This post is the first in an ongoing mini-series highlighting online databases or sources useful for researching the history of families in colonial contexts, whether you are working on an academic project or searching for your ancestors.
This week, I’m introducing the India Office Family History Search.
As many of you know, the British Library’s India Office Records are invaluable resources for those of us studying any aspect of the British involvement on the Indian subcontinent between 1600 and 1948. These collections include the archives of the East India Company (1600-1858), the Board of Control or Board of Commissioners for the Affairs of India (1784-1858), the India Office (1858-1947), the Burma Office (1937-1948), and related British agencies. The geographical focus covers what is now India, Pakistan, Burma and Bangladesh, as well as connected regions such as Southeast Asia, Central Asia, the Middle East and parts of Africa. The India Office Private Papers—over 300 collections and 3 000 smaller deposits—shed more light on the personal experiences of Europeans in South Asia. (These include rich collections of family letters that passed between India and Britain, the focus of my own research.)
The British Library and India Office Records websites allow researchers to access catalogues for all of these records. The Family History Search page, however, pulls together the specific sources that are most useful for researchers who want to find out about a given individual or family. This is a searchable database of approximately 300 000 records on births, baptisms, marriages, military and naval service, deaths, burials, bonds, pensions and wills in the India Office Records. It also offers useful biographical information on Europeans in British India, compiling information from various records in and beyond the IOR. Individuals include those officially engaged with the East India Company, Indian Civil Service or military, as well as mariners, medical staff, chaplains, railway workers, law officers and ‘non-official’ inhabitants like merchants, tea planters and missionaries. The database does not have digitized versions of the sources, but it does summarize the information for you. (See an example here.) The information is sometimes a little scant. However, a wonderfully detailed list of sources will help you track down the originals if you want.
The Family History Search is not a comprehensive database yet. I have used it when trying to follow a number of individuals in my own research and many have not been included. This is because the information on the website comes from a card index compiled by India Office Records staff over the past three decades; although staff continue to add to it, the site still includes less than 10% of all the biographical sources in collections.
However, there are several exciting benefits to the Family History Search website. This information was previously only accessible via the index in the British Library reading rooms, so its transfer to the internet has opened up these biographical details to a much wider audience. In addition, it is not just limited to those key civil servants and army officers who left their mark on the official record, and whose personal papers have been archived. Rather, it gives a much wider sense of the British and European community in India. And if an individual you are tracking does not seem to have left much of a trace, it’s possible that you may just find them here!
Finally, the website also includes some useful links that point you to other parts of the India Office Records collections. In particular, this page offers a really helpful overview of family research in these collections. The site also explains search services for researchers who cannot find what they want through the database and who cannot visit the British Library in person.
Have you used the India Office Family History Search page before? Chime in with your experiences or tips.