THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Endangered archives blog

2 posts from May 2020

26 May 2020

New projects online - May 2020

May has been another busy month for new EAP projects going online. Here we showcase the first four now freely available, which cover a wide range of topics and regions.

EAP810 - Siddha Medicine Manuscripts, Tamil Nadu, India

Siddha refers to the traditional medical system of Tamil Nadu, India. Although recognised by the government of India, siddha medicine has not been systematically studied, partly due to the difficulty of access to its texts, mostly in form of manuscripts, kept in libraries or held by practitioners. This project makes these vital sources of traditional medicine available for research.

A bound palm leaf manuscript
A bound palm leaf manuscript, EAP810/6/1

These palm leaf manuscripts cover a large range of subjects, including general siddha medicine and medical specialities such as acupressure, baby and mother care, eye diseases or toxicology (snake and scorpion bites; food and medicine intoxication), and socio-cultural topics rooted in the siddha tradition such as mantra, philosophy, alchemy, spirituality, and astrology.

A palm leaf manuscript page with Tamil writing
அகத்தியர் கர்ம சூத்திரம் [Akattiyar Karma Cūttiram], EAP810/6/1/image 8

EAP 931 - Indigenous Memories of Land Privatisation in Mexico

The privatization of indigenous lands—the reparto de tierras—is an epochal but poorly understood process in Mexican history. It is largely trapped in narratives of liberal nation‐building or postcolonial despoilment. Yet how did indigenous people actually experience/navigate the reparto? Was it ethnocide, or ethnogenesis? As the one complete surviving record of a state-wide Mexican reparto, the hijuelas promise historians valuable insights into a major agrarian/economic transformation and a deeper understanding of changes in indigenous notions of property, agricultural practice, ethnic rule, and identity.

The Libros de Hijuelas (“deed books” or “bequest books” in English) consist of 196 leather-bound volumes containing 75,000 documents dating from 1719‐1929, with additional copies of earlier, 16th‐ or 17th‐century documents. All the documents pertain to, or are precursors of, a centrally important historical process: the dissolution and privatisation of indigenous corporate property under 19th‐century liberal governments, in this case in the western state of Michoacán, Mexico.

These books contain:

  • Legal acts
  • Cadastral surveys
  • Village censuses
  • Hand‐tinted maps
  • Letters

Many of the letters are written by indigenous michoacanos of Purépecha (Tarascan), Nahua, Mazahua, Matzatlinca, or Otomí descent.

EAP931 team in the digitisation room
The EAP931 project team

The hijuelas collection is unique in that it presents the pre‐history and a complete account of the privatisation process across a whole state, the collection as a whole being organized according to the 16 political districts into which Michoacán was divided.

EAP938 - Diplomatic archives of Merina Kingdom, Madagascar

This project digitised the diplomatic archives of the Merina Kingdom, which dominated Madagascar during the 19th century. These documents (1861-1897) which have been part of the UNESCO Memory of the World Register since 2009 illustrate the encounter between the precolonial kingdom of Madagascar, the abolitionist and religious policies of the United Kingdom and the French territorial ambitions in the Indian Ocean.

Both quantitatively and qualitatively, these documents are a rare and perfect example of the diplomacy of a non-Western State in the nineteenth century. These documents reveal the influence the kingdom tried to obtain among different Western governments and show the connection of the Merina kingdom of Madagascar with the rest of the world, prior to the advent of colonialism.

The availability will surely herald new insights on the pre-colonial period and the construction of the colonial state.

A folder of diplomatic correspondence between European individuals and the Malagasy government, and a treaty between Madagascar and the United States of America
Correspondence between European Individuals and the Malagasy government, EAP938/1/90 (left); Treaty between Madagascar and the United States, EAP938/1/7 (right)

EAP1114 - East African Islamic texts from the library of Maalim Muhammad Idris

Maalim Muhammad IdrisThis project digitised the library of the late Zanzibari scholar Maalim Muhammad Idris (d.2012) - 123 Islamic texts dating from the late nineteenth century to the 1940s.

This collection is invaluable because it contains printed material dating from the period of transition from manuscript to print in the Arabic/Islamic tradition. Its known provenance and diverse nature gives insight into the Islamic history of East Africa.

The materials range from locally printed pamphlets to books printed in Cairo, from basic instruction to legal manuals, many with handwritten commentary by East Africa's leading scholars, as well as early locally printed Arabic-Swahili translations. The collection is a "snapshot" of an intellectual tradition in transition and a cross-section of the nascent networks of print in Islamic Africa.

A colourful page from the Qur'an
The Qur'an, EAP1114/1/13/image 8

11 May 2020

New projects online - April 2020

We have another four new projects we can share with you this month that have recently been made available online. If you didn't read last month's blog you can see it here. It features projects from Kenya, Senegal, Uganda, and the small Caribbean island of Nevis. On to this month's projects:

  • Pa'O religious and literary manuscripts from Shan State, Myanmar [EAP104]
  • records relating to the Tamil Protestant community of the Jaffna Peninsula, Sri Lanka [EAP835]
  • colonial records from the French colony of Middle Congo (Republic of the Congo) [EAP844]
  • Sanskrit and Malayalam manuscripts from monasteries in Thrissur, Kerala, India [EAP1039]

EAP104

The manuscripts digitised during this project constitute the largest and most comprehensive Pa'O literary and religious studies resource outside of Pa'O regions in Myanmar and Thailand. The original manuscripts, a mixture of parabaik (accordion folded paper manuscripts), bound scrolls, and palm-leaf manuscripts, are owned by the Pa'O Literary and Cultural Council Committee Library in Taunggyi, Shan State, Myanmar. The texts consist mainly of Pa’O interpretations of the Theravada Buddhist canon, though other particularly interesting manuscripts include those that document Pa'O dynasties and claims on important historical sites in contemporary Myanmar. There are 71 manuscripts in total, the majority of them in the Pa’O language.

Lokadippa lokavvat‘ phrekyam-600wide
Page from a manuscript - Lokadippa Lokavvat‘ Phrekyam [EAP104]

EAP835

The aim of this ‘pilot’ project was to survey the print and manuscript materials of the Tamil Protestant community of Jaffna in Sri Lanka. There is a wealth of material documenting this community and the role of missionaries from the UK and United States. The American Ceylon Mission press for example printed more than 500,000 evangelical tracts in a 17-year period leading up to 1840. Much of this is Tamil-language translations of American texts, but there are also significant amounts of material relating to Tamil epic poetry and literature, ethical treatises, pedagogical works, devotional literature, and many polemical essays on Saivism and Christian‐Saivite exchanges.


The project surveyed 10 institutional and 3 private archives. They digitised a sample of records including church record books, correspondence between Missions, lists of parishes, issues of St. John’s College Magazine, and more from 5 of these institutions. You can read the survey reports and lists on the project page, as well as see a sample of 27 records that were digitised.

Eap835-3-1-religious tract society600wide
EAP835/3/1 - Religious Tract Society

EAP844

This pilot project set out to locate and document colonial archives from the former French colony of Middle Congo, in present-day Pointe-Noire, Republic of the Congo. While archives in Brazzaville have been more widely studied, the archives in Pointe-Noire have largely been unknown and inaccessible to researchers.


Research was carried out in three main archives:

  • Archives Municipales de Pointe-Noire (integrated into the city's town hall)
  • Archives de la Préfecture de Pointe-Noire (APPN-CON)
  • Archives du Chemin de Fer Congo-Océan (ACFCO-CON)


A survey and inventory of some of the holdings are available on the project page. The survey explains the history and provenance of the archives and their collections, and should be used as the starting point for exploring them. The project team also digitised a small sample of 3 dossiers from the APPN-CON containing mostly colonial era administration documents. These feature a wide-range of topics including: the impact of WW2 in the area; smuggling networks; development of trade unions; the ‘messianic’ movements of Lassyism (Bougism); xenophobic outbreaks against Dahomean and Togolese immigrants; social life in the Loango region.


Just from this small sample alone, it’s clear that these archives may have wide research interest, especially considering the amount of material that is uncatalogued. The team also estimated an additional 2500 ‘boxes’ of archival material at APPN-CON that they were unable to survey due to the time restraints of this small project. There obviously may be much more to discover. Whilst the focus was on colonial era records the team also sampled the vast trove of postcolonial records found in the archives. APPN-CON’s archive of postcolonial documents was singled out for its “spectacular possibilities” for research. 

Eap844-600wide
Example of a document digitised for the EAP844 project

EAP1039

This pilot project produced a survey of 238 of the 800 palm leaf manuscripts held in four monasteries that constitute the Hindu monastic complex of Thrissur in Kerala, India. This collection contains rare unpublished Sanskrit and Malayalam works, especially in the field of non-dualist philosophy (Advaita-Vedānta), Kerala history and hagiography. It therefore constitutes an invaluable resource for the study of the religious and social history of Kerala in the pre-modern times. 54 of these manuscripts were digitised and are now available to view online.

Eap1039-600wide
Example of a document digitised for the EAP1039 project