Asian and African studies blog

7 posts from February 2016

29 February 2016

Lebanese LGBTQ publications: essays, magazines, memoirs and narratives

Blogger and novelist Fadi Zaghmout, together with translator Ruth Ahmedzai Kemp, recently visited the British Library. His debut novel, ‘Arūs ʻAmmān (ʻThe bride of Amman’), deals with the various struggles facing young Jordanians, including sexual orientation and gender identity. With this subject in mind, we looked at different sources – both historical and contemporary – for LGBTQ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Queer) history in the British Library’s Arabic collections. Some of those are presented here to mark LGBT History Month, which has been taking place throughout the month of February.

Publications from Helem
Helem, which means dream in Arabic and is also the acronym for Ḥimāyah Lubnānīyah lil-Mithlīyīn, is a Lebanese non-profit organisation working on improving the legal and social status of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. The British Library has two publications by Helem in its Arabic collection.
Ruhāb al-mithlīyah: mawāqif wa-shahādāt, Beirut: Helem, 2006 (British Library YP.2007.a.2531)

The first, entitled Ruhāb al-mithlīyah: mawāqif wa-shahādāt, (ʻHomophobia: views and opinions’), edited by ‘Abd al-Raḥmān Ayyās, was published in Beirut in 2006 with support from the Heinrich Böll Foundation. It is a collection of essays by prominent individuals - such as Hanan al-Shaykh, Marie-Rose Zalzal, Rabih Alameddine, Tarek el-Ariss and Omar Nashabe - dealing critically with homophobia from various perspectives: literary, sociological, psychological, legal and so on.

Front cover of issue 6 of Barrā (December 2012) with examples of articles on news and health.

The second is Barrā (ʻOut’). Initially published between 2005 and 2006, it was hailed as the region’s first LGBTQ magazine. It was subsequently re-launched in 2012 and the British Library has four copies. The magazine contains articles in both Arabic and English, and includes news, special features, opinion pieces, interviews, horoscopes and cartoons, as well as articles on health, arts and lifestyle.

Trans memoir
In 2010, Beirut publisher Dar al-Saqi released Mudhakkirāt Randā al-Trāns, a memoir by an Algerian trans woman named Randa and co-authored with Hazem Saghieh, political editor of the London-based Arab newspaper al-Hayat. As reported in the Independent in July 2010, the book “unflinchingly details Randa's life from childhood” including her first sexual experiences and “the consequences of her choice to live as a male-to-female transsexual”.

Mudhakkirāt Randā al-Trāns,
Beirut: Dār al-Sāqī, 2010

Some reports have stated that this is the first such memoir in Arabic, but WorldCat lists a book entitled Iʻtirāfāt Sayyid: al-qiṣṣah al-muthīrah li-ṭālib al-ṭibb alladhī taḥawwala ilá imraʼah, the biography of a transsexual Al-Azhar University medical student named Sally, published in 1991 in Alexandria, Egypt.

Randa’s memoir was quickly translated into Italian under the title Dillo alla luna (ʻTell the moon’) by Alessandro Buontempo and published by Edizioni Piemme in 2011. In addition, a documentary entitled Meanwhile in Beirut was released in 2015 by Swiss director Felipe Monroy and aired at last year's Fringe! Queer Film and Arts Fest in London. The protagonist is Lea, a 30 year old Lebanese trans woman, and the film shows domestic scenes of love, friendship, and sex work in contemporary Beirut.

Bareed mista3jil: true stories, Beirut: Meem, 2009 (British Library YP.2015.a.7033)

‘Mail in a hurry’
The final item highlighted here is entitled Bareed mista3jil (‘Express Mail’) by the organisation Meem (Majmū‘ah Muʼāzarat lil-Marʼah al-Mithlīyah), a Lebanese LBTQ women’s group founded in August 2007. The book, published in 2009 and also supported by the Heinrich Böll Foundation, is a collection of forty-one narratives about Lebanese lesbian, bisexual, queer, and questioning and transgender people. Regarding the title, the introduction to the book notes:

‘Barred Mista3jil’ has a very close meaning to ‘Express Mail,’ but a better translation would be ‘Mail in a Hurry.’ It reflects both the urgency of getting these stories across and also the private nature of the stories – like letters written, sealed and sent out to the world.

Publicity video for Bareed mista3jil by Lebanese feminist collective, Nasawiya (25 May 2009)

The British Library’s collections of Arabic manuscripts, printed books, newspapers, periodicals, ephemera and sound recordings provide an interesting source (in addition to those in the region, such as the Jafet Library at the American University of Beirut) for the history of sexual orientation and gender identity. We aim to support this through our current selection and acquisitions, particularly that of out-of-print publications, and the acceptance of donated material. Yet, with more and more Arabic LGBTQ publications being published electronically, interesting challenges arise for archiving, preserving and providing access to this material.

Daniel Lowe, Curator of Arabic Collections, British Library
Twitter: @dan_a_lowe

Items mentioned
‘Abd al-Raḥmān Ayyās (ed.), Ruhāb al-mithlīyah: mawāqif wa-shahādāt. Beirut: Helem, 2006 (YP.2007.a.2531)
Meem, Bareed mista3jil: true stories. Beirut: Meem, 2009 (YP.2015.a.7033)
Ḥāzim Ṣāghīyah, Mudhakkirāt Randā al-Trāns. Beirut: Dār al-Sāqī, 2010  (In the process of being catalogued)
Barrā, Beirut: Helem (In the process of being catalogued)
Fadi Zaghmout, translated Ruth Ahmedai Kemp, The bride of Amman. Hong Kong: Signal 8 Press, 2015 (YP.2015.a.6990)

Further reading
Nadia Dropkin, “Bareed Mista3jil Meem”, Journal of Middle East Women's Studies 7.2 (2011): 111–114
Shereen El Feki, Sex and the Citadel: Intimate Life in a Changing Arab World. London: Chatto & Windus, 2013
Dina Georgis, “Thinking past pride: queer Arab shame in Bareed mista3jil”, International Journal of Middle East Studies, 45 (2013), 233-251
Samir Khalaf and and John Gagnon (eds.), Sexuality in the Arab World. London: Saqi, 2006
Pesha Magid, “On Being Transgender in Egypt”, Mada Masr (4 June 2015)
Ghassan Makarem, “The Story of HELEM”, Journal of Middle East Women’s Studies 7.3 (2011): 98–112––
Joseph A. Massad, Desiring Arabs. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007
Sofian Merabet, Queer Beirut. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2014
Ahmad Saleh, “Helem”, Journal of Middle East Women’s Studies 11.3 (2015): 368-370
Mohamed Jean Veneuse, “The Body of the Condemned Sally: Paths to Queering anarca-Islam”, Anarchist Developments in Cultural Studies 1 (2010): 215-239

26 February 2016

Academic thought in the South

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

24 February 2016

The Vietnam War: Children at War

Ho Chi Minh: “The Working Youth Union members and our young people are in general good; they are ready to come forward, fearless of difficulties and eager for progress. The Party must foster their revolutionary virtues and train them to be our successors ...” 
Việt Nam, commemorative issue on the death of Ho Chi Minh, October 1969, p.11. British Library, SU216

The Vietnam War affected all walks of life in Vietnam and children were not spared from the cruelty of this war. The physical suffering from heavy battles and bombardment of highly toxic chemical weapons are still felt even today. During the war years life for children was very hard, in both the North and the South of Vietnam. Houses and schools were bombed and destroyed. Many children became homeless and their schools had to be moved around or lessons had to take place after dark to avoid being targeted by heavy bombings. For example, one school in a liberated area in the South had to move site three times in four months due to the American air raids. Wherever they stopped, teachers and pupils built bamboo and palm leaf cottages in the midst of forests as their school (Việt Nam, no.132, 9, 1968, p. 10).

'Going to school at night' (Đi học đêm) by Phi Tiến Sơn, 12 years old. Việt Nam, no.154, 1971 p. [14]. British Library, SU 216(2)

'Reinforcing the wall to protect our classrooms' by Phương Quốc Thanh, 14 years old. Việt Nam, no.141, 6,1969 p. 18. British Library, SU 216(2)

In the face of these hardships, the fighting spirit of the children was heavily fortified by the Vietnamese Communist Party and the National Liberation Front, and these institutions made children very aware of foreign enemies and their duty to serve their country. The attempts of the Vietnamese Communist Party and the National Liberation Front to inspire young minds to fight the enemy are illustrated by the glorification of Nguyễn Văn Trỗi, a young electrician and a Viet Minh member in the South. Trỗi was sentenced to death and executed by a firing sqad in Saigon in front of the press on 15 October 1964 for the attempted assassination of Robert McNamara, the US Secretary of Defence, who was visiting South Vietnam in May 1963. When the shots were fired at Trỗi, he shouted “Down with the U.S. Imperialists, Long Live Vietnam, Long Live Hồ  Chí Minh”.

Execution of Nguyễn Văn Trỗi. Việt Nam, no.149, 1970 p. 31. British Library, SU216(2)

Hanoi treated Trỗi as a martyr and renamed many schools, prize awards and other revolutionary activities after him. In the liberated zones in South Vietnam, revolutionary schools named after him were set up to teach children about “learning for victory over the Yanks”.

According to one Hanoi publication: “…A system of revolutionary education has taken shape and is fast growing. With this the innocent and unstained minds of the children can absorb the cream of the sound and rich national culture very early, and the children will work their way to become good sons and daughters, excellent pupils and young activists. In the “small deeds, great significance” movement, apart from learning, they enthusiastically join their efforts with those of their parents and brothers in fighting the enemy and defending their villages and hamlets …” (Việt Nam, no.141 6, 1969, p.[29]).

'Tiny guerrilla' (Du kích tý hon) by Lưư Công Nhân. Việt Nam,  no.106,  7, 1966, p. 106. British Library, SU216

Nguyễn Công Phi, 'Tiny guerrilla in the Nguyễn Văn Trỗi Youth Group in Quảng Nam province'. Việt Nam, no.141, 6, 1969 p. 29. British Library, SU216

Against this background, children as young as 13 and 14 were involved in the armed struggle, learning guerrilla warfare tactics and killing both American and South Vietnamese soldiers. Some were trained to be informants. Many of them were decorated with awards and “glorious titles” such as “Iron Fort Children” or “Valiant Destroyer of the Yanks” (Việt Nam, No.141, 6,1969, p.[29]). Others were involved in other war-related activities, such as making hats for soldiers, constructing strategic roads to reach the South, barricading or fortifying their schools and even just giving moral support to members of their families before they left home to fight in the front line. In the North the Party organised activities to keep young minds aware of the on-going war and its horrible repercussions on their life. For example, painting competitions for young people on war themes were organised by some newspapers and cinemas. In the South a campaign to enlist support from the youth was launched by the Provisional Revolutionary Government. They were encouraged to engage in “five volunteer movements”, i.e., volunteer to destroy as much of the enemy’s manpower as possible, to join the army, to wage political struggle, to serve the frontline and to boost agricultural production (Việt Nam, no.150, 1970 p.[14]).

'We weave straw hats to fight the US' (Chúng em tết mũ rom chống Mỹ) by Bùi  Quang Trường, 13 years old. Việt Nam, no. 141, pp.18-19. British Library, SU216(2)

'See our brother off to join the army' (Tiễn anh đi bộ đội) by Đoàn Thị Hương, 13 years old. Việt Nam, 6,1968, p[17]. British Library, SU216(2)

In the South, a new group of children was brought into the world as a result of wartime relationships between American soldiers and local women. These thousands of mixed race children, or Amerasians, faced many hardships in life both during and especially after the war, as they were regarded as outcasts by the Vietnamese. They were referred to as “bụi đời” or the “dust of life”. When, in 1987, the US government eventually set up a programme to allow these Amerasians to settle in the USA, some of them were able to leave Vietnam and to be reunited with their paternal families in the USA.

Curator’s note: As the British Library collection of Vietnamese serials comes mainly from North Vietnam, the nature of content for this blog post therefore only reflects information from the North, especially as found in the periodical Việt Nam published in Hanoi.

Sud Chonchirdsin, Curator for Vietnamese

19 February 2016

Kaempfer’s cat

And Did Those Feet In Ancient Times…?

Recent ultraviolet photography of a 17th century map of the Japanese port city of Nagasaki has revealed the unsuspected paw prints of a cat.

UV image
Ultraviolet photography revealing cat paw prints on Nagasaki ezu. (Photo: Christina Duffy, British Library)

The untitled map – traditionally referred to as Nagasaki ezu 長崎絵図 (‘Illustrated Map of Nagasaki’, BL shelfmark Or.75.g.25) – is part of the collection acquired by Sir Hans Sloane, ‘father’ of the British Museum, from the family of the German physician and naturalist Engelbert Kaempfer (1651-1716). Kaempfer was the author of The History of Japan, published posthumously in 1727, one of the most influential early works introducing Japan to a Western audience. Employed by the Dutch East India Company, Kaempfer stayed in Japan from 1690-1692. He served as medical officer in the Dutch trading factory on Deshima, the artificial island in Nagasaki Bay constructed by the Japanese authorities to house the small number of Western merchants permitted to trade. During his time in Japan Kaempfer amassed a large number of books, manuscripts, paintings, botanical drawings and artefacts which he used as sources for his writings on his return to Europe, However his work on Japan remained unpublished at his death in 1716 and between 1723 and 1725 the draft manuscript along with his collections were acquired by Sloane. It was Sloane who arranged for its translation into English and publication. Of the sixty items listed as being bought by Sloane forty-five have so far been identified. They are chiefly maps, dictionaries, travel guides, chronologies, directories and popular literature – all typical of the printed material that would have been readily available at the time. Although the individual items were not remarkable when first published, this small collection is now one of the earliest, if not the earliest to survive in Europe.

Whole map
Nagasaki ezu
‘An illustrated map of Nagasaki’. Printed c.1680 (British Library Or.75.g.25)   noc

The Nagasaki ezu was printed using woodblocks and then hand-coloured. It is undated but shows bridges over the River Nakashima which were constructed before 1681. It was clearly already out of date by the time Kaempfer acquired it because he made amendments -such as adding the Chinese merchants’ settlement (Tōjin yashiki 唐人屋敷) built in 1689 - when he copied the map in his manuscript. A version of this appears in The History of Japan as ‘Urbs Nangasaki’. The Nagasaki ezu shows in detail the city and harbour with the fan-shaped Deshima island near the centre and is decorated with depictions of Dutch and Chinese ships and of “exotic” foreigners including a Dutch man and woman.

Kaempfer History of Japan_Nagasaki map(2)_2000
‘Urbs Nangasaki’ in The History of Japan was based on Kaempfer’s Nagasaki ezu – without the paw prints! (British Library 150.k.9-10)   noc

Colour composite UV photography revealed a pair of feline paw prints just below Deshima island, near where the river enters the harbour. Sadly, the identity of the mystery moggy will never be known nor when or under what circumstances it sauntered across the map. No doubt there were cats on Deshima - as well as dogs, cattle, pigs, goats, chickens, parrots, monkeys and even a porcupine and a cassowary which all appear in paintings of the Dutch factory. Kaempfer certainly wrote about Japanese cats in The History of Japan, “They have a particular beautiful kind of cats [sic] which is a domestick animal with them, as with us. They are of a whitish colour, with large yellow and black spots, and a very short tail, as if it has been purposely cut off. They don’t care for mousing, but love mightily to be carried out, and carress’d, chiefly by women” (The History of Japan. Book I Chapter X)

SLoaneMs3060_f501 Japanese_Bobtail_Cat,_Japan
Left: Self-portrait of Engelbert Kaempfer from a drawing of the Dutch merchants’ official journey to Edo. (British Library Sloane Ms 3060 fol. 501)   noc
Right: Japanese tricolour mikeneko. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

So it is appealing to imagine it was Kaempfer’s cat that stepped on the map, trying to distract its master from his studies – in a way familiar to any cat owner.

Or perhaps Sir Hans Sloane had a cat which ventured into his cabinet of curiosities when the map was lying open.

A third possibility, albeit more worrying from a ‘collection security’ point of view, is that the paw prints were left by one of succession of cats which patrolled the British Museum keeping the mice in check (more on this at ʻBlack Jack, Mike and the British Museumʼ). The most famous of these was Mike who lived at the Museum for twenty years and whose death in 1929 was marked by a memorial poem and an obituary in the Evening Standard!

Further reading

Kenneth B Gardner, Descriptive Catalogue of Japanese Books in the British Library Printed before 1700. London: The British Library, 1993.  Contains detailed descriptions of all Japanese books in the Kaempfer collection

Yu-Ying Brown, “Japanese Books and Manuscripts: Sloane’s Japanese Library and the Making of the History of Japan”, in Arthur MacGragor (ed.), Sir Hans Sloane: Collector, Scientist , Antiquary, Founding Father of the British Museum. London: British Museum, 1994, pp. 278-290.  On Sloane’s acquisition of the collection

Hamish Todd, Head of East Asian Collections, with thanks to Christina Duffy, Conservation

15 February 2016

Nine myths about West Africa

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

10 February 2016

A Group of Sikh Miniatures on Ivory

A recently acquired group of miniatures painted on ivory and laid down on paper supports with identifying inscriptions,  still mostly with their original glass, is of considerable interest. Such items were increasingly the stock products of the tourist trade in Delhi in the later nineteenth century, but the inscriptions of this particular group suggested that they must have been made before 1850 and in Lahore or Amritsar rather than Delhi, the usual production centre for such items. The portraits include various Maharajas of the Punjab from 1839-49 with other rulers. They were presumably bought and pasted down onto sheets of paper in order to be sent off to Britain for the enlightenment of friends or relations at home, so that they could put a face to the names that occupied so much of the British press in the 1840s with the doings of the Lahore court and the two Sikh Wars, which ended in the annexation of the Punjab in 1849. Several of the inscriptions are unfortunately in error.

Inscribed: Now Nihal Sing successor to Rangeet Sing [i.e. Kharak Singh]; Maharajah of Lahore Ranjeet Sing; Bahadoor Shaw present King of Delhi [i.e. Akbar II]  (British Library, Add.Or.5680-82)   noc

The miniatures are arranged in four groups. Maharaja Ranjit Singh of Lahore (r. 1799-1839) is given primacy of place in the first group with the Mughal Emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar (r. 1838-58) to his right and Ranjit Singh’s son Kharak Singh (r. 1839-40) to his left. The inscriber has wrongly identified the latter as Nau Nihal Singh (r. 1840), who was the son and successor of Maharaja Kharak Singh (see next). He was still only aged nineteen when he was killed on returning from his father’s obsequies by masonry falling from an arch, and the portrait is of his father Kharak Singh. For his portrait around 1840 showing him with just a chin beard, see Archer 1966, pl. 35. The inscribed ‘present King of Delhi’ (as the British called the Emperor) dates paintings and inscriptions to at least before 1858. The inscriber seems mistaken here also, since the portrait is surely of Bahadur Shah’s father Akbar II (r. 1806-37) (see Dalrymple and Sharma 2012, nos. 30, 32-36). 

Inscribed: Dhuleep Sing present Ruler of Lahore; Kurruck Sing successor to Now Nihal Sing of Lahore; Kurrum Sing Rajah of Putteala [i.e. Kharak Singh] (British Library, Add.Or.5683-85)   noc

The second group has again a central portrait, that of Maharaja Kharak Singh (r. 1839-40), son and successor of Ranjit Singh, who died, it was rumoured, of poison. He has a very distinctive long pointed black beard. The inscriber has muddled Kharak Singh and his son Nau Nihal Singh. The latter was succeeded by Maharaja Sher Singh (r. 1840-43), another son of Ranjit Singh, who is represented later in the portraits, see below. Kharak Singh’s successor was Maharaja Dalip Singh (r. 1843-49), the youngest son of Ranjit Singh, identified with an inscription ‘the present Ruler of Lahore’ which firmly dates the whole group to before 1849. The other portrait in this group purports to be Maharaja Karam Singh of Patiala (r. 1813-45), ruler of one of the Cis-Sutlej states outside Ranjit Singh’s empire and allied to British India, but this portrait does not resemble him (for his portrait, see Stronge 1999, no. 188 and Falk and Archer 1981, no. 553). Again the long pointed black beard suggests Kharak Singh as in Add.Or.5680 above.

Inscribed: Rajah of Nepaul; Sumroo Begum; Mirza Zanghir 3 son King of Delhi [i.e. Maharaja Sher Singh]; Dost Mahomet (British Library, Add.Or.5686-89)   noc

Four of the remaining ivories are meant to be of local notables. These are the Maharaja of Nepal, who would seem to be the teenage Maharaja Surendra Bir Bikram Shah (b. 1829, r. 1847-81). Next is the Begum Samru of Sardhana (d. 1836) who ruled her own jagir near Meerut east of Delhi, one of the most redoubtable characters of early 19th century India. Next, a portrait labelled as Mirza Jahangir, the third and favourite son of the Emperor Akbar II, who died in confinement in Allahabad in 1821, cannot be him since this figure is wearing a Sikh type of turban. In fact he is almost certainly the missing Maharaja Sher Singh of Lahore (r. 1841-43), identified by comparison with other portraits by Sikh artists as well as his well-known portraits by both Emily Eden and the Austrian artist T.A. Schoefft (for his portraits by Indian artists, see Archer 1966, pls. 92, 104). Finally in this group is Dost Muhammad, the Amir of Afghanistan (r. 1825-39, and again 1845-63). Dost Muhammad repeatedly fought with the Sikhs in his first reign over the disputed border territory of Peshawar, but then allied himself with them in the second period of his reign before the final annexation. He is often depicted in other groupings of Sikh notables.

The various dates of rulers presented above suggest that the grouping of the portraits was done some time between 1847 and 1849. After the final annexation of the Punjab in 1849, artists in both Lahore and Amritsar produced many sets of portraits on ivory of Sikh rulers and notables in the period of their greatness. The British Library already has five such sets (Archer 1969, nos. 190-194), including one set from the 1850s that is almost certainly among the earliest known (Stronge 1999, no. 20), but this new set is definitely from the late 1840s. It must have been put together put together by a British officer probably in the British Residency in Lahore that was established by the Treaty of Bhairowal in 1846, and sent back home as suggested above for the enlightenment of his friends.

While the arrangement of the first two groups of three portraits is perhaps arbitrary, nonetheless the central large portrait flanked by two smaller ones closely resembles that of the jewels of bazubands, the jewelled armbands worn by the elite as can be seen in the larger portrait of Kharak Singh above (Add.Or.5684). Whereas portraits on ivory by Delhi artists were normally individual commissions, and even when in sets such as of the Mughal emperors were individually framed, the idea behind these groupings of Sikh notables seems to have been to have them mounted up in a frame, as are indeed all those in the British Library which are enclosed in 19th century frames (see Stronge 1999, no. 20).

Inscribed: [Ko]otub Minar Church at Delhi [Bui]ldings… at Delhi (British Library Add.Or.5691-94)   noc

The set ends (apart from one unidentified ruler, Add.Or.5690) rather oddly perhaps with three pictures on ivory of monuments of Delhi, all of them mounted up on the same sort of paper and with inscriptions in the same handwriting. In the middle is what is meant to be the church at Delhi, the church of St. James, built by Col. James Skinner near the Kashmir Gate and consecrated in 1836. It does however look rather more like a Mughal tomb such as that of Salim Chishti at Fatehpur Sikri and clearly the artist did not have a very good model for his depiction, although the dome and the parapet are passable. The heavy eave and the Mughal jalis or screens should not be there, but the tomb of William Fraser of 1836 seems to be present in front of the church.

Pictures on ivory of monuments had a different purpose from portraits, since often at this period they were mounted as brooches. Indeed one of the earliest such examples is a picture of the gateway of the Taj Mahal mounted up in a gold brooch with an inscription saying that it was sent from India by Lady Sale in 1840 (private collection). Later such pictures were mounted up into ivory boxes or else, as small circles or ovals, into cufflinks or shirt studs. Apart from brooches, they could also, we now learn from this set, be turned into earrings, since it has two pictures of the Qutb Minar, the famous 12/13th century tower in old Delhi, painted on shapes that are surely destined to be long drop earrings, when encased in gold. Below the tower are painted little round pictures of the Taj Mahal in Agra on one and what appears to be the tomb of Ghiyath al-Din Tughluq on the other. An additional small circular painting of the Quwwat al-Islam mosque and the Qutb Minar may indeed have been for one of the roundels covering the ear lobe from which such drop earrings normally hung in the Victorian era. The roundel is actually loose but is positioned in the above image as if this was indeed the case.

The earring paintings can be dated by the presence of the cupola in Mughal style added to the top of the Qutb Minar during a restoration in 1828 by Major Robert Smith of the Bengal Engineers, which was removed in 1848. Although artists in Lahore or Amritsar might not necessarily have known this, they liked to be up to date with their depictions, so this is yet another reason to date the set to the late 1840s.

Although there is no direct evidence that this group of miniatures in ivory was painted in the Punjab, their subjects of local interest to the Punjab and their somewhat unsophisticated technique would certainly suggest that this was so. Sikh artists do not seem to have attempted to paint on ivory any earlier. Such work when done by Delhi artists is more refined and polished, and this will be the subject of a second blog.


Archer, M., Company Drawings in the India Office Library, HMSO, London, 1972
Archer, W.G., Painting of the Sikhs, HMSO, London, 1966
Dalrymple, W., and Sharma, Y., Princes and Painters in Mughal Delhi, 1707-1857, Asia Society, New York, 2012
Falk, T., and Archer, M., Indian Miniatures in the India Office Library, Sotheby Parke Bernet, London, 1981
Stronge, S., ed., The Arts of the Sikh Kingdoms, V & A, London, 1999

J.P. Losty, Curator of Visual Arts (Emeritus)

03 February 2016

Exploring Thai art: James Low

James Low was one of the first Europeans to visit the Andaman sea coast of Thailand, stretching from Phuket to the Malaysian border, which is nowadays one of the great tourist destinations of the world. Low’s mission took place in his line of duty as an officer of the English East India Company based at Penang.

Detail from a drawing depicting the reception of James Low by the son of the Raja of Ligor (Nakhon Si Thammarat) in 1824. Drawing attributed to “Boon Khon”. The use of a Western perspective as in the depiction of the chairs was unusual in Thai art of the early 19th century. British Library, Add. 27370, f.18  Noc

Born on 4 April 1791 at Causland in Scotland to Alexander Low and his wife Anne Thompson, Low graduated from Edinburgh College and was then nominated for a cadetship in the East India Company’s Madras Army in 1812. He was accepted and embarked from Portsmouth on the East Indiaman Astell, which reached Madras in July 1812. During the first five years, Low acquired military competencies and language skills. The Company’s policy was that their officers had to be capable of basic communication with the Indian soldiers under their command. In May 1817 Low was appointed Adjudant, and then promoted to the rank of Lieutenant in August of the same year. In January 1819 Low moved to the East India Company’s settlement in Penang and spent the rest of his career in and around the Straits of Malacca. In 1820 he was given command of the Penang Local Corps until the corps was disbanded in 1827.

Since Low had received a mathematical and philosophical education at Edinburgh College, he nurtured an interest in the study of languages. The posting to Penang offered the opportunity to acquire language skills in both Malay and Thai. The knowledge of Thai was particularly important in the light of events on the Malay peninsula, to which the Burmese had sent their last military expedition against Siam, directed at its west coast territories. Subsequently, the British at Penang found themselves in the middle of a conflict between the Siamese Governor, known as the Raja of Ligor (Nakhon Si Thammarat), and the Sultan of Kedah, who had fled to Penang instead of providing the support which had been requested from him by the Raja of Ligor.

LOW02 RAS collection 027.012
Drawing by James Low of a village with pagodas in Martaban (Mottama in Mon State, Burma) 1825. RAS 027.012. Photograph courtesy of Nancy Charley, Royal Asiatic Society

Low’s was the second mission to Siam, following John Crawfurd’s first mission that was mainly concerned with resolving the legal status of Penang. The second mission of 1824 under Low’s command was prompted by the British declaration of war on Burma. Its aim was to enlist the support of the Raja of Ligor, who was in command of most of the Siamese territories on the west coast of the peninsula including Kedah, for the planned British move up the Irrawaddy river. Low described the events of the mission in a report on his Public Mission to His Highness the Rajah of Ligor, and in more detail in his Journal of a Public Mission to the Rajah of Ligor. Low also produced a map of Siam, Cambodia and Laos. After his mission to Ligor, he was posted to Tenasserim where he produced more maps and landscape drawings. In 1826, Low was promoted to Captain and was sent on other missions to the Malay state of Perak. Shortly after, he was appointed Superintendent of Lands in Province Wellesley in Penang, a post he held until 1840 when he was made Assistant Resident of Singapore. He finally retired in 1845 but returned to Edinburgh only in 1850, where he died just two years later.

Although Low's main responsibility as an officer of the East India Company was to settle disputes with local chiefs in the interests of the British – a task he did not always succeed in fulfilling – he was also a pioneer in the study of Thai language, literature and art by Westerners. The lack of textbooks inspired him to produce a Grammar of the Thai or Siamese language (1828), and he published a collection of works On the government, the literature, and the mythology of the Siamese (1831-36) as well as articles on Thai Buddhist art, Buddhist law, local histories and ethnic minorities of the Malay peninsula. He also studied inscriptions and translated parts of Thai Buddhist scriptures, and the Malay historical text from Kedah, Merong Mahawangsa. Low’s ability to observe and then describe in detail a variety of aspects of Thai art and culture helped to make his mission journal an interesting source for the study of everyday life and cultural practices in 19th century Siam.

Copy of a Thai zodiac in Thai manuscript painting style of the 19th century. Artist unknown. British Library, Add. 27370, f.14 Noc

Another version of the Thai zodiac shown above this one, with added background landscapes in Chinese watercolour technique. Probably by the artist “Boon Khon”. British Library, Add. 27370, f.15 Noc
Low clearly had a strong interest in Thai art, and amassed an impressive collection of fine paintings and drawings from southern Thailand. These included rare copies from a Thai Buddhist cosmology associated with a Thai text, Traiphum, which is thought to date back to the 14th century. Other subjects of these artworks are the Ten Birth Tales of the Buddha, illustrations from Thai divination manuals and zodiacs, as well as depictions of Low’s reception in Ligor, genre scenes, and of religious artefacts. Several of the drawings contain a note in English in Low’s handwriting that they are copies by a Siamese artist from original manuscripts, and to one pencil sketch of three Chinese gods Low had added in ink the note “Boon Khon delint” (copied by Boon Khon). On another pencil drawing of a vase, the artist is named as Sayid Nuh, his title indicating a person of Arabic origin, a descendant of the Prophet.

Impression of a Rajamukha wheel, which is used in Thai and Malay divination. Attributed to “Boon Khon”. British Library, Or.14179 Noc

Unfortunately, not all of the artworks bear the name of an artist, but it is believed that most of these are copies from Thai manuscripts by the artist “Boon Khon”, who Low said was “a Siamese”. However, the fact that chairs, musical instruments and round objects are shown in Western perspective – something unusual in Thai art of the first half of the 19th century – and that certain features of plants, landscapes, architectural ornaments and faces of the figures appear rather Chinese in style than Thai, suggest that the artist mentioned as “Boon Khon” was probably a Chinese painter who may have acquired some drawing skills from Low himself. A comparison of pencil drawings by Low, now held at the Royal Asiatic Society in London, and works attributed to “Boon Khon” show some striking similarities, especially when it comes to details like plant features. Some of the coloured drawings showing the same motif were made in different styles and techniques, suggesting that artists copied from each other. There may actually have been a third artist - one who was skilled in Thai painting techniques - who worked for Low or who trained “Boon Khon” to copy paintings from Thai manuscripts.

Part of a painting of Buddha’s Last Ten Birth Tales, probably by the artist “Boon Khon”, depicts scenes from the Candakumara Jataka and Bhuridatta Jataka. The faces and breasts of the Naga princesses at the bottom, but also the gable and roof of the building at the top, are untypical for Thai manuscript painting. Some trees and tufts of grass have similarities with plants in pencil drawings made by Low. The lotus plants at the bottom are similar to lotuses drawn by “Boon Khon” as part of a Buddha footprint, reprinted in Low’s article “On Buddha and the Prabat” (1835). British Library, Add. 27370, f.12 Noc

Part of Low’s collection of Thai drawings and paintings was acquired by the British Museum in 1866 from Alan White Esquire, and is now held in the British Library. Most of the artworks have been digitised and are available on the Library’s Digitised Manuscripts viewer (Add MS 27370). Another part of Low’s art collection, including several of his own drawings, is held in the Royal Asiatic Society in London. Although not much research has been done on Low’s art collection, it is a popular source of inspiration for Thai designers.

Some designs for children’s shirts marketed in the early 2000s by Ayodhya, a Bangkok-based home decorative brand, used paintings from Low’s collection for inspiration. British Library, ORB.Misc/171

Further reading

Charley, Nancy. James Low in Thailand and Burma.
Farouk Yahya. Magic and divination in Malay illustrated manuscripts. Leiden, 2015 (see pp. 128/9 on the Rajamukha wheel)
Farrington, Anthony (ed.). Low’s mission to Southern Siam 1824. Bangkok, 2007
Ginsburg, Henry. Low in Thailand. The James Low album of paintings. FMR (Franco Maria Ricci) No. 13, 1985, pp. 125-140
Ginsburg, Henry. Thai manuscript painting. London, 1989 (see pp. 15 and 25 on Low’s collection)
Low, James. Extracts from the Journal of a Political Mission to the Raja of Ligor in Siam. Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal No. 79, July 1838.
Low, James. On Buddha and the Prabat. Transactions of the Royal Asiatic Society No. 3, London 1835, pp. 57-124

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

My thanks to Nancy Charley for providing photographs of artworks in the Low collection at the Royal Asiatic Society, and to Annabel Gallop and Farouk Yahya for their advice on Malay manuscript painting.