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Africa: Manuscripts and archives

The British Library is a rich resource for manuscripts and archives relating to Africa in western languages, Arabic, and African scripts and languages.

British Library Oriental 1401, ff.116v-117r

Qur'an, in Arabic in Muhaqqaq script, opening of Surah VII, Egypt, 14th century.
British Library Oriental 1401, ff.116v-117r.
Copyright © The British Library Board


The British Library’s manuscripts and archives relating to Africa fall into four main categories:

For the main UK government archives on Africa, see, however, the National Archives.

Further reading about the British Library’s manuscript and archives collections related to Africa is listed here. See also the list of Africa weblinks for other UK archives and libraries with significant holdings on Africa.

Manuscripts from Africa

These manuscripts are held mainly in the Asia, Pacific & Africa Collections of the British Library. They cover a wide chronological span and diverse subjects, including literature, poems, narratives, historical accounts, chronicles, and religious, medical, cartographic, geographic and other texts.

The holdings include a broad range of manuscripts in Arabic from Egypt, other North and North-eastern African countries; items from West Africa, some illustrated, mainly in Arabic but also in African languages, covering a variety of subjects; very significant Ethiopian collections, as well as smaller holdings in Amharic, Tigrinya, Tigre and other vernaculars of the Semitic, Cushitic and Nilotic groups; two of a very small number of surviving manuscripts from the Christian state which existed in Nubia from the sixth to the 12th centuries; and a Malagasy text from Madagascar.

Of particular note are the Library’s holdings of 11 Swahili manuscripts, mainly from Kenya, in Arabic script, dating from the 1890s to the 1970s. They are mainly religious works copied for use at devotional meetings; among them is also the Takhmisi ya Fumo Liyongo, concerning the exploits of the Swahili mythical hero Liyongo and dating from about 1891. Online catalogue entries for these manuscripts are now available in the Swahili Manuscripts Database of SOAS (the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London).

These manuscripts are normally consulted in the Asian and African Studies Reading Room, where the main manuscripts catalogue is available.

India Office Records and Private Papers

The India Office Records are the archives of the administration in London of the pre-1947 government of India. They comprise the archives of the East India Company (1600-1858), the Commissioners for the Affairs of India (1784-1858), the India Office (1858-1947), the Burma Office (1937-48) and a number of related British agencies. The records reflect the territorial, political and economic interests and activities of the India Office and its predecessor, the East India Company, from 1600 to 1947. Records of the British Colonial Office and most other governmental activity in Africa are held at the National Archives, but the connections between India and Africa nevertheless have left rich collections relating to Africa amongst the India Office holdings at the British Library.

References to many parts of the continent are to be found in almost all the major series between 1600 and 1948. These include the earliest East India Company contacts with Africa, made by its ships sailing round the Cape and through the Indian Ocean and Mozambique Channel to the coasts of India, Madagascar, the neighbouring east coast of Africa and the Gulf, in the context of trade and navigation. The Government of Bombay's political and economic interest in the East African coast is a significant theme in the records throughout the period.

The Company's settlement at St Helena features in the records from the 17th to the 19th century, and there are also references to contacts with the west coast of Africa. The records also include the East India Company's lease of the West African settlement at Fort Cormantine (Gold Coast/Ghana) between 1657 and 1662. The Company's concerns with the safety of its sea route drew it into the capture of the Cape of Good Hope in 1795 and 1806, and resulted in the establishment of its own agency there, from 1793 to 1836, the only Company agency on the African coast.

The 19th century saw marine surveys of the African coastline by the Company's Bombay Marine and the Royal Navy, which advanced the state of European knowledge of the coastline, and the establishment of British relations with Zanzibar and the Somali coast and with Ethiopia. The India Office Records are a rich source of material on the partition of and military campaigns in Africa in the late 19th century, particularly in Sudan, Somaliland, Uganda, Nyasaland (Malawi), Ethiopia and Nigeria. Also scattered throughout the records of the period are reports and letters from some of the more famous explorers of Africa - Burton, Livingstone, Speke, Stanley and others.

In the 20th century, relations between India and Africa were extended by Indian emigration to eastern and southern Africa, Mauritius and Réunion. There are extensive records on indentured labour, migration and immigration control, land settlement, racial segregation, political representation and the building of the East African railways. A picture emerges of the social, economic and political conditions under which Indians lived, as well as the reactions to them of both Africans and white settlers.

The India Office Records are mainly arranged in regular series of correspondence, minutes and proceedings, lists, returns, title deeds and other legal documents, books of account, reports, memoranda, ships' journals, etc. Also included are extensive collections of official publications and manuscript and printed maps, charts, harbour plans and coastline sketches.

The India Office Records are normally consulted in the Asian and African Studies Reading Room. Hard copy catalogues are available in the reading room. Most of the records can now also be searched in the online A2A catalogue.

In addition, the India Office Private Papers are probably the world's largest collection of personal papers relating to India and South Asia. They comprise the collections of British politicians, soldiers, administrators, scholars, missionaries, businessmen and others, containing documents of historical importance or curiosity. Numerous individuals had contact with Africa as well as India, and their personal papers reflect this.

The India Office Private Papers are normally consulted in the Asian and African Studies Reading Room. Entries for these papers are included in the India Office Select Materials catalogue.

Manuscripts in the (Western) Manuscript Collections

The British Library's Manuscript Collections include papers generated by British involvement in Africa. We hold the private papers and manuscript collections of many prominent British administrators, politicians and military men who lived in, or had connections with, Africa. Subject coverage is wide-ranging and includes historical, political and administrative themes; observations on African society, culture and traditions; and travellers' accounts, maps, charts and topographical drawings. Add.Mss.18117-18141, for example, contain a variety of documents relating to Madagascar and Mauritius. They were presented to the Library in 1850 by Sir Walter Minto Farquhar, son of Sir Robert Townsend Farquhar, the Governor of Mauritius from 1812 to 1823. Other significant material relates to the slave trade off the west coast of Africa, and to the founding of Sierra Leone. A table of the Vai script from Liberia, recorded by a British naval officer in 1849, is preserved as Add. 17,817.

Items in the Manuscript Collections are normally consulted in the Manuscripts Reading Room. The catalogue can be searched online.

Endangered Archives Programme

The Endangered Archives Programme, which is hosted by the British Library and funded by Arcadia, works to preserve archives of pre-industrial societies. A copy of records preserved under the Programme is placed in the British Library. These records were generated by sources including churches, trade unions, royal families and presidents and cover textual, sound and photographic material; those from Africa include numerous documents in the rare Bamum script, as well as other archives rich in potential for social, cultural and political history.

To consult these records, please contact the Endangered Archives Programme directly.


Dr Marion Wallace, Curator of African Collections
Asian and African Studies
The British Library
96 Euston Road
United Kingdom

Tel: +44 (0)20 7412 7829