For 200 years, the East India Company was the leading trade operation for exotic goods like cotton, silk, indigo, salt, tea and opium. Was your ancestor a ‘factor’ helping negotiate sales with local European merchants? Or did they serve in the company’s huge private army?
Caroline Kimbell, from the Senate House Library discusses the history of the East India Company lists and how your ancestors may have been involved in this far-reaching organisation.
Senate House Library and the Library of the Institute of Historical Research are delighted to share the registers of staff employed by the East India Company, and latterly, the India Office across the sub-continent during British rule, from the mid-18th century to 1939. Long valued by academic historians, these records are now name-searchable, allowing the families of the hundreds of thousands of British and Indian company staff to trace their ancestors’ stories through the structures and ranks of the East India Company and India Office.
These rich, evocative and characterful records are a glimpse into the complex, highly bureaucratic world of empire, and unusually for staff lists, give us a glimpse of the society which these civil servants – British, native Indian and Anglo-Indian – created and ran. While we think of the East India Company as primarily a mercantile, trading organisation, there were few walks of life which the Company did not come to organise.
In the earliest registers – the Bengal Calendar for 1792 for example – the names which predominate are male, British, and not unusually titled (The Hon. F. Fitzroy and Sir C.W. Blunt, bart. are listed as “factors” joining the company in 1783, for example). Service in India was very much an accepted part of the British establishment, and many families will find ancestors serving as, for instance “second assistant to the district collector” at Patna, Golagore or Dacca, adding an exotic note to many family trees (and maybe explaining the elephant’s foot umbrella stand inherited from a great-uncle). The staff lists – all hierarchically set out by rank for civilian, church and military roles alike – offer us vivid glimpses of how the British traders worked alongside Indian rulers and administrations. In 1783, we see appointments for example as residents at “the Nabob Vizier’s Court”.
In later years, it is fascinating to see the growth in the representation of native Indian staff – even as early as the late 18th century, the inter-dependence and interactions between colonial and native staff is marked in these registers, especially in the court and judiciary, where the Company took over existing courts and lawyers: 1792 sees Mahmed Rexah Khawn listed as Chief Magistrate and Kjawn Jehan Khawn as “Foujdar of Houghly” in Bengal. As the years go by, more and more native Indian staff are listed in the records – and increasingly by the 1880s, women civil servants, especially in education and medicine, begin to appear in the records. In 1901 for example, page after page of women are listed as “recipients of medals for public service in India” – a transformation of the workforce and society unimaginable to those early factors, soldiers and mariners.
The varied and exotic roles and job titles conjure up a British world grafted onto an Indian landscape and society. While many of the registers list traders, tax and customs officials, port and military staff, the whole infrastructure is here, with lists of meteorologists, astronomers, the staff of botanical gardens, teachers and instructors, magistrates and clerks, harbour pilots, nurses and “surgeons and medical gentlemen”. Not only are names listed against their rank and job title, but the registers often flesh out the working life of the times – in 1824 for example, the Register lists “regulations and instructions for appointments”, and, sadly prevalent in such challenging climates and conditions, annual lists of casualties.
Across over 600,000 individual records, repeated names year after year allow you to trace individual careers up through the company ranks, periods of home-leave (“on furlough”) and retirements. Many of the registers list not just those employed across the sub-continent, but British-based staff and (for example, in 1824 again) “Lists of European mariners &c not in the employ of the… Company”.
A whole, diverse working world awaits you in these records. Star exploring the East India Company lists today on Ancestry.