Asian and African studies blog

17 posts categorized "Africa"

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.

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)

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.
Nativity scene (British Library Or. 481, f.100v)

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.

Three Wise Men or  Magi, as described in The Gospel according to St. Matthew (British Library Or. 607, f.14r)

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.

The flight into Egypt: Mary and Jesus followed by Joseph (British Library Or. 510, f.10v)

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

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.

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.

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.

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

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’.

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.

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.

Image 1 OR 6953_279v
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.

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.

Image 3 OR 6473 cropped 105r
Obituary for the Senegambian scholar al-Haj Salim al-Zaghawi al-Kasami. Or 6473, f. 105r. Noc

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.

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).

Image 5 OR 6576 11v, 12r
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. 

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.

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 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 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

31 May 2016

An 18th Century North African Travelling Physician's Handbook

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POSTSCRIPT from editor: This manuscript has now been digitised and can be viewed online

While cataloguing the British Library’s collection of Arabic manuscripts from West Africa (see BL blog passim) I came across a very strange item. This manuscript, Or.6557, was given to the British Museum Library (the forerunner of the British Library) by a Muhammad Shami on the 10th of October 1903 and catalogued the following year. According to a slip of paper pasted on the blank recto of the first folio in the handwriting the donor, this work is a “book on Reml [Arabic: ʻIlm al-Raml, meaning divination by sand] and magic and some of austronomy by Saidi Saeed Abdoul Naim” with the date of composition given as 1202AH (1788 AD). The text block is loose-leaf, as is often the case in North and West Africa, and protected at either end by squares of animal hide.

OR6557 Magical writing_2000
Key to writing a secret alphabet (British Library Or.6557, f. 47r)

The reason for the work’s composition seems to be to detail practices for the curing of various physical and mental conditions. Throughout the work, subjects are itemised in the left-hand margin, suggesting ʻAbd al-Nāʼim used it as a reference guide during his practice. The lack of any clear order nor beginning or conclusion, along with various small pieces of paper scattered throughout the text block featuring simple arithmetic, receipts or aides-memoires, suggests that the work was compiled gradually over the course of ʻAbd al-Nāʼim's career and was meant to be a private document. The handwriting of  ʻAbd al-Nāʻim seems to be a mix of several different styles and –confirmed by the mention of various North African place names- it appears he travelled widely in search of learning, or perhaps new patients.

True to the words of the donor, among the subjects covered are sand divination and astronomy. However, the work is a veritable compendium of all kinds of knowledge, ranging from the purely scientific to the very occult. There are sections on alchemy, the fabrication of potions and talismans, the exorcism of demons and jinn and the voiding of black magic, to the treatment of a plethora of medical complaints, from sore eyes to bad backs. Toward the end of the work, ʻAbd al-Nāʻim also quotes versified works by the Egyptian al-Ḍimyātī, whose poems are still renowned in North Africa for their therapeutic properties. ʻAbd al-Nāʻim refers several times to the use of hashish as well as other recognisable drugs and chemical compounds, often noting that he has tried many of the cures on himself.

Tis'a_rahat3_2000 Tis'a_rahat2_2000
Two of the “nine family heads”. Text in red indicates that these are instructions for performing the exorcism, while the text in black gives their personal name and a description (British Library Or.6557, ff. 40r and 41r)

However, the most impressive aspect of the work is its full-page illustrations. The work features nine full-page illustrations of beings ʻAbd al-Nāʻim calls “tisʻa rahṭ”. This phrase can be traced to the Qur’an 27:48 in the line “And there were in the city nine family heads causing corruption in the land”. In the tafṣīr of al-Jalālayn, this city is identified as Thamud and the “corruption” is described as “sins such as clipping dinars and dirhams”. From this obscure Qur’anic reference, ʻAbd al-Nāʻim elaborates the story, giving each “family head” a personal name, listing his attributes, signs of the interference of this entity in the world of the living and the means to exorcise or remove him. His representations of each “family head” –executed in black or red ink- are highly original, ranging from a horned demon to a long-beaked red bird, to a long-armed creature with a brazier for a head. If these forms are not unsettling enough, ʻAbd al-Nāʻim ends his section on the “nine family heads” with the warning that “whoever says that they are birds or anything else has lied for I saw them [myself] in Safar 1214 (July/August 1799)”.

LegionsofJinn_2000 OR6557 Jinns shooting and riding_2000
Left: “Legions of Jinn” (Or.6557, f. 6v); right: group of Jinn or humans, engaged in shooting and riding (British Library Or.6557, f. 26v)

Aside from numerous astrological and alchemical diagrams and talismans, the work also includes many pictorial representations of jinn. ʻAbd al-Nāʻim’s illustrations are again highly idiosyncratic and he has taken pains to differentiate each jinn from the next. Some sprout three horns, some are stooped over while others stand tall, thrusting batons or other implements; some appear to be holding firearms while others ride on beasts of burden.

There is still much work to be done on this item -which I believe must be a unicum- and no doubt further textual analysis will shed more light on the circumstances of its composition.

My thanks to Constant Hamès, with whom I have corresponded concerning this item.

Paul Naylor, British Library Collaborative Doctoral Student, Asian and African Studies

Paul Naylor, British Library Collaborative Doctoral Student, Asian and African Studies
 ccownwork - See more at:

30 March 2016

The British Library’s West African manuscripts collection

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The British Library holds a small but significant collection of manuscripts from West Africa. As part of his PhD research, Paul Naylor is cataloguing the collection and identifying its contents for the first time. Here, he introduces the collection and gives his preliminary results.

The British Library’s West African manuscripts collection
The British Library’s collection consists of eight bound volumes of written material and five Qur’ans, numbering some 3,000 manuscript pages altogether. Most of these items date from the mid-19th century, and were acquired by the British Museum Library (the forerunner of the British Library) between 1895 and 1917. In addition, two of the Qur’ans were acquired in the 1970s, and two other manuscripts have been purchased since 2000.

The manuscripts were paginated and bound in leather, and have remained largely undisturbed ever since. That they were not seen as important is shown by the brief, vague and sometimes shockingly dismissive handwritten records of acquisition: an 1895 entry, for example, uses the phrase: ‘Muslim catechisms prayers and charms in a barbarous African style of writing’.

Thankfully, scholarship has moved on from this view, and manuscripts from West Africa, as from any other part of the world where manuscripts in the Arabic language are created and studied, are now seen as valuable in their own right and important for the study of the societies that produced them. One of the aims of my research project is to facilitate the study of these manuscripts by providing detailed catalogue records and search terms for the collection, so that it will be easily searchable through the British Library’s online catalogue.

Image 1 OR 16751Illuminated pages from a loose leaf Qur’an, kept in a leather bag, on display in the British Library’s exhibition ‘West Africa: Word, Symbol, Song’ (16.10.15-16.2.16). Late 18th/19th century  (British Library Or.16,751)  noc

Work on the West African manuscripts to date suggests that these items can play a part in removing some of the myths and stereotypes about pre-colonial West Africa. They show that the region was very much connected with the rest of the world, and a place in which education and the written word had a high value. The collection shows a real desire to widen horizons and expand knowledge, and gives us a very personal glimpse of the individuals at the forefront of this movement, to which they dedicated their lives. It is for this reason that it is so satisfying to re-examine and bring to light this rich collection, which should now gain the recognition and scholarly attention it deserves.

Language and script in the manuscript culture of West Africa
Before the colonial period, ‘Arabic was the Latin of Africa’, in the words of the distinguished Africanist scholar John Hunwick[1]. Islam and Arabic learning first reached the West African region between the 9th and 13th centuries. Muslims must recite the Qur’an and the five daily prayers in Arabic, and therefore in West Africa, like anywhere else, to be a Muslim means at least learning to read Arabic script. Religious education in West Africa is and was in Arabic, although the teacher may in some cases explain the reading material in the local language. In 19th century West Africa, a place with more than a thousand regional languages but a remarkably uniform Arabic education system, Arabic was the means of written communication between educated people.

Almost all the West African material in the British Library’s collection is in Arabic. However, while the main body of text is always in Arabic, copyists and authors often include extensive notation in their own language transcribed in Arabic script (ajami) in the margins. In our collection we have established so far the presence of two West African languages, Soninke and Fulfulde.

Image 2 or6473_214r_a80145-19
Page from the ‘Middle Creed’ of Yusuf al-Sanusi, a text arguing for the existence of one God. The larger text is in Arabic, the smaller text a gloss in the Soninke language (British Library Or.6473, f.214r)  noc

The type of Arabic script used by West African copyists can broadly be classified as ‘Maghrebi’, that is, Arabic in the style written in historical Andalusia and North Africa. It was from these regions that Arabic learning first reached West Africa. Although the French ethnographer Octave Houdas first described Arabic calligraphy south of the Sahara as a unique category in 1886, it was not given much attention. In the 2000s, several Arabic scholars with an interest in West Africa begun to note the wide variety of regional West African calligraphic styles, tentatively classifying features unique to each centre of manuscript production such as Hausaland, Bornu and Masina (Mali)[2]. Much work remains to be done in this field however, and neither the number of distinct styles of West African calligraphy nor the terms to designate them have been fixed. Making the British Library collection more accessible may provide significant contributions to a field that is still in its infancy.

The book in West Africa
Historically, books in West Africa were rare and expensive items and were normally held in small private libraries and passed between scholars, who copied them by hand for their own use. These scholars were teachers and sometimes copyists and scribes as well; many travelled extensively in the West African region, taking their books with them. Manuscripts were generally unbound, and none of the West African works in the British Library collection were originally bound. A century ago, the practice of the British Museum was to bind them upon acquisition, which means that there can be up to 150 separate works in a single volume.

Paper in West Africa was expensive, imported from Europe via North Africa and later the Atlantic coast. As a result it is very rare to find a blank or sparsely covered sheet of paper in the collection. Every scrap of paper was utilised.

One of the really spectacular finds in this collection is a letter from a Muhammad al-Amin Suwaré in Touba (probably in the Senegambian region) to his son, living nearby. Muhammad complains that a scholar to whom he had lent one of his books to copy had not given it back, and had even demanded payment for its return. Muhammad al-Amin asks his son to get this book back to him ‘quickly, quickly, quickly’, angrily remarking ‘I would never agree to buy my own book!’

Image 3 or6473_190r_west_africa_a80145-20
Letter from Muhammad al-Amin to his son, with words underlined in red ink by the indignant scholar (British Library Or.6473, f. 190r)  noc

As well as capturing the importance of books and book ownership in 19th century West Africa, the letter is wonderfully personal. Muhammad fumes against the scholar in question, saying he is a man of no religion, before adding in a rather embarrassed note that this scholar could not really have stolen the book, ‘because he is a god-fearing man of faith and learning’. Muhammad also highlights some expressions in the letter as good examples of Arabic grammar for his son, giving their explanation with notes linked by arrows to the main text.

Identifying the collection
Before I started work on the collection, there was very little information about what kind of material it contained, where in ‘West Africa’ it may have come from and how old the works might be. The main task was to look at each work in detail and glean as much information about it as possible. What is the subject area? Does the work have a title? Do we know the identity of the author? Can we get any information about the person who copied it? Where might they have lived, and when?

In a pre-printing age, the only way to reproduce written texts was to copy them out by hand. As a result, almost all the works in this collection are copies of earlier, well-established works. It was not common practice to record the date a work was copied, although strangely the copyist often notes the day and time the copy was finished, ‘on Friday, after the midday prayer’, for example. The best way to estimate the earliest date the copy could have been made is therefore to find out the dates of the individual who created the original work.

The collection has copies of the works of many authors who were writing around the middle of the 19th century. Judging also by the paper – and in West Africa paper has an especially short lifespan - these manuscripts were probably written around the same time. However, many works in the collection were originally composed as long ago as the 12th or 13th centuries, so these manuscripts may well be older than the mid-19th century.

While it is sometimes possible to identify the authors of these works, more often than not the copyist is more elusive, providing no name or often ‘signing’ the copy only with pious epithets such as ‘I have completed it, may God forgive my sins’. However, many works in the collection have colophons, that is, statements at the end of a work giving the name of the copyist, the owner and sometimes additional information. The colophon was also the occasion for the copyist to show off his drawing skills and many colophons in the collection have colourful or geometric designs.

Image 4 Or. 6880 f236 K90132-69
Colophon marking the end of a series of commentaries on lines of poetry by Sheikh Abdullah ibn Ali, who also made this copy (British Library Or.6880, f. 236r)  noc

Most names given for the copyists are so common as to be untraceable, although one, the family name Suwaré, occurs ten times across two manuscripts in the collection. The Suwaré were a family based around the town of Toubacuta in present-day Guinea, founded in 1824[3].

Part 2 of this blog will take an in-depth look at some of the items in the British Library’s West African manuscript collection.

Further reading
Blair, S. S., ‘Arabic calligraphy in West Africa’ in Shamil Jeppie and Suleymane Bachir Diagne (eds), The meanings of Timbuktu (Cape Town: HSRC Press, 2008), pp. 59-75.
Brigaglia, A., ‘Central Sudanic Arabic scripts (Part 1): The popularization of the Kanawī script’, Islamic Africa, 2.2 (2011), pp. 51-85.
Brigaglia, A., and M. Nobili, ‘Central Sudanic Arabic scripts (Part 2): Barnāwī’, Islamic Africa, 4.2 (2013), pp. 195-223.
Nobili, M., ‘Arabic scripts in West African manuscripts: a tentative classification from the de Gironcourt collection’, Islamic Africa, 2.1 (2011), pp. 105-133.

Paul Naylor, British Library Collaborative Doctoral Student, Asian and African Studies

[1] John Hunwick, West Africa, Islam, and the Arab World: Studies in Honor of Basil Davidson (Princeton: Markus Wiener Publishers, 2006).
[2] See ‘Further reading’ below for more information on this subject.
[3] L. Sanneh, ‘Futa Jallon and the Jakhanke Clerical Tradition. Part II: Karamokho Ba of Touba in Guinea’, Journal of Religion in Africa 12, 2 (1981), 105-126.

26 February 2016

Academic thought in the South

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Continuing the theme set by its acclaimed recent exhibition - West Africa: Word, Symbol, Song – the British Library will be challenging preconceived ideas about Africa and the broader global South with another event. This time, in conjunction with the Academic Book of the Future project, we will be hosting the conference The Academic Book in the South on academic book production.

At the British Library we spend a lot of time dealing with the changing world of academic publications. We have extensive collections of academic books published all over the world. We acquire books from across the global South, in all major languages, and our historic and contemporary holdings are very strong. The book covers shown below give a flavour of these collections.

Image 1A Arabic Image 1B Arabic
Left: ʻAbd al-Munʿim Mājid, Nuẓum al-Fāṭimīyīn wa-rusūmuhum fī Miṣr (Cairo: Maktabat al-Anjlū al-Miṣrīyah, 1973); Right: Luṭfī Jaʻfar Faraj ʻAbd Allāh, ʻAbd al-Muḥsin al-Saʻdūn wa-dawruhu fī tārīkh al-ʻIrāq al-siyāsī al-muʻāṣir (Baghdad: Wizārat al-Thaqāfah wa-al-Funūn, al-Jumhūrīyah al-ʻIrāqīyah, 1978)
These two 1970s texts deal respectively with the Fatimid dynasty in Egypt (973-1171) and the history and politics of modern Iraq. In Arabic 

As the publishing environment changes radically, we know that our thinking about the future of academic publications and, more broadly, effective dissemination of academic thought is incomplete without a truly global dialogue. After all, academic research is geared more than ever to tackle global challenges. This is an exciting ambition across all academic disciplines – from improving health outcomes across the world to finding new paradigms for politics, economics and culture in a fast-changing world.

If this ambition is to be realised, it has to include an effective global system to disseminate new academic ideas in all their diversity. This is why we need to build and strengthen our understanding of academic book authorship, publication and circulation, through dialogue with colleagues in Africa, the Middle East and South Asia.

Image 2 Bengali
Sabitendranātha Rāẏa, Kaleja Sṭrīṭe sattara bachara (Kalakātā: Dīpaśikhā Prakāśana, 2006-2008). A memoir on the book trade and literature in Kolkata. In Bengali

While our contacts across the world tell us that there are common challenges, there is a lot that we do not know. This is why we are pleased to host The Academic Book in the South, a two-day conference taking place at the British Library on 7th-8th March 2016. This event will investigate the current situation and future prospects of the academic book in the global South.

This event will offer a unique opportunity to hear from the speakers and participants across Africa, South Asia and the Middle East, including: Walter Bgoya, Sukanta Chaudhuri, Abhijit Gupta, Sari Hanafi, Shamil Jeppie, Akoss Ofori-Mensah, Mark Muehlhaeusler, Padmini Ray Murray and Nureldin M. Satti.  

Image 3 Timbuktu
Shamil Jeppie and Souleyman Bachir Diagne (eds), The meanings of Timbuktu (Cape Town; Senegal: HSRC Press in association with CODESRIA, 2008).
A collection of essays on the manuscript cultures of Timbuktu, Mali, and the surrounding region. In English

Will today’s ubiquitous digital technologies and open access provide us with a new environment, which will alleviate geographic inequalities in knowledge production and distribution? Will this lead to new opportunities for arts and humanities scholars to make their voices heard as we try to navigate new global complexities? Or is digital change just homogenising the world of academic publications and suppressing the diversity of academic voices?

Join us for a debate and to find out how academics, publishers and librarians in the global South perceive these issues.

This conference is organised by The British Library in collaboration with Professor Marilyn Deegan, Kings College London and Dr Caroline Davis, Oxford Brookes University.

This event is an outcome of the Academic Book of the Future research project, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council.

The conference is now open for registration and full details are available on the British Library website, along with a provisional conference programme. The conference fee is £30.00 (£15.00 student rate) for the two-day event, which includes registration, lunch and refreshments.

Maja Maricevic, Head of Higher Education, British Library

15 February 2016

Nine myths about West Africa

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Today's guest blog is by Gus Casely-Hayford, a historian and adviser to the exhibition West Africa: Word, Symbol, Song, which continues at the British Library until 16 February. 

Time and again, reporting from West Africa reinforces the same few time-worn stereotypes: conflict, corruption, underdevelopment, the spread of the latest epidemic. The British Library’s West Africa: Word, Symbol, Song exhibition (16 October 2015-16 February 2016) was conceived to bring to an audience in Britain histories that challenge these pervasive stereotypes, and confront the many falsehoods about West Africa and its heritage. Behind the headlines, much of the everyday reality for people across West Africa is about resilience, creativity and communication. The seventeen countries of the region are rich in culture and history. This more nuanced picture is what a focus on tragic and terrible headlines risks obscuring. Here are a handful of the most common myths that the British Library’s West Africa: Word, Symbol, Song exhibition confronts and then robustly takes apart.

Myth 1. West Africa lacks a pre-colonial tradition of writing
West Africa is one of the world’s most linguistically diverse regions, with more than 1,000 languages spoken. This is a written culture that dates back more than a thousand years, with ancient manuscript libraries stretching from Mauritania, across Mali, into Nigeria and beyond. The continuing vitality of this culture was made obvious through the great efforts that ordinary Malians made to save tens of thousands of manuscripts when Timbuktu fell to Al Qaeda-affiliated extremists in 2012. Although as many as 4,000 manuscripts were destroyed, thousands more were smuggled to safety by ordinary people determined to safeguard their heritage.

Image 1 Saddlebag Quran
Qur’an typical of the artistic tradition of northern Nigeria/southern Niger. The manuscript is late 18th/19th century and is divided into four by the large illuminations shown here. It is loose leaf and kept in a leather bag, as was usual for West African manuscripts. British Library, Or. 16751 Noc

Myth 2. West Africa has no history
Hegel famously wrote that Africa was somehow different to other continents, that it was somehow ‘shut up’ in a ‘dark mantle’ without formal history or culture. Yet, over the past millennium, West Africans have forged many kinds of societies: from cities to villages, carving out a living in semi-desert and forest, building kingdoms, empires and city states. The ancient city of Djenné-Djeno in present-day Mali dates back at least 2,000 years. The great medieval empires of the Sahel, Ghana, Mali and Songhai, were succeeded in turn by later kingdoms and empires, for example the 18th and 19th century Asante empire in what is now Ghana. This 1819 illustration from Thomas Bowdich’s Mission from Cape Coast Castle to Ashantee shows Adum Street, close to the royal palace in Kumasi. The open porches fronting onto the street were offices where the kingdom’s officials conducted their business and received members of the public.

Image 2 Adum street
‘Adum Street’. Illustration from Thomas Edward Bowdich, Mission from Cape Coast Castle to Ashantee (London: John Murray, 1819). British Library, G.7211 Noc

Myth 3. West Africa is and always has been ‘war-torn’
As with anywhere in the world, this region has had its share of conflict and civil strife, but equally there is a rich legacy of trade, prosperity and intellectual and cultural exchange. There were trade routes across the Sahara from a very early date, and Islam reached West Africa by this route in the 8th and 9th centuries. This exquisite brass forowa is a wheeled box for carrying valuable materials such as cowrie shells, gold dust or shea butter. It is richly decorated with symbolic designs including a sankofa bird and a spider, most probably a representation of the trickster god Ananse, and shows how cultural exchange flourished alongside trade.

Image 3 Forowa
Forowa or sheet-brass box from Ghana, before c. 1900. © Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford. 1935.56.12

Myth 4. Drumming is the sound of West Africa
Traditional music encompasses a huge range of different sounds, which are open to change and development and in many cases are woven together with complex verbal literatures: poetry, story and narrative. The region is home to a vast array of genres, including gospel, highlife, rap, mbalax, gumbé, jùjú music and Afrobeat, all drawing on local traditions and fusing them with a range of musical traditions from around the world. In the 1970s and ‘80s Afrobeat pioneer Fela Kuti created music that combined social comment and protest with an electrifying sound that resonated globally, and which has influenced several generations of musicians and activists.

Image 4 Fela
Cover of Fela Kuti’s album Sorrow, Tears & Blood by Lemi Ghariokwu. Courtesy of and © Lemi Ghariokwu. 1LP0236386

Myth 5. West Africa has not demonstrated true innovation
Creativity is central to West African culture, whether in music, visual arts or literature. In the 1950s and ‘60s, as nations in the region were breaking free from colonialism, West African writers like Chinua Achebe and Amos Tutuola developed exciting literary forms that combined the storytelling traditions of the Igbo and Yoruba peoples with the English language and achieved huge international success. The modern art shown in West Africa: Word, Symbol, Song also demonstrates this determination constantly to innovate. In ‘Feminine Power Series 2’ artists Nike Davies-Okundaye and Tola Wewe take a tradition of symbols used in textile production known as adire and reinvent them in a modern artistic context.

Myth 6. For much of its history, West Africa has been remote from the rest of the world
The great empires of the Middle Ages covered a huge amount of territory and there was much travelling and communication within the region, whether in the form of trade, diplomacy or imperial business. West Africa has been in close touch with the Islamic world since it first emerged and has played an important role in European history, particularly through the eras of enslavement and colonialism. The forced labour of West Africans went on to underpin the prosperity of Europe and the Americas. The influence of West Africa’s culture and music has been felt all round the world, whether in carnival – which brought influences from West Africa and Europe to the Americas and eventually beyond (such as to the UK) – or through musical instruments. Arguably the akonting, an instrument of the Jola people in The Gambia, is a forerunner of the modern banjo, the sound of which can be heard in genres ranging from jazz to bluegrass.

Image 6 Akonting
Akonting made for the British Library’s West Africa: Word, Symbol, Song exhibition by Daniel Jatta. Photo © Clare Kendall

Myth 7. West Africans were passive in the face of enslavement and colonialism
Enslavement and colonialism were always met with resistance in a variety of forms. In 18th and early 19th century England, a number of books were published by West Africans freed from enslavement, asserting the humanity of Black people and calling for an end to the Atlantic slave trade. Most famous among these was Olaudah Equiano, whose Interesting Narrative of his experiences became a bestseller. Even earlier, the letters of Ayuba Suleiman Diallo in the 1730s show him agitating for his eventual release, using all the enterprise and charm at his disposal to secure his freedom.

Image 7 Equiano
Oloudah Equiano, The interesting narrative of the life of O. Equiano, or G. Vassa, the African ... written by himself (London, 1789). British Library, 615.d.8 Noc

Myth 8. Women are marginal to the region’s intellectual and literary culture
In the 19th and 20th centuries, women played a prominent role both in the independence movements in West Africa and in the great generation of post-independence writers. Activists, educationalists and writers like Adelaide Casely-Hayford, Mabel Dove and Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti have left a rich legacy of books, articles and pamphlets, in many cases arguing trenchantly both for national liberation and female emancipation. More recently, the latest wave of West African music and literary stars has included women such as Oumou Sangaré, Angelique Kidjo, Taiye Selasi, Aminatta Forna and, most spectacularly, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.

Chimamanda image
Photograph of prize-winning author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (2008). Courtesy of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation

Myth 9. West Africa’s influence on cultures beyond the continent is limited
The region’s music forms the root of all popular music, with musical styles and rhythms diffused across several continents through the forced migration of millions of West Africans during the course of the Atlantic slave trade. Spirituals and the blues developed out of the experience of enslaved peoples and went on to have a formative influence on later styles such as rock and roll, R&B and hip-hop. Carnival originated in West Africa and, via the Caribbean, travelled to destinations as diverse as Rio and Notting Hill.

Image 8 carnival costume
Carnival costume designed by Ray Mahabir (Sunshine Arts) in 2015 for the ‘West Africa: Word, Symbol, Song’ exhibition. It is based on the tradition of Bele or Bel Air, a drum dance and song closely associated with Caribbean history, struggle, freedom and celebration. Photo © Tony Antoniou

See the British Library’s West Africa web pages for more on the region’s rich heritage and culture.

Gus Casely-Hayford  Ccownwork