By 1817, Great Britain controlled a vast empire, and they wanted it to drop them a line every now and then. At least, that’s what the Commons Select Committee of Finance wanted. And so, in 1822, a book was sent to each colonial governor, to be returned complete with statistical information. This practice was repeated every year thereafter until just after World War Two.
The resulting volumes are known as the Colonial Blue Books. Sarah Preston gives a detailed account of information that was typically included in the blue books, such as taxation information, public works, population, eccesiastical and educational statistics, the civil and military establishment, imports, exports, and the penal system, among other things. The first books consisted of printed forms that were then filled out by hand; later volumes were completely printed, and by the end of the nineteenth century no manuscript reports are to be found.
As Preston notes, the quality of information returned depended greatly upon the governor compiling it, and could be very revealing, as in the case of one governor in Sierra Leone who suggested a new, grander Governor’s Mansion was of greater importance than a new Gaol. Some surprising inclusions include watercolours of native plants of the Gold Coast, detailed maps from Malta, and swatches of American cotton from Bermuda.
The largest collection of Blue Books is held by the Royal Commonwealth Society, who moved their library to Cambridge University in 1993. Catalogue records for the Colonial Blue Books may be found in the Newton Library Catalogue and are classified under the classmark stem RCS.L.BB. Books may be viewed by request in the Commonwealth Room. Copies of Blue Books can be ordered here.
The Institute of Commonwealth Studies at the University of London lists 47 Colonial Blue Books in their catalogue. Information on how to request them was not available at time of posting.
Microfilm copies of the Newfoundland Blue Books can be found at Library and Archives Canada. Consult their catalogue. Instructions on requesting material are found here. Microfilm copies of Blue Books pertaining to Basutoland, Gambia, Gold Coast, Kenya, Nigeria, Northern Rhodesia, Nyasaland, Sierra Leone, Tanganyika, Uganda, and Zanzibar can be found in UPenn libraries. More information here.
Finally, Malta seems to have retained their Blue Books. Books from 1821 to 1938, with the exception of 1919, have been digitized and may be viewed online.
The Blue Books themselves, along with related records and copies, are probably as far-flung as the Commonwealth itself, and this list is most likely incomplete. Any further information on Colonial Blue Books may be left in the Comments section.