Herbert Risley

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Sir Herbert Risley, K.C.I.E., C.S.I. By J. D. Anderson. 

Sir Herbert Hope Risley, K.C.I.E., C.S.I., secretary of the Judicial and Public Department of the India Office, and President of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland, died at Wimbledon on September 30th. During a painful illness extending over many months, he displayed remarkable fortitude, and characteristic and touching consideration for those who strove to alleviate his sufferings.

Herbert Risley, a son of the Rev. James Holford Risley, was born in 1851, and was educated at Winchester and New College, Oxford. In 1871 he passed into the Indian Civil Service, and, after the usual period of training in this country, was appointed to Bengal. He had the good fortune to begin his service in Chota Nagpore, and thus came into early personal contact with the attractive highland tribes, the study of whose institutions and dialects was among his most valuable original contributions to anthropological research. One of his first papers, dealing with the Uraons of this region, published by the Asiatic Society of Bengal, was the nucleus of subsequent investigations by himself and others, most of the information thus obtained being afterwards incorporated in his invaluable Tribes and Castes of Bengal. It was Risley’s inquiries which led the late Rev. P. Dehon, S.J., to write the monograph on the Uraons, which may be found in the volume for 1906 of the memoirs of the R.A.S, of Bengal. From the first, it will be seen, his influence in suggesting and developing anthropological research was powerful. His marked interest in ethnology and linguistics led to his being chosen as one of the five assistants of the Director-General of Statistics, Sir W. W. Hunter, who was then occupied in preparing for publication the laboriously compiled materials for his great Gazetteers of Bengal, and, subsequently, of all India. Under Sir William Hunter, Risley had an opportunity of displaying his powers of organisation and his brilliant literary style; while the interest he already felt in the primitive races of India was stimulated by the stores of information which came under his hands. His industry and capacity led to his appointment, after only five years’ service, to the post of assistant secretary to the Government of Bengal, and in 1879 he had already sufficiently made his mark to be chosen as officiating Under Secretary to the Government of India in the Home Department.

It was at this period of his career that he met and married the accomplished German lady, whose linguistic attainments aided him in his wide reading on anthropological and statistical subjects in foreign languages. In 1880 he once more returned to district work among his favourite Sonthalis and Uraons in Chota Nagpore, and in 1884 he was placed in charge of an organised survey of the Ghatwali and other service tenures of the district of Manbhum. In 1885 Sir Rivers Thompson, then Lieutenant-Governor of Bengal, was consulted by the Government of India as to the possibility of collecting detailed information about the castes, races, and occupations of the people of his province, and had the discernment to select Risley as the fittest person to conduct the requisite inquiries. At the beginning of Risley’s now famous investigation, which lasted over some years, he had the good fortune to meet Dr. James Wise, then retired from the medical service in India, who, during ten years spent as Civil Surgeon at Dacca, had made a minute inquiry into the social and racial structure, and the surviving aboriginal customs and traits of the people of Eastern Bengal, a tract of which Risley himself had little personal experience. Dr. Wise had apparently meditated the publication of an illustrated monograph of his own, but was so much impressed by the energy and enthusiasm of the young anthropologist that he willingly gave him his cordial help and advice. When Dr. Wise died suddenly in 1886, his widow made over his papers to Risley, “on the understanding,” to quote Risley’s own words, “that after testing the data contained in “ them as far as possible in the manner contemplated by Dr. Wise himself, I should “ incorporate the results in the ethnographical volumes of the present work, and by “ dedicating these volumes to Dr. Wise, should endeavour to preserve some record “. . . of the admirable work done by him during his service in India.” Not only did Risley put Dr. Wise’s rough materials into an accessible and attractive literary form, but he set to work with great energy to collect similar information for .the rest of Bengal, and himself devoted special attention to what Sir Alfred Lyall has called “the gradual Brahmanising of the aboriginal, non-Aryan, or casteless tribes.” On the subject of the processes by which such tribes and races are accepted into the Hindu social frame-work, he rapidly made himself unquestionably the greatest living authority, and by the careful anthropometric inquiries which he superintended, satisfied himself that there is no adequate reason for holding that there is any “Kolarian” race of men to the south of Bengal to be distinguished from Dravidian neighbours. The four volumes of The Tribes and Castes of Bengal (two containing an “Ethnographic Glossary,” an invaluable record of all the castes, tribes, sub-castes, &c., in Bengal, and two comprising the anthropometric data on which many of his conclusions were based) were published in 1891-2. Risley also wrote a valuable Gazetteer of Sikkim, the curious border-land between Bengal, Nepal, and Tibet, with which he became acquainted during his visits to Darjeeling, and, subsequently, a monograph on “Widow and Infant Marriage,” which puts on record much interesting information. It was only natural, in the case of a man so fitted, and so filled with a hearty enthusiasm for ethnographic inquiry, that he should desire to continue his own and encourage the researches of other investigators. He was especially anxious that similar inquiries should be instituted in other parts of India than Bengal. An admirable account of the great scheme which shaped itself in his mind will be found in his paper on “The Study of Ethnology in India,” published in Vol. XX of the Journal of the Anthropological Institute.

What he thought of the administrative and political value of ethnological inquiries may be gathered from a charming discourse on “India and Anthropology” delivered to the boys at Winchester in 1910 [vide MAN, 1910, 94J, in which he paid a kindly and sympathetic tribute to his friend Dr. Jackson. He quoted, too, the words of another old friend, Sir Bamfylde Fuller, that “nothing wins the regard of an Indian so easily as a knowledge of facts connected with his religion, his prejudices, or his habits. We do but little to secure that our officers are equipped with these passports to popular regard.” Thus, in one of the last of his public utterances, Sir Herbert Risley stated his deliberate conviction that it is only right “to teach the anthropology of India to the men of the Indian services.”

Risley’s proposal to extend his ethnological survey to the whole of India met with a temporary check, the Government at that time being in sore financial straits. But it was evident that an inquiry so practically useful and scientifically interesting could not be permanently arrested. Lord Curzon arrived in India when more prosperous finances gave a scope to his sympathy with all projects for scientific research, and Risley at last found himself at the head of a complete ethnographic survey of the whole country as honorary director. Of this final and gratifying achievement it was that Professor Ridgeway said that “in our new President, Sir H. H. Risley, we have the founder and organiser of the great ethnographical survey of India.”

In 1890 Risley served as member and secretary of a Commission appointed to inquire into the working of the Indian police, and, after a brief reversion to district duty, became secretary to the Government of Bengal in the financial and municipal departments. In 1898 he was promoted to be financial secretary to the Government of India; but the census of 1901 was at hand, and it was obvious that no man could be better adapted by training and temperament for the task of conducting its operations. In writing the voluminous and scholarly report on this census Risley had the assistance of Mr. E. A. Gait, to whom has fallen the duty of carrying out the decennial census recently effected. Risley was fortunate in having under his hand a coadjutor and successor trained in his own methods and inspired with his own enthusiasm for ethnological research. Although he was already marked for further official promotion, he found time to write the remarkable chapter on “Tribe, Caste, and Race,” which, with additions, became the book published as The People of India. It was while he was still occupied in this congenial labour that he was summoned to be Home Secretary in Lord Curzon’s administration. After this there fell to him the onerous and delicate duties of secretary to the Committee of the Government of India on Constitutional Reform, a post in which he rendered such indispensable service that he was retained in India for a couple of years beyond the age limit fixed for compulsory retirement.

He was created a C.S.I. in 1904, and was advanced to the knighthood of the Indian Empire in 1907. In the spring of last year he was selected to succeed Sir C. J. Lyall at the India Office. His contributions to anthropology were widely recognised by learned bodies. In France he could wear the violet rosette of an officier d’académie. He was a corresponding member of the Anthropological Societies of Berlin and Rome. But probably the honour of which he was most proud was his election to succeed Professor Ridgeway as President of the Royal Anthropological Institute.

In judging Sir Herbert Risley’s anthropological work, it is only fair to remember that, if much of it was performed officially, and with all the advantages that official authority and prestige confer in India, he was at all times largely, and often exclusively, occupied with administrative responsibilities involving harassing and continuous labour. He was not a man of robust physique, and suffered much at various times from exhausting illnesses, due to ceaseless toil in an enervating climate. But, in addition to the enormous mass of work in connection with anthropological inquiries which he performed or supervised, he strove by example and precept to foster a love of his favourite study in India. Twenty years ago, in his own province of Bengal, inquiries into the origins of caste and custom by men of alien creed were often, and not unnaturally, resented. Ethnology is now one of the recognised objects of investigation of the Vangiya Sahitya Parisat, or “Bengal Society of Literature,” which has recently published in the vernacular a painstaking monograph by a Bengali gentleman on the Chakmas of the Chittagong Hill Tracts.

Sir Herbert Risley’s last official work in India was intended to bring about a better understanding between people and Government by introducing the beginnings of popular representation. It may yet be recognised, in India as well as in Europe, that his most valuable achievement was the lesson he assiduously taught and practised that the best basis for progress is the careful and disinterested study of existing institutions. Out of such punctiliously impartial yet sympathetic study came his already classical Tribes and Castes of Bengal, which will keep his memory green in India long after most of his official contemporaries and rivals have been forgotten in the oblivion which is commonly the reward of even distinguished administrators in our distant and ill-comprehended Eastern empire.


This obituary first appeared as: Andersn, J. D.. 1912. ‘Sir Herbert Risley, K.C.I.E., C.S.I.’. Man Vol. 12, pp. 1-4. Reproduced with permission.


To cite this article:

ANDERSON, J. D.. 1912. ‘Sir Herbert Risley, K.C.I.E., C.S.I.’. Man Vol. 12, pp. 1-4. (available on-line: http://www.therai.org.uk/archives-and-manuscripts/obituaries/herbert-risley).


Link to relevant records by or concerning the listed person on the RAI’s bibliographic database Anthropological Index Online https://aio.therai.org.uk/aio.php?action=doquicksearch&qs_resultsmode=fullkeywords&qs_decades=all&qs_keyword=Herbert%20Risley