Edwin F. Atkinson

by Nivedita Nath

ATKINSON, EDWIN FELIX THOMAS (1840-1890), was a prolific member of the Indian Civil Service and his most lasting work has been on the Northern Himalayas. He was born on the sixth of September in the Irish county of Tipperary. Tipperary town was an Anglo-Norman settlement situated in the scenic environs of the Galtee Mountains and the Glen of Aherlow. A childhood spent in the pastoral surroundings of this landlocked county perhaps helps explain Atkinson’s subsequent penchant for collecting insects as a self-taught entomologist. While little is known of his family background or early schooling, it is likely that Atkinson hailed from the Protestant Ascendancy. As a student at the Protestant dominated Trinity College of the University of Dublin, he received the Bedell Scholarship in 1858. This prize was granted to scholars who attended classes from the Divinity School and showed proficiency in Irish. He later went on to win a prize in Sanskrit and clear the Indian Civil Service Examinations in 1861.

Recruited to the Bengal Civil Service in 1862, Atkinson occupied a number of offices across the Bengal Presidency and the North-Western Provinces (NWP). He first served as an Assistant Magistrate and Collector in the NWP and then rose to the rank of Officiating Accountant General in 1864. After being posted to Allahabad in that year he married the daughter of Major Nicholettes of the Bengal Native Infantry. Within a span of ten years Atkinson served as Judge in a Small Cause Court, Deputy Commissioner of Paper Currency in Allahabad, and as the Accountant General of the North West Provinces. He was also commissioned to produce a range of official documents. He published a Manual of Rent Law of NWP of Bengal (Benares) in 1867, and a Manual of Criminal Procedure for British India, for the Magistrate, the Justice of the Peace and the Police Officer (Calcutta) three years later. As he held a BSc, a BA and fulfilled various duties over the course of his career, Atkinson’s works display expertise in statistics, Indian law, zoology and economic botany.

In 1874 he was appointed the primary editor of a proposed multi-volume series entitled the Statistical, Descriptive and Historical Account of the North-Western Provinces of India. The project was devised by the Government of the NWP in an attempt to ‘collect and exhibit all information on public affairs’ of the provinces. The series was intended to provide manuals for officers posted to the region. The project marked a departure from an earlier and ultimately abortive attempt to publish District Memoirs which were to be prepared by District Collectors themselves. The new series was envisioned as a chapter in a general scheme to prepare Gazetteers for all provinces within British India. Introducing the first volume of the series, Atkinson explains how he was ‘directed to give in the fewest possible words a description of each district, its products, and its people’ by compiling the results of a fixed list of ‘Gazetteer Queries’ sent to all District Officers. The Gazetteer Queries were prepared by the Director-General of Statistics, W W Hunter. Atkinson edited the first two volumes of the series on the Divisions of Bundelkhand (1874) and Meerut (1875) while residing in the hill-station of Nainital. He was relieved of his Gazetteer duties in the following year, at which time his wife Caroline gave birth to their son Francis. Nevertheless, Atkinson made his most significant contribution to the Gazetteer series after he was relieved of his official responsibilities towards the project.

In his three volume Gazetteer of the Himalayan Districts of the North-Western Provinces published between 1881 and 1886, Atkinson took several liberties with Hunter’s scheme of queries. Unlike the earlier volumes on Meerut and Bundelkhand in which he had played an editorial role, in the Himalayan Districts Atkinson assumed more of an authorial position by single-handedly collecting and compiling information. His familiarity with the ‘Himalayan Districts’ prior to his work on the Gazetteer is suggested by his Notes on the Economic Minerology of the Hill Districts of NWP (1877). His last Gazetteer was also shaped by extensive travels in the regions described, as well as his experience as census officer of the NWP in 1881. Whereas his earlier Gazetteers primarily included information on the products and inhabitants of districts with brief notes on geography and history, the Himalayan Districts further includes elaborate sections on topography, geology, entomology, botany and religion. The wealth of research conducted by Atkinson allowed him to publish a separate essay in the Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal entitled ‘Notes on the History of Religion in the Himalaya’ (1885). The Himalayan Districts has been extensively cited by scholars working on the Kumaun-Garhwal region, beginning with H G Walton and H R Neville who were involved with the District Gazetteer series in the early twentieth century. The essays on Kumaun and Garhwal used in the Imperial Gazetteer (1908) were also taken from Atkinson’s work. Twenty editions of the Himalayan Districts have been re-printed under the title Himalayan Gazetteer between 1973 and 2014. Portions of the original three volume work have also been separately published under the following heads- Religion in the Himalayas (1974), Flora of the Himalayas (1980), Fauna of the Himalayas (1974) and the Kumaun Hills: History, Geography and Anthropology (1974). More recently the Himalayan Gazetteer has been translated into Hindi by Prakash Thapliyal (2003).

Atkinson’s productive authorship and wide-ranging career in the civil service won him the title of Companion of the Indian Empire (CIE) well before his retirement. He pursued various intellectual interests outside of his official duties as well. He was a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society and an active member of the Entomological Society of London. In his capacity as an entomologist he had a specific interest in Lepidoptera (butterflies and moths) and was esteemed for identifying new specimens both in Britain and in India. His scientific publications include Notes on the Zoology of the NWP (1882) and Notes on India Rhynchota (1885). Atkinson corresponded with metropolitan scientific academies, including the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew, while he was surveying and collecting in India. He briefly served as President of the Royal Asiatic Society of Bengal between 1886 and 1887. As Chairman of the Trustees of the Indian Museum of Calcutta in 1889, Atkinson undertook an extensive project to collect and catalogue Indian insects. This allowed him to begin publishing a ‘Catalogue of the Insects of the Oriental Region’ for the Journal of the Asiatic Society (1889). Atkinson passed away from Bright’s Disease at the young age of fifty.

Atkinson’s training in science and classical languages, alongside his practical exposure to Indian law and revenue collection, is indicative of the expansive expertise he honed over his close to two-decade long career. His dry style of writing, meticulous reliance on statistics and eccentric intellectual pursuits in some respects made him emblematic of the ‘Platonic ideal of guardianship’ that characterized the high imperial Indian Civil Service. Nevertheless, he was seemingly free from a dismissive sense of racial superiority and more inclined towards the romantic Orientalism of Indologists such as H H Wilson who he cited extensively in his gazetteers.