A Window Into the Lives of Colonial India's People, in the Trials of a Surveyor

William Edward James, an explorer in the Mysore Survey, willingly served the British empire but others, including farmers, cart drivers and their families, were dragged in at great cost to themselves and those around them.

When the British expanded their control over India in the 18th and 19th centuries, they began to systematically document the natural resources that they could exploit. Thus was born the Survey of India, which required meticulous, courageous and perseverant explorers to map the length and breadth of the country, unafraid to go on adventures.

William Edward Ashton James was one such explorer, in the Mysore Survey.

While out in the field, a British surveyor – unfamiliar with the Indian countryside – needed the help of the locals, who in turn had their own views of the necessity of these surveys, and participated or stayed away accordingly.

James’s misfortunes offer an instructive glimpse into this relationship, together with the trials and tribulations of being a surveyor in colonial India.

James was employed  in the Mysore Revenue Survey as an assistant superintendent. He first shows up in the archives in 1873.

Raising bunds

The Mysore Government was organising its land tax system under the ryotwari system, where it wanted to collect taxes directly from farmers. And to determine how much to collect, it deployed surveyors to map each farmer’s lands.

The Revenue Survey Department had to raise bunds (raised borders, usually made of mud) around the fields to demarcate ownership, so officials could record how much land an individual owned. This way, farmers could deal directly with the government. On the flip side, however, it vested a lot of power with the surveyor – as well as a lot of responsibility.

Either the farmers raised the bunds and markers themselves or paid the department to do so.

In April 1873, James was sent off to Magadi, then a village, about 51 km west of Bangalore, to map the farms. He began work on April 21. Because raising bunds was an arduous task that everyone was reluctant to take on, James began with issuing the standard notice: either the farmers raised the bunds and markers themselves or paid the department to do so.

The farmers agreed on paper to raise their own bunds, leaving only the measuring of individual properties to James’s team. But James waited in vain. In two weeks, they were behind schedule by over four hundred boundary markers, and James had written a number of letters to the local amildar, all in vain.

Utterly fed up, James decided to take matters into his own hands. On May 8, 1873, he demanded each landowner assemble with two people outside the Cutcherry – the village office – to erect the required markers. He threatened a fine if they defaulted. The next day, a crowd of 500 thoroughly disgruntled men showed up at 4 am. Many land owners, particularly the smaller ones, resented that they had to provide just as much labour as the larger. By 7 am, James had reached the spot and the tension was palpable.

One land owner, a local headman named Sitalappa, got into  an angry discussion with James. At one point, James stretched out the whip he was holding in his direction, touching Sitalappa’s turban – an insulting gesture (that James maintained happened by accident). This triggered havoc.

One man from the crowd grabbed James’s bridle, scaring his horse, which then bolted into the crowd, kicking its hooves, and injuring people. In retaliation, the gathered men began to pelt  stones at James, cutting his lip and bruising his ribs. He was forced to beat a hasty retreat to his tent.

A deeply annoyed James wanted the stone pelters brought to justice. In the case documents that followed, the villagers faulted James for riding his horse over innocent people, injuring an eight-year old boy and an elderly man. James contended that he was trying to save the villagers the expense of raising bunds, that he was offering them the cheaper alternative of contributing labour.

Carts in demand

While  initial enquiries found both parties to be at fault, the paperwork on the case closed abruptly on August 22, 1873. Both the Chief Commissioner and the Survey and Settlement Commissioner of Mysore declared James blameless, and instead suspended local officers for negligence.

However, James’s troubles didn’t end here. He was an organised man who liked to plan ahead. In mid-April 1875, he requested the amildar of Manjarabad (in Hassan district) to provide him and his establishment with 20 carts on May 12 so his team could travel from Sakleshpur to Magadi for surveying work. To be double sure, he also fired off a letter to the Deputy Commissioner of Hasan on April 21.

But come May 21, the Manjarabad amildar delivered only 11 carts, with a promise to provide the rest the next day. So James took off for Magadi, leaving his team of measurers to follow the next day. He even penned a letter on May 25 to the Deputy Superintendent of the Revenue Survey, complaining bitterly that two carts were left with the amildar, but “after my back was turned the amildar took them for some purpose and declined to give them”.

His team would arrive several days later, and the project was behind schedule by 10 days even before it had begun.

A disgruntled James filed a complaint against the amildar and it reached the Chief Commissioner of Mysore. To him, the amildar explained that four different survey teams had asked for 124 carts in all. But it was difficult to get as many carts together in a taluk where both bullocks and carts were always in demand for agricultural work.

To make matters worse, the surveyors had not paid the cartmen their daily allowance for the days they waited nor given them an advance before the journey, so they were reluctant to make their vehicles available again.So when they were pressed to provide their carts to James, many of them simply drove  away or hustled their bullocks into the surrounding jungles, to prevent them from being seized. Others supplied “unserviceable bullocks”.

But the amildar had managed to supply the carts James had wanted in spite of all these challenges, albeit with a small delay, so he argued  he shouldn’t be penalised.

Moreover, the amildar claimed that James’s team itself had delayed the survey: even after he supplied the remaining nine carts, the measurers had not left immediately for Magadi but had waited for their families to arrive.

Why did James ask for 20 carts for a team of about 25 measurers?

The correspondence then shifted to another question: Why did James ask for 20 carts for a team of about 25 measurers? The Officiating Chief Commissioner ordered the Officers of the Survey Department to end this practice and request only the exact number of carts as required to transport the Surveyors and their employees alone.

The Survey and Settlement Commissioner of Mysore stepped in to defend James’s case at this point. The measurers were in the field for eight months, living in tents. Unless they had their wives and children with them, how were they expected to provide for their daily needs? “What respectable native would accept service in which he was compelled to separate himself from his family for two-thirds of the year?”

Without their families around, James said, the men would have to spend more time and energy on domestic chores and less on drawing maps, writing up field notes and planning for the next day.

This time, the case went against James. In a terse report written over six months after the incident, the Chief Commissioner found James’ claims to be groundless and censured him for transporting 32 measurers but 41 followers (women, children and cooks). He  dismissed the case and recommended that future surveys be accompanied only by a few servants for “messing”.

But this series of unfortunate events did not affect James’s promotions. On June 19, 1876, a year after the carts incident, he was recommended for promotion from the third to the second grade. His name persists in the records until 1884. On May 14 of that year, he was promoted from the second to the first grade, as  assistant survey superintendent.

There was one problem: according to newspaper reports, James had died on April 29, 1884, in an accident somewhere near Bangalore. He was only 42.

The Mysore Government was informed of his death on June 7. His fellow officers had a plaque embedded in the wall of Trinity Church, Bangalore, “in affectionate remembrance”.

James’s story offers us a rare window into the lives of ordinary people in colonial India. James and his measurers willingly served the British empire’s survey efforts but others, including farmers, cart drivers and their families, were dragged in at great cost to themselves and those around them.

Anushri Visweswaran and Harini Nagendra are at the Centre for Urban Sustainability in India, Azim Premji University. Hita Unnikrishnan is at the Urban Institute, University of Sheffield.