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the Complete Review
the complete review - history

Imprint of the Raj

Chandak Sengoopta

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To purchase Imprint of the Raj

Title: Imprint of the Raj
Author: Chandak Sengoopta
Genre: History
Written: 2003
Length: 228 pages
Availability: Imprint of the Raj - UK
Imprint of the Raj - Canada
  • How fingerprinting was born in colonial India
  • With thirty illustrations

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Our Assessment:

B+ : interesting, informative historical study

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Guardian A 1/3/2003 Kevin Rushby
TLS . 23/5/2003 Daniel Crewe

  From the Reviews:
  • "Chandak Sengoopta has discovered an absorbing tale of scientific criminology. If that were all, the historian would have done a worthwhile job: he writes with unadorned ease, he balances each argument, his research is impeccable. But this book contains much more, at its deepest level touching on issues of freedom and oppression, and of how science, good or bad, will shackle itself to either cause." - Kevin Rushby, The Guardian

  • "Chandak Sengoopta's carefully explained and well-illustrated history takes us through the disputed provenance of the system of fingerprinting (.....) Sengoopta's strength is in following not only the twists in the system's development, but also the setbacks and alternative proposals" - Daniel Crewe, Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Chandak Sengoopta's Imprint of the Raj tells the story of the introduction of fingerprinting in both colonial India and Britain. Fingerprinting became a viable and useful identifying procedure in the second half of the 19th century, but it was adopted for quite different uses in the British colony and English homeland -- an interesting contrast that Sengoopta explores and explains quite well.
       The history of identification procedures, in particular for keeping track of criminals, is a fairly complex one, and Sengoopta offers a broad introduction to the subject. His focus is largely on Britain (and then India), and though not truly comprehensive Sengoopta does a fair job of presenting this daunting material in fairly straightforward and summary manner. The complexity of keeping track of criminals (in particular in seeking out recidivists, i.e. career criminals) is well conveyed, and there are some fascinating titbits about how the police went about it in England before the introduction of fingerprinting.
       Sengoopta discusses other identification system at some length as well, in particular Alphonse Bertillon's earlier measurement-system -- a fascinating (and fairly successful) system allowing for (relatively) rapidly ascertaining identity. As with the sections on fingerprints, the many illustrations of actual documents and examples from that time (including such oddities as William James Herschel's measurements as recorded at Francis Galton's anthropometric laboratory) are particularly helpful.
       It was soon evident that fingerprinting was a superior system for identifying and tracking individuals -- though questions about whether fingerprints truly were unique and also whether they could be classified and organised simply (making it possible to match unidentified prints with those on record) remained open for quite a while. Sengoopta discusses the contributions of the major figures in this field, including William James Herschel, Francis Galton, and Edward Henry -- though it should be noted the focus is almost entirely on British fingerprinting efforts, with only brief mention of the introduction of this procedure elsewhere. The biographical details, and the discussions of what moved these men to pursue the study and implementation of fingerprinting or other systems is often quite fascinating too -- so, for example, the description of Edgar Thurston, curator of the Museum in Madras, who had such a "zeal for anthropometry, that he seized every man, woman, or child in order to measure them."
       India came to play a significant role because fingerprinting first became widespread there, an effective means of identifying people who often could not sign their own name. As Sengoopta writes:

Smooth administration of the colony (...) depended on precise and unambiguous identification of individuals. Signatures were not the solution in India, photography was hardly practicable with the current state of technology and the financial resources that would be required and (...) many British administrators in India undoubtedly found the facial features of coloured people virtually indistinguishable.
       Fingerprinting offered an efficient means of dealing with many issues, ranging from troubles about indigo contracts (a major issue of the time) to pensioner fraud to other criminal activity.
       As Sengoopta moves back and forth between the colony and England the material does become occasionally unwieldy. Still, he manages to get across quite well how fingerprinting did move from India to England, and who was responsible for it.
       Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the book is the different uses of fingerprinting in the two locales under discussion. Whereas in India fingerprinting was used for a variety of purposes and not limited to criminals, in England use was essentially "confined to criminal identification". Remarkably, there has been practically no widespread fingerprinting for identification purposes in Britain at any time, as it is apparently perceived as imposing unacceptably on personal liberties. Meanwhile, as Sengoopta points out, the one area other than tracking criminals where it has been adopted is in tracking aliens (and, as he amusingly points out, that doesn't include Commonwealth citizens, but does include Americans).

       Imprint of the Raj also offers a good introduction to the method of classifying and identifying fingerprints (not all that simple in the pre-computer age), and here as elsewhere the historical details and the personalities involved are often fascinating. Still, the book isn't a comprehensive introduction to fingerprinting -- largely ignoring, for example, the circumstances of its adoption in most of the rest of the world (this is obviously beyond the book's ambit; still, it is also missed).
       The question of personal liberty versus comprehensive registration of individuals is again one of considerable significance, as DNA technology now offers yet another means of easily identifying individuals. Sengoopta's discussion of the two different approaches to fingerprinting -- one for the colony that was governed from afar, the other for local government in Britain -- also offers some insight into modern attitudes regarding these questions, and is worthwhile in this regard as well.
       An interesting if somewhat far-flung historical survey, nicely and fairly clearly presented.

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Imprint of the Raj: Reviews: Chandak Sengoopta:
  • Homepage at the University of Manchester
Other books by Chandak Sengoopta under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of books from and about India

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About the Author:

       Chandak Sengoopta is a lecturer in the History of Medicine at the University of Manchester

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© 2003-2008 the complete review

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