Digging at the British Library

I regularly receive e-mails from junior scholars trying to figure out what to work on for a major research project. For grad students and others lucky enough to spend time at the British Library, there’s a great, old-fashioned way to get ideas. We can now search for most things in the Asia, Pacific & Africa Collections via the online BL catalogues (although these can be tricky to navigate and easy to misuse). But before you even know what to search–or mis-search–for, you may want to spend some time skimming through the physical binders by the BL computer terminals in the APAC Reading Room. You will learn a ton about the problems, crises, and aspirations of the day, and could stumble on some real gems.

For example, I have always loved the L/P&J series. Here are some juicy tidbits listed in one binder for L/P&J/6/1, with my commentary:

  • File 1: Return of numbers of murders amongst Indian populations in Jamaica during 1878-1879 (Dec. 1879) [Were the numbers high? If so, why?]
  • File 10: Visit of Acting British Consul General, Borneo to Brunei, to obtain release of daughter of Haji Said Zeledee, British Indian subject (Dec.1879-Jan.1880) [Who was Haji SZ’s daughter? How did she get captured in the first place? Was she released as a result of this visit?]
  • File 16: Unauthorized immigration of Indian laborers from West Indian colonies to Cuba (Oct.1879-Jan. 1880) [What rules made this movement unauthorized? What forces were driving this migration?]
  • File 17: Refusal of Bombay High Court to prepare an annual report on administration of justice in Bombay (Oct.1879-Jan.1880) [Why did the BHC refuse? How dare it?]
  • File 44: Proof of death: Syed Abdullah (Dec.1879-Jan.1880) [Who was SA? What happened to him?]                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                I also like series V/26: India Committee and Commission Reports, 1813-1948. Under Law and Law Enforcement, here are some interesting entries:
    • V/26/100/1: Report on slavery (1841) [slavery was abolished in India by an 1843 statute]
    • V/26/100/3: Report on the judicial establishment in the Straits (1842) [interesting to see the comparative view of the Straits Settlements from India]
    • V/26/150/5-6: Madras Police (Andrew) Committee 1902 (Madras, 1902)
    • V/26/160/1: Burma Crime Enquiry (Lloyd) Committee 1923 Report (Maymyo, 1923)
    • V/26/170/2: Jail Administration in India (Walker and Lethbridge) Committee, 1888-89 (Calcutta, 1889)

And if I’m curious about legislation, the V/8 series binders (Acts and Codes, 1780-1955) are a great place to wander around. It is often hard to find the full text of colonial statutes outside of the BL, so I usually try to make scans of any interesting statutes while I’m in London.

[Image: BL binders at the Asia, Pacific & Africa Collection reading room (photo by M. Sharafi)]