The East India Company was created as a Royal Charter granted by Queen Elizabeth I (1533 – 1603) . It has been said that without it the world would not be the same today. It changed the world’s tastes, it’s thinking and it’s people by creating new communities, trading places, and shaped countries and established commercial routes.
Singapore and Hong Kong were established by The East India Company and India was shaped and influenced by it. By the 1850s the company was virtually ruling India, Pakistan, Sri-Lanka, and Bangladesh for the British.
In 1857, a major uprising led to the dissolution of the East India Company and the British government ruled India during a period call the British Raj. This continued until 1947, when Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi won independence for India.
The three Provinces of India formerly the Presidencies of British India were:
- Madras Presidency: established 1640. (Wikipedia Link)
- Bombay Presidency: East India Company’s headquarters moved from Surat to Bombay (Mumbai) in 1687. (Wikipedia Link)
- Bengal Presidency: established 1690. (Wikipedia Link)
This extensive area with populations of many languages and cultures required Britain to have a huge military operation and administrative presence.
The records of the British in India are well-preserved and accessible. Documents were kept at the local level and were organized by the provinces. If you’re trying to identify an ancestor’s town you’ll find the “Imperial Gazetteer of India” useful.
Church Register Returns
When the British settled in India they brought with them their faiths. Protestant and Catholic churches in India began keeping vital records in 1698in the Madras area and in Bombay (Mumbai) and Bengal in the early 1700s. Up until 1947, records were transcribed by local churches and the data was sent off to regional capitals. These indexes known as “returns” were sent off to London.
Church records functioned as Civil Registers of vital events and this continued after civil registration was introduced in the 1800s. These indices of returns are now considered the most reliable data of Anglo individuals in India.
Marriage records are one exception to this system. Non-Anglican ministers had no authority to perform marriages in British India. Starting in 1852, couples who were married by non-Anglicans had to register with a civil registrar, who actually attended the wedding to give the official okay.
If one of your ancestors died in India because of the climate or a disease like cholera, their probate records dating back to 1618 may be full of genealogical information. Estate inventories, wills and administrations form the tiger’s share of India probate records. At the India office website most original probate records have been indexed and organized by presidency (region).
If you’re not sure if your colonial ancestor was a military man or a civil servant, you can check family records, register returns and probate records to find out. You may find an occupational paper trail, because the military and government workers service usually led to long careers.
There were two armies installed in India. One was the regular British troops and the other was the Honorable Company, which belonged to the East India Company. (Honourable Company regiments were raised in India or England for service only in India.Their records are mainly stored in the Oriental and India Office Collections and also in London at
In 1859, the Honourable Company members were absorbed into the British army. The records of the two armies are now stored in different places ( listed below).
If your ancestor was a civil servant, you can check the holdings of the India Office of the British Library.
High ranking civil servants filed “writer’s petition’s” (job applications) with baptismal certificates, educational records and character references. And, as early as 1702, there were lists of lower and middle-ranking civil servants that included name, position, salary, dates of service. After 1870, the lists also included death date and next of kin.
Honourable Company regiments were raised in India or England for service only in India. Their records are for the most part stored in the Oriental and India Office Collections (OIOC), also in London.
There are other records available for British India including censuses, cemetery transcriptions, embarkation and immigration lists.
Scroll down to find links to the research areas mentioned above:
Photographic images searchable by cemetery at Indian Cemeteries.
The Family History Library (FHL) also has good records including censuses.
Church Register Records:
Baptisms, marriages and deaths, as mentioned above, were reported to the British government annually. You can find originals in the India Office of the British Library
Civil Service Records
The military records include enlistment papers, officer and regimental lists, embarkation lists, muster and casualty rolls, marriage notifications, leaves and discharges, and pension files. You can look up British Army Records at the British National Archives.
You can use passenger lists, ship registers, embarkation lists and notices of arrival. Passages to and from India were published in the
- Bengal Directory (1815-1859)
- Madras Almanac (1811-1859)
- Bombay Directory (1817-1856)