The extraordinary journey of a British woman who became The Naga Queen
British military records refer to her simply as a typist. But was she just a word processor? How come an English beauty came to the wilds of Naga Hills early in her 20’s only to be known as ‘The Naga Queen’? A time when Indians were at rebel against the British Raj, how she managed to secure prestigious positions among the local tribe of India- is a story worth remembering.
So far, Ursula’s story remains confined in the books of the English and the hearts of Zeme Nagas, yet her participation in the Battle of Kohima remains a subject of fascination. During World War 2, when Japan attacked India through the hills of the Northeast, several soldiers from India and Britain lost their lives. But the one who saved hundreds of lives was Ursula herself. This is her story.
A high-society beauty from England to the Queen of the Jungle, India
Ursula Graham Bower was born in 1914 in England and was a daughter to Commander John Graham Bower. Since childhood, Ursula loved studying and did several projects during her school years. However in the 1930s when financial crises hit Britain, Ursula’s family was left with a very small amount of money. There wasn’t enough money to send both Ursula and her Brother to college and thus she had to quit college.
But her quest for knowledge didn’t stop and she ventured into different fields to gain more knowledge. She first traveled to Canada and learned several things regarding their culture. Once she stumbled upon a chance to visit India to go touring with the civil servant and his wife. In 1937, she first visited the country specifically, the Naga Hills and Manipur. Usually, the young maiden would travel India to marry the lonely British officers posted in the country and so the same hoped her mother. But Ursula’s plans were different, she had no intention of getting married instead she was very much fascinated by the Naga peoples.
Initially, she took pictures of the locals and showed them to her friends back in Britain, who were impressed by the unknown Culture. Ursula soon revisited India in 1939, by saving her yearly allowance. She first thought that she would potter about with a few cameras and do a bit of medical work, maybe write a book, but destiny had something else stored for her. The following year, Britain entered World War II, which had already been raging between Japan and China due to which Ursula was denied entry in the hills. The people of Assam and Nagaland had also rebelled against the British Raj. Amid all this, upon Mr. Mills, the advisor to the governor in tribal affairs request, Ursula was sent by the government to the northeast to figure out why the tribal rebelled. As she was a woman, they thought that locals might approach her more easily.
To her surprise, the villagers took her for a goddess. It so happened because of the teenage leader of the rebellion, Rani Gaidinliu, who had been put in prison by the British in 1932. Before being imprisoned she promised that she would return in a new avatar to fight for their freedom. Thus, Ursula’s kind approach towards the locals made them believe that she was indeed Gaidinliu’s reincarnation. While half of the villagers treated her as a goddess, the rest refused to talk to her.
Yet Ursula’s frequent visit for medical aid slowly opened their hearts and they started accepting her. Ursula on the other hand also understood why the villagers revolted against the British. There were some very stupid policies by the British which had left the Zemes very poor and without food. They had been starving, unnecessarily and so Ursula supported them and acted as a mediator between the villagers and the government.
Ursula was given the rank of ‘Acting Captain’ while in the documents she was a typist.
By 1942, the Japanese entered Burma and were rapidly advancing throughout the region. Ursula heard that many locals were dying and fleeing as Burma was not far from the border, she roped in with a couple of Zeme helpers like Namkia to open a tea stall for the refugees. Soon, she received a call from the army that asked for her support as they were not quite sure when the Japanese would attack India. Also, the area between India and Burma was impenetrable, thus it becomes more difficult to locate from where they would attack Delhi.
There was a pass coming through Manipur, which the Japanese could have used and thus the Army Headquarters needed an Intelligence Unit to check for Japanese invasion through this route. Ursula was recruited and asked to recruit 150 local scouts, who would patrol the area along with her. She became a part of the famous British ‘V Force’.
While the Nagas were patrolling the area along with Ursula, they were unarmed thus if the Japanese took that route, it would result fatally. Ursula asked the British Headquarters to provide them with ancient muzzle-loading guns to which they agreed. When the enemy was near, Ursula took the responsibility to personally go looking for the enemy along with the local scouts and so she was given the rank of ‘Acting Captain’ while in the documents she was only a mere typist. She was the only woman to hold an in practice combat command in the British Army during World War 2.
Ursula Graham Bower met Lt. Col Frederick Nicholson Betts when he was serving in V Force in Burma during World War II and married him in July 1945. The Zemes loved Ursula and even asked her to stay back when the British were leaving India. But Ursula had to eventually leave and she returned with her husband to Britain in 1948, and where they grew coffee in British Kenya. Soon, they left Kenya because of the local unrest and relocated to the Isle of Mull, where they brought up their two daughters, Catriona and Alison Betts.
Even today, Ursula’s daughters enjoy the same respect as their mothers. The Zeme people consider Ursula as ‘The Naga Queen’, but she personally never liked the title. She wanted them to treat her normal not as some goddess.
Though Ursula Graham Bower, a young English woman in her 20s, played a brief yet crucial role in British Army, in the military records she remains discredited.