Hume was born at St Mary Cray, Kent, the son of Joseph Hume, the Radical MP. He was educated at Haileybury Training College and then University College Hospital, studying medicine and surgery. In 1849 he sailed to India and the following year joined the Bengal Civil Service at Etawah in the North-Western Provinces, in what is now Uttar Pradesh. He soon rose to become District Officer, introducing free primary education and creating a local vernacular newspaper, Lokmitra (The People's Friend). He married Mary Anne Grindall in 1853.
During the uprising of 1857 Hume took refuge in the Agra fort for six months. Only one Indian official remained loyal and Hume took back position in January 1858. He built up a force of 650 Indian troops and took part in engagements with them. Hume blamed the British ineptitude for the uprising and pursued a policty of ‘mercy and forbearance’.
He took up the cause of education and founded scholarships for higher education. He wrote in 1859:
In 1863 he moved for separate schools for juvenile delinquents rather than imprisonment. His efforts led to a juvenile reformatory not far from Etawah. He also started free schools in Etawah and by 1857 he established 181 schools with 5186 students including two girls. In 1867 he became Commissioner of Customs for the North West Province, and in 1870 he became attached to the central government as Director-General of Agriculture. In 1879 he returned to provincial government at Allahabad.
He was against the revenue earned through liquor traffic and described it as "The wages of sin". With his progressive ideas about social reform, he advocated women's education, was against infanticide and enforced widowhood. Hume laid out in Etawah a neatly gridded commercial district that is now known as Humeganj but often pronounced Homeganj. The high school that he helped build with his own money is still in operation, now as a junior college, and it has a floor plan resembling the letter H. This, according to some is an indication of Hume's imperial ego, although the form can easily be missed.
Hume proposed to develop fuelwood plantations "in every village in the drier portions of the country" and thereby provide a substitute heating and cooking fuel so that manure could be returned to the land. Such plantations, he wrote, were "a thing that is entirely in accord with the traditions of the country-a thing that the people would understand, appreciate, and, with a little judicious pressure, cooperate in."
He also took note of rural indebtedness, chiefly caused by the use of land as security, a practice the British themselves had introduced. Hume denounced it as another of "the cruel blunders into which our narrow-minded, though wholly benevolent, desire to reproduce England in India has led us." Hume also wanted government-run banks, at least until cooperative banks could be established.
He was very outspoken and never feared to criticise when he thought the Government was in the wrong. In 1861, he objected to the concentration of police and judicial functions in the hands of the police superintendent. In March 1861, he took a medical leave due to a breakdown from overwork and departed for Britain. Before leaving, he condemned the flogging and punitive measures initiated by the provincial government as 'barbarous … torture'. He was allowed to return to Etawah only after apologizing for the tone of his criticism. He criticized the administration of Lord Lytton (before 1879) which according to him cared little for the welfare and aspiration of the people of India. Lord Lytton's foreign policy according to him had led to the waste of "millions and millions of Indian money". Hume was critical of the land revenue policy and suggested that it was the cause of poverty in India. His superiors were irritated and attempted to restrict his powers and this led him to publish a book on Agricultural Reform in India in 1879.
In 1879 the Government made their disapproval of his criticism and frankness known and summarily removed him from the Secretariat. The Englishman in an article dated 27 June 1879, commenting on the event stated, "There is no security or safety now for officers in Government employment."
Hume retired from the civil service in 1882. In 1883 he wrote an open letter to the graduates of Calcutta University, calling upon them to form their own national political movement. This led in 1885 to the first session of the Indian National Congress held in Bombay. Hume served as its General Secretary until 1908. Along with Sir William Wedderburn (1838-1918) they made it possible for Indians to organize themselves in preparation of self government.
Mary Anne Grindall died in 1890, and their only daughter was the widow of Mr. Ross Scott who was sometime Judicial Commissioner of Oudh. Hume left India in 1894 and settled at The Chalet, 4, Kingswood Road, Upper Norwood in London. He died at the age of eighty-three on July 31st, 1912. His ashes are buried in Brookwood Cemetery.
In 1973, the Indian postal department released a commemorative stamp.
Hume did not have great regard for institutional Christianity, but believed in the immortality of the soul and in the idea of a supreme ultimate. Hume wanted to become a chela (student) of the Tibetan spiritual gurus. During the few years of his connection with the Theosophical Society Hume wrote three articles on Fragments of Occult Truth under the pseudonym "H. X." published in The Theosophist. These were written in response to questions from Mr. Terry, an Australian Theosophist. He also privately printed several Theosophical pamphlets titled Hints on Esoteric Theosophy. The later numbers of the Fragments, in answer to the same enquirer, were written by A.P. Sinnett and signed by him, as authorized by Mahatma K. H., A Lay-Chela.
Madame Blavatsky was a regular visitor at Hume's Rothney castle at Simla and an account of her visit may be found in Simla, Past and Present by Edward John Buck (who succeeded Mr. Hume in charge of the Agricultural Department). A long story, about Hume and his wife appears in A.P. Sinnett's book Occult World, and the synopsis was published in a local paper of India. The story relates how at a dinner party, Madame Blavatsky asked Mrs Hume if there was anything she wanted. She replied that there was a brooch, her mother had given her, that had gone out of her possession some time ago. Blavatsky said she would try to recover it through occult means. After some interlude, later that evening, the brooch was found in a garden, where the party was directed by Blavatsky. Later, Hume privately expressed grave doubts on certain powers attributed to Madame Blavatsky and due to this, soon fell out of favour with the Theosophists.
Hume lost all interest in theosophy when he got involved with the creation of the Indian National Congress.
From early days, Hume had a special interest in science. Science, he wrote and of natural history he wrote in 1867:
During his career in Etawah, he built a personal collection of bird specimens, however it was destroyed during the 1857 mutiny. Subsequently he started afresh with a systematic plan to survey and document the birds of the Indian Subcontinent and in the process he accumulated the largest collection of Asiatic birds in the world, which he housed in a museum and library at his home in Rothney Castle on Jakko Hill, Simla. Rothney castle originally belonged to P. Mitchell, C.I.E and after Hume bought it, he tried to convert the house into a veritable palace, which he expected would be bought by the Government as a Viceregal residence in view of the fact that the Governor-General then occupied Peterhoff, which was too small for Viceregal entertainments. Hume spent over two hundred thousand pounds on the grounds and buildings. He added enormous reception rooms suitable for large dinner parties and balls, as well as a magnificent conservatory and spacious hall with walls displaying his superb collection of Indian horns. He hired a European gardener, and made the grounds and conservatory a perpetual horticultural exhibition, to which he courteously admitted all visitors.
Rothney Castle could only be reached by a troublesome climb, and was never purchased by the British Government and he himself did not use the larger rooms except for one that he converted into a museum for his wonderful collection of birds, and for occasional dances.
He made many expeditions to collect birds both on health leaves and as and where his work took him. He was Collector and Magistrate of Etawah from 1856 to 1867 during which time he studied the birds of that area. He later became Commissioner of Inland Customs which made him responsible for the control of 2500 miles of coast from near Peshawar in the northwest to Cuttack on the Bay of Bengal. He travelled on horseback and camel in areas of Rajasthan and negotiated treaties with various local maharajas to control the export of natural resources such as salt. During these travels he made a number of notes on various bird species:
His expedition to the Indus area was one of the largest and it started in late November 1871 and continued until the end of February 1872. In March 1873, he visited the Andaman and Nicobar Islands in the Bay of Bengal. In 1875 he visited the Laccadive Islands. And in 1881 he made his last ornithological expedition to Manipur. This was made on special leave following his demotion from the Central Government to a junior position on the Board of Revenue of the North Western Provinces.
He used this vast bird collection to produce a massive publication on all the birds of India. Unfortunately this work was lost in 1885 when all Hume's manuscripts were sold by a servant as waste paper. Hume's interest in ornithology reduced due to this theft as well as a landslip caused by heavy rains in Simla which damaged his personal museum and specimens. He wrote to the British Museum wishing to donate his collection on certain conditions. One of the conditions was that the collection was to be examined by Dr. R. Bowdler Sharpe and personally packed by him, apart from raising Dr. Sharpe's rank and salary due to the additional burden on his work caused by his collection. The British Museum was unable to heed to his conditions. It was only after the destruction of nearly 20000 specimens, that alarm bells were raised by Dr. Sharpe and the Museum authorities let him visit India to supervise the transfer of the specimens to the British Museum.
Sharpe provides the following account of Hume's impressive private ornithological museum:
Sharpe also noted:
The Hume collection as it went to the British museum in 1884 consisted of 82,000 specimens of which 75,577 were finally placed in the Museum. A breakup of that collection is as follows (old names retained).
The Hume Collection contained 258 types.
The egg collection was made up of carefully authenticated contributions from knowledgeable contacts and on the authenticity and importance of the collection, E. W. Oates wrote in the 1901 Catalogue of the collection of birds' eggs in the British Museum (Volume 1):
An additional species, the Large-billed Reed-Warbler Acrocephalus orinus was known from just one specimen collected by him in 1869. The status of the species was contested for long and DNA comparisons with similar species in 2002 suggested that it was a valid species. It was only in 2006 that the species was seen again in Thailand.
Hume made several expeditions solely to study ornithology and in March 1873 he made one to the Andaman, Nicobar and other islands in the Bay of Bengal along with geologists Dr. Ferdinand Stoliczka and Dr. Dougall of the Geological Survey of India and James Wood-Mason of the Indian Museum in Calcutta.
Hume employed William Ruxton Davison as a curator of his personal bird collection and also sent him out on collection trips to various parts of India, when he was held up with official responsibilities.
Hume started the quarterly journal Stray Feathers - A journal of ornithology for India and dependencies in 1872. He used the journal to publish descriptions of his new discoveries, such as Hume's Owl, Hume's Wheatear and Hume's Whitethroat. He wrote extensively on his own observation as well as critical reviews of all the ornithological works of the time and earned himself the nickname of Pope of Indian ornithology.
Hume built up a network of ornithologists reporting from various parts of India. More than 200 correspondents are listed in his Game Birds and this was only a fraction of the subscribers of Stray Feathers. This huge network made it possible for Hume to cover a much larger geographic region in his ornithological work.
During the time of Hume, Blyth was considered the father of Indian ornithology. Hume's achievement which made use of a large network of correspondents was recognized even during his time:
Many of Hume's correspondents were eminent naturalists and sportsmen of the time.
He also corresponded with ornithologists outside India including R. Bowdler-Sharpe, the Marquis of Tweeddale, Pere David, Dresser, Benedykt Dybowski, John Henry Gurney, J.H.Gurney, Jr. ,Johann Friedrich Naumann, Severtzov, Dr. Middendorff.
This was Hume's first major work. It had 422 pages and accounts of 81 species. It was dedicated to Edward Blyth and Dr. Thomas C. Jerdon who had done more for Indian Ornithology than all other modern observers put together and he described himself as their their friend and pupil. He hoped that his book would form a nucleus round which future observation may crystallize and that others around the country could help him fill in many of the woeful blanks remaining in record.
This work was co-authored by C. H. T. Marshall. The three volume work on the game birds was made using contributions and notes from a network of 200 or more correspondents. Hume delegated the task of getting the plates made to Marshall. The chromolithographs of the birds were drawn by W. Foster, E. Neale, M. Herbert, Stanley Wilson and others and the plates were produced by F. Waller in London. Hume had sent specific notes on colours of soft parts and instructions to the artists. He was unsatisfied with many of the plates and included additional notes on the plates in the book. This book was started at the point when the government demoted Hume and only the need to finance the publication of this book prevented him from retiring from service. He retired from service on 1 January 1882 after the publication.
In the preface Hume wrote
while his co-author Marshall, wrote
This was another major work by Hume and in it he covered descriptions of the nests, eggs and the breeding seasons of most Indian bird species. It makes use of notes from contributors to his journals as well as other correspondents and works of the time.
A second edition of this book was made in 1889 which was edited by Eugene Oates. This was published when he had himself given up all interest in ornithology. An event precipitated by the loss of his manuscripts through the actions of a servant. He wrote in the preface:
Eugene Oates wrote his own editorial note
This nearly marked the end of Hume's interest in ornithology. Hume's last piece of ornithological writing was done in 1891 as part of an Introduction to the Scientific Results of the Second Yarkand Mission an official publication on the contributions of Dr. Ferdinand Stoliczka, who died during the return journey on this mission. Stoliczka in a dying request had asked that Hume should edit the volume on the ornithological results.
There were agrarian riots in the Deccan and Bombay and Hume decided that an Indian Union would be a good safety valve and outlet for this unrest. On the 1st of March 1883 he wrote a letter to the graduates of Calcutta University:
His poem The Old Man's Hope published in Calcutta in 1886 also captures the sentiment:
Sons of Ind, why sit ye idle, Wait ye for some Deva's aid? Buckle to, be up and doing! Nations by themselves are made!
Are ye Serfs or are ye Freemen, Ye that grovel in the shade? In your own hands rest the issues! By themselves are nations made!
The idea of the Indian Union took shape and Hume also had support from Lord Dufferin for this although the latter wished to keep a low profile in the matter. It has been suggested that the idea was originally conceived in a private meeting of seventeen men after a Theosophical Convention held at Madras in December 1884. Hume took the initiative, and it was in March 1885, when the first notice was issued convening the first Indian National Union to meet at Poona the following December.
He attempted to increase the Congress base by bringing in more farmers, townspeople and Muslims between 1886 and 1887 and this created a backlash from the British rules leading to backtracking by the Congress. Hume was disappointed when Congress opposed moves to raise the age of marriage for Indian girls and failed to focus on issues of poverty. In 1892, he tried to get them to act by warning of a violent agrarian revolution but this only outraged the British establishment and frightened the Congress elite. Disappointed by the continued lack of Indian leaders willing to work for the cause of national emancipation, Hume left for Britain in 1894.