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  • Imprint of the Raj: How Fingerprinting was Born in Colonial India
  • Simon A. Cole (bio)
Imprint of the Raj: How Fingerprinting was Born in Colonial India. By Chandak Sengoopta. London: Macmillan, 2003. Pp. xv+234. £15.99.

It is widely believed that fingerprinting was invented at Scotland Yard. Far from being a mere antiquarian matter, this belief has even assumed some legal significance in a recent criminal case (United States v. Llera Plaza, 188 F.Supp.2d 549, E.D. Pa. 2002). Leaving aside for the moment all the usual caveats familiar to historians of technology about what it means to "invent" something, the British claim is controversial at best: arguments can be made for both Argentina and the United States. That the British contribution to the development of fingerprinting occurred not at home but abroad, in India and Japan, is usually a mere footnote to the general acclamation of British genius.

In Imprint of the Raj, Chandak Sengoopta shows that fingerprinting was a product, not so much of Britain, but of the Raj, of the imperial encounter between colonizer and colonized. The locus of British inventiveness in the area of personal identification was no mere coincidence. Fingerprinting, Sengoopta argues, was like curry powder: "Developed in India but not indigenous, British but not evolved in Britain itself . . . incorporated into British tradition and then gradually re-transmitted to the world at large, blur[ring] the simplistic distinction we often make between home and Empire" (p. 6).

There were two rival claimants to priority in the British contribution to fingerprint history: William Herschel, grandson of the Astronomer Royal William and son of the famous polymath John, and the Scottish physician Henry Faulds. For most of the past century, probably at the instigation of Francis Galton, Scotland Yard has systematically inflated the claim of the former and denigrated the claim of the latter. Sengoopta has uncovered interesting evidence to support the thesis that the slighting of Faulds was in [End Page 252] part motivated by payback for his temerity in taking a skeptical view of the Yard's reliability at forensic fingerprint identification.

Recently, it has become fashionable to champion the long-maligned Faulds. Sengoopta bucks the trend by returning attention to Herschel. He finds that Herschel, whom I had always taken as a mere underachieving descendant of illustrious ancestors, was a profoundly decent man and an unusually just colonial administrator, an "honourable magistrate . . . one whose efficiency and integrity were lauded by Indians of the time as well as by recent historians of the indigo disturbances" (p. 70). It was in the wake of these disturbances (better known as the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857), and the contract disputes engendered by them, that Herschel came up with the idea of thumb printing as a way of linking written contracts to the bodies of those who executed them.

Also valuable is Sengoopta's careful and nuanced discussion of how credit for inventing the Henry system of fingerprint classification—the most significant British contribution to modern fingerprint identification—should be allocated among the British police official Edward Henry and his Indian assistants Azizul Haque and Chandra Bose.

Sengoopta shows that it was the British role as rulers of India that demanded fingerprinting as a way of keeping track of a native population that did not enjoy the liberties of Englishmen. Routine identification of civilians, as opposed to criminals, would have been unthinkable at home. "The body of the colonial subject, however, was another matter altogether" (p. 203). "Unquestioned authority went hand in hand with pervasive fears of being deceived by the populace," Sengoopta writes. "It is this curious combination of despotic rule and intense insecurity that is the ultimate explanation of the origin of systematic fingerprinting in the Raj as well as of the astonishing extent of its application" (p. 204).

Imprint of the Raj is packaged as a popular history; instead of notes, it contains an excellent essay on sources. But Sengoopta, a professional historian of medicine, is too good a historian to be drawn into either the scholarly sloppiness or facile thinking typically associated with popularizations. Like the mentor to whom the book is, in part, dedicated, Roy Porter, Sengoopta is at...