British in India

This guide was last updated in 2014

Scottish comedian Billy Connolly was surprised to discover that his maternal ancestors lived in India during the 19th century. Not only that, but Billy’s 3 x great grandmother was described in records as ‘Anglo-Indian’, born of a European father and Indian mother, so he also has Indian roots.

The East India Company, established by British merchants in 1600, gradually took control of the country with the help of private armies from the 18th century. Unrest in the mid-19th century peaked during the Indian Rebellion of 1857 and resulted in the British Government assuming power, replacing the Company’s soldiers with British Army regiments, and establishing Government rule through the India Office in 1858.

Hundreds of thousands of British men and women went to live there during the height of the British Empire, until India gained independence in 1947. Some people stayed just for a short while. Men usually went for employment reasons and could take their wives and children, so you may discover an ancestral connection to the colony through a child’s place of birth on a census after the family had returned to Britain.

However, it wasn’t uncommon for Britons to settle in India for successive generations. Billy thought it incredible that his family was abroad for so long: ‘Three generations born in India! It’s just a huge thing not to have known!’ There was regular work with the army, and intermarriages between British men and native women could be an incentive to remain after discharge, as was the case for Billy’s ancestor.

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