Asian and African studies blog

News from our curators and colleagues

5 posts from May 2023

30 May 2023

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jim Potter and Ni Ni Aung Ccownwork


20 May 2023

World Bee Day

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bee Sounds
The recording can be listened to here:

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

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

Levon Biss display orchid cuckoo bee

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

To find out more about our wider collections see:

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

To find out more about World Bee Day see:


Further reading:

Claire Preston, Bee, Reaktion, 2006

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


By Cam Sharp Jones, Visual Arts CuratorCcownwork

15 May 2023

Animals in William Marsden’s The History of Sumatra

When first published in 1783, The History of Sumatra by William Marsden represented the first systematic account of the island of Sumatra published in English or any other European language. The History (henceforth) was highly praised by contemporary scholars and writers and secured Marsden’s reputation as an author, linguist and collector, a reputation that continues to the present day.

Born in 1754 in County Wicklow, Ireland, Marsden was raised in a moderately wealthy family and at the age of 16 joined his elder brother in the service of the English East India Company (EIC henceforth) at Fort Marlborough, now Benkulu, in western Sumatra, Indonesia, as a writer. Marsden remained in Sumatra for 8 years, rising to the rank of Principle Secretary to the EIC Government but resigned from his post aged 24 and returned to London in December 1780, where he pursued a career as an author scholar and later as the First Secretary to the Admiralty (1804-1807).

During his time in Sumatra however, Marsden not only fulfilled his role for the EIC but became an avid collector and documented of the island’s languages, fauna and flora – all of which came to underpin the contents of the History with its chapters of ‘beasts’, ‘vegetables’, ‘medicinal shrubs’, ‘gold, tin and other metals’ and ‘languages’ to name just a few.  

The success of the 1783 first edition was such that a second edition quickly followed in 1784, at the same time in which Marsden was firmly establishing himself in London’s networks of science and learning, following his appointment as a fellow of the Royal Society (1783) and the Society of Antiquaries (1785). Marsden continued to write and publish following the second edition of the History, including a Dictionary and Grammar of the Malayan Language (both 1812), a translation of The Travels of Marco Polo (1818) and Numismata Orientalia Illustrata (1823-5) one of the most influential early publications on Asian coinage produced in Britain and Europe. These works illustrated the broad range of subjects - from linguistics to coins to travel accounts that interested Marsden following his return from Sumatra. The History was also translated into German (1785) and French (1788) however Marsden was keen to prepare a new edition of the History, updated with new information and illustrations acquired from his friends and connections still in Sumatra. It would be this updated version, the third edition of 1811 with an additional 100 pages of text and 19 plates containing 27 engraved illustrations of the plants, animals, people, tools and landscapes of Sumatra. Of the 27 illustrations, twelve record different animals found in Sumatra that are described in the main text of the History. What is interesting is that all but one of the illustrations of animals in the History were based on watercolour paintings and pen and ink studies now held in the Visual Art collections of the British Library.

These original works include a study of a Sunda or Malayan pangolin, shown standing in profile on an outcrop of rock, with its coat of scales clearly delineated. This watercolour with pen and ink sketch was used as the basis for plate 10 of the History, and although the original painting is not signed, according to the engraving, the work was made by ‘W. Bell’ believed to have been Dr William Bell, a Company surgeon based in Sumatra in 1792.

Pangolin combined 1
Plate 10 from The History of Sumatra, 3rd edition, 1811, showing a Sunda pangolin and the original watercolour with pen and ink sketch, NHD1/16, 1784-1808

The original paintings for other works labelled as being the work of ‘W. Bell’ in the History are also found in the Library’s collection of natural history drawings, including pen and ink studies of the skull of a serow, a mammal similar to a goat or antelope and a muntjac skull, also known as barking deer.

Skulls combined 1
Plate 13 no.2 from The History of Sumatra, 3rd edition, 1811, showing the skull of a ‘Kambin-utan and a Kijang’ alongside the original ink drawings; above NHD1/11; Below NHD1/10, 1784-1808

The details of bone, horns, fractures and teeth of both of these sketches has been carefully copied onto a single plate by the Flemish engraver Anthony Cardon (1772-1813) who engraved all of the animal illustrations in the History.

Whilst the work of ‘W. Bell’ is used for 6 of the animal illustrations in the History, a second artist’s work is also included. This artist is unnamed by Marsden in the History, their work simply signed ‘Sinensis del.’ indicating that the work was the creation of an artist from China. This includes a rather stunning double page engraving of a flying lemur hanging from the branch of a langsat tree, holding an infant on its body whilst two giant squirrels sit and climb on the other end of the branch eating the fruit of the tree.

The original painting for these engraving has at some point become divided into two pages – with the squirrels on one page and the lemur and young on another. However the tip of one of the squirrel’s tails continuing across onto the second page indicates that at one point these two separate pages were once joined or at least were meant to be viewed together as shown in the engraved illustration. The original painting is faithfully reproduced in reverse in the engraving, including the botanical details of the interior of the langsat fruit shown in the lower right of the page.

Lemur and Squirrels image 1
Plate 9 from The History of Sumatra, 3rd edition, 1811, showing a flying lemur hanging from a branch with two giant squirrels other the other end, alongside the original watercolour paintings; left NHD2/285; right NHD1/18, 1784-1808

Other works by a Chinese artist include a detailed study of a long tailed porcupine and a pair of greater mousedeer (also known as greater chevrotain) that are both painted without any background or surrounding details. Nonspecific landscapes have however been added to the engraved plates in a style similar to those included in the original works by ‘W. Bell’.

Porcupine combined 1
Plate 13 no.1 from The History of Sumatra, 3rd edition, 1811, showing a long tailed porcupine, alongside the original watercolour painting, NHD1/17, 1784-1808

Tiny deer combined 1
Plate 12 no.1 from The History of Sumatra, 3rd edition, 1811, showing a greater mouse deer, alongside the original watercolour painting, NHD1/18, 1784-1808

 A hand written pencil note on the painting of the greater mouse-deer indicates the small scale of these animals and states that they should not be shown too large on the resulting plate to ensure this diminutive nature is accurately reflected in the published work.

The majority of the animal illustrated in the History show mammals, however there is one image of a reptile – a study of a common flying dragon which is also stated to be the work of a Chinese artist in the History although no signature is found on the delicate watercolour on which this engraving was based. The original watercolour shows a dorsal and ventral view of the reptile, highlighting the different colouration on the top and bottom of the common flying dragon as well as the outspread skin that allows the lizard to glide through the air.

Flying Dragon combined 1
Plate 10 no.2 from The History of Sumatra, 3rd edition, 1811, showing a ventral and dorsal view of a common flying dragon alongside the original watercolour painting, NHD1/26, 1784-1808

A third artist, Eudelin de Jonville, is also referenced in the History’s illustrative animal plates. Although little is known about de Jonville, EIC records show that he worked as a cinnamon surveyor in Ceylon, modern day Sri Lanka, between 1798 and 1800 when he travelled with Major-General MacDowall to the Court of Kandy, where he remained until around 1805. The one work by de Jonville in the History is a set of four studies of the beaks of different species of hornbill – two illustrating the great pied hornbill, one of a Malabar pied hornbill and finally one image of a rhinoceros hornbill. As with the previously mentioned engravings, the original pencil sketches of these studies is in the Visual Arts natural history collections,  each with a scale in inches added to illustration to provide the accurate measurement of each species.  Although also unsigned the original pencil sketches is accompanied by a letter written in French by de Jonville to Marsden describing the hornbill of Sri Lanka, strengthening the attribution of this work to the artistry of de Jonville.

Hornbills combined 1
Plate 15 from The History of Sumatra, 3rd edition, 1811, showing the skulls of three species of hornbill alongside the pencil sketches, NHD1/5, 1784-1808

The original paintings described above are all part of a larger collection of natural history studies collected by Marsden following his return from Sumatra in 1780. These include watercolour and pen and ink studies of fish, shells, a buffalo and several birds alongside the animals discussed above. In total 35 paintings acquired by Marsden are now in the Visual Art collections following their donation by Marsden’s widow to the EIC library after his death in 1836. The collections of the EIC library and that of the India Office Library have subsequently been transferred to the British Library, where they are now available to view in the Library’s reading rooms.

By Cam Sharp Jones, Visual Arts CuratorCcownwork


Further reading:

Mildred Archer, Natural History Drawings in the India Office Library, 1962.

John Bastin, The British in West Sumatra (1685-1825): a selection of documents, mainly from the East India Company records preserved in the India Office Library, Commonwealth Relations Office, London., Kuala Lumpur: University of Malaya Press, 1965

Diana J. Carroll, "William Marsden, The Scholar Behind The History of Sumatra." Indonesia and the Malay World 47 (2019): 66-89.

William Marsden, The History of Sumatra: Containing an Account of the Government, Laws, Customs, and Manners of the Native Inhabitants, with a Description of the Natural Productions, and a Relation of the Ancient Political State of That Island. By William Marsden,... The Third Edition, with Corrections, Additions, and Plates. ed. 1811.

William Marsden, with introduction by John Bastin, The history of Sumatra, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986

Annabel Teh Gallop, Early Views of Indonesia: Drawings from the British Library, Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1995.

08 May 2023

Drawings of a gharial, llama and tiger for Lady Hasting

The British Library’s current exhibition Animals: Art, Science and Sound, features more than 120 objects that explores the different ways in which animals have been written about, visualised and recorded over the last two thousand years. The exhibition brings together both geographically and chronologically diverse collections together for the first time.

With the Library holding more than 5000 natural history drawings produced in South Asia, South East Asia, and East Asia, only a selection could be featured in the exhibition. One particular album, excluded from the exhibition due to its sheer size, features the work of the South Asian artist Sita Ram and his wider network. The album includes watercolour drawings of big cats, aquatic animals and birds and is demonstrative of the extensive interest in documenting regional flora and fauna in Bengal during the first quarter of the nineteenth century.

Album opening with painting of a tiger
A watercolour of a tiger painted in Bengal by a Calcutta artist, c. 1820. The watercolour measures 375 x 540mm. This album is representative of the large scale size of natural history watercolour drawings produced in the first quarter of the nineteenth century. British Library, Add Or 4960. 

Sita Ram was retained as the official artist by Francis Rawdon (1754-1826), the Marquess of Hastings, and his wife Lady Flora, to document their journey from Calcutta to the Punjab in 1814-15. Within a short period, Sita Ram beautifully executed more than 200 paintings in watercolour of topographical views, political encampments, palaces they visited, alongside the extravagant receptions laid out by local nobility in northern India. Additionally, two of the albums includes zoological drawings that are attributed to Sita Ram as well as unnamed Indian, British and Chinese artists. Sita Ram’s distinctive painterly approach in which he adapted the western picturesque idiom for his drawings of natural history specimens are immediately recognisable in these albums.

Sita Ram was a trained artist who was trained in Murshidabad in eastern India. His artistic style differentiates from the traditional regional painting style as he was highly influenced by the picturesque idiom that was introduced to the region through the works of British and European artists who travelled through the region including Anglo-British artist Sir Charles D’Oyly, whose own work features heavily in the Hastings albums. Sita Ram preferred a more painterly approach and ensured specimens were illustrated within a landscape setting. Sita Ram’s natural history paintings were apparently assembled into two albums by Lady Hastings by 1820. His approach is visibly distinctive for its impressionistic brushwork and lifelikeness as visible in his watercolour of a gharial (Gavialis gangeticus), a critically endangered aquatic crocodilian that is native to South Asia.

A painting of a gharial
A gharial or Gangetic crocodile face to face with a grass-hopper. Sita Ram, 1820. British Library, Add Or 5008.

While Sita Ram painted examples of local wildlife, he also included illustrations of a cassowary, an ostrich, a platypus and a llama which were not native species. However, it is quite likely that he was drawing from live specimens. Exotic animals including the cassowary were known to be brought to regional courts as part of cultural diplomacy. Of the few illustrations of these unique animals, the illustration of the llama and pair of monkey is quite curious, as one questions how a South American specimen was brought to South Asia and if this is indeed drawn from life or derivative from another unidentified source. Given Sita Ram’s connection to the Hastings, it is most probable that he spent time at Barrackpore Menagerie, near the Governor-General’s country home Barrackpore House which was outside of Calcutta.

Illustration of monkeys and ilama
A llama and a pair of monkeys in the Barrackpore Menagerie. Sita Ram or one of his followers, c. 1820. British Library, Add Or 5002.

Sita Ram’s paintings are part of the wider series of albums compiled and arranged for the Earl of Moira (afterwards Marquess of Hastings) and his wife when Hastings was Governor-General of Bengal 1813-23. The Hastings collection was purchased by the British Library from the descendants in 1995 with the assistance of the National Art Collections Fund.


Further reading:

J.P. Losty, The rediscovery of an unknown Indian artist: Sita Ram's work for the Marquess of Hastings, Asian and African Studies Blog, 4 January 2016.

Losty, J.P., Sita Ram: Picturesque Views of India – Lord Hastings’s Journey from Calcutta to the Punjab, 1814-15, Roli Books, New Delhi, 2015 .

M. Roy, C. Sharp Jones and C. Tipp, Animals: Art, Science and Sound (London: British Library, 2023)


Malini Roy, Head of Visual Arts  ccownwork

01 May 2023

Manuscript Textiles in the Southeast Asian Collections: Project Update

A Chevening Fellowship that started in September 2022 with the aim to research and catalogue manuscript textiles in the Library’s Southeast Asian Collections has made good progress during the past six months: over fifty manuscript textiles have been identified and detailed object descriptions with photo documentations have been completed. Chevening Fellow Methaporn Singhanan explains how this project relates to her doctoral research: “My Ph.D. dissertation examines the social life of textiles and what ancient textiles can reveal about human history, beliefs and hierarchy, and especially trade. This project has exposed me to textiles and their trade routes, and I have seen more textiles than usual because most of these manuscripts' textiles were imported from other places than where the manuscripts originate from. These examples help me to explain my dissertation's main point, that textiles are more than just practical goods and can show relationships between communities and time periods”.

Burmese manuscript containing the Kathā vatthu
Burmese manuscript containing the Kathā vatthu with an over 4 m long sazigyo (ribbon) made in the tablet weaving technique on a backstrap loom with dedicatory inscription in Burmese language, 19th century. British Library, Or 3665 Noc

The focus so far has been on Burmese and ethnic Tai manuscript textiles, specifically sazigyo (handwoven ribbons) and custom-made manuscript wrappers with bamboo slats. More than twenty sazigyo have been assessed; most of them with a length of over two metres and beautifully woven-in geometric designs and inscriptions in Burmese language. These ribbons were traditionally made in the tablet-weaving technique on a backstrap loom. They were used to secure palm leaf manuscripts, and were often given to Buddhist monasteries as a meritorious offering by lay women. The majority of them are of special significance due to the extensive woven-in Burmese text with a dedicatory message and the donor's name. Others were woven solely with geometric or figural patterns.

The manuscript wrappers found with Burmese, Lao and northern Thai (Lanna) manuscripts were traditionally handcrafted by interlacing cotton yarns with bamboo slats. Sometimes pieces of colourful printed cotton fabrics were cut to size and woven in as well, and plain white or red cotton fabric was added as lining and to cover the edges of the wrappers. The bamboo slats were inserted instead of weft yarns to increase the stability of these wrappers. Occasionally, a combination of silk and cotton yarns is found.

Methaporn Singhanan emphasizes the great diversity of textiles she has assessed so far: “I discovered Southeast Asian tapestry and Ikat weaving, as well as rare, high-quality, and opulent imported fabrics. Two of my favourite items are a Japanese silk brocade with gilded paper thread used to wrap Burmese palm leaf manuscripts, and an attractive Indian textile ordered by the Thai royal court to encase Thai texts. To strengthen the textiles and protect the sacred manuscripts, velvet, felt, silk, fabrics with woodblock prints, and European printed fabrics were inter-woven with colourful yarns and bamboo slats. I adore the manuscripts with boards and ivory pegs decorated with gold and religious symbols just as much as the textiles. Their lavish decorations demonstrate the faith and dedication of the people who created and commissioned these precious objects”.

Methaporn Singhanan examining a manuscript wrapper made with bamboo slats and pieces of plain red and blue dyed cotton (Or 6453 B).
Methaporn Singhanan examining a manuscript wrapper made with bamboo slats and pieces of plain red and blue dyed cotton (Or 6453 B).

In addition to her work with the manuscript textiles in the Southeast Asian collections, the Chevening Fellow has visited various other areas and departments of the Library. Since Methaporn Singhanan has been running a voluntary conservation project for textiles in northern Thailand for several years, visits to the British Library’s Conservation Centre (BLCC) were of special interest to her. Textile conservator Liz Rose organised a half-day practical session on dyeing nylon net for textile conservation. On another occasion, she also showed a Shan scrolled paper manuscript (Or 15363) with a printed cotton cover that had recently undergone conservation treatment by Lois Glithero, Glasgow University MPhil Textile Conservation placement student 2022, and she explained in detail the steps taken to rescue and preserve the severely damaged textile.

Methaporn Singhanan during a conservational textile dyeing session
Methaporn Singhanan during a conservational textile dyeing session under supervision of textile conservator Liz Rose in British Library’s Conservation Centre (BLCC)

An opportunity to learn about the digitisation work at the Library arose during the digitisation of a large Burmese wall hanging (Or 16550). Together with textile conservator Liz Rose, conservation intern Storm Scott and curator for Burmese, Maria Kekki, Methaporn Singhanan assisted the Library’s photographers Tony Grant and Carl Norman with the digitisation process. Due to the large size of the item, many hands were needed to lay out the finely embroidered textile on the floor in order to digitise it with a special large format camera. The Sinar camera produces high-quality digital images using a multi-shot capture system, where each pixel is captured by every primary colour. This achieves an almost unimaginable level of colour accuracy, and prevents the moiré effect on images, which is ideal for textiles.

Methaporn Singhanan helped to set up an embroidered Burmese wall hanging (Or 16550) for digitisation at the Library’s Imaging Studio
Methaporn Singhanan helped to set up an embroidered Burmese wall hanging (Or 16550) for digitisation at the Library’s Imaging Studio.

Much of the textile research is based on comparative analysis, due to the lack of information within the manuscripts themselves (most do not contain a colophon with a creation date or related names) as well as gaps in the provenance documentation. Even if some information is found within the manuscripts, it cannot always be assumed that the textile shares the same history with the manuscript. Therefore, it is necessary to look at similar textile objects in other collections where more detailed provenance documentation may be available. A visit to the Royal Asiatic Society enabled Methaporn Singhanan to study two Burmese manuscript textiles, one of which is thought to be the oldest sazigyo, dated 1792, held in a British public collections. Conservation work had recently been completed to preserve this rare manuscript ribbon, and close examination of this item and discussion with British Library conservator Liz Rose were invaluable for Methaporn Singhanan’s research.

Liz Rose (right) and Methaporn Singhanan (left) visited the Royal Asiatic Society
The British Library’s textile conservator Liz Rose (right) and Methaporn Singhanan (left) visited the Royal Asiatic Society in London to study the oldest known Burmese sazigyo in a British public collection.

Two excellent learning opportunities for the Chevening Fellow were courses offered by other organisations in London. In November, Methaporn Singhanan attended a four-day course “Textile Arts of Asia” at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), convened by Dr Fiona Kerlogue of the Oriental Rug and Textile Society. The course gave insights into how Asian textiles and carpets can be explored, drawing on research carried out by scholars who have used literary sources, studied museum and other collections and undertaken studies in the field.

Methaporn Singhanan was also very excited about her attendance of a one-day course on 23 March 2023 at the Victoria and Albert Museum led by textile expert Dr Lesley Pullen. The day started with a talk on "Textiles tell a story: From India to Indonesia" which focused on the history of the textile trade between India and Indonesia and the wider context of Persian and European involvement. In a show-and-tell session after the talk, the participants had the opportunity to handle the exquisite textiles from Lesley Pullen’s private collection and to ask questions.

Methaporn Singhanan taking a close look at textiles from the private collection of Dr Lesley Pullen
Methaporn Singhanan taking a close look at textiles from the private collection of Dr Lesley Pullen during a course on "Textiles tell a story: From India to Indonesia" held at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.

A highlight was the visit of a group from the Royal Thai Embassy in London, including H.E. Ambassador Thani Thongphakdi, to the Library on 29 March 2023. Methaporn Singhanan helped to prepare a show-and-tell session for the esteemed visitors and selected an outstanding nineteenth-century manuscript textile (Or 5107) made from fine silk brocade to display on this occasion. She used this item - which had been imported from India to cover a large Thai palm leaf manuscript with gold decorations - to explain her research and work as a Chevening Fellow at the British Library.

a show-and-tell session for visitors from the Royal Thai Embassy
During a show-and-tell session for visitors from the Royal Thai Embassy, including H.E. Ambassador Thani Thongphakdi (2nd left), Chevening Fellow Methaporn Singhanan (2nd right) presented her research on a silk brocade wrapper imported from India to cover a precious Thai manuscript (Or 5107)

This fellowship is made possible through the Chevening scheme which is the UK government’s international awards scheme aimed at developing global leaders. Funded by the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) and partner organisations, Chevening offers fellowships to mid-career professionals to undertake a bespoke short course in the UK.

Jana Igunma, Henry Ginsburg Curator for Thai, Lao and Cambodian Collections Ccownwork
Methaporn Singhanan, Chevening Fellow at the British Library 2022-23 Ccownwork