A Descriptive Ethnology of Bengal

 by Matt Reeck

Next to Herbert Hope Risley’s ethnologies of British colonial India, Edward Tuite Dalton’s A Descriptive Ethnology of Bengal remains an overlooked yet important text within the colonial discourses of the human-geographical sciences. Particularly, as recent scholarship has shown, Dalton’s text functions within the political discourse of liberalism by bringing into circulation notions of primitivism.


The volume was printed by the government of Bengal under the direction of the Council of the Asiatic Society of Bengal in Calcutta in 1872, and yet by the time of Risley’s The People of India (1908), Ethnology had all but vanished. Risley writes in his preface that “[t]he book is now a rare one, and I am informed that the entire stock was destroyed by an unfortunate accident some years ago.” Ethnology marks the beginning of a new type of English-language ethnology, following the religious ethnologies of previous decades, such as William Ward’s Account of the Writings, Religion, and Manners of the Hindoos (1811) and Qanoon-i Islam, or the Customs of the Moosulmans of India (1832), a collaboration between an army surgeon and translator in the Madras Medical Establishment, Dr. Gerhard Andreas Herklots, and the author of the original Deccani Urdu text, Jafar Sharif. In Ethnology, racial and linguistic features are the primary distinguishing characteristic of groups. Dalton acknowledges his own discomfort at having to rely upon linguistic features as his primary means of differentiating peoples. For instance, in his comments upon the Dravidian “racial elements” in the Bengal Presidency, he writes that it is “more widespread” than people believed, but because of the lack in two populations, the Bhuniya and Koch peoples, of “the rudiments of an original language having more or less connection with the Tamil or Dravidian tongues,” he excludes them from consideration.


Ethnology connects an earlier period of cartographic surveys of India to the emergent interest in mapping human populations. Dalton’s early career as a mid-level military commander exposed him to remote tribes of the Bengal Presidency from Upper Assam to Chotanagpura. Eschewing the language of heroism, Dalton positions himself as a circumspect note-taker. Yet Ethnology is not without its poetic evocations. It opens with the following extended simile: “I commence with the North-Eastern Frontier, the basin of the mighty Brahmaputra, where the population, like the conglomerate-boulders shining as mosaics in the beds of the great river and its upper affluents, is formed of materials found in situ in the hills to the north and south.” To compare the “population” to “boulders” that compose a “mosaic” is rhetorically appealing perhaps only in a discursive field that valorizes geography at its epistemological foundations. Risley, in The People of India, uses the trope of a mosaic, as well, and this suggests that the mosaic represents a paradigmatic ethnographic concept—that of difference or diversity that constructs a whole.


Interestingly, the Ethnology does not subscribe to a geographically deterministic reading of people. Rather, migration and displacement factor into the text’s historical accounts of ethnographic groups. In his introduction, the author writes that he does not assume that the “hill and border tribes” of Assam are the “aborigines,” but rather that these peoples themselves were early settlers pushed out by an “Aryan invasion.” In the text’s lack of desire to assert any claims to firstness, or indigenousness, on the behalf of certain tribes, we see that while Ethnology is one of the first texts to introduce the language of the tribal and the aboriginal into the British colonial human sciences, it nevertheless abstains from any argumentative stance on the behalf of the right of any group to sovereignty over land.


This is where Ethnology enters into a more tendentious critical-historical debate. Contemporary scholar Uday Chandra labels Dalton a “patron” of “primitive” societies and suggests that his work guided the establishment of the 1874 Scheduled Districts Act that designated land allocations for largely non-Aryan peoples in forests and other remote areas. Dalton expresses sympathy for tribal peoples in the face of primarily Aryan but also Dravidian invasion and social migration. Dalton, as the Commissioner for Chotanagpur within the Bengal Presidency from 1858 to 1875, came to appreciate the plight of the tribal or scheduled caste population. In his introductory remarks about the Aryans, Dalton writes that “[t]he province of Chutia Nagar protected from invasion by its elevation, and the natural barriers that surround it, afforded an asylum to the ancient races, in which they long existed as a dominant people, maintaining their independence for ages after the subjugation or expulsion of their congeners from the Gangetic provinces.”


What this latent sympathy might have meant upon a political level is another matter. If Dalton does not assume the right of Brahman (or, caste Hindu) social hegemony to the lands of India, he also does not offer non-normative political or religious opinions. Colonial documents testify to how Dalton had “rendered admirable service in the management and development of the simple people” of Chotanagpur and Assam. He viewed British rule in India through the lens of liberalism, and this resulted in his contradictory belief that it was meant both “manage” or protect at the same time as “develop” or raise the standards of India’s “primitive” communities. Dalton’s views of Christianity, as well, hardly exceeded official license. In writing about the Karens of the Chittagong tribes, he explains that if previously the Karen community had lived under an “inscrutable rubble structure of a very foolish paganism,” nevertheless they had a “solid foundation of religious belief” that allowed Christian missionaries to convert these people and “raise a structure of pure religion.”


The book includes extensive vocabularies and 40 lithographs based largely upon the photographs of Sir Benjamin Simpson, one of the best-known colonial photographers whose accolades included a Gold Medal for his collection of 80 photographs entitled “Racial Types of Northern India” at the Great London Exhibition of 1862. In the preface, Dalton acknowledges that Ethnology is the byproduct of an abandoned plan for a “great” Ethnological Congress in Calcutta meant “to bring together […] typical examples of the races of the Old World, to be made the subject of scientific study when so collected.”




Uday Chandra, “Liberalism and Its Other: The Politics of Primitivism in Colonial and Postcolonial Indian Law,” in Law and Society Review (2013); Herbert Hope Risley, The People of India (London: Thacker, 1915); Sylvia Vatuk, “Shurreef, Herklots, Crooke, and Qanoon-e-Islam: Constructing an Ethnography of ‘The Moosulmans of India,” in South Asia Research (1999).