Click here to skip to content

India Office Records: History and scope

The India Office Records are the documentary archives of the administration in London of the pre-1947 government of India

The 14 kilometres of shelves of volumes, files and boxes of papers, together with 70,000 volumes of official publications and 105,000 manuscript and printed maps, comprise the archives of the East India Company (1600-1858), of the Board of Control or Board of Commissioners for the Affairs of India (1784-1858), of the India Office (1858-1947), of the Burma Office (1937-1948), and of a number of British agencies overseas which were officially linked with one or other of the four main bodies. The India Office Records are part of the Public Records of the United Kingdom, and are open for public consultation.

Timeline

1600East India Company established in London
1709United East India Company emerges as union of the Old and New Companies
1757Battle of Plassey
1765Mughal Emperor grants Diwani of Bengal - right to collect land revenue -to East India Company
1773Warren Hastings appointed as first Governor of Bengal
1784British Government Board of Control established in London
1813End of East India Company's monopoly rights over trade with India
1833End of East India Company's monopoly rights over trade with China
1857Indian Uprisings
1858East India Company and Board of Control replaced by India Office and Council of India
1937Separation of Burma from India. Establishment of Burma Office
1947Partition of India and Pakistan.  Independence granted to both countries.  Abolition of India Office
1948Independence of Burma and abolition of Burma Office

 

Historical Background

The East India Company was established in 1600 as a joint-stock association of English merchants who received, by a series of charters, exclusive rights to trade to the 'Indies'. The 'Indies' were defined as the lands lying between the Cape of Good Hope and the Straits of Magellan, and the Company soon established a network of warehouses or 'factories' throughout south and east Asia. Over a period of 250 years the Company underwent several substantial changes in its basic character and functions. 

A period of rivalry between the Old and New Companies after 1698 resulted in the formation in 1709 of the United Company of Merchants Trading to the East Indies. This 'new' East India Company was transformed during the second half of the eighteenth century from a mainly commercial body with scattered Asian trading interests into a major territorial power in India with its headquarters in Calcutta. The political implications of this development eventually caused the British government in 1784 to institute standing Commissioners (the Board of Control) in London to exercise supervision over the Company's Indian policies. 

This change in the Company's status, along with other factors, led to the Acts of Parliament of 1813 and 1833, which opened the British trade with the East Indies to all shipping and resulted in the Company's complete withdrawal from its commercial functions. The Company continued to exercise responsibility, under the supervision of the Board, for the government of India until the re-organisation of 1858.

Throughout most of these changes the basic structure of Company organisation in East India House in the City of London remained largely unaltered, comprising a large body of proprietors or shareholders and an elected Court of Directors, headed by a chairman and deputy chairman who, aided by permanent officials, were responsible for the daily conduct of Company business. The Board of Control maintained its separate office close to the Government buildings in Westminster.

With the India Act of 1858 the Company and the Board of Control were replaced by a single new department of state, the India Office, which functioned, under the Secretary of State for India, as an executive office of United Kingdom government alongside the Foreign Office, Colonial Office, Home Office and War Office. The Secretary of State was assisted by a statutory body of advisers, the Council of India, and headed a staff of civil servants organised into a system of departments largely taken over from the East India Company and Board of Control establishments, and housed in a new India Office building in Whitehall. The Secretary of State for India inherited all the executive functions previously carried out by the Company, and all the powers of 'superintendence, direction and control' over the British Government in India previously exercised by the Board of Control. Improved communications with India - the overland and submarine telegraph cables (1868-70), and the opening of the Suez Canal (1869) - rendered this control, exercised through the Viceroy and provincial Governors, more effective in the last quarter of the nineteenth century. It was only with the constitutional reforms initiated during the First World War, and carried forward by the India Acts of 1919 and 1935, that there came about a significant relaxation of India Office supervision over the Government of India, and with it, in India, a gradual devolution of authority to legislative bodies and local governments. The same administrative reforms also led in 1937 to the separation of Burma from India and the creation in London of the Burma Office, separate from the India Office though sharing the same Secretary of State and located in the same building. With the grant of independence to India and Pakistan in 1947, and to Burma in 1948, both the India Office and the Burma Office were dissolved.

Geographical scope of the Records

Guide to sources for areas outside British India

The central focus of the India Office Records is in the territories now included in India, Pakistan, Burma and Bangladesh, and the major part of the records concern their administration before 1947. As a result of the widespread commercial activities of the East India Company, and of India Office involvement in the external relations and defence policy of pre-1947 India, the Records also include a substantial body of historical source materials for neighbouring or connected areas at different times. Among the most significant of these are:
St Helena (to 1834);
Cape of Good Hope (to 1836);
Zanzibar, Somalia and Ethiopia (mainly nineteenth century);
Red Sea, Arabian Peninsula, Gulf States, Iraq and Iran (c1600-1947);
Afghanistan, Russian and Chinese Central Asia, Tibet, Nepal, Bhutan and Sikkim (late eighteenth century to 1947);
Sri Lanka (c1750-1802);
Malaysia and South-East Asia (to c1867);
Indonesia (to c1825);
China (early seventeenth century to 1947); and
Japan (seventeenth century).
Other groups of documents have resulted from India Office interest in the status of Indian emigrants to the West Indies, south and east Africa, and Fiji.

Custody, care and use of the Records

The original documentary archives which form the India Office Records are mainly arranged in the regular administrative series in which they were used in the East India Company and the India Office, for example, series of original letters received, drafts or copies of letters sent, registered files of correspondence, minutes and proceedings of committees and other corporate bodies, lists of personnel and nominal returns, title deeds and other legal documents, books of account, reports, memoranda, ships' journals, etc. Embedded in these documentary archives are extensive collections of official publications and maps, assembled by the India Office and its predecessors chiefly from materials received in the official correspondence.

 The practice by which the councils and committees in factories, settlements and centres of government routinely sent copies of their own proceedings and minutes to London for reference contributed significantly to the comprehensiveness of the archives of the East India Company and the India Office from the earliest years.

The Company established a library in East India House in 1801 as a public repository for the safe custody of books, manuscripts and works of art placed in its care by its servants in India and by others. The East India Company's Library was systematically developed by the Company and the India Office as a reference library for official administration and as a learned library for scholars, and it served, from 1867, the archival function as the place of legal deposit in Britain for works published in British India. The collection and preservation of the private papers of individuals and organisations connected with India had been carried on by the East India Company and the India Office since early in the nineteenth century, and this activity continues in the Private Papers section of the India Office Records.

Both the East India Company and the Board of Control made provision for the care and custody of their records, the Company mainly through the office of Registrar and Keeper of the Indian Books (from 1771), and the Board through the Librarian and Keeper of the Papers (from 1811). In 1860 the India Office surveyed its predecessors' records, and destroyed a large amount of material, particularly commercial records, considered to be ephemeral, while retaining what were judged to be the important historical records. The preservation of the pre-1858 records and of the newly-accumulating records of the India Office was assigned to a central Record Department in 1884.

After the independence of India, Pakistan and Burma in 1947 and 1948 the Indian Records Section (later the India Office Records) and the India Office Library were administered by the Commonwealth Relations Office, later the Commonwealth Office, and (from 1968) by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. In 1982 the India Office Library and Records were placed on deposit with the British Library Board, and the India Office Records have since been administered, as Public Records, in the British Library Asia Pacific & Africa Collections (formerly Oriental and India Office Collections).

Contact

Asian and African Studies enquiries
The British Library
96 Euston Road
London
NW1 2DB
United Kingdom

Tel: +44 (0)20 7412 7873
Fax: +44 (0)20 7412 7641

E-mail: Ask the Reference Team