A Review of Abraham Lotha’s History of Naga Anthropology (1832-1947)

Paul Pimomo
Chumpo Museum Publication, 
Dimapur, Nagaland, 2007. Rs. 250.

History of Naga Anthropology (1832-1947) is a short monograph on writings about Nagas by British colonial administrators and ethnographers from 1832, the year Nagas first came in contact with the British, to 1947, the year the Raj dissolved and the British officially left the Naga Hills.  The book is based on research Abraham Lotha did for the master’s degree in Cultural Anthropology at Columbia University in New York.  He is currently working on his PhD dissertation at CUNY’s Graduate Center. Although knowledge about the Nagas is reserved mostly for area specialists, History of Naga Anthropology is a valuable contribution to the broad area of postcolonial studies, a progressive cluster of multidisciplinary scholarship that took the Anglophone academic world by storm in the last quarter of the twentieth century.  Colonial and postcolonial studies had a huge impact especially in the humanities and social sciences including Cultural Anthropology. Postcolonial Studies’ chief achievement was the unraveling of colonialism’s ideology and its Euro-centered worldview that gave birth to such romantic notions as the “manifest destiny” and the “white man’s burden” of bringing western civilization and Christianity to the rest of the supposedly benighted and heathen world.  The belief in the civilizing mission -- more accurately the propaganda of it -- geared European colonialism for over five hundred years, starting in 1492, ushering in an era of material exploitation and political domination by competing European powers of the colonized societies in the Americas, Asia, Africa, and Australia. 

Like other postcolonial studies of history, Abraham Lotha’s book places the first hundred years of writings about Nagas in the category of “colonial anthropology,” that is to say, ethnography by colonial administrators and others enabled by them in ways that directly or indirectly served the colonial functions of the powers that be.  Abraham’s book has a dual purpose: first, a historical interest that shows anthropological writing in the form of military reports, essays, descriptions of cultural practices, and monographs “developed parallel to the establishment of the British Empire in the Naga territory;” second, an interpretive assessment of the historical material from the “native perspective.” The result is that Abraham Lotha succeeds in demonstrating not only the colonial origin of Anthropology in the Naga Hills as part of a larger Indian situation, but also clearly delineates the legacy of a colonial mindset in the subsequent ethnographic work on Nagas that got disseminated among scholars, administrators, missionaries, and the reading public. 

The first half of book deals with the history of the development of Naga ethnography, which falls into three broad chronological phases: Military (1832-1866), Political Control (1866-1877), Administrative (1878-1947). The second half, the last three chapters, comprises analysis and critical appraisal.  The first British to encounter the Nagas were military personnel, people like Francis Jenkins, R. B. Pemberton, and John Butler, whose job was to protect the British subjects in Assam from Naga attacks, a topic deemed important enough to find mention in the Governor General Lord Dalhousie’s Minutes in 1851.  British writing on Nagas up to 1866 portrayed them as ignorant, stubborn, and hostile to British interests.  Several monographs came out of the military expeditions into Naga territory at this time, and shorter  individual soldiers’ accounts of their experiences were published in the Journal of Asiatic Society of Bengal.  These early articles, mostly in the manner of descriptive reports, sold the Nagas as exotic, wild, and savage tribes to their scholarly readers in India and in England.  

Because Naga raids on the British subjects in Assam continued, according to British reports, the colonial administration charged Lieutenant Gregory to establish a position at Samoogoodting, and with that began the phase of political control in the relationship between the British and the Nagas.  In 1874, two Naga villages “came under the protection” of the British in exchange for payment of tax, and in July of the following year the headquarters was moved from the border station to Wokha, a place inside the Naga Hills.  It was during this time that the British undertook a detailed topographical and ethnographic survey of the hills and the people. The survey accounts containing rich descriptions of the Naga country, the various tribes, and their way of life found their way into important colonial reports.   

The British entry in the Naga Hills did not stop some Angami villages like Khonoma, Kohima, and Mezoma from continuing their adventures into Assam.  To deal with this situation, the colonial Government of India decided to move the headquarters from Wokha to Kohima in 1878, while also approving the policy of subduing the “wild” Naga tribes and extending British rule over them.  In 1881, the Naga Hills became a separate district under the Raj, and from 1935 to 1947 they were administered as an “Excluded Area.”

The years from 1874 to World War II were a prolific time for British writing on Nagas by both soldiers and administrators.  They published their work in the Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute and Man, and in the government publication titled Ethnographic Survey of India.  The most substantive genre came in the form of monographs on individual tribes by British administrators with special knowledge of the tribes.  They included T.C. Hodson’s Naga Tribes of Manipur, J.H. Hutton’s Angami Nagas and Sema Nagas, J.P. Mills’ The Lotha Nagas, The Ao Nagas, and The Rengma Nagas. Much of the work at this time was influenced by the anthropological theory of diffusion and the comparative method advocated by the famous 19th-Century anthropologist E.B. Taylor. The comparative approach, for example, prompted R.G. Woodthorpe to classify Nagas into “kilted” (Angamis) and “non-kilted” (all other Nagas), but in the end all the Nagas were assigned to the Mongoloid classification of the human race.  The history section of the book ends with a brief entry on professional anthropologists, specifically Henry Balfour, who visited the Naga Hills and wrote several articles on Nagas, and Christopher von Furer-Haimendorfs, who applied Bronislaw Malinowski’s fieldwork method and functionalist theory onto his work among the Konyak Nagas.   

For those already familiar with the history the conclusions Abraham Lotha draws from it in the last three chapters will be of greater interest.  The critical analysis is sound and to the point, making for an uncommon if not a unique contribution to Naga cultural studies by moving the anthropological gaze from the British to the Nagas. In Chapter 3, for instance, he reminds the reader of the “intimate collaboration between science and colonial administration in the development of Naga ethnography,” since the same people filled both roles. This relationship was “seen clearly in publication and funding,” as in the case of the Naga monographs and survey reports.  Further, Abraham Lotha points to the irony in the British sense of urgency to record and preserve for the rest of the world the cultures of the Naga Hills, since the British themselves were the chief cause of the destruction of Naga cultures. The obligation to record that which they helped destroy didn’t seem strange to the British.  Despite the seeming benevolence, such rescue-recording “contributed to the maintenance of colonial rule.” 

Another insight the author offers is that traditional Naga cultures were being attacked from two related outside forces with conflicting views: one was the colonial Administration, which took it upon itself to “civilize” the primitive Nagas by stages, a policy that seemed in step with the contemporary currency of the process of evolution; and two, the Christian missionary project of converting the Naga heathens into children of God through the revolutionary act of baptism.  The end result was the same, however, that is, colonialism and Christianity put an ideology and a mechanism in place for Nagas to abandon their structures of reality and society without being aware of what they were giving up in the process. In short, despite the benevolent liberal humanist intentions of British ethnographers, and despite the Christian missionaries’ honest conviction in their mission, the material, social, political, and cultural structures they together brought about in the Naga Hills defined the future of the Nagas. They were socialized into the ideology of colonial subordination under the British and, after they left the Naga Hills, into the position of second-class citizens in postcolonial India.  

History of Naga Anthropology (1832-1947) clearly shows Abraham Lotha is a meticulous scholar and a reliable commentator on Naga history and cultures. The book is a must read for all scholars in Naga studies, not just Naga anthropologists. Its brevity does not take away from the merits of the book, chief of which is Abraham Lothas’ ability to condense a century’s worth of historical information into two chapters, followed by a critique of colonial anthropology and its legacy in contemporary Nagaland written with remarkable critical candor.