Trace your Indian ancestors in Africa like Adil Ray

By Guest, 28 July 2017 - 11:22am

Inspired by Adil Ray's episode? Genealogist Laura Berry reveals some of the tools that can be used to research mixed Asian and African roots

Group of Indian coolies, South Africa, c. 1890 (Credit: Print Collector/Contributor)

In the 19th and early 20th centuries the British Empire extended across continents, facilitating trading links and forging relationships between people from diverse cultures, as seen in the family tree of actor and comedian Adil Ray.

Adil discovered that his maternal great grandmother Razia was born in Buganda, an area of Uganda that came under British control following a civil war in the 1890s.

Razia married an Asian trader, and their daughter Aisha (Adil’s grandmother) was brought up by an Asian family after her father’s death.

She married Adil’s grandfather Meraj Din in neighbouring Kenya, which was also part of the British East Africa Protectorate.

Meraj had arrived in the port city of Kisumu in 1911 as a young man following his father’s death, travelling to Kenya from his native city Lahore in British India to work as a clerk for the railways.

After Kenya gained independence in 1963 and the British Empire was disbanded, Adil’s mother Nergis moved to England and married his Pakistani father.

“It feels like Kenya, and Uganda and Pakistan and England are all of my homes,” reflected Adil at the end of his journey. “I feel very lucky to have discovered that.”

Family business car in Kisumu, Kenya with Adil Ray's Uncle Zafar and Aunty Jabeen, c1950s-1960s

Speak to relatives

The biggest obstacle that people with mixed British Asian and African heritage are faced with when tracing their roots is finding documentary evidence in their ancestors’ countries of origin.

Unfortunately the British administration did not tend to keep records of birth, marriage and death for the local population in the countries it colonised, so much of the evidence for a family history like Adil’s needs to be gathered through oral testimony and personal archives.

Reaching out to known living relatives both in the UK and in Africa is vitally important, and speaking to as many people as possible means you can cross-reference stories, and may even unearth passports, immigration records and photographs.

When speaking to relatives, it’s most important to take a note of the full names of your ancestors, their religion, the places where they were born, lived and died, and any significant dates (like birth, marriage, death and year of emigration).

Finding out the names of siblings and of all the people in the family who migrated to Britain is also worthwhile. 

Indian emigrants waiting for their plane to London in Nairobi in 1968 (Credit: Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images)

Tracing living descendants

Sometimes it’s possible to trace previously unknown or distant relatives living in England. Even if they are first or second generation migrants, they might still have connections with family living back in Africa and may have heard stories that haven’t been passed down your direct line.

This forward-tracing can be done by searching for marriage and birth certificates in the England and Wales General Register Office indexes to build up a picture of recent generations.

Searching for wills at Find a will and death certificates for migrants to the UK using the GRO website should also reveal the names and addresses of their next-of-kin.

Current contact details may then be found using pay-to-view electoral register databases and phone directories, like 192 and PeopleTracer.

Findmypast also has an index to UK electoral registers for 2002–2014 that can be searched by name, and the BT Phone Book can be searched for free. 

You can trace distant relatives through the GRO website

Documentation in UK archives

If one of your relatives settled in Britain from Africa in the 20th century then naturalisation records may survive at The National Archives in Kew.

Certificates of naturalisation reveal the applicant’s birthplace, age or date of birth and parents’ names. However, from 1949 it was more common for people from the British colonies to register for British nationality than apply for naturalisation.

There is guidance on how to find the various documentation that survives for these processes on The National Archives website

Death certificates for anybody who died here in the UK since 1969 should also confirm when and where they were born.

The National Archives has administrative records for British colonies and dependencies, which includes historic maps, plans and photographs that can be fascinating if you know where your ancestors lived.

Searching by the name of a village or town using the Discovery catalogue may also reveal other digitised and original records held at Kew.

The School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) University of London Library has one of the biggest collections in the UK for researching communities from Africa and Asia. It holds The Official Gazette of the Colony and Protectorate of Kenya from 1920, which includes an electoral register of inhabitants. Earlier copies of The Official Gazette of the East Africa Protectorate may also be found online via Google Books

The British Library’s Asian and African Studies Room holds over 65,000 manuscripts, not all of them in the English language.

You may also find historic maps and photos at the British Library, as well as newspapers printed in the colonies, like The East African Standard (1905–1974), which can be useful for building up a picture of local events. Select Newspapers from the materials list using the advanced search option on the British Library website.

The SOAS library has major collections on African and Asian communities

Secondary sources

It’s well worth reading up on the history of the country and places where your ancestors came from and finding out as much as possible about the communities there.

Again, the British Library and SOAS are great resources. SOAS Research Online contains academic research published by staff members, and is free to members of the public.

African Journals Online includes The Ugandan Journal, published since 1934, where Adil discovered a description of his 3x great grandfather Chief Kamanyiro. Registered members can search the journals for free.

Historical and academic publications can also be browsed online for free at, The Hathi Trust Digital Library and Google Books.

WorldCat is a comprehensive finding aid for books held in libraries all over the world. It’s particularly worth doing some intensive background reading if you intend to visit your ancestral homeland, and go armed with as much information as possible.

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