Illustration on front cover of book of photographs of Hong Kong (Catalogue reference: CO 1069/457)

This is a brief guide to help you with your research into British colonies and dependencies. A number of government departments have had responsibility for colonies and dependencies at different times. Their individual filing systems can make it complicated to identify the records you want. This guide will help you to find some of the key records held at The National Archives.

  • What do I need to know before I start?

    • Try to find out:

      • when the country was a British colony or dependency
      • if the country has been known by any other name
  • What records can I see online?

    • Cabinet papers (1916-1978)

      Search and download British Cabinet papers relating to specific colonies and dependencies.

    • Colonial state papers (1574-1737)

      Search and download records from Colonial state papers (institutional subscription required).  This is a collection of thousands of scanned documents and bibliographic records relating to English activities in the American, Canadian, and West Indian colonies between the 16th and 18th centuries.

  • What records can I find in other archives and organisations?

    • Records relating to India

      Visit the British Library website to find out about their holdings of British government records relating to India and to territories administered from India, as well as records of the East India Company.

  • What other resources will help me find information?

    • Books

      Search The National Archives' bookshop to see whether any of the publications below may be available to buy. Alternatively, search The National Archives' Library to see what is available to consult at Kew.

      Administering the Empire, 1801-1968: A guide to the records of the Colonial Office in The National Archives of the UK by Mandy Banton (Institute of Historical Research/The National Archives, 2008)

Did you know?

In general, the records of former colonies in The National Archives consist of letters between the governors of individual territories and British government departments.

Government departments responsible for colonial affairs have included:

  • War and Colonial Department 1801-1854
  • Colonial Office 1854-1966
  • Dominions Office 1925-1947
  • Commonwealth Relations Office 1947-1966
  • Commonwealth Office 1966-1968 Diplomatic Service Administration Office 1966-1968
  • Foreign and Commonwealth Office 1968-date

Between 1849 and 1926, Colonial Office correspondence was recorded in registers. The letters themselves were numbered and then bound into volumes for each country or department, in numerical order, not by subject.

The National Archives does not usually hold the records of colonial governments themselves. Most of these records have remained in the countries concerned and generally form the basis of their national archives.