Memorandum on the Census of British India of 1871-72


The Memorandum on the Census of British India of 1871-72 was written by Henry Waterfield, a civil servant of that era. Waterfield worked for 44 years with the India Office, that is, the British government department that supervised the administration of the provinces directly under British governance.

The Memorandum – which is an introduction to the Census – says that it was the first attempt to gather data related to “whole of India” – British India and the “native feudatory states.” But the information from the native or princely states was only “fairly accurate” and the numbers were “mostly estimates,” so the Census limited itself to what was then British India.

Not all the provinces were represented in the Census and the information was gathered at different times, often using different methods. Some of the reports from the provinces were collected six years prior to 1871.

The Census surveyed the population based on the categories of age, sex, caste, religion, education, occupation, dwelling, infirmity, nationality, language, and location (rural or urban). It mentioned the incidence of female infanticide, provided detailed information about various castes (from “superior” and “intermediate” to “agricultural” and “labouring”), and gave figures for revenue collected per acre of land and per adult male agriculturalist.     

In the towns, the Census was conducted by the municipal authorities, but in other areas, paid enumerators, chieftans or common people were involved. However, many felt that the government would profit from this exercise and feared that they would be taxed in some way.   

On the whole, the document has a colonialist tone – for instance, “the prolific nature of aborigines” (which is meant to explain the higher numbers of tribal children) or “the barbarous habit” of female infanticide.


  1. The density of the population in British India was 131 persons per square kilometre. 

  2. There were a total of 493,444 villages and towns in British India. Of these, 480,437 villages had a population of less than 5,000; 1,070 towns had between 5,000 and 10,000 people, and only 46 had more than 50,000 people. Not more than 5.5 million people, or less than 3 per cent of the total population, lived in towns.  

  3. A total of 98 million males and 92.5 million females lived in the provinces of British India, and for every 100 males there were 94 females. There were 35.75 million boys and 31.12 million girls – or a ratio of 100 boys to 87 girls. (Ed: The Census of 2011 reported that for every 1,000 men there were 943 women and for every 1,000 boys under the age of 6, there were 919 girls.)

  4. The number of adults above the age of 12 was 123 million, while the number of children below the age of 12 was nearly 67 million – a 100:54 adults to children ratio. 

  5. In 1870, the British enforced a law to apply special regulations to districts or villages where female infanticide was being practised, especially those where there are fewer than 54 girls for every 100 boys. 

  6. In Bengal, there were 2 million more boys under the age of 12 than there were girls, while the number of male adults was approximately 2 million less than female adults. The reason for this variance, the Memorandum states, could be “the systematic concealment [of girls] in consequence of the reticence practised in an Oriental country,” possibly out of the fear that “that the object of the census was to secure wives for the European soldiers,” among other factors. It goes on to say, “As a general rule, the number of girls [was] understated.”

  7. The number of inhabited houses was 37,041,468 – an average of 16 houses per square kilometre and of 5.14 persons per house.

  8. Around 140 million Hindus (and Sikhs) constituted 73.7 per cent of the population, the 40 million Muslims made up approximately 21.5 per cent of the total, and 9 million ‘Others’ or barely 5 per cent. ‘Others’ included Buddhists, Jains, Christians, Jews, Parsis, Brahmoes, and “hill men” and others whose religion was not known. 

  9. The Census noted the number of Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Rajputs and many other castes for most provinces in British India. In the province of Bombay, the Census states, there were 658,479 Brahmins, 144,293 Kshatriyas and Rajputs, 936,000 Vaishyas and 10,856,000 Shudras.

  10. Around 37.5 million people were involved in agriculture – the occupation practised by the maximum number in British India. This included men, women and children. But the Census records little information about the distinct occupations of women. 

  11. The average number of acres cultivated by an adult male agriculturalist varied greatly across the provinces: it was 4.5 acres in the North-West Provinces, 5 in British Burma, 7.5 in Mysore and Coorg, 10.5 in Berar, 17.75 in Bombay and 19.75 in the Central Provinces. 

    Focus and Factoids by Subuhi Jiwani.


Henry Waterfield


Public domain; originally published by Statistics and Commerce Department, India Office


01 Jan, 1875