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06 June 2023

Bollinger Javanese Manuscripts Digitisation Project completed

Through the generous support of William and Judith Bollinger, 120 Javanese manuscripts from the British Library’s collection have just been digitised and are now fully accessible online. The manuscripts date from the 17th to the early 20th centuries, and are written on paper in both Javanese script (hanacaraka) and adapted Arabic script (pegon), and include a few manuscripts in Old Javanese. A full list of the newly-digitised manuscripts can be found here.

Menak story, early 19th c.
story, early 19th c. British Library, Add MS 12296, ff. 1v-2r Noc

The manuscripts include those collected by John Crawfurd and Colin Mackenzie, two East India Company officials who served under Thomas Stamford Raffles during the British occupation of Java (1811-1816), as well as more recent acquisitions in the British Library. The Crawfurd collection is especially rich in Javanese literary and historical works, many of which are adorned with beautiful frontispieces with double illuminated frames (wadana) surrounding the text. These are probably the work of artists from the Pakualaman, the minor court of Yogyakarta, which was founded in 1812 following the British attack on the Sultan’s palace in Yogyakarta. The Pakualaman was created by the British as a reward for their ally Prince Natakusuma, who was installed as Paku Alam I. Seven of these manuscripts have the traditional Javanese ‘diamond-on-rectangle’ style of double decorated frames, as shown above, while 11 others have ‘gateway’ (wadana gapura) style decorated frontispieces, in the form of architectural constructs resembling ancient temples (candi), replete with pedestals, columns and domes, as in the example below.

Babad Sejarah Menteram, early 19th c.
Babad Sejarah Menteram
, early 19th c. British Library, Add MS 12287, ff. 2v-3r Noc

The newly-digitised collection also includes many manuscripts from the coastal (pesisir) regions of the island of Java. Among the highlights is a finely illustrated copy of Panji Jaya Kusuma, which was created in the port-city of Surabaya on the north coast of Java for a female patron, named in the text as Nyonyah Sakeber, ‘Madame Gezaghebber’. She has been identified by Peter Carey as the wife of Frederik Jacob Rothenbühler (1758-1836), the German-born Chief Administrator (Gezaghebber) of the Eastern Salient of Java (Oosthoek), in the decade 1799-1809. The use of the title nyonya hints that she was probably a local Javanese or of mixed blood.

Panji Jaya Kusuma,
Surabaya, 1805. British Library, MSS Jav 68, ff. 31v-32r  Noc

Other manuscripts are of particular interest for their texts rather than any decorative features, including a compilation of the works of Kiai Haji Ahmad Rifai of Kalisalak (1786-1870). He was a pioneering Javanese religious scholar renowned for establishing a school (pesantren) where the curriculum was based not on the standard corpus of Arabic works, but on his own compositions in Javanese written in pegon (Arabic) script. Kiai Haji Ahmad Rifai actively commentated on various social issues, and for example issued a fatwa (religious verdict) banning the smoking of opium and tobacco. His wide influence attracted the attention and suspicion of the Dutch colonial authorities, and in 1859 he was exiled to Ambon in the Moluccas for the rest of his life.

Nazham tazkiyyah and other works by Kiai Haji Ahmad Rifai of Kalisalak, 1845
Nazham tazkiyyah
and other works by Kiai Haji Ahmad Rifai of Kalisalak, 1845. British Library, Or 13523, f. 2v Noc

One of the manuscripts digitised is a very simple and plain-looking manuscript of a primbon – a compendium of religious texts and prayers pertaining to divination. Both from the handwriting, and the Javanese treebark paper (dluwang) on which it is written, this manuscript looks extremely old, and may date back to the early 17th or even late 16th century. It is wrapped in an official document from Cirebon dated 1849, possibly linking the manuscript to that region of coastal west Java. The manuscript was presented to the British Museum in 1905 by A. W. Hurst Boram. Digitisation of these Javanese manuscripts has also spurred further research into their provenance histories. In this case, it turns out that the donor, Boram, was married to Hendrika Cornelia Albers, who had been born in Cianjur, as her father Christiaan Albers (1837-1920) was a Dutch missionary in west Java. It is thus likely that the manuscript originated from west Java.

Primbon, possibly early 17th century
Primbon, possibly early 17th century. British Library, Or 6622, ff. 4v-5r  Noc

The completion of the Bollinger Javanese Manuscripts Digitisation Project drew on the skills and support of many different staff across the British Library, with the particular challenges of commencing this project in the middle of the coronovirus pandemic, and across two national lockdowns in 2020 when all British Library buildings were closed. First, conservators checked every single manuscript to ensure they were in a fit state for digitisation, and made repairs as necessary, as shown below with a copy of an Old Javanese inscription which was originally folded, ragged and torn. Next the manuscripts were all photographed in the Imaging Studios, yielding a total of 35,880 digital images, amounting to 4.2 TB of data. Each of these images then had to be checked for quality control by the BL’s Heritage Made Digital team – with some images having to be reshot if, for example, a stray hair was visible on the page – and finally all the manuscripts were published online on the British Library’s Digitised Manuscripts portal. Over the next few years, the digital images will be migrated to the new Universal Viewer, where they will all be equipped with IIIF manifests.

A paper copy made during the British administration of Java of the Hantang inscription
A paper copy made during the British administration of Java of the Hantang inscription dated 1135 (now in the National Museum of Indonesia, see below), with an interlinear transcription of the Old Javanese text into modern Javanese characters, and translation into modern Javanese in cursive black ink. This manuscript had to be cleaned, repaired and flattened prior to digitisation. British Library, MSS Jav 95, top   Noc

The top of the Hantang stone inscription of 1135
The top of the Hantang stone inscription of 1135, with the Narasiṅha emblem of Jayabhaya at the top. Museum Nasional, Jakarta, D.9 (photograph by A.T. Gallop, 2011).

William and Judith Bollinger always made clear their wish to see collaborations embedded at the heart of this project, for which British Library has partnered with the National Library of Indonesia (Perpusnas). On 24 May 2023, the British Library welcomed the Director of the National Library of Indonesia, Mr Muhammad Syarif Bando, and senior colleagues, to sign a Memorandum of Understanding, and four manuscript curators from Perpusnas will soon be visiting the British Library to contribute their expertise on Javanese manuscripts and enhance the metadata of the catalogue descriptions. On the same day, at an event to celebrate the completion of the Bollinger Javanese Manuscripts Digitisation Project, Dr Luisa Elena Mengoni, Head of the Asian and African Collections at the British Library, presented to Mr Bando a hard drive containing a complete set of the digital images of the 120 Javanese manuscripts.  The British Library will also be collaborating with MANASSA, the Association of Indonesian Manuscript Scholars, on a small project to promote the use and study of these newly-digitised Javanese manuscripts.

The Director of the National Library of Indonesia, Mr Muhammad Syarif Bando, and senior colleagues
The Director of the National Library of Indonesia, Mr Muhammad Syarif Bando, and senior colleagues, with Prof. Khairul Munadi, Education and Culture Attache at the Indonesian Embassy in London, and British Library staff, celebrating the completion of the Bollinger Javanese Manuscripts Digitisation Project on 24 May 2023.

Building on earlier projects to digitise Javanese manuscripts in the British Library – notably the Javanese Manuscripts from Yogyakarta Project (2017-2019) funded by Mr S. P. Lohia, which digitised 75 manuscripts originating from the palace of Yogyakarta taken by the British in 1812, and an earlier project supported by the Henry D. Ginsburg Legacy (2012-2017) – this means that all the Javanese manuscripts written on paper held in the British Library, numbering around 200, are now digitised. [The British Library is currently also collaborating with the EFEO DHARMA project to digitise the 70 palm leaf manuscripts written in Javanese, Old Javanese and Balinese, which will be completed later this year in 2023.] The critical mass of Javanese manuscript literature now available online has also led to a new collaboration with the Foundation for Javanese Literature, Yayasan Sastera Lestari (Yasri). The beautifully illustrated British Library manuscripts Serat Damar Wulan (MSS Jav 89) and Serat Sela Rasa (MSS Jav 28) were amongst the first to be digitised, and Yasri has romanised these texts and made them accessible online on the website, with page-by-page hyperlinks to the digitised manuscripts. Thanks to support from the Bollinger Javanese Manuscripts project, Yasri will now be romanising twenty more Javanese manuscripts from the British Library covering a range of literary and historical texts including Serat Banten (Add MS 12304), Serat Sejarah Demak (Add MS 12333) and Serat Babad Sengkala (Add MS 12322).

romanisation of Serat Damar Wulan
The Yasri page on with the romanisation of Serat Damar Wulan, British Library, MSS Jav 89.

Other collaborations which have evolved in tandem with the increasing number of Javanese manuscripts from the British Library now online are with Wikimedia Indonesia. In March 2023 the Wikisource Competition (Kompetisi Wikisumber 2023) was held to transcribe Javanese manuscripts into machine-readable Javanese script, focussing on British Library manuscripts already romanised by Yasri such as Serat Damar Wulan, in order to facilitate cross-checking. Wikisource loves manuscripts is a pilot project to enhance the OCR (optical character recognition) and HTR (hand-written text recognition) capabilities of Transkribus to transcribe Javanese and other Indonesian scripts, using digitised manuscripts from the British Library. But alongside these technologically ambitious projects, there are countless scholars, readers and artists who are daily delighting in reading and reciting these Javanese literary gems, and gaining inspiration from their beautiful illuminations and illustrations.

Blog posts
16 May 2022, Bollinger Javanese Manuscripts Digitisation Project: 120 more Javanese manuscripts to be digitised 
15 Aug 2022, 40 more Javanese manuscripts now accessible online 
26 September 2022, Frederik Jacob Rothenbühler and his wife as collectors of Javanese manuscripts in the early 19th century, by Prof. Peter Carey, Jakarta

Annabel Teh Gallop, Lead Curator for Southeast Asia  Ccownwork