Empire Emigrants: India

By Sunny McClellan Morton Premium

From the early 1600s until well into the 1900s, Great Britain reigned over a worldwide empire, stretching from Asia to the Americas to Africa. Maritime trade, colonization and conquest made the crown (and many of its privileged subjects) enormously wealthy and powerful. At its height, the British Empire ruled a quarter of the world.

Millions of subjects of the crown shipped off to far-flung areas of the empire. Some sought better fortunes abroad; even more went under the employ of the government. Others were forcibly exiled in penal colonies.

You may discover ties to these “empire emigrants” in your own family tree — an ancestor’s sibling who went to the Cape of Africa with a British army regiment, or a cousin who was shipped to Tasmania in chains. Start uncovering those connections with our guide to genealogical research in India.

In 1600, Queen Elizabeth I granted a merchant charter to the English East India Co. Nineteen years later, the company established an outpost on the northwest coast of South Asia. By the 1850s, the English East India Co. was virtually ruling India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh on behalf of the British crown. A major rebellion in 1857 led to the company’s dissolution. Thereafter, the British government ruled India during an era known as the British Raj. Not until 1947 did local resistance (think Gandhi) finally bring about India’s independence.

British India was divided into three regions or presidencies: Bombay (along the western coastline), Bengal (northern and eastern areas, including Calcutta and modern-day Bangladesh and Pakistan) and Madras (the southern spear of the subcontinent). This sweeping domain, with indigenous populations of many tongues and cultures, required Britain to have a huge military and administrative presence.

Records of Brits in India are well-preserved and accessible. Documents were kept locally and are generally organized by presidencies (later called provinces), so try to identify which presidency your ancestor’s town was in using the Imperial Gazetteer of India Then start with the following resources:

  • Church register returns: The British who settled in India imported the Anglican faith along with other traditional comforts. Protestant and Catholic churches in India began keeping vital records as early as 1698 in Madras and the early 1700s in Bombay and Bengal. From the earliest years until 1947, local churches transcribed records annually and sent the data off to regional capitals. Indexes made in the capitals, known as “returns,” were then sent to London.

    Ecclesiastical returns functioned as de facto civil registers of vital events. Even when official civil registration was introduced in the late 1800s, the record stream often continued through ecclesiastical channels. These returns now constitute the most reliable and available data on British individuals in India. Indexes of returns from the 1600s to the 1900s are searchable online.

    One notable exception to this system: marriage records. Non-Anglican ministers had no authority to perform marriages in British India. Beginning in 1852, couples married by non-Anglicans had to register with a civil registrar, who attended the wedding and provided the official thumbs-up. A free online index of more than 10,000 registrar marriages from 1852 to 1911 is on the Families in British India Society website

  • Occupational records: Was your colonial relative a military man or civil servant? Check family records, register returns and probate records to find out. Because soldiers’ and government workers’ service often led to long careers, you might find an occupational paper trail a lifetime long.

    Two British armies patrolled India: regular British troops and the Honourable Company, which belonged to the East India Co. Often, soldiers first enlisted with the British army, then transferred to less-demanding Honourable service. In 1859, however, all Honourable Company members were absorbed into the British army. The two armies’ records are now archived in different places.

    If your ancestor was a civil servant, check the holdings of the India Office of the British Library Executive-level, or “covenanted,” civilians filed “writer’s petitions” (job applications) with baptismal certificates, character references and educational details. As early as 1702, lists of lower- and middle-ranking civil servants included name, position, salary, dates of service and (after 1870) death date and next of kin.

  • Probate records: Was your ancestor one of the many who succumbed to the climate or disease in British India? Bad luck for them; good luck for you. Their probate records, dating to 1618, may be packed with genealogical information.

    Estate inventories, wills and administrations form the bulk of British India probate records. Wills assigned an executor, beneficiaries and inheritance. Grants of administration assign an executor to an estate when one was needed, and estate inventories listed all the deceased’s possessions. At the India Office website, most original probate records have been indexed and organized by presidency

    Of course, plenty more records exist for British India, including censuses, cemetery transcriptions, embarkation and other immigration lists.

Tracking Natives
British colonists, of course, weren’t arriving in unpopulated places. Genealogical resources on people native to the colonies depend on their record-keeping traditions. European inclusion of indigenous people in colonial records is spotty, especially in earlier years. Here are some places to start researching natives:

Get more details in Records at a Glance: India.

More Online
Free Web Content

For Plus Members

Family Tree Shop

From the March 2011 Family Tree Magazine.