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15 posts categorized "Propaganda"

30 January 2015

Akbar's horoscopes: how to become a Leo if you are not

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Editor: On 31 October 2014 we held a successful one-day symposium ʻBritish Library Persian Manuscripts: Collections and Researchʼ at which Dr. Stephan Popp of the Institut für Iranistik, Vienna spoke on ʻHoroscopes as propaganda under Akbar and Shāh Jahānʼ. Although he is planning an expanded version of his paper for future publication, he has kindly agreed to summarise it for us here.

The birth of Timur showing astrologers on the right, drawing up his horoscope. From an imperial copy of Abu l-Fażl's Akbarnāma, c. 1602. Painting ascribed to Sūrdās Gujarātī (Or.12988, f. 34v)

In the 16th century, astrology was still an approved science both in Europe and in India, and many princes between Lisbon and Dhaka relied on the counsels of astrologers. Especially so the chronicle of the Mughal emperor Akbar (r. 1556-1605), the Akbarnāma by Abu l‑Fażl, which uses the emperor’s horoscope extensively to prove his claim to power. Akbar claimed to be the mujaddid (restorer of Islam) of the second Islamic millennium and the pre-destined perfect ruler. But first, some remarks on Mughal astrology and how it was supposed to work.

For this reason, let us then have a quick look at Akbar’s horoscope as it appears in the Akbarnāma:

Screenshot 2015-01-18 20.32.43Akbar’s nativity as drawn at his birth by the astrologer Maulānā Chānd (Akbarnāma, p. 70)

A horoscope is a diagram showing the sky over a given place at a given time. It consists of: 1) the zodiac, 2) the houses, i.e. a second zodiac constructed with the ascendant (i.e. the point that is just rising) as the starting point, and 3) the planets at their places for that particular time. This horoscope is constructed on a square grid, with the east on top (modern horoscopes are in the form of a circle, with the north on top). The twelve fields are not the zodiac signs but the houses. They are equated with the zodiac sign their first degree falls in, although this is at the very end in the case of Akbar. House I is top centre, and the other houses follow counter-clockwise. The planets are entered, but without their exact position in the zodiacal sign. Aspects, i.e. significant angles between objects that strengthen or weaken their power, are not indicated in this horoscope but are mentioned in the text where necessary. Moreover, several kinds of subdivisions of zodiac signs also have properties that strengthen or weaken a planet, which in turn strengthens or weakens a house.

Thus, a horoscope contains ca. 250 interrelated data, and the art of the astrologer consists in picking the right influences and interpreting them in an appropriate way. This is obviously highly subjective, even if the planets had influences. No wonder, as Abraham Eraly has observed (Eraly, p. 109), astrologers have been called the psychiatrists or confessors of the Mughal Empire.

Akbar’s horoscopes

This blog will show how astrologers acted not only as the psychiatrists but also as the spin doctors of the Mughal Empire. Abu l‑Fażl ibn Mubārak, Akbar’s mentor on policy and official chronicler, had a genuine interest in astrology. That he regarded it as a fully-fledged science is clear from the fact that he comes up with four different horoscopes of Akbar and discusses their differences (Akbarnama, pp. 119–123). Eva Orthmann (p. 108 below) proves that the horoscopes are based on genuine calculations and not made up by Abu l‑Fażl. Abu l‑Fażl writes that an Indian and a Western horoscope were cast at Akbar’s birth in 1542 by Jyotik Rai and by Maulānā Chānd. The results were different due to the different definitions of zodiacal signs in Vedic and Western astrology. Indian astrology defines the zodiac as the constellations in the sky whereas western astrology defines the zodiac as the ecliptic divided into twelve equal parts beginning from the spring point (where the sun rises at the spring equinox). The spring point, however, slowly moves backward through the constellations, so that at the present time it is at the end of Pisces, not in Aries.

The precession of the spring point (0° Aries) in the last 6000 years. Kevin Heagen via Wikimedia Commons

Because of this movement, Abu l‑Fażl says, the Vedic results were 17° behind the Western ones in Akbar’s time (whereas now they are 25° behind). Thus, Akbar’s ascendant fell in Leo according to the Indians, which suited an emperor, but in the Western horoscope, it fell in Virgo. Abu l‑Fażl discusses this difference, effectively discrediting the Indian astrologers (pp. 119–122). Still, as acknowledged by Orthmann (p. 110), ‘royal’ Leo would have been a much more suitable ascendant for an aspiring emperor than Virgo.

When the great scientist and physician Fatḥullāh Shīrāzī joined Akbar’s court in 1583, Abu l-Fażl asked him to correct the two horoscopes. Instead, Fatḥullāh cast his own, using the old “star tables of the Greeks and Persians” of ca. 830 AD instead of the new ones of Ulugh Beg. In this way, he arrived at the ascendant falling at the very end of Leo (28°36’) instead of 7° Virgo. Abu l-Fażl calls this “the most reliable horoscope” (p. 94) although containing outdated data, and devotes two chapters to its description and predictions.

Screenshot 2015-01-18 20.26.28
How Fatḥullāh Shīrāzī managed to put the ascendant back into ‘royal’ Leo. The old tables shift the house grid 9½ degrees back. The grid has also passed over Venus, so that it is at the beginning of the second house now, not at the end of the first.

When the diagram was ready, the task of the astrologer was to pick those influences that suited successful rule. Combining the right influences from the vast data, Fatḥullāh Shīrāzī sings Akbar’s praises (p. 111):

As this (4th) house is a Fixed Sign, and its lord (Mars) is in exaltation and has a beneficent aspect, territory will continually be coming into the possession of the King’s servants…,

and even (p. 108):

The Native will exceed the natural period of life, viz., 120 years.

Abu l‑Fażl's chapter describing Fatḥullāh Shīrāzī's horoscope.  Although the diagram has been left blank, the details are all supplied in the Persian text (Or.12988, f. 15r

Overall, the horoscopes emphasize Akbar’s success in conquest, acquiring wealth and in administration, and his supreme reason by which he guides the state and settles disputes. Moreover, the astrologer Maulānā Chand argues that Akbar is greater than Timur because Akbar’s Mars is stronger (p. 79). That the horoscopes contradict themselves is only superficial, Abu l‑Fażl concludes, for, he claims, God hides Akbar’s greatness from the undeserving (p. 123):

Owing to the jealousy of God, the truth of the holy nativity remained under the veil of concealment and was hidden behind the curtain of contradiction. But… if each of the horoscopes be looked at with the eye of judgment… it becomes plain that… there is nothing equal to them.

A person deserving special mention was, according to Abu l‑Fażl, Akbar’s father Humāyūn, an accomplished astrologer and “by the perfection of his personality enlightened by flashes of forthcoming events” (p. 124). Humāyūn danced with joy when he read the horoscope, Abu l-Fażl says. In this way, he tries to make his readers believe that if they see nothing but contradiction, this is because they do not see well enough. Even the astrologers, accomplished scientists, did not see everything. But they did their very best to combine their data in the way that Akbar and Abu l‑Fażl wanted them to: to “discover” that Akbar was the king of kings.


Further reading
Abu l‑Fazl ʿAllāmi: The Akbarnama of Abu-l-Fazl, tr. Henry Beveridge. 3 vols. Calcutta 1897–1939 (1907 reprint digitised by Google available here).
The History of Akbar, vol. 1; edited and translated by Wheeler M. Thackston. Harvard University Press, 2015. This newly published edition includes the original Persian with parallel English translation.
Abraham Eraly: The Mughal World, Life in India’s Last Golden Age, New Delhi: Penguin, 2007.
Kushyār Ibn Labbān: Introduction to astrology, ed. and transl. by Michio Yano, Tokyo: Institute for the Study of Languages and Cultures of Asia and Africa, 1997.
Māshā’allāh Ibn Asari: The astrological history of Māshā'allāh, ed. E. S. Kennedy and David Pingree. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press, 1971.
A. Azfar Moin: “Challenging the Mughal Emperor: The Islamic Millennium according to ʿAbd al‑Qadir Badayuni”, in Metcalf, Barbara: Islam in South Asia in Practice, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009.
Eva Orthmann: “Circular Motions: Private Pleasure and Public Prognostication in the Nativities of the Mughal Emperor Akbar,” in: Günther Oestmann, H. Darrel Rutkin, and Kocku von Stuckrad (ed.): Horoscopes and Public Spheres, Essays on the History of Astrology, Berlin: de Gruyter, 2005, pp. 101–114.


Stephan Popp, Institut für Iranistik, Vienna (email:


30 December 2014

Curzon’s Durbars and the Alqabnamah: The Persian Gulf as part of the Indian Empire

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On the 21 November 1903, George Curzon, the Viceroy of Britain’s Indian Empire, held an ostentatious ceremony aboard the Argonaut while anchored of the coast of Sharjah in the Persian Gulf. In attendance were all the rulers of the Trucial Coast (now the United Arab Emirates) along with other guests from the region. The Durbar (Persian darbār 'court'), as such performances were known, was part of a tour of the Gulf that was conceived by Curzon as a way of shoring up the frontiers of the Indian Empire against the threat of the other European powers.
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Lord Curzon’s Durbar aboard RIMS Argonaut, Sharjah (British Library, Photo 49/1(7))

This kind of ritual was a feature of rule borrowed by the British from the Mughal emperors they had replaced in India. It was an act of royal incorporation, designed to establish, legitimise, and entrench the hierarchies of empire. A photograph from the Dane collection at the British Library shows Curzon, enthroned at centre stage, surrounded by the symbols of Indian (the carpets, the guard of men behind) and British monarchical (the crowns in the roof of the tent, the Christian cross) authority. To the Viceroy’s right sit the Arab dignitaries. Some, deprived of chairs, are kneeling or sitting on the floor.

Curzon had held a much grander version of the durbar in Delhi earlier that year to mark the coronation of King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra as Emperor and Empress of India. The ‘Official Directory of the Delhi Coronation Durbar ’ tells us that, from the Gulf region, only the Sultan of Muscat’s son and some of the tribal leaders of the Aden Protectorate attended this lavish expression of imperial rule; a reflection of where the Gulf and its rulers stood within the colonial order.

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Shah Jahan, Mughal Emperor, in durbar in the Diwan-i-Am at Delhi (British Library, Add.Or.3853)

Several years later, the Government of India wrote to the Political Residency at Bushire requesting that they revise the ‘extracts from the Alqabnamah’ that relate to the Gulf. The Alqabnamah (Persian alqābnāmah 'book of titles'), first compiled in 1865, was a register of Indian princes containing information on the correct title and form of address to be used for each. It included such details as the number of guns in a ruler’s salute and the material used for the bag that carried their correspondence.

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The 1935 edition of the Alqabnamah (British Library, IOR/R/15/1/734)

Between 1912 and the end of British rule in India in 1947, numerous revisions of the Alqabnamah were made. The discussion over these revisions reveals how the British viewed the political landscape in the Gulf. The evolution of the list shows the shifts in that landscape. From early on there is a clear hierarchy that is reflected in the distinctions accorded to each ruler, such as the terms of address used and with whom they could correspond with.

In 1912, Muscat was the only authority that could receive a letter from the Viceroy himself. This honour was granted to Bahrain and Kuwait five years later. The highest ranking officer that Qatar and the Trucial shaikhs would ever receive letters from was the Political Resident.

The wording used when addressing these rulers was also a matter that warranted much attention. During a clean-up of the register in 1925, Francis Prideaux, the Political Resident, initiated a discussion over the use of the term sa‘ādah, equivalent to ‘excellency’ or ‘grace’. Mirza ‘Ali, a Residency assistant, suggested that the word be used for Bahrain, Kuwait, and Qatar. However, James More, the Political Agent at Kuwait, questioned whether Qatar qualified as an ‘excellency’. The Agent at Bahrain, Clive Daly, balked at the idea that the term be used for the Trucial shaikhs, arguing that their ‘position and political importance’ was ‘considerably less’ than that of the rulers of Bahrain, Kuwait, and Qatar, and that it would be ‘unnecessarily flattering’. By 1935 Bahrain and Kuwait were being addressed as ‘Your Highness’ while Qatar remained ‘Your Excellency’.

Extract from a letter from James More, Political Agent at Kuwait, outlining his suggestions for the correct forms of address for the rulers of Najd, Muscat, and Kuwait, 21 February 1926 (British Library, IOR/R/15/1/237, f. 80)

This order of importance can be explained by the political situation in the Gulf at the time. Bahrain was of economic significance to the British and its position made it an important transit point and base for naval operations. Up until the end of the First World War, Kuwait had an ambiguous relationship with Ottoman Turkey and it remained a potential entry point into the Gulf for other powers that the British wished to exclude. The promise of oil in all three countries was also a major factor.

The number of guns in a ruler’s salute reflects this same order. The Sultan of Muscat enjoyed the rare privilege of a twenty-one gun salute, putting him on a par with the most senior of Indian princes. Bahrain, Kuwait, and Qatar were each given seven guns. The Trucial Shaikhs, safely bound by century-old treaties and not deemed powerful enough to either be a problem or to offer any sort of advantage, were given the lowest salute of three guns each (except Abu Dhabi, which received five guns).

Extract from the 1935 edition of the Alqabnamah, showing the Bahrain, Kuwait, and Qatar entries (British Library, IOR/R/15/1/734)

Political changes in the region can also be detected in changes to the register. The Shaikh of Mohammerah (now Khorramshahr), for example, appears early on. At a time when Britain was seeking to maintain their economic dominance of south-western Persia, the Shaikh was given honours equivalent to those of Bahrain and Kuwait, sometimes higher. In 1926, however, following political centralisation under Reza Shah, the Shaikh lost most his power and the British lost their foothold in the area. Mohammerah was subsequently removed from the list.

Curzon’s tour of the region and the inclusion of its rulers in the Alqabnamah were both part of a process of locating the Gulf within Britain’s Indian empire. They are incidences of the Gulf’s incorporation into a system of ‘indirect rule’ that was born after the Great Rebellion of 1857 and was based upon more ‘traditional’ and ‘ancient’ articulations of authority. They placed each ‘princely state’ of the Persian Gulf within the colonial hierarchy, and helped to establish and normalise a regional order that reflected the political changes that occurred.

Many of the documents and photographs mentioned here, including copies and extracts from the Alqabnamah, are being digitised as part of the British Library Qatar Foundation Partnership and will be available online through the Qatar Digital Library.

Primary Sources
British Library: India Office Select Materials, Dane Collection: ‘Photographs of Lord Curzon’s tour in the Persian Gulf, November, 1903’, India Office Records and Private Papers Photo 49/1
British Library: India Office Records and Private Papers, ‘File 13/166 Forms of addresses while corresponding with native chiefs in the Gulf’, IOR/R/15/1/237
British Library: India Office Records and Private Papers, ‘List Showing the Names, Titles and Modes of Address of the More Important Sovereigns, Ruling Princes, Chiefs, Nobles etc., Having Relations with the Indian Governmen, Alqabnamah’, IOR/R/15/1/734
British Library: India Office Records and Private Papers, ‘Official directory of the Delhi Coronation Durbar: 3 copies’, Mss Eur F112/466

Further Reading
David Cannadine, Ornamentalism: How the British Saw Their Empire, (London, 2001)
Bernard Cohn, Colonialism and Its Forms of Knowledge: The British in India, (Princeton, 1996)
Encyclodædia Iranica, ‘ALQĀB VA ʿANĀWĪN: titles and forms of address, employed in Iran from pre-Islamic times
Thomas Metcalf, Ideologies of the Raj (The New Cambridge History of India), (Cambridge, 1995)
Kristopher Radford, ‘Curzon’s Cruise: The Pomp and Circumstances of Indian Indirect Rule of the Persian Gulf’, The International History Review, Vol. 35, Iss. 4, (Jul 2013)
John M. Willis, ‘Making Yemen Indian: Rewriting the Boundaries of Imperial Arabia’, International Journal of Middle East Studies, Vol. 41 (2009), pp. 23-38


John Hayhurst, Project Officer – Gulf History Specialist, BL/QF Partnership


23 December 2014

Christmas and New Year in the Persian Gulf: Protocol and Ceremony

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In the British administered Persian Gulf, the festive period was a time of celebration for colonial officers and their families, yet it still required the imperial protocol and ceremony that helped to solidify hierarchies of power.

On Christmas and New Year's Day, as on the two major Islamic festivals and the monarch’s birthday, local rulers and notables paid personal calls to colonial officers, and the Residency or Agency building’s flagstaff was ceremonially dressed and decorated. Archival files dealing with general etiquette and procedures observed for the Muslim holidays of Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha contain interesting details about how Christmas and New Year were observed in the Persian Gulf.

'Entrance to Bushire Residency' (Photo 355/1/34)

Christmas Greetings from the Persian Gulf
Throughout the first half of the twentieth century, the Political Agent at Bahrain would receive personal visits from the ruling Al Khalifah sheikhs of Bahrain and local merchants on Christmas and New Year’s Day.

However, calls in person were not possible for the sheikhs of the Trucial Coast (modern-day United Arab Emirates) and Qatar with whom the Political Agent also corresponded, either personally or through a native agent. Therefore, letters and greetings cards were sent instead. Shown here are a few examples sent from Sheikh Sultan bin Saqr Al Qasimi, ruler of Sharjah between 1924-1951.

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Two cards from Sheikh Sultan bin Saqr Al Qasimi to the Political Agent, Bahrain (IOR/R/15/2/1942, f. 129v)

With a letter, dated 21 Shawwal 1356 [24 December 1937], offering belated thanks for the Political Agent’s Eid al-Fitr greetings, the Sheikh sent two cards. The first card offers thanks to the Political Agent for his Eid greetings [nashkurukum ‘alá tahni’atikum lanā bihādhā al-‘īd al-sa‘īd] while the second card wishes him a Happy Christmas [‘īd al-milād al-sa‘īd].

Another letter in Arabic, dated 11 Shawwal 1355 [25 December 1936] to the Political Agent contains the following: ‘On the occasion of Christmas [ḥulūl al-‘īd al-masīḥī] I offer you my heartfelt greetings praying to God to give you a long life full of prosperity’.

Letter from Sheikh Sultan bin Saqr Al Qasimi to the Political Agent, Bahrain (IOR/R/15/2/1942, f. 58)

As well as sending his greetings to the Political Agent at Bahrain, Sheikh Sultan bin Saqr would also write to the Political Resident at Bushire, for example his letter of 5 Dhu al-Hijjah 1360 [29 December 1942] wishing him a merry Christmas and hoping that he should ‘enjoy good health and prosperity [kamāl al-ṣiḥḥah wa al-rafāh]’. The Political Resident responded with a letter dated 18 January 1943: ‘I thank you for your wishes for Christmas [‘īd milād sayyidinā al-masīḥ], and hope that you will enjoy good health and prosperity’.

It was also common for Political Agents to receive Christmas greetings from local merchants and notables as well as rulers. An example from Yusuf bin Ahmad Kanoo appears on headed stationary decorated with a star and crescent moon over a palm tree. The Political Agent responded with a quick line to thank him for his ‘kind note of greetings for Christmas and New Year’, and for a delivery of  ‘delicious fruit’ that was sent to mark the occasion.

Card from Yusuf bin Ahmad Kanoo to the Political Agent, Bahrain (IOR/R/15/2/646, f. 26)

A further example is a letter, dated 24 December 1936, received from a prominent Qatari merchant, Salih bin Sulayman al-Man‘i: ‘On the occasion of Christmas [‘īd al-krismas], I write to offer you my heartiest congratulations and pray God to let you have many returns of the day in good health and full happiness’.

Letter from Salih bin Sulayman al-Man‘i to the Political Agent, Bahrain (IOR/R/15/2/1942, f. 48)

Expats and Missionaries
Protestant missionaries of the Dutch Reformed Church in America, known interchangeably as the American or Arabian Mission, were active in the Persian Gulf from the turn of the twentieth century. As well as their (not very successful) proselytizing to the indigenous population, they provided a religious framework for expats and the British colonial establishment residing in the region.

On 23 December 1936, Reverend Gerrit Van Peurseum, a missionary stationed at Bahrain, invited the Political Agent and his wife to a ‘Divine Service’ on Christmas Day at the American Mission. The Political Agent took part in the service by undertaking to read Biblical passages, which included Isaiah 9:2-8 and 11:1-10, and Luke 2:1-22.

Order of Service, Christmas 1936 (IOR/R/15/2/646, f. 128)

However, relations with the missionaries were not always straightforward. Dr Rev Louis P. Dame, another missionary stationed at Bahrain, wrote an annoyed letter to the Political Agent on Easter Sunday 1934 complaining that the Agency flags had been raised earlier that week for a ‘Moslem holiday’ (Eid al-Adha), but, as he wrote, ‘To-day is a Christian holiday, shouldn’t they be displayed also!’ The Political Agent wrote back with a one line response that ‘the flags of this Agency are displayed on the Christian holiday of Christmas.’

Letter from L. P. Dame to the Political Agent, Bahrain (IOR/R/15/2/646, f. 40)

Indeed, the missionaries were viewed with some scorn since their practices and hymns were different from those to which some were accustomed. In his diaries, Charles Dalrymple Belgrave, the Adviser to the Government of Bahrain, describes the missionaries as ‘frigid’ and ‘tiresome’. In several entries on Christmas, he notes how they ‘annoyed everyone by singing some tiresome American hymns with no words or tune that anyone had ever heard before’ and how they provided ‘a very dull uninspiring service and unchristmassy hymns’.

The reality was that Belgrave, and most likely the British colonial establishment in the Persian Gulf, viewed the Mission’s Americaness with a degree of cultural snobbery. In addition, this was tinged with recurring suspicions that they were representing American geopolitical interests in the region, or, worse, they harboured secret loyalties to Germany due to their Germanic origins (see earlier post on American propaganda in post-war Bahrain). In another diary entry in 1926, Belgrave remarks: ‘[…] a long solo sung by a female with a dreadful voice and a German accent, and a sermon in broadest American which lasted half an hour’. We can only imagine what Belgrave would make of the prevalence today of ʻO Christmas Treeʼ based on the German song ʻO Tannenbaumʼ or the quintessentially ‘Christmassy’ and American ʻAll I Want for Christmas Is Youʼ by Mariah Carey.

Primary Sources
British Library, ‘File 27/2 I Etiquette’ IOR/R/15/2/646
British Library, ‘File G/7 I ʻId calls, letters and notices’ IOR/R/15/2/1942
British Library, ‘File G/7 II ʻId calls, letters and notices’ IOR/R/15/2/1943
University of Exeter, Special Collections, ‘Belgrave Diaries’, Papers of Charles Dalrymple Belgrave, 1926-1957

Daniel A. Lowe, Arabic Language and Gulf History Specialist (@dan_a_lowe)

29 May 2014

British Library releases over 200 Japanese and Chinese prints into Public Domain

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The Sino-Japanese War of 1894-1895: as seen in prints and archives

A collection of Japanese and Chinese prints of the Sino-Japanese War, held in Asian & African Studies, is featured in a new web exhibition jointly created by the British Library and the Japan Center for Asian Historical Records (JACAR) in Tokyo.  The exhibition is bilingual and is available on JACAR’s website in English and Japanese versions. The images of the 235 British Library prints are being made available in the Public Domain for the first time.

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The Chinese using lanterns mounted on cattle during a night battle. Artist unknown
高麗月夜大戦牛陣得勝全圖 Gaoli yue ye da zhan niu zhen de sheng quan tu, China, 1894. BL 16126.d.4(13)

The Sino-Japanese War was fought from 1 August 1894 to 17 April 1895 between Qing China and Meiji Japan, primarily over control of the Korean peninsula.  The online exhibition entitled The Sino-Japanese War of 1894-1895: as seen in prints and archives brings together digital images depicting the Sino-Japanese War and related Japanese archival documents, digitised by JACAR, to show how the events of the war were depicted and recorded by people of the time.

Of the total collection of 235 prints, 179 were produced in Japan and 56 in China.  All but one [1] were acquired by the British Museum between April and October 1895 from Dulau & Company, Foreign and English Booksellers of 37 Soho Square, London for a total of £23 11s [equivalent to approximately £2300 today].  The overwhelming majority of the prints were produced using traditional woodblock technology but there are also a handful of lithographs among them.

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Japanese print showing negotiations between the Japanese, Chinese and Korean to end the Sino-Japanese War. Artist: Yōsai (Watanabe) Nobukazu
日清韓談判之図 Nisshinkan danpan no zu, Japan, August 1894. BL 16126.d.1(39)

It is likely that these prints were acquired as a record of current events rather than for their artistic merit and so were never added to the other thousands of Japanese and Chinese prints in the British Museum.  Instead they were put into portfolios and included in the Japanese printed books sequence.  In 1973 when the British Library was established, the collections of the British Museum Library, including East Asian material, were divided between the two institutions. It seems that the war prints were overlooked and were not transferred with the rest of the Museum’s Japanese and Chinese prints to what was then called the Department of Oriental Antiquities and is now the Department of Asia.

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Japanese print showing a night-time attack on Pyongyang. Artist: Toshimitsu
平壌夜戦我兵大勝利 Heijō yasen waga hei daishōri, Japan, September 1894. BL 16126.d.2(71)

At the time of the war the prints served the role of modern news photographs, offering the Japanese and Chinese publics a visual impression of events as they unfolded.  They were produced quickly and in large numbers and vary greatly in artistic style and quality.  Examples survive today in many locations in Japan and overseas but a collection of this size is very rare.  Above all it is the presence of so many Chinese prints which makes the British Library’s holdings significant and one of the key aspects of the web exhibition is that it allows the events to be shown from both the Japanese and Chinese perspectives, albeit in very different ways.  The prints were also intended as domestic propaganda so it is instructive to be able to compare side by side images produced by both nations.  At the same time sensitive treatment and careful explanation of context is important for a modern audience.

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Chinese print showing a night-time attack on Pyongyang. Artist unknown
平壌夜戦 Pingrang ye zhan, China, 1894. BL 16126.d.4(30)

To provide a historical context and to enhance the research value of the exhibition, the staff of JACAR have selected relevant archival material on a range of topics including naval records from Japan’s National Institute for Defense Studies and documents from the Diplomatic Archives of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs which are presented on a thematic basis together with the visual material.  The website, which will be developed further over the coming months, also has maps and a chronology of the key events of the war, a select bibliography and a gallery providing Public Domain images of the 235 prints and bibliographic details for each.

Hamish Todd, Asian and African Studies

[1] One additional Japanese triptych print (ORB.40/1008) was acquired in 2013.


12 May 2014

The New Age (Ruzgar-i naw): World War II cultural propaganda in Persian

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Though Iran was officially neutral when war broke out in 1939, many Iranians were sympathetic towards Germany which, they hoped, might liberate them from years of British and Russian oppression. An increasing German presence combined with British concern for continued supplies of Iranian oil led to Operation Countenance, an Allied invasion launched on 25 August 1941. As a result Reza Shah was deposed and replaced by his son Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. Iran was forced to abandon its neutral position though it did not actually declare war against Germany until September 1943. From 1941 onwards, British propaganda, published by the Ministry of Information (MOI), played a crucial role. Favouring a cultural approach, the MOI produced items such as the Shāhnāmah cartoons by the artist Kem (see our post ‘The Shahnameh as propaganda for World War II’) and the magazine Rūzgār-i naw, or The New Age which was published quarterly in Persian between 1941 and 1946.

First and last issues
The first and last issues of Rūzgār-i naw dated summer 1941 and spring 1946

Rūzgār-i naw was published by Hodder & Stoughton in London and Doubleday Doran in New York on behalf of the MOI. It was primarily a cultural and literary magazine. The editor was A.J. Arberry (1905-1969) who had been Assistant Librarian at the India Office from 1934 until war broke out when he was seconded to Postal Censorship for a short period before being transferred to the Ministry of Information. Arberry left the Ministry in 1944 to become Professor of Persian at the School of Oriental and African Studies, but the magazine continued to be published until 1946 when the MOI was dissolved.

Arberry worked closely with a team of specialists drawn from his colleagues at the India Office and the British Museum together with Iranians such as the distinguished scholar Mojtaba Minovi who was working for the BBC Persian Service. Articles covered general cultural topics with a focus on the British contribution to Persian studies and Persian and English literature. Articles on science and technology were also included but nothing on religion or any other subjects which might be regarded as potentially controversial.

Indi Office Reading Room
The Reading Room at the India Office Library. William Hodgesʼ painting ʻA Group of Temples at Deogarh, Santal Parganas, Biharʼ hangs above the fireplace with a poster on the mantelpiece urging readers to save for victory. Note that at 11.35 am. the reading room seems to be quite empty!

BM reading room
The Reading Room at the British Museum.

The contents of the first issue were fairly typical of subsequent numbers, containing the following articles: ʻIllustrations to the Khamsah of Nizami in the British Museumʼ, by Lawrence Binyon; ʻThe biggest cities in the worldʼ; ʻNizami: life, work and ethicsʼ; ʻIranian metal-workʼ, by Basil Gray; ʻBibliography of Nizamiʼ, by C.A. Storey; Persian translation by Mojtaba Minovi of the ‘Hound of Heaven’ by the English poet Francis Thompson (1859-1907); ʻThe English constitution part 1: historical introductionʼ; ʻThe India Office Libraryʼ, by A.J. Arberry; ʻThe world of printʼ; ʻBritish wartime exportsʼ; and ʻEnglish successes in industrial researchʼ. Subsequent issues contained a series of English translations of modern Persian poets, Persian translations of modern English poets, descriptions of libraries, articles on China by Lionel Giles as well as one-offs such as ʻPersian language roots in Malay literatureʼ, by Sir Richard Winstedt and ʻThe land of Khotanʼ, by H.W. Bailey.

The mint Khotan
From ‘The land of Khotan’ by H.W. Bailey. This photograph of the Mint in Khotan shows newly printed banknotes spread out on the ground to dry in the sun before being put into use.

The covers always included coloured photographs, usually of miniatures in the British Museum, copies of which could be obtained free of charge. Apparently (Holman 2005, p. 218), the original photographic blocks were destroyed in the Blitz so copies had to be made from colour postcards. Nevertheless the quality of the paper and printing was good. One of the considerable merits was the large number (about 70 per issue) of black and white photographs (particularly portraits of British orientalists) and art work each issue contained – though attributions were unfortunately hardly ever included.  The first issue had in addition 4 colour plates.

Famous members of the Royal Asiatic Society: 1. Lord Reay, president 1893–1921; 2. Sir George Staunton; 3. Sir Charles James Lyall; 4. Henry Thomas Colebrooke, director and founder 1823–37 ; 5. Sir Monier Monier Williams; 6. Horace Hyman Wilson, president 1855–59; 7. Sir Henry Rawlinson.

Illustrated books
An article on contemporary illustrated English books.

The MOI was concerned that its magazines should appear as commercial publications, hence the price of 1 shilling or 20 cents and the inclusion of advertising. It particularly favoured advertisements which ‘will advance British industrial and commercial prestige’ (Holman 2005, p. 217).

Ruzgar-i naw ads_1000
Some advertisements were especially tailored to the Iranian market, e.g. Michelin tyres advertising new style magic carpets (left) and Columbia recordings of ethnic music (right).

The magazine was judged sufficiently successful for the Ministry of Information to launch a companion magazine in Arabic in 1943. With the title al-Adab wa al-Fann, it was also published by Hodder & Stoughton who were proud to be associated with it (Holman 2005, p. 217). 15,000 copies of the Arabic magazine were distributed in the Middle East and North Africa and in India and Brazil. In Egypt, the Director-General of the Egyptian State Library in Cairo wrote in Sept 1944 that crowds of readers had been coming to read ‘this valuable magazine’ (Holman 2005, p. 218). It is possible that comparable data for Rūzgār-i naw may be available in the National Archives Kew. At any rate if the MOI was successful in winning over Iranian hearts, they must have been disillusioned a few years later when Britain’s involvement in the coup of 1953 toppled Iran’s democratically elected government and re-instated the Pahlavi regime. Nevertheless, Rūzgār-i naw testifies to a little known phase of Anglo-Iranian history besides being a wonderful resource for photographs of British orientalists.


Further reading

Valerie Holman, ‘Carefully Concealed Connections: The Ministry of Information and British Publishing, 1939- 1946ʼ, Book History, vol. 8 (2005), pp. 197-226.
Valerie Holman, ʻKem's Cartoons in the Second World Warʼ, History Today, vol. 52.3  (March 2002), pp. 21-7.
A. Wynn, ‘The Shāh-nāme and British propaganda in Irān in World War IIʼ, Manuscripta orientalia 16/1 (June 2010), pp. 3-5 + back cover.
A.J. Arberry. ʻThe disciple: A. J. Arberryʼ, in Oriental Essays: Portraits of Seven Scholars, London: George Allen & Unwin, 1960,  pp. 233-56.
Encyclopaedia Iranica ‘Anglo-Iranian relations iii: the Pahlavi period’, by R.W. Ferrier; ‘Russia ii: Iranian-Soviet relations (1917-1991)’ by N. M. Mamedova; Great Britain xiii. The British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), by F. Safiri and H. Shahidi.

On the Ministry of Information, see  ‘Make Do and Mend’: A Publishing and Communications History of the Ministry of Information, 1939-45 a research project at the Institute of English Studies, School of Advanced Studies, University of London.

On 2nd World War German propaganda, see ʻGerman propaganda in Sharjahʼ, by Louis Allday, Gulf History/Arabic Specialist, British Library/Qatar Foundation Partnership.

For a pdf of the contents of each issue click here


Louis Allday, Gulf History/Arabic Specialist, British Library/Qatar Foundation Partnership - See more at:

Ursula Sims-Williams, Asian and African Studies

28 October 2013

War cartoons and propaganda from North Vietnam

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During the early stage of the Vietnam War in the 1960’s, the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (North Vietnam) had two urgent tasks.  The first was to produce enough food to supply their armed forces as well as the population as a whole, in order to ease the early days of the transformation of North Vietnam into a communist state.  The second task was to prepare the country for war, especially after the United States of America became involved.  To achieve these two goals, the regime in Hanoi tried various means of communicating with the people in order to maximise their capability to contribute to the successes of the country.  It was stressed that it was not only men who could contribute to this noble task, but all sectors of society, including women, youths and the various ethnic groups.

Under the strict socialist regime, different forms of regulated and controlled media, including newspapers and magazines, were used to help the government to meet this objective. Both content and illustrations in the media always emphasized the successes of the war and of food production, to boost the morale of the public during a difficult period. At the same time, they never failed to ridicule their enemies, whether the American or South Vietnamese administrations.

The British Library holds a small but rich collection of provincial and local newspapers from North Vietnam, published by local branches of the Vietnamese Workers’ Party from 1964 to 1965.  Illustrations from newspapers and journals in this collection demonstrate how the communist regime in the North used printed media in light-handed way to encourage the population to assist the state in achieving these two goals, in the form of cartoons and drawings.  Some of these are shown below; the English translations of the Vietnamese captions are my own.

‘US territory stretches to the 17th parallel of Vietnam,’ President Ngô Ðinh Diệm of the Republic of Vietnam announces at New York on 13 May 1957.  Văn, no. 5, 7 June 1957, front page.  British Library, SEA.1986.c.60.   noc

Madam Ngô Ðình Nhu presents her female army: ‘Your Excellency, my female soldiers are all virgins. They all have a doctor’s certificate to prove it, and are ready to be handed over to Your Excellency for “practice”’.  Văn Nghệ Quân Ðội, no.12, December 1962, page 27.  British Library, 16684.a.3.  noc

‘You join the army to kill the enemies / You go to the frontier zone / We have to say good-bye now, wait for the victory day / At home (we) women will manage to take care of other business.’  Hải Dương Mới, no.314, 12 May 1965, page 4.  British Library, SU224/18.  noc

‘Applying fertilizer to the soil to get a good yield of winter crops.’ Hà Giang, no.355, 9 September 1965, page 2.  British Library, SU224/17.  noc

‘Protected from the rain and kept out of the heat during the day / To allow us to thresh and dry out crops / To fulfil our responsibility to the country / ‘Fighting America’ to save the country – we have contributed.’ Hải Dương Mới, no.318, 26 May 1965, page 4.  British Library, SU224/18.  noc

‘Push up production, prepare for fighting the war’.  Hải Dương Mới, 21 July 1965, front page.  British Library, SU224/18.   noc

‘President Johnson’s toast for peace.’  Khoa Học Thường Thực, no.177, 15 May 1965, page 8.  British Library, SU220/13.   noc

Further reading

Sud Chonchirdsin, ‘Cartoons and propaganda from North Vietnam during the early stage of the Vietnam War’, SEALG newsletter, no.44 December 2012, pp.6-21

Sud Chonchirdsin, Curator for Vietnamese

31 May 2013

The Shahnameh as propaganda for World War II

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The British Library’s newly opened exhibition Propaganda: Power and Persuasion includes a number of exhibits relating to Asian and African Studies, one of which is a series of postcards dating from World War II based on an episode from the famous Persian epic the Shahnameh, or ‘Book of Kings.’

Zahhak enthroned, with serpents rising from his shoulders. From a provincial Timurid Shahnameh from Mazandaran dated 850/1446 (Or.12688, f22r)

The Shahnameh, written by Firdawsi (940-1025), tells the history of Iran in verse over the course of 55,000 rhyming couplets, from its mythical origins in pre-history to the end of Sasanian empire (AD 650), and includes many of the classic stories that have come to be emblematic of Persian culture, such as the love stories of Khusraw and Shirin and Bizhan and Manizheh, as well as the exploits of the Herculean hero Rustam and his tragic encounter with his son, Sohrab. Through his authorship of this epic poem, Firdawsi is credited with saving the Persian language at a time when Arabic had become the paramount language of religion, culture and power.

Cards 1-2_572
Left: the moment when Ahriman-Goebbels, disguised as Zahhak-Hitler’s cook, causes serpents with the faces of Mussolini and Tojo to grow out of his shoulders. Right: Zahhak-Hitler executing the innocent and tyrannising the population (COI Archive PP/13/9L) Images on line

The postcards on display in the current exhibition use the myth of the tyrant Zahhak in an attempt at rendering anti-German propaganda more relevant to Iranian cultural sensibilities. The Iranian scholar Mojtaba Minovi (1903 -1976) was working for the BBC Persian service during World War II, editing the pro-Allied newspaper Ruzgar-i Naw. When asked for advice on an effective propaganda campaign for Iran, he suggested using stories and imagery from the Shahnameh (see Wynn, p. 4) to appeal to the Iranian people. Minovi’s advice was taken and the images were created in 1942 by Kimon Evan Marengo (1904-1988), known by the sobriquet Kem, a prolific creator of propaganda cartoons for the British during the war.

The tyrant Zahhak, who features as Hitler in the postcards, epitomises an oppressive and barbaric ruler who brings to an end the enlightened rule of Jamshid. One understanding of Firdawsi’s tale is that Zahhak is symbolic of the Arab invaders who brought an end to the Sasanian Empire and supposedly to Persian civilisation. After Zahhak fully displays his capacity for barbarity, Ahriman (i.e., Iblis or Satan) causes serpents to grow from his shoulders that require a daily feeding of human brains, with victims chosen from among the youth of Iran. After years of reigning in terror, Zahhak has a dream of his downfall in which three warriors approach on horseback, one of whom is Feraydun, from whose face farr (the light of kingliness and justice) emanates. After this dream, a blacksmith, named Kaveh, arrives at Zahhak’s court requesting the release of his son, one of the youths who is to be fed to the snakes on Zahhak’s shoulders. In front of his court, Zahhak feigns mercy and releases Kaveh’s son, but later asks Kaveh to sign a document attesting to his mercy. Kaveh refuses to falsely affirm the justice of a tyrant and tears up the document. He then raises his blacksmith’s banner on a standard, foments a popular rebellion and goes in search of Feraydun, the future king who would rid Iran of Zahhak’s injustice and brutality. At the end of this episode, Feraydun dethrones Zahhak but rather than killing him, binds him in Mount Damavand to be tortured by the snakes on his shoulders until the end of time.

Cards 3-4_572
Left: Zahhak-Hitler’s dream, in which the three warriors who will cause his demise appear – here depicted as Chuchill, Stalin and Roosevelt. Right: Kaveh, the symbol of liberation for the Iranian people, coming before Zahhak-Hitler and raising his blacksmith’s apron as a banner of rebellion (COI Archive PP/13/9L) Images online

Cards 5-6_572
Left: the arrival of the promised warriors, Churchill leading the way with his cigar, following by Stalin with his pipe and Roosevelt with his cigarette in its signature holder. The trio are, of course, led by the symbol of Iranian national liberation, Kaveh with his banner, suggesting that an Allied victory would be a triumph for the Iranian people and not an occupation. Right: Zahhak-Hitler is nailed to Mt Damavand by the liberated Iranian people, with the Mussolini and Tojo snakes on his shoulders appearing rather deflated as the trio of western leaders gaze benevolently at the scene (COI Archive PP/13/9L) Images online

My sincere thanks to Drs Melville, Ansari and Motadel for their help in explaining the postcards and pointing me in the direction of the relevant literature.

Nur Sobers-Khan, Asian and African Studies

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Further reading
Valerie Holman, ‘Kem’s Cartoons in the Second World War,’ History Today (March, 2002)
A. Wynn. ‘The Shāh-nāme and British Propaganda in Irān in World War II’, Manuscripta Orientalia 16/1 (June 2010)
Dick Davis. Stories from the Shahnameh of Ferdowsi, 3 vols. (Washington: Mage, 1998, 2000 and 2004)

Excellent internet resources on the Shahnameh are:
A website devoted to the Shahnameh exhibition of 2010 at the  Fitzwilliam Museum Cambridge
The digital Shāhnāmah Project database