James Philip Mills: 1890-1960.

James Philip Mills had barely passed the span of three score years and ten allotted us by the psalmist when he died on 12 May. Felix opportunitate mortis, perhaps, for the world is changing uncomfortably fast. At any rate the hill men of Assam, whom he knew and loved, must live today in a world quite other than that in which he served them. The son of James Edward Mills, he was born in 1890, educated at Winchester and Corpus Christi College, Oxford, and entered the Indian Civil Service in 1913. He was posted to Assam, and in 1916, I think, joined me in the Naga Hills. After a month or two at headquarters he took charge of the Mokokchung subdivision which was beginning to get unruly having been without an officer for six months or more owing to the shortage during the war. His hobby at that time was ornithology and he was making a survey of birds and mammals for the Bombay Natural History Society, part of which at any rate was published in 1923. But he soon found ethnography more engrossing, and one of his Presidential addresses to the Royal Anthropological Institute nearly 40 years later was called ‘Anthropology as a Hobby’: in the first instance, however, he took to it less, I think, as a hobby than because he realized that good administration and a satisfactory solution of its many problems could not be achieved without a thorough knowledge of the people and a real understanding of their way of thought. His monograph on The Lhota Nagas came out in 1922 and The Ao Nagas followed in 1926. Then came a period of leave and a number of minor articles in various periodicals. ‘Folk Stories in Lhota Naga’ was published in 1928 (J. Asiat. Soc. Beng.,Vol. XXII (1926), No. 5) and jointly with myself ‘Ancient Monoliths of North Cachar’ (ibid., Vol. XXV (1929), No. 1); he was then acting as Deputy Commissioner of Cachar. He was made Honorary Director of Ethnography for Assam in 1930, and he returned to the Naga Hills and completed his monograph on The Rengma Nagas, which was published in 1937. It was before this, about 1935. that he was lent to the Bengal Government to examine and recommend on the administration of the Chittagong Hill Tracts, in the course of which task he covered over 500 miles, mostly on foot, in a couple of months and submitted an admirable and exhaustive report on the mistakes that had been made in the past and the measures needed for the future.

He was made a C.I.E. in 1941, and in 1942 was awarded the Rivers Memorial Medal of the Royal Anthropological Institute for fieldwork among the Nagas of Assam. In 1943 he was appointed Adviser to the Governor of Assam for Tribal Areas and States, a post which not only made his experience of the administration of hill tribes and their problems available in the many and varied hill areas of Assam, but gave him an opportunity of learning much about tribes with which he would otherwise have never come into contact. It is to this opportunity that we owe his second Presidential Address on ‘The Mishmis of the Lohit Valley.’ In 1947 he was made C.S.I. and retired from India, and in 1948 he was appointed Reader in the School of Oriental and African Studies of the University of London, a post from which he retired in 1955. He had been elected to the Council of the R.A.I.—he had, of course, been a member of the Institute for many years—in 1948 and he held the office of President from 1951 to 1953. Among his other activities at the S.O.A.S. was the compilation of a bibliography of ethnographical matter relating to Assam, which has never been separately published but has proved very useful to other bibliographers. After his retirement from London to his home at Sydling St. Nicholas near Dorchester he interested himself in local affairs, and in his garden, and continued, as he had been in Assam, a keen fisherman. He married in 1930 Pamela Moira, daughter of J. Foster Vesey-FitzGerald, who with two daughters survives him. He gave important collections to the Pitt Rivers Museum of the University of Oxford.

Mills made an admirable colleague in administration. Apart from his practical and intellectual ability, his never failing sense of humour, his wit and his good temper in trying circumstances made him an invaluable companion, particularly in camp. When he was my subdivisional officer at Mokokchung his periodic visits to my headquarters at Kohima were events to be looked forward to, and he was beloved by his subordinates no less than by his colleagues, and equally so by many friends of all stations in Assam. The world is poorer by his loss.    


This obituary first appeared as: Hutton, J. H.. 1960. 'James Philip Mills: 1890-1960.'. Man Vol. 60, pp. 89-90. Reproduced with permission.


To cite this article:

HUTTON, J. H.. 1960. 'James Philip Mills: 1890-1960.'. Man Vol. 60, pp. 89-90. (available on-line: