Jul/Aug 2004 Book Reviews

Imprint of the Raj

Chandak Sengoopta
Pan (April 2004) 234 pages
ISBN: 0 330 49140 7

reviewed by David Skea

Chandak Sengoopta is a very articulate writer with a delightfully wicked and somewhat sarcastic sense of humour. Born and educated in India, he then studied in the United States before settling in England. Consequently he sees the faults and foibles of both the English and his fellow countrymen with equal ease, and is not backward in showing it. This makes his book an interesting read. For example, he describes the Indian Mutiny of 1857 as the Sepoy Mutiny; politically correct historians would call it the Great Rebellion, and the term that I heard used in India, the First War of Independence, doesn't even get a mention. He says that he wrote this book, about William James Herschel and the colonial past of fingerprinting, after seeing Satyajit Ray's film The Golden Fortress.

Fingerprints were only accepted as proof of identity in British Courts after 1902, just over 100 years ago. Until then proof of identification was "always dependent upon personal recognition by police or prison officers." Before the population explosion that occurred during the industrial revolution this may have been an adequate method for identifying repeat offenders, and then shipping them off to the penal colonies across the world, out of harms way. However, as the cities became more crowded and travel easier and quicker, due to the railways, a habitual criminal could and did operate in many areas where he/she was relatively unknown and with little chance of being identified as a recidivist. This was a worrying trend for the law abiding citizens of England.

The government, therefore, was keen to employ a system that would identify such persons. Such a system would have to be precise and easily searched. In France such a system, the brainchild of Alphonse Bertillon, was employed and this system was soon in use across Europe.

However, in India, some 50 years previous to this, the perception of wholesale fraud by the local inhabitants and the perceived difficulty of telling one coloured person apart from another prompted an expatriate magistrate to look for a system that would positively identify a person and a very different solution was used. The reasons for doing so had more to do with civil actions mostly involving implied impersonation with documents dealing with land transfer or loans and drawing a pension. The system involved the placing of finger marks (prints) on the documents as "a signature which the writer would obviously hesitate to disown." A magistrate could then compare and identify that the person making the claim was the same person as had registered the document. The magistrate who first used this technique was William James Herschel. Herschel used fingerprints in his dealings with the public and recommended that the prison system also use them as "unambiguous evidence of identity was not un-needed." Unfortunately few followed his recommendations and his system was not put into general practice; its use ceased soon after his departure from India.

The story now shifts to England. A Henry Faulds, working as a medical missionary in Japan, chanced upon prehistoric "sun-baked' pottery bearing the finger impressions of the potters left on the clay whilst still soft and in 1880 Nature published a long letter from him "on skin furrows of the hand." This letter induced Herschel to recount his own experiences in India. Debate, claim and counter-claim followed as to who was first to conceive the idea that fingerprints afforded irresistible proof of identity. All to the good as this broadened the knowledge of fingerprinting for others.

Meanwhile back in the Empire (British India) a new Inspector General of Police, Edward Henry, made history by introducing a modified Bertillon system that included the left thumb print. However there was no easy way to categorise the prints and they were only used to confirm an identity established by other means. This was similar to the system introduced 2 years later in England the English system including all 10 fingerprints.

The major breakthrough that has allowed fingerprints to be categorised and searched came in 1897. Henry and two very able Indian assistants came up with a remarkable system that allowed fingerprint cards to be categorised and searched in extremely short times. How this is done is explained in Sengoopta's book and I'll leave it to the reader to find it out. Edward Henry returned to England where he continued to champion the use of his fingerprint system and eventually became Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police in London.

Over time there have been many calls for a national database of fingerprints and such. Sengoopta, however, points out that when it comes to establishing a national identity database, the British are a race apart; categorically rejecting any suggestion of carrying an identity card or having on record bodily identification such as fingerprints. Even in the two world wars the British Identity Card only contained the briefest of details name and address. Times, though, are changing.


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