges faced by airmen flying over this dangerous terrain. When Lyman deliberates on the nature of British colonization, he speaks of how they came into contact with the Nagas and eventually began to colonize their territories through a series of expeditions and battles in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
According to Lyman, Naga perception of the white man and their interaction with the British changed over time. From being adversaries, they soon developed cordial and friendly relations with their colonizers. In detailing the history of the Pangsha village (Khiamniungan village in Eastern Naga hills) where the American plane had crashed), Lyman notes that it was home to the fiercest warrior tribe which inflicted terror on neighbouring villages and was feared in the region. The British were forced to lead a punitive expedition against this village in 1936. The British in the venture had the support of other Naga villages. Pangsha villagers were defeated as their traditional weapons were no match for the modern firearms of the British and they were forced to sue for peace.
To conclude, this book is an important contribution to the history of the Nagas, especially with regard to the history of British colonial rule in the Naga Hills. Lyman has made a commendable effort to include a glossary and a list of individuals and place names to help readers (especially those unfamiliar with the region or the period) to navigate through the book. The book also makes a significant observation about the practice of slavery by the Pangsha village which although brief might be interesting for many.
“Among the Headhunters” also gives useful information about the involvement of the Panghsa villagers in World War II. This is significant because Pangsha’s role in the conflict is completely absent in history writing about Nagas in World War II. Apart from the apparent importance of the work for individuals studying Naga History, the book will also be useful for those interested in the history of encounter in the colonial period.
September 28, 2016