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Archives In Brief 79 - India and NSW - Migration and trade

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Overview of the major sources held by State Records that relate to trade and migration between India and New South Wales.

Historical context

Earliest arrivals

Few Indians arrived and settled in the colony of NSW in the first half of the 19th century. Most were labourers who returned to India once they had completed their contracts. A number of convicts were transported to NSW from India, including David Cusshon, who was tried at Bombay in 1828. The majority of convicts transported from India were tried by military courts.

The nine workers brought to Sydney by William Browne in 1816 probably constitute some of the earliest Indian non-convict arrivals [1]. According to the 1828 Census however, there were at least two earlier 'free' arrivals — Rhamut on the Favourite in 1808 and William Boxo who arrived from Calcutta in 1809 on the Mary Ann.

Recruitment of Indian labourers

As British settlers migrated to the colony from India, the practice of recruiting Indian labourers to work in NSW continued into the late 1830s and 1840s. John Mackay was among those who advocated recruiting Indian labourers to work in NSW [2]. The Legislative Council's Report of the Committee on Immigration of Indian and British Labourers into NSW (25 August 1837) recommended public support for the introduction of 'Asiatic' labourers. The proposal did not have Governor Bourke's support and did not proceed [3].

John Mackay however, went ahead with private arrangements to recruit Indian labourers and in December 1837 brought 42 Indian labourers from Calcutta on the Peter Proctor. It appears that the labourers, who were 'distributed' to various employers, were dissatisfied with their working conditions and took their complaints to the Sydney Bench of Magistrates [4]. In 1838 the Indian Government 'prohibited contract emigration from its territories although small numbers of workers continued to arrive in NSW in the 1840s and 1850s' [5].

East Indian Emigration

Sir William Burton, a former NSW Supreme Court Judge, and Puisne Judge in Madras from 1844, supported the emigration of young Indians to Sydney. He organised two groups of immigrants (mainly Anglo-Indians) from Madras. They arrived on the William Prowse (21 February 1853) and the Palmyra (8 November 1854). Under the Southern Cross (published in 1880) by Henry Cornish includes a survey of the results of this scheme [6].

'Indian' orphans

A scheme for the employment of orphans from Madras and Bengal was adopted by the NSW Government in 1838. The first group of 'Indian' orphans (7 boys) arrived on February 1841 on the Sesostis [7], with the passage paid by the East India Company's Marine Board. There were subsequent arrivals of other orphans, including girls entering domestic service [8].

Later arrivals

In the second half of the 19th century the number of Indian-born settlers in NSW began to increase although it was low in comparison with European settlers — 1800 in 1891 and 1663 in 1901 [9]. Indian settlers worked as agricultural labourers, hawkers and pedlars, often settling in regional centres. Woolgoolga on the northern coast of NSW is one of the largest rural communities of Indians in the country.

The Commonwealth Immigration Restriction Act of 1901 effectively ended Indian immigration to NSW until the late 1950s. Immigration policy began to change with the 1957 decision to allow non-Europeans with 15 years residence in Australia to become Australian citizens. Restrictions on 'non-European' immigration were further reduced after the review of the policy in 1966. New immigration policies and programs were adopted in 1978.

[1] James Jupp, The Australian People: An Encyclopaedia of the Nation. Its People and their Origins, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2001, p. 427.

[2] ibid., p. 427.

[3] R.B. Madgwick, Immigration into Eastern Australia, 1788-1851, Sydney University Press, Sydney, 1937, p. 238.

[4] Alan Dwight, The use of Indian labourers in New South Wales Journal of the Royal Australian Historical Society, Vol 62 pt 2, September 1976, p. 121.

[5] The Australian Encyclopaedia, 2nd ed., Vol V, Angus and Robertson, Sydney, 1957, p.78.

[6] Henry Cornish, Under the Southern Cross, Penguin Books, England, 1880 (reprinted 1975), p. 305-6.

[7] [45219], COD 41.

[8] Suzanne Rickard, Lifelines from Calcutta, India, China, Australia Trade and Society, 1788-1850, Sydney, Historic Houses Trust of New South Wales, 2003, p.86-7.

[9] T.A. Coghlan, Reports on the 1891 and 1901 Census

Searching for individuals in State Records

Particular individuals may be difficult to trace because records are generally arranged by the government agency that created them rather than by a persons' name. When searching for individuals, your first step should be to determine what dealings the person may have had with the government of the day. You then need to consider which agency would have created these records.

Major sources for records

Governor's despatches relating to NSW and India

Early references to links between India and New South Wales appear in Historical Records of Australia (HRA). Examples include: Governor Hunter's despatch to the Duke of Portland in 1800 with enclosures concerning the transportation of Indian convicts to the Colony together with a proposal (which does not appear to have gone ahead) by three 'Anglo-Indians desirous of settling in the colony' [10] and despatches concerning trade, commerce, military movements and efforts to prevent former convicts from NSW from landing in India.

Formative trade and other links

One of the main sources for research into early NSW colonial history is the Colonial Secretary's Papers, 1788-1825 *ARK. Search the Index to the Colonial Secretary's Papers, 1788-1825 under 'India', 'Indians' and 'trade' as well individuals who had trade and other links with India.


The Colonial Secretary's Papers, 1788-1825 are also an important source of information on early arrivals of Indians recruited to work in the colony. Of note are the references to the Indian servants employed by William Browne, in particular their alleged mistreatment and their return to India in 1819 [11].

References to Indians arriving after 1825 may be found in the Colonial Secretary's records as well as newspapers and other printed sources. Alan Dwight's article The use of Indian labourers in New South Wales in the Journal of the Royal Australian Historical Society in Sept. 1976 (Vol 62 pt 2), lists ships carrying Indian labourers.

Research into these later arrivals may be difficult as there is no comprehensive index to the records of nineteenth century passenger and crew arrivals. Some lists record only the numbers on board rather than names. Passenger and crew records can be found in NRS 13278 Inward passenger Lists 1854-1922 * ARK (also referred to as Shipping lists, Passenger lists or Unassisted passengers). These records are described in more detail in Archives in Brief 1.

Immigrants on the William Prowse and the Palmyra

The Colonial Secretary's Minutes and Memoranda contain the correspondence relating to the East Indian Emigration Society (Minutes and Memoranda in M12724 in [4/1052]). The list of those who arrived on the William Prowse and the Palmyra can be checked in our online Index to Assisted Immigrants arriving in Sydney and Newcastle, 1844-59 by the name of the vessel. Further information about the immigrants can be obtained from the microform copies of the immigration records.


There were some Indian convicts among the 160 000 convicts who were transported to the Australian colonies between 1788 and 1868. Marie Jones' book From Places Now Forgotten: An Index of Convicts Whose Places of Trial were outside the UK & Ireland (Marie Jones, Wild and Woolly P/L, 1996) will help in identifying them. It is available in the reading room.

Archives in Brief 2 and Archives in Brief 4 outlines the main sources to be used for convict research. For a comprehensive listing of convict records held by State Records, researchers should consult Archives Investigator and the Guide to Convict Records (Convict Guide) which is available in the reading room.

Hawkers' licences

Hawkers were required to have a licence, which they generally obtained from the local court or police station. Registers of applications for auctioneers', hawkers' and other licenses listed under Courts of Petty Sessions and Police stations in Archives Investigator using the term 'hawker'. Additional records may also be found in Records not in the Concise Guide, which is available in the reading room. The hawker would have retained a copy of the licence document

[10] Hunter to Portland, No. 58, 20 March 1800. HRA, Ser 1,vol II, pp. 475-6

[11] [4/3521, p226-7], Reel 6018 *ARK.

Other sources

Births, Deaths and Marriages - see the NSW Registry of Births, Deaths and Marriages indexes online.

Bankruptcy and insolvency records - see Archives in Brief 58 for details.

Business and company records. Information on these records can be found in Archives Investigator under Agency No. 24, Registrar General. See also records of Agency No. 78, the Corporate Affairs Commission.Commercial directories such as Sands should also be checked for information on businesses.

Colonial Secretary's records - see Archives in Brief 64 and Archives in Brief 65, the Archives in Brief 104 (PDF), Archives Investigator and the Guide to the Colonial Secretary's Correspondence.

Examples from the Colonial Secretary Special Bundles relating to trade and immigration matters include: Committee on Immigration, 1839-41 [9/2661], Reel 2795 (contains working papers of the Legislative Council Immigration Committee — see Votes and Proceedings 1841) and Returns of the Colony for the Secretary of State: Executive and Legislative Council, Population, Trade and Immigration, Revenue and Expenditure, 1849-57 [4/6977B].

Census of New South Wales, 1828, 1891 and 1901 - see Short Guide 7 and Short Guide 12. A list of the districts shown in the 1891 Census collector's books.

Court records - see Archives Investigator under various court jurisdictions). Although largely incomplete for some jurisdictions, court depositions and related documents provide details of those convicted in New South Wales' courts. References to the charges laid against William Browne are included in the Index to the Proceedings of the Sydney Bench of Magistrates, 1788-1820.

Coroners' records - see Archives in Brief 4 for details. While detailed reports have not survived in the years 1828 to 1916, registers of coronial enquiries provide information on the cause of death and can establish basic details (age and birthplace).

Deceased Estate records see Archives in Brief 29 relating to the payment of death duties, and probate packets (see Archives in Brief 84). These two series may also prove useful.

Intestate Estate files - see Archives in Brief 53 for details. These records should be consulted in instances where a person died without a will.

Land sales and transfers. Records relating to the purchase of land from the Crown can be found in Archives Investigator. Records relating to the transfer of land between individuals are available from Department of Lands New South Wales, 1 Prince Albert Road, Queen's Square, Sydney.

Prison records include from the period of the early 1870s, photographs of prisoners with details of conviction and personal history. The photographs are being progressively indexed.

Details of prison records can be found in Archives Investigator.

Records of psychiatric institutions - dating from 1838 may include Indian patients. Records of State run mental institutions are listed in Archives Investigator. See Archives in Brief 85, Archives in Brief 86 and Archives in Brief 87.

Records of Professions and Occupations - see Short Guide 10. The guide lists a selection of the more significant State archives relating to particular professions and occupations.

Public service records - for records relating to public servants see Agency No. 573, Public Service Board in Archives Investigator. See also Archives in Brief 19, Archives in Brief 20, Archives in Brief 54 and Archives in Brief 113.

School files and related records - see Archives in Brief 26 and Archives in Brief 76 and the Index to Schools and related records. Files, which cover the years 1876-1979, include administrative documents relating to government schools may be useful for areas where Indians settled.

Other records may be identified in Archives Investigator and using the option Keyname Search.

Researchers should consult the Register of Access Directions to confirm the public availability of records. State Records' staff can advise you on the availability of records if they are not listed on the register.

*ARK signifies that a copy of the record or guide is part of the Archives Resources Kit and is held by the community access points.

© State of New South Wales through the State Records Authority, 2003.
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