The Private Papers trace their origin to the decision of the Directors of the East India Company in 1801 to establish a Library for the safe custody of books and manuscripts placed in their care by their servants in India and others. In 1858 the Company was abolished and its Library, including the Private Papers, was taken over by the newly established India Office. In 1947, with the achievement of independence by India and Pakistan, it was the turn of the India Office to be abolished, and the Library was inherited by the Commonwealth Relations Office and later by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. In 1954, the Library was joined with the archives of the former India Office to form the India Office Library and Records which in 1982 were transferred from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to the British Library, and in 1991 merged with the latter's Oriental Collections Department to form the Oriental and India Office Collections of the British Library. Throughout these organisational changes the Private Papers (or 'European Manuscripts') section retained a distinct identity.
The Private Papers (or 'European Manuscripts') of the Oriental and India Office Collections of the British Library comprise about three hundred collections and over three thousand smaller deposits of papers relating primarily to the British experience in India. Though often including papers similar to or complementing the much more extensive India Office Records (containing the official archives of the East India Company, the Board of Control, the India and Burma Offices, and copies of the proceedings of the Government of India) the Private Papers are distinguished from the Records by their provenance from private sources.
Chronologically the main strength of the Private Papers lies in the period from about 1750 up to 1947, though there are some holdings for the earlier period including the earliest known summary of the East India Company's foundation charter of 1600, and one or two collections reflect continuing British contacts with India and Pakistan in the immediate post-colonial period. Their geographical scope concentrates mainly on the sub-continent of India, but also reflects the East India Company's and the Government of India's contacts with many other countries ranging from Egypt to Japan and from Tibet to Sri Lanka.
Documents of every type, private letters, diaries, memoirs, official correspondence and papers, drafts of scholarly or literary works, newspaper cuttings, scrapbooks, photographs and paintings, are to be found in the Private Papers. Also included are photocopies and microfilms of papers relevant to South Asian studies held in other repositories or in private hands, and a collection of tape-recorded interviews with people with personal experience of British India during the last decades of the Raj.
The subjects covered by the Private Papers are enormously diverse, but perhaps three major themes can be distinguished. First, the administrators and soldiers of the Raj easily outnumber all the other categories put together, and the dominant theme of their papers is the political, administrative and military history of British India and Burma. The single most important class of documents is the unpublished correspondence between Viceroy and Secretary of State for India. Altogether, the Private Papers contain collections of fifteen Viceroys and twelve Secretaries of State, and it is possible to study British policy making at the highest level through the collection of either a Viceroy or a Secretary of State (and sometimes both) for an almost continuous period from the assumption of the Government of India by the Crown in 1858 to the achievement of independence by India and Pakistan in 1947. Lower down the hierarchy, there are collections of some fifty Provincial Governors, and the papers, memoirs or diaries of a very large number of East India Company servants and members of the Indian Civil and Political Services, with the Indian Police and the specialist Ecclesiastical, Educational, Engineering, Forest and Medical Services also represented. On the military side there are collections of only six Commanders-in-Chief, but regimental officers of the Indian Army make a very strong showing, with British Army officers also present. The rank and file put pen to paper only rarely, but when they did the result could be graphic, for example the description by Private William Guess of the exhausting marches, battles, and summary executions of rebel sepoys, which he experienced during the Indian Mutiny.
A second theme, as one might expect in a collection of private papers, is the private lives of the British, their hopes and fears, their social and sporting relaxations, their family concerns, their careers, ambitions and disappointments. It is a theme illustrated from many different angles by people in all walks of life: not only officials and soldiers, but also scholars, missionaries, teachers, businessmen, railway engineers, planters, travellers, explorers and others. It should be noted that women are very well represented among all these groups. They wrote many letters, diaries and memoirs describing life in India, and took a particularly prominent role in the fields of education and missionary activity.
Thirdly, there is the interface between the Orient and the Occident, a theme which runs through all the papers. The Private Papers include a few collections formed by Indians, and Indians frequently appear as correspondents of the British; but inevitably in papers amassed largely by the British, the indigenous peoples themselves are seen largely through the writings of the strangers within their midst. Those writings display a variety of attitudes. We see both British admiration for the ancient civilization which they discovered in India, and their effort to convert that civilization to western ways or even, as some would argue, imprison it within western thought-patterns through the varied activities of administrators, entrepreneurs, missionaries, and orientalists. We see both arrogance and respect between the races, both conflict and co-operation between the rulers and the ruled, both hostility and affection between masters and servants and officers and men. The Private Papers offer no simple picture of the relationship between Europeans and Indians, but a source for the study of that theme.
The material is mainly in English, but Oriental languages occasionally occur.