Saturday, 28 April 2012

Review - Tracing Your British Indian Ancestors

Pen and Sword have kindly sent me through some family history titles to review, so here goes with the first!

Tracing Your British Indian Ancestors
Emma Jolly

It was not that long ago that I discovered that I had a few connections to India. On the one hand, a cousin of my grandfather, Rev. William Paton, worked as a missionary there in the early 20th century, counting Mahatma Ghandi as one of many Indians with whom he would have regular dealings. More specifically to my own bloodline is my connection through my three times great grandfather Alexander William Halliday. Alexander's death entry in a military muster roll in 1866 pointed out that he had an Indian birth, but the person who found the actual birth record for me at the British Library was genealogist Emma Jolly.

Based in London, Emma lives and breathes British Indian research, and so as a prospective author for a title in the Pen and Sword "Tracing" series, there was no better candidate. As with other titles in the range, Emma's work very much focusses on how to get the best from the vast myriad of resources both offline and online that can help with the subject matter at hand. In that regard it is as competent as some of the best in the range, but the thing that I really like about this book is the fact that it did not just tell me about those resources, it also told me about the very history of British India itself, with some occasional and surprising gems. For one thing, I had no idea that Scotland temporarily tried to compete with the English East India Company in the east through "The Company of Scotland Trading to Africa and the Indies", which lasted just a few years from 1695 (have only just twigged that this was the same company behind the Darien disaster!) For another, the colonial connections of the British Empire to China and Africa become greatly crystallised when you realise how important the role of India was as the lynchpin of that empire. It's one of the few books that I've read where I actually understand that empire.

The book is structured across ten chapters. the first provides a solid overview of the key repositories and societies that can help with your research, from the British Library and the National Library of Scotland to the Families in British India Society. The next three chapters are where the fun really begins with a comprehensive overview of the history of the East India Company and the subsequent Raj. Chapter 5 sees a full discussion on the research of military forces, both raised locally and dispatched from Britain (with Alexander Halliday and his father William making a guest appearance on p.72!). Subsequent chapters deal with maritime industries and merchants, schools, religion, the railways and more. Chapter 9 has a helpful guide to probate research in India, whilst the final chapter deals with India after 1947, and the end of the British Empire.

A thoroughly solid and enjoyable read from start to finish, this provides both a definitive history for beginners and a comprehensive family history guide for all to the greatest asset of the former British Empire.

£14.99, paperback (£10.30 through P&S - see

(With thanks to Pen and Sword)


British GENES on Facebook at and Twitter @chrismpaton


  1. Thanks for the review, Chris. I'm a big fan of Emma Jolly and have been waiting eagerly for this to be published, as I have many Scottish ancestors who made their careers in India.

    I'm also a big fan of yours, Chris, so I hope you won't mind me saying I was shocked at your admission that you had never heard of The Company of Scotland Trading to Africa and the Indies. The failure of the Company's Darien Scheme was a hugely important event in Scottish history and in the national psychology. It also has great significance for Scottish genealogy.

    On Scotland's People, do the free Wills and Testaments search leaving everything blank except the Description field. Type "Company of Scotland" into that and it brings up 464 wills and testaments for people connected to the Company. Not only did the Darien Scheme bankrupt many of Scotland's landed class, it also killed off their sons, with significant consequences for inheritance and the continuation of family lines.

    Anyone lucky enough to trace their Scottish ancestry back to the late 17th / early 18th century needs to have the Company of Scotland and the Darien Scheme at the forefront of their minds, as it may be a significant factor in explaining the fortunes of their family at that time.

  2. Sorry to have shocked you Caroline. I had not twigged that the company behind Darien also had interests in India, and that they were one and the same. I'm afraid I only know what I know, but I do try to add to what I know every day. Will try to do better!

    I hope you enjoy the book, it is a great read.


  3. Good response, Chris! Apologies for being censorious. Take it as a back-handed compliment to your usually encyclopaedic knowledge of Scottish history and genealogy :-)

    In fact, previous blogposts show you *did* know about the Company's links to the Darien scheme: and You just forgot you knew what you knew!

    I wonder whether anyone has written about the Company and Darien from a genealogical perspective? Given the numbers who perished or were impoverished, it would make an excellent subject for a book.

  4. Chris,
    Great subject about the East Indian Company.
    I have almost finished reading a book titled
    "For All the Tea in China", Author, Sarah Rose c 2010
    Great read,and....tah, credit to Robert Fortune, a Scottish gardener, botanist and plant hunter dispatched to China undercover as a spy, in 1848 on an extraordinary quest for the prized most special tea plants to bring them to India to grow them there. Great history, etc...and of course he was knighted to a Sir, for his contributions to our most favourite drink....a good cuppa tea.

    Cathie Christie