Asian and African studies blog

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38 posts categorized "Africa"

27 May 2020

Èṣù at the BL: Journeys Through Literature and Technology

A sculpture of Esu against a backdrop of books
A sculpture of Èṣù. (©, used by permission)

This character in Yorùbá mythology, Èṣù, achieved a somewhat more controversial status at the beginning of the 19th Century when it entered into literature. (The name is sometimes written as “Eshu” or “Exu/Echu” in Latin American literature or Legba, Elegba, Laaroye, Legba, Elegbara, among many others).

Oyelaran (2020) describes the deity as “the most important primordial bastion of the Yorùbá people’s metaphysical embodiments of organising and regulatory existential principles.” A mouthful of a description, more comprehensive than previous easy substitutions like "trickster god" or "messenger god", which have been used in the past, especially in Western literature. Wọlé Ṣóyínká calls Èṣù a “master dialectician” — one of the many important deities in the Yorùbá religious system, notable for its role as a sort of intermediary for other higher deities. Èṣù’s errands, according to stories in Ifá literature, were of different shapes, but the outcome — at least for those who crossed paths with him — could be either good or bad. But it was never just one thing, and those who worshipped it, or encountered it in a shrine or on the road, knew what propitiation was necessary to avoid its wrath or seek its warmth or direct them on another errand. Sophie Olúwọlé called Èṣù something akin to a policeman, a law enforcement agent who did not make rules but was often called upon to enforce them.

In the early 19th century, however, notably at the hands of the early missionary translators, Èṣù became something else: a total and exclusive symbol of evil. In translating the words “Satan” and “Devil” in his book Vocabulary of the Yorùbá Language (1843) [Digital Store 1333.f.23.], Samuel Ajayi Crowther had settled on “Èṣù” as the most appropriate word.

A listing of words including Satan along with its Yoruba translation
The entry on “Satan”. (Crowther, Samuel, Vocabulary of the Yoruba Language: Part 1 (London: Church Missionary Society, 1843). (General Reference Collection 1333.f.23)).
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Àjàyí Crowther was an early missionary and the first African Bishop on the Niger. A Yorùbá man himself — though he was kidnapped as a child and sold into slavery. After his rescue by the British, he was educated in Sierra Leone and eventually returned home. He was intimately familiar with Yorùbá religious and cultural patterns, which made his choice of "Èṣù" for "Satan" an odd one. By settling on this rendering, however, history was forever changed. It had huge, perhaps unintended, consequences for the worship of the deity, the attitude to those who bore it as a root morpheme in their names (Èsùbíyì, Èsùgbàyí, Èsùlékè, Dáraléṣù, etc), and the perception of good and evil in Yorùbá culture and religion. (The same, later, happened in Igbo with “Ekwensu”).

Subsequent dictionaries of Yorùbá followed this particular tradition, retaining Èṣù as the appropriate translation of Satan, devil, or even demon. The Dictionary of Yorùbá Language, published by the Church Missionary Society in 1913 [X.208/3458.], did the same, as did many others. (See this review of Yorùbá dictionaries to see how Èṣù was rendered throughout history till current time). It was only natural that when technology took over as the repository of words and translations, Google Translate began to render the translation of Èṣù as “Satan” or “devil” or “demon” as well. This didn’t go well with a number of people. Adherents did not take too kindly to the association with evil, although for over a century they could not do anything about it.

Oríta Mẹ́ta by Moussa Kone, ink and watercolour on paper, 76 x 56 cm, painted in 2020. (© Moussa Kone, used by permission).

When I worked at Google from 2015-2016, I worked on the first permanent fix of that online problem. I have written about that in a 2016 blog post. In the end, Èṣù, having no direct equivalent in English, was retained as “Esu" in English translation on Google Translate. Demon became “Ànjọ̀nú”, and Devil/evil became “Bìlísì” — a Yorubanized version of “Iblis”, an Arabic word for devil (which had also shown up in later translation of the bible in the line for “deliver us from evil” as “gba wa lowo bilisi”).

I had known for a while that Àjàyí Crowther had something to do with the misrepresentation of Èṣù in modern imagination — Wole Ṣóyínká in 1976 had alleged that the Bishop had “grovelled before his white missionary superiors in a plea for patience and understanding of his ‘backward, heathen, brutish’ brothers”. But many who have engaged with the topic over the years had assumed that this mistranslation happened during the Bishop’s translation of the Bible. It was, earlier this year, while working with the physical copy of The Vocabulary of Yorùbá at the British Library (referenced earlier) that I discovered the original source of the problem. It predated the work on the Bible by a number of years.

Figures of Esu2
Figures of Èṣù published in the Dictionary of Modern Yorùbá. (Abraham, Roy Clive, H. J. Sutton (illustrator), Dictionary of Modern Yoruba (London: University of London Press, 1958).) (12912.m.25)
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Now while one could argue that the skills used in dictionary lexicography are necessarily different from those used in prose translation, the eventual consequences of the choice of words used still point to the influence of Christian ideas about good and evil in the Bishop’s lexicographical choices. In today’s spoken Yorùbá, the word Èṣù is used interchangeably with ‘devil’ or ‘satan’, to the consternation of those cognisant of the initial error. But this is only in Nigeria. The diaspora Yorùbá in Cuba, Brazil, and other parts of Latin America appear to have kept the deity in his place of reverence and celebration, along with the other deities.

Most dictionaries of Yorùbá, alas, have followed Àjàyí Crowther. Even dictionaries published as late as Kayode Fakinlede’s 2003 Modern Practical Dictionary [YC.2006.a.19076] have retained that original “evil” association. Most who speak the language today do not even know of the time when the association wasn’t always present. To call someone “Ọmọ Èṣù” in Yorùbá today only means “child of the devil”. So whether the bell of the evil linkage can be successfully unrung is a question that will remain up in the air.

Kọ́lá Túbọ̀sún is a Nigerian linguist and writer, author of Edwardsville by Heart, a collection of poetry. He is 2019/2020 Chevening Research Fellow at the British Library.
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Ayankunle, Lamidi (bata); Baba Lati (bata); Baba Nasiru (bata),Eshu (Erin Osun, Osun State, Nigeria: 1985). [Live performance] ( ^A184405)

Harper, Peggy (sound recordist), “Eṣu”, on Peggy Harper African Recordings (Otu, Iseyin district, Western State, Nigeria: 18 November 1968). ( ^A250464). Available for listening in the British Library reading rooms only.

Ogundipẹ, Ayọdele, Èșù Elegbára: change, chance, uncertainty in Yorùbá mythology (Ilorin, Kwara State : Kwara State University Press, 2012). [ Asia, Pacific & Africa YP.2020.a.678 ]

Ogundele, W., “Esu-Elegbara: Ambivalence in Yoruba philosophy,” in Bayreuth African Studies, 38 (2001), pp. 29-36. ( 1871.242550 )

Ogunyẹmi, Wale, Eshu Elegbara (Ibadan: Orisun Acting Editions, 1970.) ( X.908/25448 ).


Further readings

Adefarakan, Temitope, “ 'At a Crossroads': Spirituality and The Politics of Exile: The Case of the Yoruba Orisa ,” Obsidian, 9:1 (2008), pp. 31-58.

Bacelar da Silva, Antonio José, “Exu is not Satan – the dialogics of memory and resistance among Afro-Brazilians,” African and Black Diaspora: An International Journal, 13:1 (2020), pp. 54-67. (doi: 10.1080/17528631.2019.1637143)

Kone, Moussa, “ Yorùbá Dictionaries ,” Orisha Image Blog, 15 May 2018.

Oyèláràn, Ọ., “ Èṣù and ethics in the Yorùbá world view ,” Africa, 90:2 (2020), pp. 377-407. (doi:10.1017/S0001972019001098)

23 March 2020

Ulli Beier at the British Library

I occasionally come across relevant materials in the British Library collection in connection with my original mandate on the Yorùbá print materials (see earlier blog post), even when they are not published in my target language, Yorùbá.

Recently, I stumbled on the materials on Ulli Beier, the German writer, editor, curator, and art scholar and enthusiast who lived in Nigeria between 1950 and 1966, and whose papers and other archives reside now in Osogbo at the Centre for Black Culture and International Understanding, and at the Iwalewa Haus at Bayreuth University in Germany.

Yoruba myths Yoruba poetry

The distance between Beier’s work and the Yorùbá collections at the Library isn’t much, in fact. The writer’s creative output during his stay in Nigeria includes a number of original writings in the Yorùbá, translations from and into the language, and the promotion of work of writers producing in the language to the rest of the world. His work of translation of traditional Yorùbá poetry, myths, and proverbs into English are some of the most notable works of documentation done by any one person during that period.

His interest was in art and oral literature, but also drama, performance, and written literature. He helped introduce to an international audience, some of Nigeria’s later successful writers and artists, from Wọlé Ṣóyínká to Chinua Achebe with both of whom he founded the Mbari Club in Ìbàdàn and the M̀bárí M̀báyọ̀ in Òṣogbo; Dúró Ládípọ̀; and many others he published in Black Orpheus, a literary and arts magazine he edited. His first wife, Susanne Wenger, remained in Òṣogbo and became a devotee of the river goddess, and artist. As a creative writer himself, Beier also often published under the Yorùbá pen name "Ọ̀bọ́túndé Ìjímèrè".

30 years of Oshogbo art

The following are some of his works — or works related to him — that I have found in the British Library Catalogue relating to Yorùbá.

There are a number of other works about Beier, not particularly relevant to this write-up, just as there are a few dozen others about his work on Nigerian poetry in English as well as his work on Papua New Guinea. All these can be found in the British Library catalogue.

Yoruba poetry2 The stolen images

Here are a few more, including some published under his adopted Yorùbá penname “Ọ̀bọ́túndé Ìjímèrè”.

Researchers interested in the life and work of Beier will find a lot to benefit their work using the Library’s extensive collections on the man without whom a lot of what came to define Nigerian literature and art movements in the sixties and seventies may not have come to be.

Kọ́lá Túbọ̀sún is a Nigerian linguist and writer, author of Edwardsville by Heart, a collection of poetry. He is 2019/2020 Chevening Research Fellow at the British Library.

30 December 2019

African Literature through the Language Lens: The Yorùbá Example

As one of the two 2019/2020 Chevening Research Fellows at the British Library, my work revolves around literature produced in Yorùbá.

Literature written by Africans in African languages existed before African literature in English (or other European languages). This fact, frequently overlooked, has coloured the discussion of what we talk about whenever we explore “African literature”. Some of the first writings we instinctively think or talk about when discussing African literature, for instance, are usually in English: Amos Tútùọlá’s Palm Wine Drinkard (1952), Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart (1958), Cyprian Ekwensi’s Jagua Nana (1961), among others. But the history of writing and publishing literature by Africans in Africa started much earlier, and in other African languages.

You can find some earlier newspapers published in Yorùbá at the British Library.
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On November 23, 1859, the first newspaper in Nigeria was published in Abeokuta, titled Ìwé Ìròhìn Fún Àwọn Ará Ẹ̀gbá àti Yorùbá. It was printed by the printing press of Henry Townsend, established five years earlier as an arm of the missionary endeavour he was involved in, and as a way to keep the few literate people in “high society” engaged in the day-to-day of society. The newspaper was published in both Yorùbá and English. It was published every fifteen days and sold for 120 cowries (about a penny at the time). Its readership rose to around 3000 subscribers before it went belly-up after the printing press was burnt during one of the skirmishes between the British visitors and the Ẹ̀gbá residents.

In 1891, another iteration of the paper resurrected in Lagos, retaining a version of the original name. Now it was called Ìwé Ìròhìn Yorùbá àti Èkó — the newspaper of Yorùbá and Lagos. The word “Yorùbá” at this point had just begun to be adopted as the general name for all the people who speak associated languages and dialect, and who live in South-western Nigeria. Before then, the word had only referred to the Oyo people. Others retained their own ethnic names: Ẹ̀gbá, Ìjẹ̀bú, Èkìtì, Ìjẹ̀ṣà, Yàgbà, etc.

Masthead of Yoruba paper Ìwé Ìròhìn Èkó. First page of Yoruba newspaper Ìwé Ìròhìn Èkó 9 May 1891.
Ìwé Ìròhìn Èkó (1891) was one of the first newspapers published in both Yorùbá and English. (1866.c.5.(18.))
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Through these publications, many of which were printed in both Yorùbá and English, the educated elite found ways to learn about what was going on in other parts of the world. Through letters to the editor, they were also able to respond, and participate in ongoing civil and social debates. It was not surprising to read then, for instance, that many Africans had read, debated, and written rejoinders to the infamous Berlin Conference of 1884 which codified the demarcation of the continent. According to this Al Jazeera news opinion , “a week before it closed, the Lagos Observer declared that ‘the world had, perhaps, never witnessed a robbery on so large a scale.’" The Lagos Observer was another one of those newspapers at the time, established in 1882. (The British Library holds copies from 1882 to 1888 in microfilm).

In 1928, another one of those newspapers was founded, called Akéde Èkó (The Lagos Herald). It was edited by Isaac Babalọlá Thomas (1888-1963), journalist and writer. In 1929, he wrote what has been generally agreed upon as “the first Yorùbá novel.” The work, titled Ìtàn Ìgbésí Ayé Èmi Ṣẹ̀gílọlá Ẹlẹ́yinjú Ẹgẹ́ Ẹlẹ́gbẹ̀rún Ọkọ L’áíyé ( The story of my life; me, Segilola, one with delicate eyes and a thousand living husbands ), was published first as a serial, disguised as a letter to the editor by a dying old lady willing to spill the story of her exciting and sometimes tawdry adventures on the pages of the newspapers. When it was eventually published, with the author being credited merely as a custodian of the story by the “anonymous” lady, it caused some scandal in the new society not used to reading such open discussion of sexual relationships.

Cover of Print Culture and the first Yoruba Novel.
Print Culture and the First Yorùbá Novel” edited by Karin Barber. (Print culture and the first Yoruba novel : I.B. Thomas's 'Life story of me, Sẹgilọla' and other texts , edited by Karin Barber (Leiden: Brill, 2012). (YD.2012.a.5228)
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There had been many pamphlets, religious texts, poems, tracts, etc. published before this time, some of them unattributed to anyone but religious organisations. But over the next decades, scores of literary works — short stories, novelettes, novels, travelogues, poetry and other personal narratives were published to limited audiences literate in Yorùbá and in the culture of the changing times. By the time the first notable English language novel The Palm Wine Drinkard was published in 1952, it had a whole generation of Nigerian Yorùbá literary oeuvre to longingly gesture towards, and borrow from.

The fame of the English language genre would come to eventually supplant and stunt the growth of Nigerian-language creative output in the subsequent generations. By the mid-eighties, long after the departure or nationalization of the earlier British establishment firms that had published some of the earlier Nigerian writers, including D.O. Fágúnwà, J.F. Ọdúnjọ and Adébáyọ̀ Fálétí, the creative output in the local language also seemed to gradually disappear. Today, there is no reputable institution publishing Nigerian language fiction or drama or poetry. There are still publications, but they are mostly self-publications with no peer review or professional vetting and critical appraising mechanism.

As a 2019/2020 Chevening Research Fellow, my work over this next year will examine the Yorùbá language collections in the British Library — containing over two hundred years of documentation and preservation — to draw patterns, find gaps, identify trends and relevant research directions for future researchers who will come to use the Library, and generally provide expert analysis of the Library’s Yorùbá language material holdings. And sometimes, non-Yorùbá texts of relevance will also come my way, as one did a few weeks ago when I discovered that the original typescript of Wọlé Ṣóyínká’s Ìdànrè, eventually published in 1965, resides in the manuscript section at the Library, still bearing the marking, handwritings and musical directions of the then 31 year-old-author.

I also happen to be a linguist, interested in the growth, development, and sustenance of the Yorùbá language (and other Nigerian languages) in literature, education, governance and technology in the 21st century. And so, I will be looking to better understand the evolution of the orthography of the language, through the texts that have carried it in literature from its early beginnings until today. The work of forbearers like Samuel Ajayi Crowther to Ayo Bamgbose stand as guiding lights, as do the work of faceless and notable writers of the Yorùbá language whose texts provide the most visible account of the language and its journey from just a spoken language to a medium of transmitting generations of stories, both in fiction and history, in the many written patterns and styles.

My thought process on these discoveries will be shared on the British Library blog as the year unfolds.

Kọ́lá Túbọ̀sún is a Nigerian linguist and writer, author of Edwardsville by Heart, a collection of poetry. He is 2019/2020 Chevening Research Fellow at the British Library.
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09 December 2019

Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic Designers promoting Aids awareness on Asian, African & Middle Eastern postage stamps (2)

World Aids Day was first marked on 1 December 1988, an historic event commemorated by the issue of postage stamps all over the world, including in Asia, Africa and the Middle East. As noted in the first of this two-part blog post, issued on 1 December 2019, the philatelic material produced then and in subsequent years can thus provide important insights into Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) contributions towards art and design, and more examples are presented in the second part of this post.

Ethiopia issued three stamps commemorating World Aids Day on 18 June 1991. Lithograph-printed by the State Printing Works in Vienna, each one depicts a design created by Ethiopian artist Million Abiyou.
Figure 14_20191126_10405191  Figure 15_20191126_10414529
British Library, Philatelic Collections: UPU Collection, Ethiopia
The 15c stamp charts the decline of a young Ethiopian man’s heath until his death after contracting HIV and Aids. The 85c stamp depicts a lecturer teaching an unspecified audience about Aids prevention.
Figure 16_20191126_10422793
British Library, Philatelic Collections: UPU Collection, Ethiopia
This 1b stamp depicts preventative measures to reduce the risk of contracting HIV and Aids, including practicing ‘safe sex’ as well as avoiding needles, razors and other items containing blood possibly contaminated with HIV and Aids. It also depicts a family sheltered underneath an umbrella symbolising protection.

Figure 17_20191126_10512158  Figure 18_20191126_10514990
British Library, Philatelic Collections: Publicity Material, Cyprus
On 13 December 1991, the Turkish Cypriot Post issued a 1000 TL stamp commemorating World Aids Day. Designed by Sanatcinin Adi it depicts four different sources of infection including safe sex, drug, transmission of infected blood and an unborn baby contracting the disease of an infected mother. The British Library’s Philatelic Collections does not hold an example of the stamp but does have the publicity leaflet released by the Postal Authority containing information on its manufacture, production and sale.

Figure 19_20191126_10532183
British Library, Philatelic Collections: UPU Collection, Morocco
Morocco issued a 3f stamp commemorating World Aids Day on 20 November 1991. Produced by Belgian artist Lisette Delooz’s design depicts two figures within a splash of blood.

On 31 January 1992, Kenya issued four stamps lithograph-printed by Cartor as part of an Anti-Aids Campaign. Each one has a separate design created by designer H. Mogul.

Figure 20_20191126_10071468  Figure 21_20191126_10073416
British Library, Philatelic Collections: Crown Agents Philatelic & Security Printing Archive, Kenya
The 2/- stamp depicts a generic male figure with a hand touching his right shoulder with the statement ‘AIDS. YOU TOO CAN BE INFECTED.’ The 6/- stamp depicts a man within a Petrie dish above medications overlaid with a red cross with the statement Surmounting the design is the statement ‘AIDS HAS NO CURE.’

Figure 22_20191126_10075251  Figure 23_20191126_10080899
British Library, Philatelic Collections: Crown Agents Philatelic & Security Printing Archive, Kenya
This 8/50 stamp depicts the male and female symbol representing a heterosexual couple accompanied by the statement ‘AIDS. CASUAL SEX IS UNSAFE.’ The 11/- stamp depicts a generic male figure standing behind a hypodermic syringe in the foreground with the text ‘AIDS. STERILISE SYRINGE BEFORE USE.’

On 22 January 2001 Lesotho issued four Anti-Aids Campaign stamps for the Positive Action Society Lesotho designed by Seatile Nkhomo and lithograph-printed by Questa.
Figure 24  Figure 25
British Library, Philatelic Collections: General Collection
The 70s stamp depicts a Basotho warrior fighting Aids whilst the 1m carries the text ‘SPEED KILLS SO DOES AIDS. Go Slow’

Figure 26  Figure 27
British Library, Philatelic Collections: General Collection
The 1m.50 stamp depicts two women with the statement ‘People with AIDS need friends not rejection’; and the 2m.10 stamp illustrates a rifle, military helmet, unused condom and boots beside the text ‘Even when you’re off duty protect the nation.’

Finally, Nigeria issued two stamps commemorating World Aids Day on 3 May 2003, all designed by Nigerian artist T. Faluyi.
Figure 28_20191126_10544746  Figure 29_20191126_10550580
British Library, Philatelic Collections: Crown Agents Philatelic & Security Printing Archive, Nigeria
The 20N stamp illustrates a nurse tending to a seriously ill patient accompanied by the text ‘Caring for Aids victim.’ On the left side of the stamp can be seen the iconic World Aids Day ribbon. Meanwhile, the 50N stamp depicts a woman using a microphone addressing a crowd whilst gesturing towards a poster with the text ‘AIDS is REAL Beware!’

The philatelic materials discussed from Africa, Asia and the Middle East show how important stamps are in researching consistent contributions from the BAME community towards art and design. An obvious question remains: where is the original design and artwork located? Sadly, it is impossible to answer this question at present. We suspect such artwork and design material will exist within various official archival and unofficial private collections scattered globally. As its cultural value becomes increasingly recognised, the locations of such material will hopefully become known.

According to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, almost thirty seven million individuals around the globe live with the HIV virus whilst nearly as many people have died from HIV-related complications, including Aids, since the 1980s. Such figures of course fail to take into account the stigma that individuals who have contracted Aids can suffer. Sub-Saharan Africa is the hardest hit region, with more than seventy percent of the world’s people living with HIV. The study of Aids can therefore extend way beyond medical science and incorporate intensely personal cultural and historic perspectives, a deserving issue demanding further research.

In addition to surveying the British Library’s Philatelic Collections, both authors conducted a wider scoping exercise to identify Aids-related material in various languages held within the British Library’s collections. From a visual and textual culture perspective, our rich holdings include journals, monographs, research papers, pamphlets, NGO publications and audio material. We call upon curators and academics to research this important subject further, to develop a resource for mainstream audiences in a more sustainable form.

Richard Scott Morel, Curator, Philatelic Collections
Eyob Derillo, Ethiopic Collections Engagement Support Ccownwork

22 July 2019

African cosmologies in the British Library’s collections

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.


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

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

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

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

03 July 2018

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

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.

First edition of the classic autobiography of Olaudah Equiano (BL 615.d.8)

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.

Asian publications lead image
A selection of printed books in the British Library’s collections

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
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.

Letter written by Ayuba Suleiman Diallo in his campaign to be released from enslavement (?1731) (BL Add MS 20783a)

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.

Sophia Duleep Singh selling The suffragette outside Hampton Court Palace, 1913 (BL L/PS/11/51)

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.

The Poems of Phillis Wheatley, who was still enslaved when she published this volume in 1773 (BL 992.a.34)

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.

One of the only surviving manuscript letters of Ignatius Sancho (BL Add MS 89077)

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.

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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