In this blog, we will learn that what sources do historians use in writing about the last 250 years of Indian history.
Administration produces records
One important source is the official records of the British administration. The British believed that the act of writing was important. Every instruction, plan, policy decision, agreement, the investigation had to be clearly written up. Once this was done, things could be properly studied and debated.
This conviction produced an administrative culture of memos, noting, and reports. The British also felt that all important documents and letters needed to be carefully preserved. So they set up record rooms attached to all administrative institutions. The village tahsildar’s office, the collectorate, the commissioner’s office, the provincial secretariats, the lawcourts – all had their record rooms.
Specialized institutions like archives and museums were also established to preserve important records. Letters and memos that moved from one branch of the administration to another in the early years of the nineteenth century can still be read in the archives.
You can also study the notes and reports that district officials prepared or the instructions and directives that were sent by officials at the top to provincial administrators.
In the early years of the nineteenth century, these documents were carefully copied out and beautifully written by calligraphists – that is, by those who specialized in the art of beautiful writing. By the middle of the nineteenth century, with the spread of printing, multiple copies of these records were printed as proceedings of each government department. Still curious to know what sources do historians use in writing about the last 250 years of Indian history? Continue reading.
Surveys become important
The practice of surveying also became common under the colonial administration. The British believed that a country had to be properly known before it could be effectively administered. By the early nineteenth century, detailed surveys were being carried out to map the entire country.
In the villages, revenue surveys were conducted. The effort was to know the topography, the soil quality, the flora, the fauna, the local histories, and the cropping pattern – all the facts seen as necessary to know about to administer the region.
From the end of the nineteenth century, Census operations were held every ten years. These prepared detailed records of the number of people in all the provinces of India, noting information on castes, religions, and occupation. There were many other surveys – botanical surveys, zoological surveys, archaeological surveys, anthropological surveys, forest surveys.
What official records do not tell
From this vast corpus of records, we can get to know a lot, but we must remember that these are official records. They tell us what the officials thought, what they were interested in, and what they wished to preserve for posterity. These records do not always help us understand what other people in the country felt, and what lay behind their actions. For that, we need to look elsewhere.
When we begin to search for these other sources we find them in plenty, though they are more difficult to get than official records. We have diaries of people, accounts of pilgrims and travelers, autobiographies of important personalities, and popular booklets that were sold in the local bazaars. As printing spread, newspapers were published and issues were debated in public. Leaders and reformers wrote to spread their ideas, poets and novelists wrote to express their feelings.
All these sources, however, were produced by those who were literate. From there, we will not be able to understand how history was experienced and lived by the tribals and the peasants, the workers in the mines, or the poor on the streets. Getting to know their lives is a more difficult task. Yet this can be done, if we make a little bit of effort. Now you can easily tell what sources do historians use in writing about the last 250 years of Indian history.