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Guide reference: Overseas Records Information 21
Last updated: 13 February 2007

1. Why use this guide?

This guide will tell you how to find records of Indian indentured labourers at The National Archives.

Please note that the terms used in historical records reflect attitudes and language at the time and may now be considered derogatory or offensive.

This guide does not cover Chinese indentured labourers. If you want to find Foreign Office correspondence relating to Chinese indentured labourers, search Discovery, our catalogue using the keywords 'Chinese' and 'coolies'.

2. Who were the Indian indentured labourers?

Under colonial rule, India's population provided the British Empire with a ready source of cheap and mobile labourers.

Many Indians agreed to become indentured labourers to escape the widespread poverty and famine in the 19th century. Some travelled alone; others brought their families to settle in the colonies they worked in.

The demand for Indian indentured labourers increased dramatically after the abolition of slavery in 1834. They were sent, sometimes in large numbers, to plantation colonies producing high value crops such as sugar in Africa and the Caribbean.

3. How do I search for records at The National Archives?

The best way to start is to search our catalogue using keywords. Try using the keyword 'Indian' plus terms such as:

  • coolie
  • labour, labourer
  • place name, (e.g. Mauritius, Jamaica, Calcutta)
  • emigrant, emigration
  • immigrant, immigration

You can refine your search by the Colonial Office department (CO), which contains many relevant records.

It is not possible to search for a particular labourer's name in our catalogue. Some records may contain names, but these have not been entered into the online descriptions.

Many of the records contain only the first names of the labourers, not their last names.

Most of the records have not been digitised, so you may need to consult original documents.

4. What kind of records does The National Archives hold?

The records at The National Archives are mainly concerned with how governments generally administered different indentured labour systems. They contain very little personal information about the labourers themselves. 

The largest sources of records about Indian indentured labourers are:

  • Colonial Office correspondence
  • Foreign Office correspondence

Whilst these papers may contain sample records on how the labourers were contracted, transported, and employed, they do not hold information on how local administrations managed labourers on a day-to-day basis. 

The archives of former colonies may hold records relating to the local management of Indian indentured labourers. Try contacting them directly for information about surviving records.

5. Key records at The National Archives

5.1 Births, marriages and deaths at sea (1891-1972)

As Indian indentured labourers were British colonial citizens, the Registrar General of Shipping and Seamen recorded their births, marriages and deaths.

Search and download these registers in BT 334 from findmypast.co.uk (£).

If an indentured labourer gave birth to a child on board a ship, the records give the child's name, but the parent is simply listed as 'coolie'.

5.2 Colonial Office original correspondence

Use the original correspondence for the relevant colony to find details of the indentured labour system. The correspondence consists of letters coming into London from the colonies. For example:

  • Mauritius in CO 167
  • British Guiana in CO 111
  • West Indies in CO 318
  • Trinidad in CO 295
  • Jamaica in CO 137
  • Ceylon in CO 54
  • Fiji in CO 83
  • Cape Colony (in South Africa) in CO 48, Natal in CO 179
  • St Christopher (St Kitts) in CO 239
  • Windward Islands in CO 321
  • Grenada in CO 101
  • Kenya in CO 533 - see also FO 107 for the period before 1906
  • Uganda in CO 536
  • You'll need to use entry books or registers to find particular items within these collections of original correspondence.

    To find the entry books or registers for a collection of correspondence, refer to the full series description in our catalogue: for instance, the description for CO 167 (Mauritius original correspondence) says that the registers are in CO 326 and CO 356.

    5.3 Records of the colonial emigration departments

    Use the Land Board and Emigration Department's correspondence in CO 384 for information about indentured labour practices and systems.

    Browse the Land and Emigration Commission correspondence in CO 386 for information on Indian indentured migration to the West Indies.

    Use the Colonial Office General Department's original correspondence on immigration in CO 571 for information about the entry of Indian indentured labourers into Mauritius and the West Indies.

    The types of records you may find include:

    • medical reports, which sometimes give details of the births and deaths of Indians on the ships
    • population analysis, statistical returns and mortality rates
    • lists of ships, receipts and information about expenditure
    • policy papers and reports on criminal cases involving indentured labourers

    5.4 Foreign Office records

    Many Indian indentured labourers were sent to work for the colonies of foreign countries, such as the Netherlands, Spain, Portugal and France.

    You can find some records relating to this by searching for keywords in our catalogue within the Foreign Office (FO) department.

6. Parliamentary records

Search Parliamentary papers (£) (institutional subscription required) to find papers relating to the British Parliament's legislation of the Indian indentured labour system

7. More about the history of indentured labourers

The term 'coolie' is of disputed origins: some believe it derives from an aboriginal tribe in the Gujarat region of India, and others believe it comes from the Tamil word 'kuli', meaning 'payment for occasional menial work' (Oxford English Dictionary).

The labourers were mostly young, active, able-bodied people used to demanding labour, but they were often ignorant of the places they agreed to go to or the challenges they were going to face.

Before 1840 a large proportion of the labourers were so-called 'Hill coolies', aboriginal people from the plains of the Ganges. Later many others signed indentured labour contracts, including Hindus, Brahmins, high castes, agriculturists, artisans, Mussulmans, low castes (untouchables) and Christians.

Over 41,000 Bengali labourers were sent to Mauritius in 1834, but the Indian government banned 'coolie' shipments in 1838 because there were reports of repression and abuse.

In 1842 the British Prime Minister Robert Peel directed the Indian government to re-open these lines of emigration under proper safeguards. A Protector of Emigrants was appointed to ensure that the labourers had adequate space, food, water and ventilation on the journey.

Emigration to Jamaica, British Guiana and Trinidad was legalised in 1844. Emigration to Grenada and St Lucia was legalised in 1856 and 1858 respectively.

The last indentured labourers went to the West Indies in 1916. Repatriation continued for many years after the time limit. The last ship carrying returning emigrants left the West Indies for India in 1954.

8. Further reading

Read historical newspapers such as The Times, Asiatic Journal of Calcutta and The British Emancipator.

Use our library catalogue to find a recommended book list. The books are all available in The National Archives' reference library, or you may be able to find them in a local library.

Contact the British Library. The Asia, Pacific and Africa collections contain many records about Indian indentured labour under colonial administration.

Use the library of the School of Oriental and African Studies, which is a major source for academic studies into Indian indentured labour systems.

Also try searching our bookshop for a wide range of history titles.

Guide reference: Overseas Records Information 21

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