Hodgson, Brian Houghton

At a Glance:

Colonial administrator, naturalist



Bird names: 4

Region studied:

India and Nepal

Brian Houghton Hodgson, ca. 1849 [link]

Content note: this post contains discussions of colonial violence, the trade in human remains, and scientific racism, including the image of a skull.

The Birds:

Hodgson’s Frogmouth (Batrachostomus hodgsoni)

Hodgson’s Hawk-Cuckoo (Hierrococcyx nisicolor)

Hodgson’s Redstart (Phoenicurus hodgsoni)

Hodgson’s Treecreeper (Certhia hodgsoni)

Hodgson’s Frogmouth [link]
Hodgson’s Redstart [link]

The Name:

For aspiring naturalists and men (almost always men) of science in the 19th century, few career paths offered more opportunity to travel to regions unstudied by Europeans than as a colonial administrator. While versions of this path existed in some form in most Western countries at the time– in the US, as an army officer in the western forts; in Belgium, as an agent of Leopold II’s brutal Congo Free State; in Russia, as an officer in Siberia and Central Asia– the archetype of this sort of character is undoubtedly the British variety: the gentleman naturalist, responsible of keeping order and extracting profits in a distant outpost of empire, regarding their posting and the people under their authority as their own personal science experiments. Many honorific names originate from this mold of characters, including Brian Houghton Hodgson.

Hodgson (1801-1894) ended up in civil service when the family bank collapsed. He was recommended to attend the East India Company College, the official institution of higher learning for wannabe bureaucrats of empire. Hodgson first traveled to India as a “writer” (low-level administrator) of the British East India Company (BEIC) at the age of 17 (since who better to place in charge of the lives of millions in a corporate-owned colonial state than a bunch of teenagers), and due to poor health he ended up spending the bulk of his career in the highlands of the subcontinent.

Hodgson’s career came just after the peak of the BEIC’s control of India. The British presence in India goes back to the 17th century, when the British East India Company first started to gain a foothold in the subcontinent. The BEIC– which can be fairly described as the most evil company in history— started out focused on profit, but eventually realized that they could most effectively generate that profit by taking control of the whole state from the gradually weakening Mughal Empire. India was, until 1858, under the control of a corporate quasi-state entity, and explicitly run as a means of maximizing profit for shareholders. Colonialism was always, whatever veneer it assumed, about violently extracting capital from people and land; in BEIC-run India, this was just made more clear than elsewhere.

Hodgson’s Hawk-Cuckoo [link]

This outlook of colonies as sources of resources free for the taking extended beyond the commercial. Throughout the various empires of the age, generations of scientists and scholars viewed the local land and people as a source of knowledge to be extracted and shipped back to Europe just like tea or spices, the raw materials that could be used to forge their own reputations and careers. Hodgson was particularly keen on the exportation of knowledge– he sent so many specimens and artifacts back to Britain that many crates were destroyed by pests or environmental damage before museum staff could find time to open them.

Hodgson had a particular fascination with the people and cultures of northern India, Nepal, and Tibet. While some of this seems to have been from genuine appreciation, such as his interest in Buddhism, others come from his racist views on cultural development. Hodgson was a proponent of degeneration theory: the idea that all humanity originated from a common point, but that climate caused some cultures to decline and others to advance. Unsurprisingly, this school held that non-white people were degraded versions of white people, and that they should be studied in order to understand how this so-called degradation took place. This was intertwined with the pursuit of phrenology and other scientific investigations that were specifically intended as rationale for white supremacy and colonialism.

Hodgson was an avid collector of skulls. He donated at least ninety skulls to the British Museum of Natural History (now the Natural History Museum), which were still being actively measured to classify people from the area into ever more precise “races”. He was regarded as an expert in cranial measurements as a means of classifying people into racial categories to be quoted in Crania Britannica, a key text for phrenologists of the day. The collection he established was still at the NHM as of the 1980s, and there are no available records that indicate they were moved elsewhere.

Skull of a Nepalese man, with Hodgson’s name clearly written on it. Reproduced from Morant 1924.

One of Hodgson’s particular interests was determining which peoples on the Indian subcontinent were “Aryan”. Although he seems to have used this term in a way closer to its original conception, of a prehistoric group that migrated from Central Asia into India, we can still clearly see what trajectory the term would take in the next century, as an overview of his views from a later biography make clear:

“Hodgson’s work among the Sanskrit texts and his collaboration with Sanskrit pandits brought him to the core of the Aryan civilisation of India. To whatever race Buddha belonged, there can be no question that Buddhism developed into the national religion of India under Aryan influences, and that its original Scriptures were written in one form or another of Aryan speech. But the Aryans in India, as in Europe, form only a top-dressing to thick layers of earlier races. Those remnants of primitive humanity have in Europe been almost crushed out of sight by the superincumbent mass, or were amalgamated with it. In India they may be studied as distinct types of man.

Hunter 1896, p 284. [link]

Unsurprising that Hodgson, who had a deep fascination with Buddhism, would find a way to tie that faith to the same supposed roots of his race, rather than that of many of the peoples who practiced it.

This fascination with classifying subject peoples into a defined taxonomy of humanity, where skull measurements determined everything from your supposed intelligence and emotional control to the right of others to conquer and conscript you, was a key part of establishing the intellectual framework of colonialism. The British in particular realized early on that they could more effectively maintain control of their colonies by keeping their subjects from rallying together. They usually picked favored groups to draw their troops from and reward, increasing resentment and division with other groups, and this became ever increasingly tied to their “racial” classification.

Hodgson’s Treecreeper [link]

Hodgson eventually left India, having dabbled ineptly in local politics one too many times. He remains known as a prolific collector and writer, as well as for spreading knowledge about Buddhism more widely in Britain. But his influence in the scientific rationalization of racial hierarchies is almost certainly longer lasting, even if unseen. His and others’ work on racial classification in India would feed into the later conceptions of an “Aryan” race, which a half century after his death would lead to disastrous consequences for the world in general.

J.F. McLaughlin


Davis, Joseph Barnard, and Thurnam, John. 1865. Crania Britannica. Published by subscription. [link]

Des Chene, Mary. 1999. Military ethnology in British India. South Asia Research 19(2), pp. 121-135. [link]

Hodgson, Brian Houghton. 1847. On the aborigines of India: essay the first, of the Kocch, Bodo, and Dhimal. J. Thomas. [link]

Hodgson, Brian Houghton. 1874. Essays on the languages, literature, and religion of Nepal and Tibet: together with further papers of the geography, ethnology, and commerce of those countries. Trubner and Company. [link]

Hunter, William Wilson. 1896. Life of Brian Houghton Hodgson: British Resident at the court of Nepal, member of the institue of France; Fellow of the Royal Society, a Vice-president of the Royal Asiatic Society; etc. J. Murray. [link]

Morant, G.M. 1924. A study of certain oriental series of crania including the Nepalese and Tibetan series in the British Museum (Natural History). Biometricka 16, pp 1-105. [link]

Waterhouse, David. 2004. The origins of Himalayan studies: Brian Houghton Hodgson in Nepal and Darjeeling. Routledge. [link]