Asian and African studies blog

4 posts from November 2017

29 November 2017

Fifty shades of Kiều

Kim Văn Kiều, or the Tale of Kiều, by Nguyễn Du (1765-1820), is a jewel in the crown of Vietnamese classical writing. In Vietnam, as Nathalie Huynh Chau Nguyen (2003: 18) points out, the Tale of Kiều has been embraced by the general public, who see it as a romance, a book of divination, and a moral fable, while scholars explore its literary, linguistic, philosophical, political and social aspects. The eponymous heroine is the most acclaimed lady in Vietnamese literature, and her captivating but tragic story has inspired many artistic depictions. The most outstanding version in the British Library collection is undoubtedly a manuscript which was completed around 1894 (Or 14844), written in Hán-Nôm with illustrations of scenes from the story on each page, and a fine yellow silk binding with dragon patterns. Shown in this post are a selection of images of Kiều from this beautiful manuscript, alongside more recent portrayals from printed books.

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Kiều demonstrates her talent for playing the Ho guitar. British Library, Or 14844, f. 3r  noc

Literary critics have argued that the theme of the story is an allegory of Nguyễn Du’s guilt and conflict of interest in agreeing to work for the new regime (the Nguyễn dynasty, 1802-1945) which had been indirectly involved in the overthrow of his former master. This behaviour was unacceptable in traditional Confucian Vietnamese society as it was tantamount to betraying filial piety. Hence the theme of the story was a poignant reminder for Nguyễn Du, who was born into a high profile mandarin family, and whose father served as a high ranking minister under the Le dynasty.

Nguyễn Du was inspired by a Chinese Qing dynasty novel ‘The Tale of Chin, Yu , Ch’ia’ while he was leading a diplomatic mission to Beijing in 1813. He re-wrote the story by using ‘lục-bát’ or ‘six-eight’ verse form. The ’lục-bát’ was a commonly used and popular style in folk poetry and it was conducive to reciting. Its original title in Vietnamese is Ðoạn Trường Tân Thanh (A New Cry From a Broken Heart). However, it is better known as Truyện Kiều or Kim Văn Kiều.

The name of the story Kim Văn Kiều derives from the names of three important characters: Kim Trọng, Kiều’s fiancé and her first love; Thúy Văn, Kiều’s younger sister; and Thúy Kiều herself; the main protagonist being, of course, Thúy Kiều. Arguably the most recognised and stereotypical image of Kiều is of her playing a musical instrument, usually depicted either as a Ho guitar or a p’i p’a lute. In his English translation of the story, Lê Xuân Thủy describes her talents and beauty: "The bow of her eyes looked like two graceful autumn waves ... flowers envied her brightness, and willow shivered for not being so clear. With one sidelong glance, then another, she could subvert empires and put cities in revolution ... Being a thorough master of the Cung Thương five-tone scale, she excelled chiefly in playing Ho guitar ... (1960?: 22-23).

Kim Văn Kiều, by Le Xuân Thủy (1960?). British Library, 16690.a.40, front cover

Tryuện Kiều, by Nguyễn Thạch Giang (2010). British Library, YP.2011.b.433, back cover

Kiều was born to a family of scholars and was a vision of idealised Confucian womanhood: beautiful, chaste, obedient and loyal to her family (Nathalie 2003: 14). A virtuous and graceful young woman, however her fate was doomed, and she had to sacrifice her love and life to save her father and her family. After a noble upbringing, she gradually fell into disgrace, being forced to work as a prostitute, not once but twice, and had four husbands. At one point she even stole valuables from her master to survive. After fifteen years of suffering, she was finally reunited with her first love, Kim Trọng. However, after all she had gone through she could not see herself as his wife, and therefore remained in a platonic relationship with him, and asked her younger sister, Thúy Văn, to marry him instead.

Or14844 f06r
Kiều meets Kim Trọng for the first time. British Library, Or 14844, f. 6r  noc

The first meeting of Kiều and Kim Trọng in Truyện Kiều (2010). British Library, YP.2011.b.433, pp. [20-21]

It is hard to imagine how this pure and talented young lady faced and coped with her subsequent downfall. In the following images, the manuscript artist depicts the lowest point in Kiều’s life, when she was sold by her first husband to a brothel. Tứ Bà, the madame and owner of the brothel cajoled Kiều into prostitution: ‘Listen to this my daughter, and keep this in mind: there are seven interior attitudes and eight intimate techniques to amuse people …until you can turn them upside down like stones…you must know how to charm them, sometimes by the tips of your lips, sometimes by the corner of your eyes, sometimes by reciting alluring poems, and occasionally by the flowers of your smile’ (Le Xuân Thủy, 1960?: 176-77).

Or14844 f29v
Tứ Bà taught Kiều how to use her charms to attract men. British Library, Or 14844, f. 29v  noc

Or14844 f25r
Kiều in Tú Bà’s brothel. British Library, Or 14844, f. 25r   noc

As Nathalie (2003: 13) points out, Kiều and this literary genre ‘stand out as a character of universal and enduring appeal, a vulnerable individual with whom those most acutely affected by change and misfortune can readily identify. For generations of Vietnamese who have experienced years of turmoil, changing regimes, colonisation, post-colonisation, war and exile, Kiều’s troubles strike a deep emotional chord.’

Or14844 f38v
Kiều is kidnapped on the order of Hoạn Thư, the first wife of Kiều’s second husband. British Library, Or 14844, f. 38v   noc

The same scene depicted in Truyện Kiều (2010). British Library, YP.2011.b.433, p. [119]

Reflecting its popularity, Kim Văn Kiều has been widely published in various forms, and in the British Library alone, there are over thirty books on this Vietnamese classic. Literary criticisms, different interpretations and translations of Kiều, both in Vietnamese and foreign languages, continue to be published; for instance, in 2004, Vladislav Zhukov translated the story into English with his own interpretations. His version complements well other widely recognised English translations, especially those by Lê Xuân Thủy in the early 1960s and by Huynh Sanh Thong in 1973.

Further reading

Nathalie Huynh Chau Nguyen. Vietnamese Voices: Gender and Cultural identity in the Vietnamese Francophone Novel. DeKalb: Illinois: Northern Illinois University, 2003.
Kim Văn Kiều: English translation, footnotes and commentaries, by Lê Xuân Thủy. Fort Smith, Arizona: Sống Mới, [1960?]
Ta Quang Khôi. Nhân vật truyện Kiều, in Hồn Việt. Vol. 36, No. 323 & 324, January-February 2011, pp. 138-143.
Nguyễn Du. Truện Kiều : thơ và tranh. Nguyễn Thạch Giang, dịch. Hà Nội : Văn học, 2010.

Sud Chonchirdsin, Curator for Vietnamese Ccownwork

24 November 2017

The latest from the British Library’s Hebrew Manuscripts Digitisation Project: Introducing Phase 2

Our followers will be pleased to learn that the second phase of the Hebrew Manuscripts Digitisation Project (HMDP2) started last year, and we are delighted to announce that we have now published 173 newly catalogued and digitised manuscripts online. This phase of the project is part of the International Digital Library of Hebrew Manuscripts (Ktiv), an initiative of the National Library of Israel in cooperation with the Friedberg Jewish Manuscript Society. Ktiv is a project to make tens of thousands of Hebrew manuscripts from hundreds of collections around the world available via a single platform. To date, the project has made available approximately 50% of all known Hebrew manuscripts in the world!

As part of HMDP2, we aim to digitise at least 1250 Hebrew manuscripts, in addition to the 1302 already digitised through phase 1 of the project, which was funded by The Polonsky Foundation. Manuscripts from both phases will be made available online via the British Library’s Digitised Manuscripts website and NLI’s Ktiv: International Digital Library of Hebrew Manuscripts.

Festival prayer book according to the Roman rite, from the first half of the 15th century, Italy. This manuscript can be viewed in its entirety here (BL Or 10752 f. 58v)

Continuing our digitisation work from phase 1 of the project, the range of manuscripts included in Phase 2 is vast and representative of the huge geographical and cultural scope of Jewish life and history around the world. It includes collection items from Ashkenazi, Sephardi and Karaite traditions, and from as far afield as Yemen and India, and manuscripts also created in the UK.

Festival prayer book according to the Western-Ashkenazi rite, from 1650-1, Worms. This manuscript is yet to be published (BL Or 10641 f. 32r

Their age, size and material show great variety as well. The oldest items that are being digitised in Phase 2 are some small papyri fragments from 4th-century Oxyrhynchus, Egypt (Or 9180a-e). They were discovered by the Egyptologist Sir Flinders Petrie in 1922.

A close up of BL Or 9180 fragment ‘A’, from c.4th century, Oxyrhynchus. This manuscript is yet to be published


4_Add 27165 Fore-edge
Kabbalistico-midrashic commentaries on the books of the Hebrew Bible, 1721-1758, Italy. This huge Kabbalistic work by Moses David Valle contains 1032 folios! This manuscript is yet to be published (BL Add MS 27165)

The manuscripts in HMDP2 also represent the wide range of languages and dialects that developed in Jewish communities in the diaspora. These include Aramaic, Judeo-Arabic, Ladino, Yiddish, and Judeo-Italian. And if it was not enough, we are also digitising our significant Judeo-Persian manuscripts such as the 18th-century collection of poetical works (Or 10196) and the illustrated Fath nama, a poetical account of the story of Joshua (Or 13704, see our recent blog A Judeo-Persian epic, the Fath Nama 'Book of Conquest'). We also have manuscripts written in Hungarian (Or 10134), Syriac (Or 9926), Judeo-Urdu (see our post A unique Judaeo-Urdu manuscript, Or.13287), Judeo-Hindi (Or 14014) and Judeo-Gujarati (Or 13835).

Anthology of Judeo-Persian poems, from 1775-1825, Iran. The collection includes poems by Hafiz and Rumi. This manuscript is yet to be published (BL Or 10194 f. 8v)

The majority of the manuscripts we are digitising in Phase 2 derive from the British Library’s Gaster collection of Hebrew and Samaritan manuscripts. The famed Romanian Jewish bibliophile, linguist, folklorist and communal leader Dr Moses Gaster (1856–1939), built up a vast library in his areas of expertise including Hebraica, Judaica, Samaritan, Rumanian and various other fields of scholarship. The largest segment of manuscripts from Gaster’s library (c. 1000 manuscripts) was purchased by the British Museum in 1924, but the objects were not accessioned until several years later. The Gaster manuscripts span nearly a millennium with the earliest examples dating from c. 10th-11th century. The full gamut of Jewish subjects is represented in the collection which includes among others, biblical, liturgical and legal texts, kabbalistic, polemical and scientific works.

Among Gaster’s many interests was the Samaritan community, and he became an authority on Samaritan language and literature. The Samaritans are an ethno-religious group living in Israel and the West Bank. Their religion ‘Samaritanism’, is closely related to Judaism, and based on the Samaritan Pentateuch. The Samaritan alphabet is a direct descendent of the Paleo-Hebrew alphabet, which was a variant of the Phoenician alphabet. 88 of our 178 Samaritan manuscripts come from Gaster’s collection. The manuscripts we will be digitising during Phase 2 include Samaritan Pentateuchs (codices and scrolls), liturgies for different festivals, amulets, chronicles and historical works, calendars and marriage contracts.

Samaritan liturgy for Passover from 1748, Nablus. This manuscript can be viewed it its entirety here (BL Add MS 19005 f.23r)

For a list of all Hebrew and Samaritan manuscripts that we have digitised to date as part of Phase 2, please follow this link (Phase 2 Digitised Manuscripts). We are also live-tweeting everything we publish, so please follow us on Twitter @BL_HebrewMSS to see all the manuscripts as they are available online. 


Ilana Tahan and Miriam Lewis, Hebrew Manuscripts Digitisation Project

20 November 2017

Il Kaulata Maltia – The only extant copy of the first journal in Maltese

Since September I have been working on the Maltese collection at the British Library, where I am tasked with cataloguing Maltese publications. The library boasts an impressive range of material ranging from 16th century publications by the Knights of Malta to books published in 2017. Amongst these there are some of the earliest references to the Maltese language as in Jean Quintin’s historical and geographical survey of the islands Insulæ Melitæ descriptio (1536, BL 795.g.6.(1.)), contemporary accounts of the Great Siege of Malta from 1565, some of the earliest works on the Maltese language by Agius De Soldanis from 1750, and a complete collection of Mikiel Anton Vassalli’s works from 1791.

Map copy
Map of the Maltese islands in Jean Quintin’s Insulæ Melitæ descriptio ex commentariis rerum quotidianarum (1536). (BL 795.g.6.(1.))

The turning point in the history of Maltese publications was the liberalisation of the press in 1839, which formally came into force in March of that year following a wider drive for political autonomy in the British colony throughout that decade. The earliest wave of independent newspapers to be published in Malta came on the heels of this development. These newspapers were a largely multilingual affair, with the vast majority being in Italian or English, bilingual Italian and English (Il Mediterraneo, BL NEWS8160 NPL), and even trilingual in Italian, English and French (Il Corriere Maltese, BL NEWS8160 NPL). However, a number of short lived journals in Maltese started popping up at the same time, with one issue of the English-language publication The Harlequin published on the 6th of December, 1838, under the title L’Arlecchin, jeu Kaulata Inglisa u Maltìa, (Cassola, 2011,p. 22), being entirely in the vernacular. One month later, on the 15th of January, 1839, the first issue of the first Maltese journal Il Kaulata Maltia was published followed by two other issues. Only one copy of the first issue was thought to have survived in a private collection in Malta, and a reproduction of its frontispiece was first published by Ġużè Cassar Pullicino (1964). The second and third issues have thus far eluded researchers for decades until I recently discovered a copy of the full three-issue set in the British Library newspaper collection (view Kaulata pdf here).

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The frontispieces of issues 1 and 3 of Il Kaulata Maltia (1839) (BL NEWS8160 NPL)

The editor of Il Kaulata Maltia was James Richardson[1], an Anglican missionary for the Church Missionary Society (CMS) who was also the editor of the aforementioned The Harlequin as well as The Phosphorous. The CMS was no stranger to publishing in Maltese in the years prior to the liberalisation of the press. In fact, the society’s own press, established by William Jowett in 1822, was one of the few allowed to operate before 1839 despite stringent press laws, and serviced other non-Catholic Christian denominations such as the Methodist Wesleyan Missionary Society. Its operations were nonetheless limited in the nature of the material which could be published, and were subject to the governor’s approval. The British government gave the green light to Anglican and other Protestant groups to operate and publish material in Malta yet pledged to protect the local Catholic population (Zammit, 2008, p. 258). This meant that no material of a religious nature intended for local circulation was allowed, and so output was limited to religious and educational material in Arabic, Turkish, Syriac, Italian and Greek and educational material in Maltese or about the Maltese language. Most notably, the CMS’s press was responsible for the publication of a number of works by Mikiel Anton Vassalli, known as “The father of the Maltese language”, including a revised edition of his Grammatica della Lingua Maltese (1827, BL 621.e.4), Motti, aforismi e proverbii Maltesi (1828, BL 14599.c.43), and Storja tas-Sultan Ciru (1831, BL 14599.b.58). All of these books fail to credit the CMS for their publication, instead using simply “Malta” or “Published by the author” despite their non-religious content, although this may have been done to avoid announcing Vassalli’s close ties with a Protestant group (Zammit, 2008, p. 259). In fact, Vassalli’s 1829 translation of the Gospels and Acts of the Apostles (BL was also published by the CMS, albeit in R. Watts’ press in London, thus circumventing the ban on religious material. Of particular note are the Wesleyan Missionary Society’s Ktyb -yl-Qari Ghat-tfal (1831, BL 14599.c.3) and Ktyb yl Qari fuq bosta h̡uejjeg mah̡tura myn kotba Kattolici (1832, BL 621.a.9), both written by Cleardo Naudi which despite their religious content, were allowed to be printed as they were intended for exclusive use in its Malta Charity School.

Excerpt from Cleardo Naudi’s Ktyb -yl-Qari Ghat-tfal (1831), which uses Mikiel Anton Vassalli’s original orthography before the further Latinised variety used in Il Kaulata Maltia. BL 14599.c.3)

The CMS’s focus on nurturing the Maltese language was a well calculated effort. In an article in the 1831 issue of CMS’s The Missionary Register, which compares the inhabitants of Malta and Syria, the linguistic situation is described thus (vol. 19, p.317):

The Maltese, in general, are not a reading people, and their language can scarcely be said to be a written language: it is only a few years since it was reduced to writing; and nearly all the books which have ever, to my knowledge, been published in it have been published within a very short time, and mostly by Mr. Jowett, or at his press […] and perhaps not twenty persons can be found, among the native population of the whole island, who are able to read them.

This may have been seen as a hindrance to the missionary efforts of the CMS which consequently undertook a role in education. It is in this context that Il Kaulata Maltia should be seen. Rather than a newspaper, it was meant to be a compilation of opinion pieces by its author George Percy Badger, together with poetry, idioms and aphorisms. The 13th December, 1838 issue of The Harlequin included an advert for it, saying (reproduced in Cassola, 2011, p. 30. My translation):

There is no need to spell out the usefulness and prestige of such a publication, these are obvious matters to everyone. Who is to say that this paper might not one day be the first to establish the Maltese language on a level and solid foundation, and produce a literature that could fill the Mediterranean with its praiseworthy and glorious revelations?

The second and third issues of the journal had scathing attacks on the Maltese educational system, in particular with regard to language instruction, perhaps acting as a precursor to Badger’s own publication Sullo stato della educazione pubblica in Malta (“On the state of public education in Malta”) later that year.

The second issue tackled suggestions brought forward by the Royal Commission of 1836, in which the two commissioners sent to Malta, John Austin and George Cornewall-Lewis, reviewed the educational system of the islands. In their report they had suggested that all elementary school children should first learn Maltese, followed by Italian, which they deemed to be the de facto language of the educated, through the medium of the former. Consequently, English should be taught on the basis of the country being a British colony, followed by Arabic. Badger criticised the idea of teaching students four languages and rubbished the need to learn Italian except for those businessmen who required it for their trade. He declared pro-Italianism as the domain of irredentists and Carbonari wanting to secede from the British Empire, and suggested that the Maltese people as a whole wanted to be British and should thus be taught English. His article highlights the vehemently pro-British nature of the publication.

The third issue picked up the issue of linguistic education by turning the spotlight onto the Maltese language. Here Badger criticised those who had wilfully neglected the language by discouraging its use. This was no doubt an attack on the Knights of Malta who had ruled the country until 1798, and was by extension a thinly veiled attack on the Catholic Church. Despite a seemingly anti-Catholic stance, the very same issue included a poem dedicated to St. Publius by the Catholic priest Dr. Ludovico Mifsud Tommasi, who, in spite of his religious differences, showed an overlap with the CMS’s support for the freedom of religion and press, and was also a pioneering translator of religious texts into Maltese.

Il Kaulata Maltia also sheds some light on another aspect of the Maltese language that was topical at the time of its publication: orthography. As written Maltese was still in its infancy there were different opinions on how it should be written, particularly in terms of the sounds that have no equivalent letters in the standard Latin alphabet, such as the għajn and the rgħajn, equivalent to the Arabic ع and غ respectively. Some writers preferred to use the Arabic letters mixed in with the Latin alphabet, while others like Vassalli added specially designed characters to it, as can be seen from the image reproduced above from the spelling book by Cleardo Naudi. More radically, others proposed the exclusive use of the Arabic consonantal script, an example of which can be seen below. 

Chtieb-ilkari Maltese_abjad

Left: An example of the Arabic ع , غ and ه mixed into the Latin alphabet from Francesco Vella’s Chtieb-ilkari yau dahla عal ilsien Malti (1824) (BL 14599.b.1)
Right: Excerpt of a dialogue in Maltese written in Arabic script from Rev. C. F. Schlienz’s Views on the improvement of the Maltese language and its use for the purposes of education and literature (1838) (BL 14599.c.4)

The CMS, however, opted for a modified version of Vassalli’s Latin orthography which became the basis of its Maltese publications, including Il Kaulata Maltia. In fact, it seems that the journal was intended to introduce the orthographic system to the general population, as the second page of the first issue lists the whole alphabet with a guide to its pronunciation and an explanation. Different opinons gave rise to some animosity between their respective proponents, and in this description the author taunted Rev. Giuseppe Zammit, known as Brighella, by jokingly requesting that he bless his orthography. Brighella published a response in the journal Bertoldu in January, 1839 in answer to that taunt (Cassola, 1994, pp. 59-60), and a reply to that was in turn published in the third issue.

Further reading
Cassar-Pullicino, Joseph,  Kitba w Kittieba Maltin, it-tieni ktieb, l-ewwel taqsima. Malta: Università Rjali ta' Malta, 1964.
———, Il-kitba bil-Malti sa l-1870. Pieta: Pubblikazzjonijiet Indipendenza, 2001.
Cassola, Arnold,“Two Notes: Brighella and Thezan”,  Journal of Maltese Studies (1994): 25-26, 58-62.
———, Lost Maltese newspapers of the 19th century. Malta: Tumas Fenech Foundation for Education in Journalism, 2011.
Zammit, William, Printing in Malta, 1642-1839: Its cultural role from inception to the granting of Freedom of the Press. Malta: Gutenberg Press, 2008.

I would like to thank Dr. William Zammit and Dr. Olvin Vella from the University of Malta for the help and information provided.

Karl Farrugia, Asian and African Collections


[1] The final pages of each of the three issues, as well as The Phosphorus, say that they were published for the editor of The Harlequin. For this reason, I regard Richardson as the official editor and Badger as the author.

13 November 2017

Adat Aceh: royal Malay statecraft in the 17th century

When I am asked which is the most important Malay manuscript in the British Library, there is no simple answer. Should I cite the two copies we hold of the Sejarah Melayu, ‘Malay Annals’(Or 14734 and Or 16214), recounting the founding of the 15th-century kingdom of Melaka, and arguably the single most famous Malay text? Or the oldest known manuscript of the earliest historical chronicle in Malay, the Hikayat Raja Pasai, ‘Chronicle of the Kings of Pasai’ (Or 14350)? Or one of the finest illuminated Malay manuscripts known, a copy of the Taj al-Salatin, ‘The Crown of Kings’, written in Penang in 1824 (Or 13295)? Unmissable from this list of the great and the good of Malay writing is the Adat Aceh, ‘The Statecraft of Aceh’ (MSS Malay B.11), a compendium of court customs, regulations and practice from the greatest Muslim sultanate in Southeast Asia in the 17th century.

Map of Aceh in the 17th century. Achem, from 'Livro do Estado da India Oriental', an account of Portuguese settlements in the East Indies, by Pedro Barreto de Resende, 1646. British Library, Sloane MS 197, ff. 391v-392r.  noc

The Adat Aceh was compiled against the backdrop of the struggle for the throne of Aceh from 1815 to 1819 between two rivals: the incumbent Sultan Jauhar al-Alam Syah, who had accrued many internal enemies; and the preferred choice of the nobles of Aceh, Sultan Syarif Saiful Alam, son of a wealthy merchant based in Penang, who was descended from a line of former Arab sultans of Aceh. Both sides had different British backers, and the East India Company authorities and mercantile community in Penang were closely involved in this affair. The final dates found in the Adat Aceh are the installation of Saiful Alam as Sultan on 12 Zulhijah 1230 (15 November 1815), and Jauhar al-Alam’s subsequent flight to Penang on 1 Muharam 1231 (3 December 1815). However, ultimately Jauhar al-Alam prevailed, and with the support of T.S. Raffles was restored to the throne of Aceh in 1819. [On this period in Aceh history, see Lee 1995.]

The manuscript of Adat Aceh in the British Library is written on English paper watermarked ‘W Balston 1815’, and was most likely copied shortly after that date. The dedication on the first page shows that the book was presented by W.E. Phillips ‘to his valued friend’ Sir Robert Townsend Farquhar (1776-1830). Phillips served in Penang from 1800 to 1824, latterly as Governor, while Farquhar was Lieutenant Govenor of the island from 1804 to 1805. 

Adat Aceh, a list of rulers of Aceh. British Library, MSS Malay B.11, ff. 28v-29r   noc

The manuscript of Adat Aceh contains a number of different texts. The first two pages (ff. 2v-3r) contain a note on the duration of the world: Pasal pada menyatakan umur dunia tatkala turun Nabi Allah Adam sampai kepada hari kiamat iaitu tujuh ribu tahun lamanya, ‘Section on the age of the world, from the time of the prophet of God Adam to the day of judgement, being seven thousand years’. This is followed by the first major part, entitled in Arabic Mābain al-salāṭīn and in Malay Perintah segala raja-raja, ‘Regulations for kings’ (ff. 3v-26v), ascribed to Ismail bapa (father of) Ahmad. Containing advice for kings, the text is divided into 31 majlis or parts; the end of majlis 5 to the first part of majlis 24 was evidently missing in the older source from which the Adat Aceh was copied in 1815.

The second part of the Adat Aceh deals with the history of the sultanate. A listing of 37 rulers of Aceh is given on four pages (ff. 28r-29v), followed on ff. 31r-47v by a chronological account entitled Silsilah segala raja-raja yang jadi kerajaan dalam Aceh bandar Darussalam, comprising a summary of Acehnese dynastic history from the initial Islamization to the early 19th century, culminating in the crowning of Sultan Saiful Alam as mentioned above.

The third part of the manuscript (ff. 48r-102v) is the Adat majlis raja-raja, ‘Customs and regulations of the kings’, containing a detailed description of protocol for rulers and court officials, including regulations for ceremonies for the fasting month, for two main religious feasts, for making obeisance to the king, for the royal procession to the mosque on Fridays, for the royal bathing party on the final Wednesday of the month of Safar (mandi Safar), and for the night vigil of Lailatulkadar in Ramadan, and concludes with an enumeration of court dignitaries (ff. 103v-111r). The lengthy fourth and final part of the text (ff. 111r-176r) is a detailed account of regulations for the port of Aceh.

Silsilah taraf berdiri segala hulubalang, section on the order of precedence for the line up of chiefs. British Library, MSS Malay B.11, f. 103v   noc

In acknowledgement of the exceptional historical significance of its contents, particularly the third and fourth parts, which appear to date mainly from the 17th century, the British Library copy of Adat Aceh, MSS Malay B.11, was one of the first Malay manuscripts to be published in facsimile in 1958. Perhaps reflecting the technical limitations of the period, but also the then prevailing lesser appreciation of the codicological value of paratexts, the facsimile included catchwords and some textual corrections, but not marginal annotations indicating new paragraphs (Drewes & Voorhoeve 1958: 8), which can only now be seen in the digitised version of the manuscript. As discussed in an earlier blog post on the Mir’āt al-ṭullāb by Abdul Rauf of Singkel, the Malay use of the Arabic words maṭlab (section, part) and baḥth (discussing, about) in the margins of books to highlight new topics appears to be unique to Aceh, and can involve considerable artistry in presentation. While these marginal signposts in the Adat Aceh lack decorative embellishments, they are elegantly presented calligraphically in red ink, slanted at an angle to the text. 

Adat Aceh, section on the ceremonial procession for the feast of hari raya haji (Id al-Adha), with on the right, marginal annotation indicating the section on the 30 individually-named palace elephants, and on the left, a textual correction. British Library, MSS Malay B.11, ff. 73v-74r    noc

Published facsimile of the same pages, with added page numbers, and without the marginal subject indicator on the right, but on the left with the textual correction graphically re-orientated to fit on the page (Drewes & Voorhoeve 1958: 74a-b)

F.73r    F.152v   F.17r
Three marginal topic indicators in the Adat Aceh manuscript (rotated for ease of reading), from left to right: baḥth tiga puluh gajah, ‘on the 30 elephants’ (f. 73v); simply maṭlab baḥth, 'section on', without indication of subject (f. 152v); maṭlab baḥth perintah segala hulubalang, ‘section on regulations for warriors’ (f. 17r). British Library, MSS Malay B.11  noc

On the basis of notes in another manuscript of the Adat Aceh in Leiden collected by Snouck Hurgronje (Cod.Or. 8213), Voorhoeve concluded that the Adat Aceh was probably compiled in late 1815 by one of the most senior court officials, Teuku Ne’ of Meurasa, from documents in the royal archives of Aceh. A copy (B) was brought to Penang in late 1815 or 1816, from which the present manuscript BL MSS Malay B.11 was copied. By the time of publication of the catalogue of Indonesian manuscripts in Great Britain in 1977, Voorhoeve had found out that (B) was held in Edinburgh University Library as Or. MS 639, and that pp. 25 and 26 of that manuscript were lacking in BL MSS Malay B.11. The lacuna occurs on f. 14r of the BL manuscript and the missing two pages of text can now be supplied from the Edinburgh manuscript which appears to have been written by the same scribe. Download Transliteration of EUL Or MS 639 pp. 25-26

Adat Aceh, showing the pages missing from the BL manuscript, from majlis (part) 4 of Perintah segala raja-raja, ‘Regulations for kings’, relating to communications with chiefs (hulubalang), harbourmasters (syahbandar) and merchants (saudagar). Edinburgh University Library, Or MS 639, pp. [25-26]. [With many thanks to Paul Fleming of Edinburgh University Library for providing this image.]

The BL manuscript of Adat Aceh is a neat copy of the Edinburgh manuscript shown above, written by the same scribe, but he mistakenly left out two full pages at the point indicated by the red mark between the words hikmat and tabib. British Library, MSS Malay B.11, f. 14r   noc

The Adat Aceh is a treasure-trove of information on state, statecraft and trade in 17th-century Aceh, and its importance was recognized even very shortly after its compilation. Although our manuscript does not bear a title, the text was named Adat Achi by T.J. Newbold – one of the most perceptive early scholars of Malay writing – in an article published in 1836 in the Madras Journal of Literature and Science, and in 1838 Newbold presented his own manuscript of the work to the Madras Literary Society. English translations of parts of the Adat Aceh, perhaps based on MS (B), were published by Th. Braddell in the Journal of the Indian Archipelago in 1850-1851. The facsimile publication by Drewes and Voorhoeve in 1958 gave wider access to this work, and two romanised transliterations have been published in Indonesia (Lamnyong 1976 and Harun & Gani 1985). The Adat Aceh was the subject of an important Ph.D. by Takashi Ito (1984), and Ito (2015) has also recently published two volumes of the contemporary 17th century Dutch East India Company records on Aceh, affording an opportunity to compare Malay and Dutch sources on Aceh from the same period.

Further reading:

G. W. J. Drewes and P. Voorhoeve, Adat Atjeh. 's-Gravenhage: Martinus Nijhoff, 1958. [Contains a facsimile of BL MSS Malay B.11]
Ramli Harun & Tjut Rahma M.A. Gani, Adat Aceh. Jakarta: Departemen Pendidikan dan Kebudayaan, 1985.
Takeshi Ito, The world of the Adat Aceh.  A historical study of the Sultanate of Aceh. [Ph.D. thesis].  Canberra: A.N.U., 1984.
Takeshi Ito (ed.).  Aceh sultanate: state, society, religion and trade. The Dutch sources, 1636-1661.  Leiden: Brill, 2015. 2 v.
Teungku Anzib Lamnyong, Adat Aceh.  Aceh: Pusat Latihan Penelitian Ilmu-Ilmu Sosial, 1976.
Lee Kam Hing, The sultanate of Aceh: relations with the British 1760-1824.  Kuala Lumpur: Oxford University Press, 1995.
T.J. Newbold, Genealogy of the kings of the Mahomedan dynasty in Achin, from the 601st year of the Hejira to the present time. Extracted from a Malayan MS entitled 'Adat Achi', Usages of the Kingdom of Achin, together with a short notice of the MS itself.  Madras Journal of Literature and Science, 1836, 3-4:54-57, 117-120.

Annabel Teh Gallop, Lead Curator, Southeast Asia  ccownwork