Bengal. His first appointment was that of assistant magistrate and collector in the remote district of Birbhum. Here, in addition to his official duties, he ransacked old records and collected local traditions, in order to obtain materials for publication. It is characteristic alike of his industry and his ambition that his first literary venture took the form, not of a slight magazine article, but of a considerable historical work, intended to be the precursor of a series, entitled 'The Annals of Rural Bengal.' On its publication in 1868, this was received with universal eulogy, for it was immediately recognised that India had now found a voice to make the dry details of administration not only intelligible but attractive. The book has since passed through six editions. In 1872 followed a yet more important work, in two volumes, on 'Orissa,' a province which will always be interesting for its far-famed temple of Jagannath, and which at that time had drawn special notice as the scene of a disastrous famine. Another publication of these early days was 'A Comparative Dictionary of the Non-Aryan Languages of India and High Asia' (1868), being a glossary of 139 dialects based mainly upon the collections formed by Brian Houghton Hodgson [q. v. Suppl.], with a political dissertation on the relations of the Indian government with the aboriginal tribes. Of this work it should be observed that the author subsequently withdrew some of the linguistic inductions, and went so far as to describe it as one 'for which my opportunities and my knowledge were then inadequate.'
Meanwhile, Hunter had been selected by Lord Mayo to organise perhaps the most gigantic literary enterprise that has ever been undertaken by any government — a statistical survey of the Indian empire, such as Sir John Sinclair [q. v.] attempted one hundred years ago for Scotland. At this distance of time it is difficult to realise the density of the ignorance that then prevailed with regard to the fundamental facts upon which good administration must be based. No general census had been taken, and the wildest estimates of population found acceptance. Each of the provinces remained isolated in respect of its knowledge of the rest, and the supreme government possessed no information to enable it to exercise the duty of supervision or (if need should arise in case of famine) of assistance. So far back as 1867 the government had resolved that a gazetteer should be prepared for each of the twelve great provinces of India. But there was no guarantee for uniformity in the execution of the work. In July 1869 Lord Mayo placed Hunter on special duty 'to submit a comprehensive scheme for utilising the information already collected, for prescribing the principles according to which all local gazetteers are in future to be prepared, and for the consolidation into one work of the whole of the materials that may be available.' This task occupied the next twelve years of Hunter's life. His first duty was to travel over the whole of India, so as to put himself into communication with the local officials, and see things with his own eyes. These tours, often repeated, gave him an acquaintance with every corner of the peninsula such as few others could boast. As was to be expected, he encountered some opposition and not a little personal criticism, directed chiefly against the uniform system of spelling place-names which it was necessary to introduce. But his enthusiasm and diplomacy finally triumphed over all obstacles. The Hunterian compromise, based upon a transliteration of vernacular names, without any diacritical marks but with a concession to the old spelling of places that have become historical, has gradually won acceptance even in English newspapers.
In September 1871 the new post of director-general of statistics to the government of India was created for Hunter, who was further privileged to spend long periods in England for the greater convenience of the work. In addition to supervising the local editors and drawing up the scheme of the 'Imperial Gazetteer,' he took upon himself Bengal, the largest and least known province in India, and also Assam, which then formed an integral part of Bengal. 'The Statistical Account of Bengal' was published in twenty volumes between 1875 and 1877. The city of Calcutta is omitted, but the last volume contains a valuable appendix on fishes and plants. 'The Statistical Account of Assam' followed, in two volumes, in 1879. The other local gazetteers compiled in India raise the total number of volumes to 128, aggregating 60,000 pages. Meanwhile the task of condensing this enormous mass of material into 'The Imperial Gazetteer of India' was going on apace. The first edition, in nine volumes, appeared in 1881 ; and a second edition, which was augmented to fourteen volumes, incorporating the latest statistics and the results of the census of 1881, appeared in 1885-7. It is not too much to say that this will rank among the monumental works of reference which our generation has produced. Hunter, of course, did not accomplish all this single-handed. Among his many gifts was that