Asian and African studies blog

5 posts categorized "Batak"

18 April 2022

The provenance histories of Batak manuscripts in the British Library (1): The British Museum collection to 1900

Provenance research is increasingly acknowledged as an essential part of the study of manuscripts, which was long dominated by a focus on the texts within.  More recently philological studies have increasingly been complemented by considerations of materiality, with an enhanced appreciation of materials, decorative elements, graphic layouts and paratextual elements.  Our understandings of writing cultures can be further enhanced by exploring the 'social life' of manuscripts (alluding to Arjun Appadurai's influential 1986 volume) and in particular the changing meanings of books through time and place as they were created, used, sold, seized, stolen, traded, discarded or treasured.

Following the digitisation of the complete collection of 37 Batak manuscripts in the British Library, in collaboration with CMSC Hamburg University, this series of three blog posts attempts to trace the complex journeys that each manuscript undertook, from north Sumatra to London.  The task is also important for scholarly reasons, for Batak manuscripts are never dated, and therefore the date of acquisition is often the only firm evidence towards dating the manuscript, providing at the very least a latest possible date for the writing of the book. This first part considers manuscripts from the collections of the British Museum up to 1900. The second installment looks at Batak manuscripts from the India Office Library and Records, which joined the British Library in 1982. The third and final part presents more recent aquisitions up to the present.

Provenance note in a manuscript
Provenance note in Batak manuscript Add 11546, with the red 'British Museum' crown stamp. British Library, Add 11546 Noc

An important element of provenance research is understanding the system of shelfmarks or reference numbers used by libraries and museums, because often these offer clear indications of the likely date of acquisition. The British Museum was founded in 1753 through the bequest of Sir Hans Sloane, whose own manuscripts were assigned the shelfmarks 'Sloane MS 1-4100'.  Following the end of the Sloane sequence, subsequent manuscripts which entered the British Museum were given 'Additional' manuscript numbers, now abbreviated as 'Add', starting with Add MS 4101.  The first Batak manuscript to enter the British Museum, just a decade after its founding, was Add MS 4726, a pustaha or tree-bark book folded in concertina form, in Toba Batak script.  This is in fact the first known Batak manuscript to enter a European collection, and also gives us the earliest terminus ante quem or 'earliest latest date of writing' for any Batak manuscript (the complex formulation reflecting the difficulties of establishing chronological frameworks for Batak manuscripts). A black ink inscription on the first page identifies the donor: ‘Presented by Alexander Hall, Esq., 18 May 1764’.

Thanks to research by Ellen Filor (2014), Alexander Hall (1731/2-1764) can be identified as the youngest son of a Scottish aristocrat, James Hall, 2nd Baronet of Dunglass. Hall entered the East India Company in 1750 and was sent out as a factor or merchant to Fort Marlborough at Bengkulu (then called Bencoolen) on the west coast of Sumatra, and in 1753 was appointed assistant to the Resident at Natal, in Mandailing Batak territory. He is cited – in the context of a discussion of the cannibalism of the Bataks – in William Marsden’s History of Sumatra (1783, p. 303): ‘Mr. Alexander Hall made a charge in his public accounts of a sum paid to a raja as an inducement to him to spare a man whom he had seen preparing for a victim’. Hall returned to Britain in 1762 and unsuccessfully petitioned the Company to be transferred to Bengal. He departed again for India in 1763 and in September 1764 arrived back in Bengkulu, where he died two months later. As in May 1764 Hall would have been en route to Bengkulu, the Batak manuscript was probably brought to England in 1762, and then delivered to the British Museum either personally before he set sail again in 1763, or in 1764 by someone acting on his behalf.

Donation inscription of Alexander Hall, 18 May 1764. British Library, Add 4726
Inscription naming the donor as Alexander Hall, 18 May 1764. British Library, Add 4726, f. 19r, start of text on side b Noc

We have no information on how Alexander Hall acquired this manuscript. However, inscriptions on the book itself suggest an informed exchange enquiring into the contents of the book. On the first page is written with a European pen in Latin characters: ‘Ompoo Nee Ha ee doo punn / Harryen Soocoo nya / Punn ampoo Hee wrote this / Witness Raja Muntaggar’, which can be read in conjunction with the Batak text to understand that Ompu Ni Haidupan, of the clan Harean, wrote this panampuhi or text on the divination oracle through analysis of the cut slices of a lemon. 

Romanised inscription identifying the author and subject of this Batak manuscript. British Library, Add 4726
Romanised inscription identifying the author and subject of this Batak manuscript. British Library, Add 4726, f. 1r  Noc

The next two Batak manuscripts to enter the British Museum were both purchased from dealers who were major suppliers to the Museum. Add 11546 was bought in 1839 from Harry (Henry) Osborne Cureton (1785-1858), a dealer in coins and antiquities based at 81 Aldersgate, Barbican, London (see illustration at the top of this post).  Add 15678 was acquired in 1846 from Joseph Lilly (1804-1870), a well-known London bookseller.  No further information is available on where or how these manuscripts ended up in London.

A substantial collection of eight pustaha, Add 19378 to Add 19385, was purchased from a Dr E.G. Latham in 1853. Latham had received them from Baron Oscar von Kessel, who had travelled in the southern regions of Batak country from Tobing via Sipirok in south Tapanuli to Sigompulon in 1844 as part of a survey expedition (see von Kessel, 1856). A further manuscript, Or 2445, sold to the British Museum by Dr E. G. Latham in 1881, evidently came from the same source. The connection between Dr Latham and Baron von Kessel is not known.

One of the eight pustaha acquired in 1844 by Baron von Kessel in Mandailing territory, and sold to the British Museum in 1853 by Dr E. G. Latham. British Library, Add 19378, f. 53r
One of the eight pustaha acquired in 1844 by Baron von Kessel in Mandailing territory, and sold to the British Museum in 1853 by Dr E. G. Latham. British Library, Add 19378, f. 35r Noc

Or 5309 is a bamboo cylinder which was given to the British Museum by Lord Crawford in 1897. Ludovic Lindsay (1847-1913), 26th Earl of Crawford, inherited his father Lord Lindsay’s bibliophilia, including for Oriental manuscripts. Lord Lindsay had acquired a number of Batak pustaha from the sale of H.C. Millies in 1870, and Ludovic continued to seek out Batak and other Southeast Asian manuscripts. On 15 October 1897 he wrote to his librarian, instructing him to contact C.M. Pleyte at the booksellers Brill in Leiden, and: ‘Get all the Batak he [Pleyte] will let you have especially the Bamboo ones’ (Hodgson 2020: 1021). Is it therefore not rather surprising that Ludovic presented a bamboo Batak manuscript to the British Museum in this very year? The answer probably lies in its condition: Or 5309 is split in two halves. The placement of the old British Museum labels on the inside of the bamboo suggests that the manuscript was already broken when it arrived, and this is perhaps why Ludovic did not retain it in his collection, and instead donated it to the British Museum.

Bamboo manuscript, split into two halves. British Library, Or 5309
Bamboo manuscript, split into two halves. British Library, Or 5309 Noc

The next part of this blog will look at Batak manuscripts from the India Office Library collection.

Further reading:
Ellen Filor. Alexander Hall (c. 1731/2-1764) in Scotland and Sumatra. East India Company at Home, 1757-1857: The British country house in an imperial and global context. 2014.
John R. Hodgson, ‘Spoils of Many a Distant Land’: The Earls of Crawford and the collecting of Oriental manuscripts in the nineteenth century. The Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History, 2020, 48(6): 1011-1047.
Oscar von Kessel, Reis in de Nog Onafhankelijke Batak-Landen van Klein-Toba, op Sumatra, in 1844. Bijdragen tot de Taal-, Land- en Volkenkunde, 1856, 4(1): 55-97.
M.C. Ricklefs, P. Voorhoeve and Annabel Teh Gallop, Indonesian manuscripts in Great Britain. New edition with Addenda et corrigenda. Jakarta: Ecole française d’Extrême-Orient, Perpustakaan Nasional Republik Indonesia, Yayasan Pustaka Obor Indonesia, 2014.

Annabel Teh Gallop, Lead Curator, Southeast Asia Ccownwork

14 March 2022

Lost and refound: a Batak note on bamboo to John Anderson

John Anderson (1795-1845) was a Scottish official of the East India Company who was based in Penang from 1813 to 1830. In February and March 1823 Anderson undertook a politico-commercial mission on behalf of the governor of Penang to various states along the east coast of Sumatra, including Deli, Asahan, Langkat and Siak, as well as venturing into Batak territories. His account of this journey was published a few years later, as Mission to the East Coast of Sumatra, in 1823, under the direction of the Government of Prince of Wales' Island: including historical and descriptive Sketches of the Country, an Account of the Commerce, Population, and the Manners and Customs of the Inhabitants, and a Visit to the Batta Cannibal States in the Interior, (Edinburgh, 1826).

Seated in the centre of this drawing is the Raja of Bunto Pane
Seated in the centre of this drawing is the Raja of Buntu Pane, in Mission to the East Coast of Sumatra in 1823 by John Anderson, first published in Edinburgh by William Blackwood, 1826; republished in facsimile (with coloured plates) in Kuala Lumpur by Oxford University Press, 1970; facing p. 143. According to Anderson, ‘The Drawings were executed by a Chinese draughtsman, under a great variety of impediments and disadvantages, sometimes in great haste, in a small boat.’

One of the local Sumatran rulers who Anderson encountered was the Batak Raja of Buntu Pane in Asahan (referred to in Anderson’s account as Munto Panei). In his book Anderson included a portrait of the ‘Rajah of Munto Panei’, seated on a mat surrounded by his weapons, a musical instrument and other accoutrements (see above). As Anderson was particularly interested in the market for British trade products, he noted carefully the dress of the Raja and his chiefs: ‘European chintz bajoos [baju, jacket], Buggues sarongs, and Acehen or Batubara trowsers, with neat handkerchief on their head, of Java or British manusfacture’ (Anderson 1826: 153). Anderson spent some time with the Raja of Bunto Pane, and when he finally took leave, the Raja ‘begged me to send him two dogs to catch deer; and in order that I might not forget his commission, he wrote upon a joint of bamboo, a memorandum to that effect in his own language, which I brought with me; also the numbers one to ten’ (Anderson 1826: 154).

Batak message inscribed on bamboo from the Raja of Bunto Pane to John Anderson, 1823, stored together with a small knife and four blowpipe darts
Batak message inscribed on bamboo from the Raja of Buntu Pane to John Anderson, 1823, stored together with a small knife and four blowpipe darts. British Library, MSS Batak 1 Noc

It is not known if Anderson did ever send the requested dogs, but he evidently presented his aide-memoire to the East India Company, for this ‘joint of bamboo’ appears to have been the first Batak manuscript to enter the India Office Library. Today it bears the shelfmark MSS Batak 1, and is stored together with a small knife and four darts from a blowpipe. A small piece of paper (originally) attached says ‘specimen of Batta writing, with a knife written and presented by J. Anderson, Esqr.'; the piece of paper is no longer present but a discoloured rectangle visible on the bamboo presumably indicated its location. It is not known whether the knife was that used to incise the writing on the bamboo; perhaps the darts (with poisoned tips) were the type that would have been used for hunting deer.

In 1848 the Dutch linguist Herman Neubronner van der Tuuk visited London and examined the six Batak manuscripts held in the India Office Library (MSS Batak 1-6). He wrote ‘A short account of the Batta manuscripts belonging to the Library of the East India Company’, the autograph manuscript of which is still in the British Library (MSS Eur B105: Download VanderTuuk1848). Van der Tuuk described the bamboo as being inscribed on the left side with the Batak words for the numbers from one to ten, written by the King of Buntu Pane at the request of Anderson, and on the right side with a memorandum to Anderson (called Darsen) asking him not to forget to send to the King of Buntu Pane two dogs from Penang.

Van der Tuuk's description of MSS Batak 1 in 1848
Van der Tuuk's description of MSS Batak 1, written in 1848. British Library, MSS Eur B105, f. 1r. Noc

on the left is the list of numbers, and following the vertical line to the right is the note to Andersen requesting two dogs to be sent from Penang. 1823
The start of the inscribed Batak texts, marked by decorative panels: on the left is the list of numbers, and following the vertical line to the right is the note to Andersen requesting two dogs to be sent from Penang, 1823. British Library, MSS Batak 1  Noc

However, when M.C. Ricklefs and P. Voorhoeve came to compile their landmark catalogue of Indonesian manuscripts in Great Britain, first published in 1977, this manuscript was nowhere to be seen. They reached the gloomy conclusion: “This MS is now missing, and has probably decomposed since it was seen by van der Tuuk in 1848” (Ricklefs and Voorhoeve 1977: 12).

Happily, this was not actually the case. Soon after I joined the British Library in 1986, during a visit to the India Office Library and Records (at the time still housed in Blackfriars Road), my colleague Salim Qureishi, one of the IOLR curators, alerted me to a strange object he had found and asked if it was from my collection. It turned out to be the long-lost MSS Batak 1, which had simply been misplaced on another shelf. However Van der Tuuk’s description still proved invaluable, for in the intervening century the paper label, identifying J. Anderson as the donor, had disappeared.

Manuscripts are, by definition, unique witnesses to place and time. The loss of a manuscript can thus be a harrowing tragedy, as exemplified by the website Lost manuscripts: what happens when words disappear. Among the various types of losses explored in articles on this site – alongside Burned manuscripts, Eaten manuscripts and Stolen manuscripts – is the category of Misplaced manuscripts. MSS Batak 1 is clearly not alone in having been lost, and then re-found.

MSS Batak 1, and all other Batak manuscripts in the British Library, have recently been digitised in collaboration with the Centre for the Study of Manuscript Cultures (CSMC) at the University of Hamburg.

Further reading:

M.C.Ricklefs, P.Voorhoeve and Annabel Teh Gallop. Indonesian manuscripts in Great Britain: a catalogue of manuscripts in Indonesian languages in British public collections. New Edition with Addenda et Corrigenda. Jakarta: Ecole française d’Extrême-Orient, Perpustakaan Nasional Republik Indonesia, Yayasan Pustaka Obor Indonesia, 2014.

Annabel Teh Gallop, Lead Curator, Southeast Asia Ccownwork

28 February 2022

Covers of Batak pustaha manuscripts

The most distinctive type of Batak manuscripts from north Sumatra are the pustaha, folded concertina-style books written on treebark, which mostly contain notes on divination and magical formulae. Pustaha can vary considerably in length and size – those in the British Library collection range from the relatively large, with pages each 28 x 20 cm (Add 19378) to the tiny, measuring only 4.5 x 3 cm (such as MSS Batak 9). Simpler manuscripts may not have any special covers, ending just with the final leaves of treebark, but quite a few Batak pustaha have covers of wood. Sometimes these are finely carved, particularly on the front cover, but occasionally also on the back. Manuscripts may also have a plaited band made of split rattan or bamboo, which can be placed around the covers of the manuscript to clasp the book closed. Additionally, there may be two holes drilled into the top wooden cover for a string of ijuk fronds to be attached so that the manuscript could be carried or hung easily. Presented below are images of all the original covers of Batak pustaha in the British Library collection.

A beautifully carved wooden front cover.
MSS Batak 6, which mostly contains texts on divination in war, especially by use of rambu siporhas, divination based on the position of a double string thrown on the ground. This pustaha has a beautifully carved wooden front cover, but a plain wooden back cover. Noc

Full view of the finely carved wooden front cover of MSS Batak 6
Full view of the finely carved wooden front cover of MSS Batak 6. Noc

Although now severely abraded, it is clear that the front cover of this pustaha was elaborately carved with the figure of a lizard set within geometrical borders  The back cover is finely polished but plain
Although now severely abraded, it is clear that the front cover of this pustaha was elaborately carved with the figure of a lizard set within geometrical borders. The back cover is finely polished but plain. The pustaha still has its plaited clasp band and original carrying string. Add 19381. Noc

Front finely carved wooden cover  Back finely carved wooden cover.Unusually, this beautiful small pustaha has finely carved wooden covers for both the front (left) and back (right). As can be seen, the front cover has slighlyt angled top and bottom edges, to accommodate the two holes for the carrying string, while the bottom cover is rectangular in shape. The pustaha contains a text in Simalungun Batak on protective formulae. Or 11761 Noc

The wooden front cover has a decorative ridged spine, through which holes have been drilled for a carrying string
This pustaha, which appears to contain texts on protective magic (pagar), is one of a number collected by Baron Oscar von Kessel who travelled in the Batak country from Tobing vis Sipirok to Sigompulon in 1844. The wooden front cover has a decorative ridged spine, through which holes have been drilled for a carrying string. Add 19380. Noc

This is the oldest dateable Batak pustaha, which entered the collections of the British Museum in 1764
This is the oldest dateable Batak pustaha, which entered the collections of the British Museum in 1764. The shape of the plain front cover, with its ridged form along the spine, and with two holes for carrying strings, is echoed in many of the other manuscripts illustrated here. Add 4726. Noc

Although the front wooden cover of this pustaha is without decoration, it is artfully ridged in the middle to accomdate the holes for a carrying string, now lost
Although the front wooden cover of this pustaha is without decoration, it is artfully ridged in the middle to accomdate the holes for a carrying string, now lost. Before 1817. MSS Batak 5 Noc

Although the original carrying string is now lost, the pustaha still has its two original plaited bamboo bands to keep it closed
A similar ridged central spine can be seen on the front wooden cover of this pustaha, also with two holes at top and bottom. Although the original carrying string is now lost, the pustaha still has its two original plaited rattan bands to keep it closed. Add 19378. Noc

Add 19379 has two wooden covers and two plaited bamboo clasps, and – most rarely – its original thickly-twisted carrying string
Add 19379 has two wooden covers and two plaited rattan clasps, and – most rarely – its original thickly-twisted carrying string. Noc

Mss_batak_2_fse005r-ed  Small pustaha with carrying string

These two small pustaha both have carrying strings and plaited rattan bands around their plain wooden covers. On the left, MSS Batak 2 dates from before 1811; on the right, Or 6898 is a Karo Batak manuscript. Noc

Batak pustaha with battered wooden covers
The rather battered appearance of the wooden covers of this pustaha is reflected in the poor condition of the contents, as the manuscript has been broken in several places and then repaired. However it still retains its original plaited rattan clasp band. Or 12587 Noc

pustaha with very plain wooden covers, Or 13957  Small but tall Batak pustaha with wooden covers
On the left, this pustaha with very plain wooden covers, Or 13957, contains a text devoted to the art of waging war, written by a datu from the western shores of Lake Toba. On the right, MSS Batak 10 is an unusual example of a pustaha which is taller than it is wide. Although the covers are simple they are finely polished. Noc

Batak pustaha with damaged side  Or 11762 has one angled front cover, and unevenly folded leaves
Both these pustaha have only has one wooden cover on the front. Although the manuscript on the left (MSS Batak 7) is elegantly angled in the middle around the string holes, the side is badly damaged. On the right, Or 11762 has one angled front cover, and unevenly folded leaves, yielding pages of different sizes. Noc

Or 16997 has a pair of completely plain wooden covers, with the holes visible in the top cover
Or 16997 has a pair of completely plain wooden covers, with the holes visible in the top cover. Noc

Pustaha with carrying handle is made of a piece of goatskin. MSS Batak 4
Like most of the manuscripts above, this pustaha has two wooden covers, with a ridge along the top cover with two holes, but in this case, uniquely, the carrying handle is made of a piece of goatskin. MSS Batak 4 Noc

Pustaha with goat skin cover
This is one of the most unusual covers of a pustaha, being made entirely of goat skin, with a wrap-around ‘envelope flap’ which recalls the Islamic tradition of leather book bindings. MSS Batak 3 Noc

Mss_batak_8_fse005r-ed  Small pustaha with price label
These two small pustaha do not have wooden covers, and their final leaves of treebark function as the outer covers. Although it is not known exactly when they were acquired by the India Office Library, the style of handwriting of the price tag suggests it was written around 1900; the sum of one pound and ten shillings charged for each manuscript then would be equivalent to £175 today. MSS Batak 8 and MSS Batak 9 Noc

Pustaha without wooden cover Pustaha with no cover
Add 11546 (left) and Add 15678 (right) also do not have additional covers, with the final leaves functioning as the outer covers for both manuscripts. Noc

Pustaha with no covers
While the pustaha shown above were evidently created without covers, others held in the British Library are now in a damaged condition and probably lost their covers – and perhaps also other pages – some time ago. Or 16998 Noc

Pustaha with modern leather cover Pustaha with modern wooden covers
All the manuscripts shown further above have original covers, but some pustaha in the British Library have had covers added more recently. These leather covers (left, Add 19385) and the wooden covers (right, Add 19384) were probably added in the British Museum following acquistion in 1853. Noc

As long as it can be ascertained that they are original products of Batak culture, even the relatively plain wooden covers of pustaha are of interest in contributing to our knowledge of Batak craftsmanship, especially because in many western institutions ‘improvements’ made in the 19th and early 20th centuries, with the addition of new covers, have served to obliterate the look and ‘feel’ of the original manuscript. Rene Teygeler has reported, based on information gathered by Voorhoeve: ‘When the collection of Van der Tuuk entered Leiden University Library in 1896 all the pustaha that had no covers were provided with new ones. Today only two manuscripts of this collection still have the original boards. From the entire collection ’ And from the entire collection of Leiden University Library, only 23 of the 200 pustaha have one or both original covers’ (Teygeler 1993: 597). By comparison, of the 33 pustaha in the British Library, all save three are in original condition, with or without covers. Of these 30 in original condition, 18 have covers of wood or leather, and all of these have been illustrated above.

All the pustaha and other Batak manuscripts in the British Library have recently been digitised in collaboration with the Centre for the Study of Manuscript Cultures of the University of Hamburg. A full list of the digitised Batak manuscripts can be found here.

Further reading:
Jan van der Putten and Roberta Zollo, The power of writing: the manuscript culture of the Toba Batak from North Sumatra / Die Macht der Schrift: die Manuskriptkultur der Toba-Batak aus Nord-Sumatra. Manuscript cultures, 2020, 14.
R. Teygeler, Pustaha: a study into the production process of the Batak book. Bijdragen tot de Taal-, Land- en Volkenkunde, 1993, 149(3): 593-611.

Annabel Teh Gallop, Lead Curator, Southeast Asia Ccownwork
All photographs by Elizabeth Hunter, Senior Imaging Technician

22 February 2022

Technical challenges of digitising Batak manuscripts

The main aim of manuscript digitisation programmes in the British Library is to enable books and documents to be viewed and read online, freely and fully, from anywhere in the world, without the need to travel long distances to the Library’s reading rooms in London to consult the original objects. Photography for digitisation aims to capture the full object, from cover to cover, including blank pages, so that viewers can be confident that they are seeing every detail that would be visible if they were to consult the manuscript ‘in real life’. In many cases, the very high resolution images and zoom facilities of the British Library’s Digitised Manuscripts portal enable aspects of the manuscript to be studied even more easily than through a personal inspection. What digitisation cannot capture though, of course, is the materiality of the manuscript: what it feels like to touch, what it weighs, what it smells like, and how it opens and closes. Such material features are particularly important in the case of Batak manuscripts, which are all written on organic materials which have not been highly processed.

Batak pustaha, written on a strip of tree bark folded concertina-style, with two wooden covers, a plaited bamboo clasp band, and a carrying string. British Library, Or 11761
Batak pustaha, written on a strip of tree bark folded concertina-style, with two wooden covers, a plaited bamboo clasp band, and a carrying string. British Library, Or 11761 Noc

The British Library’s collection of 37 Batak manuscripts has just been fully digitised in collaboration with the Centre for the Study of Manuscript Cultures (CSMC) at the University of Hamburg. The collection mostly comprises pustaha, manuscript books written on long strips of treebark that are folded concertina-style, and often provided with two wooden covers. Batak script is read from left to right, and the text is written in lines parallel to the folds of the book. In practice, the Batak scribes actually wrote the text – whether on treebark books, or pieces of bamboo – vertically from bottom to top (Kozok 2009: 35), and this probably explains why most illustrations in pustaha are oriented at 90 degrees to the direction of writing, as shown below. Therefore, reading an illustrated Batak manuscript ‘in real life’ involves rotating the book as necessary, an experience which is not possible to replicate in the current British Library Digitised Manuscripts portal.  However, over the next few years, all the digitised Batak manuscripts will be migrated to the British Library's more flexible Universal Viewer, which allows rotation of images and uses the IIIF (International Image Interoperability Format) standard.  This allows users to choose different viewers and tools to interact with cultural heritage content, and enables the comparison and annotation of digital content. 

Batak script is written and read from left to right, but the Batak scribe would have held the strip of bark widthways as shown above, and written the text from bottom to top, whilst drawing the illustrations from his current perspective. British Library, Add 19381, f. 119v
Batak script is written and read from left to right, but the Batak scribe would have held the strip of bark widthways as shown above, and written the text from bottom to top, whilst drawing the illustrations from his current perspective. British Library, Add 19381, f. 119v Noc

In the digital portal, Batak manuscripts are presented in the correct orientation for reading the script from left to right, but this means that the orientation of the illustrations is usually perpendicular to the direction of writing. British Library, Add 19382, f. 11r
In the digital portal, Batak manuscripts are presented in the correct orientation for reading the script from left to right, but this means that the orientation of the illustrations is usually perpendicular to the direction of writing. British Library, Add 19382, f. 11r Noc

Some older pustaha which have previously been damaged may have been repaired by being sewn together. Sometimes these older sections may be missing parts of the text, and even be orientated in the opposite direction (upside down) to the rest of the manuscript. When reading a Batak pustaha ‘in real life’, it is easy to work out what has happened. But when reading a digitised manuscript online, when a page with text in one direction is followed by a page with a different text, presented upside down – as in Or 12587, shown below – it is easy to assume that there has been a mistake in processing the digital images. Therefore in photographing the Batak manuscripts, care was taken to ensure that a few lines of the preceding or following page are always visible in each image, so that anyone reading the digital manuscripts can be reassured that they are really seeing the manuscript as it is.

Batak pustaha, with a text copied by Guru Morhabong Aji, with a few lines visible of the next page. British Library, Or 12587, f. 44r.
Batak pustaha, with a text copied by Guru Morhabong Aji, with a few lines visible of the next page. British Library, Or 12587, f. 44r. Noc

The next image of the same Batak pustaha has text upside down.
The next image of the same Batak pustaha has text upside down. However, checking carefully the two lines of text visible at the top from the preceding page, with a portion of the drawing of a square, confirms that this is indeed the following page. British Library, Or 12587, f. 45r. Noc

In published catalogues of Batak manuscripts, scholarly convention generally refers to the two sides of a pustaha as sides A and B, with the pages numbered from ‘1’ on each side (Putten and Zollo 2020: 90). However, in digitising Batak manuscripts at the British Library, we were severely constrained by the strict filenaming conventions associated with the Digitised Manuscripts portal. This portal had been originally developed about ten years ago for a Greek manuscripts project, and was therefore predicated upon the norm of manuscripts in codex form, with folios or leaves each consisting of two pages, the first (recto) and second (verso). While the portal had successfully been adapted for Malay manuscripts in Arabic script, reading from right to left, Batak pustaha in concertina form brought their own challenges, for we were not able to assign filenames of the form ‘A 1’ or ‘B 2’ for Batak manuscripts. As our priority was to ensure that the images were presented on the portal in the correct order, replicating the actual manuscript, we devised a system whereby all the pages of side A were assigned ‘recto’ image numbers, while side B images were numbered in the same consecutive sequence, but as ‘verso’ images. Thus a pustaha with 34 leaves would have images on side A numbered f001r to f034r to represent pages A 1 to A 34, while after turning the manuscript over onto side B, pages B 1 to 34 would be numbered f035v to f068v. This unconventional ‘manipulation’ of the existing filenaming system has allowed us to present the images in the correct order, but it means the filenames of each image are not easily correlated with the contents lists in catalogue information.

The beginning of a text on protective magic
The beginning of a text on protective magic, pagar balik hontas na bolon, described in Ricklefs and Voorhoeve (1977: 14) as beginning on page B 1, but with the image filename f033v. British Library, MSS Batak 5, f. 33v Noc

Some Batak bamboo manuscripts presented different problems. Or 5309 is a bamboo cylinder inscribed with a Batak syllabary and a few other writing exercises, which was given to the British Museum by Lord Crawford in 1897.  As Ludovic Crawfurd was an avid collector of Batak manuscripts, especially bamboo ones, this one was probably given away because it was already broken into two at the time. On both sides of the cylinder, the split has occurred across a line of text, but the two pieces of bamboo have warped so much over time that it was not easy to fit them back together for digitisation. Indeed, it took the combined efforts of the digitisation team (pictured below) to help to prop the two pieces together, and rotate them slowly, to allow the text to be read.

Bamboo inscribed with a Batak text, in two pieces and warped, carefully positioned together so that the text across the break could be read.
Bamboo inscribed with a Batak text, in two pieces and warped, carefully positioned together and held in place so that the letters along the break could be read. British Library, Or 5309 Noc

_L2C0668
The team effort to position the two parts of Batak manuscript Or 5309 together for photography: from left to right, conservator Samantha Cawson, curator Annabel Gallop, photographer Elizabeth Hunter, and digitisation officer Adelaida Ngowi. Photograph by Eugenio Falcioni, 20 January 2022.

This blog post has tried to give a behind-the-scenes glimpse of some the technical problems we had to wrestle with in the course of digitising the collection of Batak manuscripts in the British Library. Every single manuscript was checked before digitisation by Conservator Samantha Cawson, who cleaned the manuscripts and made some essential repairs. Next the manuscripts were all photographed by Senior Imaging Technician Elizabeth Hunter, who had to learn a little about Batak script so she could be sure to position the manuscripts correctly. The digital images were then all checked by Digitisation Officer Adelaida Ngowi, who looked at image quality, focus and orientation, and ensured that the filenames correlated with the intended sequencing of images. As curator, I was responsible for creating online catalogue records for all the manuscripts, based on the published catalogue (Ricklefs, Voorhoeve and Gallop 2014), and for checking all the manuscripts as they were published online. We are also very grateful to our colleagues at Hamburg University and elsewhere who enabled this project, in particular Michael Friedrich, Arlo Griffiths, Jan van der Putten, Roberta Zollo, Christina Kaminski and Karsten Helmholz. We hope you will enjoy browsing through the digitised manuscripts, which are all listed here.

References:
Uli Kozok, Surat Batak: sejarah perkembangan tulisan Batak. Jakarta: Ecole française d'Extrême-Orient; KPG, 2009. (Naskah dan dokumen Nusantara; Seri XVII).
Jan van der Putten and Roberta Zollo, ‘The power of writing: the manuscript culture of the Toba Batak from North Sumatra / Die Macht der Schrift: die Manuskriptkultur der Toba-Batak aus Nord-Sumatra.’ Manuscript cultures, 14, 2020.
M.C.Ricklefs, P.Voorhoeve and Annabel Teh Gallop. Indonesian manuscripts in Great Britain: a catalogue of manuscripts in Indonesian languages in British public collections. New Edition with Addenda et Corrigenda. Jakarta: Ecole française d’Extrême-Orient,Perpustakaan Nasional Republik Indonesia, Yayasan Pustaka Obor Indonesia, 2014. [Includes a facsimile of the 1977 edition.]

Annabel Teh Gallop, Lead Curator, Southeast Asia Ccownwork

18 February 2022

Batak manuscripts in the British Library digitised in collaboration with Hamburg University

The British Library holds the oldest dateable Batak manuscript (Add 4726), which entered the British Museum collections in 1764. Until recently, this was the only Batak manuscript in the Library accessible online. However, the complete collection of 37 Batak manuscripts in the British Library has now been fully digitised, thanks to a collaboration with the Centre for the Study of Manuscript Cultures (CSMC) at the University of Hamburg. The digitization was funded by the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG, German Research Foundation) under Germany´s Excellence Strategy – EXC 2176 ‘Understanding Written Artefacts: Material, Interaction and Transmission in Manuscript Cultures’, project no. 390893796. A full list of the digitised manuscripts is available on the Digital Access to Batak Manuscripts page.

Pustaha in Mandailing Batak script, with many drawings in red and black ink, before 1844. British Library, Add 19381
Pustaha in Mandailing Batak script, with many drawings in red and black ink, before 1844. British Library, Add 19381 Noc

The Batak peoples of north Sumatra live in the mountainous area around Lake Toba, and comprise a number of ethno-linguistic subgroups. The Angkola-Mandailing traditionally live in the area south of the lake; the Toba Batak, who are the largest groups, live in the central lake agrea; the Dairi-Pakpak are found to the west; the Karo to the north; and the Simalungun to the north-east. Originally animist but with Hindu influences evident in their religious practices, in the course of the 19th century nearly all the Batak peoples came under the sway of Muslim or Christian (Protestant) missionaries.

Map of Batak regions
The Batak regions of north Sumatra, showing how the different ethno-linguistic groupings are clustered around Lake Toba. [Map from Putten and Zollo 2020: 10.]

The Batak are associated with a distinctive writing culture, with manuscripts written on a range of organic materials, primarily tree bark, bamboo and bone, in a variety of Batak languages and forms of the script linked to the different ethnic groups. The Batak script (surat Batak) is derived from the Indian Brahmi script, and is written from left to right with evenly-spaced letters, without longer divisions between words or sentences.

Most characteristic of Batak manuscripts are the bark books known as pustaha, written on strips of bark of the alim (Aquilaria malaccensis) tree, folded concertina-fashion, some with beautifully carved wooden covers. These pustaha were the private notebooks of datu or shaman, and contain texts on divination and white and black magic, often with illustrations. The language used in the pustaha is an archaic form of the Batak language called hata poda, ‘the language of instruction’, invariably mixed with regional words and elements of Malay.

Pustaha in Toba Batak script with a text on purbuhitan, divination from the stars; before 1918. British Library, Or 8196
Pustaha in Toba Batak script with a text on pangarambui, divination based on the observation of signs in the sky; before 1918. British Library, Or 8196 Noc

Simalungun Batak pustaha with two finely carved wooden covers, a plaited bamboo clasp band, and a carrying string tied through two holes on the front cover. British Library, Or 11761
Simalungun Batak pustaha with two finely carved wooden covers, a plaited bamboo clasp band, and a carrying string tied through two holes on the front cover. British Library, Or 11761  Noc

Manuscripts on bamboo could take the form of whole pieces several joints or nodes in length, or splints made from split bamboo. Texts found on bamboo may also be on divinatory practices, such as calendars, or may comprise letters or notes.

Or_16736-ed
Divination text in Karo Batak script inscribed on a bamboo container, which has a wooden lid. British Library, Or 16736 Noc

Shoulder and rib bones of water buffaloes were also used as writing materials, and often contain magical or amuletic drawings alongside writing.

A piece of bone inscribed on one side with Batak text

A piece of bone inscribed with magical drawings
A piece of bone inscribed on one side with Batak text, and on the other with magical diagrams including the ‘Ring of Solomon’ in the centre. British Library, Or 13330 A Noc

Of the 37 Batak manuscripts in the British Library, there are 33 pustaha of folded treebark, three inscribed pieces of bamboo, and one manuscript comprising two bone amulets. The tradition of compiling pustaha and other manuscripts had already begun to die out from the mid-19th century onwards under pressure from initially Muslim, soon followed by German Protestant Christian, missionary efforts. However since the early 20th century there has also a been a thriving industry of creating ‘new’ Batak manuscripts for sale to tourists.

It has been estimated that around 2,000 Batak manuscripts are preserved today in public and private collections around the world. Perhaps the largest number in any one country are in Germany, home to about 580 Batak manuscripts, owing to the historically prominent role of German Protestant missionaries in Batak lands. The recent publication of a detailed and fully illustrated catalogue of 54 Batak manuscripts, together with state-of-the-art essays on Batak history and writing culture (Putten and Zollo 2020), is a major contribution to Batak studies, and highlights the important role of the the CSMC of Hamburg University in developing and supporting scholarship on Batak manuscripts.

HORAS!

Further reading
Uli Kozok, Bark, bones, and bamboo: Batak traditions of Sumatra. Illuminations: writing traditions of Indonesia, ed. Ann Kumar & John H. McGlynn. Jakarta: Lontar Foundation, 1996; pp.231-246.
Uli Kozok, Surat Batak: sejarah perkembangan tulisan Batak. Jakarta: Ecole française d'Extrême-Orient; KPG, 2009. (Naskah dan dokumen Nusantara; Seri XVII).
Jan van der Putten and Roberta Zollo, ‘The power of writing: the manuscript culture of the Toba Batak from North Sumatra / Die Macht der Schrift: die Manuskriptkultur der Toba-Batak aus Nord-Sumatra.’ Manuscript cultures, 14, 2020.
M.C.Ricklefs, P.Voorhoeve and Annabel Teh Gallop. Indonesian manuscripts in Great Britain: a catalogue of manuscripts in Indonesian languages in British public collections. New Edition with Addenda et Corrigenda. Jakarta: Ecole française d’Extrême-Orient,Perpustakaan Nasional Republik Indonesia, Yayasan Pustaka Obor Indonesia, 2014.
R. Teygeler, Pustaha: a study into the production process of the Batak book. Bijdragen tot de Taal-, Land- en Volkenkunde, 1993, 149(3): 593-611.

Annabel Teh Gallop, Lead Curator, Southeast Asia Ccownwork

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