How to look for records of... International borders

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1. Why use this guide?

The National Archives has one of the UK’s richest archival collections of material relating to international borders, referred to more often in the records held here as international boundaries.

This guide will help you to find records of international borders within our vast holdings, providing historical context for borders around the globe, some dating back centuries, others from recent decades.

Many international boundaries remain in dispute today. The resolution of such disputes often depends on records of earlier definitions, demarcations and surveys. As time has passed, archives in many countries have been destroyed by war, natural disasters or major changes in government. As a result, documents at The National Archives often constitute the sole surviving record of earlier boundaries and boundary surveys.

2. What kinds of records do we hold?

The National Archives holds the records of UK central government which have been selected for permanent preservation.

A copy of one of a number of largely colourless Colonial Office maps from 1912-1913 showing the Nigeria Cameroon boundary at the Yola Cross River. The Colonial Office is among the past government departments most likely to have kept records of international boundaries, since transferred to The National Archives.

One of a number of Colonial Office maps from 1912-1913 showing the Nigeria Cameroon boundary at the Yola Cross River (catalogue reference CO 1054/175). The Colonial Office is among the past government departments that collected large numbers of records of international boundaries, since transferred to The National Archives. You can order a high-resolution copy of this image from our Image Library.

2.1 Where our records of boundaries come from

It is among the records of the government departments responsible for handling foreign affairs and British interests overseas that you are most likely to find documents relating to international boundaries. The most significant among these past and present departments are:

  • The Foreign Office
  • The Foreign and Commonwealth Office
  • The Colonial Office
  • The War Office
  • The Cabinet

We also hold the private papers of a relatively small number of high-ranking civil servants, politicians and military officers who were involved in boundary making, some of which contain information about – and maps depicting – boundaries (see section 4 for examples).

The practice of accurately surveying and mapping international boundaries did not become the norm until the 19th century. Boundaries between British and neighbouring colonies of other European nations were often defined by treaty and then mapped out by an international boundary commission. Even when Britain had no direct interest in the territories affected there was frequently a British commissioner on international boundary commissions, such was the high regard in which British surveying expertise was held internationally. The records generated by these surveys were usually deposited in the archives of the countries concerned but a certified copy was often brought back to London by the British commissioner and invariably deposited among the Foreign Office archives.

The chances of records existing is increased where there has been a boundary dispute at some point in the past.

2.2 Record types

The National Archives has an especially rich collection of maps but records of boundaries extend well beyond just maps. Document types include treaties, official reports by boundary commissioners, diplomatic despatches, survey data, memoranda, cahiers de specification (containing the technical specifications needed for the marking out and drawing up of boundaries) and photographs.

3. How to search for records

The vast majority of these records are not available to view online. To view them you will either need to visit us to view the originals in person or order copies by first finding document references.

3.1 Getting started: broad searches

Use our catalogue to search for document references. Once you have a document reference you will find instructions in our catalogue for how you can view that document. The following keyword searches will return search results for maps and other records concerning boundaries:

  • ‘boundary’ or ‘border’ and the name of a country or territory
  • ‘frontier’ and the name of a country or territory
  • “Boundary Commission” and the name of a country or territory
  • “Boundary Commission” and the name of a boundary line, such as Turco-Persian or Austrian-Yugoslav
  • ‘border’ and the name of a borderline, such as Syria/Israel border

A note on terminology: the word ‘boundary’ in this context occurs more frequently in our catalogue than ‘border’. We therefore use ‘boundary’ as the main term in this guide but consider ‘border’ to be a synonymous term.

3.2 Drilling down further: target records of specific departments

Using the same, or similar, keyword search terms suggested in 3.1, search across some of the larger Foreign Office, Colonial Office and, for records before 1782, State Papers record series, listed in the table below.

Among the record types worth searching in are:

  • treaties and records relating to treaties
  • correspondence
  • confidential print (many of which contain printed versions of boundary maps)
  • the archives of British embassies and consulates
  • the archives of British High Commissions (these are among the records of the Dominions Office and its successors – from 1925 the Dominions Office handled 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)

For more in-depth advice on these record types and how to locate them see our guides to Foreign Office records, Colonial Office records and State Papers Foreign.

Each series in the table below covers material relating to numerous countries and regions. Click on the series reference and search the series using the kinds of keywords listed in section 3.1:

Records series Series dates Series reference
Dominions Office and Commonwealth Relations Office: Original Correspondence. This series includes reports, including some maps, regarding the boundaries of and maritime borders of India, Canada, Australia and New Zealand 1915-1971 DO 35
Part one of the principal collection of maps accumulated by the Colonial Office. Includes numerous maps of boundaries of British colonial territories. 1595-1927 CO 700
Part two of the principal collection of maps accumulated by the Colonial Office. Includes numerous maps of boundaries of British colonial territories. 1779-1947 but predominantly 1910-1940 CO 1047
Part three of the principal collection of maps accumulated by the Colonial Office. Includes numerous maps of boundaries of British colonial territories. 1897-1984 but predominantly after 1940 CO 1054
Marine and Transport Department: Registered Files. Includes reports on disputes and arbitration concerning various maritime boundaries, including: the Channel Tunnel jurisdictional boundary; UK Continental Shelf boundaries; UK fishing boundaries and the maritime boundaries of British overseas territories or former colonies. 1961-1982 FCO 76
General correspondence

The Foreign Office bound much of its general correspondence relating to maps of various parts of the world in a separate series of Library ‘cases’. This series also contains information about map production, accuracy, printing and distribution.

1745-1975 but mostly pre-1906 FO 83
Protocols of Treaties

Many treaties contain maps showing a boundary as envisaged during negotiations but before demarcation on the ground. There is a typescript Index to Important Treaties 1635-1913 in the reading rooms at The National Archives.

1695-2003 FO 93
Foreign Office miscellanea 1639-1950 FO 95
Foreign Office miscellanea c1700-1953 FO 96
Foreign Office general correspondence 1906-1966 FO 371
Foreign Office Treaty Department correspondence 1906-1967 FO 372
Foreign Office Maps and Plans

The principal collection of maps accumulated by the Foreign Office. It includes numerous maps of international boundaries in the demarcation of which Britain played a role.

1700-1944 FO 925
Treaty papers in State Papers Foreign 1577-1780 SP 103
Treaties

State Papers Foreign series (there is a typescript Index to Important Treaties 1635-1913 in the reading rooms at The National Archives)

1579-1780 SP 108
Directorate of Military Survey papers

There are many papers relating to boundary surveys of former British colonies in the records of the Directorate of Military Survey.

1887-1985 WO 181

As well as records of the State Paper Office, Foreign Office and Colonial Office, the minutes, memoranda and conference papers of the Cabinet and its numerous committees contain many maps of international boundaries. Such maps were usually printed at a small scale to illustrate discussion papers or to provide background information. For more advice on these records and how to find them see our guide to the records of the Cabinet and its committees.

A faded Colonial Office map of the division line between North and South Carolina in 1730 (catalogue reference CO 700/CAROLINA8)

A Colonial Office map of the division line between North and South Carolina in 1730 (catalogue reference CO 700/CAROLINA8). You can order a high-resolution copy of this image from our Image Library.

3.3 Search in country- or region-specific series

Use the tables in section 4 to find a series specific to the country, region, boundary or border you are interested in.

4. Selected series by country, region or subject

The following record series all contain maps or other records of international boundaries in the regions indicated.

Although the Colonial Office was responsible for administering the colonies of the British Empire, it was the East India Company and subsequently the India Office that administered the Indian sub-continent and a number of other territories east of Suez. These records are held at the British Library.

Click on the record series references below and search the series using keywords (see section 3.1 for some suggested keywords).

Ireland

Records series Series dates Records description
CAB 61 1924-1925 Records of the Irish Boundary Commission
CO 537/1072-1110 1925 Printed records of the Irish Boundary Commission within Colonial Office confidential print, covering conference proceedings, reports and memoranda
HO 267 1900-1932 Records on the Irish Boundary Commission among the correspondence and papers of the Imperial Secretary to the Governor of Northern Ireland

Africa and the Middle East

Records series Series dates Records description
FO 83 1745-1975 but predominantly pre-1906 Foreign Office Library ‘cases’ which include maps of boundaries in the former Ottoman Empire after 1878.
FO 367 1906-1913 General correspondence from the Foreign Office’s African Department (correspondence after 1913 is in FO 371).
FO 633 1840-1929 Material about the Rafah-Aqaba Line (the southern border of Israel with Egypt) in the papers of Lord Cromer.
FO 800 1824-1968 Material about the Rafah-Aqaba Line (the southern border of Israel with Egypt) in the papers of Sir Edward Grey.
FO 867 1903-1971 Records relating to the administration of Anglo-Egyptian Sudan. Includes minutes and correspondence, 1931 to 1954, relating to the Darfur-Wadi boundary.
OD 6 1939-1990 Files of the Directorate of Overseas Surveys. Contains a small number of files about the Kenya-Ethiopia boundary.
WO 181 1887-1995 There are many papers relating to boundary surveys of the Middle East and North Africa in the records of the Directorate of Military Survey.

The Americas

Records series Series dates Records description
CO 6 1816-1868 Colonial Office correspondence on British North America. Includes papers relating to the boundary between British North America [Canada] and the United States of America pursuant to the Treaty of Ghent; and report of Commissioners appointed under the Treaty of Washington (1848 to 1850).
FO 83 1745-1975 but predominantly pre-1906 Foreign Office Library ‘cases’ which include a number of papers about maps of the boundary between the United States and Canada.
FO 96 c1700-1953 Foreign Office miscellanea which includes financial accounts relating to the North American Boundary Commission 1843-1848.
FO 302 1872-1876 Archives of American North-West Boundary Commission. Includes an album of photographs of the Commission at work.
FO 303 1796-1829 Archives of American Treaty of Ghent Commission.
FO 304 1796-1812 Archives of American Claims Commission, 1794.

Includes discussions of commerce and navigation between Great Britain and the United States to decide on the identity of the River St Croix named therein as a boundary line.

FO 928 1965-1967 Argentine-Chile Boundary Arbitration

Asia

Records series Series dates Records description
CO 129 1841-1951 Hong Kong, Original Correspondence. Includes reports, photographs, maps and plans relating to the ‘New territories’, 1899-1949
CO 874 1865-1949 British North Borneo Company papers. Include correspondence and reports and copies of treaties and conventions regarding the Anglo-Dutch boundary between British North Borneo and the Dutch East Indies.
CO 1069/452 1898 Colonial Office Photographic Collection: Photographs relating to the work of the Chinese and British Boundary Commissioners delimiting the New Territories
DO 133 1946-1971 High Commission and Consular Archives, India: Registered Files. Includes files relating to the boundaries between China and India, and India and Pakistan, including disturbances in Bengal and Punjab arising from Boundary Commission awards in 1947.
DO 196 1960-1968 South Asia Department: Registered Files. Some files relate to border incidents and boundary disputes regarding India, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Burma.
FCO 40 1965-1989 Hong Kong Departments, registered files. Contains documents relating to the future of Hong Kong and its boundaries
Cross section of a Foreign Office map showing the Armenian-Turkish border in 1908 (catalogue reference FO 195/2283).

Cross section of a Foreign Office map showing the Armenian-Turkish border in 1908 (catalogue reference FO 195/2283). You can order a high-resolution copy of this image from our Image Library.

Europe

Records series Series dates Records description
CO 926 1938-1966 Mediterranean Department: the registered files include reports on boundaries between Spain and Gibraltar, and Sovereign Base Areas in Cyprus
FCO 27 1967-1968 Mediterranean Department: a continuation of the registered files from CO 926
FCO 42 1967-1971 Gibraltar and South Atlantic Department: there are some papers relating to Gibraltar’s maritime boundary in this series
FO 32 1827-1905 Greece original correspondence: contains papers of Lieut-Col G. Baker of the Greco-Turkish Boundary Commission, 1830-1834 and of the Frontier rectification boundary Commission, 1881. Greco-Turkish Boundary Commission archives, 1832-1833 may also be found in FO 97/232
FO 78 1780-1905 Ottoman Empire original correspondence: includes reports from the Eastern Roumelian, Bulgarian, Serbian and Montenegrin Boundary Commissions, 1879-1879

Wartime and post-war boundaries

Records series Series dates Records description
FO 373 1918-1919 Handbooks prepared by the Historical Section of the Foreign Office for the use of officials attending the Paris Peace Conference of 1919 to 1920. Many contain maps illustrating the history of international boundaries under consideration at the end of the First World War.
FO 608 1918-1920 Correspondence and papers of the British delegation at the Paris Peace Conference of 1919 to 1920. Includes numerous files about the boundary changes following the end of the First World War.
FO 893 1920-1924 Ambassadors to the Peace Conference: minutes of proceedings. Includes reports and details of expenses, appointments and associated documents for the various boundary commissions established under the treaties of Versailles, Sevres, St. Germain-en-Laye, Trianon and Neuilly.
FO 1049 1943-1951 Records of the Control Commission for Germany (British Element). Includes maps of boundaries between the British Occupation Zone and neighbouring countries, and of inter-zonal boundaries.
WO 106 1837-1962 but predominantly post-1870 Correspondence and papers from the Directorate of Military Operations and Intelligence.

5. Maps, documents and other resources elsewhere

The IBRU Centre for Borders Research at the Department of Geography of Durham University is one of the world’s leading research centres on international boundary making and dispute resolution.

A number of other institutions have significant holdings of maps relevant to studies of international boundaries. Particularly of note are:

6. Further reading

All of the recommended publications below are available in The National Archives’ Library at Kew. Some may also be available to buy from The National Archives’ Bookshop.

John B Allcock (ed), Border and Territorial Disputes (3rd edition, Harlow, 1992)

Louise Atherton, ‘Never Complain, Never Explain’: Records of the Foreign Office and State Paper Office 1500-c1960 (PRO Readers’ Guide No 7, PRO 1994)

Mandy Banton, Administering the Empire, 1801-1968: A Guide to the Records of the Colonial Office in The National Archives of the UK (Institute of Historical Research and The National Archives, 2008)

Ian Brownlie, African Boundaries: A legal and Diplomatic Encyclopaedia (London, 1979)

Edward Hertslet, The Map of Europe by Treaty, 1814 to 1891 (4 volumes, London, 1875-1891)

Edward Hertslet, The Map of Africa by Treaty (3 volumes, London: 2nd edition 1896, 3rd edition 1909)

Michael Roper, The Records of the Foreign Office 1782-1968, Public Record Office Handbooks No33 (Public Record Office, 2002)

List of Colonial Office Confidential Print to 1916 (PRO Handbook no 8, HMSO 1965)