Ancestry in British Ceylon – Vital Records Research
Over the last 12 months, researchers and visitors at the Cairns and District Family History Centre would have seen a sprightly, bespectacled, grey haired gentleman, peering intently into the microfilm reader screen.
He is busily transcribing films that have nothing to do with his own Anglo-Scandinavian Heritage.
My name is Larry Andresen, and I am researching British Ceylon birth, marriage and death records.
My British Ceylon research story
A Sea Captain, James Thomas Anderson, married a Dutch girl, Adriana Gertuida Toussaint. This was in Jaffna, the main northern port and administrative centre of British Ceylon. The marriage took place in 1803. This was 6 years after the British had taken over from the Dutch in 1796, and only 1 year after the 1802 Peace of Amiens was signed, which made Ceylon a British Crown Colony.
Captain James Thomas Anderson was described in one historical book as an English Sea Captain, and, of Scotland, in another.
In 1948 British Ceylon was granted Independence.
British Ceylon Family Immigration – the cause
In 1956 the Sinhalese dominated Government passed an edict that the Sinhalese language would be the only language taught in schools, and also the official language of government, banks, and business transactions. This marginalised the European community and mass migration took place.
The decision also marginalised the Tamil minority and they agitated for a separate Tamil State in the north and east of the country. The cause and effect of such a decision resulted in a 30 year Civil War.
Family Immigration – the effect
In 1965 Fred and Celia Anderson and their two children immigrated to Melbourne, Australia, for the sake of education and future employment of their children. In 1971, I married their only daughter, Coreen Anderson. In the following year, 1972, Ceylon became Sri Lanka.
Coreen and I celebrated our 45th wedding anniversary last year with our three children, their spouses, and our 2 beautiful granddaughters, aged 3 and 5. There are now 3 generations of this Anderson family living in Australia, and two earlier generations have died here. Both Coreen’s parents, and a maternal grandmother, are interred in Victoria.
Research in Sri Lanka
Upon my retirement, I undertook two research trips to try and find the origins of the Anderson family.
Searching for vital records in Colombo, the Capital of Sri Lanka, was a nightmare. Compulsory registration was introduced in 1897; over 100 years after the British took over from the Dutch. There were no central registers, and masses of vital documents accumulated in offices all over the Island. To get a BMD Certificate you had to know the names, date, and the district that the event occurred. You paid your money in Colombo, and then had to travel to the District office to pick up the paperwork. Once you had the certificate it would be impossible to read, as it is in Sinhalese.
Searching cemeteries was also a nightmare. Since the 1600s, local villagers have been taking, breaking, and grinding their spices on the back-side of colonial granite headstones.
As Sri Lanka was in the middle of a prolonged Civil War, I was unable to travel north to Jaffna, the original Anderson Family town, as traveling to the region was prohibited. Churches, Government buildings, road and rail infrastructure had been destroyed right across the north and east of the country. The devastation of the 2004 Tsunami also destroyed coastal Churches and their records. The tidal waves reached up to 2 kilometres inland.
In the Colombo Anglican Cathedral Library I discovered five hundred neatly typed pages of Anglican Marriage and Baptism Indexes. These were compiled in 1972 by a retired Government Archivist, Mr Sam Mottau and had been gifted to the Church library. I was allowed to transcribe entries, including the second marriage of Captain James Thomas Anderson. This marriage took place in Kandy in 1831, whereas other reliable sources had quoted the port of Galle. Two Anderson family baptism entries were found, as well as the Colombo marriage of James Thomas Anderson jnr.
The Methodist Church has consolidated all of its pre 1982 registers in Colombo, but no indexes exist. Visits to Churches in other towns revealed registers from 1830 onward, just sitting in cupboards and drawers.
National Archives of Sri Lanka
The magnificent Sri Lanka Archives was the only air-conditioned research facility I found in all of Sri Lanka. It has a full collection of British-era secondary genealogical and family history records, such as Government gazettes, newspapers and almanacs.
Records found elsewhere
The Hague. Holland
The Dutch Archives and the Dutch Genealogical Society are in the same building in The Hague, Holland. British era records were found in both locations.
No British Ceylon BMD records were found in England, not even Bishops Transcripts. The National Archives have a wealth of secondary BMD records in official documents, military records, newspapers, Almanacs and Directories.
The British library has the factory records for British Ceylon under the Madras Presidency, 1795 to 1802, but no BMD records.
No Anderson baptism entry for a 1778/9 birth matched our man, James Thomas Anderson, in any Scottish research centre. The trip to Scotland discovered a link in my own Andresen-Perrott family history,
I now have a copy of the original church marriage entry for Richard Perrott and Margaret Jemima Fordyce at Inveresk with Musselburgh in 1782. These two are my maternal grandparents, 4 times removed
The LDS library in Salt Lake City, Utah, USA, provided a window into the huge number of British Ceylon films that the Church of the Latter Day Saints (the Mormons) have stored in the Granite Mountain Vaults. A week studying the records showed the majority were in the Sinhalese or Tamil language. An Aussie education does not prepare you to decipher these records. A number of British Ceylon films in English were viewed and copied to USB stick for future reference.
The films I am now reading are applications to join the “Widows and Orphans Fund for British Ceylon Civil Servants”. The LDS Church photographed these in the 1980s at the Registrar-Generals’ Office in Colombo. The application entries date from the 1860s to the 1920s. These applications have marriage, birth and sometimes death dates for whole Ceylon Civil Servant Family units, all written in the husbands’ own handwriting. There are also further family history clues, as each entry contains his position, location and salary. As a majority of the Anderson Family were Civil Servants, including Doctors, Lawyers, and Police Inspectors, I hope to fill in some of the blank branches.
The films contain all ethnic groups including Sinhalese, Tamil, Moors, and even the Malay soldier families, under the Dutch in the 1700s. Most of the Malays became policemen on the demobbing of the Ceylon Regiment.
Transcribing the films will help other British Ceylon Families worldwide, as I freely share my research.
There are 35 films in the series, with approximately 1000 complete families on each. Thankfully they are all in English, although some of the Sinhalese names are 60 characters long! I will be still sitting at the film reader screen, engrossed in Ceylon Civil Servants, for years into the future. This is because the CDFHS research facility, with an eclectic collection of dedicated, happy, caring, and sharing members is the ONLY place to be to view these unique LDS British Ceylon films.