Last week I was in the library of the University of Malaya, Malaysia. I requested the concerned staff to guide me as to where I could find British scholars’ works about the Indian Subcontinent, Burma and Malaysia. He accompanied me to the reference section, and in a whisper complained that the library could be also accessed through the internet. In response, I smiled and opted for silence.
How could I tell him that there was no specific title in my mind – and that I belong to an old school, where it is still the case that the physical existence of books holds unbound attraction, the pages’ faded colour and fragrance has a melancholy and romantic appeal. He left me amidst the treasure trove.
I quickly read the names. Of course I could only recall those names with which I was acquainted. I recall that I saw there Howard Carter, Edward Gibbon, A.J. P. Taylor, Jerald T. Milanich, Arnold Joseph Toynbee and E. H. Carr. The works were properly ordered in the context of eras and subjects, there were books on the Greco-Roman World, the Middle Ages, the Islamic World, the modern period and the various empires and their colonies.
I took one book from the shelf. Its title read Discoveries Among the Ruins of Nineveh and Babylon: With Travels in Armenia, Kurdistan, and the Desert: Being the Result of a Second Expedition Undertaken for the Trustees of the British Museum.
Casually, I opened it and I was soon lost in its beautifully drawn engravings – “Ruins of Mosques”, “Yezidi Woman”, “Mound Nimrud”, “Kurdish Women” and “Arab’s Camel”. The engravings tempted me to turn the pages randomly.
The Turkish official’s response to the Englishman’s inquiry concludes with a warning: “Don’t indulge in affairs which do not concern you.”
Suddenly, I found myself at a specific page that shows a Turkish officer’s letter which was written in reply to an Englishman’s inquiry. The letter opened with a traditional Turkish salutation, then proceeded to the response itself. It stated that he had lived in a certain area since long, but he had neither counted houses nor in any other manner explored as to what number of inhabitants lived there. At the end, his letter to the Englishman concludes with a warning:
“Don’t indulge in affairs which do not concern you.”
What may have felt like an acceptable negligence to the Turkish official becomes a problem for the historian today. From the historian’s point of view, the facts – population, trade volumes, feuds and conflicts amongst parties – simply end up undocumented. The historian is then left to make inferences, or to depend upon the king’s court or the priest’s version. As a result, the history thus written inevitably becomes “one-sided”.
Contrary to the attitude adopted by this Turkish official, it would appear that European city administrators, surveyors and planners took – from the historian’s perspective – a more promising road when it came to records.
In the case of the British, approximately some 50 years after the Battle of Plassey (1757), the East India Company felt the need to know more about India. The same intention was expressed in one of the dispatches issued by the East India Company in 1807. It stated:
“We are of opinion that a Statistical Survey of the country would be attended with much utility; we, therefore, recommend proper steps to be taken for the execution of the same”
It is believed that this dispatch put things in motion on the path for the publishing of British colonial gazetteers. Three famous titles in this series from British times are The Imperial Gazetteer, Provincial Series and District Series.
The importance of record-keeping is not merely something for today’s historians to obsess themselves with. It was not lost on colonial officials even in their own time. Allow me to recall H. Pottinger’s conversion with Mir. Murad Ali Khan Talpur, (one of the princes of Sindh’s Talpur era) dated the 3rd of February, 1832.
Mir Murad told Pottinger that they (the Mirs) knew nothing about accounts or traffic (i.e. trade through Indus River) or writing financial entries. He went on to narrate that the rulers of his dynasty hardly knew that two and two made four, and that they all trusted Hindus for such matters, asking them to buy and sell on their behalf. The conversation ends with the Mir’s sentence that they all only knew how to fight each other, and that this was something they never forgot.
The conversation was held a mere eleven years prior to the armed conquest of Sindh by Charles Napier in 1843.
Relatively soon after the conquest, the British started issuing their famed Gazetteers. The first gazetteer on Sindh came out in 1876, and it was authored by A.W. Hughes. Another came out in 1907, and the last one, authored by H.T. Sorely, appeared in 1968. These gazetteers are popularly known by the names of their authors. However, A.H. Aitken’s compiled gazetteer which was made available for the general reader in 1907 gained perhas the most popularity amongst readers.
At first glance, the reader might find that these gazetteers contain the most ordinary data or information from their times. But that which may have appeared mundane today holds immense historical importance. Today, for instance, no scholar intending to work on Sindh could bypass these Gazetteers.
He went on to narrate that the Mirs hardly knew that two and two made four, and that they all trusted Hindus for such matters, asking them to buy and sell on their behalf. The conversation ends with the Mir’s sentence that they all only knew how to fight each other, and that this was something they never forgot
The purpose for the colonial administrator, of course, was to gather data which facilitated the running of the Empire, not the concern of modern-day historians. But it may be useful to compare British information-gathering to the experience of our own administrators today.
District administrators have commissioned district reports in our times, but all of them lack the scholarship and standard which was offered by the British scholars.
Some authors have written local histories – books on their villages and districts. Most of them are in the Sindhi language but serve an important role as a microhistory of the area on which they focus.
On inquiry, it was learned by this scribe from the Sindh Revenue Department’s officials that decades ago, at the divisional headquarters, one official was assigned the duty to gather and compile data from the various districts. The official designated was called a “Gazetteer-Officer” – a person who collects and compiles material for the Governments’ report, traditionally known as the Sindh Gazetteer.
With the promulgation of One Unit in what was then West Pakistan, the post of Gazetteer-Officer was simply abolished. It was never revived – even after the restoration of the provinces as administrative units.
Nowadays, I find that there is a dearth of data, but interpreters are far too many!
We are living in a world where ideology has taken lead and facts are just mechanically fixed into an ideological frame.
I believe it is not too late for our administrators to begin seriously compiling information about our land and people in the form of properly-researched and documented reports. When the facts are extracted from the colossal volumes thus produced, we stand to learn much about people, their everyday experiences, their frustrations, anger and even aspirations.
The skeptic has every right to doubt whether government-generated facts can be taken as face-value representations of the people whose lives they document. Perhaps some cynicism in this regard is understandable, but from that point, the duty of the historian starts. They must decide what are useful sources, what are the facts and what are the methods to be used.
However, it should be remembered that the prime task is, above all, to create facts. Their interpretation is secondary.
One hopes to be able to prevail upon our administrators to follow some of the better practices of their former masters for a change!
The author is a Ph.D. Scholar at the Department of History, University of Malaya, Kuala Lumpur. The areas of his interest are Peasants’ Studies, Social History and the Colonial and Post-Colonial periods. He may be contacted at email@example.com