Book Review: Tracing Your British Indian Ancestors: A Guide for Family Historians

Yesterday I gave 4 lectures at the Western Australia State Library in Perth, WA. I had a number of questions about British families that came to Australia after spending time in India. I thought this book would be of interest to readers.

Tracing Your British Indian Ancestors: A Guide for Family Historians. By Emma Jolly. Published by Pen & Sword Family History, 47 Church Street, Barnsley, South Yorkshire S70 2AS, UK. £14.99. US Distributor: Casemate Publishing, 1016 Warrior Road, Drexel Hill, PA 19026. 2012. xviii, 184 pp. Illustrations, index. Softcover. $24.95

Terms and geography need to be defined for best use of this important book. “British Indian” here refers to British citizens and Europeans who worked for the East Indian Company (generally as officers in the army), plus Anglo-Indians of mixed descent from the union of white British or European males and Indian women. Those of mixed descent were often segregated and discriminated against, yet they made an essential contribution to British India and are found in most British India records. Geographically, the area covered by this book, includes modern-day India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Burma (modern Myanmar). Other areas that may be encountered in India-related records are St. Helena, Iraq, Iran (formerly Persia), Aden, Kuwait, Sri Lanka (formerly Ceylon), Singapore, Malacca, Penang Prince of Wales Island, Java, Sumatra (Bencoolen / Fort Marlborough) and China (Macao and Whampoa). In reality this means most places east of the Cape of Good Hope that had British connections.

The book covers the time period of 1600, when the East India Company received its Royal Charter from Queen Elizabeth I, to the present.  It begins with a chapter on how to get started, which is actually a must read, especially for North American researchers, because even though the majority of the records needed will be in England, they are not in the places even most English researchers would expect to look. The largest collection of original material is the India Office Records at the British Library, with other collections at The National Archives, National Army Museum, National Maritime Museum, School of Oriental and African Studies, or the Society of Genealogists, all in London, with a few other collections scattered around the British Isles and India. The most important society is FIBIS, Families in British India Society, which provides lots of indexes, resources and an excellent wiki.

The following three chapters present the increasing role of the East India Company from 1600 through the Indian Mutiny in 1857, its subsequent loss of control to the British government and the period of the British Raj from 1857 through independence in 1947. The focus is on historical context, but the voluminous record collections applicable to the period and their location are highlighted.

The next five chapters focus on five aspects of the Indian life where the British were heavily involved, and which created most of the records of the British Indians. These are: the servicemen and women of the East India Company’s Armies, the Indian Army, the British Army in India and the Royal Indian Air Force; merchants and ships; religion, cemeteries and schools; railways; probate records. Key throughout these chapters is the clear defining of what records and indexes to examine, and where. They identify which resources are available online, which are published and available for purchase, and what will need to be examined in person or onsite. Each of the groups of people and their records is also placed into historical context.  A closing chapter addresses Indian independence and life after 1947. Throughout the book there are a number of short case studies showcasing the biographical information and lives that can be reconstructed from the records of our British Indian ancestors.

India developed from a company outpost into the crown in the British Empire with many individuals over the centuries from the British Isles serving in its government, its military or developing its industry. Many have ancestors who moved there temporarily or permanently.  This well written research guide is a must for anyone seeking to explore their British Indian connections.

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