India Office Records and Private Papers

Arms of the United Company of Merchants Trading to the East Indies
Arms of the United Company of Merchants Trading to the East Indies © The British Library Board

The India Office Records are the archives of the administration in London of the East India Company and the pre-1947 government of India. The official archives of the India Office Records are complemented by deposits of private papers relating to the British experience in India.

About the collection

The 14 kilometres of shelves of volumes, files and boxes of papers, together with 70,000 volumes of official publications and 105,000 manuscript and printed maps, are public records comprising the archives of the East India Company (1600-1858), of the Board of Control or Board of Commissioners for the Affairs of India (1784-1858), of the India Office (1858-1947), of the Burma Office (1937-1948), and of a number of British agencies overseas which were officially linked with one or other of the four main bodies. They are complemented by extensive collections of private papers which provide alternative perspectives on official business and insights into individuals’ lives, thoughts and interests which often included studying the countries, languages and cultures they encountered.

The India Office Records and Private Papers tell the story of trade with the east, politics, the development of empire and the road to Indian independence. They record the history of Britain as trade and empire permeated our society and the movement of people connected different worlds. They encompass almost any subject imaginable, and record the many people whose lives were touched by the activities of the Company and the India Office.

The central focus of the India Office Records is in the territories now included in India, Pakistan, Burma and Bangladesh, and the majority of the records relate to their administration before 1947. Information on these territories can be found in the Imperial Gazetteer of India. The India Office Records also include source materials for neighbouring or connected areas at different times, covering not only South Asia, but also Southeast Asia, Central Asia, the Middle East, and parts of Africa. Among the most significant of these are:

  • St Helena (mainly prior to 1835, but records continue to 1900)
  • Cape of Good Hope (mainly prior to 1837, but records continue to 1900)
  • Zanzibar, Somalia and Ethiopia (mainly 19th and 20th centuries)
  • Red Sea, Arabian Peninsula, Persian Gulf States, Iraq and Iran (1600-1950)
  • Afghanistan, Russian and Chinese Central Asia, Tibet, Nepal, Bhutan and Sikkim (late 18th century to 1947)
  • Sri Lanka (mainly 1750-1802, but records continue to 1950)
  • Malaysia and South-East Asia (mainly prior to 1868, but records continue to 1950)
  • Indonesia (mainly prior to 1826, but records continue to 1950)
  • China (early 17th century to 1947)
  • Japan (mainly 17th century, but records continue to 1950)
  • West Indies, south and east Africa, Fiji and Suriname – official records resulting from India Office interest in the status and conditions of Indian emigrants to those areas

What is available online?

There are a number of online resources for the India Office Records and Private Papers:

The Untold Lives blog contains many fascinating stories from the India Office Records and Private Papers on a wide range of subjects covered by the collections.

What is available in our Reading Rooms?

The India Office Records and Private Papers can be viewed in the Asian & African Studies Reading Room, and the catalogues are searchable online using Explore Archives and Manuscripts. There are also printed catalogues, guides to the collections and open access reference books in the A&AS Reading Room. The reading room PCs give free access to a number of useful sites, such as Find My Past and Nineteenth Century Collections Online.

The India Office Records and Private Papers are the British Library’s most extensive archives relating to the East India Company and the British Empire in India but there is also much complementary material in other British Library archival collections and the oral history recordings.

What is available in other organisations?

Records of other British Government departments are held at the National Archives, and can be searched online using the Discovery catalogue.

The holdings of the National Archives of India can also be searched using their online portal.

Further information

Moir, Martin, A General Guide to the India Office Records (London: The British Library, 1988). This is the best single volume guide to the India Office Records, giving the administrative background of the East India Company and the India Office, and detailed descriptions of the different series within the records. It is best used alongside the online and printed catalogues.

A further reading list: Guides and Catalogues for the India Office Records is also available.

How to guides

Find Chinese manuscripts and printed books

There are several catalogues for our Chinese material

Find Persian manuscripts

Details of Persian manuscripts are to be found in a number of catalogues

Find Arabic manuscripts

Details of Arabic manuscripts are to be found in a number of catalogues

Get a Reader Pass

A guide to how to obtain a British Library Reader Pass to use our reading rooms

How to get a Reader Pass if you are Under 18

How to apply for an under-18 Reader Pass