THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Asian and African studies blog

21 posts categorized "Africa"

02 May 2018

‘Soo Dhawoow’: Somali community welcomed to the British Library

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On Wednesday 7 March, the British Library welcomed members of the local Somali community to the Learning Centre for the first ever ‘show and tell’ of the Library’s Somali collections. Further to the success of the opening event of the Somali Week Festival, which the Library hosted last October, ‘Soo Dhawoow’ , meaning ‘welcome’ , invited artists, students, poets and historians from the Somali Community to participate in a proactive archiving engagement.

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Photo credit: Venetia Menzies
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The Somali collections at the British Library, which range from archives and sound recordings to photographs and printed books, contain vital cultural and historical information on Somalia and Somalis, both at home and as part of the diaspora. The collections in the Somali language include books, periodicals, sound recordings, microfilms, maps and newspapers. There are also bibliographies of writings in Somali. In addition to this, the British Library holds a wide variety of relevant published materials in other languages such as English, Arabic, Italian, French, German, Russian, Dutch and Swedish.

Attendees were shown the highlights of the Library’s Somali collections, including two 20th century wooden Qur’an boards, ritually used for rote learning of the Holy Scripture, as well as printed books in languages such as Somali, English and German.

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Qurʼan board BL Or.16442. Photo credit: Venetia Menzies
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The British Library also holds historic manuscripts and archives relating to Somalia and Somalis including correspondence about Somalia and Somaliland in the India Office Records and the India Office Private Papers. During the colonial period, the British Raj, the UK’s authority in India, managed the Empire’s holdings in the Horn of Africa and East Africa. To find archives and manuscripts, go to our catalogue Explore Archives and Manuscripts. These collections are currently being digitised and are available in the Qatar Digital Library. Photographic collections include studio portraits of members of the Somali diaspora in Aden which were published in an 1877 publication An Account of the British Settlement at Aden in Arabia compiled by Captain Frederick Mercer Hunter.

Representation of the Somali community was a key theme explored in the discussion at the engagement event, specifically the legacies of colonial photography.

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Male Somali’ from An Account of the British Settlement of Aden in Arabia, London, 1877, compiled by Captain F.M. Hunter (Printed collections T.11308)
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Given the need to expand existing heritage collections and open discussion, the Library’s Somali Collections Project Officer Mahamed Ali worked with visual artist Venetia Menzies to develop a unique programme for this community event. ‘Soo Dhawoow’ not only provided an insight into the Library’s Somali collections but asked the participants to produce heritage archives of their own.

In response to the artefacts, written books and poetry in the Somali collections, participants later contributed artistic responses that expressed their own snapshot of Somali culture as members of the diaspora. The results were wide-ranging, including an array of mediums such as photography, poetry, paintings and graphic designs. These were exhibited at London Gallery West from March 27th to April 3rd.

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One of the participants, Huda Hassan, a graphic designer, depicted Somali idioms such as ‘cagta wax ka dey’, which literally means ‘search feet’ and is a metaphor for ‘run’. Huda said that the engagement event was ‘informative’, and ‘very promising’, but noted that the scope of the collections could be developed. The British Library welcomes suggestions for this collection, specifically from those publishing books in Somali from around the world.

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Artist Credit: Huda Hassan
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Anab Aided, a painter, produced colourful paintings of Somali staple goods, as well as common onomatopoeia in the Somali language. Anab, an art teacher working with Somali children with the Galbur Foundation, also encouraged her students to contribute. They produced a colourful selection of pictures and drawings depicting aspects of Somali culture.

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Photo Credit: Anab Aided and Venetia Menzies
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The youngest attendee, Khadar Mahi, contributed a poem depicting the Somali landscape that was eloquent in both English and Somali. Khadar’s main interests are physics and poetry, which he claims are one and the same.

All the livestock
within your sight
whichever way you look,
grazing near the homestead.

The herding youth
in their white sheets
resting in the shade,
passing time with games,
chatting without a care.
(Poetry: Khadar Mahi)

Photographer Abdul Aziz Ismail contributed photographs depicting his journey by sea from Yemen to Somalia, as well as from Bosaso in Puntland.

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Photo Credit: Abdul Aziz Ismail
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Mohamed Mohamud, founder of the project Somali Sideways, contributed portraits from his ongoing body of work. Somali Sideways collates portraits of Somalis from around the world standing sideways, aiming to highlight that there are always two sides to an individual. It provides a platform for representations of the success, determination and entrepreneurship that characterise the Somali diaspora. These works were exhibited alongside portraits of the participants.

The British Library’s Somali collections exist for the public to view. A reader pass for the Library is free, and offers everyone the opportunity to experience these collections for themselves. The British Library is always seeking to expand its outreach with regard to its collections, so individuals within the Somali community in the UK are encouraged to engage with the collection. The British Library also has a growing number of printed books in the Somali language, which offer an indispensable source of information for older members as well as young people in the Somali community to use for their own comprehension.

To find out more about our collections, you can search our main catalogue Explore. For more information on the British Library’s holdings see our subject guide to African collections.


Mahamed Ali, Somali Collections Project Officer
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09 February 2018

Introducing Doctoral Students to the Asian and African Collections at the British Library

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Curators of the Asian and African Collections recently welcomed 45 eager doctoral students to a training day at the British Library. The session, for students in the first year of their PhDs, provided an introduction to the research materials on offer at the BL. Students came from universities throughout the UK, including Glasgow, Strathclyde and Newcastle.

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On display at the doctoral open day: (left) Ganjifa card set featuring the avatars of Vishnu from 19th-century Orissa, India (BL Or 13,692); (right) illustration of animals, probably for a board game. Commissioned by Richard Johnson, Lucknow, c. 1780-82 (BL Johnson Album 5,9)

We know that our vast and wide-ranging collections may be a little daunting when starting out on research. The annual doctoral open day aims to give students an understanding of the overall picture, as well as helping them to start navigating the collections in the best way for their own research.

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(Left) a comic from the British Library’s Arabic collections: Skefkef, issue 3, published in Morocco; (right) section of Qur’an board, probably from Somalia, used for learning the Qur’an (BL Or. 16442)

The day began with a talk on research at the British Library, and an overview of the Asian and African Collections ­from the Head of Department, Dr Luisa Mengoni. Curators then gave introductions to our holdings on and from:

There were also presentations on the India Office Records and from our Digital Research team. The British Library’s materials are in many formats – books, serials, newspapers, electronic resources, manuscripts and archives, maps, audio-visual items and philatelic material. The Asian and African Collections have material in all the major languages of Asia and Africa, and in many less widely spoken languages too.

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A wide range of exhibits on display at the doctoral open day

After this glimpse of what’s available, students received practical help in using the catalogues as well as an opportunity to see displays of richly illuminated manuscripts, books, and other treasures from our collections. There was plenty of time to interact with curators and gain advice on individual research projects.

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The Turkish and Turkic stand

The afternoon finished with a talk by Dr Richard Williams, Lecturer in Ethnomusicology at SOAS, University of London, who shared his experiences of using the British Library’s collections and provided plentiful tips for life after the PhD.

The day brought together students with a huge range of research interests, from women’s translations of the Qur’an to the medical history of refugee camps, and provided opportunities to get to know other doctoral researchers in similar or different disciplines.

95% of those completing feedback forms rated the day ‘excellent’ or ‘very good’. Most important, students’ confidence in their ability to do their research at the BL vastly increased. The proportion of those ‘confident’ or ‘very confident’ in using our collections rose from 27% beforehand to 100% at the end of the day. ‘Very useful & good day,’ one student commented. ‘Staff were very helpful and approachable.’

What next? The next Asian and African doctoral open day will be held early in 2019, for students starting their PhDs in autumn 2018.

In the meantime, current PhD students are invited to apply for a range of 3-month PhD research placements at the British Library.

These projects include:

The closing date for applications is 19 February 2018.

Marion Wallace, Lead Curator, African Collections, with thanks to colleagues for the wide range of photographs
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05 February 2018

African Scribes: Manuscript Culture of Ethiopia

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February 6th marks the opening of a new display, “African Scribes: Manuscript Culture of Ethiopia,” in the British Library’s Sir John Ritblat Treasures Gallery. It will be the first exhibit to be held at the Library devoted entirely to Ethiopian manuscripts, exploring the culture of a manuscript tradition which extends back to the early centuries of the Christian era.

The Ethiopian collections in the British Library include over 500 manuscripts most of which are written in Ge'ez and were acquired from the mid-eighteenth century onwards. The collection is especially strong in illuminated manuscripts of the 16th and 17th centuries and also contains, in addition to biblical texts, an important collection of Ethiopian magical and divinatory scrolls. On display is a selection of twelve exhibits chosen to demonstrate the arts of painting and calligraphy besides serving as an introduction to Ethiopian literary traditions.

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Christ, the Virgin Mary, Michael, Gabriel and the Twelve Apostles appearing to St. Takla Haymanot at Easter. From the Life and Acts of St. Takla Haymanot. 18th century (BL Or. 728, ff. 80-81)
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Highlights of the display are:

The Four Gospels

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St. Luke the Evangelist accompanied by two disciples. At his feet are two Abyssinian ground hornbills. Lasta, early 17th century (BL Or. 516, f.100v)
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The four Gospels are the central religious scriptures of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church which traces its history to the first century AD, when an Ethiopian court official on pilgrimage to Jerusalem was met on his way back by St. Philip who baptised him (Acts of the Apostles 8:26-40).


The Octateuch, the Four Gospels and other ecclesiastical works

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The adoration of the Magi, 17th century (BL Or. 481, f. 101r)
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Written on parchment in Ge'ez during the second half of the 17th century, this manuscript consists of the first eight books of the Old Testament (Genesis-Ruth), the Gospels and other ecclesiastical works. It is decorated with coloured borders and contains many illustrations. This volume also contains copies of many 14th century deeds of gift and grants of various kings.


Deggwa or Hymnbook

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A portrait of the 13th century St. Takla Haymanot, founder of the monastery of Debra Libanos and one of the most revered saints of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. The priests are depicted in distinguishable turbans, colourful robes and holding crosses and multi-coloured umbrellas (BL Or. 584, f.154v)
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The Deggwa is the liturgical collection of hymns and chants used in the Ethiopian Church. The hymns are arranged according to the calendar and divided by the seasons of the liturgical year. The book also provides the orders of service for various feasts of saints, martyrs, angels, Sundays and festivals such as Antiphonary for the Fast of Lent. The composition of hymns in the Deggwa is attributed to St. Yared of Aksum (505-571 AD).


The Revelation of St. John

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St John in the presence of God. Illuminated manuscript with 126 paintings illustrating the life and death of the apostle St. John. Gondar, Ethiopia 1700-1730 (BL Or. 533, f. 3r)
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The Revelation of St. John of Ephesus is the last book in the New Testament, traditionally called Abuqalamisis in Ethiopian. This copy was composed at the beginning of the eighteenth century for King ʻlyasu I (r. 1682–1706) and Queen Walatta Giyorgis. This volume is an exceptional example of Ethiopian art containing 126 paintings. This painting was inspired by a series of woodcuts depicting the Apocalypse by the 16th-century German artist Albrecht Dürer.


Carry case for a Psalter

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Leather bag containing a manuscript Psalter (BL Or.9036)
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The Psalter is one of the most frequently copied texts. Used as a daily prayer-book in religious ceremonies, it needed to be portable. This example is preserved with its traditional carry case.


Copper gilt cover of the Life and Acts of St. Takla Haymanot

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Front cover of the Life and Acts of St. Takla Haymanot, one of the most revered saints of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. 18th century (BL Or. 728)
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This manuscript was copied during the reign of king ‘Iyasu II (r. 1730-55) and, like the majority of Ethiopian manuscripts in the British Library, has retained its original binding. This is the only known example, however, of a copper gilt cover, comprising carvings of figures and of the cross.

Digital Ethiopian
Our Ethiopian manuscripts are being digitised as we write as part of Heritage made Digital. This is one of the Library’s five main focuses for the coming years and for the first time, the British Library has allocated a part of its government grant towards digitisation. During the next two years we aim to digitise some 250 manuscripts from the Ethiopian collection. The first 25 manuscripts are already available online. We’ll be writing more about Ethiopian manuscripts as they go live so follow us on Twitter @BLAsia_Africa and watch this space to keep in touch!

Eyob Derillo, Cataloguer, Ethiopian Manuscripts Digitisation Project
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13 December 2017

A handbook of Ethiopian magic incantations and talisman art

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Currently on display in our exhibition Harry Potter: History of Magic are two intriguing items from Ethiopia: an amulet (Or.12859) and a magical manuscript (Or.11390). Ethiopian amulets and magical recipe books such as these are a striking and very distinctive form of Ethiopian Christian material culture, yet they remain a relatively poorly understood and understudied topic. Part of a rich magical literature of incantation, these manuscripts are also adorned with a variety of illustrations which were created for spiritual edification and for protection from real or imagined harm. While Christian icons were intended to promote spiritual growth, Ethiopian magical art consists of visual representations of the world of demons and evil spirits, making the invisible visible for all believers.

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An Ethiopian magical recipe book, 1750. These pages contain talismans and geometric images used for making amulet scrolls, and are accompanied by prayers for undoing spells and charms (BL Or.11390, ff. 12-13)
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Practitioners’ handbooks such as the recipe book portrayed above, are remarkably difficult to decode for the reason that they were intended as purely personal documents for personal use only. This annotated, magical recipe book is written in Ge’ez, also known as classic Ethiopic. It contains a rich collection of amulets, talismans, charms and incantations. From the marginal notes, we can guess that it belonged to a practitioner of magic, an exorcist (dabtara), who would have been a highly educated, ordained layman. Dabtaras typically study for several years or come from families of clergy. Since medieval times, they have worked in the courts or have taught in small parish schools, supplementing their income by producing amulet scrolls and practising traditional medicine.

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Amulet scrolls, one with a protective cylindrical case. Ethiopia, 18th century (BL Or.12859)
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Handbooks are the main source used for producing amulets and talismanic drawings. Amulets, written on leather or metal, have been worn by Ethiopians and other peoples in the Horn of Africa for thousands of years. This practice remains strongest in the northern Highlands of Ethiopia, where amulets are believed to bring health, to protect babies and to ward off the evil eye. The parchment scrolls themselves are known as Ketab, and they vary considerably in length. They are kept in leather cases, or, as shown above, in a cylindrical silver case, which can be hung up at home or worn around the neck, depending on their size. This particular scroll contains prayers for undoing spells (maftehé seray), after which the talismanic drawings were added, giving effect to its powers. The drawings have a specific purpose: they are intended to cure sickness, to exorcize demons and to protect those taking long and difficult journeys.

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Examples of amulet scrolla (BL Or.13228, above; BL Or.15594, below)
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An example of a talisman, is the eight-pointed star below, with four vertical and horizontal arms and a human face in the centre. The magical properties of this figurative drawing lie in the hidden symbolism. The eight-pointed star is a common motif, but has no traceable roots, appearing also in Islamic and Jewish Kabbalistic tradition.

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Image of an eight-pointed star (BL Or.15594, detail)
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Harry Potter: A History of Magic is open in the British Library PACCAR Gallery until Wed 28 Feb 2018.


Further reading

Mercier, Jacques, Art That Heals: The Image as Medicine in Ethiopia. New York: Prestel, 1997.

———, Ethiopian Magic Scrolls. New York: G. Braziller, 1979.

 

Eyob Derrillo, Asian and African Collections
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23 December 2016

The Christmas Story: Images from Ethiopic Manuscripts

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To celebrate Christmas we bring you a selection of images from some of our Ethiopic manuscripts.

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The Nativity. The Virgin Mary and the Baby Jesus in a manger, with Joseph. From the Nagara Māryām, the history and miracles of the Blessed Virgin Mary, 18th century (British Library Or. 607, f.13v)
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The Ethiopic collections in the British Library include about 600 manuscripts which were acquired  from the mid-eighteenth century onwards. The collection is strong in illuminated manuscripts of the 16th and 17th centuries and also contains, in addition to biblical texts, an important collection of Ethiopian magical and divinatory scrolls. Several catalogues have been published, the details of which are given below.
 
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Nativity scene (British Library Or. 481, f.100v)
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Or. 481, written in a small elegant character on vellum, dates from the second half of the seventeenth century. It contains the first eight books of the Old Testament (the Octateuch), the four Gospels,  numerous short works on church order, canons of  Ecumenical Councils and other ecclesiastical works. It is decorated with coloured borders and contains many illustrations.

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Three Wise Men or  Magi, as described in The Gospel according to St. Matthew (British Library Or. 607, f.14r)
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This illustrated manuscript, Or. 607, is a copy of Nagara Māryām ነገር ማርያም, the history and miracles of the Blessed Virgin Mary. It is arranged for the twelve months of the year, and is also popularly known as the Gospel of the Mother or 'called in the Egyptian tongue the Little Gospel'. Written on vellum it was copied for ʼĪyāsū II of Ethiopia who ruled from 1730 to 1755.

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The flight into Egypt: Mary and Jesus followed by Joseph (British Library Or. 510, f.10v)
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Our third manuscript, Or. 510, beautifully written on vellum in three columns, dates from 1664-65 and was copied in Gondar, Ethiopia, for King John I, ʼAʼlaf Sagad, and his queen, Sabla Wangēl. The manuscript as a whole demonstrates the use of European models for the illustrations which were inspired by those of A. Tempesta, based on Dūrer, in the Arabic Gospels published in Rome in 1590-91. In the process of copying, perspective was eliminated and the presentation simplified.


Further reading
August Dillmann, Catalogus codicum manuscriptorum Orientalium qui in Museo Britannico asservantur. Pars tertia, codices aethiopicos amplectans. London, 1847.
William Wright, Catalogue of the Ethiopic Manuscripts in the British Museum Acquired Since the Year 1847. London, 1877.
Stefan Strelcyn, Catalogue of Ethiopian Manuscripts in the British Library Acquired Since the Year 1877. London, 1978.

Eyob Derillo, Curator Ethiopian Collections
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08 August 2016

Rivals past and present: Global powers converge on the Gulf of Aden

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While media attention has focussed on the thousands of refugees crossing the Mediterranean Sea to reach Europe, a similar crisis has been taking place in the Gulf of Aden. Almost 90,000 Yemeni refugees have crossed the Gulf to the Horn of Africa in the past eighteen months, after a Saudi-led coalition of Arab air forces began strikes against rebel forces in Yemen, Saudi Arabia’s neighbour to the south. British-made cruise missiles and French-built Leclerc tanks have been deployed in the war effort, continuing a long history of involvement in the region for both countries.

A British political memorandum of 1897 (IOR/L/PS/18/B110), from the Political & Secret series of the India Office Records, documents British and French rivalry for influence over this part of the world over one hundred years ago.

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A satellite image showing the Bab el Mandeb Strait, which separates the Gulf of Aden from the Red Sea. Source: NASA, through Wikimedia Commons

The Gulf of Aden first acquired global strategic significance in 1869, when the newly-opened Suez Canal created a fast shipping route that ran through the Gulf and connected Europe with the East. In anticipation of the Gulf’s new role, the European Powers took up strategic positions close to its narrowest point at the Bab el Mandeb Strait: in 1857 Great Britain occupied Perim Island, near the Arabian coast of the strait, and shortly afterwards France and Italy claimed territory on the African coast nearby.

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IOR/L/PS/20/60, f. 25v (detail)

In 1868 the French also acquired land from a local ruler on the Arabian side of the strait at Sheikh Said, a promontory lying immediately behind Perim Island. The purchase was repudiated a year later by the Ottoman Government, who considered that the territory was theirs, but the matter was taken up again in 1893 when a French politician urged his government ‘to press their never abandoned claim to this position’.

The renewed French interest in the place prompted Lieutenant-Colonel Edward Vincent Stace, First Assistant to the Resident at Aden, to visit Sheikh Said later that year, and his report and sketch map are reproduced in the memorandum along with a summary history of subsequent events.

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IOR/L/PS/18/B110, f. 6 (detail)

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IOR/L/PS/18/B110, f. 7

Stace investigated a rumour that the French planned to dredge the lagoon that lay behind the tip of the promontory and dig a canal from there to the opposite side: ‘Thus a basin would be formed in which vessels of war could lie, having two entrances, one from the Red Sea and the other from the Gulf of Aden’. Stace confirmed that the works had not begun, but warned that, if completed, they would create ‘a very formidable position’.

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IOR/L/PS/18/B110, f. 7 (detail)

The matter was taken seriously at the highest levels. Both the Secretary of State for India and the Director of Military Intelligence agreed that the French should be warned off, expressing concern for the security of coaling facilities on Perim Island, and fearing that once established, the French might supply ‘modern arms to the rebellious Arab tribes’, destabilising the region and gaining influence close to the British port and coaling station at Aden.

The British solution lay in confidentially alerting the Ottoman Government to this threat, and assurances were soon received that the French would not be allowed to take over any part of the Arabian coast.

However, the French continued to assert the ‘rights of France’, and refused to give formal recognition that Sheikh Said formed part of the Ottoman Empire. In 1885 they made an abortive attempt to land a gunboat on the promontory, and in 1897 they sought clarification on their side whether or not Sheikh Said, ‘the veritable Gibraltar of the Red Sea’, was occupied by the British – a rumour that Her Majesty’s Government was happy to deny, as it was to Britain’s advantage that the promontory remained in Ottoman hands.

Before closing, the memorandum reveals a new concern that Russia too might seek a foothold in the region, after a Russian gunboat was spotted on the African shores of the Red Sea, and the document ends with the suggestion to watch further movements there by both France and Russia.

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IOR/L/PS/18/B110, f. 10 (detail)

Today around eight percent of global trade passes through the Bab el Mandeb Strait on its way to or from the Suez Canal, and the major powers continue to have a strong presence in the region. France maintains a large military base in Djibouti, on the African coast of the strait, in the company of the United States, Japan, and soon China, and Russia too has recently negotiated rights to deploy its navy there. After the recent outbreak of war in Yemen, Houthi rebels captured Sheikh Said and Perim Island, from where they commanded the Bab el Mandeb Strait with missiles and long-range cannon, but they were ousted by the British, French and US-backed Arab coalition six months later .

Further reading:

UNHCR. Yemen: Regional refugee and migrant response plan.

David Styan, Djibouti: changing influence in the Horn's strategic hub. Chatham House briefing paper, April 2013.

Nicholas Dykes  Ccownwork
Cataloguer, Gulf History, British Library/Qatar Foundation Partnership

01 August 2016

An in-depth look at the British Library’s collection of Arabic manuscripts from West Africa

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In his previous blog, PhD student Paul Naylor introduced the BL’s collection of Arabic manuscripts from West Africa, on which he has been working. In part two of this blog series, and with the cataloguing of the collection almost complete, Paul looks at the collection in more depth, picking out some particularly interesting items.

Religious Works
Most of the material in the collection is of a religious nature, reflecting the strong link between literacy in the Arabic language and Islamic learning in 19th century West Africa. There are five complete copies of the Qur’an – the holy book of Islam – and many more incomplete sections. (In a forthcoming blog I will reflect on some unique features of the BL’s collection of illuminated Qur’an copies produced in West Africa.)

Other religious works include copies of biographies and praise poems of the Prophet Muhammad, many of which are recited on the occasion of the Prophet’s Birthday (Mawlud). There are also many devotional and mystical works from the Qadiri and Tijani Sufi orders, founded in 12th century Baghdad and 18th century Aïn Madhi (present-day Algeria) respectively and popular in West Africa.

The collection also features spiritual works from West African religious movements. In 1804, the teacher and social reformer Usman dan Fodio embarked on a military campaign resulting in what we know today as the Sokoto Caliphate, in the area of present-day northern Nigeria. Usman’s movement had a profound effect on West African society and for many Muslims he is a figure of immense spiritual importance. The British Library’s collection includes a fine copy of the 'Meadows of Paradise' (Rawḍ al-Jinān). This is a work of 'miracle literature' about Usman written by Gidado dan Layma, one of his closest associates, and compiled sometime in the 1840s. Its presence in this material, which is almost certainly from a region beyond the Sokoto Caliphate, is testament to the extent of Usman’s influence throughout the West African region. A page from this work is shown below.

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Page from the 'Meadows of Paradise' (Rawḍ al-Jinān), by Gidado dan Layma. Or 6953 f. 297v.

Educational Works
For the British Library’s recent ‘West Africa: Word, Symbol, Song’ exhibition, we showcased items from the collection demonstrating the breadth of the Islamic ‘core curriculum’  still being taught to students in centres of Islamic learning across the West African region (Hall & Stewart 2011: 109-74). These works include canons of Maliki law (the branch of Sunni Islam followed in West Africa) and texts on Islamic beliefs and  practices, as well as classical works on Arabic grammar and syntax such as the Ājurrūmiyya.

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Page from a West African copy of the Ājurrūmiyya, a work on Arabic grammar by the Moroccan scholar Ibn Ājurrūm al-Ṣanhājī (1273-1323). Or 6953, f. 255v. Noc

There are also many works authored by West African scholars on subjects such as the preparation of halal meat and the eating of kola nut, as well as obituaries for local scholars who passed away. This page is from an obituary for one such scholar, al-Haj Salim al-Zaghawi al-Kasami, from a town called Touba, a common name for settlements of Muslim scholars in the Senegambian region. This personage is listed as the owner of several manuscripts in the collection, some of which may be written in his hand or the hand of his students. The author laments, ‘Knowledge has left Touba and Futa. The time of grammar, inflectional endings (iʿrāb) and conjugation is over’ and compares the death of this scholar to a disaster rivalling the Biblical flood.

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Obituary for the Senegambian scholar al-Haj Salim al-Zaghawi al-Kasami. Or 6473, f. 105r. Noc

Fawāʾid
Most of the remaining material comes under the category of ‘Fawāʾid’. This term is an Arabic word meaning ‘benefits’ and constitutes a practice or ritual said to result in a supernatural effect. This practice could be something as simple as reciting a Muslim prayer or section of the Qur’an on a certain day, at a certain time or in a certain place. Other documents explain how to manufacture talismans (Ar. aḥrāz). In an Islamic context, a talisman is usually a small piece of paper with a passage of Arabic writing on it. Depending on the intended effect, the paper could be worn about the person as a protective amulet (Ar. khātim), buried in a special place or, most commonly, written out in ink on a slate and then washed off with water, milk or plant extracts. This mixture is either drunk or applied to the body. The image below shows a religious scholar writing an amulet for a widow.

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A marabout or Muslim religious leader writing an amulet for a widow. P.D. Boilat, Esquisses sénégalaises, etc. (Paris, 1853). British Library, 10096.h.9. Noc

Many fawāʾid are accompanied by number squares (Ar. awfāq) in which each row and column add up to the same number, not unlike a Sudoku. The squares, which are common throughout the Islamic world, are said to have come to the Middle East from China. They originally consisted of 3 lines of 3 small squares, before being enlarged and made more complex by medieval Arab mathematicians (Camman 1969). Later they were combined with the science of numerology, in which each letter of the Arabic alphabet is assigned a numerical value, so that the squares could also be used to express words. When filled with a name of God or a Prophet - in letters or in their numerical value - the square was thought to have very powerful spiritual properties. When filled in with a personal name, the square could be used to tell one’s fortune or to protect (or alternatively curse) that person. The earliest Europeans to visit West Africa in the 18th and 19th centuries commented on the ubiquitous nature of these devices, which were used by Muslim and non-Muslim alike and made by specialists called mallams (Ar. muʿallim, a learned person).

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Examples of number squares. Or 6576, ff. 11v and 12r. Noc

In the past, this material was deemed to be of little interest to scholars. However, in more recent times, the value of these documents is being recognised (Brenner 1985; Epelboin 2016).  As well as being a fascinating record of West African trees and plants used in such preparations, what we must remember is that each talisman was made at the request of a ‘patient’ for a specific malady or problem.

Thus, these documents are perhaps the most personal of the collection. They reflect preoccupations we can all relate to: the relief of back pain, a guarantee of a happy marriage, the conception of a child, an aide for students to memorise their lessons, or even a husband’s appeal for his wife to come back to him. There are also many ‘love amulets’ with space left for the name of a man and a woman. A detailed study of these talismans will undoubtedly tell us much about the social history of the societies that produced them. The image below is a page from a fāʾida (singular of fawāʾid) to make all who see the bearer love them, ‘as a Muslim loves paradise, as a faithful person loves prayer, as a stomach loves food, as fields love the rain, as infidels and wolves love unclean meat’.

Image 6 OR 6880 334r
A love fāʾida or amulet. Or 6880, f. 334r. Noc

In the next few months, detailed descriptions of every one of the Arabic manuscripts from West Africa held in the BL’s collection will be uploaded onto the British Library’s online catalogue of manuscripts. This will make it easy for readers to know what is in the collection and facilitate access and study.

Further reading:

Bruce S. Hall and Charles C. Stewart, ‘The Historic “Core Curriculum” and the Book Market in Islamic West Africa’, in Graziano Krätli and Ghislaine Lydon (eds), The Trans-Saharan Book Trade (Leiden: Brill, 2011), pp. 109-74.

Schuyler Cammann, ‘Islamic and Indian Magic Squares. Part I’, History of Religions, 8, 3 (1969): 181-209

Schuyler Cammann, ‘Islamic and Indian Magic Squares. Part II’, History of Religions, 8, 4 (1969): 271-299.

Louis Brenner, ‘The Esoteric Sciences in West African Islam’ in Brian M. Du Toit and Ismail Hussein Abdalla (eds), African Healing Strategies (Buffalo: Trado-Medic Books, 1985), pp. 20-28.

Alan Epelboin, ‘Amulettes et objets magiques du Musée de l'Homme collectés dans les ordures du Sénégal Collection ALEP (1983-‐2016)’ (2016). The author spent many years collecting more modern devices from rubbish dumps in Senegal; this collection can be found online.

 Paul Naylor  Ccownwork

06 July 2016

Intelligence mapping of British East Africa: a new online resource from the British Library

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With generous funding from the Indigo Trust the British Library has published online over 550 colonial-era military intelligence maps relating to the former British East Africa: modern-day Kenya and Uganda, and adjacent parts of Tanzania, Burundi, Rwanda, DR Congo, South Sudan, Ethiopia and Somalia.

The sheets were created between 1890 and 1940, and comprise sketches, surveys and hand-drawn finished maps held at the British Library in the so-called War Office Archive. A dedicated webpage provides easy access to the archive with links to catalogue records and high-res images, which can be viewed on the British Library website or downloaded free of charge from Wikimedia Commons. A Google Maps page provides a geographical index to the sheets. 

GeographicalIndex
A geographical index to sheets in the archive, plotted in Google Maps

The archive is a rich resource not only for researchers of African, colonial and personal history, but also for environmentalists and climate scientists. Many of the sheets represent the earliest systematic surveys of East Africa, and provide historical ethnographic information relating to populations, settlements and regions along with details of historical land use, limits of vegetation, hydrology and much else.

WOMAT_AFR_BEA_54
Umkamba Province, Central Part of, 1901. WOMAT/AFR/BEA/54

This sheet (WOMAT/AFR/BEA/54) was created in 1901 and shows a region to the north and east of Nairobi, which had been founded just two years before – the western limit of detail on the map is approximately seven miles from the centre of the city today. The sheet gives the names and locations of ethnic groups and settlements, and describes areas of habitation, cultivation and vegetation immediately prior to European settlement.

Detail_WOMAT_AFR_BEA_54
Detail of (WOMAT/AFR/BEA/54) showing the region around Fort Hall.

At this time the British Government strongly promoted settlement along the length of the newly-constructed Mombasa to Lake Victoria railway line which ran through Nairobi to the south, and the map’s creator, Captain Bertram Dickson, was sent to assess the region’s suitability for settlement and agriculture. The dry tone of his report  is at odds with the delicate inks and watercolours of the map, but the purpose of his expedition is clear:
‘Wherever the surface is flat swamps are found, probably owing to the enormous rainfall, but they could be easily drained… The hills are rough and rocky...and as there is no water on them it is unlikely they could be of much use in agriculture… The soil only needs cultivating to grow almost anything...’
Dickson reveals other, more immediate obstacles to settlement, but these are quickly passed over:
‘Owing to the hostility of the natives at Meruka, it was impossible to traverse this district thoroughly, but it appears that the passage from the cultivated hills to the plains is here more gradual, there being no dividing line of forest…’

Detail_WOMAT_AFR_BEA_275_10
Detail of 'Colony & Protectorate of Kenya. Plans Showing Administrative Boundaries' (WOMAT/AFR/BEA/275/10) also showing the region around Fort Hall.

This later sheet shows how quickly the region was transformed in the years following. It forms part of a set of maps produced in 1924 by the Land Survey Department, Nairobi, and depicts the numerous parcels of land that had been created for sale or lease to European settlers.

The images in this post are made freely available under an Open Government Licence v1.0 (OGL). 

Further reading:

B. Dickson, ‘The Eastern Borderlands of Kikuyu’, The Geographical Journal, 21 no. 1 (Jan., 1930),  36-39

Nicholas Dykes Ccownwork
formerly Cataloguer, War Office Archive, British Library