A little bit of history…

This weekend Britain experienced a historic moment as the statue of slaver Edward Colston tumbled off the Bristol dockside.

These days I tend to write about being visually impaired and disability activism. However, as my twitter handle indicates, I did have another life before I picked up my white cane. After popular demand, this lapsed historian has dusted off the PhD and found a piece I wrote a few years ago about my research. I hope you enjoy it!

May I please introduce Romesh Chundra Dutt or more correctly Rameshchandra Datta.

A stamp of Romesh Chunder Dutt, a balding Indian man with small round glasses. The stamp has bengali text on it and reads in english 1848 to 1909, 20p, India.

R.C Dutt (or Datta) was born on the 13th August 1848 in Calcutta, Rameshchandra was part of a family with a connection to the British Raj. Datta’s father was a Deputy Collector. Deputy Collectors were junior, usually Indian and they belonged to the Uncovenanted or Subordinate Civil Service. Deputy Collectors did make significant judicial and financial decisions but they were always subject to the scrutiny of the Collector or Judge and could be overturned easily. In 1858 on assuming the Government of India Queen Victoria promised:

“And it is our further will that, so far as may be, our subjects, of whatever race or creed, be freely and impartially admitted to offices in our service, the duties of which they may be qualified, by their education, ability, and integrity, duly to discharge.”

However, the Covenanted Civil Service remained predominantly British and white long after this proclamation. It is important to note the caveats in Victoria’s promise, ‘so far as may be’ & ‘they may be qualified’ . The British consistently argued that Indians could not be part of the Covenanted Civil service due to their lack of intellect, trustworthiness and inability to command respect.

On the 24th July 1889 the Under Secretary of State for India wrote to the Secretary of the Civil Service Commission emphatically protesting against the Indianisation of the Civil Service;

“the very raison d’etre of the Covenanted Civil Service dictates the necessity of strictly maintaining the principle that while that Service is open to all natural-born subjects of Her Majesty, it must always be essentially English in its character. As observed by the Government of India, the object is to obtain men trained in the highest and best form of English education, and the importance of recruiting the Service in a manner which shall ensure the maintenance of English principles and methods of government cannot be overrated”

This was the climate of opinion that defined Datta’s working life. In 1868 Datta and his two friends Bihari Lal Gupta and Surendranath Banerjea secretly traveled to Britain. This was a brave and controversial decision, not just due to the reprisals from the British establishment but also from their families. In 1869 Datta, as a member of University College London, took the Covenanted Civil Service exam and came third, Gupta and Banerjea also passed.

However, there is something in the archives that sheds light on the nature of the hostility towards Gupta, Banerjea and Datta. It depressingly reflects the lengths Victorians would go to in order to preserve racial order.

In May 1869 there was an investigation into the age of two ‘native’ candidates, Banerjea and Gupta. The maximum age for taking the examination was 21 and this was rigidly adhered to. In 1869 there were 325 competitioners for 40 places and so understandably there was considerably controversy that 4 places went to Indian candidates (6 Indian competitioners sat the exam and 4 were successful, I have yet to discover who the fourth was). A gentleman by the name of W.K.M Butt, which in my opinion is clearly a parody of R.C Dutt, claimed to have information as to the ages of the two other Native candidates. He claimed that Banerjea and Gupta were too old to take the exam.

There were very strict age limits on the Indian Civil Service exams. Terrifyingly, the British Empire developed a system that put men rarely older than 23 in charge of an area the size of Wales and gave them power of life and death over a million people.

An advertisement had been placed in a newspaper appealing to the 57th, 54th, and 52nd candidates on the list who had lost out to their Indian rivals. The advert intended to inform those candidates that they had been unfairly excluded due to the age issue of Banerjea and Gupta.

It is a confusing and bizarre story. Banerjea was forced to fight the issue in a legal battle and eventually was admitted in 1871. Banerjea argued that he dated his age from conception not from birth, a Hindu practice. The British had to acknowledge his argument as this practice was also used by the Raj in legal documents and census records.

Six years later in 1875 more light was shed on the strange age controversy. There is a letter dated 23rd February 1875 from Robert Bradley. Robert states that his brother Alexander, also a selected candidate in 1869, heard that Banerjea’s statement of age was “at variance” from the truth. Robert continued: “my brother sent an advertisement to be inserted in the ‘Daily Telegraph … in order to find out the first man among the unsuccessful candidates of that year as he thought that such unsuccessful candidates would have a just right to apply to the Civil Service Commissioner on the subject”. The correspondence seems to suggest that the whole episode was the result of a conspiracy between a tutor under the pseudonym W.K.M Butts and Alexander Bradley. Presumably Alexander’s classmates, Butt’s pupils, who were not successful felt peeved at the selection of Banerjea, Gupta and Datta. Therefore the tutor and the fellow student had cooked up a scandal to try and get the Indian candidates removed.

Surendranath Banerjee

Regardless of these attempts and consistent hostility Datta had a fantastic career. Datta was called to the bar and became a member of Middle Temple in 1871 and at the same time joined the Indian Civil Service as an Assistant Magistrate and Collector. He became the first Indian born Collector in 1883, and indeed he became Collector of Bakarganj one of the districts which features prominently in my thesis. He went on to become a Divisional Commissioner in Burdwan and then Orissa 1894 – 5. He returned to Britain. lectured at UCL, and became involved in the Nationalist movement. In 1899 he chaired the fifteenth Indian National Congress and became friends with Gopal Krishna Gokhale a leading member of the Indian Independence movement. Datta continued to have an active and important political role and campaigned vigorously about the partition of Bengal which took place in 1905. He also published dozens of books and essays, translated key cultural and religious texts, wrote letters to newspapers and continued to comment on the administration of British India. He died on the 30th of November 1909.

I will conclude using his own words

“The Indian Empire will be judged by History as the most superb of human institutions in modern times. But it would be a sad story for future historians to tell that the Empire gave the people of India peace but not prosperity, that the manufacturers lost their industries; that the cultivators were ground down by a heavy and variable taxation which precluded any saving; that the revenues of the country were to a large extent diverted to England; and that recurring and desolating famines swept away millions of the population.” (R. C. Dutt, India under Early English Rule, 1906, Introduction)

If you want to find out more about R.C Dutt or indeed read his own books see below

Three Years in Europe, Being Extracts from Letters Sent from Europe. By a Hindu. Second Edition (Calcutta [printed], London, 1873)

The Civilization of India (London: Dent, 1900)

Land Problems in India. Papers by Mr. Romesh Chunder Dutt, C.I.E., Dewan Bahadur R. Ragoonath Rao … Also the Resolution of the Government of India and Summaries of the Views of Various Local Governments and Other Important Official Papers (Madras: G. A. Natesan & Co., 1903)

Civilisation in the Buddhist Age, B.C. 320 to A.D. 500 (Calcutta: Elm Press, 1908)

The Slave Girl of Agra: An Indian Historical Romance (London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1909)

A History of Civilization in Ancient India, Based on Sanscrit Literature (Calcutta: Thacker, Vol. 1889-90), p.3

The Economic History of British India : A Record of Agriculture and Land Settlements, Trade and Manufacturing Industries, Finance and Administration, from the Rise of the British Power in 1757 to the Accession of Queen Victoria in 1837 (London: K. Paul, Trench, 1902)

The Literature of Bengal (Calcutta: Bose, 1877)

Banerjea, Surendranath, A Nation in Making, Being the Reminiscences of Fifty Years of Public Life ([S.l.]: Oxford University Press, 1925)

Gupta, J. N. B., and Maharaja of Baroda Sayaji Rao Gaekwar III, Life and Work of Romesh Chunder Dutt, C.I.E. … With an Introduction by His Highness the Maharaja of Baroda. Four Photogravure Plates and Ten Other Illustrations (London: J. M. Dent & Sons, 1911)

Mukherjee, Meenakshi, An Indian for all Seasons: The Many Lives of R. C. Dutt (Delhi: Penguin, 2009)

Rule, Pauline, The Pursuit of Progress: A Study of the Intellectual Development of Romesh Chunder Dutt, 1848-1888 (Calcutta: Editions Indian, 1977)

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