C. Hill's River of Sorrow
South Asia Resources

Reviews of Books
Christopher Hill's River of Sorrow (1997)
Reviewed by John M. MacKenzie

American Historical Review, June 1999, p. 888

CHRISTOPHER V. HILL. River of Sorrow: Environment and Social Control in Riparian North India, 1770-1994. (Monograph and Occasional Paper Series, number 55.) Ann Arbor, Mich.: Association for Asian Studies. 1997. Pp. xii, 200. $33.00.

This is a short book that covers both a large expanse of territory in the Purnia district in Northeast India and a lengthy tract of time from the late eighteenth to the twentieth centuries. Written by Christopher V. Hill with considerable passion, it adds greatly to our understanding of a number of aspects of British rule and attempted environmental controls in India. Hill reveals the considerable difficulties associated with the dramatically shifting river systems of the affluents of the Ganges, which flow south from the Himalayas. Systems of tenure, ownership, or exploitation suitable for more stable landscapes simply did not-and do not-work there. But connected with these ecological instabilities there were other social and political ones. Governments like to define populations as well as land. In this case, people were as difficult to map as the tracts. Allegedly criminal groups sought refuge there, and the British viewed it as a regrettable sink for the disaffected of adjacent areas. Settlement systems repeatedly broke down, not least because the land moved into and out of cultivation according to the patterns of the river. Finally, the Purnia district's reputation for ill health and for social, political, and ecological anarchy ensured that it was regarded by British officials as a punishment station to be avoided at all costs. Despite its reputation for good hunting, normally a recommendation in India, it suffered from a strikingly high turnover of imperial staff. As Hill amply demonstrates, when officials change on almost an annual basis, the opportunities for securing not only policy continuity but also regional knowledge and memory are highly restricted.

Thus, this was a region where wild animals and untamed nature symbolized the limitations of imperial rule. The environment contributed to that sense of the "limited Raj" that has become increasingly common in the historiography of British rule in India. The allegedly monolithic, all-powerful imperial power, the victim of its own propaganda and later of the simplifications of the postcolonialists, was in fact hedged in by all sorts of constraints. Yet, according to Hill, the British still tried to impose their "objectification and commodification of nature" into this unstable landscape. They sought to extend their zamindari "permanent settlement" there, struggling throughout their rule to create intermediary estate holders through whom they could control the population and levy the land revenue. But even their own white planters became laws unto themselves in the region, an unruly fragment as independent as the nomadic and supposedly criminal groups whom the British struggled to define and control.

By the end of the book, the reader has a sense of Hill trying to have it both ways. The British neither understood the region nor adequately controlled it. Their measures were certainly inappropriate and inadequate, yet they are held responsible for continuing social and economic problems fully fifty years after independence. Perhaps Indian national and provincial governments have simply found the district as intractable as their British predecessors. The limited Raj has been replaced by the equally limited powers and resources of democratic nationalism. One of the striking, implicit conclusions that emerges from this book is the extraordinary extent to which the British, however baleful the combination between their limited understanding and their efforts to transfer European perceptions to lands where they were entirely inappropriate, nonetheless fretfully compiled data and indulged in internal debates that offer considerable opportunities for the historian. On the basis of such extensive documentation, India has acquired one of the most sophisticated of all environmental historiographies. This book makes a significant contribution to it and offers both a quarry and signposts for future researchers.

John M. MacKenzie
Lancaster University

From - American Historical Review, June 1999, p. 888 in its "Reviews of Books"

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