THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Asian and African studies blog

News from our curators and colleagues

Introduction

Our Asian and African Studies blog promotes the work of our curators, recent acquisitions, digitisation projects, and collaborative projects outside the Library. Our starting point was the British Library’s exhibition ‘Mughal India: Art, Culture and Empire’, which ran 9 Nov 2012 to 2 Apr 2013 Read more

15 October 2018

A Vietnamese Lord’s letter to the East India Company

During the Later Lê dynasty (1428-1788), Vietnam was effectively divided into two parts. For over two centuries – from the middle of the 16th to the middle of the 18th centuries – the Trịnh Lords ruled the northern part (referred to in Vietnamese history as Đàng Ngoài) and the Nguyễn Lords had power over the southern part (Đàng Trong) of Vietnam, while the Lê emperors had no real political power at all.

The oldest manuscript in the Vietnamese collection at the British Library, from the founding collection of Sir Hans Sloane of 1753, was probably written by the Trịnh ruler of Tonkin in the late 17th century (Sloane 3460). It is a long scroll of yellow paper, beautifully illuminated in silver, written in the Vietnamese language in Han Nom (adapted Chinese) characters, and bearing a large square red ink seal. Unfortunately, the first part of the scroll is missing, and some of the characters in the remaining part are illegible, and it is therefore impossible to establish the precise date of this manuscript.

Sloane 3460
Vietnamese letter, probably from Trịnh Tac (r. 1657-1682) of Tonkin to the East India Company, ca. 1673. British Library, Sloane 3460  noc

At my request, Dr Li Tana, of the College of Asia and the Pacific, Australian National University, kindly examined images of the manuscript in April 2018. She has transcribed and translated its contents, and is of the opinion that it was probably written under the command of Trịnh Tac (r. 1657-1682) and was sent to the English East India Company (EIC) some time in 1673, following the arrival in Tonkin in 1672 of the first EIC ship. Foreign traders always sought assistance from local powers to facilitate their commercial missions, and in return the local lords also tried to benefit from these foreign visitors, especially their technical know-how on modern technology, as the content of the Trinh lord’s letter clearly demonstrates:

…[overseas merchants visiting us] have been many but only Holland has come … (three characters not legible). It has acted in both friendship and righteousness. [They] sometimes offer pearls and beautiful presents and sometimes send craftsmen who are specialised in cannon casting. This kindness is above all rulers.  Although your country has only just begun interactions with us, we treat all countries equally with compassion and good will. Recently your head trader brought one iron cannon and two bronze cannons. The bronze ones broke as soon as they were tested. [They] were definitely not of solid and excellent quality. [We therefore] have returned them to the ship captain but he has not yet taken them back. If you are arranging for ship[s] to come next year, [please] bring amber either in pieces or stringed together with real pearls for us. We will pay [you] accordingly right away. [This] will be of benefit to both sides. [Please] also send cannon casting craftsmen so that the craftsmen from Holland cannot monopolise this skill. This way our friendship will last forever. [We are sending] 560 catties of raw silk for the two iron cannons which we received last year. Please buy for us 50 hoc (= 50 kilogrammes) big sized amber, plus 5000 pieces of stringed amber. Written in the mid-winter.
(Translated by Dr Li Tana, edited by Dr Geoffrey Wade, April 2018)

Add Sloane det text
Detail of the text of the letter, with silver illumination on a yellow ground. British Library, Sloane 3460  noc

By the early 17th century, commercial competition among European mercantile states had expanded to Asia, and Southeast Asia was targeted for its rich resources. Vietnam was located in a commercially strategic maritime location and many European traders started to visit the kingdom to seek commercial opportunities. The East India Company (EIC) sent its first delegation from its Japanese base of Hirado to Vietnam in as early as 1613 (Le Thanh Thuy 2014: 62) amid vigorous competition with the Dutch East India Company (VOC) and other western European nations. Hirado had been an important port of call for ships between Japan and the Asian mainland since the Nara period, and both the EIC and the VOC had ‘factories’ (trading posts) there. 

In 1672, the East India Company sought to establish a factory in Tonkin, as a liaison base for the export and import of British traders’ goods to China, Japan and maritime Southeast Asia (Thuy 2014: 63). On 25th June 1672, the EIC ship The Zant was sent from Bantam, in Java, to Tonkin, with William Gyfford and five other EIC employees, to seek the establishment of commercial relations with Tonkin. However, it was not until 14th March 1673 that Gyfford had an opportunity to meet Trịnh Tac. After receiving the gifts and letter of the Bantam Council, the Trinh lord only allowed the EIC to set up their factory at Phô Hiến, but not at the capital of Tonkin as the EIC mission had hoped (Thuy 2014: 64).

Sloane 3460 det seal
Seal on the Vietnamese letter to the East India Company, ca. 1673. Sloane 3460  noc

Even though we can’t be certain that this manuscript letter was sent by Trịnh Tac, it is still an important piece of historical evidence, as it reflects the fluidity and versatility of commercial and political affairs in the changing world of the mercantilism of the 17th century, and the arrival of colonialism in Asia.

The letter, Sloane 3460, has been fully digitised, and is currently on display in the Southeast Asia case outside the Asian and African Studies Reading Room in the British Library, alongside other Southeast Asian manuscripts from the collection of Sir Hans Sloane.

With thanks to Li Tana and Geoffrey Wade.

Further reading:

Le Thanh Thuy. “Trade Relations between the United Kingdom and Vietnam in the 17th -19th Centuries,” in Vietnam Social Sciences, No. 3 (161), 2014, pp. 59-73.

Sud Chonchirdsin, Curator for Vietnamese  ccownwork

28 September 2018

Menak Amir Hamza, the Javanese version of the Hamzanama

Two copies of Menak Amir Hamza, the Javanese story of Amir Hamza, the uncle of the prophet Muhammad, are now available online through the Javanese Manuscripts from Yogyakarta Digitisation Project.

The story of the warlike and amorous exploits of Amir Hamza, as he and his companions fight against the enemies of Islam, was popular throughout the Muslim world. Many fine illuminated copies of the Persian version, Hamzanama, are known, and shown below is a detail from a large multi-volume copy commissioned in 1562 by the great Mughal emperor Akbar, a task which took 15 years to complete.

Hamzanama V&A-crop
In this illustration, Hamza is deep in coversation with a demon called Hura, unaware that a dragon is approaching from behind rocks to the right. Hamza's close companion, 'Umar Umayya, gesticulates wildly to warn Hamza. Victoria & Albert Museum, IS. 1505-1883

The Hamzanama probably spread throughout Southeast Asia initially in a Malay garb before being translated into other regional languages, including Javanese, Bugis and Makasar. A famous episode in the Malay chronicle of the kingdom of Melaka, the Sulalat al-Salatin or Sejarah Melayu, recounts how the night before Melaka was attacked by the Portuguese in 1511, the nobles ask the Sultan Mahmud Shah for the Hikayat Muhammad Hanafiah - the bloodthirsty tale of the many battles of Muhammad Hanafiah, a half-brother of the Prophet's grandsons Hasan and Husayn, set in the early days of Islam - to be recited to give them courage. The sultan tested their resolve by suggesting that they did not merit the tale of this great warrior, and offered them instead the Hikayat Amir Hamza as a more appropriate measure of their courage. But the Malay nobles protested and persisted, and finally Sultan Mahmud Shah granted their request for the recital of Hikayat Muhammad Hanafiah.

While the Hikayat Muhammad Hanafiah may have been associated with a higher level of valour in Malay tradition, it is the story of Amir Hamza that is far more popular in Javanese literature. In Java, the hero Amir Hamza was granted the ancient Javanese title Menak, and this title is now applied to the whole cycle of Islamic epic tales, which were soon localised according to Javanese literary conventions. Thus in the Menak cycle Amir Hamza is accorded two panakawan companions, Marmaya (based on Amir Hamza's lifelong friend 'Umar Umayya in the Hamzanama) and Marmadi, who are mentors and cunning servants of the hero such as are always found in wayang shadow puppet dramas.

The two Javanese manuscripts which have just been digitised both tell the story of Menak Amir Hamza in the Javanese language, but in two different scripts. MSS Jav 45 is written in Javanese script, derived from an Indian (late southern Brahmi) prototype, and is read from left to right. This manuscript was copied by Mas Ajĕng Wongsaleksana of Jipang, and is dated 9 Rabingulakir, with chronogram panca tri pandita jalma giving the year  in the Javanese era as 1735, equivalent to 4 June A.D. 1808. The text is written in verse and comprises 85 cantos.

Mss_jav_45_f003v-4r
Menak Amir Hamza, in Javanese language and script, dated 4 June 1808. British Library, MSS Jav 45, ff. 3v-4r   noc

The second manuscript of Menak Amir Hamza, MSS Jav 72, is written in pegon script, namely Arabic script with the addition of seven letters representing consonantal sounds needed for Javanese but not found in Arabic, and is thus read from right to left. The first two pages are set in decorative frames ruled in black ink, with a diamond superimposed on a rectangle. This is a quintessential Javanese preferred form for double frames, comprising an elegant assemblage of ruled vertical, horizontal and diagonal lines. Very similar frames are found in a Javanese Qur’an manuscript also held in the British Library, Add 12343.

Mss_jav_72_f004v-5r
Menak Amir Hamza, in Javanese in Arabic script, dated 4 June 1808. British Library, MSS Jav 72, ff. 4v-5r  noc

A third copy of the Menak Amir Hamza from Yogyakarta in the British Library collection, Add. 12309, is also being digitised as part of the current project. From the introduction it is clear that this book was written for Ratu Ageng (c. 1730-1803), a wife of Sultan Hamengku Buwana I and the mother of Hamengku Buwana II, some time after 1792. As this manuscript is perhaps the largest single volume Javanese manuscript known, consisting of over 3000 pages written in pegon script, there are some technical challenges to be overcome before this copy can be made available online, but we hope to publish it soon. Watch this space!

IMG_0093
Menak Amir Hamza with 1520 folios, copied between 1792 and 1812. British Library, Add. 12309

Further reading:

Theodore G. Th.Pigeaud, Literature of Java.  Catalogue raisonné of Javanese manuscripts in the Library of the University of Leiden and other public collections in the Netherlands.  The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1968. 4 vols. Volume 1, pp. 212-215.

Annabel Teh Gallop, Lead Curator, Southeast Asia  ccownwork

24 September 2018

The Queen’s poetry book: Hamidah Banu’s Divan-i Hijri

It is well established that the Mughal royal ladies were highly educated and could read and write in several languages. For example Babur’s daughter Gulbadan wrote her own autobiography (A Mughal princess's autobiography) and Princess Jahanara completed a life of the Sufi saint Muʻin al-Din Chishti (Princess Jahanara’s biography of a Sufi saint). We also know from contemporary sources and inscriptions that they were book collectors with their own libraries. Perhaps the best-known of these was Hamidah Banu Maryam Makani (d. 1604), wife of the Mughal emperor Humayun (r. 1530–40; 1555–56) and mother of the emperor Akbar (r. 1556–1605).

Baby Akbar
The baby Akbar and his mother Hamidah Banu Maryam Makani, from Abu'l-Fazl's Akbarnāmah. Artists: Sanvala and Narsingh (BL Or.12988, f. 22r )
 http://britishlibrary.typepad.co.uk/.a/6a00d8341c464853ef01b7c6f873df970b-pi

The British Library has one of thirteen known manuscripts which belonged to Hamidah Banu (Das, Books and pictures). This is the little-known Dīvān-i Hijrī, a collection of poems composed mostly in honour of Akbar. The author is likely to be one of Akbar’s court poets, Khvajah Hijri who was described by the contemporary historian Bada’uni (Muntakhab al-tavārīkh , vol 3). Hijri was descended from Shaykh Ahmad-i Jam Namaqi, as was Hamidah Banu herself – and this might explain why she had a copy. Bada’uni described him as “very pious, chaste, and pure, and had an angelic disposition.” His dīvān apparently consisted of 5000 couplets of which Bada’uni quotes several long extracts. The British Library copy, consisting of 80 pages each containing a maximum of 17 couplets, is much shorter, but to my knowledge, no other copy is known to compare it with.

IO Isl 791_f1v
The decorated opening of the Dīvān of Khvajah Hijri, dating from between 1556 and 1560 (BL IO Islamic 791, f. 1v)
http://britishlibrary.typepad.co.uk/.a/6a00d8341c464853ef01b7c6f873df970b-pi

Our copy has no colophon but was completed after Humayun’s death in 963 (1556) – as is mentioned in a chronogram –, and presumably before 968 (1560/61), the date of the second of Hamidah’s two seals (see below). It is written in a good calligraphic nastaʻliq hand and many leaves have been dyed yellow, pink and pale blue.

IO Isl 791_fIIIr copy 2
Preliminary leaf showing Hamidah Banu’s seal with the inscriptions and seals of subsequent librarians and owners (BL IO Islamic 791, f. IIIr)
http://britishlibrary.typepad.co.uk/.a/6a00d8341c464853ef01b7c6f873df970b-pi

Hamidah’s twelve-lobed petal-shaped seal is stamped at the front of the volume and reads Ḥamīdah Bānū bint ʻAlī Akbar, 957  ‘Hamidah Banu daughter of ʻAli Akbar, 957 (1550/51)’. It is known to occur on five other manuscripts and was also apparently used as an official seal on documents (Tirmizi, Edicts, pp. 2-10). In contrast, Hamidah’s second seal, dated 968 (1560/61) is square-shaped, inscribed with her name Hamidah Banu Begam and a legend which plays on the two words muhr ‘seal’ and mihr ‘ love’, loosely translated as ‘Let her seal be the love which signifies affection, let her seal be the mirror of the face of good fortune’.

خاتم مهر كه توقيع محبت باشد
مهر او آئینهٔ چهرهٔ دولت باشد

IOIslamic791_fiiir CBL_Per_257_f-1a-seal-5-cropped
Left: Hamidah Banu’s seal dated 957 (1550/51), stamped at the front of the Dīvān-i Hijrī (BL IO Islamic 791, f. IIIr)
Right: her later seal dated 968 (1560/61), from the Dīvān-i Shāhī (CBL Per 257, f.1r) © The Trustees of the Chester Beatty Library, Dublin

This second seal occurs on two of the most valuable manuscripts of the imperial collection both graded as ‘First Class’ [1]: the Khamsah of Navaʼi (RCIN 1005032) and the anthology of Mir ʻAli (NMI 48.6/11). The Dīvān-i Shāhī shown above (CBL Per 257) although only graded as ‘Class two, grade one’ had belonged apparently to Shah ʻAbbas and included the personal inscription of the Emperor Jahangir.

IO Isl 791_f40v_2
Inscription recording the transfer of the manuscript from the property of Nawab Maryam-Makani to Mulla ʻAli on the 12th of Mihr Ilahi year 49 (September 1604) (BL IO Islamic 791, f. 40v)
http://britishlibrary.typepad.co.uk/.a/6a00d8341c464853ef01b7c6f873df970b-pi

For a detailed history of these manuscripts as recorded by their seals and librarians’ inscriptions, see John Seyller’s “Inspection and Valuation” (below). It is sufficient here to note that the manuscripts with the earlier seal share many similar features. Three are graded ‘Class three’ and they were all transferred from Hamidah Banu’s library to the care of one Mulla ʻAli in 1604 within a few weeks of her death. In addition they have inspection dates and seals in common which suggest that they may have followed a separate trajectory from the other manuscripts Hamidah Banu is known to have owned.


Further reading
John Seyller, “ The Inspection and Valuation of Manuscripts in the Imperial Mughal Library”, Artibus Asiae 57, No. 3/4 (1997), pp. 243-349.
Asok Kumar Das, “Books and pictures from the Zenana Mahal: the collection of manuscripts of Hamida Banu Begam” in The diverse world of Indian painting: vichitra-viśva : essays in honour of Dr. Vishwa Chander Ohri , eds. Usha Bhatia, Amar Nath Khanna, and Vijay Sharma. New Delhi: Aryan Books International, 2009, pp. 20-28.
SAI Tirmizi, Edicts from the Mughal harem, Delhi: Idarah-i Adabiyat-i Delli, 1979.

 

Ursula Sims-Williams, Lead Curator Persian
http://blogs.bl.uk/.a/6a00d8341c464853ef022ad3ace627200b-pi


[1] The early Mughal emperors categorised their books as ‘Select’, ‘Class one grade one’, ‘Class two’ and ‘Class three’ etc.