In the middle of 2013, an odd piece of news hit the international pages of Indian newspapers. DNA-testing showed that Prince William of the United Kingdom had some Indian ancestry on his maternal side around eight generations ago. The British, who had so long ruled India, were now set to be ruled by someone who had Indian blood.

All this was a matter of inference. The British royal did not submit his own DNA for testing. The group, Britain’s DNA, had instead tested his third cousins. Even so, the results captured the imagination of people for a few days. According to the latest report, a team was allegedly loose on the streets of Surat, searching for possible relatives of the prince.

Genealogical research in Britain used to be the hobby of retirees who finally had enough leisure to go through old birth and death records to piece together the stories of their ancestors. But over the past decade, with the internet opening records and DNA-testing becoming accessible, this senior citizens’ frumpy pastime has transformed into a national obsession for the British.

One significant hunting ground is India.

It is now 65 years since India formally ended its relationship with Britain, time enough for the former colonial power to have moved on. But thousands of people in the United Kingdom are actively rummaging through their pasts, spending weeks immersed in records at the former India Office in London.

Peter Bailey, chairman of the Families in British India Society, an organisation that helps members trace what their ancestors were up to in the British Raj, is one of them. Bailey’s entirely British grandfather was born in India and went to school in Bangalore, but returned to England in 1905 on account of the oppressive heat.

Intrigued by this story, Bailey, who is a long-time genealogist, helped found the society in 1998 to help others trace their possible histories.

“A few people, decreasing in number, just want to fill in the boxes and get the names and dates of their ancestors,” Bailey said. “That is what I call genealogy. But many more people are looking to write a biography of their lives. That is what we try to focus on.”

All about television

Widows and Orphans, Madras, 1883. Photo credit: Peter Bailey.

Genealogical interest seems to have been spurred on by a television show, Who Do You Think You Are, a BBC documentary series that has been on air since 2004. The concept is simple: Take a celebrity and reveal to them shocking facts about their ancestors by the end of the episode.

Groups like the Families in British India Society help the show with its research, aided by its own ample experience in the subject. Sources of information include long lists of ship passengers who docked at Aden and Bombay, birth records, marriage certificates and employment details.

The seekers are helped by the British government’s obsession with cataloguing. There are rooms filled with records of every person who ever served the British government in India and people are actively involved in digitising these.

“Searching through government records is very easy because they are very bureaucratic and keep these papers forever,” Bailey said. “But there are people who worked in India for non-governmental organisations whose employment records are more difficult to come by.”

Another source is graveyards.

Rosie Llewellyn-Jones, an archivist at the Royal Society for Asian Affairs and editor of Chowkidar, the journal of the British Association for Cemeteries in South Asia, is one of the UK’s many tomb enthusiasts.

The association gives grants to organisations interested in maintaining and archiving cemetery records in South Asia – and anywhere else the East India Company set foot. According to the association’s estimates, there are about 900 cemeteries for Europeans in India, the earliest of which dates back to Akbar’s time.

Unlike other researchers, she has no ancestral connections with India. Llewellyn-Jones’ interest began with her studies in the School of Oriental and African Studies in London in the late 1970s, when she heard of graveyards for Europeans in India. Combining her two interests was a natural step after that.

“Looking at graves might seem eccentric, but I have never been turned away,” she said. “This depends on the country. Pakistan is difficult because of its anti-Christian bias. Burma seems to be opening up a little, but the Chinese have destroyed most Christian graves.”

Shared heritage

The jewel of the British Raj was given its title not just on the grounds of sentiment. Over the two and a half centuries the British ruled the Indian subcontinent, an estimated two million of the island nation’s citizens travelled here. While their mortality rate was high – two monsoons was about as much as the early colonial immigrants might expect to last – that seems to have been sufficient to leave behind descendants galore who might have had a link, not necessarily biological, with India.

Most of the 1,300 members of the Families in British India Society, for instance, have ancestors from across the social spectrum. Some were generals, but there were thousands of ordinary soldiers. A smaller number in the society are Anglo-Indian, of mixed Indian and British heritage, who left India only around and after Independence.

“It’s amazing how many people claim they are descended from railway men who married Brahmins and princesses,” said Geraldine Charles, a museum archivist and trustee of the Families in British India Society. “That is not very likely!”

Seven of Charles’s eight great-grandparents were Anglo-Indians. Her most easily identifiable Indian ancestry comes from a woman called Muthamma from Cuddalore, who in the early 19th century married Robert Harvey, a sergeant of supernumeraries with the East India Company. Over the centuries, Charles’s family spread across India, to Allahabad, Chennai, Bangalore and Mumbai. Her branch of the family finally left India for England only in 1956, two years after she was born, leaving behind others who moved to other countries or stayed behind for good.

Despite its diasporic nature, the Anglo-Indian community strongly resembles the closely knit groups on the subcontinent, complete with global grapevines.

On a visit to Bangalore for a meeting of Anglo-Indians, Charles walked past a person she had met the previous night because she hadn’t noticed him. Before she could even return to the UK, her mother wanted to know why she had snubbed this person. It turned out that he had told his sister-in-law in Canada about this incident, who then told someone and then another who eventually informed Charles’s mother.

Charles has also tested her own DNA, to find that she has a strong strain of mDNA, which indicates Indian ancestry. If she examines the results carefully enough, she said, she might one day even be able to determine which caste Muthamma belonged to.

India might be the place where much of this genealogical research comes to an end, but not all seekers seem particularly preoccupied with the present implications of the colonial legacy left by their ancestors.

“A few of our members are embarrassed their ancestors were associated with a regime that was controversial,” Bailey said. “From our point of view, we try to avoid any political ramifications. The past is the past and we would like to forget this. Our personal interest is much more in our families.”