THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Asian and African studies blog

5 posts from May 2017

24 May 2017

33 Burmese manuscripts now digitised

The Burmese manuscript collection in the British Library consists of approximately 1800 manuscripts. The majority are written on palm leaf, but there are also many paper folding books (parabaik), and texts written on diverse materials such as gold, silver, copper and ivory sheets in the shape of palm leaves. The collection is particularly strong in historical, legal and grammatical texts, and in illustrated material. In particular, there are many folding books with illustrations of the Life of the Buddha, Jataka stories, court scenes and other subjects.

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Royal entertainments: In the above scene, a musical troupe is entertaining the royals. To the left, the royal party is seated under a canopy watching a Burmese classical dance (Zat pwe), while to the right are dancers and musicians accompanied by an orchestra (Saing waing). Zat taw gyi or zat pwe is usually based on Jataka stories, which are the most popular literary sources throughout all periods of Burmese history. British Library, Or.16761, f.28r Noc

The manuscripts derive from two historic sources, the British Museum and the India Office Library, and were mostly brought from Burma by travellers, envoys, missionaries, administrators and researchers. From the British Museum came the John Murray collection, acquired in 1842, which includes several manuscripts from Arakan dating from the 1740s, and the Sir Arthur Phayre collection, acquired in 1886. The India Office Library collection of Burmese manuscripts began with the Royal Mandalay Collection acquired in 1886 after the Anglo-Burmese war, and a collection of official documents formed by Henry Burney which was probably presented to the Library by Burney himself. Catalogues of all the Burmese manuscripts are available in the Asian and African Studies Reading Room, and about 700 manuscripts in Burmese and and in Pali in Burmese script can be found in the online catalogue Explore Archives and Manuscripts.

Since 2013 the British Library has digitised some of the finest Burmese manuscripts in its collection, supported by the Henry D. Ginsburg Legacy. To date 33 manuscripts have been fully digitised, covering a wide range of genres and subjects.  All these manuscripts are now accessible through the Digitised Manuscripts website. A new webpage, Digital Access to Burmese Manuscripts, also lists all the Burmese manuscripts digitised so far, with hyperlinks to the images and to blog posts featuring the manuscripts. Future digitised manuscripts will be also be listed on this page. Shown in this post are a selection of our digitised Burmese manuscripts; clicking on the hyperlinked shelfmarks below the images will take you directly to the digitised versions.

Or3676.f13
The royal melodrama Vijayakari zat: In the eighteenth century Burmese drama flourished at the royal court, and the earliest play, Maniket Pyazat, was written in 1733 by the court poet Padesaraja (1684-1752), based on his own poem Maniket Pyo. Burmese court drama really began to develop at the beginning of the reign of King Bodawpaya (1782-1819). Court dramatists, such as U Ponnya (1807-1866) and U Kyin U (1819-1853), produced dramatic works during the reign of Bagyidaw. Hlaing Hteik Khaung Tin, the Crown Princess (1833-1875) in the reign of King Mindon, wrote court dramas such as Vijayakari and Indavamsa, but she earned particular fame for her romantic dramas. In the scene shown above, there is a tree in a magical forest where lovely maidens grow and wait to be plucked. This drama is about Prince Vijayakari, Sakanitum (a princess born from a flower bud), and Adideva of the Ogre Kingdom. These court dramatists wrote delightful romances which are marvels of literary art. Only a few of their works survive to the present day but these are still widely read and studied. British Library, Or.3676, f.13r Noc

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Regatta festival: There are many Burmese festivals throughout the year. Tawthalin (September) is the sixth month in the Burmese calendar and the third month of the rainy season in Burma. The rain becomes less frequent, there is sunshine with clear skies, no wind, and the surfaces of the rivers are smooth without waves. The season is just right for holding regatta festivals, which have traditionally been held in this month since the times of ancient Burmese kings, and the regatta festival remains one of the twelve monthly festivals in the Burmese calendar. Regattas were not only occasions for pageantry but also opportunities for demonstrating the naval prowess of the armed forces. In the olden days, the royal family sent their own boats to participate in the race, and high officials were placed in charge of preparations for boat races held along the shores of rivers throughout the country. British Library, Or.15021, f.16r Noc

Or.14178
Scenes from the Ramayana: Ravana, in disguise as a hermit, begs Sita to come with him to his kingdom. When she refuses, Ravana summons his magic chariot and sweeps Sita up and away, into the sky and over the forests (top). When Rama and Lakshmana finally find their way home Sita is gone (bottom). British Library, Or. 14178, f. 10 Noc

Quick link to: Digital access to Burmese manuscripts

San San May, Curator for Burmese Ccownwork

19 May 2017

The Jaipur Literary Festival comes to the British Library

If anyone is wondering why tents are going up all over the Piazza, it’s all in preparation for the ZEE Jaipur Literature Festival which returns to London this weekend at the British Library presenting a sumptuous showcase of South Asia’s literary heritage, oral and performing arts with 31 scheduled events.

Download a full programme

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In January earlier this year the Library exhibited a facsimile of one of the four original Magna Carta documents from 1215, now held at the British Library in London, at the Diggi Palace in Jaipur (Magna Carta at the ZEE Jaipur Literature Festival). Hosting the London Festival is a wonderful way of participating in the South Asia Year of Culture besides having an opportunity to showcase our own rich collections from South Asia. These include paintings, miniatures, drawings, over 80,000 manuscripts covering history and poetry to medicine and religion, the writings and papers of diplomats and travellers and administrators, outstanding photography, some 600,000 printed books and periodicals, countless recordings and much more besides.

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Leaves from the Dara Shikoh Album
Right: Dara Shikoh with a tutor, attributed to Chitarman, c. 1630 (British Library Add.Or.3129, f.33v)
Left: Lady with a narcissus, perhaps Mumtaz Mahal, attributed to Bishndas, 1631-33 (British Library Add.Or.3129, f.34r)
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An opportunity to find out about our collections takes place at 12.45 in the Piazza in Ten South Asian Treasures of the British Library.  Our curators will highlight

  • Zoroastrian Treasures in the British Library
  • Abu'l-Fazl's  Akbarnamah
  • Two centuries of Indian Print
  • The Lucknow Album
  • The Dara Shikoh Album
  • The Gentil Atlas
  • India Office Records
  • The Dakani manuscript Pem Nem

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The ghats at Haridwar. Watercolour by Sitaram, 1814-15 (British Library, Add.Or.4783)
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Other sessions with BL Asian and African curators are:

Illustrious Journeys: The Forgotten Art of Sitaram
JP Losty introduced by Malini Roy
Sita Ram was the artist of ten magnificent albums of drawings of views on the Ganges and Yamuna from Bengal to Delhi and beyond. Two volumes were sold in London in 1974 and subsequently dispersed but it was not until the British Library acquired the remaining eight volumes in 1995 that Sita Ram's true status and patronage were revealed. J.P. Losty takes us on an imaginative journey following the Governor-General Lord Hastings' travels of 1814-15 with Sita Ram’s meticulous, detailed and inspired watercolours.

The Rise and Fall of Mughal Art
JP Losty, Katherine Butler Schofield, Susan Stronge and Malini Roy in conversation with William Dalrymple (Presented by Aga Khan Foundation)
No Indian dynasty made more of their love for art, and especially painting, than the Mughals. Five authorities on Mughal painting tell the remarkable story of how a Muslim dynasty came to patronise some of the greatest figurative paintings in world history, from the beginnings of the atelier during the reign of Akbar through to its heyday during the reign of Shah Jahan and its decline under Aurangzeb.

Knowledge Networks from the Medieval to the Contemporary World
Arthur Dudney, Gagan Sood, James Caron, Layli Uddin and Paniz Musawi Natanzi in conversation with Nur Sobers-Khan
The circulation of ideas in the early modern world demonstrates the complexity of knowledge flows and networks, of translation, retranslation, reinterpretation and innovation. The movements of information and thought from East to West and back provide fascinating insights into the nature of scholarship and the movement of ideas.

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Prince Gauhar and Khiradmand rescued by the simurgh. By Govardhan II, 1734-9 (British Library, Johnson Album 38, f.51r)  noc

In addition to the literary events there will be musical performances in the piazza and the entrance hall:

  • Morning Music (Saturday): Bhakti: Invoking the Muse  with Arundhathi Subramaniam & Vidya Shah
  • Evening Music (Saturday): Kabir Cafe with Neeraj Arya
  • Morning Music (Sunday) with Amrit Kaur Lohia

If you can make it,  don't forget to visit the BL Treasures Gallery which will be open exhibiting the Dara Shikoh album, Mughal manscripts and Hindu and Buddhist treasures.


Ursula Sims-Williams, Asian and African Collections
Twitter Links: @BLAsia_Africa#ZEEJLFatBL

17 May 2017

Elephants, kingship and warfare in Southeast Asia

Elephants have played an important part in many Asian civilisations since ancient times, for once they could be brought under control, their gigantic physical appearance and wild temperament were regarded as great assets. In China, war elephants appeared from at least as early as the Shang Dynasty (1723-1123 BC) (Kistler 2006: 8). They were respected both for their awe-inspiring size and for their difficult behaviour, which in turn helped to secure the position at the top of those kings who succeeded in controlling the beasts (Trautmann 2015: 68-69). In India, from as early as 1000 BC in the later Vedic period, elephants were domesticated and became a very valuable resource for kings and rulers in the northern states, especially for use in battle, and information on domesticating elephants was recorded in Gajasastra or elephant knowledge manuals. In Hinduism the pachyderms are regarded as sacred animals since the god Indra chose a celestial elephant named Airavana as his animal mount, or vahana (Trautmann 2015: 100).

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Airavana, the god Indra’s elephant, depicted in a Thai manuscript. British Library, Or.  13652, f. 4v Noc

The Indian epic Ramayana also portrays elephants as an important part of kingship. It mentions the relationship between kings and elephants, and the duty of the royals to attend to the needs of the elephants (Trautmann 2015: 50-51). Ayodhaya, the royal city of Rama, was full of horses and elephants, and according to early Buddhist texts, King Bimbisara of Magadha (558-491 BC) possessed a well-trained elephant corps (Kistler 2006: 21) .

The idea of the royal use of elephants, war elephants and elephant training techniques gradually spread from India to the kingdoms of Southeast Asia. In Vietnam, as early as AD 40, the two Trưng sisters, Trưng Trắc and Trưng Nhị, led a victorious but short-lived rebellion against the Chinese Han ruler before they were suppressed in AD 42. The two Trưng sisters, who were killed in the war, have been depicted in Vietnamese history as warriors riding on elephants to fight against the Chinese Han.  Since then they have become national heroines and a symbol of resistance against foreign rule and domination.

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The Trưng Sisters (Hai Bà Trưng) depicted on the front cover of Làng Văn, no. 19, March, 1986. British Library, 16641.e.13

Elephants played an essential role in traditional warfare in Southeast Asia. Not only were they the main war machines but they could also instigate war, especially if they were “white elephants”. In many traditional kingdoms in Southeast Asia, “white elephants” received royal treatment and carried the king. In reality “white elephants” are simply albino elephants, but they are extremely rare. Some white elephants which simply had pale colorations or certain spots and other characteristics were deemed to be “auspicious” and beautiful, and were believed to be especially blessed by the gods. This belief may also be related to the Hindu myth which describes Airavana, Indra’s mount, as a white elephant. Rulers sometimes competed for ownership of such white elephants, and these ownership contests could be used as pretexts for declaring war (Kistler 2006: 178-9).

Just as the Vietnamese honour the Trưng sisters, so the Thais regard highly Queen Suriyothai and her daughter, Princess Boromdilok, for their bravery and sacrifice. According to Thai chronicles, Queen Suriyothai gave up her life to protect her husband King Maha Chakkraphat, who was engaged in an elephant fight with the Burmese Viceroy of Prome during the rise of the Tongoo dynasty of Burma in 1548. She dressed as a male soldier on a war elephant and decided to block the Viceroy of Prome from charging her husband, but was killed by a single blow from the Viceroy’s spear, together with her daughter. Between 1563 and 1564 the Burmese kingdom of the Toungoo Dynasty and the Thai kingdom of Ayutthaya were engaged in another war, this time over white elephants. King Bayinnaung of the Toungoo demanded that King Maha Chakkraphat of Ayutthaya send two of his white elephants to Burma as tribute, but Maha Chakkraphat refused, and hence war broke out. Ayutthaya could not withstand the power of the Burmese army, and eventually a peace deal was agreed in which one of the Siamese king’s princes was taken hostage to Burma, and Ayutthaya also had to give four white elephants to the Burmese king. In addition, Siam had to send thirty elephants and a substantial amount of silver to Burma annually. Ayutthaya was also reduced in status to a vassal state to the Burmese kingdom.

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Elephant catching in Burma. British Library, Or. 16761, f.10r Noc

According to Thai historical sources, Siamese pride was only restored by King Naresuan, the grandson of King Maha Chakkraphat, when he won an elephant duel between himself and Mingyi Swa, Bayinnaung’s grandson, in 1593. In foreign source material the actual elephant duel was not mentioned but there was definitely an elephant battle between Naresuan and the Burmese troops. Similar conflicts over white elephants took place in other traditional Southeast Asian kingdoms. For example, around the 1470s, Emperor Lê Thánh Tông of the Đại Việt kingdom waged a war against the Lan Xang kingdom (literarily translated as 'kingdom of a million elephants', located in modern Laos) after his request for a gift of a hair of the white elephant of King Chakkaphat of Lan Xang was rejected.

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King Naresuan on his elephant battles with the Burmese.  King Naresuan the Great (Bangkok : Animate, 1994). British Library, YP.2007.a.2584,  p.[170]

Elephants have no place in modern world warfare; nevertheless Southeast Asians still have a strong sense of their power and role in society. In Thailand an annual elephant round up is organised in Surin province in north-eastern Thailand. This festival was an important royal event during the Ayutthaya period, when wild elephants were hunted, tamed and trained to be used as working or war animals. In Thanh Hóa province in northern Vietnam, an elephant battle festival or Trò Chiềng has been revived recently. This festival commemorates and honours General Trịnh Quốc Bảo, who adopted war tactics in his fight against the enemy in the 11th century.  He had elephants made out of bamboo, glued fireworks to them, and then burnt them in the battle against the enemy’s elephant troops. This spectacular and original strategy may well have contributed to his victory.

Further reading:
John M. Kistler. War elephants. Westport, Connecticut: Praeger, 2006.
Thomas R. Trautmann. Elephants and kings: an environmental history. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015.
‘Tro Chieng: the Most Anticipated Festival in Thanh Hoa’, Vietnam Pictorial, No. 699, March, 2017, pp. 30-33 (British Library shelf mark : SU216 (2) )

Sud Chonchirdsin, Curator for Vietnamese Ccownwork

08 May 2017

Okinawan manuscripts digitised

The British Library has recently digitised two important manuscripts relating to the Okinawan language (click on hyperlink to get to digital copies): English-Loochooan dictionary: with many phrases in the higher style of the literati, and a glossary of derivatives from the Chinese language (BL Or.40) and Elements or contributions towards a Loochooan & Japanese grammar (BL Or.41), written by the missionary Bernard Jean Bettelheim (1811-1870) and presented to the British Museum on 2 May 1867.

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Dedication from Bettelheim’s Dictionary (BL Or.40 f.2r)  noc:

As this dictionary was written while I was in part supported by kind English friends, and in grateful remembrance of many favors, both temporal and spiritual, recevied from Englishmen while in England & at Loochoo & especially for the gracious protection received from the English Government while in my mission field I wish this volume to become the property of the national museum in London, Great Britain. Cayuga, Illinois, U.S.A., Apr 10th 1867.

Bettelheim’s career
Bettelheim, the first Protestant missionary in what was then the independent Kingdom of Ryukyu (technically a tributary state of Qing China but de facto under the control of the Satsuma Domain on behalf of the Japanese Shogunate), was born in June 1811 in Pressburg (Bratislava) of Jewish descent. He was educated in Budapest and Vienna before moving to Italy where he obtained a doctorate of medicine at the University of Padua in September 1836. He converted from Judaism to Christianity in 1840 while serving as a military surgeon in Smyrna. Some months later he moved to London where in 1843 he married an Englishwoman, Elizabeth Mary Barwick (1821-1872), and took British nationality. The same year he joined the ‘Loochoo Naval Mission’, founded by Lt. Herbert Clifford, as a lay preacher and medical missionary, and on 1 May 1846 he arrived in Naha, Okinawa on board the ‘Starling’ accompanied by his wife and their two young children.

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Bernard Jean Bettelheim (Okinawa Prefectural Museum)

From the outset Bettelheim met with strong opposition from the local authorities and he and his family endured many slights and hardships. His efforts to preach were disrupted by officials and according to one account, ‘People even went so far as to put buckets of filth at his feet while he was speaking’ (Pierre Leturdu, quoted by Cary, p.23). Nevertheless Bettelheim remained in Ryukyu for eight years, working as a missionary, using his medical skills to treat the sick, studying the Okinawan (or ‘Loochooan’ language)[1] and translating parts of the Bible. Throughout these years he maintained a detailed journal which chronicles his trials, tribulations and successes as well as providing a vivid account of life in Ryukyu at that time. Bettelheim finally left Okinawa, to the relief of the authorities, aboard an American warship (part of Commodore Matthew Perry's fleet) in July 1854 and went to Hong Kong where his translations of the Gospels of St Luke and St John, and of the Acts of the Apostles and Romans were published in 1855 at the instigation of George Smith (1815-1871), Anglican Bishop of Victoria.

From Hong Kong Bettelheim moved to the USA, settling in New York. During the Civil War he served as an army doctor and was living in Cayuga, Illinois when he presented his works to the British Museum. He died of pneumonia in Brookfield, Missouri on 9 February 1870. In 1926 to commemorate the 80th anniversary of his arrival, a memorial was erected on the site of his former home in the precincts of the Gokokuji Temple in Naha. Although it was destroyed in World War II, a new memorial has since been set up.

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Memorial to Bettelheim at Gokouji, Nara (Source: Wikimedia Commons. Photo by LordAmeth)

Bettelheim was a controversial figure both in his own day and since, with biographers disagreeing over his personality, importance and legacy. His presence was a source of constant irritation to the Ryukyu authorities and his journal details the hardships he faced. His success as a missionary appears to have been limited - according to the highly critical account by George Kerr, he made just ‘one avowed convert in seven years’ (Kerr, p. 288). However, Earl Bull, a Methodist missionary in Okinawa, considered him a remarkable and self-sacrificing man but one who was ‘not fitted temperamentally to be a successful missionary’ (Bull, p. 122). Otis Cary said of Bettelheim, ‘The Kingdom of God is not to be built up by the disregard of the rights of others, and it is to be questioned whether its progress was not retarded rather than hastened by what was done in Loochoo’ (Cary, p.22). One of his more sympathetic critics, Anthony Jenkins, who edited his voluminous journal, wrote ‘A man of science, linguistics, theology, music and even amateur aesthetics, Bettelheim was one who whose brilliance was parallelled by self-importance’ (Jenkins, p.viii).

Grammar and Dictionary
When he arrived in Ryukyu, Bettelheim had very few resources to assist him in his efforts to learn the language. He had a copy of Medhurst’s Japanese-English Dictionary [2], Karl Gützlaff’s Japanese translations of portions of the Bible, and a glossary of Okinawan compiled by Clifford in 1818 which Bettelheim found to be full of mistakes. In his study of the local language, therefore, he was compelled to start from scratch, relying principally on what he could learn from the Okinawans themselves.

Bettelheim set to work on compiling his grammar shortly after his arrival. The British Library’s manuscript has a preface dated 4 September 1849 but as early as 10 September 1846 he noted in his journal that he had ‘already begun to collect notes towards a grammar of the Loochooan’. Work on the dictionary must have begun around the same time for by 20 March 1847 he wrote in the Dictionary ‘I am at “Brib”’. His linguistic labours continued for five years until finally he recorded in his journal - with a characteristic lack of modesty (Jenkins, Vol. I p.616):

25 Dec 1851 … the greatest entry of this day, yea The Greatest Entry of the Year I have to make is that the Dictionary is finished. Thanks be to God for patience & health given to accomplish such arduous work. With such materials as I had, I am sure never man wrote such Dictionary. And I am equally sure, notwithstanding all the defects the work may have, the degree of completeness to which it is brought was never given to a dictionary by one man [….] What a beastly labour of hand & back bending, besides mental toil & anxiety.

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Title page of Bettelheim’s Okinawan grammar (BL Or.41 f.1r)

The status of Okinawan as an independent language or as a dialect of Japanese has been much debated. It seems Bettelheim himself was confused at times - the title page of his grammar shows that the original title was Elements or contributions towards a Japanese grammar with ‘Loochooan &’ being added later. In his preface he writes ‘I have never been in Japan nor did I hear natives from Japan speak more than three times, we being entirely prevented from coming into contact with those arriving here’. Nevertheless he states:

From a regular comparison between our language spoken here, and that contained in the books referred to [3], I hope I am not at all mistaken in calling ours Japanese, with the exception of a trifling difference between the sounds’. He concludes that ‘though there may be,as in any other language there are, dialectic differences in the Japanese, and that therefore a Yedoman [4] may as much differ from a Shuri-samuré as a London Cockney does from a broadmouthed Scotchman, yet the language of both to all ends and purposes is the same, and they will be able to understand and converse with each other.

Perhaps he later came to change his mind and added ‘Loochooan’ to the title when presenting the manuscript to the British Museum.

Following the annexation of Ryukyu by Japan, the Ryukyuan languages were customarily regarded as Japanese dialects. They are now recognised as independent languages belonging to the Japonic language family, related to – but distinct from – Japanese. Nowadays, the language described in the grammar and dictionary is defined by linguists as ‘Shuri Ryukyuan’ or uchinaaguchi, the language of the royal court in Shuri, capital of the Ryukyu Kingdom, which enjoyed greater prestige among the various Ryukyuan languages [5].

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‘On the Japanese Letters’ – katakana as used to write Okinawan (BL Or.41 f.3v)

Although Bettelheim’s Bible translations into Okinawan were published in 1855, his grammar and dictionary were long overlooked. The grammar was finally edited and published in the 1980s (Kina et al. (1980-1984)). It contains 100 pages with sections ‘on the Japanese Letters’ (i.e. katakana), the phonology, morphology and syntax of Okinawan as well as some exercises and examples of the language. The dictionary, which runs to over 1,300 pages from A to Zoology, remains unpublished.

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The last page of Bettelheim’s dictionary – ‘Zone’ and ‘Zoology’: ‘Through the help of God finished Christmas Day 1851’ (BL Or.40 f. 626v)

The British Library also holds copies of Bettelheim’s Okinawan translations of the Gospel of St John (16011.a.8, 16011.a.11), Gospel of St Luke (16011.a.10), Acts of the Apostles (16011.a.6, 16011.a.9) and Romans (16011.a.7,16011.a.12), and a further translation of the Gospel of St Luke into Japanese (16011.a.13).

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Bettelheim’s Okinawan translations of the Gospels of St John (left) and St Luke (right) (BL 16011.a.8 & 16011.a.10)  noc

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Bettelheim’s Okinawan translations of St Paul’s Letter to the Romans (left) and Acts of the Apostles (right) (BL. 16011.a.12 & 16011.a.9)  noc

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First chapter of Bettelheim’s Okinawan translation of St Paul’s Letter to the Romans (BL. 16011.a.12)  noc

Whatever his successes or failings as a missionary, later generations have reason to be grateful for Bettelheim’s energy and dedication to recording the Okinawan language. His Grammar and Dictionary constitute an extremely valuable resource for the study of the language.


Further reading
Bull, Earl R., Okinawa or Ryukyu – the Floating Dragon. Newark (Ohio), 1958.
Cary, Otis, A History of Christianity in Japan. New York: Fleming H. Revell Co, 1909.
Griesenhofer, Christopher, ‘B. J. Bettelheim 1849 : The first grammar of Ryukyuan’ in Handbook of the Ryukyuan languages: history, structure and use. Berlin ; Boston, Walter Gruyter GmbH, 2015.
Jenkins, Anthony P., The Journal and correspondence of Bernard Jean Bettelheim 1845-1854. Parts I-II. Naha: Okinawa-ken Kyōiku Iinkai, 2005-2012.
Kerr, George H., Okinawa: the history of an island people. Rutland ; Tokyo : Tuttle & Co., 1958.
Kina Chōshō et al., “Betteruhaimu-cho ‘Ryūkyūgo to Nihongo no bunpō no yōkō’, Nantō bunka ; 2 (1980)-6 (1984).

Hamish Todd, Asian and African Collections
 CC-BY-SA

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[1] Okinawan is one of the five (some argue six) Ryukyuan languages. The obsolete terms ‘Loochoo’ and ‘Loochooan’ derive from Liuqiu, the Chinese pronunciation of the characters 琉球 which are read in Japanese as Ryūkyū.
[2] An English and Japanese, and Japanese and English vocabulary : compiled from native works, by Walter H Medhurst. Batavia, 1830.
[3] i.e. Medhurst’s dictionary and Gützlaff’s translations.
[4] i.e. citizen of Edo (Tokyo).
[5] For a detailed description of the grammar contained in Elements, see Griesenhofer.

03 May 2017

Pushing the envelope: Siam’s stunning stamps

To mark the passing of His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej and the accession of Maha Vajiralongkorn as the new King of Thailand, the Philatelic Collections is displaying a selection of Siamese philatelic and postal history materials from the Row Collection. Richard William Harold Row was born in 1884 at Kingsteignton, Devon to Richard Warren Row, a congregational minister, and his wife Eliza. An intelligent youngster with a passion for biology, natural history and taxonomy, their son focused on a scientific career, being appointed Assistant Lecturer and Demonstrator of Zoology at King’s College, University of London as well as being elected  a Fellow of both the Linnean and Zoological Societies in London. During the First World War Row was engaged in research at the Pathological Laboratory of the Fourth London General Hospital Malaria Department and tragically died during the Spanish flu pandemic on 16th February 1919.

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An unused Siam 1883 permanent issue 1 att postcard. British Library Philatelic Collections, Row Collection: Siam Postal Stationery 1883 1 att postcard. Noc

Like countless other philatelists, Richard Williams Harold Row initially attempted to form a general stamp collection, with the aim of acquiring a single example of issues released by various postal authorities. Looking down upon specialist collectors as “faddists and cranks, whose whole time was taken up with the elaborate investigation of the accidental features of an issue,” Row expressed this opinion to a friend who was a specialist collector. A lively debate ensued which not only challenged Row’s opinion but also encouraged him to form a specialist collection of Siamese stamps. Converted to the cause, the parallels between specialist collecting and taxonomy ensured Row was soon to become an avid active collector and leading authority on Siamese philately. During his lifetime Row repeatedly exhibited his collection in addition to publishing an important monograph and a number of papers on the subject.

By the time he was elected as a Fellow of the Royal Philatelic Society, London in 1916, Row’s collection was widely regarded as the world’s most specialised accumulation of philatelic material for any single country. With a keen eye to posterity, Row arranged his collection, having had it professionally described by Messrs Frank Godden Limited, a leading firm of stamp dealers. In accordance with Row’s wishes, after his death his mother Eliza presented the collection to the British Museum, and the donation was accepted by the Trustees on 11th October 1919. At the time the Museum’s first Philatelic Curator, Edward Denny Bacon, stated that Row’s bequest was the most significant philatelic donation to the British Museum since the donation of the Tapling Collection in 1891. The current display only showcases a small part of Row’s extensive collection and will be on display until 11th October 2020 in case 9, slides 33-50 of the philatelic display on the upper ground floor at St Pancras.

The display includes Row’s eight engraved and five lithographed essays for the 1881 unadopted issue, all depicting a white elephant, the national symbol used on the Siamese flags in the nineteenth century. Their provenance is shrouded in mystery yet they were probably commissioned for Siam’s first local postal service established by King Chulalongkorn at Bangkok in 1881 as an introductory step towards establishing a national post service.

Figure 1
Five lithographed proofs of the Siam 1881 unadopted issue. British Library Philatelic Collections, Row Collection: Siam 1881 unadopted issue, p. 1. Noc

Figure 2
Eight engraved proofs of the Siam 1881 unadopted issue. British Library Philatelic Collections, Row Collection: Siam 1881 unadopted issue, p. 1. Noc

Row’s collection of 1883 Permanent Issues being the first official postage stamps of Siam is also displayed. Comprising six denominations, only five of which were used, the design features a framed profile portrait of King Chulalongkorn facing left. The stamp was designed and engraved by W. Ridgway before being recess printed by Waterlow and Sons in London. Since Siam was not yet a member of the Universal Postal Union the stamps were not designed for international usage, consequently their textual inscriptions only being in the Thai script.

Figure 3
All denominations of the Siam 1883 permanent issue, with details below of denomination, colour, and quantity printed:
1 solot    Blue    500,000   
1 att    Carmine    500,000   
1 sio    Vermillion    500,000   
1 sik    Yellow    500,000   
1 salung    Orange     500,000    (various shades)
1 fuang    Red    (prepared but not issued)
British Library Philatelic Collections, Row Collection: Siam 1883 permanent issue, p. 1. Noc

Row’s collection of the Siam 1887 Permanent Issue is also displayed. Commissioned by the Siamese Post Office upon obtaining membership to the Universal Postal Union, they were designed and printed in eight denominations by Thomas De La Rue and Company in London, featuring a framed full portrait of King Chulalongkorn. Intended for international use this stamp issue contains a mixture of Thai and European scripts.

Figure 4
All denominations of the Siam 1887 permanent issue, with details below of denomination, colour, and quantity printed:
2 att    Green and carmine    1,534,560    (three printings)
3 att    Green and blue    528,000   
4 att    Green and brown    508,800   
8 att    Green and yellow    525,600   
12 att    Purple and yellow    2,694,000    (two printings)
24 att    Purple and blue    2,547,600   
64 att    Purple and brown    2,037,600   
British Library Philatelic Collections, Row Collection: Siam 1887 permanent issue, p. 1. Noc

Part of Row’s collection of the Rejected Die Issue is also displayed. In 1899 the Siamese Post Office commissioned the German security printing company Giesecke and Devrient to produce a new set of stamps. The Company developed two designs, one of which was rejected by King Chulalongkorn. Despite being rejected they were accidentally put on sale in small quantities towards the end of 1899.

Figure 5
Three denominations of the Siam 1899 rejected die issue used on cover. British Library Philatelic Collections, Row Collection: Siam 1899 rejected die issue cover. Noc

The majority of Row’s Postal Stationery Collection in addition to his collection of stamps used at Post Offices in Malaya at Kedah, Kelantan, Perlis and elsewhere are also displayed.  

Figure 7
Three used Siam 1905 issue stamps cancelled by the Alor Star Post Office in Kedah. British Library Philatelic Collections, Row Collection: Under Siamese Suzerainty, Kedah Issue of 1905. Noc

In addition to monographs and books, other relevant philatelic resources from Siam and Thailand within the British Library include the Tapling, Supplementary and UPU Specimen collections. These can be accessed by emailing the Philatelic Collections to book an appointment on philatelic@bl.uk.

Further Reading
Frajola, Richard. The Postage Stamps of Siam to 1940, [S.l. (USA)]: Postilion Publications, 1980.
Row, R.W.H. The Adhesive Postage Stamps of Siam, London, 2014.
Siamese Legation at Paris (Ed). Postal Organization of the Kingdom of Siam, London, 1886.

Richard Scott Morel
Curator, Philatelic Collections Ccownwork

With special thanks to Thea Buckley for helping me devise a suitable title for the blog.