European studies blog

Exploring Europe at the British Library

09 January 2015

European rivals in South Asia

As is fairly well known, the British Library has inherited the surviving archives of the British East India Company, and this vast resource provides researchers with a rich and unique mine of information about all aspects of Britain’s relations with South Asia in the early modern period through to 1858. What is almost certainly less well known is that the archive includes one series bringing together documentation from and about the other European powers that were the Company’s rivals in the 17th and 18th centuries.

Watercolour painting of Chandernagore waterfront with small boats
View of the former French colony of Chandernagore (modern-day Chandannagar). Watercolour by Stanley Leighton, 1868. British Library WD 269

The ‘I’ series includes more than 200 volumes, arranged in three sub-series, of memoranda and correspondence between Europe and Asia. The first 17 of these (ref. I/1/1-17) are concerned with the Company’s relations with the French in India between 1664 and 1820, and I/2/1-32 is similar, dealing with the Dutch in India and Southeast Asia from 1596 to 1824. The subjects broached within are alas only hinted at by the frequent use in the relevant handlist of that tantalising word ‘Miscellaneous’, although there are four volumes identified as being about ‘Disputes with the French, 1773-1786’ (ref. I/1/7-10), and as a testament to the difficulties in mid-eighteenth century Anglo-Dutch relations there are no fewer than seven volumes of ‘Disputes with the Dutch’ from 1750 to 1764 (ref. I/2/14-20).

Watercolour painting of Jakarta in 1800, viewed from the sea with a harbour and boats in the foreground and a mountain in the background
View of Batavia (modern-day Jakarta), the capital of the Dutch East Indies. Aquatint by JohnWells, 1800. P494

These are dwarfed, however, by the size of the third sub-series, which consists in all of 165 volumes. Its existence is due entirely to Frederick Charles Danvers (1833-1906). A man of wide-ranging interests, Danvers joined the East India Company as a writer in 1853, and five years later transferred to the India Office after the Company’s abolition. After spells in the Revenue, Statistics & Commerce and Public Works Departments, he was appointed Registrar and Superintendent of the India Office Records in 1884, a post he held until 1898. In what must rank as a major feat of international archival co-operation, between 1891 and 1895 he oversaw the transcription of volumes of documents from repositories in Lisbon, Evora and The Hague; besides this, he enhanced their long-term value to scholars and researchers by supervising the translation of 35 of these volumes into English. The Dutch records cover the whole of the 17th century, whereas those from Portugal date from as early as 1475 and extend into the early 19th century. The series thus contains a range of primary sources on many aspects of the European engagement with South and Southeast Asia both before and during the colonial era.

Map of Goa as it was in 1831, with a key to the buildings below
Map of the City of Goa in Portuguese India, from Denis L. Cottineau de Kloguen, An historical sketch of Goa, the metropolis of the Portuguese settlements in India ...( Madras, 1831.) 1434.e.2

All these volumes are located at St. Pancras, and can be delivered to the third floor Asian & African Studies Reading Room for consultation within seventy minutes of ordering.

Hedley Sutton, Asian & African Studies Reference Team Leader


F.C. Danvers Report to the Secretary of State for India in Council on the Portuguese records relating to the East Indies contained in the Archivo da Torre do Tombo, and the public libraries in Lisbon and Evora (1892), OIR354.54

F.C. Danvers, Report on the records relating to the East in the state archives in The Hague (1945), OIB325.349.


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