Ursula Graham Bower - the Queen of the Nagas

Ursula Graham Bower (1941-1988)

Ursula Graham Bower (1914-1988), also known as Ursula Betts and U. V. G. Betts, was an anthropologist, writer and a guerrilla fighter who fought against the Japanese in Burma from 1942-45. Her photographs, film and three monographs on the Nagas and the Apatani tribe of Nagaland established her as a leading anthropologist in 1937 although she did not have a degree or training in anthropology at that point of time. She had first visited India in 1937 with a school friend, on a trip where her mother had hoped she would meet a nice husband. Instead, she fell in love with the Naga Hills and their tribes.

Bower was born to the family of Commander John Graham Bower on May 15, 1914 in England. On her father's remarriage in 1932, Bower became the stepdaughter of children's writer Barbara Euphan Todd. She started her education at the prestigious and Britain’s foremost school for girls Roedean School in Brighton. She was later removed from school due to shortage of family funds just before the exams that would have got her into a university.

She first visited Assam, a state in the North-East India in 1937 after getting an invitation from her friend Alexa Macdonald whom she had met in Skye on a holiday. After her eyes set on the Nagas and the Naga Hills, she thought this was the place where she belonged. The Nagas were equally fascinated by this big-boned white woman and admired her long, muscular legs. Although she went back after her first visit, she returned to Nagaland in 1939 and spent some years as an anthropologist among the Nagas. She took more than a 1000 photographs documenting the lives of local tribes which were later used in a comparative study. From her frequent long treks, during which she dispensed medicine and recorded tribal life in diaries and photographs, she had come to know their territory too. Infact, Bower earned such trust, loyalty and respect from the Nagas that they came to regard her as their queen. They asked her to name their babies, and some even worshipped her as a goddess, believing her to be the reincarnation of a rebel priestess imprisoned by the British. When famine struck the villagers in the years before the World war II, she procured them government aid, saving many lives.

Ursula Graham Bower books - Naga Path (1950), The Hidden land (1953), Drums Behind The Hill (1950), Udanga

At the start of World War II, when the Japanese armies invaded Burma and threatened to move on into India in 1942, Bower was living in Laisong village, what was then known as North Cachar. So, to save India, the jewel in the crown of the British Empire from the Japanese, the British administration asked her to mobilise the natives of Nagaland into a formidable organisation known as V Force. The task of the force was to recruit and train scouts and intelligence-gatherers from among the hill tribes to watch the border. Although recruiting tribesmen to help fight the “Sahibs’ war” was not easy, Bower organised patrols and a communications system and set up guard posts with the help of locals after she had won the friendship and confidence of the local village headmen. Bower became the only female guerrilla commander in the history of the British Army, leading 150 Nagas armed only with ancient muzzle-loading guns across some 800 square miles of mountainous jungle.

The British called her the Naga Queen and sent men to her to be trained in jungle warfare. The only woman to command active troops during the war, she was so effective the Japanese put a price on her head. British won the Battle of Kohima and for her grit, resourcefulness and courage V Force was declared as Bower Force by the commander of the 14th Army of the British, William Slim.

She met Lt. Col Frederick Nicholson Betts when he was serving in V Force in Burma and married him in July 1945. After the war and Indian independence in 1948, Bower had to leave India and return to Britain. She was distraught and said, “The woman who had been me was gone and a remnant, a ghost, remained... How could one explain that home was no longer home – that it was utterly foreign, that home was in the Assam hills and that there would never be any other and that for the rest of our lives we should be exiles?”

Later both Bower and her husband grew coffee in Kenya. But because of the danger of local unrest, they relocated to the Isle of Mull where they brought up their two daughters, Catriona and Alison Betts. Bower never saw her beloved Naga Hills again. However, she championed the Naga cause until her death on November 12, 1988 and at her funeral, three Naga tribesmen in colourful traditional shawls helped carry her coffin. In 2013, 62-year-old Catriona Child travelled to Nagaland to retrace journey of her mother.

Bower wrote several books herself and a couple of radio plays were written about her exploits. Her diaries, manuscripts and other documents can be found at the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford and at Cambridge University, including some unique colour film footage from the 1930s and 1940s. Two BBC Radio 4 programmes, The Naga Queen, produced by Chris Eldon Lee and narrated by John Horsley Denton, and The Butterfly Hunt, a play by Matthew Solon were based on the life of Ursula Betts and her husband F. N. Betts. A documentary film entitled Captured by Women featuring some of Ursula Graham Bower's photograph and object collections in connection with her own film footage of her time in Nagaland is being produced by The Oxford Academy of Documentary Film (OADF), with funding from the British Film Council (The National Digital Archive Fund - Screen South). The film is directed by Dr Alison Kahn.

On 24 April 1945 Bower was appointed Member of the Order of the British Empire for her actions in Burma and in 1944 she received the Lawrence Memorial Medal, named for Lawrence of Arabia, for her anthropological work among the Nagas.

Films/Documentaries of Ursula Graham Bower (1939)
Interview of Ursula Graham Bower by Alan Macfarlane (1985)