THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Asian and African studies blog

5 posts from June 2017

22 June 2017

The Flotilla Tour of 1933: a Demonstration of British Naval Power in the Gulf

On 29 August 1933 the acting Political Resident in the Persian Gulf, Percy Gordon Loch, received a letter from the Political Agent at Kuwait, Lieutenant-Colonel Harold Dickson, informing him that there were strong rumours circulating in Kuwait that a Persian naval officer had hauled down the British flag at Basidu, the naval station for the British Persian Gulf Naval Squadron.

IOR_X_3630_0053
‘The Coast from Bushire to Basadore, in the Persian Gulf, Surveyed by Lieuts. G.B. Brucks & S.B. Haines, H.C. Marine 1828. Engraved by R. Bateman 43 Hart St. Bloomsbury’ (IOR/X/3630/27)
 noc

On 7 September 1933 Loch sent a circular telegram – addressed to the Senior Naval Officer in the Persian Gulf and the British Political Agents at Bahrain, Kuwait and Muscat – confirming that the British flag had been hauled down by a Persian officer, but that only a few days later, as soon as it was made aware of the incident, HMS Bideford had landed an armed party at Basidu and the flag had been rehoisted. Loch’s telegram further stated that His Majesty’s Chargé d'Affaires to Persia had been informed by the Persian Government that the officer had acted without authority, and that it had issued stringent instructions to its Navy to prevent similar occurrences in the future.

In a second circular telegram, issued on the same day, Loch requested that his previous message be translated into Arabic and distributed to the Arabian coast rulers, ‘who should be requested to give copies to all their notables, and by all other possible means to make it public.’ Loch concluded this telegram by stating – for the Political Agents’ personal information only – that the Royal Navy’s First Destroyer Flotilla was expected to arrive at Henjam on 15 September, for the purpose of displaying the British flag along the Arabian coast of the Gulf. An amended version of the message intended for circulation was issued the following day. In further correspondence with Dickson, Loch stressed that care should be taken to avoid linking the arrival of the flotilla with the incident at Basidu, and to avoid any suggestion of it being a threat to Persia.

IOR_R_15_5_173_f 52_2000
Message issued by acting Political Resident in the Persian Gulf, Percy Gordon Loch, for public distribution, 7 September 1933 (IOR/R/15/5/173, f 52)
 noc

The fact that the swiftly announced flotilla tour was a direct response by the British to the Basidu incident was tacitly acknowledged in a telegram from Dickson to Loch, dated 19 September 1933, which reported that the circular, followed by news of the flotilla, had had the ‘best possible effect’ on public opinion in Kuwait. The flotilla, consisting of one flotilla leader, HMS Duncan, and eight destroyers from the Mediterranean Fleet, spent nearly a month in the Gulf, visiting Basidu, Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Kuwait, Bahrain and Qatar along the way.

It was at Dubai, on 23 September 1933, where the rulers of the Trucial states were invited to a durbar (a public audience held by a British colonial ruler, deriving from the Persian and Urdu word for court), that the purpose of the flotilla’s tour was made very clear. In his address, Loch – alluding to a statement made at another durbar by George Curzon almost exactly thirty years earlier, during a tour of the Gulf as Viceroy of India – told the rulers that the British Navy’s intervention in the Gulf had ‘compelled peace and created order on the [s]eas’ and had saved them from extinction at the hands of their enemies. He reminded his audience that the various treaties between the British Government and the Trucial rulers (beginning with the General Maritime Treaty of 1820) had made the former the overlord and protector of the latter.

IOR_R_15_5_173_f 70_2000
Extract from speech delivered by acting Political Resident in the Persian Gulf, Percy Gordon Loch, 23 September 1933 (IOR/R/15/5/173, f 70)
 noc

Curzon’s tour of the Gulf in November 1903 (as discussed in an earlier blog post) was comprised of visits to Muscat, Sharjah, Bandar Abbas, Bahrain, Kuwait and Bushire, and was intended as a demonstration of British naval supremacy, in anticipation of perceived threats in the region from France, Russia and Germany. A photograph of the durbar that took place on board RIMS Argonaut, off the coast of Sharjah, on 21 November 1903, shows the Viceroy elevated on a stage while the Arab dignitaries sit or kneel to his right.

Photo 49_1_7_2000
Lord Curzon’s Durbar aboard RIMS Argonaut, Sharjah (British Library, Photo 49/1(7))
 noc

Thirty years later, the British took a relatively minor act of dissent at Basidu as an opportunity to make a very public display of their continuing naval dominance in the Gulf, in order to make it clear to the Persian Navy and to the Arab rulers that the British Government would not ignore even the slightest affront to its reputation. Loch’s remarks at Dubai were intended to remind the Trucial rulers of their relationship with the British Government and of their treaty obligations, as he warned them that ‘[t]hese engagements are binding on every one of you’.

The flotilla tour and the durbar appeared to have the desired effect. In his intelligence summary for September 1933, dated 28 September 1933, Dickson informed Loch that in Kuwait ‘[t]he general attitude of His Majesty’s Government has been most favourably commented on.’ Dickson went on to report that ‘[t]he hope is now generally expressed that the flotilla will not be withdrawn too soon, and that once for all the Persian Navy will be given to understand that it must behave itself.’ In an express letter to the Government of India’s Foreign Department, dated 19 October 1933, Loch concluded that confidence in the British had returned following the sight of the flotilla and the use of an armed party at Basidu ‘and will remain so just so long as we show ourselves determined.’

Primary sources:
British Library: India Office Records and Private Papers, 'File 3/3 Persian Navy', IOR/R/15/5/173
British Library: India Office Select Materials, Dane Collection: ‘Photographs of Lord Curzon’s tour in the Persian Gulf, November, 1903’, India Office Records and Private Papers Photo 49/1

Secondary sources:
John F. Riddick, The History of British India: A Chronology (London: Westport, 2006)
Kristopher Radford, ‘Curzon’s Cruise: The Pomp and Circumstances of Indian Indirect Rule of the Persian Gulf’, The International History Review, 35 (2013), 884-904

David Fitzpatrick, Content Specialist, Archivist, British Library/Qatar Foundation Partnership
 ccownwork

16 June 2017

Malay and Indonesian manuscripts exhibited in 1960

Until 1972 the British Library formed part of the British Museum. Its exhibition cases were located in the great King’s Library wing, built in 1827 to house the royal collection of over 60,000 books formed by King George III (1760–1820) and given to the nation in 1823 by his son King George IV. From July to August 1960, the King’s Library hosted ‘Books from the East: an exhibition of Oriental Manuscripts and Printed Books’ which aimed ‘to show something of the richness and variety of oriental literature’ through ‘books and manuscripts which stand out from the rest on account of their beauty, rarity, early date or unusual form’.

CDNII_BRIM_Painting_73
Interior of the King's Library, British Museum, by Frederick Hawkesworth S. Shepherd (1877–1948). The display cases visible continued to be used for books and manuscripts until the 1990s, when the British Library moved to St. Pancras.

One of the 22 cases in the exhibition 'Books from the East' was dedicated to eight Malay and Indonesian manuscripts, described below in the exhibition leaflet:

“In the centre are two Malay manuscripts: a Proclamation of 1811 by Sir Stamford Raffles written in the Malayan Arabic script, called Jawi, which is slowly being replaced by the modern romanised script; and the other – a seventeenth century translation of the Psalms of David – is in an early romanised script used by Dutch missionaries in the Netherlands East Indies. (Or.9484; Sloane 3115.) Two Javanese illuminated manuscripts are shown – A History of Kingdom of Mataram in East Java, which reached the peak of its power in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries (Add.12,287); and a Pawukon or Treatise on Judicial Astrology with coloured figure drawings illustrating the text (Add.12,338). The very large Buginese book is an example of the interesting Court Diaries that were kept by the Bugis in the Celebes from at least the seventeenth century. (Add.12,354.) Two Batak bark books with wooden covers, from Sumatra, are also shown (Add.19381 and Or.11761) together with a wooden tubular section cut from a length of large bamboo, and inscribed with the Batak alphabet (Or.5309). Both of the books are manuals of divination and magic.”

This display from 1960 has been reassembled here in photographic form below, with hyperlinks to digitised versions and relevant blog posts.

Or_9484_f003~v
Proclamation of the capture of Batavia by the British, 11 August 1811, in Malay in Jawi script. British Library, Or 9484

Sloane_ms_3115_f010v-11r
Psalms of David in Malay, late 17th century, probably written in the Moluccas. British Library, Sloane 3115, ff. 10v-11r

Add 12287 (2)
Babad Sejarah Mataram, Javanese history of the kingdom of Mataram from Adam to the fall of Kartasura; this copy early 19th c. British Library, Add 12287, ff. 3v-4r

Add_ms_12338_f092v-93r
Pawukon, Javanese calendrical compilation with illustrations of the gods and goddesses associated with each week (wuku), 1807. British Library, Add 12338, ff. 92v-93r

Add_ms_12354_f017v-18r
Bugis diary of Sultan Ahmad al-Salih Syamsuddin of Bone (r.1775-1812). British Library, Add 12354, ff. 17v-18r

Add 19381 (5)
Pustaha in Mandailing-Batak from north Sumatra, containing esoteric texts on divination and protection, showing on the right pictures of a labyrinth and the seal of Solomon, early 19th c. British Library, Add. 19381

Or 5309 - b
Bamboo cylinder with Batak syllabary, 19th c. British Library, Or. 5309

Or 11761 (1)
Pustaha in Simalungun-Batak, with nicely decorated wooden covers, a plaited bamboo strap, and carrying string. British Library, Or. 11761  noc

In subsequent years the King's Library witnessed more exhibitions of maritime Southeast Asian material, including Early Malay Printing 1603-1900, held from 20 January to 4 June 1989, and Paper and Gold: illuminated manuscripts from the Indonesian archipelago, held from 11 July to 27 October 1990. But 'Books from the East' appears to have been the first occasion on which Malay and Indonesian manuscripts were included in a thematic temporary exhibition in the British Museum.

Further reading:

M.C.Ricklefs, P.Voorhoeve and Annabel Teh Gallop, Indonesian manuscripts in Great Britain: a catalogue of manuscripts in Indonesian languages in British public collections. New Edition with Addenda et Corrigenda. Jakarta: Ecole française d’Extrême-Orient, Perpustakaan Nasional Republik Indonesia, Yayasan Pustaka Obor Indonesia, 2014. 

Golden Letters: writing traditions of Indonesia / Surat Emas: budaya tulis di Indonesia. Annabel Teh Gallop with Bernard Arps.  London: British Library; Jakarta: Yayasan Lontar, 1991

Download 1989-Early Malay Printing

Download 1990-Paper and Gold

Annabel Teh Gallop, Lead Curator, Southeast Asia  ccownwork

12 June 2017

Portraits of Dara Shikoh in the Treasures Gallery

Visitors to the Treasures Gallery at the British Library may notice that the display of Dara Shikoh album pages have changed. On exhibition are eight folios from the Dara Shikoh Album (Add.Or.3129), one of the great treasures of the Asian and African department. The album was compiled by Prince Dara Shikoh (1615–59), the eldest son and heir of the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan, and presented as a gift to his wife Nadira Banu Begum in 1646-47, whom he married in 1633. A new selection went into the gallery at the end of May in time for the Jaipur Literature Festival. You can find these in the Arts of the Book section near the entrance to the Magna Carta. For information on the previous display, please read our blog post on 'New Display of Dara Shikoh Album'.

The album contains seventy-four folios with sixty-eight paintings interspersed with calligraphy and gilt tooled leather covers.  Inside the album, paintings are arranged in facing pairs alternating with facing pages of calligraphy. The album features eighteen portraits of Dara Shikoh, portraits of princes and notable women of the court, holy men, and studies of natural history subjects. 

In this new display, visitors can view a set of facing portraits of Dara Shikoh as a teenager, approximately 15-18 years of age. This complementary set  features the prince standing against blossoming shrubs. He is dressed in fine white muslin garment worn over vivid coloured trousers. In both studies, he is adorned in necklaces composed of enormous pearls, jewelled bracelets and earrings. On the portrait to the right, he holds a gold tray containing two loose pearls and a red spinel.

Add Or 3129 f36 Add Or 3129 f35v
Portraits of Prince Dara Shikoh, unknown artists, Agra or Burhanpur, India, 1630-33. British Library, Add Or 3129, f.36 and f.35v.

The second pair of portraits features women at the Mughal court. This includes an unidentified beauty of the court and a  portrait of Dara Shikoh’s elder sister Jahanara who was an influential political figure and profoundly spiritual. She wrote ‘The Confidant of Spirits’, a biography of the Sufi saint Mu’in al-Din Chishti in 1640.

Add Or 3129 f14  Add Or 3129 f 13v

[Left] A lady of the court, by an unknown artist from Agra or Burhanpur, India, 1630-33. British Library, Add Or 3129, f.14. [Right] Princess Jahanara aged 18, attributed to Lalchand, Agra or Burhanpur, India, 1632. British Library, Add Or 3129, f.13v. 

The remaining four works on display were not intended as pairs, but are representative works from the album. This includes a study of two pigeons perched beside a portable dovecote, a pink crown imperial lily (one of eighteen floral studies in the album), a calligraphic exercise by Muhammad Husain al-Kashmiri who was one of the most eminent calligraphers during the reign of Mughal emperor Akbar (1555-1605), and an engraving of the Virgin and Child by either a Dutch or Italian artist from the 16th or 17th century.

Add Or 3129 f31v  Add Or 3129 f62 Add Or 3129 f40v
[Left] Two pigeons. [Right] A pink lily, artists unknown, Agra or Burhanpur, India, 1630-33. Calligraphic exercise by Muhammad Husain al-Kashmiri, northern India, c. 1590; flowers added, c. 1630. British Library, Add Or 3129, f. 31v, f.62, and f.40v.

For our audience and readers unfamiliar with the history of Mughal art, the European engraving pasted onto a Mughal album page may appear to be unconventional or even eccentric. In this album, the facing page too features western prints picturing St. Catherine of Sienna by Antonia Caranzano and a print of St. Margaret pasted into a Mughal album page.  Artists at the Mughal court were in fact exposed to European engravings, specifically Christian iconography, through Jesuit missionaries who visited the court of Emperor Akbar from 1580 onwards. Mughal artists were commissioned by Akbar and his son Jahangir to illustrate scenes on the life of Christ. While Mughal interpretations of Christian themes and studies of foreign visitors appear in albums, the original prints that inspired such works are more uncommon.

Add Or 3129 f42v
Engraving of the Virgin and Child by a Dutch or Italian artist, 16th or 17th century, British Library, Add Or 3129, f.42v


Further reading:

Falk, T., and Archer, M., Indian Miniatures in the India Office Library, London, 1981
Inayat Khan, The Shah Jahan Nama of ‘Inayat Khan, trans. A.R. Fuller, ed. W.E. Begley and Z.A. Desai, Oxford University Press, Delhi, 1990  
Losty, J.P., ‘Dating the Dara Shikoh Album: the Floral Evidence’, in Ebba Koch and Ali Anooshahr, eds., The Mughal Empire under Shah Jahan (1628-58) – New trends of research, forthcoming
Losty, J.P., and Roy, M., Mughal India: Art, Culture and Empire – Manuscripts and Paintings in the British Library, London, 2012
Losty, J.P., 'Mughal flower studies and their European inspiration', Asian and African Studies Blog, 14 March 2014.
Sims-Williams, Ursula, 'Princess Jahanara's biography of a Sufi saint', Asian and African Studies Blog, 01 February 2013.

 

07 June 2017

Pem nem: a 16th-century Urdu romance goes on-line

One of the treasures of the Urdu manuscript collection at the British Library has been digitised and made available online. The Pem Nem (Add.16880) is one of the finest examples of manuscript illustration from the court of Sultan Ibrahim Adil Shah II, who ruled the kingdom of Bijapur from 1580 to 1627. Containing 34 miniature paintings illustrating the Sufi love story of prince Shah Ji and princess Mah Ji, the manuscript was written by an author by the name of Hasan Manju Khalji, bearing the pen name of Hans.

Add_ms_16880_f082v_2000   Add_ms_16880_f087r_2000
Left: The hero, Shah Ji, faints at his first sight of his beloved, Mah Ji (BL Add.16680, f. 82v)
Right: The hero, Shah Ji is enflamed with passion (BL Add.16680, f. 87r)
 noc

While the author claims in the introduction that the manuscript was written in the year 999 AH (1590/91 CE), scholars doubt that this claim is more than an attempt to harmonise the year of the manuscript's production with Ibrahim Adil Shah II's fixation with the nauras, the nine rasas or essences/flavours art. The introduction tells us that the body of the poem contains 199 rhyming couplets (dohas, two lines of seven syllables) and 999 quatrains (caupais, four lines with the rhyme ABCB), and praises the 99 names of God, suggesting that the text is indeed structured around the ruler's fixation with the number nine. Although the dating of the text to the exact year of 999 AH may be no more than poetic license, the art historian and expert on the Bijapur court, Deborah Hutton, has identified stylistic and textual details that allow the creation of the manuscript to be safely dated to the period 1591-1604 (Hutton, 'The Pem Nem', p. 45).

Originally mis-identified in Blumhardt's Catalogue of Hindi, Panjabi and Hindustani Manuscripts (1899) as a variation on the Padmavat of Jayyasi, the text of the manuscript was later studied by the eminent Urdu scholar, David Matthews, who describes the spiritual love story of the two main protagonists that differs from the Padmavat and is a unique work, although it shares the central feature of narrating a spiritual quest through the trope of a love story.

Add_ms_16880_f090v_2000   Add_ms_16880_f135r_2000
Left: Convinced that Mah Ji is only a reflection of the image in his heart, he weeps a stream a tears (BL Add.16680, f. 90v)
Right: Mah Ji passing time with her companions during her period of separation and longing, playing board games and tending to pet birds (BL Add.16680, f. 135r)
 noc

Not unlike other Persianate tales of spiritual awakening and the search for truth, the story begins with the hero, Shah Ji, encountering an image of his as-yet-unseen beloved, Mah Ji, brought to him by a tortoise, while Mah Ji receives a similar portrait-via-tortoise delivery. The two main characters fall deeply in love (Matthews, 'Pem Nem', p. 174). This curious scene, quite unfortunately, is not pictured among the illustrations of the manuscript. The hero's love for the heroine is uniquely depicted through the innovative visual metaphor of the princess' image appearing on his breast throughout the illustrations.   After falling in love, Shah Ji embarks on a journey to find his beloved, which takes him to an island where his paternal uncle rules as king, and where his daughter, Shah Ji's beloved, resides.   Upon finding his beloved, Shah Ji faints, and then later refuses to believe that Mah Ji is anything more than a pale reflection of the image on his chest, who he mistakes for the real beloved. In a case of mistaking the real for the reflection, Shah Ji abandons Mah Ji. At this point, the text integrates the Indic baramasa genre, which depicts the emotions of the different seasons as the twelve months of the year pass, into the Persian masnavi tradition, or Sufi love story of spiritual awakening written in narrative verse.   During her period of abandonment, Mah Ji is depicted as aflame with longing - quite literally on fire - for her absent lover, just as the same striking visual metaphor was used to paint Shah Ji's desire for his beloved before he encountered her.   Mah Ji is painted in scenes of amusement with her companions in the garden of the palace, although she maintains an isolated and melancholy air, such as in the images of celebrations for Holi, in which she broods while a maid fans her, presumably to cool her passions.

Add_ms_16880_f138r_2000   Add_ms_16880_f147r_2000
Left: The heroine is aflame with passion and longing for her absent beloved (BL Add.16680, f. 138r)
Right: While Mah Ji’s companions prepare fireworks and celebrate, Mah Ji sits alone and is fanned by an attendant (BL Add.16680, f. 147r)
 noc

After much solitary meditation, the hero of the story, Shah Ji, realised the spiritual error of mistaking the real beloved, the actual Mah Ji before him, for the reflection of Mah Ji in his heart, and returns to the palace to much rejoicing. The largest number of illustrations, twelve of the thirty four, in the manuscript represent the celebrations and rituals surrounding their union in marriage. As in other tales of the same genre, the union of the lover and beloved is a metaphor for the union of the soul with God after mistaking the image, the majaz or symbol (here the image of Mah Ji on the hero's chest) for the haqiqa, or truth.

Add_ms_16880_f166r_2000   Add_ms_16880_f232r_2000
Left: Realising that Mah Ji is the real beloved and not an illusion, Shah Ji returns, and then faints (BL Add.16680, f. 166r)
Right: The lovers are now united in marriage, and Mah Ji offers Shah Ji paan (BL Add.16680, f. 232r)
 noc

While the images of the manuscript have been studied by art historians, much research remains to be done on the text and its languages. David Matthews has commented that, "One of the most striking features of the work is its language. The gist of the text can be understood with a little patience; the grammar, syntax and meaning of many verses defy interpretation," and he has also identified the use of many words borrowed from Marathi and Telegu into the Dakani Urdu verse of the manuscript (Matthews, 'Eighty Years', p. 96), suggesting that a team of specialist scholars would have to examine the text of the manuscript together in order to make full sense of it. While the images have been studied, published and displayed, Marika Sardar in her description of the manuscript for the Sultans of the Deccan India exhibition, has observed that some of the paintings, undertaken by three separate artists, seem to date from a later period and serve the purpose of expanding the illustrative narrative without adding content. She also comments that the manuscript seems to have been dis-bound and re-bound slightly out of order, so much work remains to be done on both the text and the study of the images. While the gist of the story and the dating of the images have been established, further study of the linguistic and art historical intricacies are still needed, which should be helped by the availability of the digitised manuscript on the British Library's website. Regardless of the mysteries surrounding certain aspects of the manuscript, the artists have given us the striking visual metaphor of the hero carrying an image of the heroine in his heart throughout the course of his spiritual quest, and also the flames of passion quite literally springing from the two main protagonists as they long to be together.


Bibliography and Further Reading
Along with other manuscripts from the courts of the Deccan Sultanates, the Pem Nem travelled to New York as a loan to Metropolitan Museum of Art for the 2015 exhibition, Sultans of Deccan India 1500-1700, Opulence and Fantasy, for which Jeremiah Losty wrote a blog (British Library loans to Sultans of Deccan exhibition in New York).

See also:
Deborah Hutton, "The Pem Nem: A Sixteenth-Century Illustrated romance from Bijapur" in Sultans of the South: Arts of India's Deccan Courts, 1323-1687, edited by Navina Najat Haidar and Marika Sardar (Metropolitan Museum of Art and Yale University Press, 2011): 44-63.
D.J. Matthews, "Eighty Years of Dakani Scholarship", The Annual of Urdu Studies, No. 8 (1993): 91-108.
David Matthews, "Pem Nem: A 16th Century Dakani Manuscript" in From Cairo to Kabul: Afghan and Islamic Studies presented to Ralph Pinder-Wilson, edited by Warwick Ball and Leonard Harrow (London: Melisende, 2002): 170-175.
Marika Sardar, "The Manuscript of the Pem Nem (The Laws of Love)" in Sultans of Deccan India 1500-1700, Opulence and Fantasy, by Navina Najat Haidar and Marika Sardar (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2015): 97-98.
Mark Zebrowski, Deccan Painting (Sotheby Publications, University of California Press, 1983): 67-121.

 

Nur Sobers-Khan, Lead Curator for South Asia
 ccownwork

02 June 2017

Exploring Thai art: Reginald Le May

Reginald Le May was one of many European professionals who served in the Siamese Government during the first decades of the 20th century. He lived and worked for a quarter of a century in Siam (now Thailand), where he had the opportunity to travel intensively in the northern and north-eastern parts of the country. During this time, he accumulated collections of coins, stamps and Buddhist art. After his departure from Siam in 1933, he continued to study and research Thai Buddhist art, and with his publications and exhibitions Le May helped to publicise Thai Buddhist art in Europe.

Le May 1
Documentation about a small crystal Buddha statue that Le May collected in the North of Siam. British Library, MSS Eur C275/6

Born in 1885 at Wadhurst, Sussex, as the second son of the successful hop merchant Herbert Le May and Harriet Jane Le May (Newman), Reginald Le May received his education at Framlingham College, Suffolk, from 1898 to 1902. The following three years he spent in France and Switzerland studying French and German, and in 1907 he passed the Public Examination for the Far Eastern Consular Service under the Foreign Office. He served in the British Consular Service in Siam from 1908 to 1922, in 1909 winning a British government prize for his proficiency in Thai language. He served as Vice-Consul at Chiang Mai from 1915 to 1917, and afterwards as Vice-Consul at Bangkok until he was transferred to Saigon in 1920. In 1916 he married Dorothy Madeline Castle, with whom he had one daughter.

During his time in Chiang Mai, Le May travelled extensively, often by elephant, to rural areas and studied the culture of the native people. In his book An Asian Arcady: the land and peoples of Northern Siam (Cambridge, 1926) he reminisces: “When I was living in the north of Siam, it was my good fortune to travel extensively through most of the province of Bayap, and to see the lives of the Lao people at fairly close range. I was … quickly attracted by their many delightful qualities, and I used the opportunity to gather as much information as I could regarding their history, customs, and folk-lore” (preface, p. v). This book gave one of the most detailed descriptions of Northern Thai and Lao history and culture at that time, with numerous valuable photographs taken by the author during his trips.

Le May 2
Le May’s diplomatic travel document issued in Bangkok in 1915. British Library, MSS Eur C275/4

In 1922 Le May was offered the post of Economic Adviser to the Siamese Government, which he accepted happily. In this role, he was from 1926 to 1932 adviser to Prince Purachatra, Head of the State of Railways and Minister of Commerce. On behalf of the Siamese Government he toured Burma, northern India and British Malaya to study rural conditions, and an economic survey took him to north-eastern Siam. He retired from this post in 1933 and returned to the UK via Cambodia, Vietnam, Indonesia, the Philippines, Hong Kong, China and the US.

Le May 3
Photograph of Reginald Le May made around 1925 at the Talat Noi Photo Studio in Bangkok. British Library, MSS Eur C275/6    

Although Le May’s professional duties had little to do with Thai art and culture, he had a strong interest particularly in the history of Thai and Southeast Asian Buddhist art, but also in Thai coins and the ancient coinage of the Tai-speaking peoples, as well as the evolution of Thai stamps. For many years, he maintained a close relationship with the Siam Society, which published in 1932 his book on The coinage of Siam (reprinted in 1961). The book was the outcome of ten years of research and for many years it was the standard work on this topic. Other publications that appeared during his time in Siam were The standard catalogue of Thai stamps (Siam Philatelic Society, 1920) and Siamese tales – old and new (London, 1930).

Le May 4
Notes on a small bronze elephant figurine, dated 1603 A.D., collected by Le May in Northern Siam. MSS Eur C275/6

Le May was respected for his deep knowledge of Thai art and culture. He had lively written conversations with Prince Damrong, Prince Paribatra, Prince Chula Chakrabongse and other Thai intellectuals. In 1929-30 a fine scholarly dispute between Le May and one P.K. was published in the Bangkok Times on the theme of tradition and traditions. On 26 March, 1929, Le May wrote on the value of tradition: “Without tradition, there is no continuity of effort or purpose … It is this which enables the past to live in the present, and which gives us a strong sense of tradition and of our responsibility towards our association and country.” This was in response to criticism from the more progressively oriented P.K., published on 4 February of the same year, of Le May’s book: “Mr le May, in his book ‘An Asian Arcady’ deplores our lack of tradition. We differ from him. We see very little good in tradition. We are not in a position to be able to afford it. We think our adaptability is an asset and only wish we had more of it.”   

Le May 5
Prince Damrong admiring sculptures at the National Museum in Bangkok in 1928, photograph in Le May’s memories. British Library, MSS Eur C275/7

After his return to the UK, Le May pursued a doctorate at Cambridge University in 1934, and was awarded a PhD for his thesis on “Buddhist art in Siam”, which was published in 1938 and soon became a standard work on Thai and Southeast Asian Buddhist art. He began lecturing on Buddhist art at London University and at the Royal Asiatic and the Royal Central Asian Societies in London, at the EFEO and Musée Guimet in Paris, and the 1938 International Congress of Orientalists in Brussels.

In 1937, Le May’s collection of Thai art was displayed at an exhibition in Cambridge with the title Buddhistic sculpture from Siam. According to the exhibition leaflet, the scope of the display covered the Mon period (400-1000 A.D.), the Khmer period (1000-1250 A.D., the Sukhothai and U-Tong periods (1200-1300 A.D.), and the Ayutthaya period (1350-1600 A.D.) Being the first major exhibition of Thai Buddhist art, it drew so much interest that it was repeated in Oxford in 1938 and finally in London in the same year, under the auspices of the Royal India Society, where it was viewed by Queen Mary.

Le May 6
Announcement of Le May’s exhibition of Thai Buddhist art at Cambridge University in 1937. British Library, MSS Eur C275/3

Afterwards, some exhibits were acquired by the British Museum and the Toronto University Museum. Le May’s collection of Siamese stamps was presented to the National Museum and Library in Bangkok, and parts of his collection of ceramic wares were lent for many years to the Victoria and Albert Museum in London and then donated to the British Museum. Some items from his collection of coins were also given to the British Museum.

Le May 7
Examples of 18th-century Thai coins with marks representing lotus blossoms, elephants, conch shells.  Reginald Le May, The coinage of Siam (Bangkok, 1932), plate IX. British Library, 07757.cc.21

Numerous scholarly articles by Le May appeared in the Burlington Magazine, the Journal of the Siam Society, the Indian Art Letters, and the Journal of the Royal India, Pakistan and Ceylon Society, mostly on Thai and Southeast Asian Buddhist art and ceramics. In 1954 Le May’s most comprehensive work, The culture of Southeast Asia, was published by Allen & Unwin, London. This book, which was the outcome of more than 25 years of research, is a study of the formative period between 500 A.D. and 1500 A.D. of Southeast Asian art and culture, covering both mainland and insular Southeast Asia.

From around 1950 on, Le May published a family history (1958), and compiled his memories of his years in Southeast Asia which resulted in eleven albums containing original photographs, letters, newspaper cuttings, invitation cards, etc., which are held at the British Library (MSS Eur C275/1-11). Reginald Le May passed away in 1972, aged 87. In their obituary, the Siam Society remembered that “Reginald Le May's affection for this country and the Thai people was hard to match. Indeed, to the last days of his life, he called Siam ‘the country of my adoption’."

Le May 8
Christmas and New Year wishes Le May received from Chiang Mai in 1950. This is a very rare example of 20th-century printing on palm leaves, with hand-coloured illustrations. British Library, MSS Eur C275/8

Further reading

Le May, Reginald, Records of the Le May family in England, 1630-1950. London, Tonbridge: Whitefriars Press, 1958
Obituary: Reginald Le May. Journal of the Siam Society vol. 60.2/1972, pp. 395-6

Jana Igunma, Henry Ginsburg Curator for Thai, Lao and Cambodian Ccownwork