THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Asian and African studies blog

25 posts categorized "Africa"

22 July 2019

African cosmologies in the British Library’s collections

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It’s summer again, if briefly, and once more we have had the great pleasure of hosting the annual Africa Writes festival (5–7 July 2019) here at the British Library.

The Africa Writes festival
The Africa Writes festival

Among the gems of this year’s festival was an invitation to ‘Reimagine the gods’, in the company of writers Inua Ellams and Sitawa Namwalie, whose creative works have been inspired by deities and beliefs from Nigeria and Kenya, and academic Louisa Egbunike. I was both pleased and intrigued to be asked to open this panel with a short introduction to the British Library’s collections on African cosmologies. This is of course a huge subject, encompassing a very wide range of belief systems, and going far beyond what is classified as ‘religion’ in European terms. The holistic nature of African thought has meant that relationships between gods, spirits and people, and the dead and the living, were and are woven into everyday practices and a wide variety of rituals. 

So what does the British Library have on this subject? The answer, as ever, is ‘rather a lot’. To illustrate the kind of material we have, I’m focusing here on the theme of the Yoruba gods and other religious practices.

Illustration of Ifá divination from the memoir of a missionary. Charles Andrew Gollmer, Charles Andrew Gollmer, his life and missionary labours in West Africa (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1889). British Library, 4888.b.64.
Illustration of Ifá divination from the memoir of a missionary. Charles Andrew Gollmer, Charles Andrew Gollmer, his life and missionary labours in West Africa (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1889). British Library, 4888.b.64 Noc

The Yoruba deities of Nigeria and Benin belong to one of the most famous African religions. The gods (òrìṣàs) include among their number Òrúnmila, god of wisdom and divination; Ògún, god of war, iron, the hunt and the road; and Èṣù, the trickster-god. They were and are part of a wider set of beliefs and practices including the Gẹ̀lẹ̀dẹ́ masquerade, which ensured the fertility and well-being of the community by focusing on women, and a system of divination called Ifá.

Ifá divination cups. Published in Und Afrika sprach (The voice of Africa), an account of a 1910–12 expedition to Nigeria led by the German ethnographer and archaeologist Leo Frobenius. With numerous illustrations by Carl Arriens. Leo Frobenius, Und Afrika sprach, vol. 1 (Berlin, 1912, 13). British Library, 10094.pp.9.
Ifá divination cups. Published in Und Afrika sprach (The voice of Africa), an account of a 1910–12 expedition to Nigeria led by the German ethnographer and archaeologist Leo Frobenius. With numerous illustrations by Carl Arriens. Leo Frobenius, Und Afrika sprach, vol. 1 (Berlin, 1912, 13). British Library, 10094.pp.9. Noc

The British Library collections include, as you might expect, accounts of Yoruba rituals and beliefs, as well as images of items used in religious practice, made by Europeans in West Africa before and during the colonial period.

Carved Yoruba temple panels. Leo Frobenius, Und Afrika sprach, vol. 2 (Berlin, 1912, 13). British Library, 10094.pp.9.
Carved Yoruba temple panels. Leo Frobenius, Und Afrika sprach, vol. 2 (Berlin, 1912, 13). British Library, 10094.pp.9. Noc

The early writings of Europeans are of course often problematic and biased – missionaries in particular saw African religion as ‘heathenism’ – and the image of Africa and Africans they portray is often negative or inaccurate. Europeans also, generally speaking, benefited from unequal power relationships which facilitated their research and (in some cases) collecting. Nevertheless, when read with a critical eye, many of the works of such observers remain important, if always debateable, sources of knowledge on these subjects.

On the west coast of Africa, a Western-educated African elite flourished, and published books, from the mid-19th century. For example, the Rev. E.M. Lijadu (1862–1926), writing in the early 20th century, was a figure of major importance in recognising and promoting Yoruba religious beliefs and practices. We hold several of his titles in Yoruba.

5a Lijadu 884.g.22 5b Lijadu 884.g.22
Title page and dedication of E. Moses Lijadu, Ǫrûnmla! Nipa (Nottingham: S. Richards, 1908). British Library, 884.g.22  Noc

Oral texts were and are central to Yoruba religious practices, as in other African religions. The BL’s collections are very strong in this respect. Among other things, we hold recordings made by academics based at Nigerian universities in the 1960s and 1970s.

Peggy Harper specialised in dance, and a clip from her film (with Frank Speed) of a Gẹ̀lẹ̀dẹ́ ritual is online here. The recording below of a group of male priests (babalawo), led by Ayotunde Aworinde, was made by Robert Armstrong at the University of Ibadan in 1965, and transcribed and translated with Val Oyeyemi and other Nigerian colleagues.

C85s/1-3 Babalawo recording by Robert Armstrong
British Library, Robert Armstrong Collection. C85/1–3

With the independence of Nigeria in 1960, and the rise of a strong university sector, academics and others increasingly published on aspects of Nigerian culture, including religion.

Wande Abimbọla (ed.), Yoruba oral tradition (Ile-Ife: Department of African Languages and Literature, University of Ife, 1975) YA.1989.a.1808. [Copyright: the authors]
Wande Abimbọla (ed.), Yoruba oral tradition (Ile-Ife: Department of African Languages and Literature, University of Ife, 1975) YA.1989.a.1808. [Copyright: the authors]

Generally speaking, we hold many relevant works produced by the academic sector, in Nigeria, the UK, the West, and many other places, as well as works by scholars and commentators from beyond the academy. Anthropologists were particularly important in recording religious practices. Most of these texts are in English and other European languages, but there is also a significant number in Yoruba. We also hold books, articles and journals about the migration of Yoruba religion to the Americas, where it was re-established by enslaved people in systems such as Candomblé in Brazil.

7Pierre Verger, Orixas: 38 desenhos dé Carybée, ill. Carybé (Bahia: Livraria Progresso Editora, 1955) 10 W20/5527. Temas de Candomblé, ill. Carybé (Bahia: Livraria Progresso Editora, 1955) 9 W20/5525. [Copyright: the authors and illustrator]
Pamphlets showing aspects of Candomblé in Brazil.
Pierre Verger, Orixas: 38 desenhos dé Carybée, ill. Carybé (Bahia: Livraria Progresso Editora, 1955) 10 W20/5527.
Temas de Candomblé, ill. Carybé (Bahia: Livraria Progresso Editora, 1955) 9 W20/5525. 
[Copyright: the authors and illustrator]

Artistic interventions have been a popular way of engaging with ideas about the gods. Wole Soyinka’s poem Idanre, which takes inspiration from the god Ògún, was commissioned for the Commonwealth Arts Festival of 1965, of which we hold the papers. These include Soyinka’s typescript, together with his autograph revisions, drawings and musical directions. The manuscript is unusual in that we do not hold many original documents by African writers. We do, however, have a very extensive collection of published works of fiction, drama and poetry, as well as books illustrating and analysing responses in the visual arts.

Book of poems in Spanish, published in Cuba, on the theme of the Yoruba gods and Ifá divination.Frank Upierre Casellas, Tablero de Ifá (Ciudad Habana: Ediciones Extramuros, 1994) RF.2015.a.1611
Book of poems in Spanish, published in Cuba, on the theme of the Yoruba gods and Ifá divination.
Frank Upierre Casellas, Tablero de Ifá (Ciudad Habana: Ediciones Extramuros, 1994) RF.2015.a.16
[Copyright: the author and illustrator]

The Yoruba material is only one example of our very rich collections relevant to this subject, published across the world, and crossing many disciplines. Scholarship on Yoruba belief systems is particularly extensive, but for most subjects it’s likely that the researcher will find information.

It is also worth remembering that there are many, very different, forms of religious belief in Africa. If investigating, for example, the beliefs and rituals of the Khoe and San people of Namibia, Botswana and South Africa, researchers would want to look at older and new material – the new often in dialogue with the old – and think about the ways in which archaeology, rock art studies, history and anthropology come together. Trance rituals, for example, are represented in rock art. Our sound collections in this field are rich – see for example the Emmanuelle Olivier collection. Researchers could also look at publications from organisations representing Khoesan people, as well as engagements through literature and the visual arts.

Finally, to research our collections:
• For published material see our main catalogue. To view material in our Reading Rooms, you will need a reader pass.
• For audio-visual collections, see also the specialist sound and moving image catalogue and this guide to accessing the collections.
• For general guidance, the Africa subject page is a good place to start. For more research advice see also this blog.
• For West Africa, see the West Africa: Word, Symbol, Song web pages.

References

Robert Armstrong, Iyere Ifá: the deep chants of Ifá (Ibadan: Institute of African Studies, University of Ibadan, 1978)

Insa Nolte, ‘Spirit: Histories of Religion and the Word’, West Africa, Word, Symbol, Song (London: British Library, 2015–16)

Jacob K. Olupona, ‘The study of Yoruba religious tradition in historical perspective’, Numen, 40, 3 (1993), 240–73

J. David Lewis-Williams and Sam Challis, Deciphering ancient minds: the mystery of San bushman rock art (London: Thames & Hudson, 2011)

Marion Wallace, Lead Curator, Africa Ccownwork

01 July 2019

The Buddha’s long ‘journey’ to Europe and Africa

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This is the second of a series of blog posts looking forward to the British Library exhibition on Buddhism, 25 Oct 2019 - 23 Feb 2020.

Europeans became increasingly interested in the cultures and religions of the Middle East and Asia, or what they later called ‘the Orient’, as a result of trade relations throughout the first millennium CE. Images of Buddha with the Greek lettering ΒΟΔΔΟ (‘Boddo’ for Buddha) were found on gold coins from the Kushan empire dating back to the second century CE. Buddha was mentioned in a Greek source, ‘Stromateis’, by Clement of Alexandria as early as around 200 CE, and another reference to Buddha is found in St Jerome’s ‘Adversus Jovinianum’ written in 393 CE. A religious legend inspired by the narrative of the ‘Life of Buddha’ was well known in the Judaeo-Persian tradition and early versions in Persian, Arabic, Hebrew, Armenian and Georgian have been discovered. The story became commonly known as ‘Barlaam and Josaphat’ in medieval Europe. The name Josaphat, in Persian and Arabic spelled variously Budasf, Budasaf, Yudasaf or Iosaph, is a corruption of the title Bodhisattva which stands for ‘Buddha-to-be’, referring to Prince Siddhartha who became Gotama Buddha with his enlightenment.

01 Add MS 19352small
A mention of the legend of Barlaam and Josaphat in a marginal illustration in a manuscript famously known as the ‘Theodore Psalter’, although the story itself is not narrated here. Theodore, proto-presbyter of the Studios Monastery in Constantinople, made the manuscript in ancient Greek for Abbot Michael, in 1066 CE. British Library, Add MS 19352 f.34v Noc

Fragments of early versions of the legend seem to have been preserved in Manichean texts in Uighur and Persian from Turfan, and it is thought that Manicheans may have transmitted the Buddha narrative to the West. From there the story was translated into Arabic, and into Judeo-Persian and Syriac. An early Greek version is attributed to St John of Damascus (c. 675-749 CE) in most medieval sources, although recent researches reject this attribution as it is more probable that the Georgian monastic Euthymios carried out the translation from Georgian into Greek in the 10th century CE. It became particularly popular throughout the Christian world after it was translated into many different languages in the Middle Ages, including Latin, French, Provençal, Italian, Spanish, English, Irish, German, Czech, Serbian, Dutch, Norwegian and Swedish.

02 Or 4732
First page of an 18th-19th century poetical version of Barlaam and Josaphat with the title Shāhzādah ṿe-Tsūfī by Elisha ben Samuel in Persian in Hebrew characters. British Library, Or.4732 f.1r Noc

The spread of the legend of Barlaam and Josaphat in medieval Europe was a cultural phenomenon second to none at the time. Poetic and dramatized versions of the legend became what today would be called ‘bestsellers’. In Christian Europe these two names were commonly known and the Buddha as St Josaphat became a Saint with his own feast day in the Christian calendar: 27 November.

03 Egerton MS 745
Devotional Miscellany in Old French including the legend of Barlaam and Josaphat on 69 pages, France, first half of the 14th century. The illustration depicts Barlaam in black and Josaphat in white dress. British Library, Egerton MS 745 f. 131 Noc

Although based on the narrative of the Life of Buddha, the content of the legend of Barlaam and Josaphat was reshaped and supplemented to make it suitable for the Christian believer. In the Christianized story, an astrologer predicts that the newly-born son of King Avennir (or Abenner) in India, Josaphat, will become a follower of the Christian religion. To prevent this, the king forbade his son to leave the royal palace. The young prince was brought up in ignorance of sickness, old age and death. However, he found out about the dangers to life during excursions from the palace when he met a leper and a blind man, a decrepit old man and finally a corpse. To this point the parallels between the Buddha narrative and the legend of Barlaam and Josaphat are obvious, although names have been corrupted: King Suddhodana became King Avennir, and Prince Siddhartha became Josaphat (for Bodhisattva). Then events in the legend of Barlaam and Josaphat take a different turn, and some figures are mixed up with others, like for example Buddha’s enemy Devadatta and Mara, the lord of desire.

04 Add MS 35111
A 12th-century Latin translation of Barlaam and Josaphat from the Greek version attributed to John of Damascus. The manuscript was owned by the Weissenau Abbey in Germany. British Library, Add MS 35111 f. 2 Noc

A German version continues that after learning about sickness, old age and death, Josaphat met the Christian hermit Barlaam who converted him. Josaphat’s father attempted to dislodge his son from his new faith. He threatened him and then he promised him half the kingdom, but without success. Then the king met the sorcerer Theodas – a corruption of the name Devadatta – who advised him to send Josaphat beautiful women to seduce him, in which they did not succeed. In the Buddha narrative this scene is related to Mara instead of Devadatta. Josaphat was also attacked by Theodas’ evil spirits which he fought off. Josaphat decided to renounce the world and to spend the rest of his life as an ascetic. In the wilderness of the desert he was attacked by wild beasts and demons. Finally he was re-united with the hermit Barlaam, and they passed away shortly after one another.

05 IB.5919 a
An illustrated German version of Barlaam and Josaphat, printed in Augsburg around 1470 CE. Shown here is an illustration of Josasphat’s encounter of a blind man and a leper, and the text narrates how his attendants explain the reality of human suffering to him. British Library, IB.5919 Noc

06 IB.5919 b
Illustration of Josaphat’s (or the Bodhisattva’s) renunciation of the world in a German printed version from Augsburg, c. 1470 CE. He takes his leave from Barachias (left), whom he made king, and then embarks on the path of an ascetic (right). British Library, IB.5919 Noc

The legend became particularly popular in Germany through the Austrian poet Rudolf von Ems’ poetic German version that was composed on the basis of a Latin version around 1230 CE. In Scandinavia a translation into Old Norse was ordered by King Haakon Haakonsøn in the 13th century, which was the basis of later translations into Norwegian and Swedish. From a Syriac version translations into Old Slavonic and then Russian and Serbian were produced.

07 11426dd24
Rappresentatione di Barlaam et Josafat, an Italian poetic version by Bernardo Pulci printed in Florence in 1516 CE. The title page illustration depicts the birth of Josaphat in the imagination of a Christian artist. British Library, 11426.dd.24, title page Noc

Printing technology helped to mass-produce copies of the legend of Barlaam and Josaphat which made it more widely accessible. Frequently, pictures of Barlaam and Josaphat were added on the title page of printed works. Illustrations depicting scenes from the story were included in some printed books. Although the artistic representation of such images is characterized by the European fashion of that time, based on the imagination of artists who had never been to India, it is possible to identify certain scenes that are well known from the Life of Buddha. These include the Buddha’s birth as a prince, his four encounters, his renunciation of the world, Mara’s attack and assaults by Devadatta.

08 4827a31
Illustrated Italian version of Barlaam and Josaphat printed in Venice around 1650 CE. The illustration depicts one of the four signs: Josaphat’s encounter with a sick man (a leper). British Library, 4827.a.31 p.15 Noc

09 4823a13
Title page of a version in Spanish which attributes the legend to John of Damascus, ‘Doctor of the Greek Church’. It was printed in Madrid in 1608 CE. British Library, 4823.a.13, title page Noc

Europe was not the final destination of the Buddha narrative in form of the legend of Barlaam and Josaphat. The existence of the story was also known in Ethiopia, perhaps well before the 16th century. It was documented by Abha Bahrey, a 16th-century Ethiopian historian who mentioned the book, possibly a translation into Ge’ez (Ethiopic) from Greek, in his ‘Psalter of Christ’ dated 1528 CE. After the official adoption of Christianity in 330 CE, Ethiopian Christians began to translate the sacred texts: the Bible, the New Testament and the Pentateuch into the Ge'ez language. Many writings that were first compiled in Aramaic or Greek have been fully preserved only in Ge’ez as the sacred books of the Ethiopian Church. There is a vast corpus of scriptures that have survived exclusively only in Ge'ez.

Another translation into Ge’ez with the title Baralam and Yewasef was executed from the Arabic version of Bar-sauma ibn Abu 'l-Faraj by one 'Enbiikom’, or Habakkuk, for king ‘Galawdewds’, or Claudius. It is dated ‘A.M. 7045’ which corresponds to 1553 CE. A surviving copy was written during the reign of king 'Iyasu II. (1730—55 CE).

10 or_699_f004r
Handwritten version of Barlaam and Josaphat in Ge’ez (Ethiopic) with the title ‘Baralam and Yewasef’, copied at around 1746-55 from an older translation from Arabic into Ge’ez. British Library, Or. 699 f. 4 Noc

References and further reading:
Barlaam and Iosaph. Encyclopaedia Iranica (retrieved 06.06.2019)
Budge, E. A. W. S. Baralâm and Yĕwâsěf: Being the Ethiopic version of a Christianized recension of the Buddhist legend of the Buddha and the Bodhisattva. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1923
Cordoni, Constanza and Matthias Meyer (ed.) Barlaam und Josaphat: Neue Perspektiven auf ein Europäisches Phänomen. Berlin, Munich, Boston: De Gruyter, 2015
Hayes, Will. How the Buddha became a Christian Saint. Dublin: Order of the Great Companions, 1931
Schulz, Siegfried A. “Two Christian Saints? The Barlaam and Josaphat Legend.” India International Centre Quarterly, vol. 8, no. 2, 1981, pp. 131–143. JSTOR (retrieved 03.06.2019)
Toumpouri, Marina. Barlaam and Iosaph. A companion to Byzantine illustrated manuscripts edited by Vasiliki Tsamakda. Leiden, Boston: Brill, 2017, pp. 149-168

With thanks to Urs App for inspiration, and to Eyob Derillo, Ilana Tahan, Ursula Sims-Williams, Adrian Edwards, Andrea Clarke and Ven. Mahinda Deegalle for their advice and support.

Jana Igunma, Lead curator, Buddhism Ccownwork

 

23 January 2019

Researching the Asian and African Collections at the British Library

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The Asian and African department at the British Library began 2019 with one of the most important annual events in our calendar: a training day for students beginning their doctoral dissertations. Approximately fifty students from across the UK were introduced to the collections and the best ways to research them.

It was a ‘really fantastic’ experience, according to one participant, who explained that ‘the collections of the BL can be wonderful but overwhelming so it was incredibly helpful being introduced to what there is and how to use them’.

Items on display at the ‘Meet the Curators session’
Items on display at the ‘Meet the Curators session’

So, what were the top tips from the day? Where should researchers begin when confronted with the enormous collections at the British Library? If you haven’t used our collections yet – or if you have, but aren’t too sure how it all works – then this blog will get you started.


Where to start

The first place to look is our subject hub pages. (You can also get there from the front page of our website by going to the ‘Catalogues and Collections’ menu, then selecting ‘Overview of the Collections’.)

These pages give you a quick overview of what’s in the BL’s collections, how you can access it, and what you can get elsewhere. It’s an essential place to start, so that you know the sort of things you can search for in our catalogues and what we’re likely to have (as well as what we don’t have).
Subject hub image
Relevant subject hubs for Asian and African Studies via https://www.bl.uk/subjects


Understanding our collections

The British Library’s collections are huge. They are:

  • from all over the world
  • in all major world languages, and many others
  • in all disciplines, and
  • historical and contemporary.

We hold material in a very wide range of formats. If, so far, you’ve only thought about using books and manuscripts or archives, it could be worth asking how other items (perhaps sound recordings, or maps) could bring new dimensions to your research.

Collection formats
Different collection formats in the British Library


Searching the collections

There are two main catalogues:

Explore the British Library, for (mainly) published material:

  • Books and serials
  • Newspapers
  • Maps
  • Audio-visual material
  • Doctoral theses
  • E-resources
  • Archived websites
  • Printed music

Explore Archives and Manuscripts, for (mainly) unpublished material:

  • Archives
  • Manuscripts
  • Visual collections

Both catalogues indicate hard-copy and digital material.

Additional catalogues are also available via our website, and these may give more detail on particular collections. For example, the Sound and Moving Image catalogue is recommended for audio-visual collections.

Hebrew and Christian Orient curator Ilana Tahan
Hebrew and Christian Orient curator Ilana Tahan showing some BL collection items at the doctoral training day


Using the collections: in the Reading Rooms

For physical/hard-copy items, you’ll need to come into our Reading Rooms (having first obtained a Reader Pass). Our full collections are available for research at our main building in St Pancras, London. You can also see many items (but not everything) in our Reading Room at Boston Spa, Wetherby, Yorkshire.

For licensing reasons, some electronic material is only available on-site in our Reading Rooms. The most important thing to be aware of in this respect is our collection of subscription e-resources. These are electronic packages which the British Library buys and/or subscribes to. They include:

  • bibliographies and other reference tools
  • journals and e-books, and
  • collections of primary sources.

University libraries also offer these packages, but we have many things which individual libraries may not hold, so it’s always worth checking. The best way to find out what we have is to go to our electronic resources page.

Remote access to a few of these resources is available to Reader Pass holders, and may increase in future. Where this service is offered, it’s indicated on the electronic resources page.

Sample search for electronic resources on Japan
Sample search for electronic resources on Japan

The British Library is given one free copy of every book published or distributed in the UK. This is called legal deposit, and these days about half of this material come to us as e-books. These electronic publications are also only available in the Reading Rooms. These can be identified through Explore the British Library and read on the Reading Room computers.


Using the collections: online

We are digitising more and more of our collections, which means that some of the material you’ll find in our catalogues is available free online.

Manuscripts from our collections are available through the Digitised Manuscripts portal, which includes (but is not limited to) Ethiopic, Hebrew, Malay, Persian and Thai manuscripts. See the Asian and African Studies blog for more on these digitised manuscripts.

  • The Endangered Archives Programme offers large collections of archives and manuscripts from many African and Asian countries online. (The originals remain in the country of origin.)

Doctoral theses (dissertations) from most UK universities can be downloaded or requested via our EThOS service. In many cases, it’s free.

  • The Qatar Digital Library has digitised many India Office Records and Arabic manuscripts held by the British Library. These are of particular relevance to the history of the Middle East, but also relate to East Africa and the Horn, as well as other regions.

Many older books in our collections have been digitised and are available through Explore the British Library. When you find records for these items, you can click through to the full text, which is also available in Google Books.

Catalogue record and digitised full text of a work by the Rev. Samuel Ajayi Crowther, Bishop on the Niger
Catalogue record and digitised full text of a work by the Rev. Samuel Ajayi Crowther, Bishop on the Niger

For more information on what’s available online, see our Digital Collections page as well as the subject hub pages for your area.

And finally…talk to us!

We know that the BL is complicated and staff in Asian and African Collections are happy to point you in the right direction. You can reach us online, or by talking to the staff on the enquiry desk in the Asian and African Studies Reading Room. Enquiries are handled by a specialist reference team, and referred to curators if necessary.

And don’t forget our blog, a mine of information on our collections.

Discussions at the doctoral training day
Discussions at the doctoral training day


Marion Wallace, Lead Curator, Africa
https://blogs.bl.uk/.a/6a00d8341c464853ef022ad37726d4200c-pi

03 July 2018

Explore the British Library’s collections for Black British and Asian British Studies

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With the launch of the Black Britain and Asian Britain subject hub, we are offering a resource to help researchers find and engage with our collections and activities in these areas.

Equiano_frontispiece_c13316-36
First edition of the classic autobiography of Olaudah Equiano (BL 615.d.8)
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The hub page presents a mine of information on the British Library’s collections about the experience of people of African, Asian and Caribbean heritage in Britain. From it, you can access our collection guide pages, which cover our books and other printed material, manuscripts and archives, and sound and audio-visual collections. The guides explain what we hold, how to research it further, what you can see or listen to online, and what you can access if you come into our Reading Rooms.

Our collections are wide-ranging in these areas. You can get a peek at some of them through the collection guide pages: the title page of Olaudah Equiano’s 18th century autobiography, for example, or newspaper reports on Asian suffragettes, or extracts from manuscripts by Hanif Kureishi. Much more is held in our stores, like the publications of pioneer publishers Bogle L’Ouverture, New Beacon Books and other British Black and Asian publishers. Anyone who wants to see this material can do so – check out How to get a Reader Pass.

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A selection of printed books in the British Library’s collections
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The image on the subject hub page is a detail from the costume of a joyful carnival dancer, created by Ray Mahabir of Sunshine International Arts for our previous West Africa exhibition (which I had the pleasure to co-curate). Her costume is composed of a patchwork of Caribbean and West African textiles and symbolises the Black presence in Britain and its broader historical roots.

West_africa_bele_carnival_costume_ray_mahabir_3_by_Toby Keane_lores
Bele 
carnival costume, designed by Ray Mahabir (photograph: Toby Keane)
© Ray Mahabir

Further down the subject hub page, you’ll find examples of projects and people connected with these research areas, as well as relevant British Library blogs. Scroll down also to see a selection of events – full details to be found on our Events pages. These are wide-ranging, including talks, discussions, music, literature and comedy.

In addition to what’s offered on these new pages, there are also relevant Learning pages, showing what the British Library has to offer for children and young people. We also offer advice for people starting or running their own businesses.

Why create this web resource?
The launch of Black Britain and Asian Britain subject hub is the result of extensive discussion within the British Library, as well as some external consultation. Curators have long been aware of a gap in the information we make available about our collections. With the rise of Black British Studies as an academic discipline in particular, as well as a much longer history of the development of Black British and Asian British history, there is substantial interest in these subjects, from scholars and the public more generally.

This subject area demands a new approach to the way in which we present information about our collections on the British Library website. We tend to categorise by geographical area (Africa, the Americas, Asia); date (Contemporary Britain); or type of material (News media, Maps). And all these areas are relevant to Black British and Asian British Studies – whether it’s 18th or 19th century records or newspapers dealing with slavery, indenture and empire, 20th century books published in the UK, or sound recordings of nurses from Barbados of the Windrush generation.

Ayuba_suleiman_diallo_letter_p1_add_20783a_1r
Letter written by Ayuba Suleiman Diallo in his campaign to be released from enslavement (?1731) (BL Add MS 20783a)
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Our collections are multi-faceted. They reflect the British Library’s long history since the foundation of its predecessor, the British Museum, in 1753, and thus are connected to turbulent and controversial histories of race and empire. They have also come into being because as the UK’s national library and one of its six legal deposit libraries, we endeavour to obtain a copy of every UK publication. Since 2013 this has included electronic publications and websites. These collections are held in perpetuity for future readers and researchers, and now, for example, provide a resource for young people to become aware of the struggles of former generations who arrived in the UK. Our sound collections include recordings of the voices of members of these generations.

That these collections are hard to find was brought into relief by our Bringing Voices Together workshop held on 7 September 2017, organised by Chantelle Lewis, a PhD student at Goldsmith’s, University of London, during her placement with our Contemporary British collections. This was attended by writers, academics and publishers from Black British, Asian British and British Middle Eastern heritages. The workshop explored barriers to inclusivity in British publishing and heard about initiatives to combat this. Participants wanted the Library to do more to raise the profile of publishing by writers of colour, and to make it easier to find out about what the Library holds of particular relevance to people of African, Asian and Caribbean heritages.

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Sophia Duleep Singh selling The suffragette outside Hampton Court Palace, 1913 (BL L/PS/11/51)
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Finding the right words
Using a questionnaire, we asked participants at the Bringing Voices Together workshop for feedback about the structure and terminology to be used in these pages. We are more than aware that no terminology is perfect, and not everyone will agree with what we have used here. To help make our decisions, we have also had lengthy internal discussions, and in-depth conversations with two other external advisers, as well as carrying out some research into what is being used on the web.

The conclusions of this research were interesting, and made us reflect on recent history and the changing meanings of words. First, it was clear that BAME (Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic) was pretty universally disliked. What about Black? There was a time, in the 1960s and 1970s, when the term was used to reference a shared experience of racism in the UK, and many people of Asian origin adopted it. But that is no longer so much the case, and the point was strongly made to us that Black and Asian experiences in Britain are often quite different.

Should we then, we asked, be discussing resources for Black British Studies together with Asian British Studies? Respondents to the Bringing Voices Together questionnaire – who were generally positive about the idea of the pages – were about evenly divided on this issue. It is for this reason that we took up the suggestion of two respondents that the two areas should be ‘separate and grouped’, or ‘separate but linked’. The hub page is called ‘Black Britain and Asian Britain’, but the collection guides on the page are divided between these.

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The Poems of Phillis Wheatley, who was still enslaved when she published this volume in 1773 (BL 992.a.34)
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Our guides to Asian Britain follow the predominant British practice of focusing on South Asian heritages. This was a practical strategy to make the project manageable, but one that we know has shortcomings: our collections are rich in materials from the whole of Asia, and our holdings of British materials similarly reflect the academic and creative expression of people of a range of ethnicities with roots in East and South East Asia as well as the Middle East or Western Asia. Links on the Black Britain and Asian Britain pages take visitors to our resources on these parts of the world.

Overall, we are aware that there are many ways of defining identity in the UK, and other options besides the titles we have used. Our aim is not to exclude or divide, but to find a workable solution in a world of imperfect solutions.

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One of the only surviving manuscript letters of Ignatius Sancho (BL Add MS 89077)
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The terms Black Britain and Asian Britain themselves were a further point of discussion. We chose these broad headings because our practice is to use brief, clear demarcations in our subject pages, and academic disciplines (Black British Studies, for example) may seem exclusive outside academia. The British Library website also defines its collections in part by geographical area, and these terms fit into that pattern.

At the same time, we don’t want to suggest that Black Britain and Asian Britain are somehow separate from ‘mainstream’ Britain. Our point here is to foreground the presence, shared experience, activism and other contributions of people of colour in Britain, recognising how these communities have become integral to national life, not only since the arrival of the Windrush, but for centuries before then (a story we also tell in our current exhibition, Windrush: Songs in a Strange Land). At the same time, we want to make it possible for people to find resources directly relating to their own experience.

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Letter by C L R James, historian, journalist, intellectual and socialist (1965)
© Estate of CLR James

So we hope that we’ve reflected current thinking, and that these pages will fulfil a useful role in drawing attention to the rich and deep – and previously rather hidden – collections at the British Library. We’ll be listening to comments, and we’d love to hear about how you’re using these collections (contact Customer Services).

If you are involved in publishing, or creating your own publications, and would like to know more about depositing with the British Library, please see our Legal Deposit page. Items deposited can include books, magazines, pamphlets, zines, newsletters, reports or websites.

Marion Wallace, Lead Curator, Africa
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02 May 2018

‘Soo Dhawoow’: Somali community welcomed to the British Library

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On Wednesday 7 March, the British Library welcomed members of the local Somali community to the Learning Centre for the first ever ‘show and tell’ of the Library’s Somali collections. Further to the success of the opening event of the Somali Week Festival, which the Library hosted last October, ‘Soo Dhawoow’ , meaning ‘welcome’ , invited artists, students, poets and historians from the Somali Community to participate in a proactive archiving engagement.

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Photo credit: Venetia Menzies
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The Somali collections at the British Library, which range from archives and sound recordings to photographs and printed books, contain vital cultural and historical information on Somalia and Somalis, both at home and as part of the diaspora. The collections in the Somali language include books, periodicals, sound recordings, microfilms, maps and newspapers. There are also bibliographies of writings in Somali. In addition to this, the British Library holds a wide variety of relevant published materials in other languages such as English, Arabic, Italian, French, German, Russian, Dutch and Swedish.

Attendees were shown the highlights of the Library’s Somali collections, including two 20th century wooden Qur’an boards, ritually used for rote learning of the Holy Scripture, as well as printed books in languages such as Somali, English and German.

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Qurʼan board BL Or.16442. Photo credit: Venetia Menzies
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The British Library also holds historic manuscripts and archives relating to Somalia and Somalis including correspondence about Somalia and Somaliland in the India Office Records and the India Office Private Papers. During the colonial period, the British Raj, the UK’s authority in India, managed the Empire’s holdings in the Horn of Africa and East Africa. To find archives and manuscripts, go to our catalogue Explore Archives and Manuscripts. These collections are currently being digitised and are available in the Qatar Digital Library. Photographic collections include studio portraits of members of the Somali diaspora in Aden which were published in an 1877 publication An Account of the British Settlement at Aden in Arabia compiled by Captain Frederick Mercer Hunter.

Representation of the Somali community was a key theme explored in the discussion at the engagement event, specifically the legacies of colonial photography.

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Male Somali’ from An Account of the British Settlement of Aden in Arabia, London, 1877, compiled by Captain F.M. Hunter (Printed collections T.11308)
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Given the need to expand existing heritage collections and open discussion, the Library’s Somali Collections Project Officer Mahamed Ali worked with visual artist Venetia Menzies to develop a unique programme for this community event. ‘Soo Dhawoow’ not only provided an insight into the Library’s Somali collections but asked the participants to produce heritage archives of their own.

In response to the artefacts, written books and poetry in the Somali collections, participants later contributed artistic responses that expressed their own snapshot of Somali culture as members of the diaspora. The results were wide-ranging, including an array of mediums such as photography, poetry, paintings and graphic designs. These were exhibited at London Gallery West from March 27th to April 3rd.

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One of the participants, Huda Hassan, a graphic designer, depicted Somali idioms such as ‘cagta wax ka dey’, which literally means ‘search feet’ and is a metaphor for ‘run’. Huda said that the engagement event was ‘informative’, and ‘very promising’, but noted that the scope of the collections could be developed. The British Library welcomes suggestions for this collection, specifically from those publishing books in Somali from around the world.

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Artist Credit: Huda Hassan
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Anab Aided, a painter, produced colourful paintings of Somali staple goods, as well as common onomatopoeia in the Somali language. Anab, an art teacher working with Somali children with the Galbur Foundation, also encouraged her students to contribute. They produced a colourful selection of pictures and drawings depicting aspects of Somali culture.

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Photo Credit: Anab Aided and Venetia Menzies
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The youngest attendee, Khadar Mahi, contributed a poem depicting the Somali landscape that was eloquent in both English and Somali. Khadar’s main interests are physics and poetry, which he claims are one and the same.

All the livestock
within your sight
whichever way you look,
grazing near the homestead.

The herding youth
in their white sheets
resting in the shade,
passing time with games,
chatting without a care.
(Poetry: Khadar Mahi)

Photographer Abdul Aziz Ismail contributed photographs depicting his journey by sea from Yemen to Somalia, as well as from Bosaso in Puntland.

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Photo Credit: Abdul Aziz Ismail
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Mohamed Mohamud, founder of the project Somali Sideways, contributed portraits from his ongoing body of work. Somali Sideways collates portraits of Somalis from around the world standing sideways, aiming to highlight that there are always two sides to an individual. It provides a platform for representations of the success, determination and entrepreneurship that characterise the Somali diaspora. These works were exhibited alongside portraits of the participants.

The British Library’s Somali collections exist for the public to view. A reader pass for the Library is free, and offers everyone the opportunity to experience these collections for themselves. The British Library is always seeking to expand its outreach with regard to its collections, so individuals within the Somali community in the UK are encouraged to engage with the collection. The British Library also has a growing number of printed books in the Somali language, which offer an indispensable source of information for older members as well as young people in the Somali community to use for their own comprehension.

To find out more about our collections, you can search our main catalogue Explore. For more information on the British Library’s holdings see our subject guide to African collections.


Mahamed Ali, Somali Collections Project Officer
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09 February 2018

Introducing Doctoral Students to the Asian and African Collections at the British Library

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Curators of the Asian and African Collections recently welcomed 45 eager doctoral students to a training day at the British Library. The session, for students in the first year of their PhDs, provided an introduction to the research materials on offer at the BL. Students came from universities throughout the UK, including Glasgow, Strathclyde and Newcastle.

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On display at the doctoral open day: (left) Ganjifa card set featuring the avatars of Vishnu from 19th-century Orissa, India (BL Or 13,692); (right) illustration of animals, probably for a board game. Commissioned by Richard Johnson, Lucknow, c. 1780-82 (BL Johnson Album 5,9)

We know that our vast and wide-ranging collections may be a little daunting when starting out on research. The annual doctoral open day aims to give students an understanding of the overall picture, as well as helping them to start navigating the collections in the best way for their own research.

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(Left) a comic from the British Library’s Arabic collections: Skefkef, issue 3, published in Morocco; (right) section of Qur’an board, probably from Somalia, used for learning the Qur’an (BL Or. 16442)

The day began with a talk on research at the British Library, and an overview of the Asian and African Collections ­from the Head of Department, Dr Luisa Mengoni. Curators then gave introductions to our holdings on and from:

There were also presentations on the India Office Records and from our Digital Research team. The British Library’s materials are in many formats – books, serials, newspapers, electronic resources, manuscripts and archives, maps, audio-visual items and philatelic material. The Asian and African Collections have material in all the major languages of Asia and Africa, and in many less widely spoken languages too.

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A wide range of exhibits on display at the doctoral open day

After this glimpse of what’s available, students received practical help in using the catalogues as well as an opportunity to see displays of richly illuminated manuscripts, books, and other treasures from our collections. There was plenty of time to interact with curators and gain advice on individual research projects.

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The Turkish and Turkic stand

The afternoon finished with a talk by Dr Richard Williams, Lecturer in Ethnomusicology at SOAS, University of London, who shared his experiences of using the British Library’s collections and provided plentiful tips for life after the PhD.

The day brought together students with a huge range of research interests, from women’s translations of the Qur’an to the medical history of refugee camps, and provided opportunities to get to know other doctoral researchers in similar or different disciplines.

95% of those completing feedback forms rated the day ‘excellent’ or ‘very good’. Most important, students’ confidence in their ability to do their research at the BL vastly increased. The proportion of those ‘confident’ or ‘very confident’ in using our collections rose from 27% beforehand to 100% at the end of the day. ‘Very useful & good day,’ one student commented. ‘Staff were very helpful and approachable.’

What next? The next Asian and African doctoral open day will be held early in 2019, for students starting their PhDs in autumn 2018.

In the meantime, current PhD students are invited to apply for a range of 3-month PhD research placements at the British Library.

These projects include:

The closing date for applications is 19 February 2018.

Marion Wallace, Lead Curator, African Collections, with thanks to colleagues for the wide range of photographs
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05 February 2018

African Scribes: Manuscript Culture of Ethiopia

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February 6th marks the opening of a new display, “African Scribes: Manuscript Culture of Ethiopia,” in the British Library’s Sir John Ritblat Treasures Gallery. It will be the first exhibit to be held at the Library devoted entirely to Ethiopian manuscripts, exploring the culture of a manuscript tradition which extends back to the early centuries of the Christian era.

The Ethiopian collections in the British Library include over 500 manuscripts most of which are written in Ge'ez and were acquired from the mid-eighteenth century onwards. The collection is especially strong in illuminated manuscripts of the 16th and 17th centuries and also contains, in addition to biblical texts, an important collection of Ethiopian magical and divinatory scrolls. On display is a selection of twelve exhibits chosen to demonstrate the arts of painting and calligraphy besides serving as an introduction to Ethiopian literary traditions.

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Christ, the Virgin Mary, Michael, Gabriel and the Twelve Apostles appearing to St. Takla Haymanot at Easter. From the Life and Acts of St. Takla Haymanot. 18th century (BL Or. 728, ff. 80-81)
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Highlights of the display are:

The Four Gospels

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St. Luke the Evangelist accompanied by two disciples. At his feet are two Abyssinian ground hornbills. Lasta, early 17th century (BL Or. 516, f.100v)
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The four Gospels are the central religious scriptures of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church which traces its history to the first century AD, when an Ethiopian court official on pilgrimage to Jerusalem was met on his way back by St. Philip who baptised him (Acts of the Apostles 8:26-40).


The Octateuch, the Four Gospels and other ecclesiastical works

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The adoration of the Magi, 17th century (BL Or. 481, f. 101r)
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Written on parchment in Ge'ez during the second half of the 17th century, this manuscript consists of the first eight books of the Old Testament (Genesis-Ruth), the Gospels and other ecclesiastical works. It is decorated with coloured borders and contains many illustrations. This volume also contains copies of many 14th century deeds of gift and grants of various kings.


Deggwa or Hymnbook

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A portrait of the 13th century St. Takla Haymanot, founder of the monastery of Debra Libanos and one of the most revered saints of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. The priests are depicted in distinguishable turbans, colourful robes and holding crosses and multi-coloured umbrellas (BL Or. 584, f.154v)
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The Deggwa is the liturgical collection of hymns and chants used in the Ethiopian Church. The hymns are arranged according to the calendar and divided by the seasons of the liturgical year. The book also provides the orders of service for various feasts of saints, martyrs, angels, Sundays and festivals such as Antiphonary for the Fast of Lent. The composition of hymns in the Deggwa is attributed to St. Yared of Aksum (505-571 AD).


The Revelation of St. John

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St John in the presence of God. Illuminated manuscript with 126 paintings illustrating the life and death of the apostle St. John. Gondar, Ethiopia 1700-1730 (BL Or. 533, f. 3r)
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The Revelation of St. John of Ephesus is the last book in the New Testament, traditionally called Abuqalamisis in Ethiopian. This copy was composed at the beginning of the eighteenth century for King ʻlyasu I (r. 1682–1706) and Queen Walatta Giyorgis. This volume is an exceptional example of Ethiopian art containing 126 paintings. This painting was inspired by a series of woodcuts depicting the Apocalypse by the 16th-century German artist Albrecht Dürer.


Carry case for a Psalter

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Leather bag containing a manuscript Psalter (BL Or.9036)
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The Psalter is one of the most frequently copied texts. Used as a daily prayer-book in religious ceremonies, it needed to be portable. This example is preserved with its traditional carry case.


Copper gilt cover of the Life and Acts of St. Takla Haymanot

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Front cover of the Life and Acts of St. Takla Haymanot, one of the most revered saints of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. 18th century (BL Or. 728)
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This manuscript was copied during the reign of king ‘Iyasu II (r. 1730-55) and, like the majority of Ethiopian manuscripts in the British Library, has retained its original binding. This is the only known example, however, of a copper gilt cover, comprising carvings of figures and of the cross.

Digital Ethiopian
Our Ethiopian manuscripts are being digitised as we write as part of Heritage made Digital. This is one of the Library’s five main focuses for the coming years and for the first time, the British Library has allocated a part of its government grant towards digitisation. During the next two years we aim to digitise some 250 manuscripts from the Ethiopian collection. The first 25 manuscripts are already available online. We’ll be writing more about Ethiopian manuscripts as they go live so follow us on Twitter @BLAsia_Africa and watch this space to keep in touch!

Eyob Derillo, Cataloguer, Ethiopian Manuscripts Digitisation Project
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13 December 2017

A handbook of Ethiopian magic incantations and talisman art

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Currently on display in our exhibition Harry Potter: History of Magic are two intriguing items from Ethiopia: an amulet (Or.12859) and a magical manuscript (Or.11390). Ethiopian amulets and magical recipe books such as these are a striking and very distinctive form of Ethiopian Christian material culture, yet they remain a relatively poorly understood and understudied topic. Part of a rich magical literature of incantation, these manuscripts are also adorned with a variety of illustrations which were created for spiritual edification and for protection from real or imagined harm. While Christian icons were intended to promote spiritual growth, Ethiopian magical art consists of visual representations of the world of demons and evil spirits, making the invisible visible for all believers.

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An Ethiopian magical recipe book, 1750. These pages contain talismans and geometric images used for making amulet scrolls, and are accompanied by prayers for undoing spells and charms (BL Or.11390, ff. 12-13)
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Practitioners’ handbooks such as the recipe book portrayed above, are remarkably difficult to decode for the reason that they were intended as purely personal documents for personal use only. This annotated, magical recipe book is written in Ge’ez, also known as classic Ethiopic. It contains a rich collection of amulets, talismans, charms and incantations. From the marginal notes, we can guess that it belonged to a practitioner of magic, an exorcist (dabtara), who would have been a highly educated, ordained layman. Dabtaras typically study for several years or come from families of clergy. Since medieval times, they have worked in the courts or have taught in small parish schools, supplementing their income by producing amulet scrolls and practising traditional medicine.

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Amulet scrolls, one with a protective cylindrical case. Ethiopia, 18th century (BL Or.12859)
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Handbooks are the main source used for producing amulets and talismanic drawings. Amulets, written on leather or metal, have been worn by Ethiopians and other peoples in the Horn of Africa for thousands of years. This practice remains strongest in the northern Highlands of Ethiopia, where amulets are believed to bring health, to protect babies and to ward off the evil eye. The parchment scrolls themselves are known as Ketab, and they vary considerably in length. They are kept in leather cases, or, as shown above, in a cylindrical silver case, which can be hung up at home or worn around the neck, depending on their size. This particular scroll contains prayers for undoing spells (maftehé seray), after which the talismanic drawings were added, giving effect to its powers. The drawings have a specific purpose: they are intended to cure sickness, to exorcize demons and to protect those taking long and difficult journeys.

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Examples of amulet scrolla (BL Or.13228, above; BL Or.15594, below)
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An example of a talisman, is the eight-pointed star below, with four vertical and horizontal arms and a human face in the centre. The magical properties of this figurative drawing lie in the hidden symbolism. The eight-pointed star is a common motif, but has no traceable roots, appearing also in Islamic and Jewish Kabbalistic tradition.

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Image of an eight-pointed star (BL Or.15594, detail)
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Harry Potter: A History of Magic is open in the British Library PACCAR Gallery until Wed 28 Feb 2018.


Further reading

Mercier, Jacques, Art That Heals: The Image as Medicine in Ethiopia. New York: Prestel, 1997.

———, Ethiopian Magic Scrolls. New York: G. Braziller, 1979.

 

Eyob Derrillo, Asian and African Collections
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