Asian and African studies blog

News from our curators and colleagues

49 posts categorized "Burmese"

26 February 2024

Restoring access to the British Library’s Asian and African Collections

Following the recent cyber-attack on the British Library, the Library has now implemented an interim service which will enable existing Registered Readers to access some of our printed books and serials and a significant portion of our manuscripts. This service will be expanded further in the coming weeks. 

We understand how frustrating this recent period has been for everyone wishing to access our Asian and African Collections and we would like to thank you for your patience. We are continuing to work to restore our services, and you can read more about these activities in our Chief Executive's post to the Knowledge Matters blog. 

The Using the Library page on our temporary website provides general information on current Library services, and advice for those without an existing Reader Pass. Please read on for information about the availability of specific Asian and African collections. 

 

Printed books and serials 

You can now search for printed items using a searchable online version of our main catalogue of books and other printed material. Online and advance ordering is unavailable, so Registered Readers will need to collect a paper order form from staff in the Asian and African Studies Reading Room and fill in the required details. Please write the shelfmark exactly as it appears in the online catalogue. 

Only a small portion of the printed books and serials in the Asian and African Collection will be available for consultation in the Reading Room. Unfortunately, we cannot guarantee availability of any printed items. Materials stored in Boston Spa are current unavailable, and items stored in our St. Pancras location might be in use by another Reader or restricted for other reasons. If you wish to gain greater assurance on the availability of a particular item before you visit us, please contact our Reference Services Team by emailing [email protected].

 

Manuscripts and archival documents 

Although the Library’s online catalogue of archives and manuscripts is not currently available, the Reference Services Team can assist with queries about these collections, checking paper catalogues and other sources. Please speak to the team in the Asian and African Studies Reading Room or email [email protected] Some of our older printed catalogues have been digitised and made available online without charge. For quick access to the digitised catalogues of manuscript and archival material, or to online repositories of images, please make use of the links below:

Africa 

Catalogues 

 

East Asia 

Catalogues 

Digitised Content

Middle East and Central Asia 

Catalogues 

Digitised Content

South Asia        

Catalogues    

Digitised Content

South-East Asia

Catalogues

Digitised Content

Visual Arts (Print Room)

Catalogues

Digitised Content

Microfilms

 

 

 

Africa 

East Asia 

Chinese 

Japanese 

  • CiNii Books - National Institute of Informatics (NII), a bibliographic database service for material in Japanese academic libraries including 43,000+ British Library books and periodicals. Please use FA012954 in the Library ID field 

Korean 

 

Middle East and Central Asia 

  • FIHRIST (Largely Persian, but also includes some Kurdish, Pashto, and Turkic materials) 

 Arabic 

Armenian 

Coptic 

Hebrew  

Persian 

Syriac  

Turkish and Turkic  

 

South Asia 

Early printed books:

South Asian language manuscript catalogues:

Bengali and Assamese 

Hindi, Panjabi and Hindustani

Marathi, Gujrati, Bengali, Assamese, Oriya, Pushtu and Sindhi 

Oriya 

Pali 

Sanskrit and Prakrit 

Sinhalese 

 Tibetan 

 

South-East Asia 

Burmese 

Indonesian

Thai 

  

Access to some archival and manuscript material is still restricted, but the majority of special collections held at St Pancras are now once again available. Our specialist archive and manuscripts catalogue is not online at the moment so you will need to come on-site to our Reading Rooms, where Reading Room staff will be able to help you search for what you need, and advise on its availability.

To place a request to see a manuscript or archival document, Registered Readers need to collect a paper order form from staff in the Asian and African Studies Reading Room and fill in the required details, including the shelfmark (manuscript number). The Library has created an instructional video on finding shelfmarks.  

 

Visual Arts 

The Print Room, located in the Asian and African Reading Room, is open by appointment only on Monday and Friday between 10.00 am-12.30 pm. Prints, drawings, photographs and related visual material in the Visual Arts collection can be consulted by appointment. Please contact the Visual Arts team via email (apac[email protected]) to check the availability of required items and to book an appointment. Please note that advanced booking is required. Restricted items including the Kodak Historical Collection, Fay Godwin Collection, William Henry Fox Talbot Collection are not currently available to Readers. 

 

Microfilms 

The Reference Services Team in the Asian and African Studies Reading Room has a list of microfilms of printed and manuscript materials. 

 

Digital resources 

A number of our early printed books are available on Google Books. 

We regret that our digitised manuscripts and electronic research resources are currently unavailable. Nevertheless, some of our digitised manuscripts are available on external platforms: 

East Asia 

Middle East 

  • Digital Edition of the Coptic Old Testament, including leaves of British Library Coptic papyri interwoven with images from other institutions  
  • Ktiv (Manuscript Database of the National Library of Israel), including all digitised Hebrew manuscripts from the British Library
  • Qatar Digital Library, including digitised Arabic manuscripts from the British Library

South Asia 

  • Jainpedia, including digitised Jain manuscripts from the British Library

South-East Asia 

  • South East Asia Digital Library, including a collection of digitised rare books from South East Asia held at the British Library 
  • National Library Board, Singapore, digitised Malay manuscripts and Qur'ans, papers of Sir Stamford Raffles, and the accounts by Colin Mackenzie on Java held at the British Library
  • Or 14844, Truyện Kiều (The tale of Kiều) by Nguyễn Du (1765-1820), the most significant poem in Vietnamese literature 
  • Or 15227, an illuminated Qurʼan,19th century, from the east coast of the Malay Peninsula
  • Or 16126, Letter from Engku Temenggung Seri Maharaja (Daing Ibrahim), Ruler of Johor, to Napoleon III, Emperor of France, dated 1857
  • Mss Jav 89, Serat Damar Wulan with illustrations depicting Javanese society in the late 18th century
  • Or 14734, Sejarah Melayu (Malay annals), dated 1873
  • Or 13681, Burmese manuscript showing seven scenes of King Mindon's donations at various places during the first four years of his reign (1853-57) 
  • Or 14178, Burmese parabaik (folding book) from around 1870 with 16 painted scenes of the Ramayana story with captions in Burmese 
  • Or 13922, Thai massage treatise with illustrations, 19th century 
  • Or 16101, Buddhist Texts, including the Legend of Phra Malai, with Illustrations of The Ten Birth Tales, dated 1894 
  • Or 16797, Cat treatise from Thailand, with illustrations, 19th century 
  • Or 4736, Khmer alphabet, handwritten by Henri Mouhot, c.1860-1 

Visual Arts 

 

We thank you, once again, for your patience as we continue to work to restore our services. Please do check this blog and the temporary British Library website for further updates. 

 

 

02 October 2023

Drawn from across the globe: manuscript textiles in the Southeast Asian collections

The Chevening Fellowship hosted by the British Library’s Asian and African Collections Department from September 2022 to September 2023 has been completed successfully. The aim of this project was to research and catalogue manuscript textiles found in the Library’s Southeast Asian collections.

Display of manuscript textiles from the Southeast Asian collections, 6 September 2023
Display of manuscript textiles from the Southeast Asian collections, 6 September 2023

Over the past twelve months Chevening Fellow Noon Methaporn Singhanan assessed, described and photographed 120 manuscript textiles. The outcome is detailed catalogue descriptions, with photo documentation, and an extensive bibliography for further study. The metadata of the textiles will be added to existing manuscript records in the online catalogue in the coming weeks. As a final highlight of this project we organised a display of selected textiles for colleagues and external guests on 6 September 2023. During this event, Noon answered questions about the displayed items and her research. She also demonstrated how manuscript mats with bamboo sticks were made in northern Thailand, a tradition she has helped to revive in the past through her volunteer project at UNESCO prize-winning temple Wat Pongsanuk in Lampang.

Noon Methaporn Singhanan demonstrating how to make a manuscript mat with bamboo sticks
Chevening Fellow Noon Methaporn Singhanan demonstrating how to make a manuscript mat with bamboo sticks

To summarise the findings from this project, Noon said that there were three important aspects that will help with her PhD research: 1) the diversity of materials originating from different places across the globe, 2) the different types of manuscript textiles she discovered, and 3) the importance of object comparison as a research method.

Diversity of materials
Quite unexpectedly, Noon found a large number of textiles and materials which did not originate from Southeast Asia, but from China, Japan, India, and the UK. Raw cotton used to produce fabrics in Britain was most likely sourced from American plantations and from India. For example, most of some 29 British-made wooden boxes (IO Pali 1-29) with kapok and velvet cushioning contain stunning Chinese silk tapestries in the style of Dragon Robes and silk ribbons that were repurposed to wrap around Burmese Buddhist manuscripts. These were given to Arthur Phayre, Commissioner of Burma 1862-7, by the King of Burma.

Wooden box with red velvet and kapok cushioning, containing a Burmese Buddhist palm leaf manuscript with two wrapping cloths
Wooden box with red velvet and kapok cushioning, containing a Burmese Buddhist palm leaf manuscript with two wrapping cloths cut to size from Chinese silk brocade, c. 1862-7 or earlier. British Library, IO Pali 29

A Burmese Kammavāca manuscript (Add MS 23939) from the late 18th or early 19th century was found to be wrapped with a stunning piece of Japanese silk brocade with a pattern of Chrysanthemums, plum blossoms and butterflies woven into yellow silk with gilded washi paper threads.

Another surprising find was a scrolled paper manuscript with a Buddhist text in Shan language from the first half of the 20th century (Or 15368), acquired in 1995 from Søren Egerod’s collection. Sewn on to the binding is a factory-made cotton cover printed with a leaf pattern, which may have been imported or made locally post-1920 in one of the emerging cotton mills in Burma. Attached at the rim is a synthetically dyed green felt ribbon, made from wool, a material that is unusual in the Shan manuscript tradition. Further testing will be necessary to establish the country of origin of the wool.

Noon also discovered a wrapper made up of several parts, including a stunning piece of batik cotton fabric with rose pattern on the outside, and checkered silk sewn together with a piece of cotton on the lining. This was custom-made for a Burmese Buddhist palm leaf manuscript dated 1869 (Or 11810).

The great variety of materials and techniques to make manuscript textiles is evidence of trade and exchange relations from the late 18th to the early 20th century. In some cases, a creation date is contained in the manuscript, and usually a date is included in the acquisition record of a manuscript, so that it is possible to estimate the approximate age of the textiles.

Types of manuscript textiles
The most common type of manuscript textile found in the Southeast Asian collections is the cloth wrapper, either custom-made to fit the size of the manuscript or sometimes made from re-purposed pieces, like for example shoulder cloths and tube-skirts in the Lao manuscript tradition (Or 16886). Noon found out that many Burmese manuscripts are wrapped with printed cotton fabrics which originated in the UK, but occasionally imported velvet is found, too. One Burmese shell book dated 1907 (Or 16052) contains pages made from fine silk and it is wrapped in a piece of cloth woven on the backstrap loom in Karen style. Some manuscripts from Thailand have wrappers made from imported fabrics like silk brocades from India or European printed cotton (Or 1044). A red silk brocade wrapper with a gold thread pattern (Or 5107) was made in India for a 19th-century royal Thai edition of the Tipitaka on palm leaves. A stamp on the red coloured cotton lining is in a Brahmic script (probably originating from north-west India).

Cloth wrapper and mat consisting of 84 coconut leaf stalks, yarn and cotton fabric made for a Burmese Buddhist manuscript
Cloth wrapper and mat consisting of 84 coconut leaf stalks, yarn and cotton fabric made for a Burmese Buddhist manuscript dated 1856. British Library, Or 12645

Another frequently found type of manuscript wrapper is the wrapping mat produced from yarn or fabric that is reinforced with bamboo slats or stalks from coconut tree leaves. Occasionally, the cloth wrapper and mat could be combined, and such items were found in the Burmese collection. The example above (Or 12645) is a wrapper made from an imported printed cotton handkerchief, of UK origin made for the South Asian market, together with a locally custom-made mat consisting of 84 coconut leaf stalks intertwined with red and yellow cotton fabric. These two items were used to cover a Burmese Buddhist palm leaf manuscript dated 1856.

Generally, there are three techniques of making wrapping mats. One method often seen in the Lao and northern Thai manuscript traditions is to weave the mat on the loom, using cotton yarn for the warp and alternately cotton yarn and bamboo slats for the weft (Or 12401).

Hand-woven mat with 19 bamboo slats and factory-made hem made for ten northern Thai palm leaf bundles
Hand-woven mat with 19 bamboo slats and factory-made hem made for ten northern Thai palm leaf bundles with Buddhist texts. Manuscripts dated 1827-74. British Library, Or 12401

Another technique to make wrapping mats is to connect the bamboo slats by wrapping cotton yarn, or occasionally wool yarn, around them; and by using yarns of different colours one can create beautiful symmetric diamond or zig-zag patterns (Or 16545). This method was widely used in Burma and northern Thailand.

A third method is to manually weave the mat using yarn, bamboo slats or coconut leaf stalks, and rectangular pieces of fabric to insert between the yarn and bamboo slats (Or 12645).

Mat made from knitting wool with 95 bamboo slats in a diamond-shaped symmetric pattern
Mat made from knitting wool with 95 bamboo slats in a diamond-shaped symmetric pattern, for a Burmese Buddhist manuscript dated 1852. British Library, Or 16545

In the Shan manuscript tradition, the most common type of textile is the cloth cover. Scrolled paper books with text in Shan script are usually equipped with a cloth cover, either made from imported printed cotton or locally made cotton fabric that is sewn on to the stab-stitch binding. Occasionally, a ribbon is attached at the rim of the cloth cover to secure the scrolled manuscript. Noon found one exceptionally beautiful Shan scrolled manuscript from the 19th century adorned with a locally made plain white cotton cover that was painted by hand with a floral design in red, orange, yellow and blue tones (Or 16137).

Shan scrolled manuscript containing a Buddhist text
Shan scrolled manuscript containing a Buddhist text (right), with a hand-painted cotton cover (left) sewn-on to the binding, 19th century. British Library, Or 16137

In the Thai, Burmese and Malay manuscript collections Noon found textile manuscript bags and envelopes, all of them made from imported fabrics. One such example is a manuscript bag for a Thai palm leaf manuscript, custom-made from imported printed cotton fabric (Or 15885). The factory-made outer layer has red, brown and white floral ornaments, whereas the lining was made from locally-made cream coloured cotton fabric. A rope to tie up the open side of the bag is decorated with small cotton tassels at its ends, and such tassels are attached to all four corners of the bag, too.

Manuscript bag for a palm leaf manuscript from Thailand
Manuscript bag for a palm leaf manuscript from Thailand, made from imported printed cotton, c. 1840-60. British Library, Or 15885

An envelope made from European damask silk originally came with a letter from Pangiran Adipati of Palembang, addressed to Stamford Raffles in Bengkulu in 1824 (MSS Eur D 742/1/61). The envelope is combined with a paper wrapper made from Dutch paper, with intricately cut ends at the back, made in the Malay tradition.

Yellow silk and paper wrapper addressed to Raffles
Yellow silk and paper wrapper addressed to Raffles from a letter from Pangiran Adipati of Palembang, made from European damask silk and Dutch paper, 1824. British Library, MSS Eur D 742/1/61

In the Burmese collection Noon found a large number of manuscript ribbons (sazigyo) which fulfil two purposes: 1) to wrap around palm leaf or Kammavaca manuscripts - the latter often consisting of loose leaves - in order to keep the leaves in order when the manuscript is stored, and 2) to add a dedicatory message from the donor which is woven into the ribbon. Sazigyo were usually made in the tablet-weaving technique from cotton, silk or hemp. These ribbons can be of extraordinary lengths of several metres, and in addition to the inscription decorations in form of sacred symbols, geometric forms, plants and animals can be found (Or 3665).

Burmese manuscript ribbon (sazigyo) made from hand-spun cotton yarn
Burmese manuscript ribbon (sazigyo) made from hand-spun cotton yarn, with text and ornaments on a solid red background, 19th century. British Library, Or 3665

Object comparison
When researching the manuscript textiles, Noon realised that many questions remained unanswered, especially regarding the country of origin and creation dates. Therefore, she visited several other organisations in the UK, including the British Museum, the Library of the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), the Wellcome Collection, the John Rylands University Library in Manchester, Brighton Museum and Art Gallery, the National Archives at Kew and the Victoria and Albert Museum to see if there were similar items in these collections, possibly with recorded dates or detailed provenance records.

The method of object comparison proved useful to establish connections between some textile items and places of origin. During a visit to the John Rylands University Library in Manchester, Noon had the opportunity to see seven silk wrappers of exactly the same make as the British Library’s Or 5107. It is almost certain that they belonged to the same set of the Tipitaka thought to have been commissioned by King Rama III (r. 1824-51). The Mancunian acquisition record tells us that the Thai palm leaf manuscripts were donated by Pali scholar Thomas Rhys Davids in 1917.

Cotton wrapper with a butterfly and vine print on red background
Cotton wrapper with a butterfly and vine print on red background, lined with plain white cotton. Manchester 1874. British Library, Or 16673

During a visit to the National Archives in Kew Noon consulted numerous large volumes containing samples of textile designs registered by British companies in the 1870s-80s. With great excitement she found an exact match for a cloth wrapper made from a piece of imported printed cotton fabric with plain white hand-woven cotton lining in the British Library’s collection (Or 16673). It was made for a Burmese palm leaf manuscript with text on the Life of the Buddha, dated 1883. The fabric design was registered in 1874 by The Strines Printing Company in Manchester.

The moment of discovering a registered fabric design matching British Library Or 16673 at the National Archives in Kew
The moment of discovering a registered fabric design matching British Library Or 16673 at the National Archives in Kew.

Jana Igunma, Henry Ginsburg Curator for Thai, Lao and Cambodian Collections
Noon Methaporn Singhanan, Chevening Fellow at the British Library 2022-23

14 August 2023

Literary manuscripts from Southeast Asia on display

The British Library collections of manuscripts from Southeast Asia are especially rich in literary works, ranging from centuries-old epics deriving from Indian models, to innovative compositions in prose and poetry. In some regions literary manuscripts were designed to be read aloud to an audience, while in other places books were savoured in private. The written word aimed to enchant and soothe the soul, but usually also to instruct and improve the mind.

Literary works from Southeast Asia currently on display in the British Library.
Literary works from Southeast Asia currently on display in the British Library.

A selection of literary manuscripts from Southeast Asia is currently on display in the exhibitions case outside the Asian and African Studies Reading Room on the third floor of the British Library building at St Pancras in London. On the bottom shelf are two illustrated folding books in Thai and Burmese, and on the top shelf are texts written in Vietnamese and Malay.

Thai konlabot กลบท. Thailand, 19th century
Thai konlabot กลบท. Thailand, 19th century. British Library, Or. 16102, f. 9r  Noc

This folding book contains konlabot rhymes in the Thai language. Konlabot is a special form of Thai poetry going back to the classical work Chindamani (‘Jewel of Thought’), attributed to the Buddhist monk Horathibodi around 1670. Konlabot poetry is used in classical Thai literature to express emotions and the beauty of characters and scenes, but also to show the skill and intellect of the author. Rhymes are often presented in the shapes of animals, plants or natural settings, like the mythical golden hamsa bird in front of a cave.

Ramayana in Burmese. Myanmar (Burma), late 19th century
Ramayana in Burmese. Myanmar (Burma), late 19th century. British Library, Or. 14178, f. 8r  Noc

The great Indian epic Ramayana is known in Burmese as Yama Zatdaw. This beautiful illustrated folding book depicts the episode when Rama (with green face), his wife Sita and and his brother Lakshmana are living in exile. The demon king Ravana plots to abduct Sita by sending one of his demons in the form of a golden deer. Sita begs Rama to catch the golden deer for her (left), and so he leaves Sita under the protection of Lakshmana and goes off to shoot the golden deer with his bow and arrow (right).

Vietnamese tuông plays. Vietnam, mid-19th century
Vietnamese tuông plays. Vietnam, mid-19th century. British Library, Or. 8218, vol. 1, f. 2r Noc

‘Life story of Song Ciming zhuan’ is one of 46 tuông plays from a ten-volume set possibly written in Hue, the capital of Vietnam in the 19th century. Tuông, or classical Vietnamese theatre, is believed to have originated through Chinese influence in the 13th century. It became especially popular during the Nguyên dynasty (1802-1945), when emperors and high-ranking mandarins became patrons of troupes and had performances given in their private chambers.

Malay tale of Muhammad Hanafiah. Penang, 1805
Malay tale of Muhammad Hanafiah. Penang, 1805. British Library, MSS Malay B.6, ff. 1v-2r Noc

Translated from a Persian original probably in the 15th century, the Malay Hikayat Muhammad Hanafiah tells of heroic battles waged in the name of Islam, and this story came to epitomise valour in battle. In a famous episode in the Sejarah Melayu, the chronicle of the great kingdom of Melaka, the night before Melaka was attacked by the Portuguese in 1511, the young knights sent a message to the sultan requesting the recitation of the Hikayat Muhammad Hanafiah to give them courage.

All the manuscripts shown here have been digitised, and can be read fully on the Digitised Manuscripts website.

Southeast Asia section curators Ccownwork

30 May 2023

Better than a Pearl: a letter to the Bayinkan of Burma from the people of Mergui

This guest blog is by Jim Potter, an independent researcher who studies the history of Tenasserim, and Ni Ni Aung, a resident of Myeik (Mergui), who assisted in the translation, transcription and interpretation of this letter.

Burmese shell book, Myeik, ca. 1907
Burmese shell book, Myeik, ca. 1907. British Library, Or 16052. Noc

This extraordinary memorial (Or 16052) was presented to a bayinkan (ruler) who visited southern Myanmar around 1907. It is a beautiful letter in formal Burmese, printed in silk and encased in an oyster shell, but it was also clever diplomacy from a place that had dealt with capricious foreign kings for centuries. In fact, the region's port was founded by a distant kingdom in 1531 when Ayutthaya ended the long, autonomous history of Tāṇa-sirī (sometimes pronounced ‘Tenasserim’). Silt had shuttered the old roadstead at Tawnauklae, so the Thais established a new one at Khe Hill. They called it Marit. Myanmar called it Myeik. Europeans called it Mergui (Sein 1929, chs. 10-11).

detail from 'Map of the coast of Pegu and Tenaserey with the neighbouring islands, 1688
Tenaserey, 1688: detail from 'Map of the coast of Pegu and Tenaserey with the neighbouring islands on the scale of 8 leagues to an inch', by John Thornton, 1688. (This map was drawn shortly after the violent ending of Samuel White's tenure as shahbandar or harbour master of Marit, the true story of which remains to be told). British Library, Add MS 39178C Noc

After 1531, monsoons and geographic isolation meant that local lords remained little bothered by sovereigns in Ayutthaya, Bago, Ava, Calcutta or Rangoon. One imagines that the ok-phra Marit (official in charge of Mergui under Thai rule) who dealt with strange new Europeans in 1622 might have found sympathy with the Myeik myowun (equivalent official under Myanmar rule) who governed its beleagured stockade in 1780, or deputy commissioners who administered sleepy Mergui after 1825. All of these ‘mayors’ were granted a large degree of autonomy at the price of neglect from the capital.

For the latter rulers, Mergui became a backwater of the British Empire. Lacking teak and with its overland trade route displaced by steam power, it was a place where disfavoured civil servants were exiled into obscurity. When E.M. Ryan arrived in 1857 he called the assignment “a species of banishment” and demanded “any other appointment ... in a more civilized part of the world.” (Mss Eur F699/1/2/2/68). Maurice Collis half-agreed during his time there in the 1930s, though he wept when he left.

The waterfront of Mergui, ca. 1897
The waterfront of Mergui, ca. 1897. Photo by William Sutherland in his article, "South Tenasserim and the Mergui Archipelago", Scottish Geographical Magazine, vol. 14, no. 9 (1898). 

Arguably, this isolation allowed the town to retain its unique identity, vibrant culture, and admirable tradition of tolerant diversity. However, it slowed development to a crawl, and government reports included Mergui almost as an afterthought. Maps of Burma casually lopped off Tenasserim when it didn’t fit on the page.

An opportunity to counter the neglect came during a visit by Lieutenant-Governor Herbert Thirkell White. The dates are uncertain, but possibly he arrived in 1907 after seeing a report on Mergui’s progress (IOR/V/27/314/29), and prior to a tour of Burma by the Earl of Minto, Viceroy and Governor-General of India. Though the viceroy did not venture to the far south, his visit was a grand affair judging by the entourage and security arrangements (Mss Eur E254/31). If this timeline is correct, civic leaders of Mergui were surely savvy enough to recognize the opportunity of direct appeal to the seats of British power.

Many others desired the same access, of course, and most were better placed for success. If the town wanted to get attention, how better than with a beautiful letter, written on silk stretched across ornate brass frames, enclosed within a huge oyster shell from the Mergui Archipelago where the ingaleik bayinkan (English governor) had enjoyed his recent holiday?

the back cover of the oyster shell book the inside back cover, showing the intricately carved brass leaf attached to the 'binding'
(Left) the back cover of the oyster shell book, and (right) the inside back cover, showing the intricately carved brass leaf attached to the 'binding'. British Library, Or 16052. Noc

The red cloth wrapper of the shell book
The red cloth wrapper of the shell book; Myeik residents say the textile is Karen-style, though other ethnicities would wear it as well. British Library, Or 16052, wrapper. Noc

The letter is written in poetic phrases, but it is not a poem. Instead it mimics the way officials reported to Myanmar kings by humbly lowering themselves to the floor, raising their palms together above the head in letoakchi (signifying profound deference to a superior) and speaking short phrases interrupted by calm breaths. For example, to describe the dangers of the sea during the southwest monsoon, the authors wrote:

ဒေဝါသွန်းချိုး (rain drops come)၊ စည်မူရိုးဖြင့် (sound of Muyo-drum to represent thunder)၊ ထစ်ကြိုးအဟုန် (strongly strike)၊ လေပြင်းသုန်လျက် (strong winds blow)၊ အမ္ဗန်ညှိုးညံ (strike with anger)၊ ဂရက်မြန်လျက် (choppily)၊ သည်းထံစွာရွာသွန်းသော (rain heavily)၊ မိုဃ်းဥတုအခါဝယ် (in the rainy season)၊

This structure and language are troublesome for precise translation into English prose. We believe the version given to Lieutenant-Governor White would have been something like, “It being dangerous to travel in the sea during the strong winds, thunder and heavy, angry rains of the monsoon ....”

The second page of text of the shell book
The second page of text of the shell book. British Library, Or 16052, f. 2r. Noc

The letter also contains a notable contrast: respectful metaphors such as, “It gave us great happiness in seeing you, like a flower being watered”, are placed beside emphatic requests for costly improvements. Perhaps the authors knew their unique letter would be seen and decided to push the rare opportunity to the limit.

Their requests were well-chosen. Transportation had always been a problem in Tenasserim, so the letter begins by suggesting that recently built large roads should be connected by new smaller ones. Besides bringing ‘prosperity and happiness”, the authors note how this network would aid mining operations. In fact, a decade later Tenasserim became a major source of wolfram which was essential for munitions in the First World War (Myanmar National Archives MNA 1/7 1148 & 1162; IOR/L/E/7/1369-1370).

"The main street of Mergui", ca. 1907, photo by R.N. Rudmose Brown907
"The main street of Mergui", ca. 1907, photo by R.N. Rudmose Brown in “The Mergui Archipelago: its people and products.” Scottish Geographical Magazine, vol. 23 (1907).

Similarly, the people asked for a steamship “to run once a week between the towns of Palaw, Myeik, Bokpyin and Maliwun”. The first- and last-named places had promising tin mines, while Bokpyin was close to the pearling grounds. It was unnecessary to remind the governor that a steamer could also help secure the vast Mergui Archipelago, which had been a haven for pirates, poachers and plunderers for thousands of years. In turn, residents would finally be freed from monsoonal isolation and the leaky vessels that had been assigned to the coast (see, for example: “Rangoon Tavoy & Mergui”, c. 1892, James Caird Library, BIS/7/2).

Unidentified wreck in the treacherous waters of the Mergui Archipelago
Unidentified wreck in the treacherous waters of the Mergui Archipelago. Noc

Public health came next. Requests included a safe water supply, reclaiming swampy land in Nauklae Quarter, a new hospital, and a sewage system. The items seem especially targeted towards cholera. Reports showed that it was extant throughout the year across Tenasserim, and periodically erupted in terrifying epidemics with shocking fatality rates (IOR/V/27/44/3; IOR/V/27/60/87; Mss Eur G66; MNA 1/7 92).


detail of "Mergui Harbour," Marine Survey of India, 1885     Harbour map of Mergui 1945
Harbour maps: (left) detail of "Mergui Harbour," Marine Survey of India, 1885, British Library, Maps SEC.12.(218.) [digitally enhanced for viewing]; (right) detail of HIND 1036 Mergui, 1st ed., Great Britain War Office, September 1945. Nauklae Quarter is the southern part of town.

Residents stated plainly: “The many developments shown above will cost a large amount of money, so the municipality needs increased funding.” They were eager to do their own part by securing a loan to pay their way, and by establishment of a bilingual science school to grow the local economy. History and geography had made communities of Tenasserim exceptionally strong and self-reliant. In the new century, though, they needed help to keep pace.

Did the letter get the governor’s attention? We haven’t yet found correspondence on the matter in the India Office Records, but we do have a 1912 Mergui gazetteer by G.P. Andrew. He reported that road transport remained so poor that farmers were unable to develop agricultural markets. On the other hand, a series of bridle paths had been hacked through the forests in 1908-9, and more plans were either being drawn or “in contemplation”. Unfortunately, the government continued contemplating for another thirty years (IOR/L/MIL/17/19/23).

Better success occurred at sea. By 1909 the British India Steam Navigation Company had changed its fortnightly service from Rangoon into a weekly voyage. The BISN augmented this with a separate weekly steamer to Mawlamyine, while the paddleboat Amarapoora called at smaller coastal towns between Palaw and Victoria Point (Kawthaung). This network was connected to Penang by the Koe Guan Steamship Company, a Thai-Chinese family firm that employed old British shellbacks as captains (Andrew 1912; Blain 1940).

For public health, Andrew reported that a new hospital was “about to be erected”. This seems to be the same structure that now serves the administration of Myeik Public Hospital in Kankaung Quarter. Marks on old roof tiles lead to an Indian company that was founded in 1916, so either construction was delayed by the war or the new hospital was damaged by a massive town fire around 1913. As always, the people endured and rebuilt.

Myeik Public Hospital, built ca. 1912
Myeik Public Hospital, built ca. 1912. Photo by Jim Potter. Noc

Residents said they wished to combat the “ninety-six kinds of illness”. The hospital aided this traditional cause, and new scourges were slowly brought under control as well. The last epidemics of smallpox and cholera likely occurred during Japanese occupation in the Second World War, and in the terrible aftermath when Mergui struggled to rejoin the world (Mss Eur D1080/20–28).

Nauklae Quarter was slowly transformed from a swamp into a busy neighbourhood (MNA 1/7 1217 & 1248). Likewise, Myeik’s water and sewage systems were stabilised, though their construction was a process rather than a single event. Larger civic improvements were accomplished in the boom years of the 1920s and again after independence. In particular, the Myeik District Pyidawtha Association did extensive public works in the early 1950s (Maung Pye Chan 1989). Nonetheless many residents still rely on the town’s ancient wells for washing and bathing.

Amoulyedwin well, Myeik, 2019. Photo courtesy of Jamie Skinner
Amoulyedwin well, Myeik, 2019. Photo courtesy of Jamie Skinner.  Noc

Can we therefore conclude that Myeik’s beautiful shell letter to the Bayinkanmin-ashin-thakin-phaya (the full honorific title of the governor) was a qualified success? It would seem so, which might be a good thing to remember in our disposable days of spam and Instagram.

The full text of the Burmese letter in Or 16052 with a transcription and English translation can be found here: Shell letter transcription and translation.

Further reading:
U Gyi Sein. Tanintharyi Yazawin: the chronicles of Tenasserim. Thet Ko Ko, tr., Jim Potter and the people of Tanintharyi, eds. (James & Hook Books; 2023). Originally published as: တနင်္သာရီတိုင်းမြိတ်ရာဇဝင်တော်ကြီ : “Tanintharyi Division Myeik Chronicle.” (English-Myanmar Printing Press; Myeik Township; 1929). The Myanmar text is available on archive.org.
Andrew, George Percy. Burma Gazetteer, Mergui District, volume A. (Gov. of Burma; Rangoon; 1912).
Blain, William. Home is the Sailor: the life of William Brown, master mariner & Penang pilot. (Sheridan House; New York; 1940).
Collis, Maurice. Into Hidden Burma. (Faber & Faber; London; 1953).
Maung Pyae Chan. ဓာတ်ပုံကပြောသော မြိတ်သမိုင်း မှတ်တိုင်များ, ‘Historical Landmarks of Myeik in Photos’ (Than Swe; Yangon; 1989). English translation forthcoming.

Jim Potter and Ni Ni Aung Ccownwork



 

01 May 2023

Manuscript Textiles in the Southeast Asian Collections: Project Update

A Chevening Fellowship that started in September 2022 with the aim to research and catalogue manuscript textiles in the Library’s Southeast Asian Collections has made good progress during the past six months: over fifty manuscript textiles have been identified and detailed object descriptions with photo documentations have been completed. Chevening Fellow Methaporn Singhanan explains how this project relates to her doctoral research: “My Ph.D. dissertation examines the social life of textiles and what ancient textiles can reveal about human history, beliefs and hierarchy, and especially trade. This project has exposed me to textiles and their trade routes, and I have seen more textiles than usual because most of these manuscripts' textiles were imported from other places than where the manuscripts originate from. These examples help me to explain my dissertation's main point, that textiles are more than just practical goods and can show relationships between communities and time periods”.

Burmese manuscript containing the Kathā vatthu
Burmese manuscript containing the Kathā vatthu with an over 4 m long sazigyo (ribbon) made in the tablet weaving technique on a backstrap loom with dedicatory inscription in Burmese language, 19th century. British Library, Or 3665 Noc

The focus so far has been on Burmese and ethnic Tai manuscript textiles, specifically sazigyo (handwoven ribbons) and custom-made manuscript wrappers with bamboo slats. More than twenty sazigyo have been assessed; most of them with a length of over two metres and beautifully woven-in geometric designs and inscriptions in Burmese language. These ribbons were traditionally made in the tablet-weaving technique on a backstrap loom. They were used to secure palm leaf manuscripts, and were often given to Buddhist monasteries as a meritorious offering by lay women. The majority of them are of special significance due to the extensive woven-in Burmese text with a dedicatory message and the donor's name. Others were woven solely with geometric or figural patterns.

The manuscript wrappers found with Burmese, Lao and northern Thai (Lanna) manuscripts were traditionally handcrafted by interlacing cotton yarns with bamboo slats. Sometimes pieces of colourful printed cotton fabrics were cut to size and woven in as well, and plain white or red cotton fabric was added as lining and to cover the edges of the wrappers. The bamboo slats were inserted instead of weft yarns to increase the stability of these wrappers. Occasionally, a combination of silk and cotton yarns is found.

Methaporn Singhanan emphasizes the great diversity of textiles she has assessed so far: “I discovered Southeast Asian tapestry and Ikat weaving, as well as rare, high-quality, and opulent imported fabrics. Two of my favourite items are a Japanese silk brocade with gilded paper thread used to wrap Burmese palm leaf manuscripts, and an attractive Indian textile ordered by the Thai royal court to encase Thai texts. To strengthen the textiles and protect the sacred manuscripts, velvet, felt, silk, fabrics with woodblock prints, and European printed fabrics were inter-woven with colourful yarns and bamboo slats. I adore the manuscripts with boards and ivory pegs decorated with gold and religious symbols just as much as the textiles. Their lavish decorations demonstrate the faith and dedication of the people who created and commissioned these precious objects”.

Methaporn Singhanan examining a manuscript wrapper made with bamboo slats and pieces of plain red and blue dyed cotton (Or 6453 B).
Methaporn Singhanan examining a manuscript wrapper made with bamboo slats and pieces of plain red and blue dyed cotton (Or 6453 B).

In addition to her work with the manuscript textiles in the Southeast Asian collections, the Chevening Fellow has visited various other areas and departments of the Library. Since Methaporn Singhanan has been running a voluntary conservation project for textiles in northern Thailand for several years, visits to the British Library’s Conservation Centre (BLCC) were of special interest to her. Textile conservator Liz Rose organised a half-day practical session on dyeing nylon net for textile conservation. On another occasion, she also showed a Shan scrolled paper manuscript (Or 15363) with a printed cotton cover that had recently undergone conservation treatment by Lois Glithero, Glasgow University MPhil Textile Conservation placement student 2022, and she explained in detail the steps taken to rescue and preserve the severely damaged textile.

Methaporn Singhanan during a conservational textile dyeing session
Methaporn Singhanan during a conservational textile dyeing session under supervision of textile conservator Liz Rose in British Library’s Conservation Centre (BLCC)

An opportunity to learn about the digitisation work at the Library arose during the digitisation of a large Burmese wall hanging (Or 16550). Together with textile conservator Liz Rose, conservation intern Storm Scott and curator for Burmese, Maria Kekki, Methaporn Singhanan assisted the Library’s photographers Tony Grant and Carl Norman with the digitisation process. Due to the large size of the item, many hands were needed to lay out the finely embroidered textile on the floor in order to digitise it with a special large format camera. The Sinar camera produces high-quality digital images using a multi-shot capture system, where each pixel is captured by every primary colour. This achieves an almost unimaginable level of colour accuracy, and prevents the moiré effect on images, which is ideal for textiles.

Methaporn Singhanan helped to set up an embroidered Burmese wall hanging (Or 16550) for digitisation at the Library’s Imaging Studio
Methaporn Singhanan helped to set up an embroidered Burmese wall hanging (Or 16550) for digitisation at the Library’s Imaging Studio.

Much of the textile research is based on comparative analysis, due to the lack of information within the manuscripts themselves (most do not contain a colophon with a creation date or related names) as well as gaps in the provenance documentation. Even if some information is found within the manuscripts, it cannot always be assumed that the textile shares the same history with the manuscript. Therefore, it is necessary to look at similar textile objects in other collections where more detailed provenance documentation may be available. A visit to the Royal Asiatic Society enabled Methaporn Singhanan to study two Burmese manuscript textiles, one of which is thought to be the oldest sazigyo, dated 1792, held in a British public collections. Conservation work had recently been completed to preserve this rare manuscript ribbon, and close examination of this item and discussion with British Library conservator Liz Rose were invaluable for Methaporn Singhanan’s research.

Liz Rose (right) and Methaporn Singhanan (left) visited the Royal Asiatic Society
The British Library’s textile conservator Liz Rose (right) and Methaporn Singhanan (left) visited the Royal Asiatic Society in London to study the oldest known Burmese sazigyo in a British public collection.

Two excellent learning opportunities for the Chevening Fellow were courses offered by other organisations in London. In November, Methaporn Singhanan attended a four-day course “Textile Arts of Asia” at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), convened by Dr Fiona Kerlogue of the Oriental Rug and Textile Society. The course gave insights into how Asian textiles and carpets can be explored, drawing on research carried out by scholars who have used literary sources, studied museum and other collections and undertaken studies in the field.

Methaporn Singhanan was also very excited about her attendance of a one-day course on 23 March 2023 at the Victoria and Albert Museum led by textile expert Dr Lesley Pullen. The day started with a talk on "Textiles tell a story: From India to Indonesia" which focused on the history of the textile trade between India and Indonesia and the wider context of Persian and European involvement. In a show-and-tell session after the talk, the participants had the opportunity to handle the exquisite textiles from Lesley Pullen’s private collection and to ask questions.

Methaporn Singhanan taking a close look at textiles from the private collection of Dr Lesley Pullen
Methaporn Singhanan taking a close look at textiles from the private collection of Dr Lesley Pullen during a course on "Textiles tell a story: From India to Indonesia" held at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.

A highlight was the visit of a group from the Royal Thai Embassy in London, including H.E. Ambassador Thani Thongphakdi, to the Library on 29 March 2023. Methaporn Singhanan helped to prepare a show-and-tell session for the esteemed visitors and selected an outstanding nineteenth-century manuscript textile (Or 5107) made from fine silk brocade to display on this occasion. She used this item - which had been imported from India to cover a large Thai palm leaf manuscript with gold decorations - to explain her research and work as a Chevening Fellow at the British Library.

a show-and-tell session for visitors from the Royal Thai Embassy
During a show-and-tell session for visitors from the Royal Thai Embassy, including H.E. Ambassador Thani Thongphakdi (2nd left), Chevening Fellow Methaporn Singhanan (2nd right) presented her research on a silk brocade wrapper imported from India to cover a precious Thai manuscript (Or 5107)

This fellowship is made possible through the Chevening scheme which is the UK government’s international awards scheme aimed at developing global leaders. Funded by the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) and partner organisations, Chevening offers fellowships to mid-career professionals to undertake a bespoke short course in the UK.

Jana Igunma, Henry Ginsburg Curator for Thai, Lao and Cambodian Collections Ccownwork
Methaporn Singhanan, Chevening Fellow at the British Library 2022-23 Ccownwork

07 November 2022

Manuscript Textiles in the Southeast Asian collections

A Chevening Fellowship is currently being hosted for twelve months by the Library’s Asian and African Collections department with the aim of researching and cataloguing manuscript textiles in the Southeast Asian collections. The Library holds about 3000 manuscripts from Southeast Asia, forming the largest and most significant collection of Southeast Asian manuscripts in the UK. Highlights include illustrated paper folding books and gilded manuscript chests from Myanmar (Burma) and Thailand, rare palm leaf manuscripts from Cambodia, Laos and northern Thailand, royal letters in Malay from the courts of the archipelago, some of the earliest known Batak divination manuals from Sumatra, as well as unique royal letters and edicts from Vietnam and Thailand.

Palm leaf manuscript containing a Buddhist commentary, from central Thailand c. 1824-52, with a silk wrapping cloth with gold thread, of Indian origin, made to order for the Thai royal court. British Library, Or 5107
Palm leaf manuscript containing a Buddhist commentary, from central Thailand c. 1824-52, with a silk wrapping cloth with gold thread, of Indian origin, made to order for the Thai royal court. British Library, Or 5107 Noc

Within this body of material, recent digitisation projects and exhibitions have brought to light over one hundred manuscript textiles - either wrapped around or attached to manuscripts as a form of protective cover or binding - without or with only minimal documentation and cataloguing data. Often the textiles were custom-made for one particular manuscript, and such objects could be made from valuable hand-woven silk brocades, ikat fabrics, dyed or printed cotton and imported materials like chintz and silk damask. Specially designed textiles were commissioned to add meritorious value to a Buddhist manuscript or to an entire set of Buddhist texts. Sometimes discarded textiles like monks’ robes, used and unused clothes of deceased people, or leftover pieces of cloths made for other purposes were utilised to create beautiful manuscript textiles.

The provenance of these textiles is often difficult to establish due to the lack of recorded information in the Library's catalogues and acquisition records. Another reason is that some of the manuscript textiles appear to be of a different date than the manuscripts themselves, and some may originate from a different place than the manuscripts they belong to, since there was a practice to replace worn out or damaged manuscript textiles with new ones to provide protection to the manuscripts.

Methaporn Singhanan on her first day as Chevening Fellow at the British Library, September 2022
Methaporn Singhanan on her first day as Chevening Fellow at the British Library, September 2022

The Chevening Fellow who is currently surveying and assessing these under-researched and often fragile Southeast Asian manuscript textiles is Methaporn Singhanan, a Ph.D. student from the Social Science Faculty at Chiang Mai University in Thailand, where she is also running a volunteer project to conserve Buddhist arts in northern Thailand. Her upcoming dissertation focuses on Southeast Asian textiles and trade routes, highlighting the importance of textiles as a source of information about the world's economy and trade links between countries and continents. Methaporn Singhanan has over seven years of experience as a curator at the Money and Textile Museum, Bank of Thailand, Northern Region Office, where she worked with textiles and curated exhibitions. She holds a B.A. in History as well as an M.A. in Art and Cultural Management from Chiang Mai University. Before joining the Bank of Thailand in 2013, Methaporn Singhanan worked as a historian for the Northern Archaeology Center (NAC) at Chiang Mai University, where she assisted in the conservation of artifacts from temples and the establishment of a local museum in northern Thailand. Her knowledge and expertise will help to provide comprehensive catalogue records and to plan and inform future conservation work and public engagement with the manuscript textiles.

Shan paper manuscript bound with a patterned cotton cloth cover and a felt binding ribbon, Shan State, first half of the 20th century. British Library, Or 15368
Shan paper manuscript bound with a patterned cotton cloth cover and a felt binding ribbon, Shan State, first half of the 20th century. British Library, Or 15368. From the collection of Søren Egerod. Noc

The aims of this project are not only to identify the Library’s holdings of Southeast Asian manuscript textiles dating mainly from the 18th to the 20th century, but also to document in detail the materials, size, estimated age, pattern, technique of creation, country of origin, provenance and general condition of each item and, where possible, to recommend which items should be prioritised for conservation treatment. Methaporn Singhanan works closely with the Library’s curators of Southeast Asian collections to share information about these manuscript textiles internally, especially with colleagues in the Library’s Conservation Centre, as well as externally with organisations in the UK and abroad that have an interest in the curation and conservation of Asian textiles.

Chevening is the UK government’s international awards scheme aimed at developing global leaders. Funded by the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) and partner organisations, Chevening offers fellowships to mid-career professionals to undertake a bespoke short course in the UK.

Jana Igunma, Henry Ginsburg Curator for Thai, Lao and Cambodian Collections Ccownwork
Methaporn Singhanan, Chevening Fellow at the British Library 2022-23 Ccownwork

20 September 2022

Two Golden Commissions from the Shan States

This guest blog is by Dr Frances O’Morchoe, Yale University.

In 1882, King Thibaw, the last king of Burma (Myanmar), issued two royal sanads, or commissions, appointing an individual, Twek Nga Lu, as chief of the Shan states of Mong Nai (Mone) and Kengtawng. These golden commissions – thin strips of gold foil embossed with the royal seal – are currently on display in the British Library's GOLD exhibition, which runs until the 2nd of October 2022. With the seals is a hand-written note, likely written by Lady Scott, wife of the below-mentioned George. This note explains: ‘These two strips of gold foil are the sanads or commissions from Theebaw to Twek Nga Lu, the bandit chief who dispossessed Mone of that State and Kengtawng by force (no doubt Theebaw was bribed). George went up with a handful of men when Britain took over and restored the old chief. See “Scott of the Shan Hills”.’

The two golden commissions bear the ruling titles of the cities
The two golden commissions bear the ruling titles of the cities: ကမ္ပောစဝံသဇေယရာဇာ (Kampocavaṃsajeyarājā) (A) and မဟာသီဟရာဇထိုစံထွား (Mahāsīharāja thui caṃ thvāʺ) (B). British Library, Mss Burmese 211 A and B Noc

Looking deeper into the story behind these commissions gives us a snapshot of what was happening in Burma and the Shan states at a pivotal moment in their history.

The golden commissions tell us first about the complex internal politics of the Shan states in the nineteenth century, as well as the nature of the political relations between the Shan rulers and the Burmese kings. The Shan states in the nineteenth century were a mass of different statelets ruled by Sawbwas (chiefs), varying hugely in size and power. Unlike today’s conception of sovereignty with territorially-defined borders dividing states, chiefs had spheres of influence rather than territorial sovereignty, and sovereign power was exercised through relationships between people.

The Shan states had a complicated relationship with the Burmese kings at Ava. While the Shan are culturally and linguistically different from the Burmese, many of the Shan Sawbwas paid tribute to the Burmese kings. For some this involved hosting a Burmese deputy, or even a garrison of Burmese soldiers, while for others this tributary status was merely nominal. The Salween River, which runs through the middle of the Shan states, is an approximate marker of a cultural divide between the western Shan states, which tended to be influenced by Burmese culture, and the eastern Shan states, which tended to be influenced by China and Siam. Thus Mong Nai, which lay on the western side of the Salween, paid tribute to the Burmese kings in Mandalay, while so-called ‘trans-Salween’ Shan states like Kengtung paid tribute to China. Complicating this, many states paid tribute in multiple directions at the same time.

The Gateway of Mong Nai.
The Gateway of Mong Nai. Photograph by Sir James Scott George, 1890s. British Library, Photo 92/2(59)

The story of how these Burmese royal sealed commissions came to be held by the British Library also gives us a snapshot of how the British annexation of Upper Burma unfolded on the ground.

The British annexed Burma in three stages, with Arakan and Tenasserim in 1825, Lower Burma in 1852, and Upper Burma in 1885. The annexation of Upper Burma in 1885 and the exile of the last king of Burma, King Thibaw, was followed by a decade-long campaign of resistance to the British across Upper Burma and the Shan, Kachin and Chin hills. This guerrilla war was the longest campaign fought by the Victorian army, yet it has been all but forgotten in Britain today. The British overthrew Thibaw in a month, but it took several years to put down the diffuse rebellions which sprang up all over Upper Burma.

After deposing King Thibaw, the British immediately claimed as British territory all states which had been vassal states to the Burmese kings. This turned out to be more complicated than they had thought. They discovered that many states paid multiple allegiance, e.g. to both Burma and China, or to Burma and Siam. Some even paid triple allegiance. As a result, annexation triggered several years of trying to determine the new colony’s boundaries with China and Siam. Adding to these complications, at the time of the annexation of Upper Burma many of the Shan states were already in open revolt against the Burmese King.

In 1882, the Mong Nai Sawbwa, Hkun Kyi, rebelled against the Burmese King Thibaw. Resenting Thibaw's perceived slights against him, and feeling the burden of hosting the main Burmese garrison in the Shan States, the Sawbwa invited the Burmese resident sitke and soldiers to a feast in the palace, shut the gates and had them all killed. King Thibaw sent a punitive expedition in response, and the Sawbwa, Hkun Kyi, fled the town. This punitive expedition was when Thibaw issued Twek Nga Lu with the golden seals which are now on display in the British Library.

Twek Nga Lu was a ‘defrocked’ monk (Twek, in Burmese ထွက်, denotes someone who has left the monkhood) who had been in a feud with Hkun Kyi, the Mong Nai Sawbwa, for several years before this point. After failing to take Mong Nai by force, Twek Nga Lu worked to cultivate a relationship with King Thibaw, at one point visiting him in Mandalay. Thibaw’s punitive expedition installed Twek Nga Lu as ruler of Mong Nai in 1882, but when Mandalay fell in 1885 all the Burmese troops were recalled. Twek Nga Lu was left without support and in 1886 Hkun Kyi recaptured Mong Nai.

In May 1887 the British arrived in Mong Nai and persuaded Hkun Kyi, the newly-reinstated Sawbwa, to surrender. Hkun Kyi surrendered without resistance. Going further, he requested permission to fly the Union Jack in Mong Nai. On 12th May 1887, in the presence of the townspeople and fifty Sikh colonial soldiers, the British solemnly hoisted the Union Jack.

The timing of this declaration of allegiance turned out well for Hkun Kyi. A couple of months later, Twek Nga Lu visited Fort Stedman, the main British garrison in the southern Shan states. He showed the British the golden seals which Thibaw had given him in 1882 and claimed to be the rightful ruler of Mong Nai. He was rebuffed, however, and the British told him they had already recognised Hkun Kyi as Sawbwa.

Twek Nga Lu regrouped and launched another attack, managing to capture Mong Nai for the second time in May 1888. This time the British rather than the Sawbwa were the ones to turn him out. A week after Twek Nga Lu took the town, James George Scott (1851-1935, from 1901 Sir James George Scott) arrived from Fort Stedman. With nine men on horseback Scott galloped into the town in the early hours of 10th of May, and captured Twek Nga Lu while he was asleep in the Haw, or palace. It was most likely at this point that Scott took possession of the golden seals.

A view of Mong Nai
A view of Mong Nai. Photograph by Sir James George Scott, 1890s. British Library, Photo 92/2(68)

Scott was an important figure in the story of the extension of British rule into the Shan States. Formerly a journalist and school master in Rangoon, he made his name with the annexation of Upper Burma. He spent his career working in the British administration of the Shan hills, and became an expert on the country.

The British had had problems recruiting enough people to ‘pacify’ Upper Burma (with ‘pacification’ in practice meaning extracting allegiance at gunpoint and torching noncompliant villages). Finding it difficult to persuade Indian Civil Service (ICS) officers to come from India, the British recruited non-ICS Burma experts then living in Lower Burma. As a result, at the same time as he was marching around the Shan hills burning villages and accepting promises of allegiance from Shan rulers, Scott was studying for his ICS exams.

Scott arrested Twek Nga Lu and sent him to Fort Stedman. On the way to Fort Stedman, Twek Nga Lu tried to escape and a guard shot him dead. His body was buried in a shallow roadside grave. Scott, perhaps believing some of the myths surrounding Twek Nga Lu’s magical powers, decided he had better check that he was actually dead. He went to look but the body had already been exhumed, the head cut off and the rest of his body cooked and sold for its magical powers. Scott retold this Twek Nga Lu story several times in different talks and publications.

Military post at Mong Nai
Military post at Mong Nai. Photograph by Sir James George Scott, c. 1888. British Library, Photo 92/4(24)

As well as being a prolific writer and giver of talks to various learned societies, Scott was also a photographer, and the British Library has a large collection of his photographs of the Shan States. These photographs are a record of the British annexation of Upper Burma, and also show how Scott used photographs to demonstrate the military might of the British. An image of a gathering of Shan chiefs for the Mong Nai Durbar (shown below) demonstrates the number of chiefs who had submitted to British rule – although most did not look particularly happy to be there. His wife Lady Scott included many of his photographs in Scott of the Shan Hills, a book she published in 1936, a year after Scott’s death.

Shan Chiefs, Mong Nai Durbar, 1889
Shan Chiefs, Mong Nai Durbar, 1889. Photograph by Sir James George Scott, May 1889. British Library, Photo 92/11(75)

The photos, like the act of taking the sealed commissions, were part of the process of establishing dominance and suppressing resistance in the Shan states. The taking of photographs and the taking of the seals alike tell us about how Scott wanted to present the annexation of Upper Burma to a British audience. The gates and city walls feature prominently in both written and visual depictions of the scene of the British victory over Twek Nga Lu. The walls symbolise the strength, now subjugated, of the Burmese garrison, and the images of wide open gates are symbols of the British entrance into the city, at full gallop, a detail that was repeated in several accounts of the event. The photographs, like the seals, were taken and displayed in order to prove the symbolic and actual domination of the British over the Shans and Burmese. They also give us a chance to see a how a crucial moment in Shan and Burmese history played out on the ground.

Bibliography:
Jane Ferguson, Repossessing Shanland: Myanmar, Thailand and a Nation-State Deferred. Madison: University of Wisconsin, 2022.
Patricia Herbert, ‘The Making of a Collection: Burmese Manuscripts in the British Library’, The British Library Journal, 15:1 (1989), 59-70
Sao Saimong Mangrai, The Shan States and the British Annexation. Ithaca: Cornell University, 1965.
G.E. Mitton, Scott of the Shan Hills. London: John Murray, 1936.
James Scott, Gazetteer of Upper Burma and the Shan States. Rangoon, 1899.

Frances O’Morchoe Ccownwork

Dr Frances O’Morchoe is a Postdoctoral Associate in Myanmar Studies at the Macmillan Center, Yale University. She received her DPhil in History from the University of Oxford in 2019.

The exhibition Gold: 50 spectacular manuscripts from around the world is on at the British Library until 2 October 2022. To visit, book your tickets here.

An accompanying book, Gold, presenting 21 highlights from the exhibition, is available from the British Library shop.

Supported by:

BullionVault logo

The exhibition is supported by the Goldhammer Foundation and the American Trust for the British Library, with thanks to The John S Cohen Foundation, The Finnis Scott Foundation, the Owen Family Trust and all supporters who wish to remain anonymous.

30 May 2022

The Nomadic Chemist: Alfred Sercombe Griffin (1878-1943) and Burma

Griffin in the doorway of his Weston-super-Mare pharmacy after his return from Burma
Griffin in the doorway of his Weston-super-Mare pharmacy after his return from Burma. Griffin family archives.

The Burmese collection at the British Library has recently received two donations of fascinating memorabilia that belonged to Alfred Sercombe Griffin. He is known for his adventure novels for boys, but made his main living as a pharmacist. He described himself as a “nomadic chemist”, and was drawn to work as a locum pharmacist around England and in other parts of the world. In 1906 he accepted a post at the English pharmacy in Rangoon. As a result, many of his adventure novels are set in Burma. He also wrote extensively of his work as a pharmacist in Burma in the Chemist & Druggist and the Pharmaceutical Journal.

He writes in “Avoiding the humdrum”, Pharmaceutical Journal, 1925, under the pen name “Sasayah” (Burmese for writer): “My father spent the greater part of forty-five years within a small chemist’s shop, looking out on a dull grey wall. I was apprenticed to him, and early vowed that such an existence should not be mine, though I might be a chemist and I might be poor.”

Port of Henzada
Port of Henzada. Alfred Sercombe Griffin, 1906-08. British Library, Photo 1402(15)

Born in Bath and apprenticed by his father, Alfred Sercombe Griffin moved from Bournemouth to London and on to San Remo in 1904-05. After returning to England and working as a locum pharmacist in many parts of the country, he applied for posts in Uganda and China but was not successful. He then found an advertisement for a vacant position in the Supplement of the Pharmaceutical Journal, and was accepted for the post at the pharmacy of Mesrrs. E.M. de Souza & Co., Dalhousie Street, Rangoon, where he arrived in December 1906 after a long boat journey.

Travellers coming on board a boat at Martaban, 1906-08
Travellers coming on board a boat at Martaban, 1906-08. Alfred Sercombe Griffin. British Library, Photo 1402(28)

He writes in one of his novels, Burma Road Calling! (1943): “An intensely varied crowd surged along the road for the early morning shopping and promenade: Burmese women gay in pink silks with the daintiest replicas of themselves beside them; shaven-headed monks in yellow robes, bearing golden sunshades; sturdy Shans with enormous plantain-leaf hats from the hills; tall Paloungs with black robes and tight skull-caps who had brought tea from over the border; an English soldier or two from the barracks; Chinamen in blue pantaloons; Kachins of wild appearance, Karens of gentler aspect; and half a dozen races that even Mr Wrekin himself could not identify. ‘Just come from Babel?’ inquired Roger as he listened to the many languages being spoken all round him.”

In "Avoiding the humdrum" Griffin gives a similar description of his work place: “In the pharmacy in Rangoon fifty languages were spoken everyday; my dispensers and assistants were Burmese, Chinese, Goanese, Hindoos, Brahmins, and Eurasians…”  Griffin aimed to avoid the English circles with its bridge parties and English plays that he found rather boring, and much preferred a Burmese pwai instead, sitting leisurely on a mat and passing down a betel box to chew. He however also describes in the letters to his family Friday evenings and parties at the Rangoon YMCA. Griffin was also involved with the Boys’ Brigade (or new Scouts) and attended their camp at Kokine (Rangoon) in 1907. He was also part of the Boys’ Work Committee. Two of his adventure novels, The Scouts of Ching’s Island and Scouts in the Shan Jungle are about boy scouts based in Rangoon and lodging at the YMCA (“Ching’s Island” was located at Kokine Lake). Griffin clearly enjoyed similar literature himself, as he asked for the Boy’s Own Paper to be sent regularly to him from England. Later on he would write stories for the paper himself.

Alfred Sercombe Griffin
Alfred Sercombe Griffin (1878-1943). Griffin family archives.

Griffin was soon appointed the manager of the dispensing department, but like many British in Southeast Asia at this time soon fell gravely ill (with dysentery or malaria). In late 1907 he was sent to the branch in Maymyo, Shan States, to recuperate. With a more temperate climate than Rangoon, Maymyo was a favourite hill station for the British. Griffin used his own experiences in Burma to provide colour and detail to his adventure stories, and even the Maymyo pharmacy features in one of them: “Roger went up the steps and passed into a marble-floored pharmacy which had rows of medicine bottles, glass show-cases, and a smiling young Englishman behind the counter.” (Burma Road Calling!, 1943).

Griffin (with his Burmese name Maung Na Gyi) journeyed back to England in late 1908 due to his health, and was apparently banned from returning to the Tropics on medical grounds, which he greatly lamented. From his many writings it becomes clear that he sincerely loved his time in Burma and had a soft spot not just for the Burmese, but also for the variety of people who inhabited the country at this time. Despite staying in Burma for only  two years, one of them while very ill, the experience left a lasting impression on him, which he revisited via his writings in pharmaceutical journals, illustrated lectures, and adventure stories, published decades later.

After returning to Europe Griffin continued work as a locum pharmacist in Paris, but returned to Bath to take care of his father’s pharmacy in 1910. A few years later, he took over a bankrupt pharmacy in Weston-super-Mare, which he transformed into a thriving business, and then married and settled down there. In 1917 he built a bungalow in Sidcot, Winscombe, named Wingaba (according to Griffin Burmese for a beautiful view). He retired to Sidcot in 1925 early at 47 due to his poor health. He became a Quaker in the early 30s and subsequently travelled to Palestine, where one of his novels is set (Where the Master Lived, 1936).

Griffin writes in “Avoiding the humdrum” (1925): “In the duller days when I was to become a proprietor of a pharmacy of my very own I could jump out of the humdrum of income-tax returns and N.H.I. by picking up one of my books on Burma and fly instanter to a land of brilliant sunshine and kindly memories.”

Cover of Scouts in the Shan Jungle, 1937
Cover of Scouts in the Shan Jungle, 1937. Illustrator Richard B. Ogle. British Library, 20059.f.26

Griffin’s novels are light, entertaining stories of adventure replete with snakes and man-eating tigers, kidnappings, rides through waterfalls, lost cities, mystery and intrigue as well as a varied collection of personalities. The international group of Scouts that also includes Burmese, Shan, Indian and Chinese members nevertheless dress in khaki breeches and sun-helmets, and never miss their coffee and rolls in the morning, a tiffin and a siesta in the afternoon, and a wholesome dinner in the evening. Inevitably, the stories are written from an English perspective, and enjoy the stereotypes of the time, whether European or Asian. All of Griffin’s writings, however, relay an enjoyment of travel, wonder and humour in the small moments of life, as well as the joy of telling a story. The stress is firmly on the character of the individual.

Griffin’s interest in illnesses and their cure has also been included in the stories. Leprosy features in several novels, where a knee-jerk fear of contagion is dismissed with new medical knowledge. Snake bites can be dealt with the right treatment and some characters even catch malaria and recover.

A little girl infected with leprosy near temple steps walking towards Griffin
A little girl infected with leprosy near temple steps walking towards Griffin. Alfred Sercombe Griffin, 1906-08. British Library, Photo 1402(37)

The two donations that the British Library has received were given by Michael Bruce, the maternal grandson of Alfred Sercombe Griffin, and a traveller and an author himself (Malta: A Geographical Monograph, 1965). The donations include a box of 50 photographic glass slides that Griffin took and collected while in Burma. Once back in Europe, he would give illustrated 'lantern lectures' of his travels with these slides. This lecture is still included with the glass slides and the numerous times the lecture was given between 1910-1941 are recorded on the inside lid (33 times altogether). Some of these slides were used as a basis for illustrations in Griffin’s novels.

Medical prescription in Burmese inscribed for Alfred Sercombe Griffin in Maymyo in 1907
Medical prescription in Burmese inscribed for Alfred Sercombe Griffin in Maymyo in 1907. Photograph by Michael Bruce. British Library, Or 17020.

The second donation is a framed palm-leaf prescription with the cure for “tropical sprue”, custom-made for Griffin while he was recuperating in Maymyo. He received it from a young monk who resided in the temple across the road from Griffin’s pharmacy, which he visited, with the aid of his walking sticks, for Burmese lessons. The prescription was given to him in return for a picture of the Shwedagon Pagoda that Griffin had found at the back of a pharmaceutical catalogue. Griffin describes watching the inscription being made, and indeed one of his glass slides depicts the young monk in question. A description of the process can also be found in Burma Road Calling!: “Roger was particularly interested in the monastery scribe who was making the holy books – from start to finish.” “First there were dried strips of palm leaf, eighteen inches long by two and a half inches deep, stretched taut on a special sort of frame. On this dried leaf the words were slowly inscribed with an instrument like a knitting-needle; letter by letter in the round script of the Burmese alphabet the young monk cut into the outer tissue of the palm leaf.”

Shan scribe working on a palm leaf inscription
Shan scribe working on a palm leaf inscription. Alfred Sercombe Griffin, Maymyo, 1907. British Library, Photo 1402(31)

Griffin framed the prescription and wrote about it in the Druggist & Chemist and other medical papers, trying to find help in translating it. Apparently a portion reads: “Take the leaves of the Juju tree, plucked at midnight when Mars is in the ascendant. Pound them intimately with the dried tail of a rat and the sting of a cobra…” The inscription is undeciphered as of today and is still awaiting translation.

School boys saying their alphabet
School boys saying their alphabet. Alfred Sercombe Griffin. 1906-08. British Library, Photo 1402(35)

Bibliography of Alfred Sercombe Griffin’s monographs:
The Scouts of Ching’s Island, 1929. Set in Kokine (Rangoon), with the Kemendeen Scouts.
The Treasure of Gems, 1934. Set in 16th century Martaban and Pegu, where an English boy Roger ends up in King Tabinshweti’s court.
Fetters of Freedom, 1934
Within the Golden Globe, 1934
The Crimson Caterpillar, 1935
Where the Master Lived, 1936
Scouts in the Shan Jungle, 1937. Kemendeen Scouts’ adventures in the Shan States.
Burma Road Calling!, 1943. A journey from Rangoon to Chungking during the second Sino-Japanese War.

Maria Kekki, Curator for Burmese  Ccownwork

This blog was written courtesy of Michael Bruce and Christopher Griffin (both grandsons of Alfred Sercombe Griffin), who generously provided information, articles, letters and photographs from the family archives.

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