20 June 2022
The provenance histories of Batak manuscripts in the British Library (2): The India Office collection
This is the second part of a series of blog posts about the provenances of all the Batak manuscripts now held in the British Library, which have just been digitised. The first part looked at early acquisitions in the British Museum to 1900, while this second part considers manuscripts from the library of East India Company, later known as the India Office Library (IOL).
In 1972 the Library of the British Museum became the British Library. Ten years later, in 1982, the India Office Library and Records joined the British Library, bringing a collection of ten Batak manuscripts, numbered MSS Batak 1-10.
The first six Batak manuscripts were inspected and described in 1848 by the pioneering Batak scholar Herman Neubronner van der Tuuk (1824-1894). Van der Tuuk was an exceptional linguist who had studied Arabic, Persian, Sanskrit and Malay, and had been selected by the Netherlands Bible Society to learn Batak in order to translate the Bible into Batak. His visit to London took place before he set sail for Java and Sumatra, and therefore his knowledge of Batak at the time was based on the few manuscripts then available in the Netherlands. Van der Tuuk’s three-page report ( Download BL MSS Eur B105-Van der Tuuk 1848) is of great importance for provenance research, firstly for confirming the presence in the IOL of MSS Batak 1-6 by 1848, and secondly for his records of various paper labels at the time attached to the manuscripts, which have since disappeared.
MSS Batak 1 is a piece of bamboo inscribed with Batak writing, which is accompanied by a small knife and four darts from a blowpipe. The manuscript was written in 1823 by the Raja of Bunto Pane in Asahan for his visitor John Anderson (1795-1845), an East India Company official from Penang who was exploring trading possibilities along the east coast of Sumatra. As described in an earlier blog post, the bamboo is engraved with the Batak words for the numbers one to ten, and a memorandum to Anderson to remind him to send the Raja two hunting dogs on his return to Penang. According to Van der Tuuk the bamboo had a small piece of paper attached saying ‘specimen of Batta writing, with a knife written and presented by J. Anderson Esqr.’; this label is no longer present. The manuscript was presumably presented to the East India Company by Anderson following his return to London in 1830.
A piece of bamboo inscribed by the Raja of Bunto Pane, 1823, together with four blowpipe darts and a small knife, which may have been used to write the manuscript. British Library, MSS Batak 1
Three decades before Van der Tuuk's visit, Prof. C. J. C. Reuvens of Leiden University visited East India House in 1819, and noted that there were four Batak manuscripts, said to have been sent from Sumatra by a ‘Governor some 8 years earlier’. These are the folded treebark pustaha now numbered MSS Batak 2-5 (Ricklefs and Voorhoeve 1977: 13). All four manuscripts were described by Van der Tuuk, and the identity of the donor was revealed on a crucial piece of paper (which is now lost) said to have been attached to MSS Batak 5: ‘Presented by R. Parry Esqr. 3d Jan. 1817’. Richard Parry (1776-1817) was Resident of Bengkulu from 1808 to 1810, and on returning to England presented to the East India Company on 26 June 1812 a collection of 202 drawings of ‘Plants and Animals from Sumatra’ (Archer 1962: 19). The Batak manuscripts may have been presented just before Parry's death in 1817, or – in view of Reuvens’ information – Van der Tuuk may possibly have misread ‘1812’ for ‘1817’ on the paper label, and the Batak manuscripts may have been donated around the same time as the drawings. In any case, the four manuscripts MSS Batak 2-5 can all be securely dated to before 1811, when Parry left Sumatra.
Van der Tuuk’s 1848 description of MSS Batak 5, recording the paper label reading ‘presented by R. Parry Esqr. 3d Jan. 1817’. British Library, MSS Eur B105, p. 2
Three of the four manuscripts given by Richard Parry bear inscriptions in English describing the contents. Van der Tuuk noted that MSS Batak 2 bore a note on the outside: 'Surgery', but this label too seems to have disappeared in the interim. However, on the first page of the manuscript, above the text Poda ni taoar sati, on medicine, is clearly inscribed ‘Antidotes against poison’ (although Van der Tuuk recorded this as ‘Prescriptions against poison’). The first page of the reverse side, which contains a a text on protective magic for a pregnant woman (Poda ni pagarta, pagar ni na di bortiyan), is inscribed 'Midwifry'.
Batak text on medicine, described as 'Antidotes ag[ain]st Poison', before 1811. British Library, MSS Batak 2, f. 1r.
Batak text on protective magic for a pregnant woman, labelled 'Midwifry', before 1811. British Library, MSS Batak 2, f. 41v
Voorhoeve noted that MSS Batak 4 was carelessly written with ink of inferior quality, and was probably made for a foreigner (probably Parry?), as the colophon explains the contents: "this is writing from Tapanuli, words of Batak lore from masters of olden times, O young student!". Van der Tuuk noted that the cover bore an English note, ‘lessons and invocations respecting a regular conduct so as to obtain the good will of the community’ (this note too is no longer found with the manuscript). A faint ink inscription can still be discerned on the bottom wooden cover, which has been greatly enhanced through ultraviolet lighting by BL photographer Elizabeth Hunter (see both images below). Although parts of the inscription are still uncertain, it may be read: 'Old Stories of Battles / & Contests of former times[?] / between Datto Sangmay- / ma & Datto Dallooh of / Tohbah'.
Batak pustaha, with a faint English note on the back wooden cover, before 1811. British Library, MSS Batak 4, back cover
Ultraviolet lighting has enhanced the legibility of the note on the back wooden cover of the pustaha, before 1811. British Library, MSS Batak 4, back cover
MSS Batak 5 is a beautiful manuscript copiously illustrated in red and black ink, with unusual red borders to all pages on the first side. Above the first texts – poda ni taoar, on medicine, and poda ni na hona rasun, antidotes against poison – is an accurate description of the contents in English: ‘Medical Prescriptions against Poisons & other …’. On the other side of manuscript, containing protective magic, the explanation at the top reads: ‘Charms Used by the Battas against the Machinations of Evil Spirits’.
Start of medical texts, described ‘Medical Prescrip/tions against Poi/sons & other ...’, before 1811. British Library, MSS Batak 5, f. 1r
The texts on protective magic are described as ‘Charms Used by the Battas against the Machinations of Evil Spirits’, before 1811. MSS Batak 5, f. 33v
Thus the Batak manuscripts given by Richard Parry nearly all seem to bear evidence of a serious interest in their contents, with the English explanations fairly accurately describing the texts within; the selection perhaps even suggests an attempt to seek out manuscripts concerning medical matters. This would not be surprising in view of Parry’s known interest in natural history. Parry had arrived in India in 1793, and when he left Calcutta for Bengkulu in 1807, he commissioned the artist Manu Lal to accompany him. In Sumatra, Manu Lal made the drawings of flowers, birds and animals which Parry later presented to East India House (Archer 1962: 19). (Artistry appears to have run on in the family: Richard's son Thomas Gambier Parry (1816-1888) was a noted fresco artist, while his grandson was the eminent composer Hubert Parry (1848-1918)).
A drawing of a Scarlet-backed Flowerpecker, ‘Dicaeum cruentatum’, by Manu Lal for Richard Parry in Sumatra, ca. 1807-1811. The inscription in Urdu at the bottom reads: ‘The painter of this picture is Manu Lal, artist, an inhabitant of Azimabad (Patna City)’ (Archer 1962: 87). British Library, NHD 2/288.
There is no information on the origins of the remaining Batak manuscripts from the India Office Library collection, MSS Batak 6-10, or even dates of acquisition. MSS Batak 6, which has an exceptionally fine carved wooden cover, was seen and described by Van der Tuuk in 1848, who thought it was ‘of considerable antiquity’, but this view was not repeated by Voorhoeve in his description of the manuscript (Ricklefs and Voorhoeve 1977: 14).
MSS Batak 7, 8, 9 and 10 are probably more recent acquisitions from the 20th century. MSS Batak 8 and 9 were evidently acquired from the same source as they have similar price labels stuck to their outer leaves, in a style of handwriting dating from around 1900. MSS Batak 10 was not listed in Ricklefs and Voorhoeve (1977), and was either acquired shortly after that date, or may have been found subsequently within the older collections.
MSS Batak 8 (left) and MSS Batak 9 (right), each bearing a price tag of £1.10.0, probably written around 1900, when the sum of one pound and ten shillings would be equivalent to £175 today.
Mildred Archer, Natural history drawings in the India Office Library. London: HMSO, 1962.
M.C. Ricklefs, P. Voorhoeve and Annabel Teh Gallop, Indonesian manuscripts in Great Britain. New edition with Addenda et corrigenda. Jakarta: Ecole française d’Extrême-Orient, Perpustakaan Nasional Republik Indonesia, Yayasan Pustaka Obor Indonesia, 2014. [Includes a facsimile of the 1977 edition.]
Herman Neubronner van der Tuuk, 'A short account of the Batak manuscripts belonging to the Library of the East India Company', 1848. British Library, Download BL MSS Eur B105-VanderTuuk1848.