Endangered archives blog

Jody Butterworth and Paul Young on histories in peril

12 December 2014


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Kenya Jamhuri Day, 12 December 2014

The Riyadha Mosque in Lamu, Kenya, is home to a collection of Islamic manuscripts that documents and preserves the teaching traditions of the Lamu archipelago from c.1850 to 1950. In the EAP online collection, under the unassuming name of EAP466/1/18, can be found a 241-page compilation of prayers, litanies and invocations. It is prefaced by an inscription, framed by an ochre and black geometrical pattern, which reads, somewhat ominously: “This book, what is in it, is in it. Whomsoever does not know what is in it, may the dog pee in his mouth.”


When they were copied some time in the mid-19th century, these texts had been handed down through generations, and were well known in the wider Swahili world - indeed in the Islamic world as a whole. In the volume, we find for example the Mawlid Barzanji, authored in the 18th century, and widely recited in East Africa to this day. It narrates the birth of the Prophet Muhammad, including the “heavenly handmaidens” who according to popular tradition attended his mother Amina. Knowledge of this type of text constituted what it meant to be a member of coastal Muslim community in 19th-century Lamu, through a “core curriculum” that regulated individual and collective practice of Islam. In short, knowing these texts made you part of mainstream culture. Failure to acquire this knowledge could mean social exclusion – or, more often, non-inclusion if you were an outsider to Lamu society. The consequences, as indicated by the inscription, could be dire.

A first assumption here is to interpret this threat as an eccentric liberty taken by the copyist, perhaps a poke at a madrasa (Islamic school) teacher who may have used these exact words during class. However, unusual though it may be, a similar worded warning can be found in at least one other manuscript from the Swahili coast, again cautioning against unwanted attention from dogs. The message is clear: Know you culture, your religion – and your identity – or else face exclusion.

As the volume stands today in the Riyadha library, it is owned by the mosque but forms part of the heritage of Lamu Muslim society, and that of the wider Swahili world. It is also part of the national heritage of Kenya. As Kenya celebrates its 50th Jamhuri (Republic) Day, it is sadly not in an atmosphere of tranquillity. The Westgate attacks in Nairobi in 2013 brought the world’s attention to Jihadist-style terrorism within Kenya’s border, but also to the looting by the security personnel in the wake of the killings. However, the mistrust between the coastal population and the authorities has simmered for years, and caused rifts between sections of the costal Swahilis. Religious leaders have been assassinated, attempts at cultural and religious dialogue have stalled under the threat of violence. Couple this with large-scale foreign and domestic investment, land-grabbing, corruption, the continuing turmoil in Somalia and the expansion of al-Shabbab on the coast, Kenya is facing challenges that threatens its stability and – ultimately – even its unity.

As has been shown in recent studies, access to, and use of heritage (including scientific research), is often unequally distributed and represented in the national narratives when new nations are formed. Jamhuri day is a nationwide day of celebration of Kenya’s freedom, but also of its diversity, its multiple and parallel pasts. As coastal Kenya struggles to express its perceived marginalisation, it can look to its own rich past, and to the various ways in which it incorporated new populations into Swahili society. From this vantage point, the coast may find new ways to represent itself in the national narrative of Kenya in the coming 50 years. The message from a 19th-century copyist can still be relevant. 

Click on the link if you would like to read more about the manuscript collection at Riyadha Mosque 

Dr. Anne K. Bang, Chr. Michelsen Institute, Norway

Grant holder EAP466



08 December 2014

New online collections – December 2014

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For the final month of 2014 we have had four collections go up online: EAP160, EAP220, EAP449 and EAP571. These collections come from Bolivia, Ukraine, Mali and Nicaragua.

EAP160 digitised records relating to the indigenous population of Bolivia during the 19th century. The records they preserved are called padrones; these documents are testimonies of an old tributary system associated with land tenure. Bolivia has the largest indigenous population in Latin America. Most of the indigenous population has lived since the Colonial period in the high plateau, known as the Altiplano boliviano, at 4,000 meters above sea level.

After Bolivia's independence and throughout the 19th century, only a small amount of Bolivians lived in the urban area. The bulk of the population was concentrated in the department of La Paz, specifically the rural area.

The indigenous population that lived in the communities and in the haciendas (large private estates) continued paying, as in the Colonial period, a state tax known as the indigenal contribution, amounting to as much as 40% of the state total income. For tax purposes, the government registered all the indigenous population in the communities and haciendas, the information was collected in the registers called padrones.

These registers are still an important legal source for present day land tenure consolidation. Many indigenous communities and individuals use these records as proof of their community membership and land tenure.

This project successfully created 92,000 digital images from 441 books containing the padrones.

0002_ALP_Cp_1848_009_002_f0001EAP160/1/1/2/2 Image 2 - Matricula General Que Manifiesta El Total De Familias Indigenas Contribuyentes En El Año 1848 [1848]

EAP220 was a pilot project that searched for and catalogued all archival material from the archaeological studies carried out at the ancient Russ hillfort Rajki in Ukraine. These surveys took place between 1929-1935 during the archaeological expeditions led by T.N. Movchanovskiy. The project surveyed records held in the archive repository of the Institute of Archaeology of the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine, where these materials were stored in various collections. The project also searched for documents in Rajki village, as well as in a range of other archival institutions in Kiev, Berdychiv, Moscow, St. Petersburg, Odessa and Zhytomyr. A survey was produced which lists all the discovered archival documents and states the repositories where they are held. Digital samples of the collections were created.

EAP220_07_NEGATIVE_097EAP220/1/7 Image 1 - Photographic Negatives on Glass [1929-1935]

EAP449 digitised the archives of two professional photographers from Mali, Abdourahmane Sakaly and Mamadou Cissé. They were among the earliest professional African photographers in Mali. The collections contain rare historical documentation of traditional Mali life (rural, ethnic-based customs, ceremonies, and artefacts) and show the processes of urban development. Dating from the 1940s-1960s the photographs show an era of great change in Mali’s history. Employed by colonial and national governments, as well as operating private studio enterprises, each collection houses unique archives including personal and family portraits, military activities, visits of foreign dignitaries and images of the coup d’état that toppled the regime of the nation’s first president Modibo Keïta.

These images are significant for the social history and cultural heritage of Mali, as well as the artistic legacy of these locally, and internationally, celebrated photographers. They are important for scholarship on colonial and post-colonial histories in western Africa, and studies of local art and culture.

EAP449_Cisse_0916EAP449/1/10 – Image 16 - Mamadou Cissé's Photographs numbers 901-1,000

The final project that went online this month is EAP571. It digitised newspapers from Nicaragua dating from the first half of the 20th century.

This collection of newspapers represents a primary resource for research and analysis of this turbulent period for national and regional history in Nicaragua. They contain details of the conflicts and political debates of the period, as well as cultural and economic transformations, coffee production and the nation state building process. These newspapers are unique sources to study the US military intervention and the dispute with Great Britain over the Nicaraguan Caribbean Coast. This collection stands as a unique source for studying the first half of the twentieth century in Nicaragua.

The project successfully digitised 5,874 newspaper issues, totalling 31,505 TIFF images.

EAP571_El_Liberal_1935-1936_005EAP571/5/1 Pt1- Image 5 - El Liberal

I hope you have a Happy Christmas and will come back next month to see what else has been added to our collections.

You can also keep up to date with any new collections by joining our Facebook group.

17 November 2014

New online collections – November 2014 Part 2

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This blog covers the remaining four new projects which are now available to view online, these are EAP285, EAP618, EAP110 and EAP211.  

EAP285 is a major project that carried on the work which the EAP067 pilot project had begun. The pilot project had surveyed collections of materials which relate to the Gypsy/Roma communities in Bulgaria.

In Bulgaria, many different materials dating from the beginning of the twentieth century can be found which reflect the life of nomadic and settled communities of Gypsies in the pre-industrial period in their first attempts for empowerment and their struggle for equality.

The project completed the collection and digitisation of material located in Bulgaria by the pilot project.

Photographs were collected from the 1940s through to the 1980s reflecting the life of Roma in Sofia Roma quarters. The Members of Roma students organisation collected from different places photographs and documents, most interesting among them is a certificate of gratitude to a Roma, who died as a soldier in the (Bulkan Wars) 1912-1913. The members of the Roma students organisation also introduced the project team to an old lady from the Gypsy quarter of Montana, who donated her family’s unique collection of oral histories, which included a description of the creation and history of the Roma quarter in the town of Montana, everyday life, customs and holidays of Roma living there as well as some short folklore genres (proverbs and humorous narratives). Nikola Ivanov, a Roma from a group of nomadic Gypsies, donated to the project his collection of old Romani fairy-tales and ballads.

One of the achievements of the project was the digitisation of Dimitar Golemanov’s collection, which included letters, written songs and fairy tales. Dimiter Golemanov was a famous Roma activist and intellectual during the time of the communist regime and these materials reflected his poetical and musical work as well as his international contacts with Roma intellectuals and activists. Documents were also found on the pioneering linguistic work of one of the most important Bulgarian Roma Romani studies scholars, Donald Kenrick. Very interesting material was collected from old nomadic Gypsies from the Kardarasha group, who remembered the time of active nomadism.

[N_48]EAP285/2/21 – Image 1

EAP618 digitised 5,564 photographs and negatives of ethnographic and historical objects, reflecting pre-industrial Bulgarian history and culture. The scholarly archive of the Institute of Ethnology and Folklore Studies with Ethnographic Museum is the oldest collection of Bulgarian pre-industrial and early modern traditional culture. This rich and unique ethnographic archive consists of several collections of written documents as well as some fascinating photograph collections which illustrate elements of traditional spiritual culture: ritual masks, agricultural and horticultural activities, calendar customs, folk costumes and traditional architecture.

EAP618_Negatives_II_1354EAP618/3/2 Pt2– Image 306

EAP110 is a continuation of the EAP005 pilot project, which looked at the records held at the National Archives of Tuvalu. Tuvalu consists of nine islands in the southwest Pacific Ocean and achieved independence from Great Britain in 1978. Vital documentation of the cultural and political heritage of Tuvalu is held in an intermittently air-conditioned room. The archives are endangered through the risk of being washed away in a cyclone-prone area. There is a regular danger of archives being saturated and damaged by tidal surges, especially during the cyclone season. Some material such as Births, Deaths and Marriage registers, Lands records, records of its local colonial administration and newspapers are in particularly poor condition through heavy usage.

The pilot project surveyed the Tuvalu National Archives holdings, assessing the extent of work required to prepare important series for preservation. In addition it also discovered the existence of manuscripts, genealogies, photographs and other records of Tuvaluan society in private hands.

EAP110 carried out the digitisation of this material, producing over 70,000 images comprising of over 1,276 documents. These are now available to view online.

110PMBDoc484_Reel1_00625EAP110/1/16/1 Pt 2 - Image 206

EAP211 digitised Cirebon manuscripts. Cirebon was one of the important Islamic Sultanates in Java, together with Demak and Banten, and had been a centre for Islamic learning and the dissemination of Islamic teachings in West Java. Cirebon was also considered to be one of the cultural centres in the Indonesian archipelago, which can be seen in its manuscripts.

These Cirebon manuscripts contribute towards the understanding of Islamic intellectual and cultural heritages, and will help to reconstruct how Islam spread in West Java in the period of the 15th century to the first half of the 20th century. According to the latest survey, Cirebon manuscripts are mostly damaged because of inappropriate treatment and natural causes. Others were neglected due to a lack of knowledge about the storage and handling of manuscripts.

Up to now, these manuscripts have not been explored and studied by either local or foreign scholars and there is no published catalogue of them. They include Qur'an and religious manuscripts, the story of puppet shadow (wayang), genealogy of Cirebon sultans, traditional healings, literatures, Cirebon traditional chronicles, Javanese Islamic mysticism written as poetry (Suluk), divining manuals, and manuscripts of talismans. The majority of them are in a fragile condition. This project covered the whole area of the former Cirebon Sultanate (including Kasepuhan, Kanoman, Kacirebonan, and Kaprabon), Pengguron and Sanggar,

The project succeeded in digitising 176 manuscripts creating 17,361 images. These are now available to view online.


211_BMB040_WM01EAP211/1/1/38 – Image 50

Check back next month to see what else has been added!

You can also keep up to date with any new collections by joining our Facebook group.