Asian and African studies blog

News from our curators and colleagues


Our Asian and African Studies blog promotes the work of our curators, recent acquisitions, digitisation projects, and collaborative projects outside the Library. Our starting point was the British Library’s exhibition ‘Mughal India: Art, Culture and Empire’, which ran 9 Nov 2012 to 2 Apr 2013. Read more

06 June 2023

Bollinger Javanese Manuscripts Digitisation Project completed

Through the generous support of William and Judith Bollinger, 120 Javanese manuscripts from the British Library’s collection have just been digitised and are now fully accessible online. The manuscripts date from the 17th to the early 20th centuries, and are written on paper in both Javanese script (hanacaraka) and adapted Arabic script (pegon), and include a few manuscripts in Old Javanese. A full list of the newly-digitised manuscripts can be found here.

Menak story, early 19th c.
story, early 19th c. British Library, Add MS 12296, ff. 1v-2r Noc

The manuscripts include those collected by John Crawfurd and Colin Mackenzie, two East India Company officials who served under Thomas Stamford Raffles during the British occupation of Java (1811-1816), as well as more recent acquisitions in the British Library. The Crawfurd collection is especially rich in Javanese literary and historical works, many of which are adorned with beautiful frontispieces with double illuminated frames (wadana) surrounding the text. These are probably the work of artists from the Pakualaman, the minor court of Yogyakarta, which was founded in 1812 following the British attack on the Sultan’s palace in Yogyakarta. The Pakualaman was created by the British as a reward for their ally Prince Natakusuma, who was installed as Paku Alam I. Seven of these manuscripts have the traditional Javanese ‘diamond-on-rectangle’ style of double decorated frames, as shown above, while 11 others have ‘gateway’ (wadana gapura) style decorated frontispieces, in the form of architectural constructs resembling ancient temples (candi), replete with pedestals, columns and domes, as in the example below.

Babad Sejarah Menteram, early 19th c.
Babad Sejarah Menteram
, early 19th c. British Library, Add MS 12287, ff. 2v-3r Noc

The newly-digitised collection also includes many manuscripts from the coastal (pesisir) regions of the island of Java. Among the highlights is a finely illustrated copy of Panji Jaya Kusuma, which was created in the port-city of Surabaya on the north coast of Java for a female patron, named in the text as Nyonyah Sakeber, ‘Madame Gezaghebber’. She has been identified by Peter Carey as the wife of Frederik Jacob Rothenbühler (1758-1836), the German-born Chief Administrator (Gezaghebber) of the Eastern Salient of Java (Oosthoek), in the decade 1799-1809. The use of the title nyonya hints that she was probably a local Javanese or of mixed blood.

Panji Jaya Kusuma,
Surabaya, 1805. British Library, MSS Jav 68, ff. 31v-32r  Noc

Other manuscripts are of particular interest for their texts rather than any decorative features, including a compilation of the works of Kiai Haji Ahmad Rifai of Kalisalak (1786-1870). He was a pioneering Javanese religious scholar renowned for establishing a school (pesantren) where the curriculum was based not on the standard corpus of Arabic works, but on his own compositions in Javanese written in pegon (Arabic) script. Kiai Haji Ahmad Rifai actively commentated on various social issues, and for example issued a fatwa (religious verdict) banning the smoking of opium and tobacco. His wide influence attracted the attention and suspicion of the Dutch colonial authorities, and in 1859 he was exiled to Ambon in the Moluccas for the rest of his life.

Nazham tazkiyyah and other works by Kiai Haji Ahmad Rifai of Kalisalak, 1845
Nazham tazkiyyah
and other works by Kiai Haji Ahmad Rifai of Kalisalak, 1845. British Library, Or 13523, f. 2v Noc

One of the manuscripts digitised is a very simple and plain-looking manuscript of a primbon – a compendium of religious texts and prayers pertaining to divination. Both from the handwriting, and the Javanese treebark paper (dluwang) on which it is written, this manuscript looks extremely old, and may date back to the early 17th or even late 16th century. It is wrapped in an official document from Cirebon dated 1849, possibly linking the manuscript to that region of coastal west Java. The manuscript was presented to the British Museum in 1905 by A. W. Hurst Boram. Digitisation of these Javanese manuscripts has also spurred further research into their provenance histories. In this case, it turns out that the donor, Boram, was married to Hendrika Cornelia Albers, who had been born in Cianjur, as her father Christiaan Albers (1837-1920) was a Dutch missionary in west Java. It is thus likely that the manuscript originated from west Java.

Primbon, possibly early 17th century
Primbon, possibly early 17th century. British Library, Or 6622, ff. 4v-5r  Noc

The completion of the Bollinger Javanese Manuscripts Digitisation Project drew on the skills and support of many different staff across the British Library, with the particular challenges of commencing this project in the middle of the coronovirus pandemic, and across two national lockdowns in 2020 when all British Library buildings were closed. First, conservators checked every single manuscript to ensure they were in a fit state for digitisation, and made repairs as necessary, as shown below with a copy of an Old Javanese inscription which was originally folded, ragged and torn. Next the manuscripts were all photographed in the Imaging Studios, yielding a total of 35,880 digital images, amounting to 4.2 TB of data. Each of these images then had to be checked for quality control by the BL’s Heritage Made Digital team – with some images having to be reshot if, for example, a stray hair was visible on the page – and finally all the manuscripts were published online on the British Library’s Digitised Manuscripts portal. Over the next few years, the digital images will be migrated to the new Universal Viewer, where they will all be equipped with IIIF manifests.

A paper copy made during the British administration of Java of the Hantang inscription
A paper copy made during the British administration of Java of the Hantang inscription dated 1135 (now in the National Museum of Indonesia, see below), with an interlinear transcription of the Old Javanese text into modern Javanese characters, and translation into modern Javanese in cursive black ink. This manuscript had to be cleaned, repaired and flattened prior to digitisation. British Library, MSS Jav 95, top   Noc

The top of the Hantang stone inscription of 1135
The top of the Hantang stone inscription of 1135, with the Narasiṅha emblem of Jayabhaya at the top. Museum Nasional, Jakarta, D.9 (photograph by A.T. Gallop, 2011).

William and Judith Bollinger always made clear their wish to see collaborations embedded at the heart of this project, for which British Library has partnered with the National Library of Indonesia (Perpusnas). On 24 May 2023, the British Library welcomed the Director of the National Library of Indonesia, Mr Muhammad Syarif Bando, and senior colleagues, to sign a Memorandum of Understanding, and four manuscript curators from Perpusnas will soon be visiting the British Library to contribute their expertise on Javanese manuscripts and enhance the metadata of the catalogue descriptions. On the same day, at an event to celebrate the completion of the Bollinger Javanese Manuscripts Digitisation Project, Dr Luisa Elena Mengoni, Head of the Asian and African Collections at the British Library, presented to Mr Bando a hard drive containing a complete set of the digital images of the 120 Javanese manuscripts.  The British Library will also be collaborating with MANASSA, the Association of Indonesian Manuscript Scholars, on a small project to promote the use and study of these newly-digitised Javanese manuscripts.

The Director of the National Library of Indonesia, Mr Muhammad Syarif Bando, and senior colleagues
The Director of the National Library of Indonesia, Mr Muhammad Syarif Bando, and senior colleagues, with Prof. Khairul Munadi, Education and Culture Attache at the Indonesian Embassy in London, and British Library staff, celebrating the completion of the Bollinger Javanese Manuscripts Digitisation Project on 24 May 2023.

Building on earlier projects to digitise Javanese manuscripts in the British Library – notably the Javanese Manuscripts from Yogyakarta Project (2017-2019) funded by Mr S. P. Lohia, which digitised 75 manuscripts originating from the palace of Yogyakarta taken by the British in 1812, and an earlier project supported by the Henry D. Ginsburg Legacy (2012-2017) – this means that all the Javanese manuscripts written on paper held in the British Library, numbering around 200, are now digitised. [The British Library is currently also collaborating with the EFEO DHARMA project to digitise the 70 palm leaf manuscripts written in Javanese, Old Javanese and Balinese, which will be completed later this year in 2023.] The critical mass of Javanese manuscript literature now available online has also led to a new collaboration with the Foundation for Javanese Literature, Yayasan Sastera Lestari (Yasri). The beautifully illustrated British Library manuscripts Serat Damar Wulan (MSS Jav 89) and Serat Sela Rasa (MSS Jav 28) were amongst the first to be digitised, and Yasri has romanised these texts and made them accessible online on the website, with page-by-page hyperlinks to the digitised manuscripts. Thanks to support from the Bollinger Javanese Manuscripts project, Yasri will now be romanising twenty more Javanese manuscripts from the British Library covering a range of literary and historical texts including Serat Banten (Add MS 12304), Serat Sejarah Demak (Add MS 12333) and Serat Babad Sengkala (Add MS 12322).

romanisation of Serat Damar Wulan
The Yasri page on with the romanisation of Serat Damar Wulan, British Library, MSS Jav 89.

Other collaborations which have evolved in tandem with the increasing number of Javanese manuscripts from the British Library now online are with Wikimedia Indonesia. In March 2023 the Wikisource Competition (Kompetisi Wikisumber 2023) was held to transcribe Javanese manuscripts into machine-readable Javanese script, focussing on British Library manuscripts already romanised by Yasri such as Serat Damar Wulan, in order to facilitate cross-checking. Wikisource loves manuscripts is a pilot project to enhance the OCR (optical character recognition) and HTR (hand-written text recognition) capabilities of Transkribus to transcribe Javanese and other Indonesian scripts, using digitised manuscripts from the British Library. But alongside these technologically ambitious projects, there are countless scholars, readers and artists who are daily delighting in reading and reciting these Javanese literary gems, and gaining inspiration from their beautiful illuminations and illustrations.

Blog posts
16 May 2022, Bollinger Javanese Manuscripts Digitisation Project: 120 more Javanese manuscripts to be digitised 
15 Aug 2022, 40 more Javanese manuscripts now accessible online 
26 September 2022, Frederik Jacob Rothenbühler and his wife as collectors of Javanese manuscripts in the early 19th century, by Prof. Peter Carey, Jakarta

Annabel Teh Gallop, Lead Curator for Southeast Asia  Ccownwork

30 May 2023

Better than a Pearl: a letter to the Bayinkan of Burma from the people of Mergui

This guest blog is by Jim Potter, an independent researcher who studies the history of Tenasserim, and Ni Ni Aung, a resident of Myeik (Mergui), who assisted in the translation, transcription and interpretation of this letter.

Burmese shell book, Myeik, ca. 1907
Burmese shell book, Myeik, ca. 1907. British Library, Or 16052. Noc

This extraordinary memorial (Or 16052) was presented to a bayinkan (ruler) who visited southern Myanmar around 1907. It is a beautiful letter in formal Burmese, printed in silk and encased in an oyster shell, but it was also clever diplomacy from a place that had dealt with capricious foreign kings for centuries. In fact, the region's port was founded by a distant kingdom in 1531 when Ayutthaya ended the long, autonomous history of Tāṇa-sirī (sometimes pronounced ‘Tenasserim’). Silt had shuttered the old roadstead at Tawnauklae, so the Thais established a new one at Khe Hill. They called it Marit. Myanmar called it Myeik. Europeans called it Mergui (Sein 1929, chs. 10-11).

detail from 'Map of the coast of Pegu and Tenaserey with the neighbouring islands, 1688
Tenaserey, 1688: detail from 'Map of the coast of Pegu and Tenaserey with the neighbouring islands on the scale of 8 leagues to an inch', by John Thornton, 1688. (This map was drawn shortly after the violent ending of Samuel White's tenure as shahbandar or harbour master of Marit, the true story of which remains to be told). British Library, Add MS 39178C Noc

After 1531, monsoons and geographic isolation meant that local lords remained little bothered by sovereigns in Ayutthaya, Bago, Ava, Calcutta or Rangoon. One imagines that the ok-phra Marit (official in charge of Mergui under Thai rule) who dealt with strange new Europeans in 1622 might have found sympathy with the Myeik myowun (equivalent official under Myanmar rule) who governed its beleagured stockade in 1780, or deputy commissioners who administered sleepy Mergui after 1825. All of these ‘mayors’ were granted a large degree of autonomy at the price of neglect from the capital.

For the latter rulers, Mergui became a backwater of the British Empire. Lacking teak and with its overland trade route displaced by steam power, it was a place where disfavoured civil servants were exiled into obscurity. When E.M. Ryan arrived in 1857 he called the assignment “a species of banishment” and demanded “any other appointment ... in a more civilized part of the world.” (Mss Eur F699/1/2/2/68). Maurice Collis half-agreed during his time there in the 1930s, though he wept when he left.

The waterfront of Mergui, ca. 1897
The waterfront of Mergui, ca. 1897. Photo by William Sutherland in his article, "South Tenasserim and the Mergui Archipelago", Scottish Geographical Magazine, vol. 14, no. 9 (1898). 

Arguably, this isolation allowed the town to retain its unique identity, vibrant culture, and admirable tradition of tolerant diversity. However, it slowed development to a crawl, and government reports included Mergui almost as an afterthought. Maps of Burma casually lopped off Tenasserim when it didn’t fit on the page.

An opportunity to counter the neglect came during a visit by Lieutenant-Governor Herbert Thirkell White. The dates are uncertain, but possibly he arrived in 1907 after seeing a report on Mergui’s progress (IOR/V/27/314/29), and prior to a tour of Burma by the Earl of Minto, Viceroy and Governor-General of India. Though the viceroy did not venture to the far south, his visit was a grand affair judging by the entourage and security arrangements (Mss Eur E254/31). If this timeline is correct, civic leaders of Mergui were surely savvy enough to recognize the opportunity of direct appeal to the seats of British power.

Many others desired the same access, of course, and most were better placed for success. If the town wanted to get attention, how better than with a beautiful letter, written on silk stretched across ornate brass frames, enclosed within a huge oyster shell from the Mergui Archipelago where the ingaleik bayinkan (English governor) had enjoyed his recent holiday?

the back cover of the oyster shell book the inside back cover, showing the intricately carved brass leaf attached to the 'binding'
(Left) the back cover of the oyster shell book, and (right) the inside back cover, showing the intricately carved brass leaf attached to the 'binding'. British Library, Or 16052. Noc

The red cloth wrapper of the shell book
The red cloth wrapper of the shell book; Myeik residents say the textile is Karen-style, though other ethnicities would wear it as well. British Library, Or 16052, wrapper. Noc

The letter is written in poetic phrases, but it is not a poem. Instead it mimics the way officials reported to Myanmar kings by humbly lowering themselves to the floor, raising their palms together above the head in letoakchi (signifying profound deference to a superior) and speaking short phrases interrupted by calm breaths. For example, to describe the dangers of the sea during the southwest monsoon, the authors wrote:

ဒေဝါသွန်းချိုး (rain drops come)၊ စည်မူရိုးဖြင့် (sound of Muyo-drum to represent thunder)၊ ထစ်ကြိုးအဟုန် (strongly strike)၊ လေပြင်းသုန်လျက် (strong winds blow)၊ အမ္ဗန်ညှိုးညံ (strike with anger)၊ ဂရက်မြန်လျက် (choppily)၊ သည်းထံစွာရွာသွန်းသော (rain heavily)၊ မိုဃ်းဥတုအခါဝယ် (in the rainy season)၊

This structure and language are troublesome for precise translation into English prose. We believe the version given to Lieutenant-Governor White would have been something like, “It being dangerous to travel in the sea during the strong winds, thunder and heavy, angry rains of the monsoon ....”

The second page of text of the shell book
The second page of text of the shell book. British Library, Or 16052, f. 2r. Noc

The letter also contains a notable contrast: respectful metaphors such as, “It gave us great happiness in seeing you, like a flower being watered”, are placed beside emphatic requests for costly improvements. Perhaps the authors knew their unique letter would be seen and decided to push the rare opportunity to the limit.

Their requests were well-chosen. Transportation had always been a problem in Tenasserim, so the letter begins by suggesting that recently built large roads should be connected by new smaller ones. Besides bringing ‘prosperity and happiness”, the authors note how this network would aid mining operations. In fact, a decade later Tenasserim became a major source of wolfram which was essential for munitions in the First World War (Myanmar National Archives MNA 1/7 1148 & 1162; IOR/L/E/7/1369-1370).

"The main street of Mergui", ca. 1907, photo by R.N. Rudmose Brown907
"The main street of Mergui", ca. 1907, photo by R.N. Rudmose Brown in “The Mergui Archipelago: its people and products.” Scottish Geographical Magazine, vol. 23 (1907).

Similarly, the people asked for a steamship “to run once a week between the towns of Palaw, Myeik, Bokpyin and Maliwun”. The first- and last-named places had promising tin mines, while Bokpyin was close to the pearling grounds. It was unnecessary to remind the governor that a steamer could also help secure the vast Mergui Archipelago, which had been a haven for pirates, poachers and plunderers for thousands of years. In turn, residents would finally be freed from monsoonal isolation and the leaky vessels that had been assigned to the coast (see, for example: “Rangoon Tavoy & Mergui”, c. 1892, James Caird Library, BIS/7/2).

Unidentified wreck in the treacherous waters of the Mergui Archipelago
Unidentified wreck in the treacherous waters of the Mergui Archipelago. Noc

Public health came next. Requests included a safe water supply, reclaiming swampy land in Nauklae Quarter, a new hospital, and a sewage system. The items seem especially targeted towards cholera. Reports showed that it was extant throughout the year across Tenasserim, and periodically erupted in terrifying epidemics with shocking fatality rates (IOR/V/27/44/3; IOR/V/27/60/87; Mss Eur G66; MNA 1/7 92).

detail of "Mergui Harbour," Marine Survey of India, 1885     Harbour map of Mergui 1945
Harbour maps: (left) detail of "Mergui Harbour," Marine Survey of India, 1885, British Library, Maps SEC.12.(218.) [digitally enhanced for viewing]; (right) detail of HIND 1036 Mergui, 1st ed., Great Britain War Office, September 1945. Nauklae Quarter is the southern part of town.

Residents stated plainly: “The many developments shown above will cost a large amount of money, so the municipality needs increased funding.” They were eager to do their own part by securing a loan to pay their way, and by establishment of a bilingual science school to grow the local economy. History and geography had made communities of Tenasserim exceptionally strong and self-reliant. In the new century, though, they needed help to keep pace.

Did the letter get the governor’s attention? We haven’t yet found correspondence on the matter in the India Office Records, but we do have a 1912 Mergui gazetteer by G.P. Andrew. He reported that road transport remained so poor that farmers were unable to develop agricultural markets. On the other hand, a series of bridle paths had been hacked through the forests in 1908-9, and more plans were either being drawn or “in contemplation”. Unfortunately, the government continued contemplating for another thirty years (IOR/L/MIL/17/19/23).

Better success occurred at sea. By 1909 the British India Steam Navigation Company had changed its fortnightly service from Rangoon into a weekly voyage. The BISN augmented this with a separate weekly steamer to Mawlamyine, while the paddleboat Amarapoora called at smaller coastal towns between Palaw and Victoria Point (Kawthaung). This network was connected to Penang by the Koe Guan Steamship Company, a Thai-Chinese family firm that employed old British shellbacks as captains (Andrew 1912; Blain 1940).

For public health, Andrew reported that a new hospital was “about to be erected”. This seems to be the same structure that now serves the administration of Myeik Public Hospital in Kankaung Quarter. Marks on old roof tiles lead to an Indian company that was founded in 1916, so either construction was delayed by the war or the new hospital was damaged by a massive town fire around 1913. As always, the people endured and rebuilt.

Myeik Public Hospital, built ca. 1912
Myeik Public Hospital, built ca. 1912. Photo by Jim Potter. Noc

Residents said they wished to combat the “ninety-six kinds of illness”. The hospital aided this traditional cause, and new scourges were slowly brought under control as well. The last epidemics of smallpox and cholera likely occurred during Japanese occupation in the Second World War, and in the terrible aftermath when Mergui struggled to rejoin the world (Mss Eur D1080/20–28).

Nauklae Quarter was slowly transformed from a swamp into a busy neighbourhood (MNA 1/7 1217 & 1248). Likewise, Myeik’s water and sewage systems were stabilised, though their construction was a process rather than a single event. Larger civic improvements were accomplished in the boom years of the 1920s and again after independence. In particular, the Myeik District Pyidawtha Association did extensive public works in the early 1950s (Maung Pye Chan 1989). Nonetheless many residents still rely on the town’s ancient wells for washing and bathing.

Amoulyedwin well, Myeik, 2019. Photo courtesy of Jamie Skinner
Amoulyedwin well, Myeik, 2019. Photo courtesy of Jamie Skinner.  Noc

Can we therefore conclude that Myeik’s beautiful shell letter to the Bayinkanmin-ashin-thakin-phaya (the full honorific title of the governor) was a qualified success? It would seem so, which might be a good thing to remember in our disposable days of spam and Instagram.

The full text of the Burmese letter in Or 16052 with a transcription and English translation can be found here: Shell letter transcription and translation.

Further reading:
U Gyi Sein. Tanintharyi Yazawin: the chronicles of Tenasserim. Thet Ko Ko, tr., Jim Potter and the people of Tanintharyi, eds. (James & Hook Books; 2023). Originally published as: တနင်္သာရီတိုင်းမြိတ်ရာဇဝင်တော်ကြီ : “Tanintharyi Division Myeik Chronicle.” (English-Myanmar Printing Press; Myeik Township; 1929). The Myanmar text is available on
Andrew, George Percy. Burma Gazetteer, Mergui District, volume A. (Gov. of Burma; Rangoon; 1912).
Blain, William. Home is the Sailor: the life of William Brown, master mariner & Penang pilot. (Sheridan House; New York; 1940).
Collis, Maurice. Into Hidden Burma. (Faber & Faber; London; 1953).
Maung Pyae Chan. ဓာတ်ပုံကပြောသော မြိတ်သမိုင်း မှတ်တိုင်များ, ‘Historical Landmarks of Myeik in Photos’ (Than Swe; Yangon; 1989). English translation forthcoming.

Jim Potter and Ni Ni Aung Ccownwork


20 May 2023

World Bee Day

The 20th of May is World Bee Day – an internationally recognised day when the United Nations, other partner organisations, countries and individuals recognise the important role that bees and other pollinators such as butterflies and wasps, play in the sustainability of our planet. Without the pollinating activities of these animals, much of our established food supply and agricultural crops would not be sustainable and yet researchers and scientists are witnessing an alarming decline in bees and other pollinators across the world.

World Bee Day aims to raise awareness of a range of ways in which individuals, corporations and countries can make a difference in supporting, restoring and protecting these vitally important species.

In celebration of World Bee Day and the British Library’s new exhibition Animals; Art, Science and Sound, this blog will explore a small selection of manuscripts and printed works that record our ongoing fascination with bees throughout human history.

On display in the Animals exhibition are three unique manuscripts that deal with the subject of bees.

The first is Mitsubachi densho [蜜蜂傳書] [蜜蜂伝書], a hand written and illustrated treatise on bees and beekeeping from Japan. Dating to the middle of the nineteenth century, the text is split into two sections – the first documents deals with honey bees and the different beekeeping practices found across Japan as well as the different flavours of honey produced in different regions. The second part of the volume contains illustrations and descriptions of other species of bee and associated insects such as wasps and hornets that also play an important role in the pollination of plants.
Illustration of carpenter bees
A page containing hand painting illustrations of different species of carpenter bees, Mitsubachi densho [蜜蜂傳書] [蜜蜂伝書], c. 1850, Or 1311.

Whilst much of the history of beekeeping has been dominated by western narratives this work offers an important insight into the traditional and local practices of bee keeping in Japan before the introduction of the western honey bee during the second half of the nineteenth century.

A second work on display in the Animals exhibition also includes information and illustrations concerning bees. The manuscript copy of Insectorum sive minimorum animalium theatrum (Theatre of Insects), is often cited as the work of Thomas Moffett (1553-1604) but also containing research by Conrad Gessner (1516-1565), Edward Wotton (1492-1555) and Thomas Penny (1523-1589). The manuscript contains not only the handwritten descriptions of hundreds of different insects known in England but also over 500 pencil, ink and watercolour illustrations of different species of insects that have been stuck to the relevant pages. This includes a page in which four watercolour paintings of different species of bee have been attached. Produced before 1590, the manuscript was not published until 1634, 30 years after Moffett died and although lacking the minute detail of the manuscript paintings, the printed edition of the work did include woodblock copies of the four bees found in the manuscript. The Library also holds a volume of proof impressions from the woodblocks made for the printed publication, showing that the four bees were carved into a single block rather than four individual blocks.Folio from the manuscript copy of Insectorum sive minimorum animalium theatrum (Theatre of Insects), Sloane Ms 4014, alongside the printed edition, 1634, C.78.c.17., and the impressions of the woodblock of the bees,
Folio from the manuscript copy of Insectorum sive minimorum animalium theatrum (Theatre of Insects), Sloane Ms 4014, alongside the printed edition, 1634, C.78.c.17., and the impressions of the woodblock of the bees, C.107.e.91.

A final manuscript on display in the Animals exhibition that also documents bees is a Renaissance copy of Historia animalium (History of Animals). Produced in Italy in 1595, the manuscript contains 245 illustrations and accompanying textual descriptions of a range of real and fantastical animals including birds, butterflies, frogs, hedgehog and elephants. The descriptions are taken from various historical sources, including Historia naturalis (Natural History), compiled by the Roman natural philosopher Pliny the Elder(23/24-79AD), and Historia animalium by the Greek philosopher Aristotle (384-322BC). Of all the animals included in the manuscript however the bee has the most space dedicated to its description, including 7 illustrated folios, showing bees as passive but also aggressive animals, swarming and stinging humans around their hives.

Add Ms combinedFour of the seven illustrations related to bees in Historia Animalium, 1595, Add MS 82955

Other apian works held by the Library but not on display include Charles Butler’s The Feminine Monarchie or, a history of bees, first published in 1609 and subsequently revised for new editions in 1623 and 1634. Butler (1571-1647) was a grammarian, author and priest but is perhaps most well-known as a beekeeper. Drawing heavily on his practical experience and from his observations of the social organisation of a bee colony and the production of beeswax, Butler wrote The Feminine Monarchie as a practical guide to beekeeping, with details on how to design gardens for bees, how to create hives as well as how to breed them and the products produced by bees. The Feminine Monarchie became the first full length English language publication on beekeeping and remained as a reference work for over two centuries. The name of the book highlights Butler’s argument that the colonies of bees were organised around a female queen bee rather than a dominant male – a theory that had already been posited by earlier entomologists but which Butler made more widely known. Due to the success of The Feminine Monarchie, Butler is known as a the ‘father of English beekeeping’ and although the first edition does not contain any illustrations, the third edition does include a rather novel piece of vocal music on a score known as a madrigal in which four people would imitate the sound of bees whilst swarming.

Female Monarcie combined
Left: Title page and frontispiece of the 2nd edition of The Feminine Monarchie, 1623, Cup.405.i.21/3. Right: madrigal score imitating the sound of bees swarming, from the 3rd edition, 1634, C.27.h.7.

The Library also holds a copy of Jan Swammerdam’s Bybel der nature published posthumously in 1737-38. Swammerdam (1637-1680) was a Dutch biologist who used the newly invented microscope to undertake a range of anatomical studies and was one of the earliest scholars to accurately document the process of metamorphosis in insects. His research covered a range of insects, including the bee – the results of which were finally published in Bybel der nature. This included illustrations of his dissection of queen bee ovaries, mouthparts, brains and their compound eye.

Swammerdam bees
Plate XX of Bybel der nature showing a highly detailed view of a bee’s eye, 459.c.14,15.

The Library is also home to the UK’s national sound archive that holds over 6.5 million recordings of speech, music and wildlife from across the world. One recording in the Wildlife and Environmental sound collections contains the piping, tooting and quaking of three virgin queen bees found in a hive in a garden in the village of Waterbeach, Cambridgeshire. The recording was made by Richard Youell in 2014 and not only gives insight into the individual noises Queen bees make but also the general hum of a colony in the background.

Bee Sounds
The recording can be listened to here:

These are just a few of the items held in the British Library on the subject of bees – there are many more to discover.

Alongside materials held in the Library’s collection, there is currently a wonderful display of largescale high resolution photographs by Levon Biss that shows the mesmerising micro sculpture of various insects as never before. One of the prints on display is of an orchid cuckoo bee – a species of bee that takes its name for their behaviour of laying their eggs in the nests of other bees – similar to how a cuckoo lays its eggs in the nests of other birds.

Levon Biss display orchid cuckoo bee

View of the orchid cuckoo bee on display in the British Library’s Front Entrance Hall, St Pancras.

To find out more about our wider collections see:

To find out more about our current Animals; Art, Science and Sound exhibition see:

To find out more about World Bee Day see:


Further reading:

Claire Preston, Bee, Reaktion, 2006

Malini Roy, Cam Sharp Jones, Cheryl Tipp, Animals; Art, Science and Sound, British Library Publishing, 2023


By Cam Sharp Jones, Visual Arts CuratorCcownwork