Untold lives blog

13 posts categorized "South East Asia"

09 November 2016

Archives seeking refuge

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After the Japanese invasion of Thailand in 1941, just before the Thai Government declared war on Britain and the United States on 25 January 1942, 22 cases containing the archives of the British Legation in Bangkok were removed. A similar thing happened to the 84 boxes containing the archives of the British Embassy in China for the years 1931-1939, which went from Beijing to Nanjing and, in 1941, were also removed for safe custody during the war.



Japanese troops at Singapore 1942 Wikimedia Commons


Confidential documents were said to have been destroyed, and then the boxes containing the two archives were carefully sent to Singapore in 1941. 

IOR L PS 12 716, f 34

IOR/L/PS/12/716, f 34 Noc

But this wasn’t a safe choice. Singapore fell to the Japanese on 15 February 1942, and the two archives were shipped to India shortly afterwards. The archives remained in Calcutta until the end of the war and, after Indian Independence in 1947, they were sent to the Foreign Office Library in London, in 1948, as part of the process of transferring records to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office of the British government.

  IOR L PS 12 716, f 29
IOR/L/PS/12/716, f 29 Noc

The file IOR/L/PS/12/716, part of the India Office Records and digitised for the Qatar Foundation Partnership, contains the correspondence telling the story of these two archives. Arrangements for the shipping and costs of the transport and storage are described in the file.

The exact content of the cases wasn’t known at the time.
There is a letter from the Foreign Office Librarian in 1948, saying that the content of the boxes was unknown to him and, at the purpose of shipping back to Bangkok the files which were less than 20 years old and were therefore considered current, he should have opened the boxes, or shipped the entire archives back to Thailand instead.

  IOR L PS 12 716, f 33
IOR/L/PS/12/716, f 33 Noc

We can guess that these archives ended up staying in London. The archives of the HM Legation in Bangkok and of the HM Embassy in China should now be available for public consultation at The National Archives in Kew.

Valentina Mirabella
Archival Specialist, British Library/Qatar Foundation Partnership Cc-by

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Qatar Digital Library


04 August 2016

A forgotten story from the Second World War

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Regular readers of this blog know that the India Office Records contain all kinds of documents on individuals both famous and unknown.  One fascinating file about ordinary people is the ‘Nominal roll of Japanese internees in the Internment Camp, Deoli (Ajmer), who are willing to have their names communicated to their government’.   Ajmer-Merwara was a province in British India, within the princely state of Rajputana in the north of the country.  


  Japanese interns 1
IOR/L/PJ/8/405   Noc

The document is far more than a mere list of names.  It provides biographical details of more than 2000 individuals arranged in alphabetical order who were unlucky enough to be in the wrong place at the wrong time when war was declared between the Japanese and British Empires.  While there are no photographs, the file records the name and nationality of the internee (almost all Japanese, but including some ‘Malayan’), the date and place of birth, occupation, date and place of arrest, and relationship and address of next of kin. The great majority were interned during December 1941 in Singapore and Malaya, although a few were picked up in Burma and in India itself. Gender is indicated by (M) or (F). 

Japanese interns 2

IOR/L/PJ/8/405  Noc


Dozens of the internees were fishermen, but there are housewives, students, barbers and tailors, as well as -

• a ‘dentist & haberdasher’ (Shoichi Noda, b. 1886)
• a ‘walking stick maker’ (Masaichi Tomita, b. 1897)
• two ‘golf-course keepers’ (Hirozo and Kazuo Ueda, b. 1896 and 1912 respectively),
• a ‘taxidermist’ (Shinnosuke Morikawa, b. 1885)
• a ‘pearl diver’ (Gerozo Kusumi, b. 1890)
• a ‘circus actor’ (Hisakichi Yamane, b. 1887)

Some individuals deemed harmless to the Raj and the Allied war effort are recommended or nominated for repatriation. The oldest person is probably broker Katsujiro Murashima, who was born on 26 August 1874 in Osakafu. Poignantly, several children are listed as having been born in the camp late in 1943.  A few entries are scored through in red to show that the individuals died while in captivity. 

There are details of five ‘Siamese’ nationals in the camp, one a monk. The file ends by listing three  husbands of British women who were arrested between July 1940 and June 1942 in London, plus a further five persons who were picked up in Britain’s East African colony of Kenya in December 1941.

The file reference is IOR/L/PJ/8/405, and it can be ordered for consultation in the Asian & African Studies Reading Room.

Hedley Sutton
Asian & African Studies Reference Services  Cc-by



10 June 2016

Burma’s beautiful game

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To mark the start of the Euro 2016 football tournament in France, we bring you this picture from the 1820s which appears to be a game of keepy-uppy.



The image was drawn by Dr James Paterson of HM 13th Light Infantry and published in the Behar Amateur Lithographic Scrap Book  by Charles D'Oyly, founder of the Behar Amateur Lithographic Press.  Cc-by


The caption reads ‘National Burmese Game - played with a light open wicker ball by four Men & the art is in keeping it in the air as long as possible by striking it with any part of the foot or leg without using the hand’.

The game is chinlone, a traditional sport dating back many centuries and still played in Myanmar today.  Players stand in a circle and keep the ball from touching the ground by flipping it into the air or passing it to one another. 


  Chinlone 2

From Charles Alexander Gordon, Our trip to Burmah, with notes on that country  p.77 Cc-by


Surgeon General Charles Alexander Gordon witnessed chinlone being played when visiting Burma in 1875. He described it as football.
‘The ball is made of strips of rattan; it is in the form of a hollow sphere, and very elastic.  The players have literally girded up their loins, the better to leave their limbs completely free; both arms and legs quite bare, showing on the latter that extraordinary amount of tattooing for which the Burmese are specially famous.  The ball is tossed in air; the players keep it up and pass it on from one to the other; nor are they permitted to touch it with the hand.  Apparently, however, this is unnecessary; for knee, ankle, sole of foot, shoulder – in fact, any part of the body – is equally ready; and thus the game goes merrily on, amid much laughter and high good spirits.’

Wouldn’t it be splendid if commentators for Euro 2016 matches quoted that last phrase from Gordon after every crunching tackle?  ‘Thus the game goes merrily on, amid much laughter and high good spirits.’

Margaret Makepeace
Lead Curator, East India Company Records Cc-by

Further reading:
Charles D'Oyly,  Behar Amateur Lithographic Scrap Book  (Patna, c. 1828)
Charles Alexander Gordon, Our trip to Burmah, with notes on that country (London, c. 1877)
Pekin pyan Win Ko, Facts about Myanmar traditional chinlone game and correct methods of chinlone playing (Yangon, 2013)


18 April 2016

Mrs Ann Wood – an exceptional woman

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Ann Wood is exceptional in the annals of the East India Company.  She was the first, and possibly only, woman approved by the directors to sign a charterparty agreement as Principal Managing Owner of an East Indiaman sailing for the Company. The ship was the Bridgewater commanded by her brother Captain Nicholas Skottowe. ‘Ann Wood of Stanhope Street, May Fair, Widow’ was approved on14 October 1772 together with Beeston Long of London, merchant.

The East India Company was an almost exclusively male preserve throughout its 250 year history. Women appear in its records as petitioners, wives, housekeepers, and charwomen. How was Ann able to hold her own in this man’s world?

Ann’s husband, Robert Wood MP, had built the Bridgewater, signing the charterparty agreement for the first voyage on 3 November 1769.  A few months earlier Robert had been involved in discussions with the Court about sending a ship and nominating a commander and officers for establishing a settlement at Balambangan, an island to the north of Borneo. This expedition was postponed but it appears he may have been using his position as Under-Secretary to Lord Weymouth, Secretary of State for the Northern Department, for his own interests. Wood is better known for his travels in the eastern Mediterranean. His publication on The Ruins of Palmyra in 1753 brought this magnificent site to the attention of the world.


East Indiaman Falmouth

East Indiaman Falmouth launched 1752  from Henry Green and Robert Wigram, Chronicles of Blackwall Yard  Part 1 (London, 1881) Noc

The East Indiaman Royal George under Captain Nicholas Skottowe had called at Balambangan on 22 May 1766. Perhaps this voyage had been part of early investigations into the feasibility of establishing the settlement?  Skottowe commanded the Bridgewater on her 1769/70 voyage to Madras and China (under PMO Robert Wood) and her 1772/3 voyage to Madras and Bengal (under PMO Ann Wood). These were the last voyages Nicholas Skottowe undertook on behalf of the Company but on retirement he took over as the Principal Managing Owner of the Bridgewater. Her last two voyages were under Captain William Parker and she visited Balambangan in March 1780 after completing the Company’s trading in Madras and China.

Ann and Nicholas were children of Thomas Skottowe of Great Ayton (1695-1771). Their brother John was Governor of St Helena from 1764 to 1782, while another brother Thomas had been a senior official in South Carolina until the outbreak of the American War of Independence forced him to return home. They were clearly a family respected by the East India Company directors and her ability and willingness to take over after her husband died on 9 September 1771 shows that Ann had status in her own right.

When Ann died late in 1803 her will tells us that she was ‘late of Putney, now of Saint Nicholas, Glamorganshire’. However she requested to be buried ‘in the vault at Putney with my late dear husband Robert Wood Esq and my son Thomas Wood’. In 1784 Ann had made over the family mansion at Putney to her son Robert who also became an MP.  Her will also mentions a daughter Elizabeth Wood.

Georgina Green
Independent scholar

Further reading:
East India Company Court Books - IOR/B/85 pp.217, 287, 476; IOR/B/88  pp.202-203; IOR/B/92  p.374
East India Company correspondence - IOR/E/1/50 ff. 349-350v, 26 March 1768
Sir Lewis Namier and John Brooke, The House of Commons 1754 – 1790 (London, 1964) Vol 2, p.655

The East India Company slaving voyage of Nicholas Skottowe 


21 January 2016

Opportunity to discover Untold Lives in India Office Private Papers!

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The British Library has recently advertised a series of PhD placements across its departments. One of these placements provides a PhD student with the opportunity to explore the rich and diverse India Office Private Papers Foundation Collections.


IOPP catalogueNoc

The Foundation Collections include the papers of Sir Robert Orme (1728-1801), historiographer to the East India Company; and Colin Mackenzie (c1753-1821) Surveyor-General, initially of Madras, and later of India. Their papers help to tell the story of trade with the east, politics, the development of empire and the road to independence. They contain material on a wide range of subjects including politics and government, geography, culture and antiquities.

Mackenzie G70069-30

Portrait of Colonel Colin MacKenzie by Thomas Hickey (1816) Foster 13 Images Online  Noc

Also included within the Foundation Collections are the Kaye and Johnston Papers which contain smaller collections of notable figures such as Thomas Stamford Raffles, William Roxburgh, and Francis Buchanan-Hamilton.

The placement aims to make these Foundation Collections available for the first time online through the British Library’s Explore Archives and Manuscripts Catalogue,  providing researchers with new ways to access and make use of these rich and diverse collections.

The placement provides an exciting opportunity for a PhD student to work with and explore these fascinating collections, learn more about using archives and primary sources in research, and to help expand research use and knowledge of these valuable materials.

Further details of all placements on offer and information on how to apply can be found here.

Karen Stapley
Curator, India Office Records Cc-by