Untold lives blog

6 posts from November 2012

30 November 2012

Forest conservation and edible birds’ nests

Henry George (Harry) Keith (1899-1982) was Conservator of Forests in British North Borneo, a state administered by the British North Borneo (Chartered) Company from 1881 until 1946 when it became a British Crown Colony. It is now the Malaysian state of Sabah.

The Court of Directors of the British North Borneo Company, based in London, constituted the government of North Borneo which was represented in the territory by a governor and an administration that by the 1930s had sixty British officers.

Harry Keith is perhaps best remembered as the husband of Agnes Keith (1901-1982) who wrote a trilogy – Land below the wind; Three came home and White man returns - detailing the family’s experiences in Borneo in the 1930s and 1940s, including their internment by the Japanese.

Throughout the 1930s, Keith argued that the forests of Borneo should not be solely seen as a source of timber for export but were an essential resource for local communities and a source of revenue from the trade in non-timber forest products. Keith reminded his superiors in London of the government’s obligations to the people of Borneo, including the management and exploitation of forests for the public good.

Keith highlighted the economic importance of non-timber forest products in North Borneo, including edible birds’ nests. The nests are produced from the saliva of several species of swifts that nest in the limestone caves found throughout Borneo and elsewhere in maritime Southeast Asia. The nests are prized by the Chinese – both in China and in the communities of the Chinese diaspora – for their culinary and medicinal uses. Singapore and Hong Kong are still the main centres of trade in birds’ nests.

Chinese tradesman selling birds’ nestsChinese tradesman selling birds’ nests [BL,455.e.9, plate 45]  Images Online       Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

From the earliest days of Chartered Company rule in North Borneo, the royalty (usually a 10% ad valorem tax) levied on edible birds’ nests was an important source of revenue for the government.

In 1931 the Curator of Raffles Museum in Singapore, F. N. Chasen, prepared a report for the North Borneo government on the birds’ nest caves in the territory. He argued that creating forest reserves were an important way of isolating the caves from human disturbance. He believed the birds’ nest industry could be exploited further, benefiting both collectors and the government who charged a tax on the trade in nests. Using Chasen’s report to support his case, Keith was able to reserve 45,000 acres of forest specifically for the protection of the swifts’ habitat. Preserving forests near the birds’ caves also allowed the nest collectors easy access to bamboo and rattan canes used for scaffolding to access the birds’ nests.

Keith’s views and work, often in conflict with the logging companies’ interests and not always appreciated by the India Office in London, showed the benefits of enlightened forest management practices in a colonial environment.

Nicholas Martland
Formerly Australasian Studies Curator

Further Reading

In 2002 the British Library purchased a number of rare publications relating to British North Borneo from the estate of Harold and Agnes Keith.

The official records of British North Borneo are held at the UK National Archives.

British North Borneo. Report by Governor Treacher, from 1st July to 31st December, 1882. (London, 1883).[BL, RB.31.b.258]

Chasen, F. N. The birds’ nest caves and industry of British North Borneo with special reference to the Gomantong Caves. (Jesselton, 1931) [BL, W36/8055 DSC]


23 November 2012

Floreat Aitchison!

Movember 2012 is entering its final week.  This is a moustache-growing charity event held during November each year that raises funds and awareness for men’s health.  To provide encouragement to participants to persevere with their efforts until the end of the month, here is a picture of Sir Charles Umpherston Aitchison sporting a splendid moustache.  We also have a story about the college in Lahore founded by Aitchison.

Aitchison Photo 2/1(29) Sir Charles Umpherston Aitchison (1832-1896), Lieutenant-Governor of the Punjab 1882-87 Images Online Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

A Record of the Aitchison College by the principal J.C. Godley was published in Lahore in 1901, in the wake of a Viceregal visit by Lord Curzon in 1899 (BL, V 9080). Garnished with photographs of the founder Sir Charles Aitchison, the buildings and grounds, and a list of distinguished personnel who consented to act as Visitors, the book also contains biographical information about 230 Indian students between the foundation date of October 1886 and January 1901.  The College had seventy two students in residence at the time of publication.  Rather depressingly, no fewer than twenty one students were known to have died: Muhammad Raza Khan succumbed to consumption; Amar Singh and Muaz ud-din Ahmad to cholera; Naina Singh to pneumonia; Burhan-ulla Khan to epilepsy.
Exactly half of the intake is identified as Muslims, the remainder being almost equally divided between Hindus and Sikhs, with one pupil, Saw Loo, being a Burmese Buddhist. The individual entries tend to give the dates of entering and leaving the College, together with some family background and an indication of the boy's post-College career. Winners of the Lyall Medal are recorded. Some alumni went on to military careers, such as Gulmawaz Khan (Jamadar, 18th Bengal Lancers) and Paritam Singh (Jamadar, 23rd Pioneers). Others joined the civil service: Talib Mehdi Khan (Extra Assistant Commissioner, Rohtak) and Balwant Singh (learning judicial and revenue work at Ferozepore). Suchet Singh and Sundar Singh became sergeants of police, while in contrast Fateh Muhammad Khan ‘was employed in 1900 on special duty in connection with the famine’. The occupations of Zulfikar Ali Khan and Umrao Singh are recorded slightly ambiguously as "Estate management and literary pursuits", whereas the three years Aga Ghulam Dastgir spent at the College enabled him to leave India to study at Worcester College, Oxford. Unfortunately Ranjit Singh only lasted a year at Aitchison, afterwards "studying with a private tutor", and we do not get to know what was behind the five expulsions during the academic year 1893-1894. The most distinguished pupil must surely have been Bijay Chand, "now Raja of Bilaspur" and therefore entitled to an eleven-gun salute.
With pardonable pride Mr. Godley spends some time trumpeting the College’s success on the sports field. Attempting to transfer the ethos of the Victorian public school system to northern India cannot have been easy, however, and there are passages in which he fails to suppress a sense of frustration: ‘... education at the College has done little to change hereditary ways of life and to open new fields of activity to the sons of the Punjab gentry’. Perhaps because of this Godley moved to a post in the Indian Education Service Inspectorate in 1904 (IOR/L/PJ/6/661, no. 233).
The College exists to this day as a distinguished centre of secondary education in Pakistan, and no doubt Aitchison's gimlet eyes look down on the College's present students exactly as they did more than a century ago.

Hedley Sutton

Asian and African Studies Reference Team Leader

15 November 2012

TMS – Two Masterly Sportsmen

The 2012 India v England test series opens today in Ahmedabad, so here is a story about two English cricketing heroes with Indian roots.
To cricket fans and students of its history, the obvious link between Douglas Jardine and Colin Cowdrey is that both men were Captains of England. However, besides this, Jardine and Cowdrey shared something else in common which may not be so well known – namely that both of them were born in India.

Douglas Robert Jardine was born in Bombay on 23 October 1900. His parents lived on Malabar Hill, an area almost exclusively inhabited by wealthy Parsees. Jardine’s father, Malcolm, had first gone out to India in 1894 and by the time of Douglas’s birth was serving as Perry Professor of Jurisprudence and Roman law at the Government Law School. In 1902 he became principal of the school and continued to rise through successively more important positions, until in 1915 he was appointed Advocate-General of Bombay.

The Jardine family were well-known in Bombay social and sporting circles and it is certain that Douglas’s talent for cricket was inherited from Malcolm who played for Oxford University and Middlesex in a first-class cricket career lasting from 1889 to 1897. One of his team-mates at Oxford had been the great C.B. Fry and it was he who expressed a belief that Malcolm could have played for England, an honour that was of course subsequently achieved by his son Douglas.

Michael Colin Cowdrey was born in Ootacamund – high up in the Nilgiri Hills – in the Madras presidency on the 24th December 1932. His father Ernest, an ardent cricket fan, promptly celebrated the arrival of his son by giving him the initials of the world’s most famous cricket club (MCC) and putting his name down for membership.

Colin Cowdrey

Colin Cowdrey

© ITN/British Library Board (ITN-Cowdrey-Colin-2) Images Online

Ernest had spent some of his childhood in India, and imbued with an adventurous spirit he returned there in adulthood to become a tea-planter.  After 5 successful years he went back to England in 1929 to marry Molly Taylor, and then with his bride accompanying him, resumed his life in India.

It was Ernest who invested his son with a love of sport. He built a miniature golf course on the lawn next to their bungalow home and after practising with Colin in the morning before work, he would then train him in the rudiments of cricket after returning home in the evening. In teaching his son, Colin was receiving tuition from an expert hand as Ernest was an accomplished batsman himself, good enough to have scored 48 for a European XI in a match against the MCC in Madras during their tour of India in 1926-27.  While his father was out during the day managing the 2,000 acre tea estate, Colin would play for hours with one of the servants Krishnan, a friendly teenager who always referred to him as ‘Dear Little Master’.

In coaching his infant son, Ernest left no detail untouched – batting grip, stance and shot selection were all rigorously and precisely attended to. In April 1938, when Colin was aged 5 the family returned to England. Those early childhood years spent in India had been idyllic ones and in the long and happy hours of playing and learning about cricket the foundations of a distinguished sporting career had been laid.

Dorian Leveque, Reference Specialist, Asian and African Studies

Further reading:
IOR/N Baptisms, marriages and burials in India.
IOR/V/12 Records of service for the Indian Civil Service: final record of service for Malcolm Jardine, IOR/V/12/304 p. 290.
Douglas, Christopher. Douglas Jardine: spartan cricketer. London: Allen & Unwin, 1984, ref. X.950/34330.
Peel, Mark. The last Roman: a biography of Colin Cowdrey. London: Deutsch, 1999, ref. YK.2002.a.7504.


11 November 2012

The Indian Sepoy in the trenches

Many peoples from across the globe fought in the trenches during the First World War, and one of the largest groups were South Asians of the British Indian Army. Some 1.5 million soldiers and non-combatants from the subcontinent served alongside the British on the Western Front in Northern France and Belgium, the Middle East, East Africa and Gallipoli. For the first time Indian Army contingents were deployed in a European war, and this marked an important watershed. Wounded soldiers were cared for in special hospitals on Britain’s southern coast, including the Brighton Royal Pavilion, built in an oriental style for George IV. The War Office went to great lengths to ensure that the facilities on the front and in the hospitals respected their religious and caste sensibilities, though these concerns disguised some of the ingrained racism they experienced.

The Indian Army arrived in Europe initially with two infantry divisions to shore up the British Expeditionary Force which had been decimated in the first weeks of the war. Ill equipped for trench and increasingly mechanised warfare, some 7,700 Indian Army soldiers lost their lives on the Western Front alone. South Asians fought in many of the major battles of the First World War, including Ypres, Neuve Chapelle, Festubert and Loos. The Indian Army suffered some of its heaviest casualties at Neuve Chapelle – some 4,700 men – and the war memorial to Indian soldiers is located in this Northern French town.


English and Indian soldiers of the Signal Troop of the Lucknow Cavalry Brigade relaxing in a farmyard English and Indian soldiers of the Signal Troop of the Lucknow Cavalry Brigade relaxing in a farmyard at Brigade Headquarters, 28 July 1915, Photo 24/(158) Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

Translated excerpts of the censored mails in the India Office Records, housed at the British Library, are an important account of South Asian soldiers’ involvement in the war and document their fears, concerns and harrowing experiences.  For example, Khan Muhammad, 40th Pathans, Brighton Hospital, writes to Niyaz Ali 74th Punjabis, Hong Kong (Urdu, 17/05/1915):
“And there is an expenditure, too great for words, in this country, of black and red pepper (i.e. Hindustani and British troops). You are wise and for the rest you will reply without fail to this letter. […] The black pepper which has come from India has all been used up, and to carry on with I will (i.e., they will) now send for more men, otherwise there would be very little red pepper remaining, because the black is hard and there is plenty of it. And the black pepper (here) is somewhat less than the red, and this water is not right without black pepper. Now you must understand, and what you can see with the eye, is written; you must multiply it all by 45.”

Aware of censorship, a soldier would often use coded or euphemistic language. Here he conveys his shock at the large number of casualties, which led him (and many others) to believe that they were used as ‘cannon fodder’.

  Extract from Papers of Sir Walter Lawrence, Indian Civil Service, Punjab 1879-95, Private Secretary to Viceroy Extract from Papers of Sir Walter Lawrence, Indian Civil Service, Punjab 1879-95, Private Secretary to Viceroy
Extract from Papers of Sir Walter Lawrence, Indian Civil Service, Punjab 1879-95, Private Secretary to Viceroy 1899-1903, Commissioner for sick and wounded Indian soldiers in France and England 1914-16, IOPP/Mss Eur F143/83 Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

At the end of 1915 the majority of Indian contingents were redeployed to the Middle East, but two Indian cavalry divisions remained and would participate in the Battle of the Somme. South Asian soldiers won many awards for bravery, a total of 12,908, including eleven Victoria Crosses.

Florian Stadtler

Discover more about South Asian experiences and contributions in two world wars.

To read the censored mails, visit the Asian and African Studies reading room at the British Library and look at the India Office Records, IOR/L/MIL/5/825-828.

Dr Florian Stadtler is a research fellow at The Open University, and has been working in partnership with the British Library on the OU-led AHRC-funded projects ‘Making Britain: South Asian Visions of Home and Abroad’ and ‘Beyond the Frame: Indian British Connections’.

New! Digitised India Office Records First World War files now available via the Europeana website.


08 November 2012

A Portrait of the Librarian as a Young Man

Humfrey Wanley (1672-1726) is a familiar figure to those who use the Harley Collection of manuscripts now in the British Library as the librarian employed by Robert and Edward Harley, who acquired these manuscripts around the turn of the 18th century.  Some of his catalogue descriptions are reproduced in the Catalogue of Harleian Manuscripts in the British Museum, and his diary and letters from his time as Harley librarian are important sources for fixing the provenance of Harley manuscripts.

First page of one of Humfrey Wanley’s teenage notebooks, dated August 1687The first page of another of Humfrey Wanley’s teenage notebooks, dated August 1687 when Wanley was 15; from Harley MS 6030, f. 2r Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

In some cases, however, Wanley not only curated the manuscripts of his patrons, he created his own.  In Harley MS 7578, between pages of Chaucerian ballads and Middle English music, is a notebook of Wanley's, written in 1687, when he was only about 15 years old and employed as a draper's apprentice in Coventry.

Despite his day job in textiles, the notebook is that of an aspiring scholar, with a copied Latin vocabulary manual and explanations of Ancient Greek grammar, as well as notes on Latin meter and heroic epithets from Greek epic poetry. 

If such a personal reference book seems a bit blandly dutiful and studious for the future librarian, the last page of the notebook offers a more well-rounded view of Wanley's young life.  Apparently concerned about his budget, he has written out a record of his expenses: 'Moneys laid out by me since I have been an Apprentice'.  Some of the entries are predictably bookish: ½d for parchment, 2d for candles, 2d for a 'pencil of black lead', and a total of 5 ¾d for ink and quills.  Probably also to be counted among his stationery supplies are vermilion (1d), blue bice (2d), and the romantically-named sanguis draconis, or 'dragon's blood' (on which Wanley spent 2 ½d over three separate purchases), all pigments used in inks.

Dragon's blood
Miniature (below) of sanguis draconis ('dragon's blood');from Tractatus de herbis, Italy (Salerno), c. 1280-c. 1310,

Egerton MS 747, f.89r Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

It was not all work and no play for Wanley, though.  Other expenses include 2d spent on ale and 1s 'lost at Cards'.  And the single largest expense on the list?  2s, 'for seeing 2 plays'.  The notebook is not important for the texts it contains so much as it is for its window onto the life, entertainments, and scholarly ambition of a young Coventry apprentice.

Nicole Eddy, Intern in the department of History and Classics

02 November 2012

Chicken surprise

A letter from Lady Susannah Metcalfe (née Debonnaire) to her cousin describes an incident on board a ship to Madras in 1776.

On 26 April 1776, Susannah and Sarah Debonnaire stopped over at the Cape of Good Hope on their way to India.  They went to visit their father John Debonnaire, an East India Company agent residing in South Africa.  When they entered their father’s residence, they were a bit shocked to see that their father was living with a “Worthy Woman”, Mrs Dupoint, who had two small children of her own.  Their father was somewhat embarrassed but still had the decency of asking his two daughters whether they wished to remain in the Cape or continue their journey to Madras.   He promised them that he would always ensure their future happiness wherever they decided to live. 

But his promise did not materialise as one of the sisters died on the voyage to Madras soon after they left their father’s house.  On board the ship, both sisters were violently sick.  Susannah nearly died but pulled through, but her sister, who “was of a grosser habit of body” did not survive the ordeal.  “When they were knocking the nails in her coffin,” writes Susannah, “it was like so many daggers in my heart, such a spectacle I never saw, swelled as big as three people and great holes all over her body big enough to put nutmegs…”.

  Table laid for lavish supper
From Mrs Beeton’s Family Cookery and Housekeeping Book (1893) © The British Library Board Images Online

Like a classic case of “whodunit,” where there is no actual proof, one has to look for motives for murder to find any circumstantial evidence that would point to the guilty party.  Susannah was convinced that she and her sister had been poisoned, but she preferred not to say anything about her suspicion, “for fear you should think it ill-natured”.  On the day they were about to leave their father’s house, Mrs Dupoint said at dinner “Miss Debonnaires, I am sure you must be tired of mutton, so have fricasseed you some chicken with my own hand.”  Both sisters ate the chicken while Mrs Dupoint did not even touch it.

What more can you expect from a loving step-mother?

Xiao Wei Bond
Curator, India Office Private Papers

IOPP/Mss Eur F656 – Papers of the Metcalfe family