19 December, 2004

Rigor of writing

Hamilton’s understanding and curiosity of the people and cultures makes him the one of the first proto-anthropologists to enter the country and take stock—literally—of Nepal


There is a reason why the English ruled over an empire where the sun never set. The English colonists knew the value of knowledge. Take “An Account of the Kingdom of Nepal, and of the Territories Annexed to this Dominion by the House of Gorkha,” written by Francis Buchanan Hamilton and published in 1819. Written by a man who spent only 14 months in Kathmandu, between 1802 and 1803, and two more years on the frontier, it is an extensive documentation of everything from the genealogies of the rajas of small principalities of Nepal to listings of natural resources, from the minutest details of how metal was subdivided between different parties to the exact decimal point of grain measurements. Classifications of medicinal herbs, trees, animals, birds and ethnic groups are mixed in with a quite remarkable understanding of government and the justice system. The author, without doubt, was one of the most highly educated men brought up in the liberal tradition of the European Enlightenment. His understanding and curiosity of the people and cultures makes him one of the first proto-anthropologists to enter the country and take stock—literally—of Nepal.

The book has a heavy filter of scientific detachment and rationality without the later Darwinian undertones (Darwin would only be born six years later, in 1809). The mandatory burst of Eurocentric racism, where he talks about the deceitful and treacherous nature of the mountain Hindus, occupies only a couple of paragraphs. The word “barbarian” pops up a couple of times, but in ways in which a contemporary person might find more laughable than offensive, for example “a vigorous barbarian.” Nineteenth century ideas that people were formed by their geographical locations—he calls the plains people “melancholy” and “choleric” and the mountain people are considered “phlegmatic” and “sanguine”—do appear, but only cursorily. Thankfully, there is no mention of cranium sizes or intelligence, a later racist discourse that would only pop up after Darwin and Mendel. The rest of the book gives a great deal of methodical and respectful attention to each of his informants, from highly educated Brahmans to a slave.

Hamilton obsessively deconstructs Kirkpatrick’s “Nepaul.” Kirkpatrick, his predecessor, seemed to have done sloppy research even with extensive British East India Company support, and Hamilton goes to great lengths to point this out and to disprove Kirkpatrick’s claims. His tone is tart during these moments, the well-deserved sarcasm of the emerging researcher with new findings. Colonel Kirkpatrick complained about the lack of kitchen vegetables, saying that there were only cabbages and peas. “Meaning, I presume, European,” adds Hamilton, pointing to his own understanding that just because a European did not eat coriander, eggplants or okra they couldn’t just be dismissed as non-vegetables. Some of the earliest critiques of Eurocentrism came out of Europe itself, and Hamilton was definitely a vigorous critic of the limited understanding of his own countrymen.

Besides a few hilarious tonal mistakes—he heard “Bhatgang” for Bhadgaon, “Sristha” for Shrestha, and “ashruffy” for asharfi (gold coin), Hamilton is mostly accurate about the names, dates and places he mentions. He is methodical enough, unlike Kirkpatrick, to realize that “Nuggerkoties” were less an ethnic group than the people of a particular locality.

Hamilton, however sympathetic to the locals, was still an employee of the East India Company, and his inventory of resources doesn’t let us forget the purpose of his Nepal visit. Everything is carefully and extensively documented with an eye for future exploitation. Prithvi Narayan Shah, who resisted the British, shows up as an unsympathetic and cruel character, and his enemies are treated cordially by the British, revealing a small bit of their “divide and conquer” methods. The minerals and herbs would never make it down to India. What would come to be the British’s greatest gold mine, the Gurkhas, makes brief appearances in a small paragraph about a raja who keeps a Kiranti army armed with poisoned arrows.

What makes Hamilton’s account particularly relevant for the contemporary reader is his careful accounting of cultures and gender roles of different groups. For those who have a fondness for making grand claims about Brahminization and Sanskritization without the attendant footnotes, this book provides documented ammunition. Extensive notes about widow burning, marriage choices for women in different communities, all the way down to the fines for adultery (2 rupees and 10/16 paisa) make this a goldmine for researchers and activists working in gender rights and women’s history.

Also relevant are the careful accounts of extrajudicial killings between warring parties, torture that sounds startlingly similar to what is still practiced in Nepal, and concepts of honor that might give our activists working in peace-building a clearer understanding and historical framework on the messy human rights situation in Nepal.

Hamilton pays detailed attention to the governing structure of the country, extensively documenting land rights given to courtiers and to various office-holders. He writes, of the government: “At other times, again, on business of the utmost emergency, a kind of assembly of notables is held, in which men who have neither office, nor any considerable influence in the government, are allowed to speak very freely, which seems to be done merely to allow the discontents of the nation to evaporate, as there is not a vestige of liberty in the country, nor does the court seem ever to be controlled by the opinions advanced in these assemblies.” We can all be glad that our country has come such a long way from the 1800s in terms of government.

Were Hamilton still alive, his meticulous attention to cartography and to the lengths and durations of destinations would probably lead him to be recruited as a consultant by our contemporary warring parties. If the Army or the Maoists had paid as much attention to geography, this war would probably be over by now.

But even the British were not omniscient, and, as later documented, neither were they omnipotent. Hamilton, talking about the “swelling in the throat” of Nepalis, theorizes that this must be due to drinking water that came from mountains covered with perpetual snow. The discovery of iodine was still eight years away. In 1811 Bernard Courtois (1777-1838) would discover iodine while trying to help Napoleon make gunpowder. But until then, even Hamilton, that thorough, careful frontier-anthropologist, would remain in the dark about what caused goiters.

An Account of the Kingdom of Nepal and of the Territories Annexed to this Dominion by the House of Gorkha
By Francis Buchanan Hamilton
Printed in 1819
Repriented in 1986 by Asian Educational Services (New Delhi)
Pages: 316
Price: Rs:952

(Available at Saraswoti Book House and other bookstores in Kathmandu)


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