Dutt was born into a distinguished Bengali Kayastha family well known for its members' literary and academic achievements. His parents were Thakamani and Isam Chunder Dutt, a Deputy Collector in Bengal, whom Romesh often accompanied on official duties. He was educated in various Bengali District schools, then at Hare School, Calcutta. After his father's untimely death in a boat accident in eastern Bengal, his uncle, Shoshee Chunder Dutt, an accomplished writer, became his guardian in 1861. He commenting on his uncle, wrote, "He used to sit at night with us and our favorite study used to be pieces from the works of the English poets." He was a relative of Toru Dutt, one of nineteenth century Bengal's most prominent poets.
At that time, only one other Indian, Satyendra Nath Tagore, had qualified for the Indian Civil Service. Dutt aimed to emulate Tagore's feat. For a long time, before and after 1853, the year the ICS examination was introduced in England, only British officers were appointed to covenanted posts.
At University College London, Dutt continued to study British writers. He qualified for the Indian Civil Service in the open examination in 1869, taking third place.
He was called to the bar by the Honourable Society of the Middle Temple on 6 June 1871.
He entered the Indian Civil Service as an assistant magistrate of Alipur in 1871. A famine in Meherpur, District of Nadia in 1874 and another in Dakhin Shahbazpur (Bhola District) in 1876, followed by a disastrous cyclone, required emergency relief and economic recovery operations, which Dutt managed successfully. He served as administrator for Backerganj, Mymensingh, Burdwan, Donapur, and Midnapore. He became Burdwan's District Officer in 1893, Commissioner (offtg.) of Burdwan Division in 1894, and Divisional Commissioner (offtg.) for Orissa in 1895. Dutt was the first Indian to attain the rank of divisional commissioner.
Dutt retired from the ICS in 1897. In 1898 he returned to England as a lecturer in Indian History at University College, London where he completed his famous thesis on economic nationalism. He returned to India as dewan of Baroda State, a post he had been offered before he left for Britain. He was extremely popular in Baroda where the Maharaja, Maharaja Sayajirao Gaekwad III and his family members and all other staff members used to call him the Babu Dewan, as a mark of personal respect. In 1907, he also became a member of the Royal Commission on Indian Decentralisation.
His The Literature of Bengal presented "a connected story of literary and intellectual progress in Bengal" over eight centuries, commencing with the early Sanskrit poetry of Jayadeva. It traced Chaitanya's religious reforms of the sixteenth century, Raghunatha Siromani's school of formal logic, and Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar's brilliance, coming down to the intellectual progress of the nineteenth century.
This was presented by Thacker, Spink & Co. in Calcutta and Archibald Constable in London in 1895, but it had formed earlier in Dutt's mind while he managed famine relief and economic recovery operations in Dakhin Shahbazpur. It had appeared originally under the disguise of an assumed name in 1877. It was dedicated to his esteemed uncle, Rai Shashi Chandra Dutt Bahadur.
He was a major economic historian of India of the nineteenth century. His thesis on deindustrialization of India remains forceful argument in Indian historiography. To quote him:
India in the eighteenth century was a great manufacturing as well as great agricultural country, and the products of the Indian loom supplied the markets of Asia and of Europe. It is, unfortunately, true that the East Indian Company and the British Parliament ... discouraged Indian manufactures in the early years of British rule in order to encourage the rising manufactures of England . . . millions of Indian artisans lost their earnings; the population of India lost one great source of their wealth.
He also directed attention to the deepening internal differentiation of Indian society appearing in the abrupt articulation of local economies with the world market, accelerated urban-rural polarisation, the division between intellectual and manual labour, and the toll of recurrent devastating famines.
The Ramayana: the epic of Rama rendered into English verse, London: J.M. Dent and Co., 1899.
The Ramayana and the Mahabharata: the great epics of ancient India condensed into English verse, London: J.M. Dent and Co., 1900. Everyman's Library reprint (London: J.M. Dent and Sons; New York: E.P. Dutton, 1910). xii, 335p. Internet Sacred Texts Archive.
Shivaji; or the morning of Maratha life, tr. by Krishnalal Mohanlal Jhaveri. Ahmedabad, M. N. Banavatty (1899). Also: tr. by Ajoy C. Dutt. Allahabad, Kitabistan (1944).
^Jnanendranath Gupta, Life and Works of Romesh Chandra Dutt, CIE, (London: J.M.Dent and Sons Ltd., 1911); while young Romesh came out unnoticed, Beharilal, possibly his closest friend ever, was chased all the way down to the Calcutta docks by his "poor" father, who could not, however, successfully persuade his son to return to the safety of his parental home. Later, in England, both the friends took the civil service examination successfully, becoming the 2nd and 3rd Indians to join the ICS. The third person in the group, Surendranath Banerjee, also cleared the test, but was incorrectly disqualified, as being over-age.
^Nitish Sengupta (2002) History of the Bengali-speaking People, UBS Publishers' Distributors Pvt. Ltd. p. 275. ISBN81-7476-355-4.