First fingerprinting in the world - colonial India

Sir Edward Richard Henry -fist to introduce finger printing in the world. Colonial India.

The science of fingerprint identification stands out as the most important tool to identify a criminal among all other forensic science methods  for many reasons,  It has been used  for more than 115  years world over by the criminal investigative department of numerous countries to accurately identify the criminal - be they burglars, murderers, forgers, rapists, etc.  Every police agency relies on the record of  finger prints collected by a central agency for comparison. It's popularity is being due to the fact  a detailed study of comparison of finger prints has clearly established that  no two finger pints have similar pattern or signature in a vast collection of a billion human and computer-based comparisons. Hence, worldwide it has been commonly used an important forensic evidence  with thousands of fingerprints daily added to the repository. By the same token,  daily thousands are sent to the slammer by the court based on fingerprint evidences, besides others.
Finger printing Bureau, Kol;kata.

Fingerprint  is an impression left by the friction ridges of a human finger on the objects.  The recovery  or lifting of fingerprints from a crime scene is an important  part of forensic evidence in a criminal  case  to trace the culprit and there are several methods to lift the finger prints of criminals in a crime scene. Because of  natural secretions of sweat from the Eccrine  sweat glands that are present in epidermal ridges, fingerprints are easily stick  on suitable surfaces (such as glass or metal or polished stone. These are normally  referred to as "Chanced Impressions".
The general consensus has been that fingerprinting was invented at Scotland Yard, Scotland  and, in reality, it is not true though this has been accepted as a fact in many countries. That it was the British who first invented finger printing as an important tool to identify a person is 100% true. The moot question is: Where did the concept of finger printing occur? Where did the British experiment it?  How come they avoided experiments in England?  The very first discovery occurred not in Britain, but in colonial India, to be precise, Kolkata (Calcutta), West Bengal.

In "Imprint of the Raj", Chandak Sengoopta argues  that fingerprinting method was more of a product of the Raj and not so much of Britain. Though  it was either indigenous or British and not involved in Britain itself, fingerprinting, incorporated into British tradition, was  gradually introduced and later it was used by many countries across the globe.

The very first finger print bureau was set up in Kolkatta in 1897 By Edward Richard Henry, Inspector General of the Bengal Province. Late he headed the Metropolitan police in London. He was the first one who championed the fingerprinting techniques to identify the culprits. He also classified the fingerprints based on certain  patterns. According to Sengoopta's well- researched work  Henry's system of classification of fingerprinting is a valuable contribution in the area of forensic science and the credit must also be allotted to his  Indian assistants Azizul Haque and Chandra Bose. 

Necessity is the mother of invention.  Insecurity on the part of the oppressive rulers  who wanted to keep track of the natives using fingerprinting as a way was the main reason that slowly evolved into  a systematic development of finger printing, first of its kind in the world, in the Raj and at that time no body ever thought of its wide application in successfully tracking criminals across the globe. So, Colonial India was the experimental field for the fingerprinting method introduced by the British. Such an experiment or routine identification of people in England is impossible to think of. For the British that would amount to trespassing on their privacy. 

Kolkata Fingerprint Bureau is believed to have been  established by Sir Henry. Likewise, he is also credited with having, for the first time, police dogs -sniffer dogs to track criminals at large and typewriters at Scotland Yard. While with the Metropolitan Police, London, he first  published his classic work on fingerprinting - "Classification and Use of Finger Prints" in 1900. This book is of immense help to the sleuths world over to nab the criminals. As for the Old Fingerprint Bureau in Kolkata, it is under staffed and is operating from a small room of 400 sq. ft in Bhavani building. With crime rate going up in the city of Kolkata, the state government should transfer the facility to a better place for effective functioning.


Reviewed by
Simon A. Cole (bio)
Imprint of the Raj: How Fingerprinting was Born in Colonial India. By Chandak Sengoopta. London: Macmillan, 2003. Pp. xv+234. £15.99.