How to trace Anglo-Indian ancestors
By Jenny Thomas
If, like Alistair McGowan from BBC's WDYTYA, your colouring or family background lead you to suspect that you have Anglo-Indian ancestors, you might like to have a go at investigating when and in what context this connection occurred. Although the term Anglo-Indian technically implies that a union between a British and an Indian partner occurred somewhere in your ancestry (the woman most commonly being the Indian partner), the term is often used more loosely, and cannot be entirely relied upon.
However, many of the sources used in tracing Anglo-Indian ancestry are also used to trace ancestors of wholly British origin living in India, so you don’t have to worry too much about your precise definitions or expectations when you set out upon your search. It’s simply a question of digging into the records, and seeing what you can find. Here are some ideas as to how to get started.
1 Start with what you know
The golden rule when embarking upon any research project is to start with what you know. Write down everything that you can about your Indian connections: names; dates and places of birth, marriage and death; occupations; family stories; anything that you can remember. Then put these questions to other members of your family to see if they can fill in any gaps.
It is this information that will provide the launch pad from which you can continue your research. As your investigation continues, you might even uncover photographs of your ancestors in India, that can provide valuable clues as to location, status and even dates.
2 Search British records first
If your ancestors moved back to Britain or paid extended visits here in the years before 1901 (for example to stay with family, or children who were sent to school in Britain), you may be able to find them on the census here, which is available every 10 years from 1841-1901.
Census returns, which can be found online at various commercial genealogy sites, will give you an idea of names, family units, ages, occupations and places of birth, and may help you to trace the movements of your ancestors between Britain and India.
There is also an index of English and Welsh births, marriages and deaths overseas, which can be searched online at various commercial sites, as well as on www.freeBMD.org.uk, and the Scottish equivalent at www.scotlandspeople.gov.uk – although registration was not compulsory.
The information that you gather from these sources may be useful in narrowing the windows for your next searches later on the agenda.
3 Investigate Indian baptism, marriage and burial records
Starting with the names and dates (if only approximate) that you know, you can work your family back by piecing together information found on baptism, marriage and burial records produced in India. The best place to find these records is at the India Office of the British Library in London. A full guide to using these resources, including an example involving the Thomason family, is available at the British Library website at www.bl.uk/collections/oiocfamilyhistory/family.html.
Some of the records are available online, and copies may be accessible at a family history centre nearer to you. Before you make a journey, take a look at the online collections at http://indiafamily.bl.uk/UI the British Library’s India Office Family History Search page, and www.fibis.org families in British India Society website.
The names that you encounter in these records should give you an indication as to where your Indian ancestry appeared.
In Alistair’s case, the name of the Indian mother was conspicuously missing, and he turned to a local historian to discover the likely cause.
4 Widen your search to include other records
The collections of records available are not limited to baptisms, marriages and burials. Wills, military records and employment and pension records are excellent tools both for linking members of your family together, which is sometimes difficult with the ecclesiastical registers, and providing more in-depth information about your ancestors’ lives.
Again, a selection of helpful guides is provided on the British Library website. Go to www.bl.uk/collections/oiocfamilyhistory/family.html to access the general India Office Records: Family History Sources area of the site. For specific information on wills go to www.bl.uk/collections/oiocfamilyhistory/familywills.html for army information go to www.bl.uk/collections/oiocfamilyhistory/familymilitary.html and for pensions go to www.bl.uk/collections/oiocfamilyhistory/familypensions.html
Remember that the India Office is concerned with records relating to British nationals overseas, and will not hold records of your Indian ancestors before they became involved with British families. If you want to try to trace Indian lines further back, it is likely that many of the records, if they survive, will be held only in India. If you’d like to trace Indian ancestors who came to Britain, look in the ordinary British birth, marriage and death records and perhaps in naturalisation papers too.
5 Do your background reading to fill in the gaps
Once you have established which members of your family were doing what, and where, you can find out more about their lives. Flesh out what you do know by reading histories of British India specific to the time and place in which your ancestors lived.
There are plenty of relevant books available – search online or visit your local bookshops. Frank Anthony’s The Story of the Anglo Indian community (Simon Wallenberg Press, 2007), the first in the Anglo Indian Heritage series, is very informative. More detailed information is available, too; for example regimental histories can be found at: http://members.ozemail.com.au/~clday/regiments.htm.
6 Share your finds with others
Whatever you discover during the course of your investigation, someone is likely to be interested in it, whether members of your own family, or others who share a similar background. You might like to join a family history society or prepare a presentation for your family.
And if, like Alistair, your curiosity is seriously aroused, a trip to India and the birth place of your ancestors might be on the cards!