Asian and African studies blog

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4 posts from June 2023

26 June 2023

EFEO Java-Bali Palmleaf Manuscripts Digitisation Project

In collaboration with the École française d'Extrême-Orient (EFEO), the British Library is currently digitising its complete collection of 70 palmleaf manuscripts from Java and Bali, written in Old Javanese, Javanese and Balinese. For a full list of manuscripts being digitised click here.

Ramayana in Old Javanese, from Bali, early 19th c.
Ramayana in Old/Middle Javanese, from Bali, early 19th c. British Library, Add MS 12278  Noc

For centuries palm leaf was the standard writing medium throughout India and Southeast Asia. The leaves, usually of the palmyra or talipot palms, were cut, treated and dried. Text was incised on the leaf with a sharp stylus or knife and then rubbed with ink, which settled in the grooves of the letters. Completed books were usually provided with hard covers made from either bamboo or wood, cut to the same size as the palm leaves, and a cord fed through the holes made in the leaves either at the centre or the ends, and wrapped around the bundle. Single leaves could also be used for letters, notes and other short documents.

In Java and Bali it is the palmyra that is used for palm leaf (lontar) manuscripts, which usually have four lines of text on each page. However, probably the oldest palm leaf manuscript in the British Library from Indonesia is a copy of Sang Hyang Hayu (MSS Jav 105) written in Old Javanese not on palmyra but on gebang (Corypha gebanga, Corypha utan Lam.), the use of which is associated with very old manuscripts from west Java. Until recently only 29 manuscripts on gebang were known to exist, mostly dating from the 15th and 16th centuries, with the oldest dated 1334 (Aditia Gunawan 2015); the British Library manuscript MSS Jav 105 brings  the number of this small corpus up to 30.  Although many leaves are intact, there are countless small fragments which have been grouped together on small strips of laminate, as shown below.

First page of Sang Hyang Hayu, Old Javanese text written on gebang leaf, ca. 15th-16th c
First page of Sang Hyang Hayu, Old Javanese text written on gebang leaf, ca. 15th-16th c.; each folio has been backed with laminate. British Library, MSS Jav 105, f. 1v  Noc

Mss_jav_105_a_013 Mss_jav_105_a_014
Fragments of broken leaves from Sang Hyang Hayu, Old Javanese text written on gebang leaf, ca. 15th-16th c. British Library, MSS Jav 105 Noc

The most intriguing and potentially significant collection of palm leaf manuscripts from Java in the British Library is grouped together under shelfmark MSS Jav 53, acquired by Col. Colin Mackenzie during his stay in Java from 1811 to 1813. Mackenzie himself described them thus: “Twenty-four MSS. written on Cadjan [i.e. kajang] leaves in the Hindoo manner, most of them in the Javanese character, and some in a character yet undeciphered. From explanations of the titles of some they appear to belong to the ancient (or Dewa) religion of these islands; but though a native of superior intelligence was found capable of reading them, the prejudices of religion prevented any further information of the contents of books supposed to be adverse to the Muhammedan tenets. This difficulty might, however, have been got over. These MSS. are apparently ancient, and brought by the civility of a regent from a long deserted house in the distant forests, where they had lain neglected for years.” (Blagden 1916: xxix).

Ricklefs & Voorhoeve (1977: 65) identified the regent in question as Kyahi Tumenggeng Puger, and suggested that the manuscripts probably constituted a single collection from the vicinity of Puger on the south coast of East Java. MSS Jav 53 in fact consists of 35 separate manuscripts now numbered MSS Jav 53 a to MSS Jav 53 ii. Many of the manuscripts are damaged with leaves out of order, and some contain multiple texts, and so the discrepancy with Mackenzie’s own figure may be due to a miscount or result from manuscripts being separated into more than one bundle over the years.

First page of Sanghyang Kalimahosadha, in Old Javanese
First page of Sanghyang Kalimahosadha, in Old Javanese. British Library, MSS Jav 53 h, f. 1v  Noc

Last page of Sanghyang Kalimahosadha, in Old Javanese.
Last page of Sanghyang Kalimahosadha, in Old Javanese. British Library, MSS Jav 53 h  Noc

John Crawfurd served alongside Colin Mackenzie in the British administration of Java (1811-1816). Crawfurd formed a large collection of some 80 Javanese manuscripts which he sold to the British Museum in 1842 and are now in the British Library, of which however only six are written on palm leaf. They include two manuscripts in Old (or Middle) Javanese – a law book, Kutara Manawa, and a copy of the Ramayana – presented by the Rajah of Buleleng, on the north coast of Bali, on the occasion of Crawfurd’s visit in 1814. Unusually, both manuscripts are of the type called embat-embatan, consisting of palm leaves folded along the ridged centre of the leaf, yielding double thickness folios (van der Meij 2017: 193).

The Raja of Buleleng, shown with a piece of palm leaf in his left hand and knife for writing in his right hand.
The Raja of Buleleng, shown with a piece of palm leaf in his left hand and knife for writing in his right hand. 'Raja of Bliling, in the Island of Bali, with a Female attendant', engraving by W.H. Lizars from a drawing by Capt. Delafosse, probably done in 1814 when Crawfurd visited Bali. From John Crawfurd, History of the Indian Archipelago (Edinburgh, 1820), frontispiece to Vol. 3. British Library, T 11071  Noc

Inscribed: ‘Ramayana, according to the Javanese paraphrase, in the Kawi or ancient character. This MS. was given to J. Crawfurd Esq. by the Rajah of Bliling, in the island of Bali.’ British Library, Add MS 12278, frontispiece
Inscribed: ‘Ramayana, according to the Javanese paraphrase, in the Kawi or ancient character. This MS. was given to J. Crawfurd Esq. by the Rajah of Bliling, in the island of Bali.’ British Library, Add MS 12278, f. 1rNoc

First page of the Ramayana in Old Javanese. British Library, Add MS 12278, f. 1r
First page of the Ramayana in Old (or Middle) Javanese, showing the start of canto 19. British Library, Add MS 12278, f. 2v  Noc

There is a rich tradition of illustrated palm leaf manuscripts in Bali called prasi, containing images ranging from depictions of narrative scenes from literary epics, to magical diagrams and calendars. From the early 20th century onwards, many examples were made for the tourist market, usually with illustrations on one side of the leaf and very brief captions on the reverse.

Usada, medical texts in Balinese, before 1938.
Usada, medical texts in Balinese, before 1938. British Library, Or 16801, f. 56v  Noc

Illustrated scenes from Ādiparwa; unusually red ink is also used in the drawings. Bali, 20th c.
Illustrated scenes from Adiparwa; unusually red pigment is also used in the drawings in addition to black ink. Bali, before 1938. British Library, Or 16802, f. 4Noc

Illustrated scenes from Bharatayuddha, with the names of the characters in roman script. Bali, 20th c.
Illustrated scenes from Bharatayuddha, with the names of the characters in roman script. Bali, 20th c. British Library, Or 13379, f. 6r  Noc

One of the most commonly-found Javanese texts in palm leaf manuscripts is the Carita Yusup, the tale of the Prophet Joseph, the Nabi Yusuf of the Qur’an. There are eight palmleaf Javanese manuscripts of this story in the British Library collection, as well as other copies of this text on paper, with versions also found in Malay. Although Javanese palm leaf manuscripts are rarely decorated, several copies of the Carita Yusup and other Islamic texts have decorative frames on the first page enclosing just two lines of text, as shown in the two manuscripts below.

Carita Yusup, in Javanese; the first leaf is of double thickness and has been sewn together through the holes.
Carita Yusup, in Javanese, with an ornamental border; the first leaf is of double thickness and has been sewn together through the holes with thread. British Library, Or 9809, f. 123r   Noc

Carita Yusup, in Javanese, with an elegantly decorated frontispiece.
Carita Yusup, in Javanese, with an elegantly decorated frontispiece. British Library, Or. 13329, f. 1r  Noc

Over half the palm leaf manuscripts from Java and Bali held in the British Library to be digitised through this project are now already online, and the project will be completed within 2023.  There have been many challenges in digitising this collection of palm leaf manuscripts. Some of the manuscripts are in poor condition, with edges of leaves damaged by insects or by careless handling over the years. Sometimes the main issue is unsympathetic repairs with materials and methods which would nowadays be avoided, such as synthetic laminate across the whole leaf, which has lessened legibility of the text (as can be noted in the gebang manuscript above). Often the manuscripts are unstrung with leaves out of order, with new incorrect foliation or numbering (added by library staff in pencil) exacerbating the problems, meaning that the digitised images are often not in correct order.  One common problem is that when original Javanese foliation is present, in the digitised version the leaves are presented with the side bearing the folio number first (as is the norm for most British Library manuscripts), although this is in most cases actually the second page of the leaf.

Nonetheless, we hope that the advantages of having the manuscripts fully accessible digitally in their entirety, all with IIIF manifests, on the British Library's Universal Viewer from where images can be downloaded, will compensate for the inconveniences noted above. All the digital copies can be accessed directly via the British Library's online manuscripts catalogue, and as more manuscripts become available online, the direct links will be added to the catalogue records.

Further reading:

C.O. Blagden, Catalogue of manuscripts in European languages belonging to the Library of the India Office. Vol.I. The Mackenzie Collections. Part I. The 1822 Collection & the Private Collection. London: Oxford University Press, 1916.
Aditia Gunawan, Nipah or gebang? a philological and codicological study based on sources from West Java. Bijdragen tot de Taal-, Land- en Volkenkunde, 2015, 171: 249-290.
Jana Igunma, The beauty of palm leaf manuscripts: (1) Central Thailand (Blog, 20 November 2014)
Jana Igunma, The beauty of palm leaf manuscripts: (2) Northern Thai, Lao and Shan traditions (Blog, 23 January 2015)
Dick van der Meij, Indonesian manuscripts from the islands of Java, Madura, Bali and Lombok. Leiden: Brill, 2017.
Julia Wiland, Rick Brown, Lizzie Fuller, Lea Havelock, Jackie Johnson, Dorothy Kenn, Paulina Kralka, Marya Muzart, Jessica Pollard & Jenny Snowdon, (2022) A literature review of palm leaf manuscript conservation—Part 1: a historic overview, leaf preparation, materials and media, palm leaf manuscripts at the British Library and the common types of damage, Journal of the Institute of Conservation, 45:3, 236-259; (2023) A literature review of palm leaf manuscript conservation—Part 2: historic and current conservation treatments, boxing and storage, religious and ethical issues, recommendations for best practice, Journal of the Institute of Conservation, 46:1, 64-91.

Annabel Teh Gallop, Lead Curator for Southeast Asia  Ccownwork

[Updated with Blagden reference on 3.7.2023.]

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

12 June 2023

Provenance histories of Batak manuscripts in the British Library (3): From the BM to the BL

This is the third and final part of a blog post about the provenances of all the Batak manuscripts now held in the British Library. The first part looked at manuscripts in the British Museum up to 1900; the second described manuscripts from the library of East India Company, later known as the India Office Library; and this post looks more recent acquisitions to the present.

Studying provenance histories of manuscripts involves consulting multiple sources, primarily the items themselves. In the first post in this series, it was noted that Add 15678 – the third Batak manuscript to enter the British Museum – was acquired in 1846 from Joseph Lilly (1804-1870), a well-known London bookseller. More recently, a close examination of this Batak pustaha has revealed more information on its biography, including a brief sojourn in a royal British collection.

Add_ms_15678_f066v-ed Batak pustaha
A blank page in the Batak pustaha containing notes by a British Museum official. British Library, Add 15678, f. 66v and cover Noc

The final leaf of the manuscript, shown above, bears some notes in black ink by a British Museum staff member recording the shelfmark as ‘15,678’ and adding ‘Sussex Sale Lot 2’. The ‘Sussex Sale’ refers to the sale by auction of the library of Augustus Frederick (1773-1843), Duke of Sussex and ninth child of King George III. The Duke was a great bibliophile, who assembled a collection of over 50,000 books and manuscripts, especially strong in theology. This library was built up from 1819 to 1830 through individual purchase rather than by acquiring large collections, overseen by the Duke’s librarian and surgeon, Thomas Joseph Pettigrew.

The Duke of Sussex pictured in his library, surrounded by tall bookshelves
The Duke of Sussex pictured in his library, surrounded by tall bookshelves. Image source: Peter Kidd, Augustus Frederick, Duke of Sussex (1773–1843) 

The Duke died in 1843 having acquired considerable debts in his lifetime, and his complete library, the Bibliotheca Sussexiana, was sold at auction by Messers. Evans of Pall Mall in six parts over many days between July 1844 and August 1845. The manuscripts were dispersed in the second part of the sale, held over four days from 31 July 1844, and Lot 2, described as ‘An Oriental Manuscript, written on the Bark of a Tree’, is the Batak manuscript now catalogued as Add 15678. The hand-written note on the manuscript also states ‘Purch? of J. Lilly, 12 Jan. 1846’, the question mark perhaps indicating that rather than being purchased from Joseph Lilly, he may have been commissioned by the British Museum to acquire this Batak manuscript at the Sussex sale, to add to the two already held in the Museum by that date (Add 4726 and Add 11546).

The main text in this pustaha, with Toba Batak writing, is Poda ni pamusatan ni porsili si balik bija na bolon, on an image given to the spirits as a substitute for a patient. Although there is no information on how this Batak manuscript ended up in the royal Sussex library, it is most likely to have come via an East India Company official serving in west Sumatra.  The Batak manuscripts given by Richard Parry (Resident of Bengkulu 1808-1810) to the India Office Library  in 1817 bear notes showing an awareness of the religio-medicinal contents, and it is possibly these aspects that might have appealed to Pettigrew, the Duke’s surgeon who played an important role in building up the royal library.

First page of the auction catalogue for the Second Part of the sale of the Bibliotheca Sussexiana
First page of the auction catalogue for the Second Part of the sale of the Bibliotheca Sussexiana held on 31 July 1844; Lot 2 refers to the Batak manuscript now held as British Library Add 15678.

Little is known about the provenances of most of the Batak manuscripts acquired in the 20th century other than the names of the individual donors of vendors. Or 6898 was purchased from D. Admiraal in 1908, while Or 8196 was presented by Lt. G. C. Hartley in 1918. Two small pustaha, Or 11761 and Or 11762 (one with an exceptionally finely carved wooden cover) were both presented by Miss F. Sprange on 11 March 1944. Or 12587 was presented by Mr A. Matthewson in March 1961, while Or 13330, comprising two bone amulets, was acquired in August 1971, but nothing is known of its origins.

Or 11761, with its finely carved wooden covers, plaited rattan strap and carrying string a side view of Or 11762
Left, Or 11761, with its finely carved wooden covers, plaited rattan strap and carrying string; and right, a side view of Or 11762, which only has one wooden cover at the top. British Library, Or 11761 and Or 11762  Noc

In 1973 the British Library was founded by bringing together the collections of the British Museum Library and a number of other libraries. In the department variously named Oriental Manuscripts and Printed Books, Oriental Collections, Oriental and India Office Collections, and now called Asian and African Collections, manuscript acquisitions continue to be assigned shelfmarks in the ‘Or’ ('Oriental') sequence. The first Batak manuscript acquired by the newly-formed British Library, Or 13957, was received from Mr R.E. Hughes in August 1980. Or 14808 was bought from Sotheby’s, 28 April 1993, lot 188, and was said to have been the property of the late Prof. Dortmund. In 2010 Or 16736, an inscribed bamboo cylinder, was purchased from Thomas Artmann of Bonn; he had purchased it in an antique shop in Bonn in 2009, but the manuscript appears to have been in Europe for some decades because it is accompanied by a note in German stating that it had been identified by Dr. P. Voorhoeve (1899-1996) of Leiden.

Bamboo cylinder inscribed with a divination text in Karo Batak
Bamboo cylinder inscribed with a divination text in Karo Batak. British Library, Or 16736 Noc

A decade later, in 2019 the British Library purchased a small collection of five Batak manuscripts, Or 16995-16999 from Brian Corrigan of Dublin. Corrigan had bought them in an auction conducted by Fonsie Mealy, Carlow, on 20 November 2018, of the entire contents of Milford House, Carlow, Ireland. The house had been in the Alexander family since around 1800. Although there is no evident connection with Sumatra, one family member – Major John Alexander III (1850-1944) – was known to have been in Africa and Tibet in the late 19th-early 20th century, and the contents of the house listed for auction included a small number of Oriental ‘curios’, including two Burmese Buddha figures, Japanese netsuke and Imari ceramics, and Chinese ceramics. All this suggested that the Batak manuscripts had been brought to Ireland around the turn of the last century.

Illustration from the Fonsie Mealy auction catalogue of 20 November 2018, lot 392
Illustration from the Fonsie Mealy auction catalogue of 20 November 2018, lot 392, where the Batak manuscripts (now Or 16995-16999) were described as ‘Coptic books’.

The Batak manuscripts in the British Library were all digitised in 2022 in collaboration with Hamburg University and are listed here. Recataloguing the manuscripts online as part of this project provided an impetus to carry out new provenance research, which involved a lot of googling of the individuals involved with the term ‘Batak manuscripts’. By chance, this internet research also brought up a Batak manuscript being offered for sale by a Clive Farahar, a rare book dealer based in Somerset, which led to the most recent Batak acquisition by the British Library in 2022. Or 17025 is a pustaha containing on one side a text on divination using the cock oracle, and on the other, a prescription for destructive magic. A paper label attached to the upper wooden board reads: "From a visit to the British Museum 19.4.72. This is the note book of a medicine man dictated to his pupils. It comes from Sumatra and is approx. 200 years old. There are about 20 in the British Museum. No one can translate it. Medicine books often have cocks."

A Batak pustaha brought to the British Museum for identification in 1972
A Batak pustaha brought to the British Museum for identification in 1972. British Library, Or 17025 Noc

Researching provenance in the present day is of course easier in that information can be obtained directly from the vendors concerned. Clive Farahar informed me he had recently purchased the Batak manuscript from another dealer, Dr Christian White of Ilkley, Yorkshire. In turn, White had purchased it at a sale at Chorley's Auction House in Gloucestershire on 31 January 2017 as Lot 470, described as a 'Sumatra medical book', from 'the estate of the Late Mr Arthur Golding Barrett'. Arthur Golding Barrett (1904-1976) was a well-known antique dealer in the mid-20th century specialising in 17th-century European metal works. White presumed that Golding Barrett had come into possession of the Batak manuscript during his active dealing days, most likely around the 1950s or 1960s. Or 17025 is the only Batak manuscript in the British Library not yet digitised, which we hope to do soon.

The information presented in these three blog posts has tried to trace the provenance histories of all the 38 Batak manuscripts in the British Library. Three broad scenarios can be sketched. The earliest acquisitions in both the British Museum and the India Office Library can be linked to the presence of the East India Company factory at Bengkulu from 1684 to 1824, which managed a string of smaller British trading posts positioned along the west coast of Sumatra northwards, reaching into Batak territories. The second wave of acquisitions, later in the 19th century, appear to derive from Dutch colonial expeditions into north Sumatra, and concurrent Christian missionary campaigns. Around the turn of the 20th century, Orientalist interest spurred a surge in collecting Batak manuscripts as bibliographic trophies, such as those which ended up at Milford House in Ireland.

However information about the actual moments of exchange, when these manuscripts passed from their traditional owners into the hands of Europeans, largely remains unrecorded. Undoubtedly a number were seized in military expeditions, or forcibly confiscated by Protestant missionaries, while others may have been copied especially for a foreign collector, or purchased or presented. It is the earliest acquisitions of Batak manuscripts in the 18th and early 19th centuries, notably by Alexander Hall and Richard Parry from the East India Company base at Bengkulu, which evidence glimpses of a genuine interest in the contents on the texts and a process of knowledge exchange, while many later acquisitions were little more than exotic curiosity collecting.

Further reading:
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.
Blog, 18 April 2022, The provenance histories of Batak manuscripts in the British Library (1): The British Museum collection to 1900 
Blog, 20 June 2022, The provenance histories of Batak manuscripts in the British Library (2): The India Office collection 

Annabel Teh Gallop, Lead Curator, Southeast Asia  Ccownwork

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