The British Empire existed for four centuries and, at its height, governed one quarter of the world’s population. Mandy Banton introduces the records of British government departments responsible for the administration of colonial affairs from about 1801 to 1968, outlining the expansion of the Empire during this period.
Published date: 26 June 2009
Empire Marketing Board poster 'Highways of Empire' by Macdonald Gill
Front cover of Administering the Empire: a guide to the records of the Colonial Office in The National Archives of the UK, by Mandy Banton (Institute of Historical Research in conjunction with TNA, 2008)
Back cover of Administering the Empire: a guide to the records of the Colonial Office in The National Archives of the UK, by Mandy Banton, (Institute of Historical Research in conjunction with TNA, 2008)
Photograph of Sir Donald Cameron, governor of Tanganyika, with local dignitaries, 1925.
Sir Arnold Hodson, governor of Gold Coast, on the occasion of the return of lands to the Asantehene, 1941.
Sir Arnold Hodson's pantomime 'The Downfall of Zachariah Fee': a penguin.
British government departments responsible for the administration of the dependencies.
List of the Colonial Office record series generally found for each dependency.
Cartoon showing Queen Victoria and Cecil Rhodes.
Jamaica Royal Gazette, 1813; list of apprehended runaway slaves.
Harold Macmillan speaking to the Cape Parliament, 1960.
Newspaper boys in Barbados.
I hadn’t actually planned to use this image, but I think you can see it says ‘Buy Empire Goods’. It’s a poster from an Empire marketing campaign of the 1920s and it’s a reminder that the records of the Colonial Office and other government departments sometimes include those of associated organisations and individuals.
The records of the board are among the Colonial Office records held here. About 60 of the posters are reproduced in Stephen Constantine’s book ‘Buy and Build’, and if you’re interested I’d really recommend it, there are some wonderful images.
I was asked to give a talk relating to my recently published guide to the records of the Colonial Office. Much of the book is devoted to lists of British dependencies and the related records and to explanations to the use of the original finding aids, hardly suitable topics for a general talk. So I’m going to give you a broad outline, supported by specific examples.
Geographically The British Empire was always fluid with a long history of contraction in one part of the world and expansion elsewhere. We hold numerous manuscripts and published maps including the map collections of the Colonial Office Library. But I think the most accessible cartographic information is provided in The Atlas of British Overseas Expansion which includes about 140 maps and covers five Centuries.
The Dominions Office and Colonial Office list was published annually from 1862 to 1966, with a break in The Second World War. It shows the organisation of business in the Colonial Office, gives potted histories and often maps of the dependencies and lists staff, both in London and overseas, with career details of some.
It covers the Dominions Office from 1925 to 1940. I chose the map with its network of telegraph cables and colonies marked in the traditional pink because although the book is primarily concerned with the records of the Colonial Office and related government departments it’s also about the relationship between London and the dependencies and I’d wanted the cover to be a visual representation of that concept. I think I would have liked something a bit more jazzy, maybe an official on the phone in London and his counterpart in some exotic spot but I’m afraid my design skills and those of my publisher just weren’t up to it.
On the back cover we added an internal Colonial Office theme. You may find it hard to believe but this young woman was called Miss Heritage. She was employed as a temporary clerk in the Colonial Office in the 1940s and if you’ve read novels set in wartime London you’ll be familiar with well connected young ladies who fill posts in The Civil Service previously reserved for men.
I’m fairly certain the Miss Heritage would have come into that category. If it hadn’t been for the war she’d have been looking forward to her next season as a debutante rather than agonising over Colonial Office Registers.
The Permanent Under-Secretary Sir Cosmo Parkinson was not happy with these wartime arrangements. He later wrote ‘However willing temporary staff may be, how can a Registry function as a Registry should, if it is, in fact, a sort of human kaleidoscope?’
No doubt he was irritated that files were not instantly produced, the Registers themselves seem to be as carefully maintained as those from earlier periods.
Miss Heritage and Sir Cosmo, the Permanent Under-Secretary worked at the block of buildings in Whitehall designed by Sir Gilbert Scott and now occupied by The Foreign and Commonwealth Office.
But for most of the 19th century, the Colonial Office was in Downing Street. This building, which was demolished in 1876, was also the official residence of The Secretary of State for the Colonies. I mention it because it explains why there are so many references to Downing Street in Colonial Office records, confusing to those of us who think only in terms of Number Ten and Number 11.
It was a shabbily built and unstable building with damp basements that needed pumping out on a regular basis and the records were stored in the basement mainly in an attempt to stabilise the building.
But to go back to Miss Heritage. I would guess that few of us using the records of government departments give much thought to the junior clerks who registered, filed, indexed and précised the papers and who thus made our research possible.
If we think of Colonial Office personnel at all it’s more likely to be the senior officials like Sir Cosmo Parkinson or their political masters who include men such as Gladstone, Churchill, Harold Macmillan and John Profumo.
Sir Donald Cameron there in the middle is one of a number of snapshots taken during his tour of Southern Tanganyika in1925. This photograph of one of Cameron’s contemporaries, Arnold Hodson, is clearly taken by a professional. Hodson seems to have been a bit of a maverick. In the late 1930s he produced pantomimes in the Gold Coast much to the bemusement of the Colonial Office and we hold some wonderful photographs of the cast including Dutch dancers, a very superior penguin and a disgruntled fairy.
There were lists of the children who took part and I’ve sometimes though it would be fun to try and find out what became of them in later life. That penguin, I’m sure, must have ended up as a high court judge or something similar.
Cameron and Hodson were, like all governors, heads of state in their own dependencies. They represented the British monarch and presided over the local legislature and executive.
Officials in London grumbled about the common misconception that the colonies were governed from here. Although the Secretary of State was responsible to Parliament for the good government of the dependencies day to day responsibility was devolved to the governors and the colonial governments.
When Britain, or rather England, began to plant colonies, to use the expression of the time, they were intended as ‘New Englands’ not as extensions of the existing state. They developed in very different ways. One historian of Empire has written: ‘it was a very large empire but at times it does seem to have been even more confusing than was absolutely necessary’. Perhaps there really was a rule at the Colonial Office that no colony should have a constitution exactly like that of another colony. If so it was enforced with an entirely untypical uniformity.
London sometimes made demands on the colonial authorities, which might be accepted or vigorously resisted but British colonies were governed internally rather than by the imperial centre. This informs the current whereabouts of the records. With a few exceptions listed in the book the records of colonial government are not held here.
Governors reported to the appropriate government department in London and I’m using Governor and Colonial Office really as shorthand terms. Other titles such as High Commissioner or Captain General were in use and the organisation in London changed.
The book’s concentration on the period 1801 – 1968 is a reflection of administrative reality rather than a marking of significant dates in the history of the Empire. The War and Colonial Department was established in 1801 and at the end of the period the remaining responsibilities of its descendant, the Colonial Office, were absorbed into the short lived Commonwealth Office.
The arrangement of the records however virtually ignores the fairly arbitrary date at the beginning of the period and is distinctly fluid at the end. I’ve provided here an outline of earlier arrangements and earlier records. I’ve started this slide in 1696, before that colonial affairs were managed by the Privy Council working through a variety of temporary commissions and committees. The responsibility then went to the two Secretaries of State working in partnership with the Board of Trade.
The records from the earliest period, up to 1739, are covered by published calendars and those relating to America and the West Indies are now available on line.
In 1782 The Board of Trade was abolished as a direct result of the loss of the 13 American colonies that formed the nucleus of the United States. The Secretaries of State had previously shared responsibility for home and overseas affairs but in 1782 one was designated Home Secretary and colonial affairs went to him.
In 1801 a third Secretary of State was appointed, primarily to mange the war and he in turn took on the colonies which were initially much neglected.
The peace treaties entered into at the end of the Napoleonic Wars gave Britain additional colonies. Some were places of strategic importance, The Cape of Good Hope, Ceylon, Malta and Mauritius. Among other changes the Ionian Islands were taken from the French, Trinidad from the Spanish and Guyana from the Dutch.
By 1854 during the Crimean War it was decided joint responsibility for war and the colonies was unmanageable and the department was split in two. The Dominions Office split off from the Colonial Office in 1925 but the two were reunited as the Commonwealth Office in 1966 and amalgamated with the Foreign Office two years later. I’ve not included it in the diagram but in 1961 the Department for Technical Cooperation was set up and took over the advisory and specialist roles of the Colonial Office and after two changes of name that department is now the Department of International Development and its records are also held here.
Record series are largely uninterrupted by the changes shown here except in the case of those territories which became the responsibility of the Colonial Office in it’s Dominions division in 1907 and subsequently the Dominions Office. These changes and the resulting records are described in the book.
To go back to the Colonial Office and its predecessors. Until the 1930s most records are arranged by colony, sometimes by region and typically consist of these series, the Original Correspondence, various Registers and Indexes of Correspondence, Acts, Sessional Papers, Government Gazettes and Miscellanea.
I’m not going to describe the various registers, indexes and entry books. They’re essential for researchers, especially for the period before 1927 when most correspondence is not catalogued by subject but not a good subject for a talk. But I’ll say a little about the other categories starting with the correspondence.
These series consist primarily of official letters called dispatches from the governors and they include correspondence from UK government departments and from other organisations and individuals based in the UK. People in the colonies were not officially allowed to correspond directly with the Secretary for State, they must forward letters through the governor.
So what does the correspondence contain? This is very difficult to answer. The subject matter is highly miscellaneous. As I always say, all human life is there. Governors did not report everything to London and important events may hardly be mentioned. For example, a researcher seeking information about an East African famine found only a brief note asking for permission to spend money on famine relief.
On the other hand quite trivial matters may give rise to extensive correspondence. Local criticism of the governor is likely to be vigorously defended, minor questions about leave or pension arrangements are sometimes covered in detail and any incidents of misconduct by an official is likely to result in voluminous paperwork. Detailed information will be found when important new policies are implemented or rejected, when major expenditure is proposed or, of course, if things are going badly wrong.
My impression is, is that there tends to be more detailed information about new dependencies as compared with those already well known in London. And it’s important to remember that before the introduction of the telegraph it was impossible for the governor of a distant colony to seek guidance or approval before taking action on an urgent matter. It could be many weeks before his despatch reached London and many more before he received a reply.
This may suggest no full content of dry, formal and high level policy mixed with minor administrative matters but there is also much of local and personal detail.
We’ve been cataloguing correspondence from the British West Indies. Initially I was not at all sure what we would find. I was confident there would be much on the major events and themes but rather afraid that a disproportionate volume might be taken up with minor administrative detail. There’s certainly plenty of that but we were delighted to find much about the lives of ordinary people, a good deal of it in the petitions that they wrote and I’m going to tell you about a few of these.
The first is from Mrs Catherine Collier of Barbados dated 1872. She starts by saying a little bit about her late husband. He’d been enslaved but released from service before the end of the apprenticeship period that followed emancipation. When they married he owned, she said, amongst other things a house and land in Bridgetown, and she describes him as a planter. She continues ‘the surviving issue of the marriage are Philip Collier, a carpenter by trade now residing in British Guyana, Mary Jane Collier, spinster and Martha Anne, wife of Albert Gittens. And both the female children are residing in Sierra Leone.’
She goes on to describe her unsuccessful attempt to get a free passage to West Africa to join her daughters, her decision to sell her house and rent out the land to raise money for her fare and finally being cheated out of that property by a person named Pollard.
The second petition is from Nancy Nelson, whose name is sometimes given as Neilson, described as a labourer. Nancy wrote: ‘Your petitioner was very recently delivered of a child and on the evening of Thursday, the eighth day of July 1875 was seized by the police and locked up in the cells at the ordnance building and being without being guilty of or indeed charged with any offence known to the law was drenched with bucketfuls of cold water until she was insensible and kept in confinement for a long time by the directions of the Chief of Police.’
These petitions raised many questions. How did Catherine and Nancy know of this mechanism for approaching the authorities? Did they write the petitions themselves? If not, who did?
Other questions are more specific. Why were Catherine’s daughters in Sierra Leone? Her first application for passage was directed to the military authorities so I wondered if Martha Anne’s husband was in the army. A detachment of the Second West Indian regiment was in Sierra Leone but Albert and Martha Anne are not listed in the muster books.
Perhaps Albert was employed by the colonial government. But he’s not recorded in the Sierra Leone civil establishment. He may have been in private employment or in business on his own account. He may have been one of the many West Africans who migrated to the Caribbean in the 1940s, 1950s, 1960s and who had subsequently returned with a Barbados born wife and sister in law. I don’t know the result of Catherine’s petition, there is no further correspondence here. The matter may have been dealt with by the Barbados government or the local military authorities. It may have been ignored.
Neither do we know much more about Nancy Neilson. A report of the Chief of Police paints a different picture. He states that Nancy was arrested for refusing to move away from a disorderly crowd, would not give her name and became hysterical. An attempt to sprinkle water on her face [laughter] resulted in her being accidentally soaked. His story is actually corroborated by another woman arrested at the same time. Elizabeth Hazel, a market trader states that although Nancy had simply been told to give her name and go away she ‘did nothing but screech and bawl and throw herself about’.
The Chief of Police checked Nancy’s account of having recently given birth. He found that she’d had a baby two months earlier which had died, so there are questions about Nancy’s state of mind.
Why did Nancy submit her petition? She appears to be simply complaining rather than asking for anything. The context is of interest because it shows how paperwork concerned with disagreements between colonial officials may give information about local people and local life.
In this case antagonism between Edward K Moylan, a police magistrate and E.H. Masham, a civil servant came to a head over a trifling difference and led to ‘the disgraceful scene of two public officials horsewhipping and assaulting each other in the market place at Kingstown’. It’s hardly surprising that they drew a crowd.
Nancy’s petition was actually written by a Mr Smith on Moylans’ instructions and for his own purposes. It was read to her and she was told to affix her mark and take it to the governor. The papers about this case include statements of policemen, merchants, market traders and members of the legislature, as well as Moylans’ claims of the ill treatment of Indian indentured labourers. His career continued to be stormy. Eight years later when he was Attorney General of Grenada he was charged with misconduct and suspended.
Sometimes influential persons took a hand in supporting petitioners. In 1824 the abolitionist Zachary Macauley chased up a petition submitted by Kitty Afferly, also from Barbados. Kitty’s husband had purchased his own freedom for a hundred pounds and paid the tax on the manumission. He then purchased the freedom of his wife and three of his four children but was unable to pay the tax before his sudden death in 1822. So they were legally still enslaved. As he left no valid will his property was confiscated by the colonial government. His property, of course, included his wife and children.
The children also signed the petition, supporting Kitty’s statement, that all her children were sent to school by their father and instructed in reading, writing and arithmetic. MacAuley wrote ‘This is certainly a case of extreme severity and most deserving of the interference of His Majesty’s Government’. I don’t know the outcome but there is a note of thanks from MacAuley so hopefully it was settled to Kitty’s satisfaction.
This sort of case wasn’t unusual. If people died intestate their property was confiscated by the local government and this applied equally to enslaved people as to houses, land etc.
So I’ve chose these few examples from the correspondence simply because I came across them while cataloguing and found them of interest. They represent only one tiny example of the range of material that can be found.
I couldn’t resist adding this. This cartoon, clearly representing Queen Victoria and Cecil Rhodes, indicates the often difficult relationship between the Colonial Office and the British South Africa Company. It was drawn by a London official on a note to a colleague and I’ve never seen anything like this in the Colonial Office records, you know, [in] records of other government departments I’ve often seen the odd doodles one does in a boring meeting but certainly nothing as detailed as this.
The official, Edward Fairford, writes in his minute ‘I told Lord Ripon’ (Ripon was Secretary of State at the time) ‘that if two people rode on a horse or donkey one must ride behind, whereupon he said he would prefer that the Queen should ride in front’.
I think I said earlier that until the 1930s most records are arranged in colony or regional series. The Colonial Office was organised mainly in geographical departments. But L.S. Amery who was Secretary of State in the late 1920s was attracted by the French system which emphasised the importance of expertise in subject areas such as agricultural production.
Amery’s attempts to reorganise the Office met resistance from senior officials but subject departments were gradually introduced. An economic department in 1934, social services department in 1939 and many more in later years.
This makes the work of the researcher more complicated as it’s necessary to look at subject series of correspondence as well as the obvious colony series. But the task is made easier by the reasonably detailed listing of correspondence from 1927 onwards.
Alongside the subject departments they developed a network of advisory committees and specialist advisors. Committee papers can usually be found among Colonial Office records but papers of advisers were deemed to be personal and we have only those of Sir Christopher Cox, who was education adviser from 1940 and moved into the Department of Technical Cooperation in 1961.
Governors were also required to submit a variety of material arising from the processes of local government. Acts, Sessional Papers, Gazettes and Miscellanea are arranged in separate series for each dependency.
First the Acts. Although the records series are always entitled Acts, these statutes may technically be Acts, Ordnances or Proclamations, according to the constitution of an individual colony. They are locally enacted statutes. They were drafted by the colonial legal officers, passed through the local legislatures and were approved or in the official term assented to by the Governor.
Proclamations were issued in the name of the Governor alone in territories without a legislature. Statutes cover the range of subjects one might find in the UK general, local and personal Acts.
It was very unusual for legislation to be imposed by Britain although model legislation was circulated when new provisions were required or when an international standard was agreed, for example in the regulation of shipping. It was generally believed that the diverse needs of individual colonies made conformity inappropriate. Nor was the introduction of legislation drafted in London straightforward. It required the approval of the local legislatures which was not always forthcoming.
So the second category, Sessional Papers. These are primarily the proceedings of the local legislatures. Occasionally verbatim reports like the UK Hansard but usually much briefer minutes. On the 12th November 1927 the Council of Sierra Leone considered a petition from Mrs Mary Matop asking for the land on which she and her children lived to be granted to her rather than to her husband because he had recently left her. The council asks if the land had been occupied by her before her marriage. And I guess if the answer to that question was no, she didn’t stand very much chance of being left to enjoy it.
The Sessional Papers series also contained reports submitted to the councils including annual reports of colonial government departments, such as the education department, forestry department, whatever, although we don’t have comprehensive collections.
The third category are the Government Gazettes. The Gazette is the official newspaper of the colonial government comparable to the London Gazette. They are almost certainly underused. Contents vary considerably and later issues tend to be much less interesting to the casual reader.
The South West Africa Gazette of 1968, for example, simply passes draft ordnances, proclamations, government notices and general notices. The gazettes published in Sierra Leone in 1975 include lists of vacancies in the public service and of new appointees. There are lists of students passing public examinations and of unclaimed lost property at police stations including 29 plastic spoons, a James Bond travelling bag, a mosquito net, a steel door and a gallon of palm oil.
In contrast, The Cape of Good Hope Gazette of 1856 reads like a local newspaper. As well as official announcements there are notices of births, marriages and deaths, advertisements for farms, livestock, stationary and perfume, lists of ships arriving and departing, notices of escaped prisoners, a plea for guns left for repair to be collected and details of forthcoming horse races.
Here we have the offer of a one pound reward for the return of a lost mule. It ends with a threat … ‘Any person detaining the said mule with a view to buying it cheap will find out his mistake to his cost’. It’s followed by the advertisement for cool garments including silk coats, unquestionably the first in refrigerative excellence.
The Sierra Leone Gazette appears to have been established as a commercial venture. Our first volume which covers 1817 to 1820 includes a note of its objectives. It states ‘The objects of the publication now proposed are to provide the colony with a journal, not only free from just grounds of censure but especially intended to encourage virtue and industry amongst the colonists and our neighbouring brethren. To offer to the poor the best and wisest counsel within our scope. To give our readers the earliest and most authentic information of all important transactions in distant countries and most particularly in Great Britain, being pressed with the conviction that our very existence of a colony is interwoven with the parent country and that as we participate in her glory and prosperity, so shall we rise or fall with her’.
The issue, same as Sierra Leone, the issue of the 1st April 1820 prints the results of the census of European civilians listing 98 men, 14 ladies, maidservants etc. and five unnamed children. Annotations show that some have left the colony, most by ship, some by death. A few days later there’s a proclamation offering a reward of £400 for the capture of a slave trader.
The Jamaica Gazette regularly posts details of runaway slaves. In this example, of those who have been apprehended, most of them have named their owners. Only William, described as Creole (that is someone born in Jamaica rather than brought from Africa) says that he does not know his owner, his mother having carried him into the woods as a child.
So the last category, The Miscellanea Series. Some of these consist only of the blue books of statistics which were introduced between 1819 and 1822 and come to an end in the 1940s. They were compiled by the colonial governments, initially using blank forms provided by the Colonial Office, and contained statistical returns of trade, agricultural, mining and forestry production, population and many other matters.
They give brief career details of individuals employed by the colonial governments but the coverage varies quite considerably. This example from New South Wales is a separate civil establishment volume rather than a blue book. Entries run over two double pages and give various informations including name, office, how and when appointed, salary and allowances. They are strictly career details rather than any information about family.
The duties of Mr Dange, assistant surveyor of lands are described as … ‘To attend to and to obey the orders of the Surveyor General’. I don’t think we’d get away with that sort of job description now.
For the older colonies the miscellanea series often include other material such as shipping returns, magistrates’ reports and local newspapers. Apart from some 18th Century titles from the American colonies the newspapers date from the 1820s to the 1850s.
Later issues sent to the Colonial Office were passed to The British Museum and should now be found in the newspaper library at Colindale.
Towards the end of my period decolonisation becomes the most important issue.
Despite the growing credibility of the independence movement in India, Britain’s confidence in the enduring nature of her colonial empire remained largely intact until the end of the Second World War. Then pressure from wartime allies and rapidly developing nationalist feeling within the colonies demanded a reassessment of policy.
In 1941 Churchill and Roosevelt, at their Atlantic meeting, expressed their respect for ‘The right of all peoples to choose the form of government under which they will live’. They had in mind those European countries occupied by Germany but implications for the colonies were obvious.
In 1948 the Secretary of State declared that Britain aimed to guide the colonies to responsible self government in conditions which would ensure a fair standard of living and freedom from oppression for all of their peoples. No formal timescale was set out however and the British Government showed itself prepared to resist forcibly any development which it considered undesirable, such as the so called Mau Mau Rebellion in Kenya and communist insurgency in Malaysia.
Indeed by the late 1940s Britain’s American allies considered communism to be a much greater danger than colonialism.
In 1956 the policy of semi development leading gradually towards autonomy was dealt a blow by the politically disastrous attack on Egypt launched by Britain and France.
Although the Gold Coast achieved independence as Ghana in 1957, as part of the planned and gradual process, by 1960 Harold Macmillan in his famous ‘Wind of Change’ speech to the Cape Parliament signalled an altogether more rapid dissolution of Empire.
And this is Macmillan [shows image] speaking to both houses of the Cape Parliament in 1960. His speech … I have two different extracts. What he basically said is [as] how he’d been travelling through Africa he’d noticed the rise in nationalist feeling. And he said ‘The wind of change is blowing through this continent and whether we like it or not this growth of national consciousness is a political fact. We must accept it and our national policies must take account of it’.
South Africa left the Commonwealth the following year, presumably indicating that its government was not prepared to accept this fact.
Many of the most important documents relating to decolonisation have been reproduced in the British Documents on End of Empire series which are available in the library here.
Most former colonies became members of the Commonwealth. The Commonwealth Relations Office provided a secretariat for meetings of Commonwealth Prime Ministers and officials and for related matters until 1965, when the Commonwealth Secretariat was set up with headquarters at Marlborough House in London. The Secretariat holds its own records.
With the return of Hong Kong to China in 1997, many commentators claimed that The British Empire had finally been dismantled, but there is a considerable residue. Britain’s remaining dependencies, now known as UK Overseas Territories, number 15.
I’m going to say a little bit about records of just a couple of other government departments. I think it can be difficult for people today to appreciate just how important the Empire was to the United Kingdom.
It wasn’t just a collection of diverse and distant countries with a vague relation to Britain, as perhaps the Commonwealth is now often seen, but an integral part of every aspect of British life. As such it was of interest to many government departments and I have examples from just two, The Admiralty and The Foreign Office.
The importance of The Royal Navy in exploration, the expansion and defence of empire and long distance trade hardly needs stating. It supported British diplomacy in time of peace. It protected merchant shipping in time of war. It patrolled the seas in search of illegal slavers after 1807. And it provided ships and personnel for The Niger Expeditions of the mid 19th century.
For over a hundred years it directly administered the Atlantic island of Ascension, giving the island the status of a ship.
Many naval ratings and some officers came from the colonies. In 1826 the captain of HMS Pyramus wrote to the Admiralty from Barbados explaining why he had refused to hand over a crew member known as John Williams, who had been claimed as a runaway slave. The Admiralty consulted the Colonial Office where the legal advisor stated ‘John Williams could not have been dealt with as a slave had he continued in England. He entered into His Majesty’s naval services as a free man and as long as he continues in that service he is to be regarded and dealt with as free’.
Williams had been released from slavery in Gibraltar. He’d been working for a merchant on a ship owned by a merchant with West India interests. He then worked his passage to Liverpool and enlisted in The Royal Navy. The pay book for The Pyramus confirms that Williams was taken on a supernumerary at Portsmouth on the 18th August 1825 and entered the ships complement on the 15th September. He was 19 years old and born at Bermuda. Further research in Admiralty documents might tell us more about his career and he might possibly be found in the Bermuda slave registers. We have his age, a former name Elias and the name of his owner to go on.
Another seaman was not so fortunate. John Thomas, probably a runaway, was re-enslaved at Barbados in 1816 when his ship docked there. Thirteen years later The Admiralty agreed that Thomas was owed £56 in arrears of pension and suggested that it be used to purchase his freedom. The governor suggested that it would be better used for the benefit of Thomas’s two children one of whom was enslaved, the other free.
Other Royal Navy activities were of a different kind. In 1876 a punitive expedition was mounted against illegal pirates on the River Congo. The report reads ‘This village was most picturesque and prettily laid out. The largest building the guides called Anazanza’s Palace and seemed to regard it with great awe. For a native house it was quite the best I have ever seen, having two rooms with European doors and locks. Nothing was found in it but a lot of salt much valued by the natives and as Sir Gerald Dean’s cargo was partly salt it may fairly be presumed this was some of it. The village was set on fire, everything consumed and the crops destroyed.
The Foreign Office had an ongoing and significant role in colonial affairs. It administered some dependencies, usually protectorates, before the Colonial Office became the lead department. It was responsible for relations with Spain concerning Gibraltar and with China concerning Hong Kong. It was involved in boundary disputes between British colonies and their foreign neighbours. Its diplomats and consular agents, men such as David Livingston who reported his travels in Central Africa and Roger Casement who was honoured for his exposure of brutal labour regimes in The Congo and Peru.
The involvement of diplomats in labour matters was not unusual. In 1878 the Foreign Office reported that British West Indians were caught up in labour riots in the Danish colony of St Croix. An official in the Colonial Office noted complacently ‘There is nothing here that’s not been in the newspapers. But the British Consul in St Thomas sent detailed reports to The Foreign Office.
He repeatedly asked for British workers to be removed and was supported by local naval officers. The Colonial Office seems to have been primarily concerned about the costs of such an operation and The Treasury agreed that expenditure from Imperial funds was not justified.
The Foreign Office later reported that British migrants had been sentenced to death for their part in the riots. The British Ambassador in Copenhagen took up those cases there and was confident that the sentences would not be carried out. But it was almost two years before he was able to report that they’d been commuted.
And I’ll perhaps mention at this point that in the case of colonies which were not British but colonies of other European powers, you’ll find correspondence, in this case in The Foreign Office correspondence relating to Denmark rather than to a specific colony series.
A year after the riots the British Consul in the Danish West Indies was still concerned with the welfare of British workers. An extract from one of his reports notes the opinion of one of them. He refers to someone called Nathanial Benjamin who came to my office, Benjamin remarking ‘I would sooner drown myself and my son than enter again into a yearly contract. It is worse than slavery for a slave owner has an object in keeping his slaves fat, the same as oxen or horses. But in St Croix they work us for a year and get all they can out of us. And if we lose condition and are not able to work they send us adrift at the end of our contract’.
The Foreign Office was also responsible for relations with those countries which were never dependencies but which formed part of the informal empire.
I haven’t attempted today to define Empire. Does the term refer only to a formal and internationally recognised network of colonies, protectorates, dominions and mandated territories or does it include much wider spheres of influence and authority?
Beyond the limits of its recognised empire British interests and influence spread widely. Some foreign governments were compelled to make great concessions to British power while in other countries trade was financed and dominated by British capital.
In Argentina, China and Siam, for example, British influence was enforced through commercial agreements. British ex-patriot communities formed privileged elites in cities such as Cairo, Shanghai and Buenos Aires.
The balance of power in such situations varied but it didn’t equate to formal rule and the Colonial Office was never the responsible department, not even for a country such as Egypt which had many of the attributes of a British colony.
Although I said that I was only going to talk about two other government departments, I just wanted to mention the British Empire collection of photographs in The Ministry of Information series. You may already be familiar with this image of newspaper boys in Barbados, which is on our ‘Moving Here’ [web]site. The collection consists of about 8,000 photographs dating from 1845 to 1965 and designed to capture all aspects of colonial life and there’s some really wonderful material there.
The problem with it is that most of the photographs were taken by private photographers or news agencies, so there are serious copyright issues if you wished to reproduce any of them.
The records I’ve talked about provide not only sources for the history of The British Empire but also of course for The Commonwealth. Although a few former dependencies did not join there is only one member from outside the former British Empire, and that’s Mozambique.
The modern Commonwealth celebrates its 60th anniversary this year.