A History of the British Colonial Office
The management of colonial affairs has a long history documented throughout the reign of the British Empire into the late twentieth century.
Britain’s Colonial Office was formed in 1854. Prior to that, colonial affairs were managed by the secretary of state until 1768, when a dedicated secretary of state for the colonies was appointed. This changed in 1782, when the State Paper Office closed and a Home Office and Foreign Office were created. The Home Office managed colonial affairs until 1801, when responsibility transferred to a secretary of state for war and the colonies. This post lasted until 1854, when the two roles were separated, and the Colonial Office became an independent, if under-resourced, government department.
In 1966, the Colonial Office was merged with the Commonwealth Relations Office to form the Commonwealth Office, held under the secretary of state for commonwealth affairs in the UK. Two years later, that Office was merged with the Foreign Office, to form the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO). India, the “Jewel of the British Empire,” had its own secretary of state from 1858 until Indian independence in 1947.
The colonial secretary was supported by a team of civil servants in London, who supported a network of governors, commissioners, and civil servants in the colonies. As with any domestic administration, the degree of commitment to, interest in, and sympathy for the people they were administering varied from person to person. Some British officials were described as “going native” to the degree to which they adopted the local way of life and assimilated into local society in the colonies. Others had successful careers moving from post to post and up the ranks. The handwritten comments, recommendations, elucidations, and approvals made to the documents reveal the judgments, grasp of the issues, conflicting views, humor, prejudice, and sympathies of these colonial officials.
Historical Coverage in Colonial Office Files
The State Papers Online Colonial series starts with Southeast Asia. For the Colonial Office, Asia included the British colonies of Hong Kong, Wei-Hai-Wei, Ceylon, Malaya, Singapore, and Borneo. Documents in the archive showcase the administration and governance of these colonies, plus the United Kingdom's relations with other regions in West and East Asia and across the globe. Many of the papers included were once considered confidential by England but are now available for the first time in the public domain.
The majority of the papers in the collection date from the twentieth century and cover affairs of the colonial government up to World War II. The archives document the war period of the Japanese occupation of most of Southeast Asia, the ending of colonial rule by European powers, and the development of independent nations as part of the commonwealth or otherwise.
Preceding those resources are essential sixteenth-to-eighteenth-century documents from discovery and engagement with the “East Indies,” including details about trade in East Asia with the East India Company. However, these papers only comprise a small proportion of the archive. The remaining materials include the nineteenth-century documents of the early days of colonial powers, including the first British Embassy to China and maps of early Southeast Asia.
The complete State Papers Online Colonial archive for Asia includes:
Insights from Imperialist Archives
State Papers Online Colonial provides access to primary sources documenting two very different sides of the colonial relationship: the British Empire and colonies in Southeast Asia. For the British government, the papers catalog the national priorities of acquiring commodities, wealth, and labor by colonial rule, including the empire’s correspondence with the colonies and surrounding nations. The archive also provides insight into the struggles of locals living in the colonies, showcasing how colonists were affected by the remote oversight of those who spoke another language and imposed new government with laws, taxes, industries, customs, and social structures.
With Colonial Office files, researchers can explore content showcasing the lives of colonized people of all ranks, including their customs, culture, work patterns, agriculture, trade, markets, arts and crafts, skills, and learning. Students and scholars can analyze how the expectation to conform to British nationalism and adopt British-style institutions for law, health, education, policing, defense, agriculture, and industry led to disruption and evolution in the daily lives and demographics of the people in a colony.
The digitization and discovery of these files are essential in understanding the effect of Western colonialism and postcolonial reformation on many modern Southeast Asian countries. Use the archival collections in State Papers Online Colonial to help students and scholars find firsthand accounts of history and develop new insights in subject areas including Asian studies, Asian history, British history, colonialism and postcolonialism, European studies, military history, and modern history.