1st Edition

Anthropologist and Imperialist H.H. Risley and British India, 1873-1911

By C. J. Fuller Copyright 2024

    Sir Herbert Hope Risley (1851 - 1911) - 'H. H. Risley', as he always signed himself - was a member of the Indian Civil Service (ICS) from 1873 to 1910 who served in Bengal and became a senior administrator and policymaker in the colonial government, as well as the pre-eminent anthropologist in British India. He was also an imperialist, who was convinced of the rightness of 'civilising' British rule and its benefits for both India and Britain, and one of this book's objectives is to render his simultaneous commitment to anthropology and imperialism intelligible to present-day readers. More specifically, Anthropologist and Imperialist: H. H. Risley and British India, 1873–1911 documents the two sides of Risley’s career, which is used as a case-study to investigate, first, the production and circulation of colonial knowledge, specifically anthropological knowledge, and secondly, its often loose and inconsistent connection with administration and policymaking, and with the government and state overall.

    Risley, like other officials engaged in anthropology in India, as well as the government itself, insisted that ethnography and anthropology had both ‘administrative’ and ‘scientific’ value; unlike previous works on Indian colonial anthropology, this book carefully examines its ‘scientific’ contributions in relation to contemporary metropolitan anthropology. It does not attempt to reinvent ‘greatman’ political or intellectual history, but does demonstrate the importance of studying the powerful officials who ruled British India, as well as the minor provincial politicians and subaltern subjects – or the abstract forces, such as colonialism and resistance – that have dominated recent historical scholarship. This book shows, too, that a detailed inquiry into Risley’s career, and his ideas and actions, can open new perspectives on a variety of continuing debates, including those over the colonial construction of caste and race in ‘traditional’ India, orientalism and forms of colonial knowledge, Victorian anthropology’s close relationship with the British empire, and the modern discipline’s uneasy links with its colonial past.

    Print edition not for sale in South Asia (India, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Bhutan)

    List of Tables and Maps



    Notes on Indian Names, Currency and the Bibliography


    1. Early Life in England

    2. Junior District Officer and Gazetteer Assistant

    3. Under-Secretary in the Government of Bengal

    4. District Officer in Chota Nagpur

    5. The Ethnographic Survey of Bengal

    6. The Tribes and Castes of Bengal

    7. Proposals to Extend the Ethnographic Survey

    8. Financial and Municipal Secretary, Government of Bengal

    9. Commissioner of the 1901 Census and Director of Ethnography for India

    10. Caste, Race and Hierarchy 

    11. Curzon’s Home Secretary in the Government of India

    12. Minto’s Home Secretary in the Government of India                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                13. Caste, Class and Nationalism

    14. Secretary in the India Office, Last Months in England and Unfinished Work

    15. Political Sequel and Anthropological Legacy

    Appendix: Chronology and Record of Service




    C. J. Fuller is emeritus professor of anthropology at the London School of Economics. He is the author of several books, including The Camphor Flame and The Renewal of the Priesthood.