Dictionary of National Biography, 1912 supplement/Risley, Herbert Hope

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RISLEY, Sir HERBERT HOPE (1851–1911), Indian civil servant and anthropologist, was born on 4 Jan. 1851 at Akeley, Buckinghamshire, where his father, John Risley, was rector. His mother was Frances, daughter of John Hope, at one time residency surgeon of Gwalior. The Risley family for centuries held a high position in the county and in Oxfordshire. On 13 July 1863 he was elected in open competition a scholar of Winchester, a privilege which his ancestors had for many generations enjoyed by the mere right of founder's kin. He won there the Goddard scholarship and the Queen's gold medal, and on 30 July 1869 obtained a scholarship at New College, Oxford. He passed on 29 April 1871 the competitive examination for the Indian civil service, but he graduated B.A. in 1872 with a second class in law and modern history, before he joined the service on 3 June 1873. Posted to Midnapur as assistant collector he entered at once into the interests of district life, and until his death, despite the calls of duties in the secretariat, he cultivated an intimate knowledge of the peoples of India. At a 'domum' dinner at Winchester in 1910 he asserted that 'a knowledge of facts concerning the religions and habits of the peoples of India equips a civil servant with a passport to their affection.' His zeal for work and his literary power early attracted the attention of the government, and Sir William Wilson Hunter [q. v. Suppl. I], then engaged on the compilation of the 'Gazetteer of Bengal' as director-general of statistics, made Risley on 15 Feb. 1875 one of his assistants. The chapter on Chota Nagpur was written by him. Within five years of his arrival in India he rose from assistant secretary to be under-secretary in Bengal, and in 1879 was promoted to the imperial secretariat as under-secretary to the government of India in the home department. But despite this unusually rapid promotion his heart was still in the districts, and by his own wish he reverted to them, going to Govindpur in 1880, Hazaribagh, and then to Manbhum, where he superintended the survey of Ghatwah and other lands held on service tenure. In Jan. 1885 he was employed on the congenial task of compiling statistics relating to the castes and occupations of the people of Bengal. He thus acquired a wide acquaintance with scientific authorities in Europe, including Professor Popinard, whose system of anthropological research Risley apphed to India. His work on 'Tribes and Castes of Bengal' (Calcutta, 1891-2) was well received by the public as well as the government, and he was made an officier d'académie by the French government in 1891. Next year he received the C.I.E. In 1898 he was acting financial secretary to the government of India. In 1899 he was appointed census commissioner, and chapter vi. on Ethnology and Caste in vol. i. of the 'Imperial Gazetteer of India' (1907) is an epitome of his monumental contribution to the 'Census Report,' 1901, on that subject. From the date of his report a new chapter was opened in Indian official literature, and the census volumes, until then regarded as dull, were at once read and reviewed in every country. In 1901 he became director of ethnography for India, and next year secretary to the government of India in the home department, acting for a short time as member of council. He had served as member and secretary to the police commission in 1890, and his special knowledge was of great value to Lord Curzon in many administrative matters, including the partition of Bengal. When the administrative reforms suggested by Lord Morley came under the consideration of Lord Minto in 1908–9, Risley proved an admirable instrument for the work in hand. With clear judgment and rare facility of expression Risley excavated from an enormous mass of official documents the main issues on reform, enlarged councils, and administrative changes (cf. Blue Books, 1909), and he submitted the needful points to Lord Minto's council. Although every provincial government held different views, Risley directed the members of council to conclusions and compromises, and finally put their orders into resolutions, regulations, and laws. He was created C.S.I, in 1904 and K.C.I.E. in 1907. In 1910 he returned to England to fill the post of secretary in the public and judicial department at the India office in London.

Despite the pressure of his secretariat labours Risley continued to pursue his study of ethnography and anthropometry. He became president of the Royal Anthropological Institute in Jan. 1910. On the processes by which non- Aryan tribes are admitted into Hinduism he was recognised to be the greatest living authority, and he established by anthropometric investigation the fact that the Kolarians south of Bengal are not to be distinguished from their Dravidian neighbours. He strongly advocated the addition of ethnology to the necessary training of civilians for work in India. His chief contributions to literature, besides those already cited, were, ’Anthropometric Data' (2 vols. Calcutta, 1891) and 'Ethnographical Glossary' (2 vols. Calcutta, 1892); the 'Gazetteer of Sikhim: Introductory Chapter' (Calcutta, 1894); and 'The People of India' (Calcutta, 1908). His work completely revolutionised the native Indian view of ethnological inquiry. 'Twenty years ago in his own province of Bengal inquiries into the origin of caste and custom by men of alien creed were resented. Ethnology is now one of the recognised objects of investigation of the Vangiya Sahitya Parisat' (Mr. J. D. Anderson in Roy. Anthropol. Record, Jan. 1912).

Risley died at Wimbledon on 30 Sept. 1911, pursuing almost to the last his favourite studies despite distressing illness. He was buried in the Wimbledon cemetery.

He married at Simla, on 17 June 1879, Elsie Julie, daughter of Friedrich Oppermann of Hanover, who survived him with a son. Crescent Gebhard, born in Oct. 1881, captain of the 18th King George's Own Lancers, Indian, army, and a daughter, Sylvia.

[The Times, 3 Oct. 1911; Man, a monthly record of anthropological science, Jan. 1912; Buckland's Indian Biography; Parliamentary Blue Books, and official reports; Records of Buckinghamshire, vol. iii. no. 6.]

W. L-W.