Asian and African studies blog

26 posts categorized "Trade"

05 June 2014

Alexander Dalrymple’s Treaties with Sulu in Malay and Tausug

Add comment Comments (0)

When the East India Company began to look for a base in the Philippine islands in order to gain access to the China trade, attention focussed on the Sulu archipelago, lying east of the northern tip of Borneo. In January 1761, the Scottish hydrographer Alexander Dalrymple (1737-1808) arrived on the island of Jolo, the seat of the Sultan of Sulu, charged with the task of negotiating for a trading post for the Company. The then ruler of Sulu was Sultan Muhammad Muizzuddin, also known as Bantilan. He was the younger brother of Sultan Azimuddin I, who at the time of Dalrymple’s visit had been in exile in Manila since 1748 because of local opposition towards his policy of friendship towards Spanish Jesuit missionaries. Following the death of Muizzuddin in 1763 and the brief accession of his son, Sultan Muhammad Azimuddin II, Dalrymple was instrumental in helping Sultan Azimuddin I (usually referred to in European-language sources as ‘Alimuddin’) to return from Manila to Sulu and re-accede to the throne in 1764, where he ruled until his death in 1778.  

Alexander Dalrymple, in a painting of c.1765 attributed to John Thomas Seton (c.1735-1806). Copyright National Museums of Scotland.

Sulu mosque
A mosque in Sulu, from Narrative of the United States Exploring Expedition, 1844.  British Library, 10001.d vol.5, opp. p. 354.  noc

Between 1761 and 1764 Dalrymple negotiated and signed four major treaties with successive sultans of Sulu, leading to the establishment of an East India Company trading post on the island of Balambangan in 1773. Most of the original bilingual treaty papers have survived in the India Office Records in the British Library: the first treaty of 1761 was in Malay and English; the second treaty of 1763 was also originally in Malay and English, but only the Spanish translation of the Malay has survived; and the third and fourth treaties of 1764 were in Tausug (the main language of Sulu) and English.

IOR-H-629, pp.456-457
First Sulu Treaty of 28 January 1761, signed between Sultan Muhammad Muizzuddin of Sulu and Alexander Dalrymple for the East India Company. British Library, IOR: H/629, pp.456-457.  noc

The English texts of the Treaties are well known, but the Malay and Tausug texts, written in Arabic script, have never been studied, and a close examination inevitably reveals a number of differences with the English text. A typical example is the English text of the first Treaty of 1761, which in clause 1 states that the British shall be granted ‘perpetual’ possession of the ground for their settlement, a word which is absent in the Malay version. But perhaps the most poignant aspect of this Treaty is the addendum found on the reverse of the Malay page: a strong rejection of the sale of opium, and a tight control on arms.  This clause – which is unnumbered and does not appear in any published English version of the treaty – appears to have been included at the request of the Sulus, judging from the detailed exposition in four lines of Malay, ‘The aforementioned trade goods prohibited by His Highness Sultan Muhammad Muizzuddin are opium, while no kinds of arms, big or small, may be sold to to anyone, even to the children and grandchildren of His Highness the Sultan, without the express permission of His Highness the Sultan; only His Highness the Sultan may buy these goods,’ compared with the laconic one-line English translation ‘Opium is contraband & arms & ammunition to any but the Sultan’.  Yet Dalrymple himself apparently strongly supported this prohibition; the culprit responsible for later developing the Sulu trade in opium and arms was the unscrupulous John Herbert, chief of the East India Company post at Balambangan, who was also responsible for a massive fraud against the Company itself which led to the financial collapse of the Balambangan settlement.

IOR-H-629, pp.455
Addendum to the first Sulu Treaty of 28 January 1761, banning the sale of opium and restricting the sale of arms, in Malay with brief English translation: Maka adapun dagangan yang dilarangkan Paduka Seri Sultan Muhammad Muizzuddin yang telah tersebut itu iaitu apiun, dan demikian lagi segala alat senjata besar kecil tiada boleh dijual kepada orang lain, jikalau pada pihak anak cucu Paduka Seri Sultan sekalipun jika bukan izin daripada Paduka Seri Sultan, hanya Paduka Seri Sultan yang membeli jua adanya. Opium is contraband & arms & ammunition to any but the Sultan.  British Library, IOR: H/629, p.455.  noc

The first Treaty is also notable for high standard of the formal Malay language used, and its proficient calligraphy. An unusual aspect of the diplomatics of the treaties is that when the various royal Sulu seals were stamped across two pages, the two sheets of paper were first folded along an inner vertical margin, with the seal applied across the folds, resulting in an impression of two halves when the paper was flattened out.  The East India Company seals on the same documents, however, are simply stamped on the flattened sheet of paper. This peculiar method of sealing is not found in any other Muslim kingdom in Southeast Asia. Interestingly, the only other Islamic seal impression known displaying the same characteristic of having been stamped across the folds of a document, yielding a two-part impression, is the iconic seal impression of the Mughal emperor Babur, found on what is possibly the oldest surviving original Mughal document, a land grant dated 1527.

IOR-H-629, pp.460-461
A second copy of the Malay text of the first Sulu Treaty of 28 January 1761, ratified in September 1761by 24 nobles of Sulu listed on the right-hand page. British Library, IOR: H/629, pp.460-461.   noc

IOR-H-629, pp.459-det

Further ratification of the first Sulu Treaty of January 1761, signed in Manila on 20 November 1761 by Sultan Muhammad Azimuddin I. This document was probably obtained by Dalrymple, who appears to have been in Manila from 9 November-1 December 1761 (pers.comm., Andrew Cook).  British Library, IOR: H/629, p.459.  noc

IOR-H-629, pp.488-489
Dalrymple’s third Sulu Treaty, in Tausug and English, signed between Sultan Muhammad Azimuddin I of Sulu and Alexander Dalrymple for the English East India Company, Jolo, Sulu, 2 July 1764.  British Library, IOR: H/629, p.488-489.  noc

IOR-H-629, pp.498-499
Dalrymple’s fourth Sulu Treaty, in Tausug and English, signed between Sultan Muhammad Azimuddin I of Sulu and Alexander Dalrymple for the English East India Company, Jolo, Sulu, 28 September 1764. British Library, IOR: H/629, p.pp. 495–502.  noc

Further reading:
Allen, J. de V., Stockwell, A. J., and Wright, L. R., A collection of treaties and other documents affecting the states of Malaysia 1761-1963.  London: Oceana, 1980. 2 v. [The Sulu treaties are published in v.2, pp.371-388.]
Cook, Andrew S., Alexander Dalrymple (1737-1808), hydrographer to the East India Company and the Admiralty, as publisher : a catalogue of books and charts.  Ph.D. thesis, University of St Andrews, 1993.
Costa, H. de la, ‘Muhammad Alimuddin I, Sultan of Sulu, 1735-1773’, Journal of the Malaysian Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, 1965, 38 (1):43-76.
Majul,Cesar Adib, Muslims in the Philippines.  Quezon City: University of the Philippines Press, 1999.
Warren, James Francis, The Sulu Zone 1768-1898.  Singapore: Singapore University Press, 1981.

Annabel Teh Gallop, Lead Curator, Southeast Asia


19 March 2014

BL Event: Korean Literature: Past and Present

Add comment Comments (0)

In connection with the London Book Fair 2014 the British Library is holding an event entitled Korean Literature: Past and Present from 6.30-8 pm on Tuesday, 8th April.  One of Korea’s foremost novelists, Yi Mun-yol, will be in conversation with Dr Grace Koh, Lecturer in Korean Literature at SOAS, and Brother Anthony of Taizé, a noted translator of Korean literature.

15260.c.7 Cho Ung chǒn
Cho Ung chǒn
“The Tale of Cho Ung“, Korean novel in hangŭl script. c.1850 (British Library 15260.c.7 )

Korea has been chosen as The London Book Fair’s Market Focus for 2014 to reflect the country’s status as one of the top ten publishing markets in the world, and its expanding reputation within the international literary community.

The event will also include a brief intoduction to the British Library’s Korean collection which contains many historical and contemporary literary works, notably a collection of rare 19th century novels in hangŭl script.

For more details of the Event see the BL website:  What's on

For information on the BL’s Korean collections: Help for researchers: Korean collections


Hamish Todd, Asian and African Studies


28 February 2014

The Adviser (المستشار): Charles Belgrave and Modern Bahrain

Add comment Comments (0)

At the time of his death on 28 February 1969, Charles Dalrymple Belgrave had not set foot in Bahrain for more than a decade. Yet for over 30 years – between 1926 and 1957 – when he served as Adviser to the rulers of Bahrain, Sheikh Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa (reigned 1923-1942[1]) and Sheikh Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa (1942-1961), Belgrave was an immensely powerful figure in the country and played an instrumental role in its development during this period.

Shaikh Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa and Charles Belgrave, Bahrain, 1945. (Dmitri Kessel—Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images)

Born in England on 9 December 1894, Belgrave was educated at Bedford School and Oxford University. After leaving Oxford he joined the British Army and during WWI he served in Egypt, Sudan and Palestine with the Imperial Camel Corps Brigade. After the war, he served as an administrator in the Siwa Oasis in Egypt before becoming an administrative officer in the British mandate of Tanganyika Territory (formerly German East Africa).

In the summer of 1925, while on leave in London from his posting in Tanganyika, Belgrave saw an advertisement for a vacancy in the personal column of The Times newspaper that was to transform his life.

Young Gentleman, aged 22/28, Public School and/or University education, required for service in an Eastern State. Good salary and prospects to suitable man, who must be physicially fit: highest references; proficiency in languages an advantage. Write with full details to Box S.501, The Times, London E.C.4.
(The Times, 10 August 1925)

Belgrave applied for the post and after a series of interviews with British Government officials (including the British Political Resident in the Persian Gulf, Francis Prideaux) he was offered the position of Adviser to Shaikh Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, the ruler of Bahrain. A letter Belgrave wrote to Prideaux in September 1925 reveals that he had conveniently forgotten his own age when he applied (he was 31 at the time and the upper age limit was 28).

First page of a letter sent from Belgrave to Prideaux, 11 September 1925 (IOR/R/15/1/362 f. 1E)

Before setting out for Bahrain, Belgrave completed a three-month Arabic course at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London in order to refresh his Arabic and married his fiancée, Marjorie Lepel Barrett-Lennard. The newly-married couple arrived in Manama in March 1926 having combined their journey to Bahrain with their honeymoon.

Belgrave began his new role at a tense time in the country, Shaikh Hamad had been installed as ruler by the British only three years earlier when his father Shaikh Isa bin Ali Al Khalifa had been forced to step down. This had led to lingering tensions between Shaikh Hamad and factions within Bahrain – including members of his own family – that supported his elderly father, Isa.

Fig 3
Belgrave was Adviser to Shaikh Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, the ruler of Bahrain (pictured above) from 1926 until Hamad’s death in 1942. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Though Bahrain was nominally independent, Britain had dictated its foreign policy since the 19th century, before consolidating its power over the islands in 1900, with the creation of the post of British Political Agent in Bahrain. Although Belgrave was an employee of the Shaikh and not the British Government, as his hiring process clearly demonstrates, his position was closely tied to the colonial aims of the British in the region. Belgrave swiftly became a powerful figure in Bahrain and came to be known simply as ‘The Adviser’ (المستشار). He essentially ran Bahrain’s government, was the head of its police force and – in the absence of an organised legal code – personally operated its courts. Belgrave oversaw a programme of modernisation that saw the creation of an education system, a police force, a health service and an extensive series of public works (including roads, power stations, piers and airports). This transitional period also saw a centralisation of power and the consolidation of both the British and Al Khalifa family’s position in Bahrain. Belgrave was also instrumental in supporting oil exploration in the country, which was the first in the region to discover oil, in 1932.

A 1935 Indian postage stamp picturing King George V that is marked for use in Bahrain. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Belgrave is an extremely visible presence in the records of the Political Agency, Bahrain, and elsewhere in the India Office Records held at the British Library, with a very large amount of correspondence and other papers bearing his name, paying testimony to the range of matters he covered and to his great attention to administrative detail. In fact, Belgrave’s fastidious attention to detail was something for which he was criticised. In May 1941, Charles Geoffrey Prior, the British Political Resident in the Persian Gulf wrote to his superiors in India that Belgrave had a “tendency to waste time on trivialities”. In the same letter, Prior also claimed that Belgrave’s increasing aloofness had caused a drop in his popularity and that he “and the other Bahrain officials have had their way for so long without any supervision, inspection or control that they have become a society of self-satisfied Czars”.

Extract of letter from Charles Geoffrey Prior to O.K Caroe at the India Office in London, 25 May 1941. (IOR/R/15/1/344 f. 129)

Prior’s concern was prescient as by the 1950s Belgrave had become an unpopular figure in Bahrain; many Bahrainis had grown angry at the amount of power that was centralised in his hands. Belgrave had come to embody British Imperialism in the Middle East at a time of fervent Arab nationalist activity and when, after the Suez Crisis, Britain’s standing in the region had reached a nadir. Belgrave was viewed by many in Bahrain as an impediment to the country making the transition to a democracy and as shown in this BBC archival clip from 1956, calls for him to leave the country were at the forefront of the demands of protestors at the time. As one protestor stated to the BBC reporter, “Belgrave is not just an adviser – he is the judge, and when he goes to the court he is also the police commandant. He is everything in Bahrain, he is not an adviser.” Eventually, in April 1957, Belgrave was forced to leave and was never to set foot in Bahrain again.

Once back in the UK, Belgrave wrote an autobiography named Personal Column which offers a fascinating insight into his life and the development of Bahrain during this period. In the book’s conclusion, Belgrave states his belief that if a more liberal system of government is to be introduced in Bahrain, it should be done so gradually and that any attempt to “rush the process” would be “disastrous” - a clear expression of the attitude that eventually made his position in the country untenable and forced him to leave. Ultimately, Belgrave’s legacy in Bahrain remains a contentious issue, but it is one that anyone wishing to understand the modern history of Bahrain must seriously engage with.

More stories related to the modern history of the Gulf can be found on the British Library's Untold Lives blog.

Further reading:

BL IOR/R/15/1/362: 'File 19/204 I (C 55) Bahrain, Appointment of Financial Adviser, Belgrave and Assistant, Luard'.
BL IOR/R/15/1/344: 'File 19/169 III (C 80) Bahrain Reforms'.
Charles Belgrave, Personal Column (London, 1960).
Charles Belgrave, The Pirate Coast (London, 1966).
Mayy Muḥammad al-Khalīfah , Tshārlz Biljrīf : al-sīrah wa-al-mudhakkirāt (Beirut, 2000).
Photographs of Bahrain: Life Magazine, Life in the Middle East: Power and Petroleum in the Gulf in 1945.

Louis Allday, Gulf History/Arabic Specialist, British Library/Qatar Foundation Partnership
Twitter - @Louis_Allday

[1] Note: some do not recognise Hamad’s reign as formally beginning until the death of his father, Isa in 1932.

27 November 2013

Mirza Abu’l Hasan Khan, the ‘Envoy Extraordinary’ from Persia

Add comment Comments (2)

One of London’s most prominent celebrities in 1810 was Mirza Abu’l Hasan Khan, the ‘Envoy Extraordinary’ who was dispatched by Fath Ali Shah of Persia to the Court of King George III. He arrived in London in 1809, and the portrait shown here was commissioned by the East India Company soon after his arrival.

Portrait of Mirza Abu’l Hasan Khan, Envoy Extraordinary from the King of Persia to the Court of King George III, by William Beechey, 1809. British Library, F26.  noc
For a catalogue record of this painting, click here.

The purpose of Mirza Abul Hasan Khan’s trip to London was to generate British interest in the Persian silk trade. In the portrait, he is dressed in a full length gold brocade gown and a cape woven with flowers. On the table next to him, there are two bundles of fabric. These garments and effects were symbolic of Mirza Abul Hasan Khan’s mission in London. He was one of a long line of Persian ambassadors who travelled to London to secure the silk trade with the East India Company. But Mirza Abul Hasan Khan was more widely regarded by the British public as an exotic foreigner.

On 2 January 1810, Charles Lamb wrote the following about Mirza Abu’l Hasan Khan, to his friend, Thomas Manning. ‘The Persian Ambassador is the principal thing talked of now.  I sent some people to see him worship the sun on Primrose Hill at half past six in the morning, 28th November; but he did not come, which makes me think the old fire-worshippers are a sect almost extinct in Persia.  The Persian Ambassador’s name is Shaw Ali Mirza.  The common people call him Shaw Nonsense’.

Perhaps the Persian envoy didn’t show up that morning because he was tired of being stared at all the time! He must have been a man of strong character, because he came to London a second time, in 1819. On that occasion, he presented a solid gold dish to the East India Company’s Court of Directors. Today, it is part the Victoria and Albert Museum’s collections.

Of course, there was a lot more to Mirza Abu'l Hasan Khan than his celebrity status. He had many high ranking friends and acquaintances in England, became a freemason, and in Persia, he worked closely with the British Ambassador to the court of Fath ʻAli Shah. The British Library holds a manuscript copy of his Persian diary (Add.23,546: Khayratnamah-yi sufara) in which he recorded his day-to-day activities in London. The portrait of Mirza Abu’l Hasan Khan (pictured above) is on permanent display in the Asia & African Studies Reading Room, so all our readers are welcome to come in and have a really good look at him.

Further reading

Diba, Layla (ed.), 'Royal Persian Paintings, The Qajar Epoch 1785- 1925', Brooklyn Museum of Art, 1998, fig XVII, p. 197.
Howes, Jennifer. “British Library”. Pages 52-87 in Ellis, L. (editor) Oil Paintings in Public Ownership in Camden, Volume 2. London: The Public Catalogue Foundation, 2013. (Full page reproduction of the painting on page 169.)
H. Javadi, 'Abulʼl-Ḥasan Khan Īlčī: Persian diplomat, b. 1190/1776 in Šīrāz', in Encyclopædia Iranica (
Langer, Axel. The Fascination of Persia. Zurich: Scheidegger & Spiess, 2013.

Jennifer Howes, Curator of Visual Arts


18 November 2013

The Malay Story of the Pig King

Add comment Comments (0)

One Malay manuscript in the British Library never fails to attract the attention of visiting scholars from Malaysia and Indonesia.  The manuscript is not beautifully illuminated or especially old, nor does it contain a text of great historical or literary value.  But everyone is intrigued by its title, Hikayat Raja Babi, ‘The Story of the Pig King’ (Add. 12393), highly unusual in a Malay Muslim milieu, where pigs are regarded as unclean animals staunchly avoided and best ignored.  What’s more, this Pig King is described as a paragon of courage and nobility.

Hikayat Raja Babi tells of the adventures of a prince who came to the world in the form of a pig.  Most Malay works of fantastical literature are anonymous, and are only known today from manuscripts that are probably multi-generational copies of the original composition, and which have usually been embellished by each succeeding scribe.  The manuscript of Hikayat Raja Babi is quite exceptional in opening with a lengthy note by the author, explaining why, how and when he came to write the tale.  The story was written by Usup ibn Abdul Kadir, a merchant from Semarang of Indian descent from Cooch in west Bengal (peranakan Kuj), during a trading voyage to Palembang. Having no success, he anchored in Sungai Lawang and consoled himself by writing this story, and completed it in twenty days, on 10 Zulkaidah 1188 (12 January 1775).  He begs his readers not to mock or scorn his unruly letters or his handwiting which had run wild, mengamuk – familiar as the Malay word which has entered the English language as ‘amok’.

Palembang harbour, a pen-and-ink and wash drawing probably by one of Colin Mackenzie’s draftsmen, ca.1811-1814.  British Library, Add.Or.5003.  noc

The author’s note on completing the story (Hijrah al-nabi salla Allah ‘alayhi wa-salam seribu seratus delapan puluh delapan tahun sepuluh bulan kepada bulan Zulkaidah dan kepada tahun ha dan kepada hari Jumaat dan waktu pukul sebelas bahwa tamat hikayat caritera Raja Babi adapun yang punya Ayahan [or ayahnya?] Usup ibn Abdul Kadir peranakan Kuj anak di negeri Semarang di Kampung Melayu asalnya duduk kemudian maka pindah di Pakujan luar kota tatkala pergi berdagang ke negeri Palembang maka tiada punya dagang dan duduk berlabuh di Sungai Lawang maka hendak mengiburkan hati supaya jangan menjadi gundah maka duduk menyurat dua puluh hari lamanya maka tamat dan barang siapa suka membaca tetapi jangan ditertawakan dan disunguti daripada hal hurufnya karena kalamnya mengamuk urat kenakan tauladannya d.m.y.t.q tamat bi-al-khayr). British Library, Add. 12393, f.3r.  noc

The story was evidently well appreciated in Semarang, for it passed from the author’s possession to three generations of owners, who recorded their names on its pages: Muhammad Salih (f.105r); Ismail ibn Muhammad Salih (f.105r); and Encik Amaladin ibn Ismail Muhammad Salih (f.2r), who asks anyone who borrows the book to be sure to return it as soon as they have finished reading it.  The manuscript was subsequently acquired by John Crawfurd, who served in the British administration in Java from 1811 to 1816, and whose collection of Indonesian manuscripts was sold to the British Museum in 1842.  No other manusript of this story is known to be held in any other library. 

So what is Hikayat Raja Babi about?  The story starts by describing how this Pig King was so brave and strong that no other king could match him.  But what happened next?  The answer, alas, is unknown, for despite the flurry of interest always aroused by its title, Hikayat Raja Babi has never been studied or published.  If anyone would like to be the first to do so, just click here and start reading!


The story begins: ‘This is the tale of the Pig King, the greatest hero of his age, no other prince could match the Pig King’ (Al-kisah peri mengatakan cetera Raja Babi yang pahlawan lagi perkasa kepada zaman masa itu seorang pun tiada boleh segala raja2 sebagai Raja Babi).  British Library, Add. 12393, f.3v.   noc

Two owners of the manuscript have inscribed their names: Encik Muhammad Salih and - doubtless his son - Encik Ismail ibn Muhammad Salih of Semarang, Kampung Pakujan, Gang Tengah.  British Library, Add. 12393, f.105r (detail).  noc

Another owner, Encik Amaladin ibn Ismail Muhammad Salih is evidently the son and grandson of the first two owners mentioned above.  British Library, Add. 12393, f.2r (detail).  noc

Annabel Teh Gallop, Lead Curator, Southeast Asia


14 October 2013

New exhibition opens on Zoroastrianism

Add comment Comments (0)

Anyone who has been in the vicinity of the Brunei Gallery SOAS during the last few weeks could hardly have failed to notice the frenzied activity in preparation for ‘The Everlasting Flame: Zoroastrianism in History and Imagination’ which opened last Friday (see also my earlier post on this subject). Put together by Sarah Stewart, Lecturer in Zoroastrianism in the Department of the Study of Religions, SOAS, together with Pheroza Godrej, Almut Hintze, Firoza Mistree and myself, it is a first in almost every sense. Not only has the theme, Zoroastrianism from the 2nd millenium until the present date, never been presented in this way before, but the majority of the over 200 exhibits have never been on public view.

Bishop Eznik Kolbac‘i wrote this Refutation of the Sects around 440 AD. His criticism of Zoroastrianism was directed principally against the various forms of dualism. His work is valuable as a contemporary account of the religion at a time when the scriptures were still transmitted orally, a fact which Eznik mentions himself as a reason for the existence of so many conflicting views. The frontispiece of this first edition, published in Smyrna in 1762, shows Eznik instructing his pupils (British Library 17026.b.14)

I first met Sarah almost 30 years ago when we were students together in an elementary Pahlavi (a Middle-Iranian language) class at SOAS! Since then we have often discussed her dream of mounting an exhibition. The more familiar I became with the Zoroastrian material in the British Library, the more impressed I was with the incredibly wide range of materials we had. The Library's unique collection of Zoroastrian sacred texts, collected from the 17th century onwards, had been left untouched since the 19th century and I worked closely with our conservation department to restore them, hoping to get the opportunity to be able to exhibit them! The final choice of what to include was difficult, but I’m glad to say the British Library has made a significant contribution with over 30 major loans.

A 12th or 13th century copy of the Babylonian Talmud. The Talmudic period in Babylonia largely overlapped with the Sasanian empire (224-651 AD) and during this period the Babylonian rabbis shared numerous intellectual and cultural concerns with their neighbours, the Zoroastrian priests at Ctesiphon, capital of the Sasanian empire. These affected matters of civil and criminal law, private law, theology, and even ritual (British Library, Harley 5508, ff.69v-70r)

Several people have asked me what my ‘favourite’ exhibits are! The 7th century BC cuneiform tablet from Nineveh, thought to contain the name of the principal Zoroastrian deity, Ahura Mazda (‘Wise Lord’), and a 4th century Achaemenid document from northern Afghanistan attesting the earliest use of the Zoroastrian day names and offerings for the Farvardin (spirits of the dead) must be amongst the most significant items. Equally impressive are the stunning ossuaries from 7th century Sogdiana and the beautiful Parsi portraits and textiles dating from the 19th century, the result of flourishing trade with China. A gallery on the top floor also includes works by the modern artists Fereydoun Ave, Mehran Zirak and Bijan Saffari. I mentioned a few British Library favourites in a previous post (The Everlasting Flame: Zoroastrianism in History and Imagination). Here are a few more:

Yates Thompson 28_f51r
The concept of Zoroaster as a magician or philosopher from the East is widespread in European literature, particularly after the Renaissance with its increased awareness of Greek and Hellenistic literature. This Italian translation by Bono Giamboni of Li Livres dou Trésor by Brunetto Latini (1230–94) dates from 1425. Of Zoroaster he writes: ‘And at that time a master called Canoaster [i.e. Zoroaster] discovered the magic art of spells and other wicked words and wicked things. These and many other things happened during the first two ages of the era that finished in the time of Abraham.’ (British Library, Yates Thompson 28, f. 51r)

‘The woman who didn’t obey her husband’. This engraving, dating from 1798, from the Persian Arda Viraf Nameh (the visionary journey of Viraf the Just to heaven and hell), is displayed in the exhibition alongside the original which is now part of the John Rylands Collection, Manchester (British Library, SV 400, vol. 2 part 3, facing p. 318)

The exhibition is free and open until 15 December, Tuesday- Saturday 10.30 - 17.00 (late night Thursday until 20.00, special Sunday opening on 15 December). For more details, follow these links to the exhibition website and facebook page.

The exhibition catalogue, edited by Sarah Stewart, includes 8 essays and photographs of every item in the exhibition. It is available from the publishers I.B. Tauris and from the SOAS bookshop (at a special discount price of £17).

Ursula Sims-Williams, Asian and African Studies

Follow us on Twitter @BLAsia_Africa

07 October 2013

Islam, Trade and Politics across the Indian Ocean

Add comment Comments (0)

Southeast Asia has long been connected by trade, religion and political links to the wider world across the Indian Ocean, and especially to the Middle East through the faith of Islam. However, little attention has been paid to the ties between Muslim Southeast Asia – encompassing the modern nations of Indonesia, Malaysia, Brunei, Singapore and the southern parts of Thailand and the Philippines – and the greatest Middle Eastern power, the Ottoman empire. 

Ott 1
The Indian Ocean world in the 16th century, from an Italian portolano.  British Library, Harley 3450, no.6    noc

In 2009, the British Academy funded a three-year research project Islam, Trade and Politics Across the Indian Ocean, administered by the Association of South East Asian Studies in the UK (ASEASUK) and the British Institute at Ankara (BIAA).  The project set out to investigate all forms of interaction between these two regions, from political, religious, literary and commercial exchanges to mutual influences in material culture, and culminated in a conference, From Anatolia to Aceh: Ottomans, Turks and Southeast Asia, held in 2012 in Banda Aceh in conjunction with the International Centre for Aceh and Indian Ocean Studies (ICAIOS).  The results of the research project have also been presented in a photographic exhibition produced by the British Library, which has been shown in Durham, Leeds, Cambridge, Leicester and Exeter.  Today the exhibition opens in London at its final UK venue, in the John Addis Gallery of Islamic Art at the British Museum.  Turkish and Indonesian versions of the exhibition have also been produced, and are currently on display in Istanbul and Aceh.

The Ottoman lands were known in Southeast Asia as Rum, after the Arabic term for the Roman empire.  The Raja of Rum occupies a fabled position in Malay, Acehnese and Javanese epics, and the ruling houses of Kedah, Johor, Perak and Jambi all traced their descent from Rum. In Turkey similarly exotic imaginings existed in parallel with concrete geographical knowledge, and well into the 18th century Ottoman artists continued to illustrate medieval texts describing mythical inhabitants of Southeast Asia. 

Ott 2_562
Winged tree-dwellers of Zabaj, referring probably to Sumatra or Java, from ‘Aja’ib al-makhluqat by Qazvini, Persian text with Ottoman paintings, 1654/5.  British Library, Or.13935, f.76r (detail)

The main periods of direct political contact between Southeast Asian states and the Ottoman empire took place in the 16th and 19th centuries, with a long hiatus in between.  But after the Turkish conquest of Egypt in 1517 and until the early 20th centuries, the two holy cities of Islam, Mecca and Medinah, were under Ottoman control.  During this period, the main conduit for contact between the Ottomans and the Malay world was the annual Hajj pilgrimage.  Many Muslims from the Malay archipelago lived for long periods in Mecca, where they were known as the Jawi community. When they returned to Southeast Asia they brought back as souvenirs highly-prized Ottoman goods such as manuscripts, textiles and carpets.  Thus Ottoman motifs such as the tughra or royal monogram, and distinctive calligraphic styles such as zoomorphic and müsenna mirror writing, found their way into Southeast Asian art forms including batik textiles and woodcarvings.  The two-bladed sword of the Prophet called Dhu al-Faqar, so evident in Ottoman war flags and pilgrim banners, is also found on flags from Aceh, Siak, Riau and even Sulu in the southern Philippines.


Tughra of the Ottoman Sultan Murad III (r.1574-1595).  British Library Or.15504   noc

Reproduced in the ten exhibition panels are documents from the Prime Ministry Ottoman Archives (Başbakanlık Osmanlı Arşivi) in Istanbul, including newly-discovered royal letters from Malay rulers to the Ottoman sultan, addressed as the khalifah and protector of Muslims worldwide.  Manuscripts, maps and drawings from the British Library and other institutions also testify to links between the lands of the Ottoman empire and early republican Turkey, and the Muslim peoples of Southeast Asia, from the 16th to 20th centuries.

Ott 4_562
Sultan Abu Bakar of Johor – the first Malay monarch to visit Turkey – and his Turkish wife, Sultana Khadijah.  Na Tien Piet, Shaer almarhoem beginda Sultan Abubakar di negri Johor (Singapore, 1896).  British Library 14626.a.6

Unsyiah Library exh 2013 Sept
The Indonesian version of the exhibition on display in the Library of Universitas Syiah Kuala, Banda Aceh, September 2013.  Photograph courtesy of ICAIOS.

Further reading

For a list of publications on Ottoman links with Southeast Asia, see:

Annabel Teh Gallop, Lead Curator, Southeast Asia
Co-Director, Islam, Trade and Politics across the Indian Ocean

Follow us on Twitter @BLAsia_Africa

13 September 2013

Sejarah Melayu: a Malay masterpiece

Add comment Comments (0)

Sometime around the year 1400, a prince from Sumatra named Parameswara founded a settlement at the mouth of the Melaka river on the west coast of the Malay peninsula.  Soon after one of his successors embraced Islam, and Melaka grew to become the greatest Islamic kingdom ever seen in Southeast Asia. Known as the ‘Venice of the East’, its spice trade attracted merchants from as far away as Arabia, India, China and Japan.  Such a honeypot proved irresistible to the Portuguese, who were the first Europeans to navigate around the Cape of Good Hope into the Indian Ocean.  Not content simply to join in the bustling trade, the Portuguese instead attacked Melaka and captured it in 1511. 

Sloane 197-Melaka-ed

Plan of Melaka after its capture by the Portuguese.  Livro do Estado da India Oriental, by Pedro Barreto de Resende, 1641.  British Library, Sloane MS 197, ff.381v-182r.  noc

    The Malay sultan, Mahmud Shah, fled southwards to Johor. As the exiled court began to face up to the realization that their enforced sojourn in Johor would not be temporary, it became ever more urgent to record for posterity the still-vivid memories of Melaka’s magnificence.  A chronicle was envisaged that would testify that the sultan and his kin now settled on the upper reaches of the Johor river were descended from a glorious line of Malay kings, originating in south Sumatra from the site of the ancient empire of Srivijaya, who had gone on to found at Melaka the richest emporium in Southeast Asia.  It so happened that the court official charged with the task, Tun Seri Lanang, was the greatest Malay writer of that or perhaps any period, and he produced what is now regarded as a masterpiece of Malay literature.  

    Entitled in Arabic Sulalat al-Salatin, ‘Genealogy of Kings’, but popularly known as Sejarah Melayu or the ‘Malay Annals’, this work is not only a literary triumph but also a handbook of Malay statecraft, outlining the solemn covenant between the ruler, who promises never to shame his subjects, and his people, who undertake never to commit treason (durhaka).  More than thirty manuscripts of Sejarah Melayu are known, with numerous different versions of the text, some designed to bolster the credentials of other Malay kingdoms by claiming links with the illustrious royal line of Melaka. 

    The enduring popularity of the Sejarah Melayu also lies in the skill of its author in addressing key historical episodes and refashioning these invariably to the greater glory of Melaka.  In one celebrated anecdote, when a delegation from Melaka visited China, all had to bow low and were not allowed to look at the Emperor’s face. When the Emperor enquired as to what food they liked, the crafty Malays specified kangkung, spinach, not chopped up, but left long.  They then ate the kangkung by lifting each strand up high and lowering it into their upturned mouths – thus enabling them to lift their heads and gaze upon the Chinese emperor!


Sejarah Melayu: how the Malays ate kangkung (spinach) at the Chinese court, thereby managing to steal a glance at the face of the Emperor.  British Library, Or.14734, f.84r.  noc

    There are two manuscripts of the Sejarah Melayu in the British Library, Or.16214 and Or.14734, which has just been digitised.   This manuscript was copied in Melaka itself in 1873, by which time the site of the great Malay sultanate had passed through the hands of a whole series of European colonizers, from the Portuguese to the Dutch and then to the British.  It bears the name of E.E. Isemonger, who served as Resident Councillor of Melaka in 1891.


Detail of the colophon, giving the name of the scribe and the date of copying in Melaka as Monday 19 Zulhijah 1289 (17 February 1873):  Tamatlah Hikayat Melayu ini di dalam negeri Melaka sanatahun 1289 kepada 19 hari bulan Zulhijah hari yaum al-Isnin adanya, wa-katibuhu Muhammad Tajuddin Tambi Hitam bin Zainal Abidin Penghulu Dagang Melaka Kampung Telangkira adanya.  British Library, Or.14734, f.200v. noc


Further reading

C.C. Brown, Sejarah Melayu or Malay Annals.  An annotated translation by C.C.Brown, with a new introduction by R.Roolvink.  Kuala Lumpur: Oxford University Press, 1970.

A. Samad Ahmad (ed.), Sulalatus salatin (Sejarah Melayu).  Kuala Lumpur: Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka: 1986.

John Leyden's Malay Annals.  With an introductory essay by Virginia Matheson Hooker and M.B.
Hooker.  Selangor Darul Ehsan: MBRAS, 2001. (MBRAS reprint; 20).



Annabel Teh Gallop, Lead Curator for Southeast Asian Studies
Creative Commons License


Annabel Teh Gallop, Lead Curator for Southeast Asian Studies - See more at: