Asian and African studies blog

News from our curators and colleagues


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

26 May 2015

The 1937 massacre in Addis Ababa

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In the centre of Addis Ababa in the Siddist Kilo area, stands a monument known as The Yekatit “February” 12 Square Monument. The obelisk was built in memory of the 30,000 civilians massacred by Fascists on the 19th February 1937. The indiscriminate massacre that lasted three days, was in reprisal for the attempted assassination of "the Butcher of Fezzan", the Viceroy of Italian East Africa, Rodolfo Graziani.

The Italian government carried out a substantial number of war crimes in Ethiopia from 1935–1940. The most notable being the use of mustard gas and the bombing of a field hospital run by the Swedish Red Cross. However the massacre of Addis Ababa and other mass killings are to this day repudiated by the Italian government ignoring overwhelming historical evidence to the contrary. 

 Ian Campbell,  the author of  The Plot to Kill Graziani (Addis Ababa University Press, 2010), and The Massacre of Debre Libanos (Addis Ababa University Press, forthcoming), has presented  discoveries from his extensive research into the massacre of Addis Ababa, the greatest single atrocity of the Italian occupation of Ethiopia, and a hitherto undocumented event. Most of the documents, maps, photos and official government papers used in Campbell’s research were obtained from Italy. According to Campbell and Alberto Sbacchi (see below), there are still vast quantities of “classified information” across Italy dealing with the war.

In a recent lecture held to promote his forthcoming book, Campbell pointed to the great efforts that went to conceal the historical records in Italy dealing with the 19 February 1937 massacre of Addis Ababa.  Thanks to the courageous efforts of both Italian and Ethiopian scholars to preserve written documents there are hundreds of thousands of letters, memos, blueprints, orders, bills, speeches, articles, memoirs, and confessions.

Many accounts from survivors, eyewitness testimonies, were published in Amharic books written just after the war. Unfortunately these books had short-print runs so are now rare and difficult to find. Fortunately the British Library possesses a number of these printed books which deserve renewed attention. The following selection of books held in library, provide an account of the massacre witnessed  by Ethiopians.

Megba Ḥeṡānāt (1948). On advice and moral guidance for children, e.g on “respecting one’s parents, obligation to the country”, etc. However, pages 27 to 44 contain letters the author (Yoḥanes  Rameḥa) wrote to noted Ethiopian patriots during the Italo-Ethiopian war. For example letters addressed to Ras Abebe Aregai, Dejjach Geresu Duki, Kabada Bezunesh and others.  The book is also signed by the author (British Library ORB 30/7857)

 Ya-'Amesetu ʻāmatāte Ḥezebāwi Tegele “The five years of people’s struggle”. On the  Italo-Ethiopian War; "the massacre of Debre Libanos". Pamphlet published in 1974 by the Ministry of Information on the occasion of the anniversary of liberation (British Library ORB 30/7864)

Ya-'Iṭāliyā Ya-Qeñe Gezāt Ḥelem “Italy’s Colonial Dream” (1974). On the Italo-Ethiopian War. Pamphlet published by the Ministry of Informationon the occasion of the anniversary of liberation (British Library ORB 30/7866)

Capture.PNG11_1200 Capture.PNG12_1200
Tebé 'Akesume Manu' Aneta? “Axum says, ‘Who are you?ʼ”(1959). An account of the history of foreign invasions of Ethiopia, up to the Italo-Ethiopian war of 1935 and on the history and development of the Ethiopic (Ge’ez ) alphabet (British Library 754. uu. 25)


Further reading
Campbell, I., The plot to kill Graziani: The attempted assassination of Mussolini's viceroy. Addis Ababa: Addis Ababa University Press, 2010
Sbacchi, A., Legacy of bitterness: Ethiopia and fascist Italy, 1935-1941. Lawrenceville, N.J.: Red Sea Press, 1997
Sbacchi, A., Ethiopia under Mussolini: Fascism and the colonial experience. London: Zed, 1985
Hardie, F., The Abyssinian crisis. London: Batsford, 1974


Eyob Derillo, Asian and African Studies

22 May 2015

40th anniversary of the end of the Vietnam War

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30 April 2015 marks the 40th anniversary of the end of the Vietnam War. On 30 April 1975, the Vietnam War, or the Resistance War against America as it is known by the Vietnamese, came to an end when North Vietnamese troops entered Saigon just before mid-day and President Dương Văn Minh of South Vietnam surrendered at the Presidential Palace in Saigon.  One of the most iconic images which marks the end of the war is that of a North Vietnamese tank storming into the front gate of the Presidential Palace. Following the Paris Peace Accord of 27 January 1973, Hanoi had started a final push under the Ho Chi Minh Campaign with the aim of seizing Saigon by 1975. The capture of Saigon brought jubilation to many Vietnamese, who were exhausted from the long war.

The Vietnamese press took the opportunity to capture the public mood by depicting their cheerful and celebratory emotions in a variety of formats. Articles, poetry, songs, paintings and drawings about the historic victory over the Americans and the unification of North and South Vietnam were widely published. The long and painful history of the war is probably best summed up by just a few frames of drawings from Tiền Phong (Vanguard), a weekly newspaper from Hanoi, in its 6th May 1975 issue. These illustrate the history of American involvement in the Vietnam conflict, from when the U.S. refused to sign or acknowledge the Geneva Accord in 1954 and decided to support Ngô Đình Diệm as the leader of the Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam). This was followed by a military escalation under the Johnson administration in 1965, the Têt Offensive in 1968, the Nixon Doctrine and Vietnamisation in 1972 when President Richard Nixon decided to withdraw the American military from the war, and eventually the victory of Hanoi in 1975.

Tiền Phong, No.18, 6 May 1975, p.15. British Library, SU224/2

Hanoi’s successes in driving out the Americans and their allies from Vietnam and the reunification of the country have been immortalised in repeated images of the events. Tiền Phong (No.18, 6 May 1975, p.5) published a drawing of the Americans being swept out from the country. The front cover of this issue also depicted an event of the communist forces capturing Tan Son Nhat airport. Twenty years later, in its issue 437 (May 1995), Báo Ảnh Việt Nam celebrated the 20th anniversary of the end of the war by publishing a photo of Vietnamese children having fun with a tank from the war era.

The Americans being swept away, Tiền Phong, no.18, 6 May 1975, p.5. British Library, SU224/2

Capturing Tan Son Nhat airport, Tiền Phong, no.18, 6 May 1975, front cover. British Library, SU224/2

20th anniversary of the end of the War, Báo Ảnh Việt Nam, no.437, May 1995, front cover. British Library, 1863.105000

Not only did Vietnamese artists capture images of individual moments. They also gave accounts of key events and campaigns during the war. On its cover of No.2, 1987, Mỹ Thuật, a Vietnamese journal  for art reviews, reproduced a lacquer painting by Quách Phong, entitled Tiền  về Sài Gòn (Forward to Saigon), depicting Vietnamese communist guerrillas heading to the former capital of the South for a reunification battle.

Tiền  về Sài Gòn by Quách Phong in Mỹ Thuật, no.2, 1987. British Library, 16671.c.2

However, not every Vietnamese embraced the Hanoi victory of April 1975. The anti-communist Vietnamese who managed to leave the country and settled abroad, especially in the United States, Canada and France, organised resistance movements in attempts to bring down the communist government in Vietnam. One of the most active movements was the National United Front for the Liberation of Vietnam (Mặt Trận Thống Nhất Giải Phóng Việt Nam), founded  by Vice Admiral Hoàng Cơ Minh on 30 April 1980 in California. Key members of this Front were former military officers or government employees of the Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam). For a large number of overseas Vietnamese, 30 April brought back bitter memories and they normally had different reasons to commemorate the day, the aim being to fight against the Democratic Republic of Vietnam. The resistance movement against Hanoi among overseas Vietnamese was most active in the 1980’s and 1990’s. There were attempts to recruit the Vietnamese abroad for military training and sent them back to operate in Vietnam. These activities also brought about diplomatic tension between Vietnam and Thailand since some of these movements used Thai territory as their operation bases.

Overseas Vietnamese publications, especially in the United States and Canada, lent support to the resistance movements. There were articles dedicated to reporting the movements and normally on the anniversary of the end of the Vietnam War (April or May issues), they published special issues to remind themselves of the bitter experiences of the war time, their nostalgia  and determination to fight against the communist regime with a bellicose approach.

Lửa Vệt, Toronto, no.53, April, 1985, front cover. British Library, 16641.e.2

Làng Văn, Toronto, no.69, May, 1990, front cover. British Library, 16641.e.13

However, after more than two decades of unsuccessful action by the resistance movements, together with the economic changes introduced by Hanoi, known as Đổi Mới (Economic Renovation) towards the end of the 1980’s, Vietnam appeared eventually achieve what the country had fought for: unification and peace.

Ngày hội chiến thắng (Celebration of Victory), engraving of a painting by Xu Man, Văn hóa nghệ thuật, no.51, November 1975. British Library, S.U.225 (1)

Báo Ảnh Việt Nam.  British Library pressmark: 1863.105000
Làng Văn.  British Library pressmark: 16641.e.13
Lửa Vệt. British Library pressmark: 16641.e.2
Mỹ Thuật . British Library pressmark: 16671.c.2
Văn hóa nghệ thuật.  British Library pressmark: S.U.225 (1)

Vietnam war art

War cartoons and propaganda from North Vietnam

Sud Chonchirdsin, Curator for Vietnamese

19 May 2015

A Jawi sourcebook for the study of Malay palaeography and orthography

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, 'The beginning', first word of Kitab pengajaran. MSS Malay B 13, f. 1v (detail)  noc

Malay manuscripts rarely give full details about when and where they were written, and we are often reliant on the biographies of western collectors in order to date a manuscript or gauge its origin. Little such information is available for one Malay manuscript (MSS Malay B 13), entitled blandly Kitab pengajaran pada segala orang sekalian, ‘A book of instruction for everyone’. It contains moral guidance on all aspects of social behaviour, with sections for example on anger (murka, f.31r), hopes and fears (pengharapan dan ketakutan, f.25r) and love and passion (berahi dan asyik, f.35r), on family relations including the role of fathers (pangkat bapak, f.42r) and sons (anak laki-laki, f.44r), and between layers of society, such as masters and servants (orang yang dipertuan serta yang diperhamba, f.52v). The annotation ‘Hastings MS’ indicates it may have been owned by the Marquess of Hastings, who succeeded Lord Minto as Governor-General of Bengal from 1813 to 1823.

Mss_malay_b_13_f001v-2rOpening pages of Bahwa ini kitab pengajaran pada segala orang sekalian; note the very neat handwriting and use of paragraphing. British Library, MSS Malay B 13, ff. 1v-2r  noc

One possible clue to the provenance of this manuscript may lie in the handwriting. The manuscript is written in a clear, neat and precise hand, with carefully spaced words, meticulous diacritical marks, and - very unusually - paragraphs: all hints that the book was probably specifically written for a European patron and thus needed to be very legible. Such a school of scribes was active in Batavia in the early 19th century, associated with the General Secretariat (Algemeene Secretariaat) of the Dutch administration, founded in 1819. Manuscripts by this group of scribes can be seen in Leiden University Library, the National Library of Indonesia and the Berlin Staatsbibliotheek, all distinguished by great care in the writing, and stylish use of rubrication and bold letters for certain significant words. One highly distinctive letter form found in MSS Malay B 13 which is associated with this school is the ‘squashed’ form of medial ha, with the loops above and below both bent to the right, which suggest that the Kitab pengajaran was copied in Batavia in the early 19th century (despite endpapers of English paper watermarked '1794', which may have been added later when the MS was rebound in Calcutta). If it was acquired during the British administration of 1811 to 1816, this would make it one of the earliest known examples of this characteristic 'Batavia' hand.      

Mss_malay_b_13_f005v-syahdan  Kl.7, pp.441-2-syahdan  IMW125GallopIntro-FigVII-Hk Iskandar-syahdan
The word syahdan, 'then', with distinctive 'squashed' medial ha, in three manuscripts. Left: Kitab pengajaran. British Library, MSS Malay B 13, f.5v; Middle: Hikayat Bujangga Indera Maharupa, copied by Muhammad Cing Saidullah, Batavia, 1830. Courtesy of Leiden University Library, Kl.7, p.442;
Right: Hikayat Iskandar Zulkarnain, copied by Muhammad Hasan, probably in Batavia in the early 19th century. Courtesy of Leiden University Library, Cod.Or.1967, vol.2, p.249

Awareness of the importance of palaeography – the study of historical styles of handwriting – for the study of manuscripts was the impetus behind the recent publication of ‘A Jawi Sourcebook for the Study of Malay Palaeography and Orthography’ as a special issue of the journal Indonesia in the Malay World in honour of Professor Ulrich Kratz, who recently retired from SOAS after three decades of teaching Malay and Indonesian literature. The Jawi Sourcebook was compiled with the aim of presenting a body of source material to enable a fresh look at Jawi script, and is modelled on a landmark guide to European palaeography by my former colleague Michelle Brown (1990), despite a complete reversal of theoretical grounding. Brown’s book, A guide to Western historical scripts from Antiquity to 1600, presented photographic facsimiles of manuscripts accompanied by comments on the handwriting, in order to illustrate over 50 acknowledged styles of script in Latin letters. Yet in the absence of any recognized categorization of Malay hands, all that the Jawi  Sourcebook aims to do is to to present, in chronological order, the raw material that could be utilised to advance the study of Malay palaeography and orthography. This has been done by selecting a corpus of 60 securely dated or dateable Malay manuscripts from the late 16th to the early 20th century, each of which can be located in a specific part of the Malay world, from Aceh to Aru and from Melaka to Mindanao. Thanks to the recent Malay manuscripts digitisation project, which has enabled full online access to all the Malay manuscripts in the British Library, many of these were selected by international contributors to the Jawi Sourcebook. A selection of sample lines from British Library manuscripts, accompanied by comments on the handwriting by various scholars, is presented below.

ACEH, 1764
Mirat al-tullab, by Abdul Rauf of Singkel, composed in 1074/1663, this MS copied on 14 Muharam 1178 (14 July 1764) in Aceh. British Library, Or.16035, f.4r.  noc

'In this MS, two dots are connected and look like a short line, while three dots look like ‘one dot and a short line’. Note the unusual appearance of segala, here and elsewhere in this MS, as the ga-lam resembles a capital ‘B’' [at the end of the first and third lines above].   Yumi Sugahara, Osaka University (Jawi Sourcebook, no.17)

Hikayat Raja Pasai, copied in Semarang, central Java, ca. 8 Syaaban 1211 (6 February 1797). British Library, Or. 14350, f. 78r.  noc

'The script is small and neat, and appears to have been written by a professional scribe. The initial sin is in the form of a flowing stroke. In order to preserve a straight left edge, the copyist varies extended and close strokes, resulting e.g. in a relatively long tail of the wau in the pre-final line or in a rather ‘crammed’ way of writing the last words in the final line.' Edwin Wieringa, Cologne University (Jawi Sourcebook, no.21)

PENANG, 1806
Syair surat kirim kepada perempuan, copied by Ibrahim ca. 18 Syawal 1220 (9 January 1806), British Library, MSS Malay B.3, f. 40 r.  noc

‘Ibrahim does indeed possess ‘characteristic handwriting’ (Teeuw et al 2004: 16): very upright, inscribed confidently and with considerable brio. The letter forms are very distinct, though he is occasionally somewhat cavalier about the dotting. There are no dots to distinguish ga and kaf.’ Mulaika Hijjas, SOAS (Jawi Sourcebook, no.25)

Kitab ubat-ubat dan azimat, ‘Book on medicine and talismans’. A note on the front cover reads: ‘Tay Segalla obat or The Malay Materia Medica, from the practice of Tama, Physician to the Royal household of His Majesty of Pontiana, copied May 17th 1813’. British Library, MSS Malay B.15, f. 2r.  noc

'The handwriting in this manuscript is neat and clear with a faint slant towards the left. Occasionally letters that follow an alif are raised upwards to link to the top of that alif (e.g. the nga in ‘jangan’). The letter kaf is sometimes written in an elongated form (e.g. ‘manteraku’). Although the hand is legible the spelling is erratic and inconsistent, making it difficult to determine the ingredients and spells used in the treatments. Therefore a comparison with similar texts found in other manuscripts is necessary to determine the correct reading.' Farouk Yahya, SOAS (Jawi Sourcebook, no.28)

Sejarah Melayu, copied by Husin bin Ismail in Tanah Merah, Singapore, on Saturday 16 Rajab [1248] = 8 December 1832. British Library, Or. 16214, f. 2r.  noc

'The writing is neat and regular which is typical of Husin bin Ismail. In contrast to Abdullah bin Abdul Kadir Munsyi (no. 38), this scribe has no evidently distinct features in his writing. A characteristic which he shares with other scribes is writing kaf for ga ... Interestingly, in our fragment he writes orang besar differently on both occurrences, first conjoined and then separated. Remarkable is the spelling of cucu, using the number ‘2’ (c.w.2).' Roger Tol, KITLV, Jakarta (Jawi Sourcebook, no.35)

BRUNEI, ca.1900
Syair Baginda, concerning Sultan Abdul Mumin of Brunei (r.1852-1885). On the basis of the watermark (‘Superfine 1895’) can be dated to ca.1900. British Library, Or. 14549, f. 3r.  noc

‘The syair is written in black ink in two columns, in a characteristic Brunei literary hand familiar from hikayat and syair manuscripts, notable for its extreme horizontal aspect, and very different from the chancery hands evident in royal Brunei letters over the centuries (Nos. 1 and 5). The orthography too reflects Brunei phonetic norms such as the preference for medial a rather than ĕ pĕpĕt.’  Ampuan Haji Brahim bin Haji Tengah, Universiti Brunei Darussalam, and Annabel Teh Gallop, British Library (Jawi Sourcebook, no.56)

Further reading

A Jawi sourcebook for the study of Malay palaeography and orthography’. Contributors Wan Ali Wan Mamat, Ali Akbar, Vladimir Braginsky, Ampuan Haji Brahim Haji Tengah, Ian Caldwell, Henri Chambert-Loir, Tatiana Denisova, Farouk Yahya, Annabel Teh Gallop, Hashim Musa, I.R. Katkova, Willem van der Molen, Mulaika Hijjas, Ben Murtagh, Roderick Orlina, Jan van der Putten, Peter G. Riddell, Yumi Sugahara, Roger Tol and E.P. Wieringa; edited and introduced by Annabel Teh Gallop. Indonesia and the Malay World, Special Issue in honour of E.U.Kratz, March 2015, 43 (125): 13-171.


Michelle Brown, A guide to Western historical scripts from Antiquity to 1600. London: British Library, 1990.

Teeuw, A., Dumas R., Muhammad Haji Salleh and Van Yperen, M.J.  2004. A merry senhor in the Malay world: Four texts of the Syair Sinyor Kosta. Leiden: KITLV Press.

Annabel Teh Gallop, Lead Curator, Southeast Asia  ccownwork