Wednesday, July 23, 2003

the burden of prints

Imprint of the Raj: The Colonial Origins of Fingerprinting and its Voyage to Britain, by Chandak Sengoopta, Macmillan February 2003. ISBN: 0333989163. Price US$26, 224 pages.

By Jason Overdorf
(This book review appeared in the Asia Times in July 2003).

In an obscure village in Bengal in 1858, Sir William James Herschel, then a member of the Indian civil service, experienced a momentary flash of inspiration that would revolutionize the field of criminal investigation.

In an effort to discourage a local businessman from reneging on a supply agreement by repudiating his signature, Herschel prevailed on the Bengali contractor to stamp the document with a print of his left hand. The success of the ploy - conceived as a bluff only - fired the imagination of the colonial administrator, making of him the first amateur student of fingerprinting, and, as Chandak Sengoopta argues in Imprint of the Raj, the technology's true pioneer.

In his first work of popular history, Sengoopta, who received his doctorate in the history of science from Johns Hopkins University, recounts the tortuous path fingerprinting took from colonial India to today's forensic laboratories with a fascination and thoroughness reminiscent of Simon Winchester's The Professor and the Madman and Dava Sobel's Longitude. Born and raised in Kolkata, where he qualified in medicine and psychiatry, Sengoopta brings a welcome breadth of knowledge and experience to his subject.

It was no accident that fingerprinting technology was first applied successfully in one of the far-flung outposts of the British Empire, and not in Britain itself, according to Sengoopta. While the science of the day remained convinced that crime was a hereditary aberration, Britain, with its belief in personal liberty, was reluctant to measure and catalogue its citizens. Not so its colonial subjects. Here, Sengoopta points to the colonial obsession with studying, documenting and measuring the darker denizens of the Empire. To begin with, this effort was simply good business. "The East India Company was not simply a trading corporation and a virtual government - it was also a full-fledged knowledge gathering enterprise staffed by active, if variably talented, learners, explorers and investigators."

But as this knowledge gathering became more academic and more closely affiliated with the budding techniques of science - then still an amateur pursuit - it also became an integral tool for the justification of the Empire. As Edward Said has argued, the Orientalists' investigation became part of the mechanism of control as they sought to "divide, deploy, schematize, tabulate, index and record everything in sight (and out of sight) ... make out of every observable detail a generalization and out of every generalization an immutable law".

After languages and geography, the natural subject for study was the people. With race the obsession of the era, it is not surprising that the first projects involved cataloguing the customs of India's many castes and seeking to separate them into races through careful use of the calipers - the physical anthropologists trusty companion. But it soon became apparent that for the businessman, the individual was of far more importance than the group. "Sciences such as ethnology or geology facilitated control only in broad economic or sociological terms," explains Sengoopta. "These forms of knowledge failed to reach that level where the day-to-day business of the empire was conducted." For that, it was necessary to be able to identify the individual.

Herschel proposed that fingerprints provided a "signature of exceeding simplicity" that even Bengalis, whom the British considered duplicitous beyond compare, could neither forge nor deny. By requiring the colonial subjects in his charge to sign documents with this method, he virtually eliminated pension fraud - a practice that he believed had been general, since the British couldn't tell one Bengali from another. He greatly reduced the conflicts over deeds, reporting that the new technique "lifted off the ugly cloud of suspiciousness which always hangs over [registration offices] in India. It put a summary and absolute stop to the very idea of either [im]personation or repudiation from the moment half a dozen men had made their marks and compared them together."

For all his pioneering work, however, Herschel was not able to convince other administrators of the value of fingerprinting or to bring the technique back to Britain. Nor did he foresee its usefulness in criminal investigation, although he urged the inspector of jails to use fingerprinting to verify the identity of prisoners. What was missing was a useful method of organizing the fingerprints on file.

For some time, therefore, fingerprints could be used once a suspect had been found, but were no help in finding an unknown culprit. It was another colonial administrator who, along with his Indian assistants, developed the method of classification that made fingerprints the cornerstone of criminal investigation they are today. As inspector general of the Bengal police, Edward Henry introduced his classification system in 1897. He brought it with him to London four years later, where he applied the innovation as assistant commissioner of the Metropolitan police. There the technology was immediately instrumental in solving several high-profile murder cases, and soon entered the Sherlock Holmes stories of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Fingerprinting had arrived.

But the investigative technique retained the taint of its origin in an atmosphere of xenophobia and anxiety about the racial "other". After establishing fingerprinting technology in London, Henry was seconded to South Africa, where he implemented a new labor pass for "colored" laborers that included their fingerprints. Later, Indians, Arabs and Chinese were required to register their fingerprints and "were subject to arrest without warrant if they could not produce their registration certificate with fingerprints on demand". Mahatma Gandhi, who was then still working as a lawyer in Johannesburg, protested that documenting the identity of "non-whites" using a technique otherwise reserved for lawbreakers "reduced all 'Asiatics' into criminals".

Sadly, even if we flash forward more than a century, the same ignorant double standard prevails. Last year, the United States announced that visitors from up to 35 countries would be required to register with the government and have their fingerprints taken, implying once again that a criminal is not characterized chiefly by what he does but by who he is. What's next, measuring noses?