In the course of the nineteenth century Europe's colonial powers increasingly often discovered the existence of 'secret societies' in their colonies. The name was applied to very diverse groupings. To take a famous example, in the second part of the eighteenth century, local migrants in South China created mutual benefit societies, which for various reasons were soon persecuted by the authorities. Thus, the Heaven and Earth Society (Tiandihui), as the groups were collectively known, acquired an anti-Manchu, nationalist, or even revolutionary reputation. Together with thousands of Chinese migrants, their organizational form spread throughout Southeast Asia and came to the attention of British and Dutch officials. Some of them perceived a similarity to Freemasonry or believed that the kongsis could play a role in administering the Chinese communities. In the long run, however, most officers looked askance at their activities, many of which were criminalized with the development of colonial legislation. In spite (or because) of this, the Triads continued to expand and easily outlived colonialism. Moreover, they became hugely popular in the Western imagination for sharing a fascination for the Shaolin monastery and the martial arts with Bruce Lee.
Associated in popular culture with Indiana Jones were the Thugs or Stranglers from central India. In the 1820s William Sleeman, an officer of the British East India Company, began systematically to collect certain murder stories that sounded pretty unusual. His research persuaded him he was on the trail of a secret brotherhood that ritually strangled travellers as sacrifices to their goddess Kali. Sleeman's grandson later calculated that the Thugs had caused 40,000 victims a year over several centuries, but what is certain is that between 1826 and 1848 about 4,500 people were tried for Thuggee, 500 of whom were hanged. The startling nature of Sleeman's discovery caused a sensation in Europe, thanks also to the fictionalized Confessions of a Thug from the pen of Philip Meadows Taylor (1839). Eugène Sue (1804-1857) used the topic for Le Juif errant, whose serialized publication in le Constitutionnel in 1844-1845 quintupled the print run of the paper. This may have been due to the main character, Rodin, a cunning, proverbial Jesuit, who attempts to rob a Protestant family of an old inheritance - the novel appeared during a new round of commotion concerning the Societas Jesu - but it certainly helped that he had a Dutch merchant in Batavia hire the Thugs for some special operations.
Read more about the events on Java (Pdf 128 Kb).
Source: Eugène Sue, Le Juif errant: édition illustrée, Bruxelles: Société belge de Librairie Hauman et Ce, 1845, pp 75-95. (Call number: F721/138 fol).