Asian and African studies blog

10 posts from January 2015

30 January 2015

Akbar's horoscopes: how to become a Leo if you are not

Editor: On 31 October 2014 we held a successful one-day symposium ʻBritish Library Persian Manuscripts: Collections and Researchʼ at which Dr. Stephan Popp of the Institut für Iranistik, Vienna spoke on ʻHoroscopes as propaganda under Akbar and Shāh Jahānʼ. Although he is planning an expanded version of his paper for future publication, he has kindly agreed to summarise it for us here.

The birth of Timur showing astrologers on the right, drawing up his horoscope. From an imperial copy of Abu l-Fażl's Akbarnāma, c. 1602. Painting ascribed to Sūrdās Gujarātī (Or.12988, f. 34v)

In the 16th century, astrology was still an approved science both in Europe and in India, and many princes between Lisbon and Dhaka relied on the counsels of astrologers. Especially so the chronicle of the Mughal emperor Akbar (r. 1556-1605), the Akbarnāma by Abu l‑Fażl, which uses the emperor’s horoscope extensively to prove his claim to power. Akbar claimed to be the mujaddid (restorer of Islam) of the second Islamic millennium and the pre-destined perfect ruler. But first, some remarks on Mughal astrology and how it was supposed to work.

For this reason, let us then have a quick look at Akbar’s horoscope as it appears in the Akbarnāma:

Screenshot 2015-01-18 20.32.43Akbar’s nativity as drawn at his birth by the astrologer Maulānā Chānd (Akbarnāma, p. 70)

A horoscope is a diagram showing the sky over a given place at a given time. It consists of: 1) the zodiac, 2) the houses, i.e. a second zodiac constructed with the ascendant (i.e. the point that is just rising) as the starting point, and 3) the planets at their places for that particular time. This horoscope is constructed on a square grid, with the east on top (modern horoscopes are in the form of a circle, with the north on top). The twelve fields are not the zodiac signs but the houses. They are equated with the zodiac sign their first degree falls in, although this is at the very end in the case of Akbar. House I is top centre, and the other houses follow counter-clockwise. The planets are entered, but without their exact position in the zodiacal sign. Aspects, i.e. significant angles between objects that strengthen or weaken their power, are not indicated in this horoscope but are mentioned in the text where necessary. Moreover, several kinds of subdivisions of zodiac signs also have properties that strengthen or weaken a planet, which in turn strengthens or weakens a house.

Thus, a horoscope contains ca. 250 interrelated data, and the art of the astrologer consists in picking the right influences and interpreting them in an appropriate way. This is obviously highly subjective, even if the planets had influences. No wonder, as Abraham Eraly has observed (Eraly, p. 109), astrologers have been called the psychiatrists or confessors of the Mughal Empire.

Akbar’s horoscopes

This blog will show how astrologers acted not only as the psychiatrists but also as the spin doctors of the Mughal Empire. Abu l‑Fażl ibn Mubārak, Akbar’s mentor on policy and official chronicler, had a genuine interest in astrology. That he regarded it as a fully-fledged science is clear from the fact that he comes up with four different horoscopes of Akbar and discusses their differences (Akbarnama, pp. 119–123). Eva Orthmann (p. 108 below) proves that the horoscopes are based on genuine calculations and not made up by Abu l‑Fażl. Abu l‑Fażl writes that an Indian and a Western horoscope were cast at Akbar’s birth in 1542 by Jyotik Rai and by Maulānā Chānd. The results were different due to the different definitions of zodiacal signs in Vedic and Western astrology. Indian astrology defines the zodiac as the constellations in the sky whereas western astrology defines the zodiac as the ecliptic divided into twelve equal parts beginning from the spring point (where the sun rises at the spring equinox). The spring point, however, slowly moves backward through the constellations, so that at the present time it is at the end of Pisces, not in Aries.

The precession of the spring point (0° Aries) in the last 6000 years. Kevin Heagen via Wikimedia Commons

Because of this movement, Abu l‑Fażl says, the Vedic results were 17° behind the Western ones in Akbar’s time (whereas now they are 25° behind). Thus, Akbar’s ascendant fell in Leo according to the Indians, which suited an emperor, but in the Western horoscope, it fell in Virgo. Abu l‑Fażl discusses this difference, effectively discrediting the Indian astrologers (pp. 119–122). Still, as acknowledged by Orthmann (p. 110), ‘royal’ Leo would have been a much more suitable ascendant for an aspiring emperor than Virgo.

When the great scientist and physician Fatḥullāh Shīrāzī joined Akbar’s court in 1583, Abu l-Fażl asked him to correct the two horoscopes. Instead, Fatḥullāh cast his own, using the old “star tables of the Greeks and Persians” of ca. 830 AD instead of the new ones of Ulugh Beg. In this way, he arrived at the ascendant falling at the very end of Leo (28°36’) instead of 7° Virgo. Abu l-Fażl calls this “the most reliable horoscope” (p. 94) although containing outdated data, and devotes two chapters to its description and predictions.

Screenshot 2015-01-18 20.26.28
How Fatḥullāh Shīrāzī managed to put the ascendant back into ‘royal’ Leo. The old tables shift the house grid 9½ degrees back. The grid has also passed over Venus, so that it is at the beginning of the second house now, not at the end of the first.

When the diagram was ready, the task of the astrologer was to pick those influences that suited successful rule. Combining the right influences from the vast data, Fatḥullāh Shīrāzī sings Akbar’s praises (p. 111):

As this (4th) house is a Fixed Sign, and its lord (Mars) is in exaltation and has a beneficent aspect, territory will continually be coming into the possession of the King’s servants…,

and even (p. 108):

The Native will exceed the natural period of life, viz., 120 years.

Abu l‑Fażl's chapter describing Fatḥullāh Shīrāzī's horoscope.  Although the diagram has been left blank, the details are all supplied in the Persian text (Or.12988, f. 15r

Overall, the horoscopes emphasize Akbar’s success in conquest, acquiring wealth and in administration, and his supreme reason by which he guides the state and settles disputes. Moreover, the astrologer Maulānā Chand argues that Akbar is greater than Timur because Akbar’s Mars is stronger (p. 79). That the horoscopes contradict themselves is only superficial, Abu l‑Fażl concludes, for, he claims, God hides Akbar’s greatness from the undeserving (p. 123):

Owing to the jealousy of God, the truth of the holy nativity remained under the veil of concealment and was hidden behind the curtain of contradiction. But… if each of the horoscopes be looked at with the eye of judgment… it becomes plain that… there is nothing equal to them.

A person deserving special mention was, according to Abu l‑Fażl, Akbar’s father Humāyūn, an accomplished astrologer and “by the perfection of his personality enlightened by flashes of forthcoming events” (p. 124). Humāyūn danced with joy when he read the horoscope, Abu l-Fażl says. In this way, he tries to make his readers believe that if they see nothing but contradiction, this is because they do not see well enough. Even the astrologers, accomplished scientists, did not see everything. But they did their very best to combine their data in the way that Akbar and Abu l‑Fażl wanted them to: to “discover” that Akbar was the king of kings.


Further reading
Abu l‑Fazl ʿAllāmi: The Akbarnama of Abu-l-Fazl, tr. Henry Beveridge. 3 vols. Calcutta 1897–1939 (1907 reprint digitised by Google available here).
The History of Akbar, vol. 1; edited and translated by Wheeler M. Thackston. Harvard University Press, 2015. This newly published edition includes the original Persian with parallel English translation.
Abraham Eraly: The Mughal World, Life in India’s Last Golden Age, New Delhi: Penguin, 2007.
Kushyār Ibn Labbān: Introduction to astrology, ed. and transl. by Michio Yano, Tokyo: Institute for the Study of Languages and Cultures of Asia and Africa, 1997.
Māshā’allāh Ibn Asari: The astrological history of Māshā'allāh, ed. E. S. Kennedy and David Pingree. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press, 1971.
A. Azfar Moin: “Challenging the Mughal Emperor: The Islamic Millennium according to ʿAbd al‑Qadir Badayuni”, in Metcalf, Barbara: Islam in South Asia in Practice, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009.
Eva Orthmann: “Circular Motions: Private Pleasure and Public Prognostication in the Nativities of the Mughal Emperor Akbar,” in: Günther Oestmann, H. Darrel Rutkin, and Kocku von Stuckrad (ed.): Horoscopes and Public Spheres, Essays on the History of Astrology, Berlin: de Gruyter, 2005, pp. 101–114.


Stephan Popp, Institut für Iranistik, Vienna (email:


27 January 2015

A Malay spur to valour: the Hikayat Muhammad Hanafiah

The story of Muḥammad b. al-Ḥanafiyyah – a son of the caliph ‘Alī by a captive from the tribe of the Banū Ḥanīfah, and half-brother to the Prophet’s grandsons Ḥasan and Ḥusayn – was composed in Persian by an anonymous author in the fourteenth century, and very soon after that translated into Malay, probably around the court of Pasai in north Sumatra. In this tale the otherwise marginal figure of the historical Muḥammad b. al-Ḥanafiyyah is transformed into a quintessential Islamic hero, emerging victorious after numerous battles.   

MSS Malay B.6, ff.1v-2r
Hikayat Muhammad Hanafiah, with decorated initial frames, copied by Muhammad Kasim on 29 Jumadilakhir 1220 (25 August 1805), probably in Penang. British Library, MSS Malay B.6, ff.1v-2r.  noc

The Hikayat Muhammad Hanafiah became popular throughout the Malay world, with its stature as a spur to valour cemented by an iconic episode in the most famous Malay chronicle. The Sulalat al-Salatin, popularly known as the Sejarah Melayu or ‘Malay Annals’, was composed sometime in the sixteenth century to record for posterity the glory of the great kingdom of Melaka, before its defeat by Portuguese forces under Afonso d’Albuquerque in 1511. In the Sejarah Melayu, the night before the Portuguese attack, the young knights of Melaka sent a message to the sultan requesting the recitation of the Hikayat Muhammad Hanafiah. The sultan tests their resolve by offering instead a tale of a lesser hero, the Hikayat Amir Hamzah. The nobles reply that as long as the sultan’s courage matches that of Muhammad Hanafiah, they will match that of his generals, whereupon the sultan accedes to their request. The full episode from the Sejarah Melayu is reproduced below, in C.C. Brown’s translation:

‘That night the war-chiefs and the young nobles were waiting in the hall of audience, and the young nobles said, “Why do we sit here idly? It would be well for us to read a tale of war that we may profit from it.” And Tun Muhammad Unta said, “That is very true, sir. Let us ask the Raja to give us the Story of Muhammad Hanafiah.” Then the young nobles said to Tun Aria, “Go, sir, and take this message to the Ruler, that all of us crave from his the Story of Muhammad Hanafiah, in the hope that we may obtain profit from it, for the Franks [i.e. Portuguese] are attacking tomorrrow.” Tun Aria accordingly went into the palace and presented himself before Sultan Ahmad, to whom he addressed the young nobles’ request. And Sultan Ahmad gave him the Story of Hamzah saying, “We would give you the Story of Muhammad Hanafiah did we not fear that the bravery of the gentlemen of our court falls short of the bravery of Muhammad Hanafiah! But it may be that their bravery is such as was the bravery of Hamzah and that is why we give you the Story of Hamzah.” Tun Aria then left the palace bearing the Story of Hamzah and he told the young nobles what Sultan Ahmad had said. At first they were silent, but presently Tun Isak Berakah replied to Tun Aria, “Represent humbly to the Ruler that he has spoken amiss. If he will be as Muhammad Hanafiah, we will be as war-chief Bania’ [i.e. of Beniar, the headquarters of the historical Muhammad al-Hannafiyyah]: if his bravery is that of Muhammad Hanafiah, ours will be that of war-chief Bania.” And when Tun Aria took this message from Tun Isak Berakah to Sultan Ahmad, the king smiled and gave them the story of Muhammad Hanafiah instead.’ (Brown 1970: 162-3).  

In fact, neither of the two manuscripts of the Sejarah Melayu in the British Library include this episode. Or. 14734, copied in Melaka in 1873, omits any mention of the nobles' request for Hikayat Muhammad Hanfiah on f.174v, perhaps part of a late tendency to erase any possible Shi'i tinges from Malay literature. In Or. 16214, copied in Singapore around 1832, the chapter on the Portuguese attack is missing.

Final page of Hikayat Muhammad Hanafiah, copied by Mahmud ibn Husain on 14 Syaaban 1220 (7 November 1805): tamatlah Hikayat Muhammad Hanafiah anakda cucuda nabi s.a.w. pada sanat 1220 tahun2 wau pada empat belas haribulan Syaaban pada malam Arba' wa-katibuhu Mahmud ibn Husain. British Library, MSS Malay D.5, f.80r.   noc

The Malay Hikayat Muhammad Hanafiah was the subject of a detailed study by Lode Brakel (1975), who traced thirty manuscripts, including three in the British Library, which have now all been digitised. Two, from the John Leyden collection, were both copied in Penang or Kedah in 1805 (MSS Malay B.6 and MSS Malay D.5, Brakel’s source ‘F’). A third manuscript, from the collection of John Crawfurd (Add. 12377, Brakel’s source ‘G’), may have been acquired in Java but the use of the titles Teuku and Teungku sugggest a link with Aceh. The tale is also known in Acehnese, Bugis, Javanese, Makasarese, Madurese, Minangkabau and Sundanese versions.

Final pages of Hikayat Muhammad Hanafiah, copied by Teungku Kecik and owned by Teuku Itam: tamat wa-katibuhu Teungku Kecik menyurat dia Teuku (t.a.’.k.w) Itam empunya {empunya} surat ini tamat. British Library, Add.12377, ff. 185v-186r.  noc

Brakel also documented two manuscripts of the Persian original, one – at the time thought to be unique – in the British Library (Add. 8149), and another in St. Petersburg. By comparing the Malay manuscripts with Add. 8149 (a copy from Murshidabad in Bengal, written in 1721), Brakel was able to show that the Malay text was a direct translation from the Persian original, in some cases even preserving the order of words (Brakel 1975: 12-13).

Add.8149 (1)
Opening page of the Persian Hikāyat Muḥammad Ḥanafiyyah, following on from a tale of Ḥasan and Ḥusayn, Murshidabad, 1721. British Library, Add. 8149, ff. 28v-29r.

Further reading:

L.F. Brakel, The Hikayat Muhammad Hanafiyyah: a medieval Muslim-Malay romance.  The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1975. (Bibliotheca Indonesica; 12).

L.F. Brakel, The story of Muhammad Hanafiyyah: a medieval Muslim romance.  Translated from the Malay by L.F. Brakel.  The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1977. (Bibliotheca Indonesica; 16).

C.C. Brown, Sejarah Melayu or Malay Annals.  An annotated translation by C.C.Brown, with a new introduction by R.Roolvink.  Kuala Lumpur: Oxford University Press, 1970.

Annabel Teh Gallop, Lead Curator, Southeast Asia


23 January 2015

The beauty of palm leaf manuscripts (2): Northern Thai, Lao and Shan traditions

Historically there has been a close cultural and linguistic relationship between the Tai peoples in Southeast Asia (Northern Thai/Lanna, Lao, Phu Thai, Phuan, Shan, Tai Khoen and Tai Lue, to mention some of the larger groups). Tai groups that have embraced Buddhism have also adopted the tradition of making palm leaf manuscripts. The reputation of the famous Pali school of Chiang Mai, the capital of the former kingdom of Lanna, may have contributed significantly to the spread not only of Buddhism in the area, but also of the making of palm leaf manuscripts and the use of the Tham script. Palm leaf manuscripts clearly play an important role especially for the preservation of Buddhist texts and commentaries, but were also used to record historical accounts and traditional knowledge relating to social values, customary laws, herbal medicine and traditional healing practices, astrology, divination and horoscopes, non-Buddhist rituals and ceremonies, and literary texts (folklore).

Lao sutras Or16734Buddhist manuscript in Tham script from Lanna or Laos with black lacquered covers and gilt floral decorations, 19th century. British Library, Or.16734.  noc

Whereas Buddhist texts are often in Pali language and/or in Dhamma (Tham) script, other treatises are usually written in Tai languages like Lao, Northern Thai, Tai Khoen, Tai Lue, or Shan. Local scripts like Lik Tai, Tham Lao, Tham Lanna, and Lao buhan were used.

For the production of a palm leaf manuscript, very large fan-shaped leaves from a lān palm (corypha) were cut into a long rectangular shape, soaked in a herbal mixture, then dried or  baked in a kiln, and finally pressed. These fan palm trees were the preferred type in the Northern Thai/Lanna, Lao and Shan manuscript traditions, and are still commonly planted as ornamental trees in temple grounds. The text was usually inscribed with a sharp wooden or metal stylus, then wiped over with a mixture of resin and/or oil and carbon soot to make the writing more visible.

Most of the extant palm leaf manuscripts from the Tai traditions were produced during the 18th and 19th centuries, but some date back to the early 16th century (see DLLM). The introduction of modern printing methods in mainland Southeast Asia resulted in a rapid decline of palm leaf manuscript production during the 19th and early 20th centuries. In the Shan tradition, palm leaf manuscripts were largely replaced by bound or folded paper books (Terwiel 2003, p. 26). However, in some places palm leaf manuscripts are still being produced today, or their production has been revived due to the fact that the sponsoring and donation of manuscripts to temples is still regarded as an important meritorious act in the Buddhist context.

Precious manuscripts or palm leaves containing important texts were covered with two wooden or bamboo boards, which were sometimes left blank, but often they were beautifully carved or decorated. Such covers could be lacquered in red or black, and decorated with gold leaf, mirror glass, mother-of-pearl inlay or even with crystals or precious stones.

Covers from a Shan Buddhist manuscript. The wooden covers are decorated with raised gilt lacquer forming flower ornaments, which were inlaid with mirror glass.19th century. British Library, Or.16114. Bequest from Doris Duke’s Southeast Asian Art Collection.  noc

Black or red lacquer was a popular material to apply on wooden manuscript covers as it provided good protection against damage by water and humidity. At the same time, the shiny black and bright purple of the lacquer were ideal background colours on which gold leaf or gold paint could be applied.

Manuscript in Tham script from Lanna or Laos with red lacquered and gilt bamboo covers, 19th or early 20th century. British Library, Or.16790.  noc

Bamboo strips cut to match the size of the palm leaves were popular covers for manuscripts in Lanna, Laos and among the Shan. The manuscript covers shown above replicate floral decorations made in the stencil technique that can be seen on wooden pillars and beams in many temples in Northern Thailand, Laos and Shan State. This manuscript also has a custom-made wrapper made from cotton with interwoven bamboo strips.

Besides gold leaf or gold paint, other materials were applied on the lacquer as well. Mother-of-pearl inlay was very popular in central Thailand, but it was also adopted in Lanna and Laos due to close cultural relationships and exchange or transfer of Buddhist scriptures.  

Kammavācā text in Tham script from Chiang Mai with black and red lacquered covers and mother-of-pearl inlay, 19th century. British Library Or.16077. Bequest from Doris Duke’s Southeast Asian Art Collection.  noc

Rough shells or their parts were cut into platelets of various shapes before inlaid into the lacquer. The production of items with such intricate decorations required special skills and experienced craftsmanship. Traditionally, mother-of-pearl inlay was used in Thailand exclusively for ecclesiastical objects and was under royal patronage until the end of the 19th century. The manuscript covers shown above are thought to have been produced in central Thailand and may have been given to a royal monastery in Chiang Mai.

Another method of decorating wooden manuscript boards was to cover them with black lacquer, then to use a stylus to incise floral ornaments once the lacquer had dried. Afterwards, red lacquer was rubbed on the incisions in order to create a contrasting black and red design. This technique may have been imported into Lanna and Laos from the Burmese and Shan traditions.   

LaoCoverOr.13157 (2)
Wooden lacquered cover of a Kammavācā manuscript dated 1918 in Tham script from Lanna or northwestern Laos. British Library Or.13157.   noc

To provide additional protection against dust and mould, palm leaf manuscripts were often wrapped in a piece of cloth, which could either be custom-made or simply an unused lady’s skirt, a hand-woven shawl or an imported piece of cloth (for example printed Indian cotton). Custom-made palm leaf wrappers could also be made from local or imported silk. Occasionally such wrappers were interwoven with bamboo strips to provide extra stability for palm leaf manuscripts which had no covers. Another type of manuscript cloth took the form of a long cotton or silk bag that was sewn to match exactly the size of the palm leaves.

Bundles of palm leaves in Tham script with a hand-woven lady’s skirt from northern Laos used as a manuscript wrapper, 19th or early 20th century. British Library, Or.16895.  noc


Conway, Susan. The Shan. Culture, art and crafts. Bangkok: River Books, 2006

DLLM (Digital Library of Lao Manuscripts) (retrieved 05.12.2014)

Guy, John. Palm-leaf and paper, illustrated manuscripts of India and Southeast Asia. With an essay by O.P. Agrawal on Care and conservation of palm-leaf and paper illustrated manuscripts. Melbourne: National Gallery of Victoria, 1982

Terwiel, Barend J. Shan manuscripts, part 1. Stuttgart: Franz Steiner, 2003

Tingley, Nancy. Doris Duke. The Southeast Asian Art Collection. New York: The Foundation for Southeast Asian Art and culture, 2003

Warren, William. Lanna style. Art and design of Northern Thailand. 3rd ed. Bangkok: Asia Books, 2004

Jana Igunma, Henry Ginsburg Curator for Thai, Lao and Cambodian


20 January 2015

Ibrahim: portrait of a Malay scribe

Thanks to a chance encounter with a Scottish artist in Calcutta in 1810, we are in possession of a rare portrait of one of the Malay scribes responsible for copying a number of Malay manuscripts now held in the British Library. Ibrahim, who was born in Kedah in 1780, was the younger son of Hakim Long Fakir Kandu, a prominent merchant from the south Indian Chulia community. Ibrahim and his older brother Ahmad both worked in Penang as scribes for the British – Ahmad for the merchant Robert Scott, while Ibrahim was employed by Thomas Stamford Raffles. In 1810 Ahmad visited Bengal in the company of Scott, and recorded his impressions in the Hikayat perintah negeri Benggala (Add.12386). By great coincidence, that same year Ibrahim too sailed to Calcutta with his employer, Raffles. At a gathering at Government House on 15 September 1810, Ibrahim caught the eye of Maria Graham: ‘The most singular figure of this motley group was a Malay moonshi, whom Dr Leyden had brought to the assembly’, and her portrait of Ibrahim adorns the frontispiece to her Journal of a Residence in India (1812).  Ibrahim, aged thirty, is portrayed sitting cross-legged wearing a head covering, jacket, shirt and sarong, all made of checked Indian pelikat trade-cloth, with a large pending or almond-shaped belt buckle, holding an octagonal silver tobacco box and with his his keris (dagger) beside him.


Portrait of Ibrahim in 1810, from Maria Graham, Journal of a Residence in India (Edinburgh, 1812). British Library, V8668, frontispiece.  noc

Raffles had arrived in Penang in September 1805, having studied Malay on the voyage out from England. Probably acting on the advice of his intellectual mentor (and convalescent house guest) John Leyden, around January 1806 Raffles gathered a team of six scribes to copy Malay books for him. Among the Malay manuscripts which have recently been digitised are at least four volumes bearing Ibrahim’s name as scribe. Three specify that they were copied for Raffles, but were evidently presented to Leyden, for they came to the India Office Library in Leyden’s estate in 1824. 

The earliest of the manuscripts to mention Raffles's name is a copy of Hikayat Parang Puting (MSS Malay D.3), concerning the adventures of Budak Miskin, son of the princess of Langkam Jaya, one of a few Malay works which according to Braginsky (2004: 72) may best preserve the primordial pre-Islamic 'monomyth' of the sacral cosmic marriage of the male and female principles.

Decorated title page of Hikayat Parang Puting, with an outline of the contents, set within rectangular borders filled with floral and foliate motifs: Inilah cetera orang dahulu kala diceterakan oleh orang yang empunya cetera hikayat Parang Puting anak dewa laksana dewa dari kayangan terlalu indah perkataan maka ia berperang dengan naga di dalam laut dengan sabab tuan puteri hendak diambil naga itu inilah ceteranya. British Library, MSS Malay D.3, f.1r.  noc

Colophon, dated 29 Syawal 1220 (20 January 1806): pada sanat 1220 tahun2 wau pada sembilan likur hari bulan Syawal pada hari Selasa ditamatkan surat Hikayat Parang Puting Tuan Mister Raffles empunya surat ini wa-katibuhu Ibrahim. British Library, MSS Malay D.3, f.63v (detail).  noc

Later that same year, Ibrahim also copied the Hikayat Mesa Tandraman (MSS Malay C.3) for Raffles. Described as a Javanese story, it tells of two divine brothers Sang Dermadewa and Dewa Kisna Indra. The latter became a hermit on the mountain Puspagiri and the former became king of Kuripan.

The colophon, dated 6 Rejab 1221 (19 September 1806), states that the owner was Mister Raffles and the scribes were Ibrahim and Ismail: pada sanat 1221 tahun2 dal akhir pada enam hari bulan Rejab kepada hari Jumaat waktu pukul empat ditamatkan hikayat ini adapun yang empunya hikayat Tuan Mister Raffles wa-katibuhu wa-syahidahu Ibrahim yang menyuratnya dengan Ismail. British Library, MSS Malay C.3, f.164r (detail).  noc

The third manuscript, Hikayat Isma Yatim (MSS Malay C.5), is a well-known story which may have been a personal favourite of Malay scribes because the hero, for once, is not a prince but a writer.

The colophon of Hikayat Isma Yatim giving the date of completion as 29 Jumadilakhir 1222 (3 September 1807), and naming the owner as Mister Raffles and the scribe as Ibrahim: maka ditamatkan hikayat ini kepada malam Arba' waktu pukul dua belas kepada sanat 1222 tahun2 alif pada sembilan likur hari bulan Jumadilakhir adapun hikayat ini tuan Mister Raffles yang empunya dia wa-katibuhu Ibrahim tamat. British Library, MSS Malay C.5, f.108r (detail).  noc

The fourth manuscript is a copy of the Syair Silambari (MSS Malay B.3), also called the Syair Sinyor Kosta, concerning the conflict between a Portuguese and a Chinese in Melaka over a woman. Written 11 days earlier than Hikayat Parang Puting, it may also have been comissioned by Raffles.

MSS Malay B.3, ff.22v-23r
The opening pages of Syair Silambari, decorated with floral borders in pen and ink, outlined in red.
British Library, MSS Malay B.3, ff.22v-23r.  noc

The closing lines of Syair Silambari state that the manuscript was completed by Ibrahim on 18 Syawal 1220 (9 January 1806): sanat 1220 tahun tahun wau pada dualapan belas hari bulan Syawal kepada hari Arb'a bahwa pada ketika itu ditamatkan kitab Silambari namanya kisah Feringgi ambil bini Cina di dalam negeri Melaka jadi perang besar dengan Wilanda adapun yang empunya surat ini wa-katibuhu Ibrahim. British Library, MSS Malay B.3, f.36r (detail).  noc

Following on immediately from the copy of Syair Silambari, on the reverse of the same sheet of paper and hence also certainly written by Ibrahim, is another poem in the form of a love letter to a lady, entitled Syair surat kirim kepada perempuan, which may be Ibrahim’s own literary creation.

MSS Malay B.3, ff.36v-37r
Opening pages of Syair surat kirim kepada perempuan, also copied by Ibrahim in 1806. British Library, MSS Malay B.3, ff.36v-37r.  noc

As can be seen from the images above, Ibrahim’s handwriting is very distinctive: his hand is small, neat, round, and upright, without a discernible slope to left or right.  Certain letters which are particularly characteristic are concave/convex tail of conjoined final nga/'ain, and the almost parallel shape of the ‘head’ of the letter-form jim/ca/ha/kha in its isolated position, as seen in the detail below.


The words 'siraja helang' from Syair surat kirim kepada perempuan, showing Ibrahim's characteristic 'parallel-headed' letter jim, and the concave-convex tail of nga. British Library, MSS Malay B.3, f.45r (detail).  noc

On the basis of the handwriting, it is possible to identify a few more manuscripts in the British Library that may have been (at least partially) copied by Ibrahim, such as a copy of the last chapters of the Hikayat Hang Tuah (MSS Malay B.1) shown below.  In addition Ibrahim is known to have copied two MSS of the Sejarah Melayu now in the Raffles collection in the Royal Asiatic Society (Raffles Malay 35, dated January 1808, and Raffles Malay 39, dated March 1812). 

MSS.Malay.B.1,ff.139-140 copy

Ibrahim's distinctive letter jim can be seen in the word raja at the start of the top line on the right hand page, and his nga in the word yang on the bottom line of the left hand page, in this MS of Hikayat Hang Tuah. British Library, MSS Malay B.1, ff.139v-140r.  noc

Further reading:

Ahmad Rijaluddin’s Hikayat Perintah Negeri Benggala. Edited and translated by C. Skinner.  The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1982. (Bibliotheca Indonesica; 22).

V.I. Braginsky, The heritage of traditional Malay literature: a historical survey of genres, writings and literary views.  Leiden: KITLV, 2004.

A merry senhor in the Malay world: four texts of the Syair Sinyor Kosta, ed. A. Teeuw, R. Dumas, Muhammad Haji Salleh, R. Tol and M.J. van Yperen. Leiden: KITLV, 2004. Vol.1, pp. 15-20, 193-200 (contains a full transliteration of Syair Silambari).

Annabel Teh Gallop, Lead Curator, Southeast Asia


18 January 2015

Portrait of Major William Palmer and his family now on display

The 'Palmer Family' is now on display at the British Library. Visitors to the Library can view the painting on the 3rd floor landing, near the entrance to the Science Reading Room and opposite the entrance to the Asian & African Studies Read Room. Due to the popularity and the high number of requests to be viewed by both researchers and descendants of William Palmer, the portrait has returned to the public area.

Major William Palmer with his second wife, the Mughal princess Bibi Faiz Bakhsh by Johann Zoffany, 1785. Oil on canvas; 40 by 50 ins (127 by 101.5 cms). British Library, F597.
Major William Palmer with his second wife, the Mughal princess Bibi Faiz Bakhsh by Johann Zoffany, 1785. Oil on canvas; 40 by 50 ins (127 by 101.5 cms). British Library, F597.  noc

Purchased by the India Office Library in 1924, this striking group portrait features Major William Palmer, Bengal Artillery (1740-1816), with his wife, Bibi Faiz Bakhsh ‘Faiz-un-Nisa’ Begum (died 1828), on his right and her sister Nur Begum on his left. His children in order of age are William (baptised 20 March 1782), Mary (b. 1783), Hastings (baptised 27 December 1785). Three women attendants complete the group. Major Palmer wears a red military coat and yellow waistcoat and the women and children are wearing cream dresses. They are seated on a red carpet in a courtyard with palm and plantain trees.

Palmer was ADC to Warren Hastings in 1774 and Military Secretary between 1776 and 1785. He was at the Lucknow court at various times between 1782 and 1785 as Hastings’ confidential agent for the extraction of loans from the Nawab and to report on the Residents Middleton and Bristow and their staff, and acting Resident after their departure. He left Lucknow in July 1785, and was in 1786 appointed by Cornwallis to be Resident at Sindhia’s court, where he remained until 1798, and at the Peshwa’s court in Poona 1798-1801. He afterwards commanded the 4th Native Infantry until his death at Berhampore in 1816. His will describes his wife as ‘his devoted companion of more than 30 years’.

This unfinished painting had long been attributed to Johann Zoffany (1733-1810), but was in the 1970s reattributed to Francesco Renaldi. (1755-c.1799). Of Italian descent, Renaldi lived in England and studied at the Royal Academy in 1776. He went to India and reached Calcutta in August 1786, remaining there until 1789 when he visited Dacca. From 1790-95 he worked in Lucknow and returned to Calcutta, leaving India in February 1796. However, the ages of the children, especially that of the infant Hastings in Faiz Bakhsh’s arms, who cannot be more than a few months old, strongly indicate that the painting cannot be as late as August 1786, and must therefore have been painted between Zoffany’s arrival back in Lucknow in April 1785, and Palmer’s departure in July for Calcutta. This would explain the unfinished state of the canvas.

Mildred Archer discusses the reattribution in ‘India and British Portraiture’ (London, 1979), 281-86, where she also states that the lady on Palmer's left is his second or Lucknow wife, on account of what she thinks is their intimacy, but the evidence for this is decidedly dubious (she is not for example actually leaning on Palmer's leg as Archer states - it is his own hand that is visible there). The lady in question is almost certainly Bibi Faiz Bakhsh’s sister Nur Begum, who subsequently married General Benoit de Boigne, Commandant in the army of the Maratha general Sindhia, and who left India in 1797. He abandoned this lady in England and remarried in France, while she under the name of Helen Bennet remained in Horsham, where she died and is buried. The eldest child in the painting is William Palmer, founder and head of the notorious Hyderabad firm of Palmer and Co. 


16 January 2015

Inscriptions in the Iskandar Sultan Miscellany (Add.27261)

A previous posting on this remarkable manuscript, one of the British Library’s greatest treasures, introduced the volume and discussed a few of its pages. In this piece we discuss the inscriptions which it contains, beginning with the elaborate illuminated double-pages opening (folios 2v-3r) which contain the dedication of the manuscript to its patron.
Add27261 ff2v-3r
The opening of Timur’s grandson Iskandar Sultan’s pocket miscellany containing 23 works. Copied 813-4/1410-11 (Add.27261, ff. 2v-3r)

The opening of Timur’s grandson Iskandar Sultan’s pocket miscellany containing 23 works. Copied 813-4/1410-11 (BL Add.27261, ff 2v-3r) - See more at:

The text in the upper and lower panels is written in an especially ornate version of floriated Kufic script (compare, for example, the much clearer decorative title headings for two poems, Kitāb Jām-i Jam (f. 420v) and Sa‘ādat-nāma (f. 504v). The text appears to consist of supplicatory phrases. The present writer has begun, but not completed, the struggle to decipher them. Perhaps some readers of this blog can do better, in which case we should be glad to hear from them. In any case, the contents complement the prayer in Arabic for the manuscript’s patron, Iskandar Sultan, inscribed in thulth script in the lobed circular central panel on the right hand page (f. 2v):

O God, perpetuate the rule of the most mighty Sultan, the most just and noble emperor, sovereign of the sovereigns of the Arabs and non-Arabs…

The continuation, in the panel on the left hand page (3r), reads:

…the Shadow of God upon all regions of the Earth, the Champion of Water and Clay [i.e. Defender of the Interests of Mankind], the Reliant [upon God], the Supreme King, Glory of the Nation and Faith [of Islam] Iskandar, may God make his dominion eternal.

F3r F2v
Close up of (left) f. 3r and (right) f. 2v

Among the special ‘personal touches’ found elsewhere in the manuscript are the inscriptions half-concealed in the ornately illuminated margins of three pages: folios 343v, 344r, and 345r. All are in verse, and here they appear to be addressed to Iskandar Sultan, although that does not necessarily mean that they were originally composed for him; their authorship has yet to be established.

Folio 343v, which incidentally is featured (as are folios f. 2v and f. 3r) in the ‘Turning The Pages’ presentation of selected pages of this Miscellany, contains geometrical theorems from the first Book of Euclid’s Principles. Written in gold, half-hidden within the decorative cartouches ranged along the margins of this and the following page (f. 344r), are verses praising the manuscript's royal patron using imagery entirely appropriate to a bibliophile:

Add. 27261, f. 343v
Ay daftar-i iqbāl-rā naqsh-i ḥavāshī nām-i tū3
bar lawḥ-i taqdīr az qaẓā nukḥustīn ḥarf kām-i tu
Dawlat ba-kilk-i ma‘dalat āyāt-i fal u makramat
binvishta matn u ḥāshiya bar ṣaḥfa-’i ayyām-i tu.

O you whose name has been marked down
   in the margins of Success’s book!
Your will is, by the decree of Fate,
   the first letter on Destiny’s Tablet.
With the pen of Justice, Good Fortune
   wrote the signs of virtue and greatness
upon the page of these, your times,
   in both the text space and the margins.

The inscription contained within four cartouches in the margin of folio 344r is much easier to read:

Add. 27261, f. 344r
Screenshot 2015-01-15 17.48.43
Screenshot 2015-01-15 17.49.34
Nigīn-i sa‘ādat
/ ba-nām-i tū bād
Screenshot 2015-01-15 17.50.33
Screenshot 2015-01-15 17.51.26
Hama kār-i dawlat / ba-kām-i tū bād

May Fortune’s signet ring
    be [inscribed] with your name;
and all matters of state
    accord with your desire.

As if the preceding eulogies were not enough, they are followed by a still more flattering single bayt or couplet on f. 345r, together with the name ‘Alī in gold on blue, calligraphed in square Kufic.

Add. 27261, f. 345r
Screenshot 2015-01-15 18.35.45 

Screenshot 2015-01-15 18.37.34Screenshot 2015-01-15 18.37.56
Screenshot 2015-01-15 18.35.11
Ay az bihisht / tu juzvī / va
z ramat āyatī / aqq-rā ba-rūzgār-i / tū bā mā ‘ināyatī

You who are a part of Heaven, a portent of [Divine] Mercy;
in this your era, God [has shown His] favour and concern for us.

Let us now turn our attention to the various colophons in Add. 27261. The first of these occurs on f. 112v, at the end of Ilāhī-nāma (‘Book of the Divine), a didactic poem by the great mystical poet Farīd al-Dīn ‘Aṭṭār (d. ca. 1220). In it, one of the two calligraphers who worked on this Miscellany, Muḥammad al-Ḥalvā’ī, states that he finished copying the text in Jumādā l-avval (sic: normally in the feminine form Jumādā l-ūlā) 813, which month began on September 9th 1410. Here, as in another of his colophons (see below), which are in Arabic as convention dictates, this scribe employs phrases which show him to have been an admirer of the mystical Path and its people, and perhaps a Sufi himself.
Colophon in the margin at the end of ʻAṭṭār's Ilāhī-nāma (‘Book of the Divine), dated 813/1410. Add.27261, f. 112v
: noc

[This copy of] “The Book of the Divine”, by the Sultan of the Knowers and Lovers [of God], Protector of the Protégés of the Ancients and Moderns, the Unique One of the World and the Faith (Farīd al-Dunyā wa l-Dīn) Muḥammad known as ‘the Perfumer’ (‘Aṭṭār) – may God cool his resting-place, illumine his dwelling-place (mathwā), and make the Pool of Paradise his drinking-place (ma’rā) – was completed on Saturday 27th of Jumādā l-awwal 813. Praise is due to God alone, and God’s salutations and innumerable greetings be upon the Best of His Creation Muḥammad and his goodly, pure Family, one and all. By the hand of the weak and feeble servant, wholly reliant upon [God] the Eternally Self-Sufficient Sovereign: Muḥammad known as al-Ḥalvā’ī (‘The Sweetmeat Man’), may God improve his condition and put his mind at rest.

By contrast, the colophon written by al-Ḥalvā’ī on f. 294r at the end of Niẓāmī’s Khamsa (‘Five Poems’) is exiguous and looks as though it may have been composed and executed in haste. No acknowledgement to the Creator, salutations to the Prophet, or honorifics for the author; the scribe’s name is there, but has just been squeezed in at the end of a line:

End of the book known as the Khamsa of Niẓāmī. Written by Muḥammad, and [may Divine] forgiveness [be his], in Jumādā l-ūlā of the year 814’ (equivalent to late August-September 1411.

Another inscription of interest, which occurs on f. 302r, appears in the form of a flattering addition to what is announced as Niẓām al-tavārīkh, an abridgement and continuation of this short history of Persia from earliest times down to 674/1275 by ‘Abd Allāh al-Bayẓāvī. Immediately after a brief notice of the Mongol Īlkhān Abū Sa‘īd (d. 736/1335) we find this:

And [today, God’s] creatures are in the shade (sāya, repeated again on the next line) of the justice and the shadow of the compassion of the Just King…Jalāl al-Dunyā va l-Dīn Iskandar Bahādur, may God perpetuate his rule…’ (the remainder of the text resembling that of the prayer on f. 340r translated below).

The colophon (f. 340r) which concludes a selection of ghazals or lyric verses by several different poets, is almost as long as that on f. 112v and yet contains no date; in this respect the volume exhibits no standard style. In it we read:

The ghazals have been completed, with the help and goodly aid to success of God, Transcendent and Exalted is He. Salutations and peace be upon Muḥammad, the Best of His Creation, and his Pure Family. Written by the poor servant Muḥammad, scribe to the Majestic Sovereign Iskandar (al-kātib al-Jalālī al-Khāqānī al-Iskandarī), may God perpetuate his (i.e. the sovereign’s, not – as the syntax suggests – the scribe’s) kingship and establish his justice and beneficence throughout the universe, by the Prophet and his goodly descendants.

Colophon concluding a collection of ghazals. Add.27261, f 340r

After this point in the manuscript there are no further lengthy colophons. Whereas the opening of the more famous Manṭiq al-ṭayr and Ilāhī-nāma, found earlier in the volume, are marked only by episode headings, the poems Jām-i Jam and (part of) Sa‘ādat-nāma both have ornamental title headings. Neither of the latter, however, has any kind of inscription at the end. And although there remain some artistic pyrotechnics to come, as regards the textual content the Miscellany rather peters out. The last colophon (f. 542v) consists of two lines of text directly below the end of the treatise on astronomy with which the Miscellany concludes. Instead of being configured in the conventional keystone form, these two lines are written exactly as if they were part of the text. The first line announces the conclusion of of Rawat al-munajjimīn (‘Astronomers’ Garden’), while the second reads:

Katabahu turāb al-fuqarā’ va l-sālikāin Nāir al-Kātib, asana Llāh ‘avāqibahu, fī salkh Jumādā l-sānī 814

Written by [one who is] dust [at the feet] of the dervishes and the [spiritual] wayfarers, Nāṣir the Scribe – may God grant him a goodly life Hereafter – at the end of Jumādā l-sānī 814 (equivalent to early October 1411).

Colophon at the end of Rawat al-munajjimīn (‘Astronomers’ Garden’), dated 814/1411. Add.27261, f. 542v

Lastly, there are two very different inscriptions which were added by later owners of the manuscript at the end of it. These have been described and discussed in the ‘Turning The Pages’ presentation of the Miscellany of Iskandar Sultan, together with a selection of 74 other pages.

A detailed catalogue description with links to the individual works and paintings can be read or downloaded here.

Muhammad Isa Waley, Asian and African Studies


14 January 2015

Early dictionaries of Southeast Asian languages

The expansion of European power in the 16th century made Southeast Asia one of the prime destinations for European adventurers, including not only merchants but also Christian missionaries. Profits from overseas trade in exotic goods from this region, such as spices and forest products, attracted European traders to Southeast Asia, long before this commercial activity spiralled and became an integral component of Western colonialism. The desire to convert local people to Christianity also brought priests into various parts of Southeast Asia from the early 16th century.

Western missionaries, diplomats and traders all needed to be able to communicate with the indigenous populations, and dictionaries were essential tools in facilitating their work. In 1522 Antonio Pigafetta, an Italian who joined Magellan’s circumnavigation of the globe, compiled a word-list of Malay with approximately 426 entries. In 1651, the Dictionarium Annamiticum Lusitanum et Latinum, a trilingual Vietnamese-Portuguese-Latin dictionary compiled by Alexandre de Rhodes, was published in Rome for religious purposes. His work contributed tremendously not only to the development of dictionaries in Vietnamese but also to the use of Romanised script for the Vietnamese language (Quốc Ngữ or national language).  Rhodes was a French Jesuit priest and lexicographer who was sent to Vietnam in 1619. His dictionary was later used in the development of a Vietnamese–Latin dictionary compiled by another French missionary, Pigneau de Béhaine, in 1783. The latter work was revised by Jean-Louis Taberd and was published as a Chinese-Vietnamese-Latin dictionary in 1838.

Alexandre de Rhodes, Dictionarium Annamiticum Lusitanum et Latinum. Rome: Typis Sacr. Congreg, 1651. British Library, 70.b.16.  noc

On March 30, 1795, the Institut National des Langues et Civilisations Orientales (INALCO) (National Institute of Oriental Languages and Civilizations) was founded in Paris, with a mission to teach living Oriental languages ‘of recognized utility for politics and commerce’. The British and the Dutch were engaged in similar academic activities, and various centres for research and scholarship in ‘Oriental Studies’ were founded in London, Leiden and overseas. In July 1800, Fort William College was established in Calcutta. Founded by Lord Wellesley, the Governor-General of British India, it emerged as a research and publication centre with a primary aim of training British civilians in languages and cultures of the subjugated country. The College published thousands of books in English, translated from major languages of the Indian subcontinent, including dictionaries of Bengali, Hindustani and Sanskrit.

In Britain, the London Oriental Institution was co-founded by John Borthwick Gilchrist and the East India Company in 1805, primarily as a college to teach Indian languages to civil servants.  Gilchrist had been the first professor of Hindustani at Fort William College in Calcutta. However, as British interests were not only limited to India but also included Southeast Asia , the Council of the Fort William College also recommend that the government of India should compile a similar work in the major languages of mainland and maritime Southeast Asia (then vaguely named collectively as the nations in the Eastern isles, between India and China). Hence, the Comparative Vocabulary of the Barma, Maláyu and Thái Languages by Dr John Leyden was published in 1810.

John Leyden, Comparative Vocabulary of Barma, Maláyu and Thái Languages. Serampore: The Mission Press, 1810.  British Library,  noc

The Comparative Vocabulary has 3166 entries in Burmese, Malay in Jawi script, Thai in Romanised script and English. The entries were not listed in alphabetical order but arranged by topics, such as God, nature, the elements, diseases, trades, commerce, ships, armies and warfare, and government. In the 1830s, Eliza Grew Jones, a Baptist missionary who travelled to Burma and Siam, compiled a handlist of about 8,000 Thai-English words, phrases and terms.  Her original manuscript has now disappeared, but in 1839 the Rev. Samuel P. Robin had made a copy of her work, and this manuscript dictionary is currently held in the Widener Library, Harvard University.

Printing in Thai script in Thailand only began in 1835, when an American Protestant missionary, Dr Dan Beach Bradley (1804- 1873), brought a Thai script printing press from Singapore to the kingdom. This made it possible to publish Thai and multilingual dictionaries, the first appearing in 1854. It was compiled by Auctore D. J. B. Pallegoix, a French missionary to Siam during the mid-1850s. Entries appear in Thai, Latin, French and English and were arranged according to Roman alphabetical order.

D.J.B. Pallegoix, Dictionarium Lingue Thai Sive Siamensis. Paris: Jussu Imperetoris Impressum, 1854. British Library, 825.l.13.  noc

In 1828, A Grammar of the Thai or Siamese Language, written by Captain James Low while he was serving with the East India Company in Penang, was printed in Calcutta. This comprehensive analysis of Thai language can be regarded as one of the earliest textbooks on Thai grammar in a western language. The text also contains Thai script and a long Thai-English vocabulary. Low’s introduction to the book reads: ‘The proximity of the Siamese empire to the British settlements in the Straits of Malacca, and to the lately acquired territory of Tennasserim; the increasing number of Siamese living under British protection in these settlements; and the new political relations which exist betwixt the British and the Siamese courts; have rendered it desirable that facilities should be afforded for the study of the Siamese or Thai language, to those to whom, either from their public or professional situation, a knowledge of it may be advantageous….But it is also manifest, that without the knowledge alluded to, our intercourse with the Siamese must be limited and unsatisfactory, while we cannot expect to gain an accurate acquaintance with their real history and character as a people, or with their ideas, their literature, and their polity. ‘

James Low, A Grammar of the Thai or Siamese Language. Calcutta: The Baptist Mission Press, 1828. British Library, Grammatical Tracts 1827-36, 622.i.28 (3).  noc

As more Westerners travelled to Southeast Asia in the 19th century, dictionaries played a vital part in facilitating dialogue with locals. Some travel journals from this period introduced lists of essential words in local languages. For example, Frederick Arthur Neale, who wrote an account of his visit to Siam in 1840, compiled a list of 100 Thai words and 18 Thai numbers in his Narrative of a Residence at the Capital of the Kingdom of Siam (Neale 1852: 238-241). When Henri Mouhot’s travel diaries of Siam, Laos and Cambodia between 1858-1860 were published in London in 1864, there was a substantial Cambodian vocabulary and list of phrases in the appendix to his book. These linguistic activities by foreign travellers illustrate Western attempts to understand Southeast Asian cultures and languages, even though they were primarily to serve their own political and economic interests.

Further reading:

Mouhot, Alexandre Henri. Travels in the central parts of Indo-China, Cambodia and Laos during the years 1858,1859, and 1860. London, 1864.

Neale, Frederick Arthur. Narrative of a Residence at the Capital of the Kingdom of Siam. London: Office of the National Illustrated Library, 1852.

Sud Chonchirdsin, Curator for Vietnamese


09 January 2015

Malay manuscripts on Bugis history

In my last post, I discussed the Bugis diary of Sultan Ahmad al-Salih Syamsuddin of Bone (r.1775-1812) in south Sulawesi (Add. 12354), which has just been digitised. As well as documenting the day-to-day activities at the court, royal Bugis and Makassarese diaries were designed with blank pages between each year, which could be used for notes on important events and copies of letters and treaties, as well as songs and poems, and drawings and designs.

A decorative calligraphic heading (kepala surat) to be positioned at the top of a letter, in the form of a ship made out of the pious Arabic phrase, Qawluh al-haqq wa-kalamuh al-sidq, ‘His Word is The Truth and His Speech Veracity’, drawn on a blank page in Ahmad al-Salih’s diary. British Library, Add. 12354, f. 118v.  noc

Ahmad al-Salih’s diary is one of a number of official diaries from the court of Bone acquired by John Crawfurd, who led the British expedition against Bone in 1814. During his twenty years of service in the East India Company, stationed in Penang, Java and Singapore, Crawfurd built up an important collection of Malay, Javanese and Bugis manuscripts, which he sold to the British Museum in 1842, and which are now held in the British Library. Crawfurd used his manuscripts extensively to support his research on the history and culture of the Malay world, leading to numerous publications including the three-volume History of the Indian archipelago (1820) and A grammar and dictionary of the Malay language (1852). Crawfurd could read and speak Malay and Javanese, but not Bugis.  Soon after acquiring manuscripts from the royal library of Bone, he appears to have commissioned Malay translations of some of the most important historical notes, documents and letters recorded in the Bugis diaries. Among the Malay manuscripts in the British Library which have recently been digitised are three volumes of Malay translations of Bugis documents from Crawfurd’s collection, mostly dating from around 1814.

The first manuscript, Add. 12396, contains translations in a locally-tinged Malay of Makassarese and Bugis texts, covering the early histories of the kingdoms of Gowa and Bone in the 17th century (ff. 1v-23v).  The volume also contains miscellaneous notes on Arung Palakka and the countries defeated by him (f. 23r), and a copy of the momentous treaty of Bungaya of 1667, marking the defeat of Makassar by combined Dutch and Bugis forces from Bone under Arung Palakka. Other contents include juridical regulations, and sayings and teachings of former rulers of Wajo, Tallo' and Bone.


A list of the kings of Bone, some with indications of the number of years of their reigns, apparently made during the reign of Matinroe riRompegading (Ahmad al-Salih Syamsuddin), who died in 1812. British Library, Add. 12396, f. 25r (detail).  noc

A second volume, Add. 12389, contains translations from Bugis diaries from the court of Bone between the years 1759-1775, 1804-1811, and 1805-1807, and from the notes and letters written on the blank pages left between years in the diaries. Topics covered include meetings of high court officials and representatives of other Sulawesi states; envoys of the Dutch authorities to the court of Bone (f. 40r); the ceremony of the investiture of the ruler or Arumpone (f.42v); and records of dreams (f. 56r). Notable in the diary of Sultan Ahmad al-Salih were reports from visitors and returned pilgrims about the holy cities of Mecca and Medina, and in this volume too is recorded, probably early in 1806, news of the Wahhabi takeover of the Hijaz.

Add.12389, ff.58v-59r copy
Malay translations of notes from Bugis diaries from the court of Bone. On the right hand page is a note on a visit of an honoured guest from Mecca named Ibrahim Zayn al-‘Abidin, a descendant of the famous Sufi scholar Ahmad al-Qushashi (d.1660), who tells of the Wahhabite actions in Mecca and Medina in demolishing venerated tombs save only for that of the Prophet himself (Maka datang Syaikh Madinah Ahmad Kusasi yang punya cucu dan Ibrahim Zainal Abidin namanya … itu pula yang khabarkan dari Abdul Wahab merusakkan Makkah dan Madinah … maka dirubu(h)kan semuanya kubur dari Makka dan Madina tinggal kuburnya Nabi Muhammad yang tiada dirubuh …). Although this diary entry is undated it probably occurred in early 1806 as it follows a report of flooding on 22 December 1805 following 17 days of heavy rain (f. 57r). British Library, Add. 12389, ff. 58v-59r.  noc

 A third manuscript, Add. 12399, contains fragments of Malay hikayat, mostly religious stories on ‘Alī, Fāṭima and the mi’rāj of the Prophet, as well as translations of letters from Bugis and Makssarese, dating from 1813 to 1814.

Add.1299, ff.54v-55r copy
Copies of letters translated into Malay from Bugis. That on the left hand page is addressed affectionately to an elder female (Bahwa peluk cium kepada nenenda …) and is dated 18 January 1814.  British Library, Add. 12399, ff. 54v-55r.  noc

Further reading

Rahilah Omar, The history of Bone AD 1775-1795: the diary of Sultan Ahmad as-Salleh Syamsuddin. [Ph.D. thesis].  University of Hull, 2003. [Available for download from the British Library ETHOS site.]

M.C.Ricklefs & P.Voorhoeve, Indonesian manuscripts in Great Britain: a catalogue of manuscripts in Indonesian languages in British public collections.  Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977.

John Crawfurd and Malay studies. Blog post, 27 May 2014.

Annabel Teh Gallop, Lead Curator, Southeast Asia