[Essay] British India: Empire, Ideology & Race — Joseph Barker

In 2014, a British Social Attitudes survey, conducted by NatCen, revealed the shocking state of racial prejudice in our supposedly inclusive British society: 30% of the 2000 people surveyed described themselves as “very” or “a little” racially prejudiced. As the table below shows, however, this statistic is not an unusual phenomenon: racial prejudice on this scale appears, incredibly, to be the norm.


How is it possible that, as Alison Park who co-directed the survey describes, “Racial prejudice… is undoubtedly still part of the national psyche”? To truly comprehend why a third of Britain’s population today identify as being racially prejudice to some extent, an understanding of racial attitudes in the era of the British Empire –a  veritable Golden Age in the formation of such a collective ‘pysche’ – is paramount.

Britain, along with other colonial powers, justified racial classification by explaining their desire to ‘enumerate, categorize and assess their [colonial] populations and resources’[1] was for administrative purposes. Although there was widespread European endeavor to discover and classify during this period, this ideology was manipulated in colonial settings, as racial classification supported a divide-and-rule strategy which maintained and enhanced European control over colonized populations. Although this essay will primarily focus upon British India, throughout I shall draw comparisons with African and Caribbean colonies in order to demonstrate that using racial classification to preserve power was a constant paradigm of British and European colonialism. I will firstly investigate the ideology and methods colonisers used to justify and conduct these practices, before assessing the social and political impacts of racial classification upon innocent colonial populations. This article will also assess how political manipulation, religion and medical practice throughout European colonies served as supplementary methods of maintaining power over colonised people, disclosing how racial classification formed part of a wider colonial power strategy. Throughout this piece I will show how racial classification was used for far more than simply administrative purposes: it was actually vital to preserving the ideological and political power structure of European empires.

The Ideology of Racial Classification

In order to appreciate how the British viewed colonial peoples, we must first investigate how all Europeans viewed themselves. E.M. Collingham explains that European racial self-classification, which built upon theories of social Darwinism, established the white European body as the pinnacle of human development.[2] This classification formed part of a wider discourse which aimed to confirm European intellectual superiority over colonial races, which consequently justified colonial rule. The elevation of the European race, however, only forms half of the European racial classification dynamic. Colonised people were viewed as being a racial ‘other’. Thomas Metcalf’s groundbreaking analysis of British colonial ideologies in India, Ideologies of the Raj, shows how racial ideology defined colonial peoples as being weak and dependent on the guidance of Europeans in order to develop.

British historiography underpinned the understanding that ‘India… had to be saved from itself’, given that the Mughal dynasty were perceived as exceptional rulers whose decline made British rule essential in order to prevent ‘anarchy’ across the sub-continent. [3] Such concepts of Indian racial inferiority were typical of the ideological attitudes of Europeans: they served as a prelude to racial classification, which would seek to scientifically prove European racial superiority, legitimizing colonialist expansion.

The Methods of Racial Classification

The methods of this classification are best highlighted by analysing racial classification within British India. Indian society contained a fluid plethora of identities, in which social classifications of caste, tribe, religion and race were hugely intertwined. The approach of Herbert Risley, an administrator in the Indian Civil Service, Census Commissioner for the 1901 Census of India and author of the anthropological investigation The People of India, provides extensive insight into British methods of racial classification. Firstly, Risley’s anthropological approach typifies how scientific methods of racial classification were used to construct an understanding of colonial peoples which benefitted the European coloniser. The physical measurements he makes of Indian skulls and noses reflects the wider European colonial anthropological approach, [4] which equated physical qualities to racial stereotypes.

risley barker race image

Extract from Risley’s ‘The People of India’

Similarly, Risley’s use of photography contains hierarchical observations, as the portrait of Gujars reflects their supposed deceitful nature, in contrast with photographs of Bunjaras with their wives and children which suggests an ‘allegiance to the Victorian world of family values’.[5] Therefore, Risley used measurements and photography as methods of racial classification to simultaneously confirm European biological superiority over Indians and construct social differences between the colonised people, both of which legitimized and enhanced British colonial rule.

Secondly, Risley’s application of racial classification for understanding the Indian political structure in both the 1901 Census of India and his research for The People of India further reflects Christopher Bayly’s conclusion that the British ‘found it easier to rule a continent divided’.[6] Risley researched the hierarchy of the caste system through asking the opinions of individual high-ranking members of Indian castes: naturally, the individuals questioned sought to further their own caste by claiming a higher level of political status. This flaw in his approach is illustrated by the complaints of the Vaisyas, who disputed being in the same caste as Rajputs in order to gain greater political authority. As Peter Gottschalk’s examination of classification in British India reveals, this example highlights how racial classification served to reshape ‘the dominant paradigms of social knowledge.’[7]

These methods were similarly reflected among the other European colonial powers. The investigations of the Paris Anthropological Society in Guinea, for example, assessed the political structure of colonised people through the paradigm of racial classification, which ‘implicitly supported colonial rule’.[8] Racial classification therefore altered the existing social hierarchies of colonised people in both India and Africa by forcing the colonised population to differentiate from each other. This evidences Emmanuel Sibued’s view that racial classification provided ‘a scientific frame legitimizing everyday and symbolic colonial segregation’,[9] which supported the coloniser’s attempts to divide the local population in order to enhance their colonial authority.

The Social and Political impacts of Racial Classification

In the same way that racial prejudice in today’s Britain can impact everyday life, racial classification in British colonies had a huge variety of social and political impacts. Western and Indian scholars have achieved historiographical consensus when analysing these effects: Srinvas and Cohn, for example, both convincingly argue that the social ranks allocated according to British census reports ‘became the equivalent of traditional copper-plate grants declaring the status, rank and privilege of a particular caste’. [10] This firstly resulted in the ideological differentiation and competition between Indians, as illustrated by the rural Mahton group. The Mahtons demanded to be classified as part of the Rajput caste, in order to gain social standing, access to Sikh regiments in the British Indian Army and to become eligible for Zamindari scholarships.[11] Simply by offering political and social benefits to particular classifications of race, the British were able to create competition between Indian groups where non existed prior to colonial rule. These divisions were fundamental to maintaining British power through a strategy of divide and rule.

criminal tribes act barker imae

The Criminal Tribes Act of 1924, which combined all previous criminal tribe acts in British India

Sanjay Nigam’s investigation of criminal tribes in India further demonstrates the vast negative impact of racial classification. The Government of India’s legislative proceedings state that for particular groups ‘crime is their trade’ and members of these groups, their dependents and future generations are ‘destined’ to remain habitually criminal.[12] Consequently, the British enforced the Criminal Tribe Act in 1871, deeming the ‘registration, surveillance and control of certain criminal tribes’[13] necessary. The lack of facts and figures relating to offenses by such tribes, which suggest their members will inevitably be habitual criminals, demonstrate how this Act was simply legislating a (colonial) social and legal fiction: Racially stereotyping tribes as being ‘criminal’ allowed British colonial authorities to exercise wider powers of social control. They were able to obtain intrusive records of colonised Indian’s personal details, restrict their movement, forcibly relocate populations to agricultural settlements or reformatory camps and even separate children from their parents. [14] This plethora of oppressive measures relentlessly impacted upon the lives of the so-called ‘criminal’ Indian population, constantly reinforcing the social and political superiority of their European masters.

The political and social re-organisation of racial groups in British colonies is further demonstrated by the colonial policies concerning the Kikuyu and Igbo peoples, of East and West Africa respectively. The British created tribal leaders where none had previously existed: this proved ‘deeply disruptive to social and political stability’,[15] which consequently increased British power over their colonised population. Overall, the British Empires’ use of racial classification both furthered the idea of European racial superiority over colonised peoples whilst, more significantly, creating social and political divisions between colonial populations in order retain control over their colonies.

Alternative Methods of Maintaining Colonial power

Dividing colonial peoples according to their religion was another method of maintaining power used by the British empire,  which complemented their strategies of racial classification. Gottschalk argues in Religion, Science and Empire that the British viewed Hindus and Muslims as belonging to ‘mutually exclusive categories of social belonging that bifurcated every societal and cultural dimension of India.’ [16] This analysis is firstly supported by British political policies towards the Indian National Congress. The East India Company had previously supported Hindu government agents as they were less hostile to British power, yet as Hindu influence over the congress became politically dominating, this policy was reversed and the British Raj increasingly favored Muslim delegates. Evidently, religion was used by the British create political divisions between Indians in order to ensure their political control over Indian National Congress.

religion in british india barker

Religious Demographic of British India, 1909

Furthermore, the British conductors of religious surveys throughout the colonial period replicated this strategy. Boileau’s classification of religion and caste ‘purportedly promoted only prejudice’[17] whilst Beverly’s report of Bengal characterized religions ‘according to longstanding stereotypes’,[18] describing Hinduism as entailing devil worshipping because the religion was not monotheistic. Therefore, Gottschalk’s analysis proves religious classification was used in conjunction with racial classification in the British Empire in order to achieve definite imperial goals: the preservation of the colonizer’s power over the colonized in and through the social and religious division of the native population against one another.

Megan Vaughan successfully demonstrates how bio-medical knowledge related to the ideology and methods of racial classification I have previously discussed, further enhancing the power of the British over colonised people in African colonies. Just as the ideology of racial classification degraded the Indian races in contrast with the European race, medicine in British Africa ‘elaborated classification systems and practices which have to be seen as intrinsic to the operation of colonial power’.[19] Bio-medical knowledge was used to construct an ideology that African people belonged to a lesser race. British medical professionals weighed brains and measured the pre-frontal-cortex of African colonial subjects in order to justify their arguments that education was detrimental to African people, as they could only reach the level of intelligence displayed in a 7 year old European boy and were not biologically equipped to understand more developed intellectual ideas.[20] Similar approaches in the treatment of African leprosy, syphilis and psychiatric patients all served British colonial power structures by suggesting that illness in Africa was a result of African biological difference and racial identity. Both religious classification and medical knowledge, then, were also used alongside racial classification in order to institutionalize racial prejudice.


Throughout this article I have attempted to highlight the extensive historical paradigms of racial classification within the British Empire. The various tools colonialists used to subjugate and discriminate against native groups, from the legal to the scientific, religious to the medical, illustrate the plethora of modes through which racial prejudice can occur in both historical and modern societies. Understanding the legacy of racial classification as part of the wider framework of racial history will be an essential tool we must use to continue the eradication of racism in today’s Britain, given that the source of contemporary racial tension can ultimately be traced back to the strategic classification of peoples under the British Empire.


Joseph Barker was History editor of New Critique. He holds a BA in History from the University of Manchester and a double honours MSc/MA in Media and Communication from the London School of Economics and the University of Southern California.


[1] Christopher Bayly, The Birth of the Modern World, 1780-1914: Global Connections and Comparisons (London: Wiley-Blackwell, 2004), p275.

[2] E. M. Collingham, Imperial Bodies: The Physical Experience of the Raj, 1800-1947 (Oxford: Polity Press, 2001), p122.

[3] Thomas Metcalfe, Ideologies of the Raj (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), p89.

[4] Chris Pinney, ‘Classification and Fantasy in the Photographic Construction of Caste and Tribe’, Visual Anthropology 3, (1990), pp. 259-284, p267.

[5] Pinney, ‘Classification and Fantasy’, p262.

[6] Bayly, The Birth of the Modern World, p223.

[7] Peter Gottschalk, Religion, Science and Empire: Classifying Hinduism and Islam in British India (London: Oxford University Press, 2012), p213.

[8] Emmanuel Sibeud, ‘A Useless Science? Practicing Anthropology in the French Colonial Empire, circa 1880-1960’, Current Anthropology 5, (2012), pp. 83-94, p89.

[9] Sibeud, ‘A Useless Science?’, p84.

[10] N, M. Srinvas, Social Change in Modern India (London: Orient Longman India, 2000), p95.

[11] Bernard Cohn, An Anthropologist Among the Historians and Other Essays (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991), p249.

[12] Nembhard, Governer of East Berar, Government of India, Legislative Proceedings, No 62, (London: 1871).

[13] Sanjay Nigam, ‘Disciplining and Policing the ‘Criminals by Birth’, Part 1: The Making of a Colonial Stereotype – The Criminal Tribes and Castes of North India’, and ‘Part 2: the Development of a Disciplinary System, 1871-1900’, Indian Economic Social History Review 27, (1990), pp. 131-164 and pp. 257-287, p154.

[14] Nigam, ‘Disciplining and Policing the ‘Criminals by Birth’, p257.

[15] Philippa Levine, The British Empire: Sunrise to Sunset (London: Pearson, 2007), p141.

[16] Gottschalk, Religion, Science and Empire, P183.

[17] Gottschalk, Religion, Science and Empire, P188.

[18] Gottschalk, Religion, Science and Empire, P205.

[19] Megan Vaughan, Curing their Ills: Colonial Power and African Illness (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1991), p8.

[20] Vaughan, Curing their Ills, p110.

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