Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Bird, Robert Merttins

BIRD, ROBERT MERTTINS (1788–1853), a Bengal civil servant, arrived in India on 9 Nov. 1808, and, commencing his service as an assistant to the registrar of the court of Sadr Diwáni Adálat, the company’s chief court of appeal at Calcutta, was subsequently employed in the provinces in various judicial posts, from which in 1829 he was transferred to the appointment of commissioner of revenue and circuit for the Gorakhpur division. In the discharge of his duties as a judicial officer Bird acquired a remarkable insight into the landed tenures of the country and the effect upon them of the laws then in force, which ‘referred to a state of things wholly distinct from that which existed among the people’ (Fourth Report from the Select Committee an Indian Territories, 1853-Minutes of Evidence, p. 29). Upon his appointment as a revenue commissioner, the soundness and clearness of his views and his remarkable administrative capacity speedily stamped him as the ablest revenue officer in Bengal; and when it was determined in 1833 to revise the settlement of the land revenue of the north-western provinces, the governor-general fixed upon Bird as the fittest man in the service to undertake that task. In the previous year he had been appointed a member of the board of revenue, then newly constituted at Allahabad, Retaining his seat as a member of the board, he took sole charge of the settlement operations which he brought to a completion at the close of 1841. The result was recorded in a report which he laid before government early in the following year, and in which he explained that the work had not been confined to ‘such an accurate ascertainment of the resources of the land as would insure to government its full share of the rents or produce;’ but that it ‘included the decision and demarcation of boundaries, the defining and recording the separate possession, rights, privileges, and liabilities of the members of those communities who hold their land in severalty; the framing a record of the several interests of those who hold their land in common; the providing a system of self-government for the communities; the rules framed with their own consent according to the principles of the constitution of the different tenures; the preparation of the record of the fields and of the rights of cultivators possessing rights; and the reform of the village accounts and completion of a plan of record by their own established accountants, and according to their own method, by reference to which the above points of possession and right might, under the various changes to which property is subject, continue to be ascertained.' A corresponding system of accounts for the offices of the tahsíldárs, or native collectors, and for those of the collectors of districts, was also framed. The settlement was the most complete that had yet been made in India. It embraced an area of seventy-two thousand square miles, and a population of twenty-three millions. It is especially remarkable from the fact that it was designed and carried out by an officer whose duties during the greater part of his service had been judicial. Bird retired from the service in 1842, and spent the remainder of his life in England, where he became an active member of the committee of the Church Missionary Society, travelling on deputation and attending meetings in various parts of the country on behalf of the society. A few months before his death, which occurred at Torquay on 22 Aug. 1853, he gave evidence before the committee of the House of Commons on the renewal of the East India Company’s charter.

[General Register of the Honourable East India Company’s Civil Servants on the Bengal Establishment from 1790 to 1842, by the Hon. H. T. Prinsep, India Office; Marshman's History of India (1867), iii. 47, 48; Bird’s Report on the Settlement of the North-West Provinces, 1859; Fouith Report from the Select Committee of the House of Commons on Indian Territories, 1853; Minutes of Evidence; private letters.]

A. J. A.