Asian and African studies blog

32 posts categorized "Trade"

28 February 2014

The Adviser (المستشار): Charles Belgrave and Modern Bahrain

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

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
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
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)
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)
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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

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.
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 (http://www.iranicaonline.org)
Langer, Axel. The Fascination of Persia. Zurich: Scheidegger & Spiess, 2013.

Jennifer Howes, Curator of Visual Arts

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18 November 2013

The Malay Story of the Pig King

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.
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.
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.

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).
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).
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

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14 October 2013

New exhibition opens on Zoroastrianism

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)
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)
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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)
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)
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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:

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 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)
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‘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 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)
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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
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07 October 2013

Islam, Trade and Politics across the Indian Ocean

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. 

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

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)
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)
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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 

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.

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
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
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The Indonesian version of the exhibition on display in the Library of Universitas Syiah Kuala, Banda Aceh, September 2013.  Photograph courtesy of ICAIOS.
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:
http://www.ottomansoutheastasia.org/bibliography.php

Annabel Teh Gallop, Lead Curator, Southeast Asia
Co-Director, Islam, Trade and Politics across the Indian Ocean
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13 September 2013

Sejarah Melayu: a Malay masterpiece

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. 

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.

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!

jarah 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.

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.

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
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Annabel Teh Gallop, Lead Curator for Southeast Asian Studies - See more at: http://britishlibrary.typepad.co.uk/asian-and-african/malay-manuscripts/#sthash.Cr7Jf7Ig.dpuf

03 September 2013

Commoners in traditional Vietnamese society as portrayed in early 20th century drawings

With the establishment of French colonialism in South East Asia at the end of the 19th century, new social groups began to emerge in Vietnam. Those who collaborated with the regime in land development became landlords while others were recruited into colonial bureaucracy. The new educational system introduced by the French also created a small new elite. These changes, however, had little effect on the social status of the Vietnamese commoners who formed the bulk of society. 

Traditionally Vietnamese society consisted of four classes: (lettered); nông (farmers); công (craftsmen); thượng (tradesmen) (Huard 1954: 163). However this Chinese-modelled class division did not match the realities of 19th century Vietnamese society which consisted of a landed, literate and leisured elite, peasants, a Buddhist clergy and a powerful, alien Chinese merchant class (Woodside 1988: 30-31).  The division between peasants and craftsmen was indistinct. Vietnamese crafts were totally subordinate to agriculture and were undertaken by poor peasants who needed to supplement their income. They farmed their land during the cultivating seasons and worked as craftsmen when they were not engaged in working in the fields. This tradition, which can be traced back a thousand years, led to the development of craft villages in rural Vietnam. (Võ Văn Hòe, Hoàng Hương Việt, Bùi Văn Tiếng 2012: 20).

Peasant at work. From Henri Oger's Introduction Générale (Or.T.C.4)
Peasant at work. From Henri Oger's Introduction Générale (Or.T.C.4)
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These peasants-turned-craftsmen, however, were not able to develop into a strong merchant class because they were crippled by court bureaucracy which controlled the Vietnamese guilds and could tax their artisans out of business. Village traditions also prohibited dissemination of craft knowledge outside the villages and, more importantly, Vietnamese craftsmen could not compete with Chinese merchants (Woodside 1988: 33). They therefore remained craftsmen and merchants who only traded locally and who were not able to develop their skills on an industrial scale.

Another striking aspect of traditional Vietnamese society was the role of women in everyday life. Confucian traditions placed women’s status behind that of men and Chinese colonial administrators (111 B.C.-A.D.939), and Vietnamese rulers in particular, tried to convince women that they were by nature inferior, that their roles were rigidly circumscribed, that they should always follow and never lead. However, in reality, Vietnamese women took pride in their work, which kept them from succumbing to the dominant ethic implying female guilt or inferiority. Moreover the poorer the family, the more likely the husband and wife were to rely on each other to share tasks (David Marr 1984: 191, 196-197), so both male and female Vietnamese commoners in the 19th century either worked in agriculture (mainly rice fields) or in small craft or petty businesses. They lived in houses which Finlayson observed in 1822 were large and comfortable and usually constructed with mud walls roofed with tiles (Finlayson 1988: 300). They produced a great variety of agricultural products. In contrast, they were able to make a very limited range of craft or industrial products.

A Vietnamese woman making a parasol. From Henri Oger's Introduction Générale (Or. T.C.4)
A Vietnamese woman making a parasol. From Henri Oger's Introduction Générale (Or. T.C.4)
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The economic and social gap between the elite and the poor masses is very well captured in Finlayson’s narratives. When he met with a mandarin in Da Nang province in September 1822, he wrote:

…a mandarin of respectable appearance came off, accompanied by a considerable number of followers, dressed in uniform. This mandarin was a remarkable contrast to the generality of his countrymen…He was well dressed, …the dress of the poorer class is made of coarse cotton… Shoes also are worn only by the wealthy, and are of Chinese manufacture, clogs, in fact, rather than shoes (Finlayson: 331, 379)

The social pattern of commoners did not change much until the beginning of the 20th century. Because the French aimed to transform Vietnam into a major rice producer on a par with Siam and British Burma, there was no need for a new class of Vietnamese industrial workers. Vietnamese commoners carried on living as peasants and petty workers as they had previously. Not only did the colonial regime do little to transform or improve their living conditions, it pushed them to work even harder in the fields in order to survive taxation and market economy. The French colonial system did not create new areas of industrial economy because it needed to protect its own industries, and as late as the 1930s, only a small number of indigenous people were absorbed into unimportant 'modern' industries such as match, cement, tobacco, paper and alcohol industries (Ngo Vinh Long 1991: 102).

At the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th centuries, Vietnamese social and economic structure was divided into two main strata. The upper stratum comprised Europeans, followed by a new emerging Vietnamese elite. These new elites were composed of French educated indigenous administrators, landlords and also wealthy Chinese. The lower stratum, which accounted for 90% of the population, was made up of peasants who were small land-owners. As market economy and heavy colonial taxation were introduced, a large number of these lost their land to landlords or money lenders, and became tenants who had to supplement their income by taking extra jobs, such as being seasonal migrant workers or coolies in urban areas.
Westerners in Vietnam in late 19th-early 20th century. From Henri Oger's Introduction Générale (Or.T.C.4)
Westerners in Vietnam in late 19th-early 20th century. From Henri Oger's Introduction Générale (Or.T.C.4)
 noc

Although Vietnamese historical records contain accounts of Vietnamese commoners, they are sketchy. It was not until the beginning of the 20th century that their daily life was comprehensively recorded owing to the painstaking efforts of Henri Oger. Oger was a French colonial officer who worked in North Vietnam between the end of 1907 and 1909. Even though he was quite young when he was posted there, he developed a strong interest in the country’s history and civilisation. He commissioned about 30 wood carvers to draw and engrave designs depicting every aspect of Vietnamese life and society. The result of this pioneering work was his ten volume Introduction Générale a L’étude de la Technique du Peuple Annamite, published in Paris and Hanoi between 1909 and 1911. The illustrations vary from work in the rice fields, market scenes to various craft industries.

The Vietnamese Collection at the British Library is fortunate in having the complete set of Henri Oger’s work (Or.T.C 4) as only 60 copies were originally printed and only a few institutions have a complete set. It was his work that inspired me to work on this article, helping to illustrate my points more effectively than written descriptions alone.

Further reading:

Pierre Huard, Maurice Durand, Viet-Nam civilization and culture, Hanoi: Ecole Francaie d’Extrême Orient, 1954
Alexander Woodside, Vietnam and the Chinese Model. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1988
Võ Văn Hòe, Hoàng Hương Việt, Bùi Văn Tiếng,  Nghề và làng nghề truyền thống Ðất Quảng, Hà Nội: Văn Hóa Thông Tin, 2012
David Marr, Vietnamese Traditions on Trial, 1920-1945. Berkley: University of California Press, 1984
George Finlayson, The Mission to Siam and Hue 1821-22, Singapore: Oxford University Press, 1988
Henri Oger, Introduction Générale a L’étude de la Technique du Peuple Annamite, Paris, 1909-11

Sud Chonchirdsin, Curator for Vietnamese
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22 August 2013

A 'Golden letter' in Malay to Napoleon III

This beautiful royal Malay letter (Or.16126) from the ruler of Johor, Temenggung Daing Ibrahim, to the Emperor of France, written in Singapore in 1857, is a triumph of style over substance. Its thirteen golden lines pay effusive compliments to Napoleon III but little else, as can be seen from the translation (see link given below). The letter was accompanied by a handsome gift of Malay weaponry.
 
Illuminated letter in Malay from Engku Temenggung Seri Maharaja (Daing Ibrahim) of Johor to the Emperor of France (Napoleon III), written in Singapore on Monday 17 Syaaban 1273 (12 April 1857). Or.16126.   View digital copy
Illuminated letter in Malay from Engku Temenggung Seri Maharaja (Daing Ibrahim) of Johor to the Emperor of France (Napoleon III), written in Singapore on Monday 17 Syaaban 1273 (12 April 1857). Or.16126.   View digital copy
 noc

It is hard to know what either side hoped to gain from the despatch of such a magnificent missive, for in the mid-19th century French interests in Southeast Asia were primarily focused on Indochina, while Johor’s allegiance was firmly with the British. In the letter the Temenggung makes no requests of the French, and adroitly expresses his greatest praise for Napoleon III in terms of the Emperor’s cordial relations with Queen Victoria, ‘both sides thereby gaining in such strength that no other nation can match them, as long as the sun and moon revolve’ (bertambahlah kakuatan antara kedua pihak tiadalah siapa bangsa yang boleh bandingannya selagi ada perkitaran bulan dan matahari). It is most likely that the French envoy named in the letter, M. Charles de Montigny, who was in 1857 based in Singapore, procured the letter for his own personal or professional advancement.

Politically, historically and diplomatically this letter could be regarded as something of a dead end, but as a work of art it is far more significant. Despite the frequent use of gold in Malay manuscript illumination, this is the earliest known example of chrysography – writing in gold ink – in a Malay letter. It is beautifully illuminated with a rectangular golden frame on all four sides of the textblock, surmounted with an elaborate arched headpiece in red, blue and gold.

In format and structure, this epistle an exemplar of the courtly Malay art of letterwriting. At the top is the kepala surat or letter heading in Arabic, Nur al-shams wa-al-qamr, ‘Light of the sun and the moon’; this phrase is very commonly encountered in Malay letters addressed to European officials. The letter opens conventionally with extensive opening compliments or puji-pujian, identifying the sender and addressee, and with fulsome praise for the Emperor on account of his renown. Strangely, we do not encounter the Arabic word wa-ba‘dahu or its equivalents such as the Malay kemudian daripada itu, traditionally used to terminate the compliments and mark the start of the contents proper, for the simple reason that there is no real content to this letter. The compliments meld seamlessly with a brief mention of the French envoy entrusted with the letter, before gliding into the final section with a statement of the accompanying gift and thence onto the termaktub, the closing line giving the place and date of writing.

Seal of the Temenggung of Johoor
Seal of the Temenggung of Johoor
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At the top of the letter, in a conventional position with its midpoint precisely to the right of the first line, is stamped the round black ink seal of the Temenggung, inscribed in both Arabic and roman script: 

al-wāthiq billāh Datuk Temenggung Seri Maharaja ibn Temenggung Seri Maharaja sanat 1257 // AL WASEKCUPBILAH DATU TUMONGONG SREE MAHARAJAH BIN TUMONGONG
‘He who trusts in God, Datuk Temenggung Seri Maharaja, son of Temenggung Seri Maharaja, the year 1257 (AD 1841/2) // He who trusts in God, Datu Temongong Sree Maharajah, son of Tumongong’
  

The Temenggungs of Johor were amongst the political winners following the establishment of a British settlement at Singapore by Thomas Stamford Raffles in 1819, and the British-Dutch Treaty of London of 1824 which led to break-up of the historic kingdom of ‘Johor and Pahang and Riau and Lingga’. Daing Ibrahim’s son, Temenggung Abu Bakar, successfully negotiated with the British to assume the title ‘Sultan of Johor’, and founded the modern ruling house of Johor, now one of the states of Malaysia.

This letter has been digitised as part of the Malay manuscripts digitisation project (see my previous post ‘British Library's Malay manuscripts to be digitised’, and a full transcription of the Malay text together with an English translation can be downloaded from this link:  Download Or.16126 Malay text and translation


Further reading


A.T. Gallop (ed.) A cabinet of Oriental curiosities: an album for Graham Shaw from his colleagues. London: The British Library, 2006.
A.T. Gallop, ‘Golden words from Johor: a royal Malay letter from Temenggung Daing Ibrahim to Emperor Napoleon III of France’, Kumpulan kertas kerja seminar antarabangsa manuskrip Melayu: melestarikan manuskrip Melayu warisan agung bangsa. Kuala Lumpur: Arkib Negara Malaysia, 2006, pp.165-172.
Anthony Reid, ‘The French in Sumatra and the Malay world, 1760-1890’, Bijdragen tot de Taal-, Land- en Volkenkunde, 1973, 129 (2-3): 195-238.
R.O. Winstedt, A history of Johore (1365-1941).  With a final chapter by Khoo Kay Kim. Kuala Lumpur: The Malaysian Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, 1992 (MBRAS Reprints; 6).


Annabel Teh Gallop, Lead Curator, Southeast Asian Studies
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