How to look for records of... Colonies and dependencies from 1782

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1. Why use this guide?

This guide shows you how to find records held at The National Archives relating to the British Empire from 1782 and outlines ways of researching a particular topic. From the 16th century onwards, the British government amassed a wealth of documentation on its empire. The collection is therefore an unrivalled resource on the history of the British Empire and its former colonies.

The guide will show you how to navigate our online catalogue to the relevant document series. It will show how to use finding aids, like indexes and registers, to locate documents where the information on the online catalogue is insufficient.

For advice on records of the earliest English colonies, established in the Americas and West Indies from the late 16th century, see our guide to American and West Indian colonies before 1782 and its supplementary guide to using the Calendar of State Papers Colonial 1573-1739.

2. What we hold and what we don’t hold

We hold the records of central government departments which were responsible for administering the colonies (for example Colonial Office, Dominions Office, Foreign and Commonwealth Office) and other departments which were involved in colonial affairs.

However, we do not hold the records of the India Office, which was responsible for the administration of British India to independence in 1947, as well as Burma and some Middle Eastern territories during the colonial period. These are held by the British Library.

With a few exceptions, including a collection known as the ‘Migrated Archive’, we do not hold the internal administrative records of governments of former colonies, which generally remained in place at independence – this is as opposed to documents publicly issued or published by colonial governments, some of which we do hold. The Migrated Archive is a collection of around 20,000 files of colonial governments from across the empire, which were sent to the Colonial Office before independence. See section 8 for more details.

Use the table below for further details and to identify the best place to start your research.  Within these departmental divisions, the majority of the records are organised into catalogue series by individual colony, such as Barbados, Cape of Good Hope and so forth.

Government department Catalogue reference Years covered
Colonial Office: established in 1854, but the CO series include records of its predecessors from the 16th century onwards CO 1570-1990
Dominions Office: established in 1925. Had responsibility for semi-autonomous territories (such as Canada, Australia and South Africa) and some anomalous territories (such as the ‘High Commission territories’ of Botswana, Lesotho and Swaziland) DO 1843-1990*
Commonwealth Relations Office: established 1947 and incorporating the responsibilities of the former Dominions, India and Burma Offices DO 1843-1990*
Commonwealth Office: established in 1966, combining the Colonial Office and the Commonwealth Relations Office CO, DO and FCO
Foreign and Commonwealth Office: established in 1968. See the research guide to Foreign and Commonwealth records from 1782 for more details.

* Contains records from various High Commissioners and Acts, Sessional Papers, Government Gazettes, Confidential Print and other papers from the dominions prior to 1925.

3. Online records

For most topics on imperial and colonial history, you will need to come to our reading rooms to view original documents. However, there are significant collections available online:

  • There are online collections and finding aids for the period before 1782. See our guide to American and West Indian colonies before 1782.
  • Cabinet papers online: records of Cabinet meetings and papers, which include material on colonies and dominions.  These can be downloaded from our website free of charge.
  • Foreign Office records on the Adam Matthew website, including Empire Online, Apartheid South Africa 1948-1980, Colonial America and others. These services are available by subscription only, but can be consulted free of charge in our reading rooms.
  • A few Colonial Office series can be downloaded free from out website as digital microfilm records.

4. Key Colonial Office and Dominions Office record types

The records of the Colonial Office (CO) and Dominions Office (DO) are the primary sources of information on the colonial period. These departments changed names and responsibilities over time but other departments, such as Overseas Development (OD), may also contain useful material for the twentieth century.

Most of the records are grouped in series according to the following categories.

Original Correspondence

This is the correspondence received by the Colonial Office and Dominions Offices from colonial governors, other government departments, external organisations and individuals. The topics covered may concern any aspect of colonial administration, including:

  • internal politics
  • constitutional development
  • trade
  • production and economics
  • public policy
  • infrastructure and environment
  • relations with indigenous people
  • war and conflict

Each colony has a separate original correspondence series, but when items of correspondence were of a general nature and did not relate to a particular colony, they were placed in the general correspondence series, now held in CO 323. The documents can be about any aspect of colonial administration. From 1907, you can use keywords to search file titles on our catalogue, but for the earlier period you would need to use Colonial Office registers of correspondence to locate items (see section 6 below).

Other documents concern regions and have been placed in regional series. For example, correspondence on West Africa is in series CO 554.

Some confidential documents were placed in a general confidential correspondence series CO 537.

Sometimes a set of closely connected records, such as those arising out of Royal Commission, have been placed in a separate series.

Confidential Print

Important correspondence on a particular topic was sometimes collated and printed for circulation within government as ‘confidential print’. Should it be available on your subject, consulting confidential print is a good way to gain an overview of Colonial Office correspondence before accessing the original correspondence series. There a separate series for each region:

Entry books

Colonial Office clerks recorded details of the correspondence that they sent out in ‘entry books’. Sometimes they record only brief details of date, sender and subject, but sometimes there are brief summaries or even full copies of the correspondence sent.

Sessional papers

These are documents issued and usually published by colonial governments and parliaments (executive and legislative councils and assemblies). They are usually printed documents and include a record of the meetings of councils and assemblies, but also many of the papers which they considered, for example:

  • annual reports of government departments
  • budgets
  • reports of commissions of enquiry and select committees
  • government-commissioned research and policy papers

Many of the older colonies have elaborate sets of sessional papers, while those of colonies acquired since the late nineteenth century tend to be limited to departmental annual reports.  They may prove invaluable sources on such topics as public policy, relations with indigenous people, social and economic change, local politics, environment, medicine and so forth.

Acts

Full text copies of acts or statutes passed in colonies.

Government Gazettes

The official newspapers of colonial governments, in which they published details of legislation, government notices, business and news. They vary greatly in coverage and detail, but may contain information on government licences issued, list of bankrupts, sales of government land and the like.

Statistical Blue Books

These contain statistical information on society and economy that colonial governments returned annually to the Colonial Office. The compilation of statistical blue books began in the early 19th century and coverage includes, among others things, lists of government employees and the military, tax and revenue, expenditure, budgets, education, prisons, shipping and import and export figures. The blue books were not standardised and there is a lot of variation between colonies.

5. Research strategies – how to find records on a topic

5.1 Searching by series and record type

Begin by deciding which types of records (as described in section 4) are likely to contain useful documents. This will depend on the topic and the date range in which you are interested. Are you interested in a single former colony, or a wider-ranging thematic topic?

For example, if you are interested in researching the history of public health in Gold Coast (Ghana), you might look in the correspondence to find letters and reports which were sent to the Colonial Office and in the entry books for responses. You might also find reports of the Gold Coast Public Health Department in sessional papers and legislation on public health in Acts and Government Gazettes.  Statistical material on the occurrence of disease, hospital admissions and so forth may occur in the Blue Books.

Use our catalogue to search by name of the colony and the record type.

Keep in mind that many colonies have histories of amalgamation and unification and that records series tend to follow these. For example, the original correspondence series for New South Wales ends in 1900 and continues in the series for the Federation of Australia.

5.2 The arrangement of the original correspondence records

Before 1926, the documents were usually bound into volumes in date order, regardless of subject matter.  A volume is identified only by colony, year or date range and a brief title, such as ‘despatches’, ‘appendices’, ‘papers’, ‘government gazettes’ and so forth.  There are some exceptions. When there were many items of correspondence on a single subject, these were sometimes bound into ‘case volumes’.

The practice changed in 1926, when the correspondence was filed according to its subject. Staff at the Dominions Office delayed this change until 1929.

5.3 Keyword searching in our online catalogue for records before 1926

Unfortunately, for most documents there is no useful descriptive detail, other than a brief or miscellaneous title and date range, on the online catalogue, which means that subject keyword searching of the catalogue is generally not an effective way of finding them. Further, documents on a particular colony or topic occur in different parts of the collection. Generally, for this period, you will need to use registers of correspondence to locate items on your subject (see section 6). There are some exceptions.

When there were many items of correspondence on a single subject, these were sometimes bound into “case volumes” and the title of the volume does appear on the catalogue. Please note, however, that the case volumes consist only of unregistered correspondence, such as internal memos, whilst registered correspondence on the same topic remains in the regular correspondence volumes for which you will need the aforementioned registers. In some areas (notably some of the Caribbean colonies) cataloguers have worked through the documents and included fuller details in the online catalogue description.

5.4 Keyword searching in our online catalogue for records from 1926

From 1926 the files have descriptive titles, which appear on the catalogue. You can therefore use topic keyword searches to find Colonial Office correspondence files from 1926 as an effective means of locating documents. During this period the Colonial Office and its successors established various sub-departments, which have series of correspondence separate from those reserved for specific colonies (for example, the Economic General Department at CO 852) .

Keywords will usually produce reliable results only in the following cases:

  • Colonial Office correspondence from 1926
  • Part of the nineteenth correspondence for some Caribbean series, such as Jamaica (CO 137) and Barbados (CO 28)
  • Dominions Office correspondence from 1929
  • Confidential print

It might be worth an initial search of the catalogue, using the advanced search, with date range, using the name of the colony and additional keywords to see if anything is immediately revealed. However, this is unlikely to reveal all the relevant material which might be available.

6. How to find original correspondence by using indexes and registers of correspondence

6.1 Finding original correspondence before 1926

Before 1926, the online catalogue does not generally describe individual items. If you are interested in a relatively brief period of time you might want to order the volumes of correspondence and look through them.

If you are tracing a topic over time, it will probably be better to use the indexes and registers, which Colonial Office staff used to record the correspondence, to identify relevant material.

To find out how to use the indexes and registers, see our research guide Using registers and indexes to find Colonial Office correspondence to 1926.

6.2 Finding original correspondence from 1926

The Colonial Office correspondence series continue after 1926, while the Dominions Office correspondence is all placed in series DO 35.

As the titles of Colonial Office correspondence files from 1926 (and Dominions Office from 1929) appear on the online catalogue, there is generally no need to use the registers from these dates. Use the advanced search option to find relevant records and series, searching by keywords (name of colony plus any other keyword or ‘correspondence’), department reference (CO and/or DO) and date.

However, the Colonial Office registers continue through to 1951 and those of the Dominions Office continue into the 1940s in series DO 3. They may be useful as they give a summary of ALL correspondence, which includes documents that were ‘destroyed under statute’ and no longer exist.

To find registers, use the advanced search option, search for a colony and ‘register of correspondence’ within reference CO or DO, as applicable.

The register you get will be arranged in file number order, with a file per page and the file number stamped near the top right hand corner of each page; individual papers are then listed on that page.

7. How to find other types of records

For each colony there are separate catalogue series for sessional papers, entry books, acts, government gazettes and miscellanea (blue books of statistics).

For these records you can only search by place and year or year range.

Use the advanced search option in our catalogue. Search using:

  • name of colony/territory
  • type of record – for example, ‘government gazette’ or “sessional papers”

Search within department code CO and/or DO.

You can restrict your search to a date range.

8. Records of former colonial governments – ‘the Migrated Archive’

In general, The National Archives does not hold the records of the colonial governments of the former colonies. However, before independence some files were sent from many of the former colonies to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. These files are now in catalogue series FCO 141, the Records of Former Colonial Administrations: Migrated Archives.

The files cover a wide range of subject matter and material which complements records already held by The National Archives. The title of each file on the online catalogue begins with the name of the former colony from which it originated. You can therefore search the series by using the name of the colony and any relevant keywords. More details of the coverage is included in the catalogue description at FCO 141.

9. Maps, plans and photographs

The records contain many maps, plans and photographs, which may be contained within correspondence files, sessional papers and blue books. However, there are also some specific collections.

Maps and plans (1595-1927)

Search our catalogue for Colonial Office Maps and Plans in CO 700 by name of country.





Photographs (1815-1986)

Search our catalogue for the Colonial Office Photographic Collection in CO 1069 by name of country.





To access these records you will either need to visit us, pay for research (£) or, where you can identify a specific record reference, order a copy (£).

See our research guides to Maps and plans of lands abroad and Photographs for more details and advice on how to search.

10. Records on colonies from other government departments

Documents about colonies and dependencies may be found in the records of other government departments, including (among others):

CAB – Cabinet Office and PREM – Prime Minister’s Office records may contain higher level material on colonies. Further information is available in our research guide on the Cabinet.

WO – War Office and ADM – Admiralty: these departmens were often involved in colonial matters and conflicts. See our guides to British Army operations up to 1913 and Naval correspondence using the ADM 12 indexes and digests.

FO and FCO – Foreign Office and Foreign and Commonwealth Office: These series include correspondence with other imperial powers concerning colonies. Further information is available in our research guide on Foreign Office and Foreign and Commonwealth Office records from 1782.

T – Treasury, including T70 records of the Royal African Company and T 71 Registry of Colonial Slaves and Slave Compensation Commission.

OD – records of overseas development bodies contain information on development and technical matters in the period after 1939.

AY – records of research institutes and councils, some of which concerned colonies.

PCAP – records of the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council, which is the court of final appeal for the UK overseas territories and Crown Dependencies. Series PCAP 6 contains the printed papers to appeals made to the court from colonies.

11. Records in other institutions

For advice on significant collections on the British Empire and Commonwealth held elsewhere, see our research guide to Empire and Commonwealth records held by other archives.

12. Further reading

The following recommended publications are available in The National Archives’ Library.

12.1 Calendars and transcripts of original records

  • Calendars of State Papers Colonial 1574-1739 (HMSO, 1860-1994, 45 volumes). Volumes up to 1700 use old document references. These can be converted to modern references using the Key to Colonial Office Records in the reading rooms in The National Archives, or List and Index Society Volume (forthcoming)
  • KG Davies, Documents of the American Revolution, 1770-1873 (Irish University Press, 1972-81, 21 volumes)
  • Journals of the Commissioners of Trade and Plantations 1704-1782 (HMSO 1920-28, 9 volumes)
  • WL Grant, J Munro, Acts of the Privy Council of England, Colonial Series (HMSO 1908-1912, 6 volumes)

12.2 Selected records guides

Use our library catalogue to find a recommended book list. The books are all available in The National Archives’ reference library. You may also be able to find them in a local library. You can buy from a wide range of history titles in our bookshop.

Guide reference: Overseas Records Information 30