African manuscripts and archives

Looseleaf, illuminated Qur’an, together with its original leather bag from northern Nigeria/southern Niger/Chad
Manuscripts from West Africa were normally loose-leaf and kept in leather bags. The style of this illuminated Qu'ran, from the late 18th/early 19th century, is typical of the region of southern Niger, northern Nigeria and Chad (shelfmark: OR 16,751).

The British Library's manuscript collections include material from across the African continent. We also have important records and private papers connected with Africa.

About the collection

Our manuscripts and archives from and about Africa include:

  • manuscripts from Ethiopia and North Africa
  • small collections of manuscripts from West and East Africa, mainly in Arabic and Swahili
  • private papers of many prominent British administrators, politicians and military men connected with Africa
  • digital images of archives held elsewhere, which have been preserved by the Endangered Archives Programme.

We also have the records of the East India Company and the India Office, covering 1600-1947. These contain much material relevant to Africa, reflecting for example the East India Company’s interests in many parts of the African coast. The India Office material includes coverage of 19th-century military campaigns in East Africa and 20th-century Indian emigration to East and southern Africa.

What is available online?

You can search our catalogue online using Explore Archives and Manuscripts.

The Endangered Archives Programme provides a lot of digitised African material, with a wide variety of archival and manuscript collections freely available for research.

Digitised Manuscripts and the Online Gallery give access to a selection of African material, and some manuscripts are also showcased in our West Africa online exhibition.

What is available in our Reading Rooms?

Manuscripts from Africa, records of the East India Company and India Office, and India Office Private Papers are available in the Asian and African Studies Reading Room. Other manuscripts related to Africa are available in the Manuscripts Reading Room.

We have a wide variety of e-resources which are available in our Reading Rooms (for licensing reasons, these are not usually available off-site). E-resources with significant African content include:

  • Africa: Confidential Print, 1834-1966 (British government correspondence)
  • Apartheid South Africa 1948-80 (British government files)
  • British Online Archives (also available remotely with a British Library Reader Pass)
  • Nineteenth Century Collections Online
  • Slavery, Abolition and Social Justice, 1490-2007
  • Slavery and Anti-Slavery: A Transnational Archive.

What is available in other organisations?

UK Government records on Africa are held at The National Archives, and their catalogue also allows you to locate archives in other institutions.

The Commonwealth and African Collections of the Bodleian Library has very extensive collections of the papers of individuals and organisations relating to Africa.

There is a specialist Sudan Archive at the University of Durham.

Online research tools include the Mundus database, for missionary records, and Archives Hub.

Further information

A very good (though not comprehensive) guide is:

For East India Company and India Office records on Africa, see:

How to guides

How to order images

Instructions on how to order images of the British Library's collections from our Imaging Services

Get a Reader Pass

Access over 170 million collection items for free with a Reader Pass.

Find Arabic manuscripts

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

How to handle archives

Watch our guide and help us keep our archive material in good condition

Search for Cyrillic items in the catalogue

How to search for Cyrillic items in the catalogue

Find papyri

How to identify papyri and request them

Find Persian manuscripts

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

Find charters, rolls, and seals

How to access medieval and early modern European documentary collections

Find and request Lord Chamberlain's Plays

How to locate items in our largest single manuscript collection

How to handle folded items

Find out how you should hand items like large maps and book inserts.

Find Hebrew manuscripts

Guide to finding Hebrew manuscripts in our online catalogues

How to get a Reader Pass if you are under 18

How to apply for an under 18 Reader Pass

About Explore Archives and Manuscripts

With Explore Archives and Manuscripts you can search for information about our rich and unique archive and manuscript collections.

Guide to Explore Archives and Manuscripts

A guide to help you use the catalogue, covering: login, search, how to manage your results, how to browse the collections and how to request items

How to reuse images of unpublished manuscripts

Guide to the copyright of unpublished documents

Guide to researching provenance of books now in the British Library

Where do the British Library’s old printed books ‘come from'? Who owned or read them in centuries past? Why does it matter?

Access manuscripts and archives

Accessing manuscripts and archives and obtaining a Letter of introduction or recommendation