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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