HAR is pleased to announce one of the latest releases from BEROSE International Encyclopaedia of the Histories of Anthropology: an article (in English), on Victorian anthropologists of British India 1850–1871.

Fuller, Chris, 2024. “Victorian Ethnology in British India: The Study of Tribes, Castes and Society, circa 1850–1871,” in BEROSE International Encyclopaedia of the Histories of Anthropology, Paris.

Between 1850 and 1871, when the decennial censuses of India began, the most influential colonial ethnologist was George Campbell, a member of the Indian Civil Service. Campbell’s history, Modern India (1852), briefly described Indian society, but a long article (1866) set out an “ethnological skeleton” for classifying India’s “races and classes” according to five criteria: physical appearance (indicating racial division), followed by languages, religions, laws, and manners plus mental characteristics. The Indian population was divided into the “black aboriginal tribes of the interior hills and jungles,” “modern Indians” belonging to various Hindu and Muslim tribes and castes, who made up the vast majority, and a small category of tribal groups of mixed descent on the northern frontiers. The principal division was primarily racial, rather than linguistic, because tribal people spoke both Dravidian and “Kolarian” (Ho-Munda) languages, and the majority population both Dravidian and Aryan. Campbell’s article, which included a short ethnographic survey of tribal groups and a longer one of caste groups, was more comprehensive than any previous. 

In 1865, Joseph Fayrer, a Calcutta Medical College professor, suggested that the Asiatic Society of Bengal and the government of Bengal should jointly organize an ethnological exhibition of people from different races, which would be valuable, as well as feasible, because data could be collected on their physical characteristics, spoken languages and social customs. Further proposals for Indian ethnological congresses came from Campbell and Walter Elliot, a retired Indian administrator. None of these congresses ever took place, except for a small one in the Central Provinces (Madhya Pradesh) in 1866–7, although information gathered for them indirectly led to the Descriptive Ethnology of Bengal (1872) by E. T. Dalton (an Indian army officer), a pioneering publication containing ethnographic material on the region’s tribes and castes.

 Some papers on India by colonial anthropologists were appearing in Britain by the 1860s, mostly published by the Ethnological Society of London (ESL). The society also convened a meeting on India in 1869, at which Campbell and Elliot delivered papers. Campbell’s paper was a short version of his 1866 article; Elliot’s was a lengthy and confusing attempt to classify the Indian population by ethnographic and other criteria. Both papers particularly displayed a tension between racial and linguistic classifications, whereas a few years later, as evolutionism emerged as the dominant anthropological paradigm, race became definitive and the dichotomous division between more “civilized” Aryans and more “primitive” Dravidians ostensibly explained almost all Indian ethnological variation.

By around 1870, Victorian metropolitan anthropology became increasingly preoccupied with the most evolutionarily rudimentary societies of all. Criticism of Henry Maine contributed to this development. In Ancient Law(1861), Maine argued that groups, not individuals, constituted ancient society, and the elementary social unit was the patriarchal, agnatic family group. The Indian village community was important for his argument because it was both “an organised patriarchal society and an assemblage of co-proprietors,” as well as being “of immense antiquity.” Maine, who sat on the viceroy’s council in India in 1862–69, discussed the Indian village community again in his second book, Village-Communities in the East and West (1871), where he also mentioned his first-hand knowledge of relevant official material. But Maine misinterpreted the evidence—much of it already available in Campbell’s Modern India, for example—which showed that different types of Indian village community existed. Moreover, in the subcontinent’s more “primitive” Dravidian south, property rights in land actually belonged to individual cultivators, while joint ownership was the norm only in the Aryan north and northwest.

By 1871, however, J. F. McLennan and others had severely criticized Maine’s thesis concerning the earliest patriarchal societies. Maine, who never truly rebutted his critics, then restricted his arguments to early Indo-European society. Yet it now seemed clear that the ancient Aryan ancestors of modern Indians never were very ancient or “primitive,” especially when compared to groups like the Aboriginal Australians. Thus, Fuller concludes in this in-depth study, Victorian anthropologists no longer retained much interest in the people of India, who became more and more peripheral to British social anthropology until its scope expanded to “complex,” peasant societies after the Second World War.


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