Asian and African studies blog

14 April 2016

A gold letter from Bali

Currently on display in the exhibition case just outside the Asian and African Studies Reading Room in the British Library at St Pancras is a small letter from Bali, written entirely on a sheet of gold.  The letter was sent in 1768 from two princes of Bali – Kanjeng Kyai Angrurah Jambe of Badung (site of the present-day capital Denpasar) and Kyai Angrurah Agung of Mengwi – to Johannes Vos, the Dutch Governor of Semarang, on the north coast of Java.  In the letter, the princes affirm their everlasting friendship with the Dutch, and agree not to allow any enemies of the Dutch East India Company (VOC) to pass through their territory without an official pass from the Company. The manuscript, Egerton 765, has just been digitised and can be read here.

Balinese letter on gold, 1768. Egerton 765, f.1r  noc

The letter’s shelfmark, Egerton 765, links it to Francis Henry Egerton, 8th Earl of Bridgewater, who on his death in 1829 bequeathed his collection of manuscripts to the British Museum together with a legacy for purchasing additions to the collection. Our little Balinese letter has in fact no direct connection with Francis Egerton himself, for it was acquired after Egerton’s death through his bequest. According to departmental records, on 4 December 1839 the MS was offered to Sir Frederic Madden, Keeper of the Department of Manuscripts at the British Museum, by one J. Sams of Darlington and Great Queen Street, Lincoln’s Inn, London.  Mr Sams wrote that he “having sometime ago met with a curious Eastern MS., written on a sheet of Gold - & thinking a specimen or two of such an object, would be interesting, & desirable in our national repository, he writes a line to Sir F.M., as the respected Principal of the MS department, to mention that he gave for this scarce, & curious article, five pounds, without the case, which cost him some four shillings, - & that, if Sir F. please, it shall be the property of the Museum, at the price J.S. paid for it.” There is no further information on how J. Sams acquired the letter.

The letter is written in Balinese language and script, with the text incised with a thin stylus on both sides of the sheet of gold, with six lines on the front and five lines on the reverse.  Although the small size of the letter forms and the reflective nature of the gold sheet make the letter hard to read, the Dutch scholar J. Kats persevered, and in 1929 published the entire text in Balinese script with Dutch translation (Kats 1929). The little letter is well-travelled: as well as having been on public display at the British Library in London, it was shown in New York in 1990 at the ‘Court Arts of  Indonesia’ exhibition, and also in Rotterdam in 1993 (Jessup 1990: 30-31, 236-7).  In 1991 it travelled back to Indonesia for the exhibition ‘Golden Letters: writing traditions of Indonesia’, and was displayed at the National Library of Indonesia in Jakarta and at the Palace of Yogyakarta (Gallop & Arps 1991: 104).

Measuring 5.5 cm high and 24 cm wide, in its proportions the letter emulates a piece of palm leaf, the standard writing material throughout Southeast Asia before the wide availability of paper, and still the main medium for sacred texts in Bali today.  The use of gold as a writing material has a long tradition in Southeast Asia.  The National Museum in Jakarta has examples of Buddhist texts in Sanskrit from the 10th century inscribed on gold strips similar in size to the Balinese letter, and comparable Buddhist gold inscriptions are known from Burma.

BL Or.5340A-B (1)
Pali Buddhist text from Burma, written on a strip of gold. British Library, Or. 5340  noc

Gold was also used for diplomatic letters, and its use can be interpreted as honouring the recipient while also emphasising the status of the sender. Perhaps the most exceptional example known today is a Burmese letter on gold from King Alaungphaya sent to George II of Great Britain in 1756. Dating from just a decade earlier than our Balinese letter, the Burmese epistle is however immeasurably grander: not only was it written on a sheet of gold, but each end was studded with a row of 12 rubies, and a gold impression of the king’s seal was affixed to the letter, which was then rolled and placed within an ivory receptacle for delivery. King George was of German origin, and he prized this letter enough to send it back to his ‘Cabinet of Curiosities’ in home town of Hanover, where it is still held today in the Gottfried Willem Leibniz Library.  Recently, with the support of the British Library, this letter was inscribed on the UNESCO ‘Memory of the World’ Register.

Burmese gold
Burmese letter on gold from King Alaungmintaya to King George II, 1756. Copyright Gottfried Willem Leibniz Library, Hanover.

Hanover Leibniz Burmese seal
Detail of the Burmese letter showing the king's seal stamped in gold, with the row of rubies at the beginning of the letter. Copyright Gottfried Willem Leibniz Library, Hanover.

Further reading

J. Kats, Een Balische brief van 1768 aan den Gouveneur van Java’s Noordkust. Festbundel uitgegeven door het Koninklijk Bataviaasch Genootschap van Kunsten en Wetenschappen bij gelegenheid van zijn 150 jarig bestaan, 1778-1928. Vol. I, pp. 291-6. Weltevreden, 1929.
Helen Ibbitson Jessup, Court arts of Indonesia.  New York: The Asia Society, 1990.
Annabel Teh Gallop with Bernard Arps, Golden letters: writing traditions of Indonesia.  Surat emas: budaya tulis di Indonesia.  London: British Library; Jakarta: Yayasan Lontar, 1991.
Jacques P. Leider, King Alaungmintaya’s Golden Letter to King George II (7 May 1756): the story of an exceptional manuscript and the failure of a diplomatic overture. Hannover: Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz Bibliothek, 2009.

Annabel Teh Gallop, Lead Curator, Southeast Asia  ccownwork


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