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South Asian Genealogy

The Oxford Companion to Family and Local History

Abi Husainy

South Asian Genealogy 

With over 2.3 million people, according to the UK 2001 census, South Asians are the largest non‐white population in Britain. South Asians first arrived in Britain 400 years ago. As colonization put more people on the move in the 18th and 19th centuries, Indian seamen, known as Lascars, toiled for the British merchant navy, and nannies, known as ayahs, were employed by East India Company elites and British officials. Indian royal families, including nawabs and rajas, and diplomats visited Britain for pleasure or to submit petitions on legal matters to the Crown, politicians came to argue for Indian independence, and merchants travelled to London on business. Anglo‐Indians sometimes settled in their ancestors’ country, others arrived as scholars to teach Persian and Hindustani languages, and in later times students came to study and take the Indian Civil Service examination. Indian communities grew in London and in several seaport towns when settlers married local women.

But the vast majority of South Asian migrants arrived after India became independent in 1947. During partition, many Hindus and Sikhs moved to the new state of India, while some Muslims headed to the newly created Pakistan. Many displaced South Asians fled to Britain in the hope of a better life. These migrants had a variety of faiths: Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, Buddhist, Zoroastrian (Parsees), and (especially among Anglo‐Indians) Christian. Many of these migrants were skilled artisans, teachers, engineers, doctors, and ex‐Indian and British armed forces personnel; others filled the post‐war labour shortages in British mills, factories, and steelworks, and in the hospitals and public transport sectors. Once this largely male cohort became established economically, spouses and relatives came to join them. Other post‐war arrivals included indentured labourers who had migrated to sugar‐producing colonies or to British colonies in East Africa. The granting of independence to Uganda (1962), Kenya (1963), and Tanzania (1964) led to many upheavals and the exodus of Asian migrants to Britain.

A search for Asians who lived in Britain in the 19th century should start with oral history, then with the usual range of central government and local records, such as those of civil registration, census enumerators’ books, parish registers, wills, etc., before turning to records that deal particularly with immigration. It is important to remember that none of these records was created for family history purposes. It is often hard to find information about working‐class Asians. Scattered fragments of information have to be pieced together. It is even harder to find records about South Asian women, though they can sometimes be traced through their employment or through records dealing with their husbands.

Military service records at The National Archives (TNA) offer a productive lead into family history, for the British empire spanned several centuries and South Asians fought on many fronts and at sea in the two world wars, as well as in many conflicts during the colonial era. TNA holds some of the South Asian soldiers’ service records and the muster and pay lists of those assigned to colonial regiments such as the Bengal Fusiliers, China Gun Lascars, Ceylon Rifles and Gun Lascars (1855–82), and Hong Kong and Singapore Royal Artillery regiments. The service records of South Asians who were born in the UK and served in British Army regiments before 1913 are held in record series WO 97. Other series in TNA include the digital records of some of the South Asians who served in the Royal Navy; the records of thousands of Indian soldiers entitled to First World War campaign medals and the medal index cards; Victorian Cross registers; and prisoner of war interviews, which can be searched using surname or first name online. The most exalted order of the Star of India was given to many maharajas, nawabs, rajas, and nizams of Hyderabad, as well as to civilians. The India Office List gives the names of recipients of the Kaiser‐i‐Hind medal and the Order of India medal. The India Army Quarterly List for 1 January 1912, available online, gives the names of British and Indian officers and their regiments.

Indian seamen served on British merchant ships. References to such Lascars can be found at TNA and at the India Office records in the British Library. Harsh conditions and ill treatment on board, together with the desire to explore a new country, encouraged many Indian seamen who landed in UK seaport towns to stay. A Lascar who deserted normally found accommodation in one of the Indian lodging houses in the East End of London. Some applied for a pedlar's licence at the local Metropolitan Police office. Those who failed to renew their licence were tried at the local quarter sessions court. Many became destitute and were sent to local workhouses, the records of which may have survived at the appropriate county record office.

The special certificates of nationality that were issued to coloured seamen are held at TNA in record series HO 45. A keyword search using the surname of the person can be conducted on TNA's online catalogue. TNA does not hold the agreement and crew lists of Asians. However, seamen's service records (‘Pouches’) for India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh for 1913–72 may be found in record series BT 372 and BT 382. PIN 15/3238 includes Indian seamen prisoners of war repatriated from the Far East and detention allowances paid to Indian seamen POWs from various ships in the Far East, 1914–59. PIN 15/3247 includes a list of deceased Indian seamen on foreign vessels, 1944–55. Details of compensation to the dependants of these deceased seamen on ex‐Dutch and Norwegian vessels give the names of seamen, rank, next of kin, and date of death. PIN 14/4245 includes mercantile marine casualties, Indian seamen, and details of detention in the Far East, 1943–68.

Indian students pursued a range of studies in the UK, particularly in Law and Medicine and in technical fields. At first, they came mainly to Oxford, Cambridge, London, and Edinburgh universities, then in the early 20th century to Glasgow University and the Manchester School of Technology. Where they survive, university admission registers should be consulted. As the Indian Civil Service examination was held only in London until 1922, many qualified Indian aspirants for a post made the journey there. Some of their names can be traced through the records of the Civil Service Commission Department that are held at TNA. The India List, Civil and Military, published 1877–95 by W. H. Allen, includes names of those who served in the Indian Civil Service. Its successor, 1896–1906, was published by the London‐based Harrison company in eleven volumes as The India List and India Office List. From 1907–1937 Harrison published The India Office List, which was succeeded by HMSO's The India Office and Burma Office List, 1938–47.

The abolition of slavery created a shortage of labourers in the colonies, so Britain decided to move large numbers of Indian indentured labourers to the sugar‐producing colonies. TNA holds official colonial reports on their transportation, together with statistical returns and some family history information on the labourers in record series CO 384, CO 318, CO 571, CO 323, and CO 571. Apart from these major series, the researcher should also consult the regional series of each of the colonies.

Duplicate identity certificates of natives of India proceeding to Europe in 1900–17 (when their issue ceased) and duplicate passports for 1907 were sent to the India Office. Identity certificates for 1900–17 and passports for 1907–15 are held at the British Library, Asia, Pacific, and Africa Collections, and India Office records. The duplicate passports for 1916–31 appear to have been destroyed. Those who returned to India between 1932 and 1949 are listed in L/P and J/11, with indexes in Z/L/P and J/11/1–16. These records cover Pakistan only for 1948–9. The series of duplicates is not complete.

Other South Asians came to Britain under the Commonwealth Immigrants Act 1962, the Labour Vouchers Scheme (1969), and alien work permits. A specimen of applications for work permits for employment in the UK from aliens for 1972–3, and from Commonwealth immigrants for 1973–4, can be seen in TNA in LAB/48/123–7. Case files of the Immigration Appellate Authorities are held in the Lord Chancellor's Department record series LCO 42, for 1971–97. Most of these 875 files are subject to closure periods ranging from 30 to 75 years. Many files contain photographs and original X‐rays.

Once the country and place‐name of an ancestor's origins are discovered, one can build a local history of that place. During British rule in India, the Office of the Surveyor‐General and other administrative bodies created numerous maps as well as unpublished histories of different parts of India. Some are available at the British Library Asia, Pacific, and Africa Collections, while others can be found at TNA. The British Library also holds rare published books, including the Imperial Gazetteer of India, the Bombay Gazetteer, Madras Gazetteer, and Bengal Gazetteer, which give brief histories of places. A digital version is available online. See also Walter Hamilton, The East India Gazetteer (1825), which contains specific descriptions of the ‘Empires, Kingdoms, Principalities, Provinces, Cities, Towns, Districts, Fortresses, Harbours, Rivers, Lakes, etc.’ of Hindustan and adjacent countries.

The family historian also needs to consult the records held in the states that were created in the Indian subcontinent after partition in 1947. Before The National Archives was set up in India, a system of manuscript records had been created by Hindu leaders, sultans, and Mughal and other Muslim rulers. Records may be available in the form of palm leaf manuscripts, bark, parchment, silk, leather, or cloth. Records created by Indian local rulers, Hindu temples, Islamic shrines, gurdwaras, and waqf authorities (Charitable Islamic Trust) may be kept at local state libraries, museums, or relevant state archives. These documents can give some family history information about elite families and higher‐ranking officials who served local rulers.

Births and deaths in India are normally registered with the local Municipality Office and the registers are passed to the District Registrar's Office. Deaths are registered only when there is a legal case, or if the deceased had left land or had a bank account, or to claim a pension, or if the death occurred by accident or murder. Well‐off families normally announce marriages and deaths in national and local newspapers. The Hindu, the national and regional newspaper which has an obituary column, started as a weekly in 1878 and became a daily in 1889. Marriage records of Goans and Anglo‐Indians are held at various churches. Muslim marriages (Nikka Nama) are normally recorded in local mosque registers, but the survival rate is patchy.

The Indian central and state census records for 1947 to the present are held at the Central Secretariat Library, Indian Official Document Collection, G Wing, Shastri Bhavan, New Delhi, 110001, India. Wills are normally kept with the family of the person concerned, but some may also be found at the local register office. Personnel records of members of the Indian armed forces are held at the National Archives of India. Outgoing passenger lists may be available in the Office of the Port Trust in India where the passengers boarded. The Marine Department files created during the era of the East India Company are held at the state archives of West Bengal (Kolkata, formerly Calcutta), Maharashtra (Mumbai), and Tamil Nadu (Chennai). Passport records are kept at the Regional Passport Office of each state in India.

The Genealogical Society of Utah (GSU) has microfilmed Hindu pilgrimage records for Haridwar, Kurukshetra, Pehowa, Chintpurni, Jawalapur, and Jawalamulhi, and Maithil Brahman genealogical records. They have also microfilmed Islamic marriage records for Meerut (Uttar Pradesh), Qazi‐Muslim marriage records for 1881–1982, and Bulandshahr (Uttar Pradesh) and Qazi‐Muslim marriage records for 1921–55. The GSU also has a large holding of Christian church records from India and surrounding areas, which include Roman Catholic church records from Goa and Pondicherry. Microfilm copies of these records have been donated to the administrative offices of the churches and have also been deposited at The National Archives of India. A microfiche copy of its India catalogue may also be obtained by writing to the Genealogical Society of Utah, 50 East North Temple, Salt Lake City, Utah 84150, USA.

The preservation of pedigrees and successions was practised for many centuries, especially with the Rajput royal families, who kept the lineal succession of kings from very early times. Some genealogical lineages of Hindu rulers appear in the form of inscriptions on stones in local villages. For pedigrees of early Pallava kings, consult the Bombay Gazetteer: History of the Konkan Dakhan and Southern Maratha Country, 1/2 (1896), 329. For the dynasties of the Kanarese districts of Bombay, see 1/2, pp. 277–584. Large collections of Persian papers on royal orders and grants, citations, treaties, and letters, including transcribed documents referring to Bengal affairs between the East India Company's servants and Indian Mughal rulers and notables, can be found through the Calendar of Persian Correspondence, which includes a certain amount of family history information. Genealogical tables of the Mughal dynasty are published in the Imperial Gazetteer of India, 2, pp. 368–90, and the general genealogy of the Pathan tribes is in 19, p. 207. Manuscripts of Indian and other South Asian counties also exist in the libraries of the Royal Asiatic Society and Edinburgh University, which can give useful information on Mughal royal families in India. See M. A. Hukk, H. Ethe, and E. Robertson, A Descriptive Catalogue of the Arabic and Persian Manuscripts in Edinburgh University Library (1925).

In most of Pakistan the reporting of births is not mandatory. It can be difficult to find records in rural areas. Major losses of records include the fires of 1948, which engulfed the vast majority of the collections of vital statistics for the municipality of Karachi. The Registrar of Births and Deaths or the Director of Health Statistics in a municipality are the most likely sources for many types of birth record if they exist. For rural zones, consult the union council, district council, or district health officer. The reality is that many births are registered relatively late in childhood. However, for many Pakistanis principals or headmasters may provide school or matriculation certificates which confirm the date of birth and the father of the pupil. A diligent researcher should thus consult school records.

The Registrar of Births and Deaths in a municipality or union council is a likely source for the recording of deaths. Cantonment boards in cities can also issue death certificates. Nevertheless, it should be stressed that the registration of deaths is not carried out with dutiful consistency in many zones. Researchers may meet with frustration and failure. Muslims need to register their marriages with the Nikka Registrar, who receives an appointment from the municipality, Panchayat committee, and cantonment board or union council. The marriage certificate, known as the Nikka Nama, is written in Urdu, though a translation authenticated for accuracy may accompany the document. For non‐Muslims, including Christians, Hindus, and Parsees, it is usually the case that church or temple leaders must register a marriage with local authorities. If non‐Muslims desire to make their marriage part of the civil record, they can have certificates prepared later that are witnessed by magistrates, a procedure in accordance with the Christian Marriage Act 1892. With the exception of Azad Kashmir, all zones of Pakistan make divorce subject to forms of arbitration. In Azad Kashmir the ‘bare talaq’, a form of divorce in which a husband can sever a relationship with a triple declaration of the phrase ‘I divorce thee’, still has practitioners. The oral quality of the bare talaq decree may make a paper trail difficult to find. Civil courts can grant Christians a divorce in Pakistan, and copies of a specific case ruling can be obtained from the court.

Many ex‐servicemen and officers of the Pakistan Air Force emigrated to England in the 1950s and found good jobs with commercial airlines at Heathrow Airport. Some served in the Royal Air Force and Royal Indian Air Force and opted to go to Pakistan after partition. Their service records were transferred to the Pakistan Air Force and copies were kept at The National Archives of India.

Since the 1970s Pakistan has issued identity cards to citizens at age 18. These are required of adults who wish to vote or obtain a driver's licence or passport. In rural areas it is common for identity cards to be issued to women without photographs. For further advice on family history research in Pakistan, contact The National Archives of Pakistan, Administrative Block, Area Block N, Pakistan Secretariat, Islamabad, Pakistan. The record office of the province of Sindh, based at Karachi, holds private collections, maps, and material relating to the pre‐partition period. The record offices of the province of Punjab, North West Frontier, Baluchistan, and various district record offices may hold local government records from which family history information may be found.

Registering births, marriages, and deaths is not mandatory in Bangladesh. No such registers exist in some rural areas. In towns they may be held at the city council or municipal corporation. During partition in 1947, a successful attempt was made to divide archival material equally between East and West Bengal. In 1971 similar attempts were made to claim material from the Pakistan authorities relevant to East Bengal (East Pakistan), but not all records were transferred to Bangladesh. The National Archives of Bangladesh holds the district records, proceedings, secretariat records, Dhaka Divisional Commissioner's Office records, old newspapers, press cuttings, old maps and gazettes, and printed correspondence files from Kolkata, which were transferred in 1947, but these are not complete. For advice on family history research in Bangladesh, contact The National Archives of Bangladesh, 32 Justice Sayed Mahbub Murshed Sarani, Sher‐e‐Bangla Nagar (Agargaon), Dhaks 1207, Bangladesh.

Over thousands of years south Indians have been migrating to Sri Lanka. The British took labourers from Madras Presidency in south India to Ceylon to work in the tea and rubber plantations. It is worth checking locally for plantation records. In 1963 a group of Tamils petitioned the Queen, claiming citizenship of the United Kingdom and Colonies under the British Nationality Act 1948 and asking Her Majesty to intervene on their behalf with the Ceylon government. Those Tamils without Ceylonese citizenship and who were born in Ceylon to fathers who were born in Ceylon qualified for British citizenship. The National Archives at Kew hold under document reference DO 176/20 the original copy of the presentation of the petition, which gives 700 names, occupations, addresses, place and date of birth, and supporting signatures. Most petitioners were from estates in Hatton, Kotogala, Dickoya, Hakgranoya, Bogawantala, and Maskeliya.

The Department of National Archives of Sri Lanka, PO Box 1414, 7 Reid Avenue, Colombo 7, Sri Lanka, holds land settlement records (1867–1900), genealogical records from the 18th century, birth details on palm leaves (1806–12), registers of voters (1965–92), Sinhala newspapers (1862–1976), English newspapers (1832–1976), and Tamil newspapers (1864–1976), invaluable sources for family historians. Information about Sri Lankan census records can be obtained from the Information Unit, Department of Census and Statistics, PO Box 563, Colombo, Sri Lanka.

With a growing diaspora featuring notable affluence in Europe and North America, South Asians are demonstrating a mounting determination to recover family history. Military records etc. Indian Army Quarterly List 1912 (subscription). The National Archives of India. Indian gazettes. Genealogical Society of Utah. Pakistani genealogy forum. Bangladeshi family history.

Abi Husainy