Colonial Dispatches

Why does this document exist?

The Colonial Dispatches (spelled Despatches in the 19th century) were a special kind of correspondence. These were the communications from the governor of a colony to the colonial office in London and the colonial office to governors around the world.

Governors were required to report on everything of importance that happened in their colony. In important matters they requested the approval of the British Secretary of State for the Colonies, the member of the British cabinet responsible for the colonies. Of course, one of the obstacles faced by the governors was the time it took to send and get a message. For the governors of British Columbia and Vancouver Island there was typically a six-month lag in the mid-1860s, letters taking three months each way. Often governors had to act before they received instructions and hope that their actions would be approved.

Each dispatch was numbered consecutively starting at 1 at the beginning of each year (with the exception of a few that were labeled “Private” or “Confidential” and had their own sequence). Second copies known as "duplicates" were always sent by the following mail ship, in case the first mail ship was lost at sea. The replies from London were numbered the same way. The numbers allowed the governors and the colonial office (and us) to know which letters were in each other's hands at any given time.

Often the dispatches included enclosures including clippings, letters or excerpts of letters from junior officials, maps, etc. When a letter arrived at the Colonial Office it was given a registration number and all the enclosures were given the same number. Then it was sent to the relevant “Clerk” (in reality, a senior official) in charge of that part of the empire.

The Clerk would write his comments on the letter, and it would be sent up the chain of command to the Secretary of State for the Colonies, everyone who touched it adding some comment or acknowledging they had seen it with their initials. The Secretary of State might make a comment, and then it was sent back to the Clerk for a draft response which would then be passed back up, through the string of officials, to be approved by the Secretary of State or his deputy, the Undersecretary. The colonial office comments are appended to the dispatches on this site. If you mouse over the initials, we have provided the writer’s full name. Any documents that were sent as enclosures are listed. We have transcribed the enclosures where they do not repeat other information on the site.

Why would we use this source?

All the important events and issues faced by the colony are reported in these dispatches, so they are one of the key primary sources for the study of any colony’s history. Because of their importance and the system of duplicates most of them survive.

How do we find and use this source?

The originals of these documents generated by the British colonies of Vancouver Island and British Columbia are at the British Public Record Office in Kew, England. They have been copied onto microfilm and copies of that microfilm are in the British Columbia Archives. The dispatches from Vancouver Island are in the record series called Colonial Office (CO) 305 and those from British Columbia in CO 60. The replies of the Colonial Office are transcribed into letter books numbered CO 410 for Vancouver Island and CO 398 for British Columbia. The originals of these are at the National Archives in Ottawa and copies are at the BC Archives.

The versions of the dispatches you see on this website have been copied from James Hendrickson’s unpublished “Colonial Despatches of British Columbia” and “Colonial Despatches of Vancouver Island” for the years 1862-1865. The enclosures have been copied from the microfilm of the Public Record Office originals loaned by James Hendrickson. The introduction to Hendrickson’s edited “Despatches” provided much of the context for this “About This Source”.

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