Monday, July 13, 2009

Multitasking In 1800's India

I had to share this.

I am reading The Ruling Caste: Imperial Lives in the Victorian Raj by David Gilmour. It's an account of the day to day lives of British Civil Servants as they went about their administrative duties in 1800's India. The District Collector was one of the key positions - as it is today- and the Collector besides his responsibility as a revenue officer was also a Magistrate who heard cases and imposed fines up to Rs 1000/- and sentences of up to 2 years:

The Collector and the Magistrate had many different functions, but for his main two he also possessed different personas. He had separate offices for them , staffed by separate sets of clerks who enjoyed acrimonious correspondence with each other. One District Officer "used to find drafts of letters from myself as Magistrate to myself as Collector accusing myself of neglect and delay, and some very trenchant replies placed before me for signature".

Among the many responsibilities and expertise the Collector had to acquire was an ability to understand landscapes and read maps. Assessing property holdings and estimating tax was a tricky task and the land holdings were drawn on enormous pieces of linen with parcels shown at a scale 1 mile to 63 inches! That means over 5 feet of cloth was used to depict one mile of the earth.

These were local maps covering only one village and surrounding area and showing only property holdings. A much larger mapping effort to produce a seamless tapestry of the Indian landscape- also initiated by British geologists and surveyors- was going on in the 1800's, one that very carefully was measuring the lay of the land and producing a triangulation network which later survey projects used as the basis for generating topographic maps on a scale of 1 inch to 1 mile. That effort is described in The Great Arc by John Keay. It is an absorbing and startling account of a mapping project that lasted half a century and produced the baseline landscape information that were then used for additional survey, building roads, canals and railways.

Indians reading the Ruling Caste might feel that the book is perhaps too sympathetic towards the officers of the Civil Service. They were after all men carrying out the orders of a colonial exploitative regime. But the job was a genuinely tough one. A person with no experience of India at age 23 was suddenly given charge of as many as 2 million people. An Officer could be stuck at a remote station with no correspondence with headquarters for weeks. Decisions had to be made on the spot that could influence the lives of thousands.

The Civil officers or "Civilians" were always outsiders amongst what seemed a strange and bewildering people, yearning for "Home" and waiting eagerly for Furlough ( a two year sabbatical in England). But tragically they were strangers too when they went back to England on retirement. Most of them missed India on their return to England, missed the outdoor life and the responsibilty of office and the servants- in-waiting. And after a 30 year career they found that people in England regarded them to be bores too eager to tell India stories and completely out of touch with contemporary England society.

Rudyard Kipling famous for his evocative descriptions of the Raj despaired on being confronted with the dreary London sky-

It's Oh to see the morn ablaze
Above the mango-tope
When homeward through the dewy cane
The little jackels lope.
And half Bengal heaves into view,
New-washed - with sunlight soap.

If you read this book as a human interest story you will find it rewarding.

See: My Book Shelf


  1. Some of the British officers were very diligent in compiling information about the places that they governed. Some of these were published in the gazetteers that still make for fascinating reading.

    I recently chanced upon, and read, about the life of John Nicholson at google books. You may want to have a look too.

  2. thanks for the link.

    you have an interesting blog :)