John Henry Hutton 1885-1968

With the death of Professor John Henry Hutton in May, 1968, ended a chapter in the history of British anthropology. He was the last of the distinguished class of civil servants who in their time contributed so greatly to the knowledge of the indigenous peoples of Britain’s far-flung empire and in a later phase of their career achieved positions of eminence in academic life. Combining the enthusiasm and zest of the amateur with unrivalled opportunities for first-hand observation of primitive populations still uninfluenced by modern civilisation, he had developed into an anthropologist of note and international reputation long before he came to exchange the responsibilities of a senior administrator for a life of teaching and scholarship. Modern anthropology is the poorer for the lack of such personalities in the ranks of university teachers, for men of his vitality and variety of experience counteracted the tendency to a sober professionalism inevitably prevalent among those recruited to a branch of learning early in life.

J. H. Hutton was born in 1885 in Yorkshire and educated at Chigwell School in Essex and Worcester College, Oxford. He joined the Indian Civil Service in 1909 and served for the greater part of his career on the Assam-Burma border and notably in the Naga Hills. Like other British officials he developed a deep and lasting attachment to the Nagas, and the experience he gained by his penetrating interest in their cultural and social life became a decisive factor in his intellectual development. From 1920 onwards he wrote a large number of articles on topics connected with Naga ethnography, and his two voluminous monographs The Angami Nagas and The Sema Nagas, both published in 1921, laid the foundations of his reputation as an anthropologist. Hutton saw beyond the region for the administration of which he was responsible, and spent much effort on tracing parallels between the Nagas and tribal populations of southeast Asia and Oceania. In this comparative work he was encouraged by the late Henry Balfour, who visited him in the Naga Hills and contributed a foreword to The Sema Nagas. The collaboration between the two scholars had the practical result of inducing Hutton to collect ethnographical objects for the Pitt Rivers Museum of which Balfour was curator. The museum now contains one of the most representative collections from the Naga Hills and many of the objects had passed through Hutton’s hands. Moreover, as Honorary Director of Ethnography, Assam, Hutton took it upon himself to stimulate anthropological research by inspiring other members of the Indian Civil Service to follow his example. He was fortunate in having colleagues of the calibre of J. P. Mills, whose books, introduced and annotated by Hutton, equal his own monographs in scholarship and ethnographical interest. The friendly co-operation with Mills extended also to some memorable tours through unadministered and unexplored areas east of the Naga Hills, where the two scholarly officials surveyed tribal groups never previously visited by Europeans.

One of Hutton’s many valuable contributions to specific anthropological problems is his extensive work on the megalithic monuments of the Naga Hills and other parts of Assam. Articles such as ‘The meaning and method of the erection of monoliths by the Naga tribes’ published in the Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute (Vol. 52, 1922) were pioneer works which drew the attention of anthropologists to the rich megalithic culture of Assam, and provided important data for the comparative studies of such scholars as Robert von Heine-Geldern.

Hutton’s greatest opportunity to apply anthropological knowledge to the practical business of government came with his appointment as Census Commissioner for the Census of India, 1931. In this important position he co-ordinated the collection of anthropologically relevant data throughout India, devising questionnaires and encouraging officials of the Indian Civil Service to produce descriptive accounts of the tribes and backward communities with which they were familiar. Volume I, Part I and Part III of the Census of India, 1931, clearly bear the imprint of his scholarship, and some of the arguments on migrations and cultural parallels contained in Part I advanced novel theories perhaps more appropriate to a learned journal than to the pages of an official census report.

The final fruit of the massive research Hutton had applied to the production of the census reports was his most widely known and most frequently quoted book Caste in India. This was first published in 1946 but subsequently went into several editions including one in French. In its pages Hutton reviewed the position of castes and the general ethnographical pattern in various regions of India, and put forward a consistent theory of caste, which anticipates many of the ideas resulting from more recent research on the phenomenon of a hierarchy of mutually dependent caste-groups.

Though by no means oblivious of the great and complex problems of the advanced societies of the subcontinent, Hutton retained throughout his life a passionate and constructive interest in the fortunes of the more primitive tribal populations. In the discussions on their future connected with the drafting of the constitution of 1935, Hutton acted as an advocate of tribal interests, and the legislation providing for the Excluded and partially Excluded Areas owed much to his persuasive influence. He was well aware of the distaste some of the Indian nationalists felt for his policies, but remained undaunted and unconvinced by their accusation that proposals for special protection of tribal minorities were the outcome of a British plan to divide the Indian nation.

Family circumstances and perhaps also the wish to devote more of his time to anthropology led to his resignation from the Indian Civil Service in 1936. The interval between the end of his first and the beginning of his second career was short. Already in 1937 he was elected to the William Wyse Chair of Social Anthropology in Cambridge, then perhaps the most prestigious academic position in British anthropology. Elected to a fellowship of St Catharine’s College he adjusted himself to the rarefied sphere of scholarship with as much ease as in previous years he had adjusted himself to the simple life in remote Naga villages. His friendliness and extravert good humour endeared him to his new colleagues in just the same way as they had won him the hearts of tribesmen and Indian villagers. While the war years deprived him at first of the opportunity to impress his personality on large numbers of students, he applied his administrative talents to the bursarship of his college and even accepted the office of Sheriff of the county of Radnorshire.

When the war ended and numerous mature students with overseas experience entered Cambridge they found in Professor Hutton a sympathetic and stimulating teacher anxious to hand on his great knowledge of India and its people.

Throughout his career he was the recipient of numerous honours. For his active service in operations against rebellious Kuki tribesmen he was created C.I.E. The University of Oxford awarded him the degree of D.Sc., and the Royal Anthropological Institute honoured him by the award of the Rivers Memorial Medal (1929) and by his election as president for the years 1944 and 1945. Among other institutions which expressed their recognition of his services to anthropology were the Royal Society of Arts (Silver Medal 1932), the Asiatic Society of Bengal (Annandale Memorial Medal 1937) and the Anthro-pologische Gesellschaft of Vienna. In 1938 he was appointed Frazer Lecturer and on his retirement from the William Wyse chair in 1950 he was elected an Honorary Fellow of St Catharine’s College. Up to his death he remained in touch with anthropology, reediting his books and writing articles and reviews for learned journals. He was a prompt and courteous correspondent, always placing his vast experience at the disposal of other scholars. Books published as late as 1968, such as for instance F. J. Simoons’s A ceremonial ox of India (University of Wisconsin Press), a study dedicated to him as one of the ‘giants of the mithan country’, contain many references to ‘personal communications from J. H. Hutton’, and such willingness to put himself out for the furtherance and spread of knowledge were characteristic of Professor Hutton as a devoted scholar and a generous, warm-hearted man.

C. von Fürer-Haimendorf

This obituary first appeared as: von Fürer-Haimendorf, C.. 1968. 'Obituaries'. Proceedings of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland, No. 1968, p. 66-67 Reproduced with permission.


To cite this article:

VON FÜRER-HAIMENDORF, C.. 1968. 'Obituaries'. Proceedings of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland, No. 1968, p. 66-67 (available on-line: