The Indian 'Domesday Book'

and Sir W.W Hunter

It is one of the strangest of ironies of history that the foundations of the greatest empire in this subcontinent should have been laid, not by an Alexander or a Caesar, or even by a Napoleon or Wellington, but by a band of merchant adventurers. They came to this country as suppliants seeking leave to trade and none of the eighty city merchants who had met in the Founder's Hall in London four hundred years ago on September 24, 1599, to establish the East India Company, ever dreamt that their commerce one day would expand into one of the largest empires that the world has ever seen. When such a miracle did indeed happen, their mercantile measuring rod, in the words of Rabindranath, overnight transformed itself into a ruler's sceptre. By what devious ways of treachery, intrigue and chicanery they became the lords of a distracted land is common knowledge today, but what is not so well known is by what means their grip over this country, precariously tenuous in the beginning, ultimately developed into an iron vice that lasted for, and could not be broken in, nearly two long centuries.

Victories and conquests are dazzling and thrilling events which easily catch our eyes. This is perhaps because they give a kind of vicarious satisfaction to the pugnacity inherent in all of us. Consolidation of such conquests by wise and intelligent administration is, on the other hand, a quiet affair and rarely engages our serious attention. The mailed and mounted knight of olden days, jousting with his shield and his sword or lance, or even a modern day bemedalled general appeals to our romantic imagination, whereas the man who silently works out at his desk away from public gaze the prosaic details of day-to-day administration, is a dull and diminutive figure. One is a hero whom we adore and worship, while the other is a drudge whom we are apt to ignore and relegate outside the limelight of history. We hardly consider even for a moment that what is won by the brawn of the one is made secure by the brain of the other. But for the labours of a statesman all the sound and fury of the swordsman on the field of battle would in the end signify nothing. Their happy union in one person is indeed a rarity. In history great conquerors have been many but empire builders or even founders of kingdoms few. We often forget that if an Alfred or Akbar was great in wars he was even greater in peace. There were many contenders for the place vacated by the Mughals, but it was the British who ultimately emerged successful. It was not merely their luck and pluck which made it possible but because in their case conquest and consolidation went almost hand in hand.

Their initial administrative measures were, however, tentative and experimental. This was bound to be so, for they were as yet groping in the dark. A perfect example is the Permanent Settlement of 1793 which was opposed by John Shore as sufficient information regarding the land system was yet to be ascertained. The land system is only one aspect, but the land itself with its almost limitless vastness and endless variety presented a daunting challenge to the inhabitants of a tiny island who had come from a different clime and belonged to a different race whose religion and social customs were also altogether different. For them to gain a workable knowledge of such an alien country was not an easy task It was not to be found conveniently in one place. Abul Fazl's Ain-I-Akbari was there, it is true, but the information it contained was not as detailed and comprehensive as was necessary for the kind of administration which the British had a mind to introduce in this country. If they were ever to retain the possession of it, the Company therefore felt, it was urgently necessary to collect information about it. Within four years of their getting the Dewani the Court of Directors issued in 1769 their first of a series of instructions to their servants in India to make a statistical survey of the newly acquired territories. It was not to be merely an overview but a thorough survey in the strictest sense of the term. An idea of how thorough it was to be can be gained from the instruction which was issued in 1807 to Dr. Francis Buchanan-Hamilton who was entrusted with the survey. It was to cover the topographical account of each district including its soil, climate, plains, mountains, rivers, natural resources, harbours, towns, subdivisions, history and antiquities, the people and their material conditions, health, education, religion, agriculture, trade and commerce, industry etc. James Rennell, their first Surveyor-General, in the preface to his Memoirs of a Map of Hindoostan, published in 1788, bears ample testimony to this thoroughness as well as to the sincerity of purpose of the Company. He praises it for its employment of geographers and surveying pilots who were provided with necessary astronomical instruments and its "holding out of encouragement to such as should use them". And these, according to Rennell, "indicate, at least, a spirit somewhat above the mere consideration of Gain".  He also boasts of the fact that while the British had no "good chart to direct its fleets towards its own coasts" "the soundings on the coasts of Bengal are better known than those in the British Channel".

Nor was the Company niggardly in its allocation of funds for carrying out such surveys. A tidy sum had already been spent on the scheme and much information collected but it failed to get the task accomplished in one hundred years of its rule preceding the passing of the Indian administration to the British Crown in 1858. Even after this date sporadic attempts were made without any concrete results. It was left to the genius of one man to accomplish the job. He was Sir William Wilson Hunter of the Bengal cadre of the ICS. A dispatch of 23rd August, 1867, from the Secretary of State, had directed the compilation of a gazetteer of the territories under British administration. In 1869 Hunter was entrusted with the job. A comprehensive plan for preparation of gazetteers under central authority submitted by Hunter in 1871 was approved by the Government of India. Within four years Statistical Accounts of different provinces began to appear and by 1881 compilation in respect of all the provinces were completed. This was followed in quick succession by the publication of The Imperial Gazetteer in 1881 and The Indian Empire: The History, People and Products in 1882. At the final stage gazetteers of each and every district of this vast empire were to be compiled. In Bengal this could be completed in 1925 with the publication of the district gazetteer of Faridpur.

Hunter gloriously succeeded where others had laboured long but failed. And destiny too seems to have reserved it for him. We have already noted in Sir W.W.Hunter, The Annalist of the Silent Millions that he was the least likely person to be a compiler of gazetteers. A post-Mutiny 'competetion-wallah' and conscious of his 'class' and intellectual superiority, he, in common with most of his colleagues in the ICS, perceived his career prospects to be the fulfillment of an imperial mission, sharing its power and glamour and securing his own financial future. We have also related how his career took a turn from the usual course of that of an ICS officer on his chance-discovery of some old records in his first place of posting. This discovery inspired him to write The Annals of Rural Bengal which made him instantly famous. But the same Bengal government which had sent him two congratulatory letters for his treatment of the Orissa famine in his Annals, was now determined to demote and humiliate him when destiny again intervened. The same day that the Bengal Chief Secretary had, after treating him to a long tirade, offered him "a Calcutta appointment inferior in pay and position" to the one which he had held two and a half years ago, Lord Mayo, the Governor-General, handpicked him and put him on special duty in the government of India. The object obviously was to get the statistical survey completed by him. The new post of Director-General of Statistics was to be created for him two years later in 1871. At this unexpected turn of events great must have been the disappointment of those who were eager to see this fledgling bureaucrat's wings suitably clipped for his youthful indiscretion of trying to distinguish himself outside the regular line of the service so early in his career. For Hunter's seniority was only of seven years when he got this new appointment and what could not be done in a century he did within the space only of twelve years. An idea of the gigantic nature of his task may be formed from the accounts given by Hunter himself in his prefaces to A Statistical Account of Bengal and The Imperial Gazetteer. While remaining in overall charge of this huge operation he kept himself directly responsible for compilation in respect of the two most difficult provinces, Bengal and Assam.

How he went about his job Hunter has narrated in his prefaces, but what he has omitted to tell, perhaps out of modesty, are the difficulties he had to face in doing it. He had only a skeleton establishment to assist him in his job which consisted in manual handling of a huge mass of materials without the aid of any of the mechanical devices easily available to a modern day bureaucrat. He had to be always on the move and travelling in India in those days was quite hazardous and time consuming. He had also to spend a considerable part of his time for research not only in this country but also in Britain. Besides, he used to suffer from some chronic ailments which at times incapacitated him for any serious business. But what seem to have been most discouraging to him were the people he had to deal with and their attitude towards him and his work. Some of his colleagues who were senior to him in the service and occupied positions of power must have felt it annoying and irritating to report to, and frequently answer the queries of, a relatively junior officer like Hunter. This kind of situation always tends to create problems in a highly hierarchical bureaucratic organization and this particular case could not have been an exception. In such circumstances he had to resort to persuasion and diplomacy. His work must have also been considered by many as useless or, at any rate not as important as the actual work of governance. To them Hunter was a sort of gadfly. In his two-volume Men Who Ruled India, Phillip Woodruff, himself a later day ICS, nowhere mentions Hunter and has just a single sentence to spare on gazetteers. The impression one gathers from that racy account is that pig-sticking is far more important a virtue that goes to make one a good ruler or administrator. A warm hearted person Hunter made many friends, but his enemies were not few who envied him for his phenomenal success and fame both inside and outside the small bureaucratic world. A typical small character of this small world knew in his heart of hearts that "a dog's obey'd in office", that although in appearance "the great image of Authority" he was in reality "a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage, and then is heard no more"; and that the gloss of his glamour owed to no inherent worth of his own and would peel off like old paint once he left the so-called important posts or retired.

The compulsions of his shallow nature therefore made him hanker only after promotion, pelf, power and pomp. Himself incapable of any great deed which earns one lasting fame, he found a kind of perverse pleasure in denigrating and slighting people like Hunter who possessed that Victorian 'high seriousness' in a good measure and a sense of mission in life. Such pettiness must have filled Hunter with bitterness and in one of those heavy moments he wrote to his wife in his letter of 19th July, 1881: "The discouragement and slights proceeding from pure ignorance which I have had to endure made me wearied and miserable before half the day is over ..... I keep a smiling face with a very heavy heart for I intend to win. It is easy enough to gain great success by my work so far as the opinion of the public, the publishers, and the competent critic is concerned. But it will give me a bitter pleasure to win a victory over the cynical ignorance of these poor tape worms who have eaten into the vitals of so many able men. I must bear them in order to be able to completely despise them." In the end it was Hunter who won. His unique achievement brought him recognition and fame in his own life time, and now that the pageant of the Empire has passed time has mercilessly swept away those "poor tape worms" into total oblivion but Hunter still lives on in his works. He needs nobody's eulogy or apology, for, "Eclipse is first, and the rest nowhere" --- this famous comment of Macaulay about Boswell, that prince of biographers, is equally applicable to Hunter in gazetteer literature. Even the concluding lines of Garrick's epigram On Johnson's Dictionary would not be inappropriate -

"And Johnson, well-armed like a hero of yore
Has beat forty French, and will beat forty more."

Hunter has beaten one and all and he has no parallel. But such a large claim cannot go undisputed. Nine centuries ago from today William of Normandy, after conquering England at Hastings in 1066, had taken certain measures to strengthen his position and break the powers of the barons; one of these was to cause in 1085 a survey to be made of his kingdom. His clerks made such a thorough job of it that not a single 'hide' of land in the whole kingdom remained unaccounted. It gained such a reputation of accuracy that soon it came to be known as the 'Domesday Book' i.e. as final as the Last Judgement against which there could be no appeal. Though the survey was for the specific purpose of consolidation of the monarch's power, it recorded certain incidental information that have ever been sought after by historians and antiquarians. Somewhat similar is the case with Abul Fazl's Ain-i-Akbari. Though each is a pioneering marvel of its time, yet none of them is as comprehensive as the gazetteers of Hunter in terms of the vastness of the geographical area covered as well as the variety of information collected. Nearer in time, a century before Hunter, his countryman Sir John Sinclair, had compiled the Statistical Account of Scotland which also falls short of the mark by the same counts.

The basic object of the Domesday Book was to make an accurate assessment of the material resources of the conquered territories for securing the power of an alien conqueror. Neither the conqueror nor his cohorts ever dreamt of exploiting these resources to enrich their own homeland France. Instead they made the conquered land their home and became gradually naturalized to ultimately enrich the racial stock of Britain. The case of the British in India was otherwise. To them India was only a colony. The ultimate object of their statistical survey was economic exploitation of this country to the maximum extent possible. In addition to the mechanism of mercantilism, the so-called 'Home charges' became a brazen item of the British Indian budget. Hunter's brief was therefore clear and well-defined but he exceeded it. Besides the information needed to serve this ulterior object of the empire, he collected information which only a historian or antiquarian would love to collect. A mere statistician would have sufficed to meet the imperial needs. But Hunter was much more than a statistician - he was a historian. He did not remain satisfied with the collection of information regarding the material resources of the empire alone; with a rare loving care he also collected as much as possible information about our society and culture which are not incidental but germane to his statistical accounts.

And he did it with full knowledge and purpose. In his preface to the Imperial Gazetteer he calls it the true history of the people. He had also very painstakingly collected a rich store of our so-called traditions, which, however, he was not allowed, unfortunately for us, to include in his accounts. How great a loss has this caused us has not been nor will ever be known. For these traditions, truly speaking, are folk history - in the poet's words, "the short and simple annals of the Poor" told by our "rude forefathers" and handed down from generation to generation through the ages. They are not tales about heraldry, of which one could boast, nor of pomp and power, but about the "homely joys" and sorrows and "destiny obscure" of the simple rural folk who lived a placid life "far from the madding crowd". They are not scholarly tomes, buttressed with footnotes, references and cross-references, but are oral legendary heritage of the community. The learned historian, fond of the grandeur and the high drama of the rise and fall of empires, kingdoms and dynasties, dismisses them "with a disdainful smile", caring little about the true history of the common people buried in them. They are not to be found trimly stacked on the shelves of a library but "by the wayside" and it is there where Hunter sought them, for he felt that "if the history of India is ever to be anything more than a record of conquest and crime, it must be sought for among the people themselves". But his labour of love was lost. The Victorian Gradgrinds, in their concern for facts and things verifiable factually, rejected them, while they themselves "poured forth so vast a quantity of information that the industry of a Ranke would be submerged in it, and the perspicacity of a Gibbon would quail before it" so that Lytton Strachey had to comment in despair, "the history of the Victorian Age will never be written: we know too much about it". Much of this information was worthless and only of passing interest. Half a century before Strachey expressed his views about the Victorian historiography, Bankimchandra, in the course of a book review, had commented how an insignificant incident like the fowling expedition of a Briton was regarded as a historical event�'Sahebra jadi pakhi marite jan, taharo itihas likhita hay'. The Victorian obviously lacked that first requisite of a historian, as recommended by Strachey in such circumstances, -- "ignorance, which simplifies and clarifies, which selects and omits". To our mind the ignorant masses seem to possess this qualification in some intuitive way so that the traditions communally authored by them are "short and simple", omitting what is irrelevant and selecting what is of abiding interest. For example, the state of Bengal in transition during the 18th century has nowhere been so vividly pictured as it has been done in that famous couplet of a Bengali cradle song:

"Chhele ghumalo para juralo Bargi elo deshe
Bulbulite dhan kheyechhe khajna debo kise?"

'Hushed the child sleeps and quiet is the neighbourhood now, for the Bargis (Maratha raiders) have descended on our land; the bulbulis have eaten away our crops, how shall we pay our land tax?' Hunter recognized the historical value of these traditions like few else. He realized that gems of historical truth often remain hidden under heaps of apparent rubbish. Judged by the standards of fashionable history our Epics and Puranas, likewise, are mere old wives' tales, but they are tales of deep historical truths. That is what is meant when, in Rabindranath's poem, Narada assures Valmiki,

"Kavi taba manobhumi
Ramer janamsthan Ayodhyar cheye satya jeno".

Know this my poet, the Ayodhya of your poetic vision is more real than the birth place of Rama). This view of history will certainly sound obscurantist to our scientific historian, but it may be asked of him, "Is not his history the history of the purely academician?" Even in countries with high rates of literacy how many outside the cloisters of the academies and universities bother about this kind of history? What perhaps matters most in the real world is the way the common people actually perceive historical events in their lives. However much the historian may argue that Mir Jaffar was or was not a traitor, can he change the popular view of that character being an archetypal traitor? Is it not therefore worth his while to find a way of teaching the uninitiated masses history the way they would love to learn it and thus make history a living force in the common man's life? His marshalling of facts with accurate dates and other details will otherwise bore them as any dry disputation always does.

"I aspire to a circle far above the circle of fashion. I mean the circle of Power" - thus had young Hunter written to his fiance even before he set his feet on Indian soil. Fortunately for us, this aspiration of his remained unrealized. For, if not Hunter, who else would have given us The Annals of Rural Bengal or A Statistical Account of Bengal and cause to be compiled the statistical account of other provinces of British India, which are in essence the faithful history of this country of a time when the old order was changing yielding place to new? No other member of the ICS of the time was better qualified to do it. He had a scholastic bent of mind. As a student in Bonn and Paris he had learnt Sanskrit. His habit of study was not desultory but disciplined. In his own words, "Whenever I read up a subject I become so interested in it that I go into the minutest points rather as if I intended to write a book than to stand a general examination. Never do I attack a subject without writing what would make a bulky pamphlet". The foremost of his qualifications was however his love for this country and a generous sympathy and respect for its people, whom he called a "fallen race", implying that the state of their society has not been bad throughout history and that every civilization has its rise, growth, decay and degeneration. This is in sharp contrast with the vulgarly arrogant and imperialistic view that the Indian was a barbarian and it was the white man's burden to civilize him. To Hunter the Santals and the hillmen of the western frontier of Bengal were a 'manly race'. He witnessed among the poor villagers stricken by the famine of 1866 "touching scenes of self-sacrifice and humble heroism". During the relief operations he saw his "subordinate native officers, about eight hundred in number" behaving "with a steadiness" and "a self-abnegation beyond praise". On the other hand, he did not spare the servants of the Company for their callous indifference towards the untold sufferings of the victims of the great famine of 1770. His cryptic comments about the ridiculously inadequate relief measures during that famine are really scathing. He did not fail to point out how mindless was the administration of the day in its ruthless suppression of the Santal Rebellion which called for humane and sympathetic handling. For their salvation Hunter did not advise the Santal to embrace Christianity, as that imperialist essayist of the Calcutta Review so glibly did. Instead he advocated positive state action for the improvement of the Santal's lot and in this he was much ahead of his time. He did not dismiss the languages of the tribals as mere gibberish but applied his analytical mind to their study in a truly scientific spirit. Hunter's concern for the common Indian was to be evident from his recommendations, as the President of the Education Commission of 1882, for increased attention to the elementary instruction of the masses. And its significance has to be judged against Macaulay's swashbuckling minutes of 1835 on Indian education. He felt genuinely sad about the lack of cohesiveness and the absence of a national spirit amongst the Indians which made their domination by handful of foreigners for ages possible. As a civilian he was absolutely incorruptible. His strong sense of justice made him go out of his way to prevent a judicial fraud being perpetrated on a Zamindari house of Birbhum under the Court of Wards. He was extremely hardworking, never sparing himself in the performance of his duties and once he fainted in his office from exhaustion and almost died.

Such a man was bound to be suspect in the eyes of his imperial masters whose decision to demote and humiliate him should not be wondered at, for he only found fault with them but discovered virtues in the subject race. At the last moment however he was promoted to an innocuous post where he could least harm the empire. He was literally dumped, for at the time he joined his new post he had no office, no staff and no work. But little did his detractors know what an indomitable spirit Hunter possessed. He was that rare specimen of a civilian who was not "one of those ordinary men who excite neither indignation nor admiration", and who merely "did his appointed work and received for it his appointed pay". On the contrary, he was a man who was capable of "giving that interpretation to his duties which can invest with dignity and poetry the long hot years of Indian official life".


More by :  Kumud Biswas

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Views: 3376      Comments: 4

Comment Thank you Pradip for bringing this to my notice. Becky should have been referred to in the article. Though I read Thackeray's classic it never came to my mind while writing this article.

21-May-2014 03:24 AM

Comment beautifully written and enormously informative. one of the most telling portraits of the india-returned nabob is in thackeray's vanity fair. becky sharp, social climber par excellence, is set on trapping him because of that.

pradip bhattacharya
20-May-2014 23:48 PM

Comment Dear Mr. Andersen, Hunter is one of the scholar-bureaucrats I admire most and his Annals is a classic. Thanks for taking interest in him.

19-May-2014 05:57 AM

Comment I looked W.W. Hunter up to get background of him when rereading his chapter on the Santals in Annals of Rural Bengal and got a lot. Thank you
Peter B. Andersen
Associate Professor, PhD., University of Copenhagen

Peter B. Andersen
18-May-2014 04:31 AM

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