How to look for records of... Colonies and dependencies 1820-1850: using Colonial Office registers to locate correspondence

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1. Why use this guide?

Use this guide for advice on how to search for Colonial Office correspondence dating from 1820 to 1850 and now held at The National Archives. Colonial Office correspondence is an invaluable resource for studies of the history of the British Empire and the individual countries which were once British colonies.

You can search for references to the records online but you will need to visit us to view the documents themselves. For advice on other types of Colonial Office records see our guide to Colonies and dependencies from 1782.

2. What are the registers and why are they worth using?

Colonial Office staff recorded details of incoming correspondence in registers. They included details of the topic, date and sender. You can use these to locate individual items of correspondence. By reading through the registers, you can identify documents of interest without having to read through all the volumes of correspondence for a particular colony. The Colonial Office registers for this period are in catalogue series CO 326.

These original registers remain vital when searching for Colonial Office correspondence from this period as, with some exceptions, you cannot find individual items of correspondence with a keyword search in our catalogue – the catalogue descriptions are generally not detailed enough.

3. Registers versus indexes

As well as using the registers to find correspondence from this period, you can use the original Colonial Office indexes. The indexes cover correspondence from 1815 to 1870.

Whilst the registers list the incoming correspondence in order of date sent and are a more complete record of the correspondence received, the indexes conveniently group together details of correspondence (date and brief summary) by topic. For example, all the individual items of correspondence on gold mining in the colony of Victoria might be found under the heading ‘gold’ or ‘mining’ in the Victoria index. They therefore provide a very quick method of identifying the relevant correspondence. However, the keyword used may not be obvious and the indexes are not necessarily complete.

4. How to use the registers

There are three steps to locating and using a Colonial Office register.

Step 1: Use the advanced search in our catalogue to locate the relevant register

Sometimes the individual colony is named, but sometimes only the name of region has been used (for example, ‘Africa’ or ‘West Indies’), so it may be best to search initially without a keyword.

Suppose that you are interested in relations on the eastern frontier of the Cape of Good Hope in 1835, when the Sixth Frontier War was in progress.

Search CO 326 for 1835, using ‘register’ as your keyword, as follows:

A screen shot of the advanced search page in our catalogue showing a search for a Colonial Office register from 1835. The search is in series CO 326, which contains all the registers for 1820-1850.

The advanced search page in our catalogue showing a search for a Colonial Office register from 1835. The search is in series CO 326, which contains all the registers for 1820-1850.

Using the drop-down options located above search results, put the results in reference order:

A screen shot of catalogue search results for CO 326 in reference order.

Catalogue search results for CO 326 reordered into reference order.

Two of the registers concern Africa, where we would expect to find entries for the Cape of Good Hope.

CO 326/205 is a register that contains details of correspondence received from the Governor of the Cape of Good Hope (Despatches). CO 326/206 contains details of correspondence received from other government departments, organisations and persons (Offices and individuals).

Step 2: Consult the relevant register of correspondence

Suppose you are interested in researching the correspondence received from the Governor at the Cape of Good Hope.

Order volume CO 326/205 and examine the lists of correspondence for items in which you’re interested. A page from the register in CO 326/205 looks like this:

An image of a page from a Colonial Office register for 1834-1835. Document reference CO 326/205.

A page from a Colonial Office register for 1834-1835. Document reference CO 326/205.

We see that the page is divided into columns giving the registry number assigned to the correspondence by the Colonial Office clerks. The information recorded consists of:

  • The date received
  • The sender
  • The date of the correspondence
  • A brief description of the correspondence
  • Actions taken on the correspondence
A close-up image of the register page illustrated previously. Document reference CO 326/205.

A close-up of the register page illustrated above. Document reference CO 326/205.

There is an item of correspondence, registry number 1140, dated 19 June 1835, from the Governor, Sir Benjamin D’Urban, which is a report of events on the Cape Frontier to 19 June.

Step 3: Finding the item of correspondence

To find the correct volume in the Original Correspondence series, we need three pieces of information:

  • The colony (Cape of Good Hope)
  • The sender (the Governor), which means that the item will be in a ‘despatches’ volume
  • The date sent (19 June 1835)

Find the Original Correspondence volumes for the Cape of Good Hope for 1835 by using the advanced search screen in our catalogue.

Use ‘Original Correspondence Cape of Good Hope’ as your keywords and specify the date as 1835. Put ‘CO’ in the references box, like this:

An image of the advanced search page in our catalogue showing a search for Cape of Good Hope correspondence from 1835.

The advanced search page in our catalogue showing a search for Cape of Good Hope correspondence from 1835.

Using the drop-down options located above search results, put the results of the search in reference order:

A screen shot of catalogue search results reordered into reference order.

Catalogue search results reordered into reference order.

The date on which the letter was sent was 19 June 1835 and this is covered by volume CO 48/161. When you view the volume you should find the correspondence in date order and stamped with the relevant registry number:

An image of correspondence sent on 19 June 1835 by the Governor of the Cape of Good Hope. Document reference CO 48/161.

Correspondence sent on 19 June 1835 by the Governor of the Cape of Good Hope. Document reference CO 48/161.