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Cambridge University Library


An article by Sarah Preston reproduced from the Bulletin of the Friends of Cambridge University Library Number 26-27 (2006-2007)

Empires are run on information, and from the earliest period this has required a way of recording and transmitting that data. Written records on pottery relating to crops, trade and tax survive from ancient civilizations such as the Minoans and Hittites. The massive Roman empire used literacy to control the administration from the centre, as the Vindolanda tablets from Hadrian’s Wall reveal. Although the less official material (such as the birthday invitation and the request for warmer underwear) is better known, much of the material is purely administrative, and reveals much to the historian of how the system operated. The Domesday Book is another example of information recorded for one purpose, taxation, but which is now used for population studies, place name history, and geography, among others.

The same is true, to an even greater extent, of the British Empire in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Throughout the enormous geographical extent of British colonies, as well as the raw goods and finished products on which the Empire’s prosperity was based constantly being exchanged, information was a major commodity. Unlike most of the physical items, this information is still available to researchers, and is a resource not only for historians, but for those interested in an extraordinarily wide range of subjects.

The most significant single resource of information is the Blue Book. The entire holdings of these in the Royal Commonwealth Society (RCS) Library have now been entered on the Newton catalogue as part of the RCS Official Publications project which began in October 2006. Although the RCS collection is not a complete set, it has added substantially to the holdings within Cambridge University Library, and made them much more accessible to readers. Historically it formed one of the largest collections of Blue Books not held by a public institution. In 1817 the Commons Select Committee of Finance asked for a return of offices in the colonies. Beginning in 1822 each colonial governor was to be sent a book in which they were required to enter full details for that year on a wide range of matters.

The earliest volumes in the RCS collection date from this period, particularly from the West Indies, but as the Empire continued to expand throughout the nineteenth century other sets of Blue Books began to arrive. The titles of volumes also illustrate the development of the Empire, as the status of settlements, protectorates and colonies change, as does the geographical extent of individual colonies such as Nigeria, which grew substantially. Their publication ended shortly after the Second World War, and many of our runs stop prior to that. One of the earliest to finish is that for Heligoland, which ceased to be a British possession in 1890 when it was exchanged with Germany for Zanzibar. The shortest runs published were those for Singapore (only one year separate from the Straits Settlements) and Aden (which only became a separate colony in 1937, having previously been treated as part of India).

The first item in every Blue Book relates to taxes. Some of these are predictable, for example in 1837 Jamaica levied a tax of 1s 6d on every gallon of brandy or spirits imported, and 4d per ton on tobacco. Others are more surprising, such as a charge of 20s per wheel on all carriages not used for transport of goods only, or a fee of £2 to be licensed as an interpreter of a foreign language. An examination of the items included can reveal how trade, and consumer tastes, changed over time. One can see that trade with certain countries was preferred, as lower duties were sometimes charged - a form of protectionism. The income and expenditure relating to the administration of the colony, including any military requirements for defence, are always next in the volume.

Public works, including the building and repair of roads, bridges, schools, gaols, etc., are recorded in detail. Items of particular expense needed justification. The new toll road across Stoney Hill in the Parish of St. Andrew, Jamaica was estimated at the enormous cost £14,000 in 1837, but would “greatly facilitate the transportation of produce to the Markets, & will be of great utility to the Planters & Settlers in the vicinity & to the Public”.

Other expenses were questioned. In 1893 the writer in Sierra Leone entered “I would respectfully recommend that a portion of the money (£19,000) to be expended on the re-erection of a new Gaol be spent in building a new Government House as in my opinion there is more urgent need for providing a proper and magnificent residence befitting the dignity of Her Most Gracious Majesty’s Representative, than pulling down and re-erecting a set of buildings that can with trivial repairs last for a considerable period.” Other information, which may at times have seemed to the writer ridiculously detailed, such as the dimensions of each room in the governor’s house, together with lists of all the furniture etc., has since proved useful. We were recently contacted from Kenya for this information as the historic building was now being restored.

The civil and military establishment of the colony is recorded, listing all the staff on the payroll, their function, date of appointment and salary. This is a particularly good source of information for those researching the career of an individual, whether for family history or a biographical study. Such information supplements the later civil and staff lists in the RCS collection, that are regularly consulted.

The usefulness of population statistics, particularly when studied over time, cannot be undervalued. Births, marriages and deaths were generally divided into European and natives, and population density for the principal towns and parish divisions of the colony are given. In some cases the category of employment is also given, and the number of immigrants and emigrants, and whether they travelled on military transport, freight ships or as first class passengers on other vessels.

Ecclesiastical statistics list all the churches in the colony, of all denominations, and give information about the size of the congregation and income of each. When comparing figures for the same colony over time, it is clear that the influence of the Church of England declined, particularly in the first half of the twentieth century, while the number of different dissenting bodies increased. In Jamaica these included Seventh Day Adventists, Salvation Army, Moravians and Quakers, as well as Presbyterians, Baptists and Methodists.

Educational statistics include the names of schools, whether state, private or grant-aided (for example by a church) and the roll and financial cost. In 1861 the public school in Gibraltar had 266 children, the master being paid £6.5.0 per month and the mistress £5.4.2, while at the 160 pupil Church of England school in Castle Street, under the supervision of the Society for the Propagation of Christian Knowledge, the master was paid £82.10.0 per year, and the mistress £13. At the Catholic Girls Free School, the 418 pupils were taught “reading and writing and needlework and embroidery”, the government paying about 1/3 of the cost, and the rest being made up from voluntary contributions.

Details of imports and exports, including tonnage of each item type and the country or general region with whom traded, were recorded from the earliest period. Agricultural and manufacturing information included average prices of goods, the number of fishing boats operating from each harbour and their catches. This can be extraordinarily detailed in some instances, although this varies from colony to colony and depending on the date of the return. In 1833, Kings County, Prince Edward Island had 1517 horses, 7333 cattle, 11737 sheep and 5539 pigs, the principal crop being potatoes. By 1867 a wider variety of produce was recorded, and the size of the barley crop had doubled.

The penal system is consistently one of the most detailed sections filled out for most colonies, and it is clear that crime, and the control of criminals, was regarded as vital to the success or failure of a colony. The number of crimes, by category, and how many led to a summons or court appearance, and proportion of convictions, are listed. Many of the Blue Books include ground plans of the prisons of the colony, which might seem to encourage attempted jailbreaks with outside assistance! Full details of the daily routine, diet and exercise of different categories of prisoner are given. Consideration was given to race and religion in terms of dietary allowances, although non-Anglicans were seldom served by a prison chaplain.

Records were also made of the number of patients treated in hospitals (if any) and their complaints, how long their average stay was, the staffing and accommodation levels and information on plumbing, ventilation and number of beds per ward. A survey of a given hospital over a long period can be used to examine epidemiology, mortality rates and changing understanding of the importance of diet and sanitation for health. Information on mental health is also recorded, and how the insane were cared for. Although often quite blunt in their descriptions of different afflictions, the entries occasionally have an unconscious humour. In 1889 the island of Heligoland (population c. 2,000) had a small hospital, which only had three inpatients that year, and no lunatic asylum. However, the writer continues, “Lunatics are taken care of by their relations. There is at present only one lunatic under restraint, though unfortunately, owing to inter marriage, there are some forty individuals who are more or less mentally affected.”

Tables for detailed meteorological reports were included in the Blue Books, although not consistently returned. These have obvious value for climate change studies, and could be compared with medical and agricultural figures to see whether there is a relationship between weather patterns, crops and health. In 1896 the daily 9 am record of Eshowe Station, Zululand, included the temperature, wind speed and direction, rainfall, cloud cover and barometric readings.

The development of communications networks in colonies can be traced through the period, from post and telegraphs to commercial air traffic, which was beginning to develop in the years prior to World War II for some colonies. In Ceylon in 1938 the single airport had 224 flights from India to Ceylon, and 161 passengers travelled the 1,900 miles from Colombo to Karachi in a single engine biplane service which ran 4 or 5 times a week, depending on the season. Thirteen people on the island had a pilot’s license.

As can be seen above, a wide range of disciplines can make use of the information held within the typical Blue Book, particularly when a period of time is examined and compared, not just an individual volume - fascinating as that can be. Although a standard book was sent out to each colony, the extent to which they were filled in, and what else was included, depended on the individual responsible for the task, and this could vary considerably.

In examining all the holdings, particular examples of additional illustrative material stood out. The Gold Coast (Ghana) volume for 1858 contains a beautiful watercolour of native plants, while that for Malta in 1823 has delicately coloured maps of the island and street plans of its principal towns. More unusually, the imports section in the Bermuda Blue Book of 1840, recording the introduction of American cotton goods to the island, includes sample swatches of the different grades of cotton cloth. Many of the volumes include ground-plans, and sometimes elevations, of gaols and hospitals. Other items include folded poster size notices of prison regulations, evidently intended for display in the prison.

Even the physical format of the books tells us something about the colony from which they came. Beginning in the 1820s the volumes were handwritten, on the pre-printed forms sent from London. The production of the books must have been a laborious task, as very many copies were made – almost all are marked duplicate, but occasionally a number is given, sometimes in three figures. The change from manuscript to print for the content varies widely, suggesting that printing presses were not available in some colonies for a considerable time. In most cases it occurred in the 1870s or 1880s, but Mauritius was in print by 1858, while Zululand was still in manuscript in 1896, and Gambia in 1900.

It is hoped that this outline of the tremendous variety to be found in the Blue Books which form part of the Royal Commonwealth Society collection in Cambridge University Library will encourage their exploration as a fascinating source relating to all aspects of life under British rule in the former colonies.

Sarah Preston