Asian and African studies blog

19 June 2023

Henry Alabaster’s 'Catalogue of Siamese manuscripts' (1): royal edicts and books of laws

When the Sanskrit scholar Dr Reinhold Rost (1822-96) was appointed librarian of the India Office Library (IOL) in 1869 “He found the Library a scattered mass of priceless, but unexamined and unarranged manuscripts…” (Dictionary of National Biography). Among these manuscripts were seventeen folding books with texts in Thai language, bare of any illustrations or decorations. While Rost was familiar with numerous South Asian languages, in order to achieve his aim of cataloguing the library’s entire collection it proved very useful that he personally knew members of the Royal Asiatic Society from his previous post as the Society’s secretary from 1863-9. Many of them were scholars of Asian languages (see Rost’s correspondences, MSS Eur A86), including Henry Alabaster. Shortly before Rost’s IOL appointment, Alabaster had returned from Siam (since 1939 known as Thailand) where he had been working in the British Consular Service since 1857. The collaboration between Rost and Alabaster to create a “Catalogue of Siamese manuscripts” between ca. 1870-2 would later have an impact on the development of libraries and librarianship as a profession in Thailand.

Bangkok in the 1850s
Bangkok in the 1850s. Source: Travels in the central parts of Indo-China, Cambodia, and Laos, during the years 1858, 1859, and 1860. Memoir of H. Mouhot with illustrations. London, 1864. Noc

Henry Alabaster, born on 22 May 1836 in Hastings, studied Classics and Chemistry at King’s College and gained the equivalent of a degree as an Associate of the College in the Applied Sciences in 1855. A year later he joined the China Consular Service and arrived in Hong Kong in September 1856, following his younger brother Chaloner Alabaster, an employee of the China Consular Service who worked closely with Sir John Bowring. As a result of the “Bowring Treaty” (Treaty of Friendship and Commerce between Great Britain and Siam), signed in 1855 and ratified a year later, a British consulate was established in Bangkok. Alabaster was transferred there as a Student Interpreter in March 1857. By 1864 he was Interpreter and had access to the royal library where leading Thai scholars introduced him to the Sanskrit and Pali languages and Buddhist scriptures. From 1867 he represented the British Consul when absent, serving as Acting Consul. In his role as interpreter he arranged for the attendance of Sir Harry Ord, then Governor of the Straits Settlements, at the solar eclipse event near Hua Hin on 18 August 1868, which King Mongkut (Rama IV) used as a powerful demonstration of the sovereignty and independence of the Siamese kingdom. However, a few weeks later the king died from malaria, and a series of unfortunate events, disagreements with the Siamese regent and within the Consular Service, and his own poor health, all led to Alabaster’s return to England in 1869.

Front cover and title page of The modern Buddhist
Front cover and title page of The modern Buddhist…, a translation from Thai by Henry Alabaster. London, 1870. British Library, Siam.254 Noc

Back in the UK, Alabaster was not idle: apart from having three children with his wife Palacia between 1869-72 he worked on two books while living in London. In 1870 his translation from Thai with the title The modern Buddhist; being the views of a Siamese Minister of State on his own and other religions by Chao Phya Thipakon was published by Trübner & Co. The following year his second book, The Wheel of the Law. Buddhism illustrated from Siamese sources, appeared from the same publisher. However, with his growing family and the burden of supporting an elderly relative, financial pressures may have led him to look for additional sources of income. The fact that the IOL librarian Reinhold Rost was making great efforts to get the Thai and other manuscripts in the library’s collection catalogued at the same time when Alabaster was in London was a lucky coincidence.

There is no doubt that Rost gave Alabaster a thorough introduction into the standards of cataloguing manuscripts in Asian languages. While the British Museum was regarded as a pioneer in the methods of cataloguing manuscripts and artefacts, in the case of the cataloguing of Thai manuscripts Alabaster really made his mark, thanks not only to his skills and expertise as an interpreter for Thai, but also due to the knowledge of Thai literature he had acquired during his time in Bangkok. The “Catalogue of Siamese manuscripts” (MSS Eur B104) he produced for the IOL contains the most comprehensive and systematically compiled descriptions of Thai manuscripts one could find at that time.

Preserved fragments of the front cover and first page of Henry Alabaster’s original handwritten “Catalogue of Siamese Manuscripts”
Preserved fragments of the front cover and first page of Henry Alabaster’s original handwritten “Catalogue of Siamese Manuscripts”. British Library, MSS Eur B104  Noc

The catalogue, recently restored from fragile fragments at the British Library’s Conservation Centre, contains detailed descriptions of the seventeen Thai manuscripts that Rost had found in the IOL, divided into three thematical sections: 1) Royal edicts and books of laws; 2) Miscellaneous; and 3) Novels and dramas.

Each record begins with the title of the text which was either found in the manuscript itself or worked out by Alabaster from the contents, followed by a short summary of the text. The second part of each record consists of a physical description of the manuscript, including writing materials, colour and book format, item size, number of folios, number of text lines on each folio, date (if found in the manuscript) or an estimated period of creation, remarks on spelling/grammar and handwriting. Where possible, Alabaster also included aspects of the historical and cultural context of the manuscript. Where previously published works or research on these texts existed, he added not only the bibliographic details but also the main points of these publications. Selected text passages were translated by Alabaster from Thai.

For example, the first record (MSS Siamese 1) describes “An Introduction to the Code of Siamese Laws founded on the Dharma Shastra” with a “portion of the Law of Married Persons” (ลักษณาพระ ธรรมศาสตร์ ลักษณาผัวเมีย). The text was written with white chalk pencil on black paper in folding book format. In addition to the physical description of the manuscript, Alabaster provided some historical context of Thai laws and a summary of a revised set of laws from the Ayutthaya period which were included in the Three Seals Code (กฎหมายตราสามดวง) of 1805. This is followed by references to secondary sources and translated text passages from this volume.

First paragraph of the Law of Married Persons in Thai language
First paragraph of the Law of Married Persons in Thai language. British Library, MSS Siamese 1  Noc

Bearing in mind that these laws date to before 1805, and in their essence possibly even to before 1767, some extracts Alabaster translated state: “A paramour shall be fined for his first offence and fined double for his second offence, but not fined at all for his third. The husband who still loves a woman who has thrice dishonoured him shall be punished … A man who boasts of former intimacy with a married woman shall be fined … Those guilty of incestuous offences shall be put in irons, branded, tattooed in the face, exposed with leather cords round their necks, fired at with cross-bow shots, flogged, and floated away … on rafts. Expiatory offerings shall be made to avert misfortune from the country” (pp. 3-4). Whilst these translations need to be treated with caution as they are uncritical (and unverified) interpretations of a Western male with the worldview and using the language of Victorian England, they give insights into the nature of Thai legal texts from the late Ayutthaya and Thonburi periods which are worth being fully translated and researched further.

The second record (MSS Siamese 2) describes “Kathu Phra Aiyakan, A Compendium of Laws” (กระทู้พระไอยการ), a text on assaults, abuse and the appraisement of fines, written with black ink on white paper. Again, Alabaster provided translations from this volume: “In cases of abuse if the aggressor abuses not only one individual but his family also, he shall pay a double fine. In cases of mutual abuse half the fine only shall be levied, and that not as compensation but as a fine to government”. Another paragraph, perhaps selected by Alabaster on reflection of the common practice of corporal punishment in European schools, states: “A man [person] who strikes another with a blank book shall be fined as though he had struck him with his hand, but if the assault is committed with a book of the Classics the offender shall be fined twice as much as he would have had to pay for assaulting with a stick.” (p.5)

First paragraph (following the ๏ fong man symbol) of the “Kathu Phra Aiyakan” law in Thai language
First paragraph (following the ๏ fong man symbol) of the “Kathu Phra Aiyakan” law in Thai language. British Library, MSS Siamese 2 Noc

The last two records in the section on royal edicts and books of laws describe the text “Laksana Tat Fong” (ตัดฟ้อง) (MSS Siamese 3) that regulates plaints/allegations and dismissal of cases, written in white chalk on black paper; and the text “Phra Tham-nun” (พระทำนูน) or Royal Law (MSS Siamese 4) which includes rules for the general conduct of judicial business. This text was also recorded in white chalk on black paper.

All four texts described in this section were included in the Three Seals Code, but some were combined with other laws under a different title. At the end of the section, Alabaster discussed the amalgamation of older laws and the change of order and titles of some texts in the reformed legal code from 1805. His summary “Some of the Laws do not appear at all in the new code having been repealed or altered … Another notable difference is that in this volume [MSS Siamese 4] we find a special form appointed for taking the evidence of devotees, whilst the new Code states that devotees shall be treated in the same manner as other laymen …” (p.9) clarifies that the texts found in these four volumes are older than the Three Seals Code. Alabaster’s detailed descriptions, referencing secondary sources and brief discussion of the historical context of the manuscripts in his catalogue were extraordinary and well above the usual standards of Thai manuscript cataloguing at the time.

Nothing is known about the scribe(s) of these four texts or exact creation date(s) as they do not contain colophons, but they were formally accessioned into the library of the East India Company in 1852 (IOL from 1858). There they remained unexamined until Henry Alabaster started working on his catalogue, before a consequential career change took him back to Bangkok in 1872, which will be discussed in the upcoming second part of this blog post.

References and further reading

Alabaster, Henry. Henry Alabaster of Siam: correspondence 1857-1884 and career. [Great Britain]: Alabaster Society, 2009.
Alabaster, John S. Henry Alabaster of Siam 1836-1884: serving two masters. [Great Britain]: Alabaster Society, 2012.
Correspondence of Henry Alabaster and Palacia Alabaster (Accessed 14 May 2023)
Datta, Rajeshwari. “The India Office Library: Its History, Resources, and Functions.” The Library Quarterly: Information, Community, Policy, vol. 36, no. 2, 1966, pp. 99–148. JSTOR (Accessed 12 May 2023)
'List of the members of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland'. The Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland. New Series, Vol. 6, No. 2 (1873), pp. 1-16. JSTOR (Accessed 12 May 2023) 
Orchiston, Wayne and Darunee Lingling Orchiston. “King Rama V, Sir Harry Ord and the total solar eclipse of 18 August 1868: power, politics and astronomy”. Journal of Astronomical History and Heritage 24(2), 2021, pp. 389-404 

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