The strange peregrination of a Latin noun: tribus from Italy to India

By guest contributor Professor Sumit Guha

This essay addresses the shifting connection between signifier and signified, word and thing, by looking at the history of an important and yet so protean sociological term: ‘tribe’. My argument is that  ‘tribe’ is a ‘fossil word’ whose content has been replaced through centuries, just as a fossil’s soft tissue has been replaced by mineral compounds. In the process, it has changed to conform with the soil where it has lain. It is these shifts and their underlying discourses that I want to present in this post. In South Asia, the term was also in recent centuries permeated by traits based on the race theories of imperial-age Europe. It has therefore acquired a different connotation in the Republic of India than it has anywhere else. I begin however with its renewed presence in American public discourse now.

Tribes are in vogue (and even in Vogue) nowadays.  Their primordial existence is invoked by journalists and academics to explain mass behavior today. This is of course not new: in the age of modernization theory (after World War II) ‘tribalism’ was frequently invoked to explain the political behavior of ‘not yet modern’ (read non-Western) peoples. Modernization would dissolve all that. John Locke wrote that in the beginning, all was as America: Francis Fukuyama that in the end all would be. History has proved more complex, and back in the USA, ‘tribalism’ is the word of the day. Nations disintegrate and states fail, but ‘Tribalism’ has frequently invoked ever since the U.S. election of 2016 to explain political behavior.

I will show how the same word has come to have distinct referents within and outside the modern Republic of India. As an exercise in the history of ideas, I will look at how and why this came about by bringing to light the racial theories in which the Indian understanding originated.

is well known, tribus is an old Latin noun, originally applied to the divisions of the people by the ancient Romans. It has been suggested that it was originally a compound meaning ‘the three peoples’ or ‘three orders’, though the number of Roman tribes later increased to over thirty. The word entered many European languages during the medieval period. In English we find it in a 1752 thesaurus, and it was used (from Hebrew) as a name for the twelve divisions of the people of Israel as described in Exodus and elsewhere.

After 1510, the Portuguese controlled all sea-borne European access to the Indian Ocean  for almost a century. Asian ships largely sailed under stringent conditions that came with Portuguese permits. The Portuguese arrived at the beginning of the print revolution in the West. Western knowledge of Asia was mediated through Portuguese (and for the learned, Latin). Portuguese became a lingua franca around the littoral. The British commander Robert Clive addressed his Indian soldiery in that language in 1757.  The social category of tribe (tribus) was however, little used by the Portuguese despite their Latin heritage. Other than ‘casta’ – a sociological term common to both Portuguese and Spanish empires–communities were usually called. Both terms referred to ‘people’ in the loosest sense of the term.

But the word ‘tribe’ was early employed by the major South Asian colonial power: Britain. That usage likely came from literate Protestants’ familiarity with the English Bible. But it was still loosely used to mean an ethno-political  grouping. We therefore find great nomenclatural confusion in early English documents. The English East India Company took over the formerly Portuguese-ruled island of Bombay in 1665 and a few years later the governor wrote to his superiors that there were several different ‘nations’ (also described as ‘orders or tribes’) inhabiting the . (I have modernized his orthography by expanding abbreviations; all emphases added.)

[I]n order to preserve the Govern[ment] in constant regular method, free from that confusion which a body composed of so many nations will be subject to, it were requisite [that] [the] severall nations at pres[ent] inhabiting or hereafter to inhabit on the Island of Bombay be reduced or modelled into so many orders or tribes, & that each nation may have a Cheif (sic) or Consull of the same nation appointed over them by the Gover[nor] and Councell…

The distinctive twentieth-century anthropological use of ‘tribe’ and ‘caste’ was still absent as late as the 1820s. For example, in 1823, Thomas Marshall reporting to the Government of Bombay, wrote of one district: ‘the Weavers are either of the tribe of Lingayut [a religious community] or of another Kanaree tribe called Hutgur …’ (p.18). Today both of these would be classified as ‘castes’. He went on ‘the tribe of Bunyas [ a generic term for all Hindu and Jain merchant castes] educated to reading and accompts being unknown here ..’ (p.24).

To add to the confusion, any descent group could also be labeled ‘race’ – so Marshall writes that ‘a respectable Mahratta [today both an ethnonym and a caste-name] (to which race the institution is confined) …’ (p.83). From North India in the same period we find two Muslim communities self-classified as Sheikh [Arabic ‘chief’; used in India by many Muslims as a status label and Sayyad [descendant of the Prophet] referred to as races: ‘The village is divided into two [sections], corresponding with the two races (sic) by which it is occupied …’ This ethnographic looseness had however little administrative effect. (I have discussed English nineteenth century usage of ‘race’ elsewhere.)  Its practical unimportance is why it was allowed to persist. But some officials realized that tribal organization could frame political life in some parts of Southern Asia. Once social categories became administrative ones it became necessary to label clearly and describe exactly.

Mountstuart Elphinstone, one of Marshall’s superior officers in Bombay (later Governor there) and realized the sociopolitical importance of sociological clarity during his visit to the then Eastern Afghanistan in 1808-10. (Shah Shuja refused him permission to go further than Peshawar but he indefatigably interviewed travelers, merchants, Afghan immigrants into India and others when compiling his account.  I have discussed Elphinstone in a recent publication.)  He noted the centrality of ‘tribal’ organization to the political life of the region and this led him to try and label it accurately. So he wrote (all emphases added):

I beg my readers to remark, that hereafter, when I speak of the great divisions of the Afghauns, I shall call them tribes ; and when the component parts of a tribe are mentioned with reference to the tribe, I shall call the first divisions clans : those which compose a clan, Khails, &c, as above. But when I am treating of one of those divisions as an independent body, I shall call it Oolooss, and its component parts clans, khails, &c, according to the relation they bear to the Oolooss, as if the latter were a tribe. Khail is a corruption of the Arabic word Khyle, a band or assemblage ; and Zye, so often affixed to the names of tribes, clans, and families, means son, and is added as Mac is prefixed by the [Scots]Highlanders.

(Oolooss/ulus was a term popularized across the 13th century Mongol Empire to refer to an aggregate of tribe and their grazing domain.)

Elphinstone wrote of the founder-king, King Ahmed Shah Durrani (ruled 1747-1772), that he had been wise enough to know that it would need less exertion to conquer all the neighboring countries (i.e. Elphinstone’s ‘great divisions’) of Afghanistan. Ahmed Shah founded a state that, while designated a monarchy, functioned as a confederation of tribes and chiefdoms (khanates) held together by the Shah’s redistribution of tribute and plunder from the region extending from western Uttar Pradesh to the Khyber Pass. In the nineteenth century, British and Russian arms and subsidies enabled the kings to acquire more authority. But that broke down with the overthrow of the monarchy and then of all settled government in the late 1970s and 1980s.

Over much of the world therefore, “tribe” has generally referred to strong organizations, often possessing much latent military power. Nor should we view this as a situation confined to specific regions of West Asia or North Africa. Decades ago, Owen Lattimore provocatively suggested that from their beginnings, civilizations gave birth to the barbarian tribes that they then sought to subdue or to exclude, and by whom they were periodically conquered. Tribes (he argued) emerged out of simple bands of foragers or farmers because emerging empires preyed upon small unorganized communities for slaves, encroached on their territories, or sought to incorporate them as servile peasants.

afridi tribesmen

Afridi tribesmen, 1878, from Wikimedia Commons

Tribes might also take shape out of conquering war-bands. The area northeast of Delhi, for example (now known as Rohilkhand), lost its medieval name (Katehar) in the eighteenth century as warrior-bands called Rohilla displaced the local Katehriya Rajput gentry that had tenaciously resisted the power of Delhi from the thirteenth century. The Rohillas in turn, maintained the local tradition of resistance to central power well into the British colonial period. But there was no original Rohilla tribe in Afghanistan. As Jos Gommans has demonstrated in his contribution to the volume for D.H.A. Kolff, the early Indian Rohillas had themselves assembled a ‘tribal’ community out of various Afghan war bands and miscellaneous local slaves drawn into the following of Daud Khan, a horse-trader turned soldier of fortune turned tribal chieftain.

‘Tribe’ is an important category in modern South Asia, especially in the Republic of India. Nandini Sundar, an important Indian academic recently published a valuable edited volume on the 100 million-plus people classed as members of ‘Scheduled Tribes’ in India. This part of the post only looks at the origins of this term and the evolution of its unusual usage in the India, one so distinct from that in other parts of the Old World.

The Republic has followed a late colonial classification, one that began by defining ‘tribes’ as This strain of thought originated in late colonial times and derived from the now abandoned effort to apply geological models of stratification to contemporary social organization. We find it exemplified in the work of the missionary ethnographer John Wilson. It was transferred to the hilly forests of Central India by the British official Charles Grant who also incorporated the emerging “Nordic” and “Aryan race” theory.

The rise of nationalism and its critiques of colonial rule increasingly irked the British imperial government. One of the ideological responses was to argue that various Indian communities needed the benevolent protection of the Empire against the oppressions of other Indians, especially those critical of the Empire. This discourse naturally gravitated to the communities already declared to be . By the early twentieth century that led to special protection for such peoples and thus began the movement towards a conception of tribes as composed of simple, timid and primitive peoples whose special traits made them deserving of protection by the British government of India. As I have written elsewhere, the government wanted to counter nationalist agitations by presenting itself as the protector of the simple aborigines against oppression by their fellow-Indians. One effect of this was the creation of ‘excluded areas’ beyond the inner frontiers, where ordinary law and civil process did not operate and the executive had wide powers. The separate existence of such areas was gradually terminated after Indian independence, but special measures of affirmative action were enshrined in the new Constitution (1950).

However, the defining traits of ‘tribal’ communities were taken from colonial ethnography. Thus India’s tribes are defined and have been officially defined since at least the 1960s in ways detailed in Sundar’s Introduction to her book. Megan Moodie recently pointed out that “shyness” was an important identifying trait. This has had real-world consequences for communities seeking inclusion in this category. For example, the failure of the Gurjar or Gujar community of northern India to display the necessary traits led a judicial commission appointed by the Government of Rajasthan to deny them entry into the list of Scheduled Tribes for that state.  That commission reiterated the conclusions of an earlier report submitted to the government on 20 August 1981, which had said of them: “They are fairly well-off and suffer from no shyness of contact with people of other castes. Also, they do not have any primitive traits (for them) to be considered for inclusion in [Scheduled Tribe] ”.

Thus the same sociological term has radically different meanings. A few hundred miles west of the Indian border, adjoining Afghanistan, lies what was (until recently) known as  Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Area (FATA). Its residents have never been known for shyness or timidity: indeed, quite the opposite. It is here that we find the direct descendants of the ‘tribes’ that Elphinstone observed in 1810. Two hundred years later, they are still political and military communities that play a major part in the public life of Afghanistan and, to a lesser degree of Pakistan.

Sumit Guha is Professor of History at The University of Texas at Austin. He is indebted to Derek O’Leary for two careful readings and many good suggestions.