How to look for records of... African ancestors – an overview

How can I view the records covered in this guide?

How many are online?

  • Some

This guide provides a brief overview of records and resources at The National Archives that can help you to trace individuals who either migrated to the UK from Africa or who lived in British colonies in Africa before independence and the end of British colonial rule. It is an introduction to the sorts of records we hold, with links to guides providing more detailed advice on how to find the records in our collection.

The records held at The National Archives

As with all documents held here, the records we hold of people from Africa or of African origin are historical records of the UK central government. Most of these records relate to British colonial territories in Africa before and following their independence. Only around 5% of government records are selected for preservation at The National Archives. The records that contain details of individuals from Africa can be grouped into five broad categories:

  • Records of people born in Africa who migrated to the UK. These records will be the easiest to find and use.
  • Records of Africans in Africa living under British colonial administration. There are likely to be more records of this kind in the respective national and regional archives on the African continent but there are some significant records of this kind held here.
  • Records of migration to Africa. Again, there are more likely to be detailed records in the respective national and regional archives on the African continent but we hold some records.
  • Military and maritime records. Hundreds of thousands of Africans served in military units under British command in the colonial period, the First and Second World Wars, while significant numbers of African seamen have served in the British Merchant Navy. These are some of the richest records we hold on individuals.
  • Records of people who were enslaved and transported to North America and the Caribbean. Tracing any remaining record of those enslaved in the transatlantic slave trade is very challenging. It will likely require using a variety of archives in the UK, North America or the Caribbean. We provide advice on this below.

It is unlikely that you will be able to piece together a whole family tree or a full picture of the life of an individual using only our records – but we may be able to provide some pieces in the puzzle.

In general, we do not hold the internal administrative records from ex-African colonies, such as records of births, marriages and deaths, which would have remained in place after independence. However, this guide does provide some advice on where to find these records.

Please be aware that record titles, descriptions and the documents themselves often contain offensive language but once records are transferred to us, we don’t alter them. The historical terminology used by the people that created the records is part of the story they tell.

How to get a search for records started

There are no ‘case files’ containing all the information on a single person. For any individual, there may be several different types of records which relate to them, each of which will have to be searched for separately. The search for records usually begins in our online catalogue. The catalogue contains short descriptions of all our records and a document reference for each – you will need the document reference to see the record itself or to request copies.

To find a reference to a record in our catalogue you will need to guess at one or more of the words that have been used in its catalogue description. However, many of the records of the Colonial Office, one of the primary sources of information for this research, are only described in the briefest or most basic terms, making it often impossible to use names as a keyword search. You should also bear the following in mind:

  • Clerks recording unfamiliar names of non-British origin may have invented spellings
  • Lower levels of geographical knowledge in the past than people generally have today led to multiple forms of inaccuracies in the recording of people’s origins
  • There are sometimes mistakes made in the transcribing of the original records to online versions

When using names to search our records you should therefore consider the following techniques:

  • Use wildcard searches (use * to replace multiple letters and ? to replace a letter; for example Moh* or Moham?ed to account for different spellings of Mohamed).
  • Consider different spellings and scales of descriptions when searching for places names. For example, for today’s Kumasi in Ghana you could try Kumasi, Koomasi, Coomassie, but also Asanti, Asante, Ashanti, Ashantee, Gold Coast and even Africa.

For more guidance on searching or browsing our catalogue, visit our Discovery help pages.

Before you begin a search, you should see if there is a guide to the records you are looking for. This guide is designed to help you do that. Throughout this guide you will find links to the more detailed advice you will need to search a specific set of records.

Records are arranged by the government department that created them, then by the type of record, such as passenger lists or military service records, and by date.

The documents themselves may be in different formats, from handwritten registers, printed lists, or large sheets of parchment, each representing one aspect of a distinct set of records.

How to view records

This guide provides links to many other guides. Each of these guides will indicate whether the records they cover have been made available online (charges usually apply). The online copies are accessed either directly from our website or from the websites of our commercial partners, including Ancestry and Findmypast.

Many records have no online version and to see these you will need to consult them at our building in Kew or pay for copies to be made and sent to you.

Records of people born in Africa who migrated to the UK

Migration to the UK before the 19th century

There have been people of direct African heritage in the UK for at least two thousand years. However, before the 19th century there was no systematic record-keeping of the movement of people. The scattered records held at The National Archives from this period of individuals who arrived in England or Britain from Africa will be hard to find. Where records exist at all, the individual’s origins are likely to be incidental to the reason for the creation of the record, such as a will or a court case, and very unlikely to be of the migration itself. Some of these records are covered later in this guide and in our guide to immigration and immigrants.

Migration to the UK in the 19th and 20th centuries

The records most likely to have been created and kept of a person’s migration from any other country to the UK are transport records documenting their arrival and records of their naturalisation (obtaining citizenship), though not everyone naturalised.

The majority of people arriving in the UK from Africa, or from anywhere else, up until the 1960s arrived by ship. Passenger lists, which recorded all travellers on a ship journey, are therefore the most common record of arrival. We hold passenger lists for inter-continental ship journeys to the UK from 1878 to 1960. Outside of these years there is much less chance of there being an archived record of arrival. Passenger lists for air travel may be held in the archives of the country of departure or by the airline but none are held at The National Archives.

Documents known as ‘certificates of alien arrivals’ were issued to those arriving from overseas during the 19th and early 20th centuries but people arriving from territories under British colonial administration would not have been registered as they were not considered ‘aliens’.

For advice on finding ship passenger lists and certificates of arrival consult our guide to immigration and immigrants.

For advice on records which relate to Britain citizenship, consult our guide to naturalisation, registration and British citizenship.

Birth, marriage and death records

Records of births, marriages and deaths can, between them, establish details of a person’s parents and their birthplaces. In the UK they are kept in various places, but not usually at The National Archives. Consult our guides to births, marriages and deaths in England and Wales and births, marriages and deaths in Scotland and Ireland for advice on how to locate these records.

Census records for England and Wales, 1841-1921

The National Archives holds copies of all UK census records from 1841-1921.

In every census since 1841, people have been asked to state their country of birth and, in most cases, their nationality. Information about individuals in censuses is not made public until 100 years after the census was taken so the most recent census records in which you can trace individuals is the 1921 census.

When searching the census for people born in African countries, use the contemporary names of countries or cities, as they were known in and before 1921, as some have changed since then. The table in our guide to records of other countries provides previous names. We have also published an article on researching Black history in the 1921 Census which might prove useful.

Records of employment in the UK

The National Archives is not the best place to find information about the careers and employment of individuals, with just a few exceptions for a very small number of professions.

Significant numbers of African women came to Britain after the Second World War to work for the newly established National Health Service (NHS). For advice on the limited number of NHS personnel records we hold, none more recent than 1984, and for advice on where else you can look for career records of individuals, consult our guide to doctors and nurses.

For employment in the UK armed forces or merchant navy see the ‘Military and maritime’ section below.

Records of Africans studying in the UK

Many Africans who spent time in the UK prior to the mid-20th century were here as students. If the records of their time as students survive (often they will not) they should be in the archives of the schools, universities, hospitals, or mission societies who were providing their education.

If the UK government or a colonial government was responsible for financing an individual’s education then there may be records of this held here.

Search the following series (by clicking on the series links) to search by an individual’s name for files listing some of those who applied for or received government scholarships:

Records of African political activists in the UK

People who engaged in political activism while in the UK (whether pan-Africanist, anti-colonial, pro-Communist or other causes) may have been monitored by the British police or Security Services.

Try searching the files of the Metropolitan Police in series ‘MEPO’ or the records of the Security Service (MI5) in series ‘KV’ using an individual’s name or the name of a political organisation of which they were a member. There is more search advice in our guide to records of the intelligence and security services.


You may find details of an individual in a will if they were the testator (the person who made the will), the executor (the person/s who carries out the testator’s wishes) or a beneficiary but also, in the case of enslaved people, who were regarded as the property of slave owners, as part of the estate. However, you cannot search the online indexes to wills at The National Archives with any name other than that of the testator.

For the instructions in a will to be legally carried out, they must undergo a process known as probate. A will is said to have been ‘proved’ once it has gone through probate. Many people did not bother with probate.

At The National Archives we only hold wills proved before 1858. To find someone in a will as a beneficiary you will need to first establish the name of the testator.

See our guidance for where to go for wills since 1858.

Records of people in Africa living under British colonial administration

Birth, marriage and death records

Baptisms, marriages, and burials in British colonies in Africa were generally carried out by the local Christian church until the advent of civil registration. The original parish records will usually be held by the respective African country.

You can, however, search for some records online through subscription services such as and (charges apply). Many African countries’ parish records have been digitised by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints and are available at FamilySearch.

Similarly, civil registration records, including those of birth, marriage and death, of people living in former British overseas territories are still held in the respective country. The National Archives holds a few registers of British citizens who were born, married or died in African countries, listed in our guide Births, marriages, and deaths at sea or abroad.

Pre-independence African censuses

The National Archives holds some censuses from African colonies taken prior to independence. Search for them among Colonial Office and Dominions Office series using advice in our colonies and dependencies guide. These records provide an overview of populations in the respective colonies and territories, sometimes broken down into categories of age, gender and race but are not the equivalents of modern censuses in the UK and details of individuals are usually scant or absent altogether.

White ‘Europeans’ are more likely to be mentioned by name than those of African or South Asian origin. One important exception to this rule is in the records we hold of Sierra Leone where the colonial government monitored the ‘re-migration’ of individuals who had been enslaved and transported to the Caribbean, North America and the UK (or their descendants) and who settled in West Africa. Richer censuses and lists of members of this community exist in CO 267,

Records of civil servants

We do not have full lists of people who worked for the British colonial governments in Africa. However, some records of civil servants do survive.

Records of the recruitment and retirement of colonial officials of all ranks can be found recorded in ‘Government Gazettes’ held at The National Archives (archives of countries formerly under British colonial administration may also have copies). These official announcements were produced weekly in each colony. For search advice, see our colonies and dependencies guide and bear in mind:

  • you can search for volumes in our catalogue using the terms ‘gazette’ and [name of colony]
  • they were indexed on an annual basis, with the indexes included in the final volume of the year
  • in the absence of an index you would need to browse all volumes in order to locate mention of an individual

There are additional possible records for high- and mid-ranking officials:

  • Colonial Office Lists, available at our library, list the highest ranking civil servants; published annually
  • Blue Books – a compendium of statistics and information published annually by colonial governments which includes lists of officials and their posts; search for them using our catalogue using ‘Blue Book’ AND the name of the colony.

The same publications may be available in specialist libraries and archives around the UK and beyond.

We have some records of individuals (White ‘European’ and South Asian) who contributed to pensions through their employment in the colonial civil service. To search for these files search our catalogue using ‘Widows’ and Orphans’ Pension’ AND ‘personnel’ AND [name of colony].

Other professions and businesses

Government Gazettes (described above, among records of civil servants) also include listings for the issuing of business licenses. The name of the business owner and their address usually appear in the listing, though the details included varied depending on the type of license and the period. Those who were practising professions such as medicine (including nurses and midwives), law, or ran businesses such as pharmacies (drugstores) or licensed bars were required to seek licenses.

Wills proved in African countries

Most wills made in British colonies and territories in Africa were proved locally but some wealthy Africans sent their wills to England or Scotland to be proved.

Search for pre-1858 wills proved at the highest probate court in England (the Prerogative Court of Canterbury) using the search box in our guide to wills 1384-1858, including the word ‘Africa’ or the name of an African country or colony in the ‘Place’ or ‘Other keywords’ fields. For post-1858 wills see our guidance on where to go for wills since 1858.

For wills proved locally, you will need to contact the respective African archive for advice on how to locate their records.

Records of ancestral lands and indigenous leaders

The National Archives does not generally hold land registers, the documents that formally record land ownership, from the period of colonial administration in Africa. You will need to contact archives in the respective countries for advice on how to locate these records.

We do, however, hold a range of records that describe episodes in the histories of particular tribes and ethnic groups, their ancestral lands, and biographies of their leaders.

Much of colonial rule in British Africa was legitimated by treaties with traditional authorities. The creation of these treaties often involved extensive documentation including maps and histories of local political authorities and lineages.

Try the following:

  • Search our catalogue using the family names or titles of indigenous African elites, particularly royal families.
  • Search for treaties with African kingdoms for the 19th century onwards in FO 93 (see FO 93/4 for Central Africa; FO 93/5 for East Africa; FO 93/6 for West Africa).
  • Search for Foreign Office records known as Confidential Prints, which can contain summaries of the documentation used to support treaties, by searching in FO 88 using the keyword combination ‘Treaty’ and ‘Africa’.

Records of migration to Africa

Migration from Britain

The most prevalent records for emigrants from the UK are outgoing passenger lists. We hold outward passenger lists from 1890 to 1960. Beyond these lists there is often no other record to search for here and, in general, you are more likely to find a record of an emigrant in the destination country.

Use our guide to records of emigration and emigrants for advice on locating records of British migration to African countries up to 1960, the latest year for which we hold outgoing passenger lists.

Records of South Asian immigrants to Africa

Records of individuals of South Asian origin living and working in Africa will not be easy to find in records at The National Archives. As mentioned above, census-type records, and birth, marriage or death records will be rare, and more likely to be located in the national or regional archives of countries on the African continent.

For those who are seeking ancestors who arrived in Africa under forms of indentured labour, see our guide to records of Indian indentured labour.

For those who arrived in Africa with the Indian Army (or on secondment from the Indian Army), see our guide to records of the Indian Army.

For those who arrived in Africa under contract with railway companies, your best starting point might be any records of those railway companies, either in the UK, or (more likely) on the African continent. These are often held in railway heritage museums.

Military and maritime records

Hundreds of thousands of Africans served in military units under British command in the Second World War and First World War. Troops from Africa were also deployed in pre-20th century colonial conflicts on the African continent and to a lesser extent beyond it. During the era of the transatlantic slave trade, British armed forces used enslaved Africans as labour but also as combatants.

Pre-20th-century military and maritime records

Finding individuals who served as soldiers in Africa before the 20th century is easier if you can identify whether they served in a local ‘militia’ or as part of the British Army. For the latter, see our guide to British Army soldiers before 1913. We have some, but far fewer records on the history and the personnel of the militia – see our guide to Militia. Some militia records were retained by African countries at independence.

The Royal African Corps was formed in 1800 under Colonel John Fraser and we hold muster books and pay lists of this unit from 1800-1819 and 1822-1840. See our guide to African forces under British control for more.

To begin searching for individuals who worked for the Royal Navy before the First World War see our guide to Royal Navy ratings up to 1913 and our guide to Royal Naval dockyard staff.

First World War military records

In the First World War, troops under command of the British fought in various parts of Africa, including East Africa, Nyasaland and Northern Rhodesia, South West Africa, Cameroon, Nigeria and Togoland (modern-day Togo and parts of Ghana).

We hold some records of Africans serving in British units during the war on the African continent, including:

  • records of the King’s African Rifles, formed from various East African forces in 1902 and based in Kenya
  • the Royal West African Frontier Force, formed from various West African forces in 1900

See our guides to African forces under British control and British Army soldiers of the First World War for search advice. Our First World War overview may also be useful.

If you know that an individual served in the British or allied armed forces in the First World War but don’t know more details about their military service, it may be helpful to consult online ‘roll of honour’ compilations before beginning more detailed searches in our records. See, for example, the Imperial War Museum’s Lives of the First World War database.

There are likely to be more records in archives in South Africa, Malawi, Kenya and West Africa than in the UK. The Commonwealth War Graves Commission is working to produce a full list of African casualties from the First World War.

Second First World War military records

In the Second World War the African presence in British forces was even greater and included those who served in women’s nursing and territorial units in East Africa, individuals of Chadian origin who deserted the Free French and served with a Pioneer Company in the British Army.

If you know that an individual served in the British or allied armed forces in the Second World War but don’t know more details about their military service, it may be helpful to consult online ‘roll of honour’ compilations before beginning more detailed searches in our records.

See our Second World War overview for advice on finding military and maritime service records of individuals.

Merchant Navy records

Many individuals from Africa worked on British-registered commercial ships, as part of the Merchant Navy. We have a number of guides to searching the records of the Merchant Navy. This includes guides to those doing regular work on merchant ships and those who were involved in the war efforts during the First and Second World War. A good place to start is our guide to merchant seamen serving since 1918.

We have records relating to those who worked in the Merchant Navy, on commercial ships, in the 19th century, including those who joined ships at African ports. See our guide to Merchant seamen in service before 1914.

Enslaved people and slave owners, 16th to 19th centuries

It is estimated that over three million Africans were enslaved and transported to the Americas, the Caribbean and elsewhere by British traders between the 16th and 19th centuries.

Tracing any remaining record of individuals enslaved in the transatlantic slave trade is very challenging. It will likely require using different archives in the UK, North America or the Caribbean. Most of the records of this process held at The National Archives describe the enslaved at their destinations and you should use our guide to enslaved people and slave owners for advice on these records.

However, we do hold some records documenting the capture and transportation of enslaved people from West Africa and of British ships’ intercepting slave ships to protect British interests and later to enforce international anti-slavery agreements.

Records of the Royal African Company

The Royal African Company was one of the major transatlantic trading companies that profited from enslavement.

Though you cannot search Royal African Company records online by the names of enslaved people, you can consult the following original documents at our building in Kew which may help you to trace people:

  • T 70/1209 (1695-1749) – contains summaries of individual voyages as well as information on those enslaved by the RAC itself
  • T 70/1515-1606 (c. 1750-1820) – ‘Detached papers’ which contain information on those who were enslaved by the RAC itself and worked in the RAC’s West African forts

You can also search among its records in T 70 for:

  • company accounts
  • records of ships and cargoes
  • correspondence with African indigenous leaders
  • accounts of those who were enslaved to work at the company’s forts in West Africa

Records of the Foreign Office Slave Trade Department

This correspondence contains reports of cases where the Royal Navy seized ships suspected of slaving. Some cases contain details of those who were liberated, occasionally with more detailed personal histories. Search for records in FO 84 by date or event to begin your search and download digital images of the records from our catalogue.

Records of the Slave Trade Commissions

Slave Trade Commissions were legal bodies that adjudicated cases of suspected slaving ships. Their records include registers of ‘liberated Africans’ as well as details of the African interpreters. These record tens of thousands of individuals who were enslaved and subsequently liberated. Search the following series by year and by the location of the nearest court to where the ship was seized (not the origin of the ship or the enslaved people):

Royal Navy ships’ musters

Royal Navy ships that were involved in anti-slaving campaigns sometimes listed liberated Africans in their ships ‘musters’ under the heading ‘supernumeraries’. For advice on finding ships’ musters, see our guide to Royal Navy ratings records up to 1913.

Online databases

Some of our  records have been used in the compilation of online databases that bring together biographical information about individuals who were enslaved. See in particular: