Curating Curation: Making Sense of the British Library’s Chagatai Collections
In March of this year, when the necessity of lockdown became painfully apparently to those in positions of authority, the British Library closed its doors to the public. Curatorial staff were asked to work from home. We were lucky; unlike many of our peers in other cultural institutions across the country – not to mention millions of other workers throughout the United Kingdom – we were not furloughed. We were asked, however, to begin working on tasks that did not require access to the Library’s physical collections. I decided to use this time to create long-overdue digital records for our Chagatai holdings, among other things. In this blog post, I’m going to share a few insights that I gained from this work about the composition of the collection.
The British Library holds nearly 150 manuscripts containing text in Qipchaq and Qarluq Turkic lects. Within the Library’s structures, these are generally referred to as “Chagatai manuscripts,” despite the fact that such nomenclature is at best controversial, and at worst wrong. Chagatai is a literary language used from the 15th to early 20th centuries CE. Its lack of a documented standard meant that some degree of variation was tolerated, but not to the extent that it might include works in all regional lects spoken by communities from Tabriz to Ürümqi. The use of “Chagatai” was convenient as an analog to Ottoman, however, even if it wasn’t correct, and it stuck as a label for these items throughout the latter part of the 20th century. For this reason, I’ve decided to leave the term relatively unchallenged for now, and to reserve a discussion of the collection’s linguistic diversity for a later date.
Of the 150 items held, only five have been digitized. I wrote about two of them in this blog post from early 2019. To these, we can add three other volumes: the Nusratnama, a history of the Shaybanids from Genghis Khan down to Shaybani Khan (Or 3222); an incomplete copy of Gharaib al-sighar, a collection of poetry by the great Chagatai poet Navoiy (Or 13069); and an exquisitely illustrated majmua of poetry, moral tracts and religious doctrine in a Turkic language written in Uyghur script and Persian (Or 8193). This means that the vast majority of the Chagatai works held by the British Library can only be consulted at our St. Pancras Asian and African Studies Reading Room, and thus remain heavily restricted to the public for the time being.
A number of obstacles present themselves in the cataloguing of these items, only some of which are unique to the collection. To start, the metadata that exists for this collection is fragmentary at best. Items acquired by the British Museum prior to 1888 are included in Charles Rieu’s 1888 Catalogue of the Turkish Manuscripts in the British Museum. Given the early date of this catalogue, it only carries those items marked as Additional Manuscripts or with Oriental Manuscript references less than 3300. To this we may add a skeletal handlist compiled by my predecessor, Muhammad Isa Waley. The list provided me with bare-bones descriptions of the Chagatai works held by the Library. On occasion, I was able to add information gleaned from our blue slips, or acquisition slips, for some of the items given Oriental (Or.) shelfmarks. Such data was sparse, but it does provide further indications about content, script, materials, and, on occasion, source and date of acquisition. In sum, the quality and length of the records added to the online system is highly variable, but at least it marks a start to the process of making the items more visible.
One of the pieces of data that is often missing from many of these sources is provenance. This often-overlooked part of the manuscript’s story can contain incredible narratives of knowledge transfer and trade, as well as dispossession, theft, and alienation. As a literary language, Chagatai was used primarily in Central Asia, Iran, Siberia, East Turkestan, and Northern India. It is no surprise, then, that many of the volumes in the Library’s possession come from these regions, although a few others were copied as far afield as Istanbul. Our holdings, however, demonstrate a unique distribution of origins compared to many other collections, owing largely to the history of the British Empire. Over a quarter of the items held by the Library are in some way connected to India, either as their place of creation or as a transit route. Compare this to the Jarring Collection in Lund, where most manuscripts are from East Turkestan; or the Bibliothèque nationale de France, with most of its holdings from Dunhuang; or the Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin, rich in Central Asian manuscripts. This makes the BL’s collection a fascinating object revealing as much about British desire for Turkic cultural heritage as it does about the context in which such heritage was created.
British commercial and colonial actions in South Asia from the 17th through to the 20th centuries ensured a pronounced interest on the part of the British elite in the languages, history and cultures of the region. Sometimes directed towards scholarly pursuits, sometimes motived by political or military strategies, the sum of this fascination was the acquisition and transportation of South Asian physical heritage to the Imperial centre. Here, it was housed in museums and libraries, both public and private. These objects included Chagatai literary and scientific works penned by Mughal literati or copied by scribes for their influential patrons. The importance of the language for South Asian history is exemplified by two Chagatai versions of the Vaqiat-i Baburi (also known as the Baburnama), the autobiography of Zahir-ud-Din Muhammad Babur, founder of the Mughal Empire. One copy, Add MS 26324, was purchased by the Museum from William Erskine in 1865. Erskine, a well-known Scottish orientalist and first translator of the Baburnama into English, occupied several colonial posts in India in the first half of the 19th century. Another, more complete 16th-century copy exists at IO Islamic 2538 (formerly part of the India Office Library). The presence of English annotation leads us to believe that this copy might have been used extensively by Annette Beveridge. Beveridge, a member of the late 19th-century British colonial elite in India, translated the Baburnama and the Humayun-nama into English, relying on both Chagatai and Persian sources.
India also appears to have been an important market for imported manuscripts before the advent of British colonization. Or 8193, for example, was originally created in Yazd, Iran in 835 AH (1431 CE). At some point, however, it was acquired and moved to India, where it later passed into the possession of a British official, A. Seton. Other Iranian items likely arrived in the UK directly from Persia. Many of the men charged with an Imperial mission were apparently avid collectors of manuscripts. These manuscripts were eventually sold or bequeathed to the British Museum and the India Office Library during financial difficulties or after the men's passing. Add MS 7910, Divan-i Nava’i, for example, was acquired from Claudius Rich. Rich was a former British consular and commercial agent who had worked in India, Iraq, the Persian Gulf, Syria and Egypt. A similar story can be told for Or 1374, an exquisite copy of Navoiy’s Divan featuring lacquered hunting scenes on its binding and a double-paged seccade. The volume was bequeathed to the Museum by Sir Charles A. Murray, British Ambassador to Qajar Persia from 1854 to 1859 and, just possibly, one of the instigators of the Anglo-Persian war of 1856-57.
The remaining parts of the collection came from majority Turcophone regions, most of which were never subjected to long-term direct British occupation or colonial rule. The Abushqa (Add MS 7886), for example, was copied in the Ottoman Empire (which was occupied, at various times and in various locales, by British forces, but never in its entirety). This Ottoman-Chagatai dictionary based on the poetry of the great Chagatai poet Alisher Navoiy likely arrived in London through commercial routes, highlighting the lucrative business of selling historic manuscripts to European visitors and residents.
The manuscripts from Central Asia tend to be the stickiest in terms of identifying provenance. Only minimal information is provided in the handlists and the acquisition slips, and the source of the item isn’t always recorded in the volume itself. The Library holds 40-odd items from the region, some of which are absolute treasures. The Nusratnama, mentioned above, is a case in point. Recently made available online, it features breathtaking illustrations of each of the rulers in the Shaybanid line. Rieu informs us that this was a gift to the British Museum by Mr. Joseph King, but goes no further in identifying its putative journey to these shores. A similar lack of provenance information bedevils Add MS 7851, a 15th-century copy of Rabghuzi’s Qisas al-anbiya’. Rieu tells us it was formerly in the collections of Claudius Rich, and that’s where we lose its tracks. The work is of exceptional linguistic value, charting an intermediary stage between Khwarezmi Turkic and Chagatai, and its voyages over time have great importance in understanding intellectual history in the Turkic world.
Finally, the approximately 40 items that were produced in East Turkestan/Xinjiang (combining the regions of Dzungaria and Altishahr) is a motley crew in terms of both provenance and content. Some of these items were brought – licitly or illicitly – to the Museum by Europeans who sought out the physical heritage of the Silk Road’s eastern branches. Chief among these was Aurel Stein, a Hungarian-British orientalist whose collections form a large part of the British Library’s International Dunhuang Project holdings. Only a small fraction of these items are in Turkic languages, including administrative or miscellaneous works that made their way back to the United Kingdom as packing materials (Or 12201). Other items speak to the social and political structures in place at the time of the expeditions. Or 13151 is a laissez-passer issued in 1903 in both Chinese and a local Turkic language to one Mehmet Ali Akhund so that he might accompany a Japanese expedition to Ürümqi. It is a rare window onto the life of one particular local participant in the global effort to understand the history of the region.
An unbound manuscript containing a Turkic translation of the Tārīkh-i Rashīdī. (East Turkestan. IO Islamic 4866)
Another tranche of this subset likely came to the Library through the work of George Macartney, a British diplomat connected to the Chinese political elite through his mother. Macartney lived in Kashgar from 1890 to 1918 and was closely linked to various expeditions, including the Younghusband one. His wife, Catherine Macartney, worked with the Dunhuang Expedition regarding their acquisition of manuscripts. These might have included religious, literary or historical works such as IO Islamic 4846, 4848 and 4849, all of which relate the story of Ya’qub Beg, the leader of Yarkant who attained political independence for the region in the late 19th century.
From this overview of the British Library’s Chagatai collections alone, it’s clear that there is still so much more for us to learn about the origins and journeys of the individual pieces that make up the whole. What is obvious, however, is that collections reflect much more the proclivities and propensities of the personalities behind them than they do the total sum of a people’s creative output. The Chagatai holdings at the British Library provide us with insights into the linguistic, literary, religious, economic, political, social and intellectual histories of the Turkic peoples. But their selection and curation say much more about British officials’ and scholars’ engagement with this history, and the narratives they have woven about it, than they do about collectivities’ yearning to be seen and heard. In using this lens to understand and interpret a set of works, we can move beyond the idea of the archive as an objective monolith. In its place, we can reinvigorate our collections as one component in a broader effort towards an equal and mutually beneficial exchange of ideas and perspectives about the history of the Turkic world.