Study notes on Colonialism and Tribal Societies

By Neha Joshi|Updated : March 23rd, 2020

How did Tribal Groups Live?

By the 19th century, tribal people in various parts of India were engaged in a variety of activities such as subsistence farming, herding, and forest product selection. Some were cultivators, some were hunters and gatherers, some herded animals, some settled down and cultivated food.

Jhum Cultivators:

  • Jhum cultivation also known as shifting cultivation was done on small patches of land, mostly in forests.
  • Treetops were cut down by cultivators to allow sunlight to reach the ground and burn the vegetation on the ground to clear it for cultivation.
  • Once the crop was ready and harvested, they switched to another field and for several years, left that field fallow.
  • This method of cultivation is called the simplest type of cultivation and has taken the forest resources as the loos.

Hunters and Gatherers:

  • Tribal groups lived by hunting animals in many regions and collecting forest produce.
  • Hunters and gatherers were living in the Odisha forests at Khonds.
  • For medicinal purposes, they used many woodland shrubs and plants and sold forest goods on local markets.
  • Tribal groups also needed to buy and sell to get the products that weren't manufactured in the locality. This resulted in their dependence on traders and money-lenders.
  • Tribals were primarily based on the barter system.

Herded Animals:

  • Many tribal groups lived by herding and rearing animals and gathering forest produce.
  • They were pastoralists who moved with their herds of cattle or sheep according to the seasons.
  • The Van Gujjars of Punjab hills and Labadie of Andhra Pradesh were cattle herders. The Gaddis of Kulu were shepherds and the Bakarwals of Kashmir reared goats.
  • Later by British laws grazing on forest land was stopped and it became the reason for discontent for tribals.


  • Instead of shifting from location, many tribal groups had started to settle down. They started using the plow and slowly acquired control over the land on which they worked.
  • Few tribes like Mundas considered the privileges of the clan over the property, and believed that the land belonged to the entire clan.
  • British officials saw settled tribal groups such as the Gonds and Santhals as more civilized than hunter-gatherers or seed shifters.
  • Extraction of enormous income from the tribals was also achieved, and in the event of non-payment of income their lands were taken away and it became the cause for discord.

Why Colonial Rule impacted Tribal Lives?

Under British rule, the lives of tribal groups changed. Their religions were tried to be modified by Christian missionaries and forest-related laws had a direct impact on their traditional rights.

What Happened to Tribal Chiefs?

  • Tribal chiefs had enjoyed economic power before the British came, and had the right to govern and control their territories.
  • Under British rule, tribal chiefs ' duties and powers changed as they were allowed to keep their land titles but lost administrative rights there, and were forced to follow the laws made in India by British officials.
  • British laws took over the rights and power to manage the forest area.

What Happened to the Shifting Cultivators?

  • The British were dissatisfied with the shifting cultivators, so control of a stable community was easier.
  • The British decided to provide the state with a daily source of revenue and set up land settlements.
  • The British attempt to settle jhum growers in the north-eastern part of India was not very successful as the land was not fertile enough.
  • The British had to grant them the right to continue shifting cultivation in some parts of the forest, after facing widespread protests.

Forests Laws and Their Impact:

  • Tribal community life was directly related to the forest.
  • The British expanded and proclaimed their jurisdiction over all forests as state property.
  • Reserved forests were for the processing of wood that the British needed but the forest settlement was settled within the forest for the purpose of cheap labour.
  • People were not allowed to move freely in reserved forests, or practice jhum cultivation.
  • This law impacted tribals ' very existence as they were largely dependent on forests and their goods. Most tribal groups protested against the laws of the colonial forests and rose in an open revolt.

Trade Problems:

  • During the 19th century, tribal groups noticed traders and moneylenders invading forests offering cash loans to tribal people and asking them to work for salaries.
  • It led to the imprisonment of tribals in the endless debt cycle and intensified their life's suffering.
  • During the 18th century, Indian silk was in demand in the European markets.
  • The Hazaribagh Santhals reared coconuts. In their agents, the traders spent giving loans to the tribal people and collecting the cocoons.
  • The coconuts were exported to sell at 5 times the price in Burdwan or Gaya.
  • Different crops were grown by tribals and taken over at lower prices by traders and sold at higher prices on the market. It left little to survive of the tribals.

The Quest for Work:

  • Much worse was the plight of the tribals who had to go far from their homes in search of work.
  • The tribals were recruited in large numbers by low wages contractors to work for tea plantations and coal mines, which discouraged them from returning home.

A Closer Look:

 In different parts of the country the tribal groups rebelled against law changes, limits on their activities, new taxes they had to pay and abuse by traders and moneylenders.

Tribal uprisings:

  • Kol uprising–Santhal uprising 1831-32–Munda uprising 1855 –Bastar uprising 1895-1900–1910.
  • Birsa Munda: Started a movement under Birsa Munda's leadership.
  • British officials were concerned as the Birsa movement's political aim was to push out missionaries, moneylenders, Hindu landlords, and the government and set up a Munda Raj with Birsa at its head.
  • Birsa Munda was arrested in the year 1895.
  • In 1897 he was released and toured the villages to get help. He urged people to destroy' Ravana ' (dikus and the European), and under his leadership to create a kingdom.
  • Birsa died of cholera in 1900 and the movement disappeared.
  • Consequences of Uprisings: British tightened the rules so that moneylenders could not manipulate the tribes by snatching their lands free.
  • This showed the power of tribals that they were and could be heard fighting for their rights too.


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Neha JoshiNeha JoshiMember since Aug 2019
Postgraduate in Biophysics, Writer and Art Enthusiast
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Navya Enduri

Navya EnduriMar 23, 2020

Can you please send me ancient, medieval and modern history pdf for kvs

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