THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Asian and African studies blog

4 posts from July 2018

18 July 2018

Traditional games in Burma

Manuscripts from Burma (Myanmar) in the form of folding books (parabaik) often contain depictions of traditional games and sports such boxing, martial arts, cock-fighting and chinlone, reflecting popular activities in daily life.

One of the national games of Burma is chinlone, or the cane-ball game, played with a ball made of six hoops of interwoven smoothly-cut cane or rattan. The idea of the game is to try to keep the chinlone up in the air for as long as possible by foot-work, and to not let it drop to the ground. The chinlone can be kicked by the instep, outer and inner sides of the foot, sole, heel and knee, but may not be touched with the hand. It can be played indoors and outdoors, in all seasons and by all ages, and is often played barefoot. Burmese people regard this traditional game as good for exercising leg muscles, building strength and developing body flexibility.

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The illustration depicts a professional solo player playing chinlone in a court yard, while the king and queen in the pavilion watch the game. In the painting, the player has heavily tattoed legs, and his longyi (waist-cloth) is tucked up close round the middle, so that his legs may be quite free to play. In the game, the player sends the chinlone into the air again and again with decreasing force till he allows it to alight in the hollow of his shoulder, and he then rolls it down the back of the arm and jerks the chinlone off at his elbow to catch it on his knee. Up to seven chinlone may be tossed by master players; in this painting the player is playing with three chinlone. In the bottom right, musicians perform with a traditional orchestra and drum. British Library, Or 13291, f. 13 Noc

The game of chinlone can be played solo, but it more enjoyable with teams of six players. The team stands in a circle, the players standing three or four feet apart from one another and the chinlone is passed from one to another, by flipping it in the air using a succession of thirty techniques. There are rules for chinlone competitions between teams. The game exercises the body in a way that restores elasticity to the back and limbs, but it is believed that the game is good not only for physical exercise but also for mental control.

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The above scene shows a chinlone tournament. Court musicians play in a traditional Burmese orchestra while the king and queen under the white umbrellas watch a chinlone game. Four players each toss a chinlone with their feet, without touching it with their hands, trying to keep it in the air as long as possible. They may also touch or flip the chinlones with their knees, ankles, soles and shoulders. British Library, Or 14551, f. 8 Noc

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Four players play chinlone in the monastery compound, watched by a group of monks. Photograph of the national Burmese game of chinlone, taken by Watts and Skeen in the 1890s, British Library, Photo 430/15(63) Noc

Other games depicted in Burmese parabaik include polo, javelin throwing, horse racing and cock fighting. Illustrations in parabaiks show that historically, Burmese royals were very fond of watching polo.

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The above scene shows nine military men on horseback playing polo in a courtyard. According to  Burmese historical sources, this game was probably brought to Burma from Manipur in northeast India. British Library, Or. 6779, f. 8 Noc

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This painting depicts Burmese courtiers on horseback playing a game of polo, watched by the king and queen in the pavilion. The teams of four players on horseback try to hit the ball through the goal posts in order to score. In the illustration, the team wearing green (on the left) is competing against the team wearing red (on the right). British Library, Or 14963 f. 9 Noc

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Shown here are two large long legged fowls fighting each other, and people betting. Cock fighting was a favourite game of village people in the past, and despite being condemned by religion, people still bet heavily on their birds. British Library, Or 13291, f. 15 Noc

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The above painting shows the traditional Burmese form of boxing. The two boxers have their longyis gathered up over their groins to their waists, in order to move their knees and legs easily. Tattoos can be seen on their legs, but other parts of their bodies are left bare. No gloves are worn in Burmese boxing; instead, the skill in this game lies in leaping into the air and kicking each other with their bare feet. On the left, the royals watch the boxing tournament, while to the right, musicians  entertain them. British Library, Or 16761, f. 31 Noc

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An equestrian competition. This painting shows the king and queen watching a competition in martial skills. The competitors are princes, officials of ranks, and officers of the army, who are throwing spears from horseback at a gallop at targets placed on poles ranging from 15 to 50 or 100 cubits in height, standing at intervals one after the other. Under the monarchy, kings held equestrian competitions to select the best soldiers for the cavalry. British Library, Or 14963, f. 10 Noc

All the scenes of games in these Burmese folding books are painted in water colours and enclosed in yellow panels with a single line or a few words of explanatory text in Burmese script along the bottom border.

In Burma today, the game of chinlone can still be seen being played everywhere, by players young or old, male or damile, in fields and yards or in tournaments. Young girls play hop scotch at school or in playgrounds. Some seasonal festivals in Burma involve athletic competitions, with games such as climbing a greased pole, tugs of war, pulling a rope and pillow fights. In the mid-nineteenth century, western sports such as football, badminton, tennis, volleyball and golf were introduced to Burma.

Further reading:
'Chinlone: the Burmese Cane-ball game', by U Ah Yein. Guardian magazine, August 1960.

San San May, Curator for Burmese  ccownwork

11 July 2018

‘An inexperienced and incompetent chauffeur’: the Anglo-Soviet invasion of Iran

At dawn on 25th August 1941, the people of Iran awoke to a full-scale invasion of their country by the combined forces of Britain and the Soviet Union. Within three weeks the Iranian military had been overwhelmed, Tehran had fallen under foreign occupation for the first time in its history, and the Shah had been forced into exile and replaced with his 21-year-old son Mohammad Reza. Operation Countenance, as the invasion was codenamed, was one of the most successful Allied campaigns of the war and it was carried out against a neutral nation. Although British troops had occupied parts of Iran during the First World War, that occupation had been characterised as a response to direct German and Ottoman aggression in the region and they had neither entered the capital nor disrupted the government. There were a complex array of factors that provoked the far more extreme manoeuvres of 1941, some of which are revealed within certain India Office Record files held at the British Library.

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Detail from a map of Iran (1912) showing the unofficial demarcation line between the British and Soviet spheres of influence (British Library, India Office Records IOR/L/MIL/17/15/5, f 230)
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The reign of Reza Shah Pahlavi had been marked by his large-scale modernisation projects, not least in terms of Iranian military power. Even before his elevation to the throne, as Minister of War under his predecessor Ahmad Shah Qajar, he had created the country’s first unified standing army. As Shah he continued to build on this, making significant arms purchases from various countries. “We have been viewing with a certain amount of concern Persia’s large orders in the arms markets of Europe and America” wrote Hastings Ismay in the introduction to a War Office report of 1933 estimating that in the previous two years Iran had purchased 119 aircraft, 1,400 machine-guns, nearly 200,000 rifles and over 16 million rounds of ammunition, among much else.

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Reza Shah Pahlavi, Shah of Iran (1925-1941)
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However, not everyone in the British Government agreed that these purchases were a cause for concern. “All these highly technical appliances are of little value unless the best can be got out of them” a Foreign Office official wrote in reply to Ismay’s report, “I have not noticed anywhere that the Persian Army is considered either highly trained or high in morale.” A report from 1936 agreed with this assessment that the Iranian military were ill equipped to make use of their newly acquired equipment, comparing them to “an inexperienced and incompetent chauffeur placed in sole charge of a fleet of expensive motor cars of intricate design.” The British Government certainly never made any serious attempt to limit Iranian arms purchases. As late as 14th July 1941, less than six weeks prior to the invasion, a Foreign Office telegram sent to the UK Ambassador in Iran stated that the Government would “continue to permit the export to Iran of aircraft material.”

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Telegram from the Government of India to the War Office, 28th June 1941, suggesting an end to military exports to Iran (British Library, India Office Records IOR/L/PS/12/551)
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Taken more seriously as a threat than Iran’s military strength was the perceived growth of German influence in the region. A small number of German engineers employed in Iran as industrial consultants were suspected not just of promoting their country’s cause to those in positions of power, but also of secretly stirring up anti-British sentiment among the native population. Although Iran may have favoured the Allies at the outbreak of the war, wrote the British Envoy to Tehran Sir Reader Bullard in March of 1940, “recently there has been a slight change in the other direction.” A telegram from the Government of India to the India Office sent on 6th July 1941 described Iran as the “centre of German intrigue in Asia [which] now harbours important Arab revolutionaries,” and suggested that the removal of German nationals “could not fail to add to military security and upset the German plans.” In the months leading up to the invasion both the British and Soviet governments put increasing pressure on the Shah to expel all Germans from Iran and his failure to comply was cited as justification for their intervention.

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British officers inspecting a Soviet tank during the invasion, 31st August 1941
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Soviet concerns over German influence were initially kept in check by their non-aggression agreement with Nazi Germany, the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. On 22nd June 1941 the pact was suddenly demolished by the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union, codenamed Operation Barbarossa, which created drastic implications for the situation in Iran. “German attack on Russia has introduced entirely new element into situation,” wrote India Secretary Leo Amery three days later, “which affects our whole policy in Central Asia.” He classified Iran as being in “immediate danger from a German victory.”

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Sir Reader Bullard, British Minister in Tehran, outlines British justification for the invasion in his annual report issued at the end of 1941 (British Library, India Office Records IOR/L/PS/12/3472A)
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In the weeks following Germany’s attack on the Soviet Union, British and Soviet considerations over Iran escalated quickly. Of particular concern was the sudden vulnerability of Soviet oilfields in the Caucasus region. Should these fall to Germany, Iran would then become a vital component of the Allied war effort, meaning that securing their position there was of the utmost importance. Sir Stafford Cripps, the British Ambassador to the Soviet Union, reported on 8th July that Stalin felt that “the Germans and the Italians will try to carry out a coup against Baku oilfields, and against us in Persia and that it is urgently necessary that something should be done about it.” Far from perceiving Iran’s increased military strength as a threat, the Allies were now worried that Iran was too weak to resist German influence and potential invasion. Furthermore the supposedly neutral Shah was considered to be uncontrollable at best, a Nazi sympathiser at worst. The British and Soviet governments reached the conclusion that trying to influence Iran would not be enough. Slightly over two months after Operation Barbarossa, Operation Countenance was launched.

Primary sources
IOR/L/PS/12/87 ‘Persia: Persian armaments’
IOR/L/PS/12/551 ‘Persia: situation leading up to, and after, the Allied occupation’
IOR/L/PS/12/553 ‘Persia – General Situation (Sept. & Oct. 1941)’
IOR/L/PS/12/3472A ‘Persia: Annual Reports, 1932- ’

Further reading
Amin Banani, The Modernization of Iran, 1921-1941. Stanford University Press, 1961
Mohammad Gholi Majd, August 1941: The Anglo-Russian Occupation of Iran and Change of Shahs. University Press of America, 2012
Ursula Sims-Williams, ‘The New Age (Ruzgar-i naw): World War II cultural propaganda in Persian’ , Asian and African Studies Blog 12 May 2014


Matt Griffin, Cataloguer, Gulf History, BL/QF Partnership
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06 July 2018

Bugis manuscript art

In my recent post on a court diary from Bone in south Sulawesi, I noted the tradition in Bugis diaries of leaving blank pages between each year, which could then be filled with notes and copies of important documents. Such pages also often contain doodles and, not infrequently, small sketches such as floral motifs. Quite exceptional, though, is a full-page, highly accomplished painting of a winged horse, found at the end of the diary of the Maqdanrang of Bone, Muhammad Ramadan, uncle of the Sultan of Bone, Ahmad al-Salih Syamsuddin (r. 1775-1812).

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Painting of a winged horse, found in the Bugis diary of Muhammad Ramadan, Maqdanrang of Bone, 1790-1800.  British Library, Or. 8154, f. 3v  noc

My attention was particularly drawn to the sage-green clump of rocks in the foreground on the left, with an undulating outline and with small tufts of vegetation. Although green is fairly common in Javanese illustrated manuscripts, as in the copy of Serat Sela Rasa below, this pigment is only rarely encountered in manuscript art from other parts of the Southeast Asian archipelago such as Sumatra or the Malay peninsula. Indeed, the use of this particular shade of green for landscape features, and the small sprigs of grass, cannot help but recall certain paintings in Persian manuscripts, such as the two Mughal examples shown below. It is well-known that the refined tradition of miniature painting which flourished in Persianate courts, and others influenced by them, never took root in Islamic kingdoms in the Malay world. But the green rocks in the Bugis painting might be the smallest hint that even if the tradition itself never developed in Southeast Asia, such paintings may occasionally have been glimpsed in the courts of south Sulawesi. In the 17th century, Makassar was one of the most cosmopolitan and cultured cities in the Malay world, and the sultan of Talloq who was also the chancellor of Gowa, Pattingaloang, was known to have possessed a great library, including many European books.

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A partridge (durraj) against a hilly green backdrop, by Manṣūr Naqqāsh, from the Memoirs of the Mughal Emperor Babur, c. 1590-93. British Library, Or. 3714, f. 387r  noc

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Gushtasp kills a rhinocerous, in a landscape of green hills with grassy tufts, from Firdawsi's Shāhnāmah, North India, 1719. British Library, Add. 18804, f. 7r  noc

Within the field of Islamic manuscript art, a winged horse often suggests Buraq, the steed on which the prophet Muhammad travelled to heaven during his miraculous night journey (al-Isrā’ wa-al-Mir‘āj). And yet Buraq is usually portrayed with a human-like face, which is not the case here. A closer parallel may be drawn with winged horses occasionally encountered in Javanese illustrated manuscripts, for example in Serat Sela Rasa shown below. However the significance of this Bugis horse, and any possible literary allusions, remains enigmatic. 

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Winged horse in a Javanese manuscript of Serat Sela Rasa, 1804. British Library, MSS Jav 28, f. 68r  noc

The painting of the horse in the Maqdanrang's diary is of very great significance in being the only known example of developed figural painting in a manuscript from Sulawesi, although anthropomorphic stick-figures are frequently encountered in divination and calendrical manuscripts. The confident presentation of the horse—with the stylized single-plane wings contrasting with the naturalistic portrayal of the body—and the skillful colouring hint at a tradition of Bugis manuscript art, as also manifest in a number of impressive illuminated Qur'an manuscripts known from south Sulawesi (cf. Gallop 2010).

More drawings, albeit uncoloured, are found on other pages of the Maqdanrang’s diary, and similar sketches can also be seen in the Bugis diary of the Maqdanrang's brother, Sultan Ahmad al-Salih Syamsuddin himself, for the years 1775-1795. These sketches are reproduced below.

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Two sketches from the diary of the Maqdanrang of Bone, 1790-1800. Left, a highly stylised representation of a peacock, Or. 8154, f. 7v; right, a peacock fan, Or. 8154, f. 7v and f. 2r.  noc

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Calligraphic composition with the first two verses of Surat al-Ikhlas in the diary of Sultan Ahmad al-Salih Syamsuddin of Bone, 1775-1795. British Library, Add. 12354, f. 201v  noc

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Doodled sketches on the first page of the diary of Sultan Ahmad al-Salih Syamsuddin of Bone. The floral design in the middle, with the word Allah at the centre, may be of of mystical significance. British Library, Add. 12354, f. 1r   noc

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Beautiful eight-pointed star design within a circle, sketched in the diary Sultan Ahmad al-Salih Syamsuddin of Bone, 1775-1795. British Library, Add. 12354, f. 172v   noc

With many thanks to Ursula Sims-Williams, Elaine Wright and Marianna Shreve Simpson for advice on paintings in Persian manuscripts.

Further reading:

Annabel Teh Gallop, The Boné Qur’an from South SulawesiTreasures of the Aga Khan Museum: Arts of the book and calligraphy, ed. Margaret S. Graves and Benoît Junod.  Istanbul: Aga Khan Trust for Culture and Sakip Sabanci University & Museum, 2010, pp.162-173.

Annabel Teh Gallop, Lead Curator, Southeast Asia

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03 July 2018

Explore the British Library’s collections for Black British and Asian British Studies

With the launch of the Black Britain and Asian Britain subject hub, we are offering a resource to help researchers find and engage with our collections and activities in these areas.

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First edition of the classic autobiography of Olaudah Equiano (BL 615.d.8)
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The hub page presents a mine of information on the British Library’s collections about the experience of people of African, Asian and Caribbean heritage in Britain. From it, you can access our collection guide pages, which cover our books and other printed material, manuscripts and archives, and sound and audio-visual collections. The guides explain what we hold, how to research it further, what you can see or listen to online, and what you can access if you come into our Reading Rooms.

Our collections are wide-ranging in these areas. You can get a peek at some of them through the collection guide pages: the title page of Olaudah Equiano’s 18th century autobiography, for example, or newspaper reports on Asian suffragettes, or extracts from manuscripts by Hanif Kureishi. Much more is held in our stores, like the publications of pioneer publishers Bogle L’Ouverture, New Beacon Books and other British Black and Asian publishers. Anyone who wants to see this material can do so – check out How to get a Reader Pass.

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A selection of printed books in the British Library’s collections
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The image on the subject hub page is a detail from the costume of a joyful carnival dancer, created by Ray Mahabir of Sunshine International Arts for our previous West Africa exhibition (which I had the pleasure to co-curate). Her costume is composed of a patchwork of Caribbean and West African textiles and symbolises the Black presence in Britain and its broader historical roots.

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Bele 
carnival costume, designed by Ray Mahabir (photograph: Toby Keane)
© Ray Mahabir

Further down the subject hub page, you’ll find examples of projects and people connected with these research areas, as well as relevant British Library blogs. Scroll down also to see a selection of events – full details to be found on our Events pages. These are wide-ranging, including talks, discussions, music, literature and comedy.

In addition to what’s offered on these new pages, there are also relevant Learning pages, showing what the British Library has to offer for children and young people. We also offer advice for people starting or running their own businesses.

Why create this web resource?
The launch of Black Britain and Asian Britain subject hub is the result of extensive discussion within the British Library, as well as some external consultation. Curators have long been aware of a gap in the information we make available about our collections. With the rise of Black British Studies as an academic discipline in particular, as well as a much longer history of the development of Black British and Asian British history, there is substantial interest in these subjects, from scholars and the public more generally.

This subject area demands a new approach to the way in which we present information about our collections on the British Library website. We tend to categorise by geographical area (Africa, the Americas, Asia); date (Contemporary Britain); or type of material (News media, Maps). And all these areas are relevant to Black British and Asian British Studies – whether it’s 18th or 19th century records or newspapers dealing with slavery, indenture and empire, 20th century books published in the UK, or sound recordings of nurses from Barbados of the Windrush generation.

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Letter written by Ayuba Suleiman Diallo in his campaign to be released from enslavement (?1731) (BL Add MS 20783a)
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Our collections are multi-faceted. They reflect the British Library’s long history since the foundation of its predecessor, the British Museum, in 1753, and thus are connected to turbulent and controversial histories of race and empire. They have also come into being because as the UK’s national library and one of its six legal deposit libraries, we endeavour to obtain a copy of every UK publication. Since 2013 this has included electronic publications and websites. These collections are held in perpetuity for future readers and researchers, and now, for example, provide a resource for young people to become aware of the struggles of former generations who arrived in the UK. Our sound collections include recordings of the voices of members of these generations.

That these collections are hard to find was brought into relief by our Bringing Voices Together workshop held on 7 September 2017, organised by Chantelle Lewis, a PhD student at Goldsmith’s, University of London, during her placement with our Contemporary British collections. This was attended by writers, academics and publishers from Black British, Asian British and British Middle Eastern heritages. The workshop explored barriers to inclusivity in British publishing and heard about initiatives to combat this. Participants wanted the Library to do more to raise the profile of publishing by writers of colour, and to make it easier to find out about what the Library holds of particular relevance to people of African, Asian and Caribbean heritages.

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Sophia Duleep Singh selling The suffragette outside Hampton Court Palace, 1913 (BL L/PS/11/51)
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Finding the right words
Using a questionnaire, we asked participants at the Bringing Voices Together workshop for feedback about the structure and terminology to be used in these pages. We are more than aware that no terminology is perfect, and not everyone will agree with what we have used here. To help make our decisions, we have also had lengthy internal discussions, and in-depth conversations with two other external advisers, as well as carrying out some research into what is being used on the web.

The conclusions of this research were interesting, and made us reflect on recent history and the changing meanings of words. First, it was clear that BAME (Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic) was pretty universally disliked. What about Black? There was a time, in the 1960s and 1970s, when the term was used to reference a shared experience of racism in the UK, and many people of Asian origin adopted it. But that is no longer so much the case, and the point was strongly made to us that Black and Asian experiences in Britain are often quite different.

Should we then, we asked, be discussing resources for Black British Studies together with Asian British Studies? Respondents to the Bringing Voices Together questionnaire – who were generally positive about the idea of the pages – were about evenly divided on this issue. It is for this reason that we took up the suggestion of two respondents that the two areas should be ‘separate and grouped’, or ‘separate but linked’. The hub page is called ‘Black Britain and Asian Britain’, but the collection guides on the page are divided between these.

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The Poems of Phillis Wheatley, who was still enslaved when she published this volume in 1773 (BL 992.a.34)
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Our guides to Asian Britain follow the predominant British practice of focusing on South Asian heritages. This was a practical strategy to make the project manageable, but one that we know has shortcomings: our collections are rich in materials from the whole of Asia, and our holdings of British materials similarly reflect the academic and creative expression of people of a range of ethnicities with roots in East and South East Asia as well as the Middle East or Western Asia. Links on the Black Britain and Asian Britain pages take visitors to our resources on these parts of the world.

Overall, we are aware that there are many ways of defining identity in the UK, and other options besides the titles we have used. Our aim is not to exclude or divide, but to find a workable solution in a world of imperfect solutions.

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One of the only surviving manuscript letters of Ignatius Sancho (BL Add MS 89077)
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The terms Black Britain and Asian Britain themselves were a further point of discussion. We chose these broad headings because our practice is to use brief, clear demarcations in our subject pages, and academic disciplines (Black British Studies, for example) may seem exclusive outside academia. The British Library website also defines its collections in part by geographical area, and these terms fit into that pattern.

At the same time, we don’t want to suggest that Black Britain and Asian Britain are somehow separate from ‘mainstream’ Britain. Our point here is to foreground the presence, shared experience, activism and other contributions of people of colour in Britain, recognising how these communities have become integral to national life, not only since the arrival of the Windrush, but for centuries before then (a story we also tell in our current exhibition, Windrush: Songs in a Strange Land). At the same time, we want to make it possible for people to find resources directly relating to their own experience.

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Letter by C L R James, historian, journalist, intellectual and socialist (1965)
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So we hope that we’ve reflected current thinking, and that these pages will fulfil a useful role in drawing attention to the rich and deep – and previously rather hidden – collections at the British Library. We’ll be listening to comments, and we’d love to hear about how you’re using these collections (contact Customer Services).

If you are involved in publishing, or creating your own publications, and would like to know more about depositing with the British Library, please see our Legal Deposit page. Items deposited can include books, magazines, pamphlets, zines, newsletters, reports or websites.

Marion Wallace, Lead Curator, Africa
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