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05 December 2014

George Percy Churchill’s Biographical Notices of Persian Statesmen and Notables

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In 1906, the Government of India Foreign Department published (and republished in 1910) an index of prominent Qajar statesmen, compiled by George Percy Churchill, Oriental Secretary at the British Legation in Tehran. According to Cyrus Ghani, this collection of notes and genealogical tables, entitled Biographical Notices of Persian Statesmen and Notables, is the only document of its kind and serves an ‘indispensible source to ascertain who the British held in high regard and who they considered to be pro-Russian or independent’ (Ghani, pp. 78-79). Indeed, the importance of the work is attested to by numerous references in monographs and in entries in, for example, the invaluable reference tool Encyclopædia Iranica.

'Biographical Notes' (British Library, IOR/R/15/1/746) 'Biographical Notices of Persian Statesmen and Notables', 1910 (British Library, IOR/L/PS/20/227)

Left: 'Biographical Notes' (British Library, IOR/R/15/1/746)
Right: 'Biographical Notices of Persian Statesmen and Notables', 1910 (British Library, IOR/L/PS/20/227)
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Copies of the Biographical Notices are available in the records of the India Office and Foreign Office held at the British Library and National Archives respectively. Only three further copies appear to be held in libraries at Bamberg, Cambridge and Canberra, though a 1990 translation into Persian is more widely available (Mīrzā Ṣāliḥ, 1990).

Churchill’s Draft Text
However, a little-known manuscript draft of the Biographical Notices exists in the archive of the Bushire Residency, a part of the India Office Records (‘Biographical Notes’, IOR/R/15/1/746), and is now digitised and available online.

Manuscript note in 'Biographical Notes' (British Library, IOR/R/15/1/746, f. 3v)
Manuscript note in 'Biographical Notes' (British Library, IOR/R/15/1/746, f. 3v)
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In a signed note (f. 3v), Churchill remarks that he compiled his work from a variety of sources, in particular from Lieutenant-Colonel H. Picot’s, Biographical Notices of Members of the Royal Family, Notables, Merchants and Clergy (1897), which he endeavoured to update and amplify. The draft has the appearance and feel of a scrap-book, with cut-outs of entries from Picot’s work and other printed reports, juxtaposed with up-to-date information written in Churchill’s own hand, as well as seal impressions, signatures, photographs and other elements pasted in.

'Tree of the Royal Kajar House' (British Library, IOR/R/15/1/746, ff. 28v-29r)
'Tree of the Royal Kajar House' (British Library, IOR/R/15/1/746, ff. 28v-29r)
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In addition to the biographical entries, the draft includes an impressive hand-written genealogical ‘Tree of the Royal Kajar House’ (ff. 28v-29r); a list of words used in the composition of Persian titles (ff. 4r-5v); a list of Persian ministers, provincial governors and others receiving Nowruz greetings in 1904 (ff. 33v-34r); and a list of the principal of Persian diplomatic and consular representatives (ff. 30v-31r). Appearing on folios 32v-33r, quite incidentally with notes written on the back, is a seating plan for a dinner of the Omar Kháyyám Club on 23 November 1905.

Seating plan for the Omar Khayyam Club Dinner, 23 November 1905 (British Library, IOR/R/15/1/746, ff 32v-33r)
Seating plan for the Omar Khayyam Club Dinner, 23 November 1905 (British Library, IOR/R/15/1/746, ff 32v-33r)
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An Abundance of Seals
What stands out most in Churchill’s draft is the abundance of seal impressions – over 300 of them –  that appear to have been cut out from Persian correspondence and envelopes. These appear next to the biographical entry of the seal owner, and, in some cases, a single entry is accompanied by multiple seal impressions reflecting the use of different seal matrices at different dates and containing personal names or official and honorific titles. In addition, there are three clusters of seal impressions that are not associated with specific biographical entries, and these include seals of Qajar rulers, such as Fath ‘Ali Shah (r. 1797-1834) and Muhammad Shah (r. 1834-1848), as well as other Qajar statesmen.

Draft entry and print entry for Arfa' ud-Daulah (British Library, IOR/R/15/1/746, f. 66v; IOR/L/PS/20/227, p. 10)
Draft entry and print entry for Arfa' ud-Daulah (British Library, IOR/R/15/1/746, f. 66v; IOR/L/PS/20/227, p. 10)
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Entry for  Mirza ʻAli Asghar Khan Amin us-Sultan in 'Biographical Notes' (British Library, IOR/R/15/1/746, f. 55r)
Entry for  Mirza ʻAli Asghar Khan Amin us-Sultan in 'Biographical Notes' (British Library, IOR/R/15/1/746, f. 55r)
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Seals Set within Illuminated Frames
Two clusters of seal impressions on folios 2v and 29v contain three examples of seals set in ornately decorated illuminated frames that have been cut out from firmans of Farmanfarma Husayn ‘Ali Mirza, Governor-General of Fars, dated 1229 AH (1813/14 CE). This art form developed in Iran during the later Safavid and Qajar eras, spreading throughout the Islamic world. Annabel Gallop and Venetia Porter note such illuminated framed seals with ‘their own architectural constructs’ or else ‘nestling within a bed of petals, sitting at the heart of a golden flame or sending forth rainbow-hued rays’ (pp. 170-172).

Seal impressions on folios 2v (left) and 29v (right) from 'Biographical Notes' (British Library, IOR/R/15/1/746) Seal impressions on folios 2v (left) and 29v (right) from 'Biographical Notes' (British Library, IOR/R/15/1/746)
Seal impressions on folios 2v (left) and 29v (right) from 'Biographical Notes' (British Library, IOR/R/15/1/746)
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Embossed Seals and Printed Stationery
The other cluster of cut-outs found on folio 3r are in fact not ink seal impressions, but impressions of embossed (blind-stamped) seals and decorative printed letterheads of specially-printed stationery. These are variously dated and include those of Amin al-Dawlah and Mas‘ud Mirza Zill al-Sultan, and contain decorative symbols such as laurel reefs, crowns, and the lion and sun national emblem (shir u khurshid).

A collection of embossed and printed seals in 'Biographical Notes' (British Library, IOR/R/15/1/746, f. 3r)
A collection of embossed and printed seals in 'Biographical Notes' (British Library, IOR/R/15/1/746, f. 3r)
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Embossed seals made with metal presses came into use in Europe in the latter part of the eighteenth century mainly among companies and institutions, but also by individuals. In the nineteenth century, this practice had become widespread in Ottoman bureaucracy. This collection, taken together with seal presses in museum collections in Iran (Jiddī, p. 75), demonstrates that the practice had become well-established in Qajar administration. Moreover, the embossed seals juxtaposed with traditional ink seal impressions in this volume point towards the ‘changing relations of production and advancing commercialization’ as a result of colonialism and globalisation that affected Islamic diplomatics in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries (Messick, pp. 234-235). Indeed, it has been noted that such embossed seals appeared at around the same time as other developments, such as the widening use of printed letterheads and rubber stamps (Gallop and Porter, p. 122).

Photographic Images
A number of the biographical entries are also accompanied by photographs of the subject in official dress. These are found on folio 48 for Mirza ‘Ali Asghar Khan Amin al-Sultan; two cut out photographs of Hakim al-Mulk Mirza Mahmud Khan and one of Hakim al-Mulk Ibrahim Khan on folio 114v; and one of Muzaffar al-Din Shah Qajar (r. 1896-1907) on folio 163v.

Photographs found in 'Biographical Notes' (British Library, IOR/R/15/1/746)
Photographs found in 'Biographical Notes' (British Library, IOR/R/15/1/746)
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The Importance of Churchill’s Work
In one sense, Churchill’s work represents an important work in the context of British colonial knowledge of the political landscape of Qajar Iran at the beginning of the twentieth century. Yet, as has been noted by Gallop and Porter (p. 154), the presence of an abundance of seal impressions reflects the keen eye of an enthusiastic collector. However, we should not necessarily view collecting and colonial intelligence gathering as mutually exclusive fields. As Carol A. Breckenridge has noted: ‘The world of collecting was considerably expanded in the post-enlightenment era. With the emergence of the nineteenth-century nation-state and its imperializing and disciplinary bureaucracies, new levels of precision and organization were reached. The new order called for such agencies as archives, libraries, surveys, revenue bureaucracies, folklore and ethnographic agencies, censuses and museums. Thus, the collection of objects needs to be understood within the larger context of surveillance, recording, classifying and evaluating’ (p. 195-96).

Indeed, seal impressions were collectable not only as objects of Orientalist curiosity and research, but also as the preeminent symbol of personal and political authority, power and hierarchy, as well as ownership. Although Churchill’s collection of seal impressions was absent from the final printed version of the Biographical Notices, the draft text provides researchers with a valuable source for the study of Qajar seals and sealing practices at the turn of the twentieth century, at a time in which the Islamic seal was being replaced by other instruments of textual and visual authority, such as embossed seal and photographs.

 

Primary Sources
British Library: India Office Records and Private Papers, ‘Biographical Notes’, IOR/R/15/1/746
British Library: India Office Records and Private Papers, ‘Biographical notices of Persian statesmen and notables’, IOR/L/PS/20/227
British Library: India Office Records and Private Papers, ‘Persia: biographical notices of members of the royal family, notables, merchants and clergy’, Mss Eur F112/400
The National Archives (TNA), ‘PERSIA: Biographical Notices. Persian Statesmen and Notables’, FO 881/8777X and FO 881/9748X

Further Reading
Carol A. Breckenridge, ‘The Aesthetics and Politics of Colonial Collecting: India at the World Fairs’, Comparative Studies in Society and History, Vol. 31, No. 2 (April, 1989), pp. 195-216
Encyclopædia Iranica, online edition, New York, 1996-
Cyrus Ghani, Iran and the West: A Critical Bibliography (London: Kegan Paul International, 1987)
Annabel Teh Gallop and Venetia Porter, Lasting Impressions: Seals from the Islamic World (Kuala Lumpur, 2012)
Muḥammad Javād Jiddī (trans. M. T Faramarzi), Muhrhā-yi salṭanatī dar majmūʻah-i Mūzih-i Kākh-i Gulistān [Royal seals in Golestan Palace Museum collection] (Tihrān, 1390 [2011])
Brinkley Messick, Calligraphic State: Textual Domination and History in a Muslim Society (Berkley, 1993)
George Percy Churchill (trans. Ghulām Ḥusayn Mīrzā Ṣāliḥ), Farhang-i rijāl-i Qājār (Tihrān, 1369 [1990])

 

Daniel A. Lowe, Arabic Language and Gulf History Specialist (@dan_a_lowe)
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14 November 2014

An early Malay letter from Brunei

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In the sixteenth century the kingdom of Brunei was one of the most powerful Malay states in Southeast Asia, its influence extending along the whole of the north coast of the island of Borneo and as far northwards as Manila bay. In time its grip over neighbouring polities was greatly curtailed by its rival Sulu to the east, and by European colonial powers such as the Spanish in the Philippines and, in the nineteenth century, various British enterprises in Borneo: the Brooke dynasty of ‘White Rajahs’ in Sarawak, and the Chartered Company in Sabah.

The city of Brunei in c.1844, built on stilts over the river. Frank S. Marryat, Borneo and the Indian Archipelago (London: Longman, 1848). British Library, W7007.
The city of Brunei in c.1844, built on stilts over the river. Frank S. Marryat, Borneo and the Indian Archipelago (London: Longman, 1848). British Library, W7007.  noc

An early Malay letter from Brunei held in the British Library (Harley Ch 43 A 6) which has just been digitised attests to a period when Brunei’s fleets still sailed far beyond the shores of Borneo.  The letter was sent from the Raja Bendahara Paduka Seri Maharaja Permaisuara of Brunei to ‘Senyor Kapitan Inggeris’, the head of the English trading settlement at Jambi, on the east coast of Sumatra. The letter accompanied an embassy from the sultan of Brunei led by three senior officials – Seri Laila Diraja, Seri Setia Pahlawan and Seri Raja Khatib – to the court of Jambi, with a request to purchase sendawa, saltpetre (an essential component of gunpowder) and kain gabar, blankets.

Although damaged and torn, currently laminated with gauze and possibly missing part of the sheet of paper which may have contained a seal, the letter may be partially dated from its historical context. Lured by pepper, the English East India Company had arrived in Jambi and established a ‘factory’ or trading post in October 1615. This lasted until 1679, when the factory was burned and its captain killed in the attack on Jambi by Johor. The ruler of Jambi named in the letter as ‘Pangiran Adipati’ was probably Pangiran Dipati Anum, who reigned under that title from 1630 until 1661, when he took the title ‘Pangiran Ratu’ on the accession of his son as ‘junior ruler’. The letter was therefore most likely written some time in the mid-seventeenth century, between 1630 and 1661.  

Letter from the Bendahara of Brunei to the English captain at Jambi, mid-17th century. British Library, Harley Ch 43 A 6
Letter from the Bendahara of Brunei to the English captain at Jambi, mid-17th century. British Library, Harley Ch 43 A 6.  noc

The relative antiquity of this Malay letter has long been recognized, and in 1898 it was discussed, edited and translated by W.G. Shellabear in his important article ‘An account of some of the oldest Malay MSS. now extant’. Shellabear was hesitant to read the toponym in the letter spelt b-r-n-y as Brunei, so distant from Jambi, and suggested it might refer to ‘the neighbouring kingdom of Birni’. In fact, as first proposed by Amin Sweeney (1971), there is no reason to doubt that this letter is from Brunei (not least for the reason that no references at all can be found to any state in east Sumatra named ‘Birni’). Although the title Bendahara for the most senior court official after the sultan is found in many Malay states, it is usually qualified with honorifics that help to locate it precisely, and the form 'Bendahara Paduka Seri Maharaja Permaisuara' is unique to Brunei. Indeed, the typically Brunei use of medial alif in Permaisuara instead of the more commonly encountered Permaisura is another indication of Brunei origin, and even Shellabear himself acknowledged that the spelling membali (m.m.b.a.l.y) for the more usual membeli (‘to buy’) reflected Brunei pronounciation. Moreover, the three embassy officials named in the letter all bear recognizable Brunei titles.

‘negeri Brunei dan negeri Jambi’, detail from the letter showing the spelling b-r-n-y of 'Brunei'. British Library, Harley Ch 43 A 6 (detail).
negeri Brunei dan negeri Jambi’, detail from the letter showing the spelling b-r-n-y of 'Brunei'. British Library, Harley Ch 43 A 6 (detail).  noc

Shellabear also thought it strange that Brunei would venture so far to buy goods from the English more easily procurable from the Spanish. And yet for much of the 17th century Brunei's relations with the Spanish were hostile – in 1647 there was a joint Brunei-Dutch expedition against the Spaniards (Nicholl 1989: 189) – thus making trade with the Spaniards highly unlikely. Shellabear’s other main reservation, in view of the physical distance between Brunei and Jambi, was the description in the letter of the two states being ‘as if they were one country’ (upama sebuah negeri jua adanya). But such complimentary similes are not unusual in Malay letters, and more pertinently, a similar phrase is also used in a Brunei letter of 1821 from Sultan Muhammad Kanzul Alam to William Farquhar, British Resident of Singapore: kerana kepada pikiran beta akan kedua buldan itu esa tiada ada antaranya maka jadilah keduanya umpama satu hamparan, ‘For to my mind our two states are as one, with nothing to separate them, like a single mat’ (Gallop 1995: 224).

Like two other early Malay manuscripts in the British Library from the Sloane collection, this letter – from the Harley library of the first Earls of Oxford – was present at the foundation of the British Museum in 1753.  

Further reading

D.E. Brown, Brunei: the structure and history of a Bornean Malay sultanate. Brunei: Brunei Museum, 1970. (Monograph of the Brinei Museum Journal; II.2).
A.T. Gallop, Malay sources for the history of the sultanate of Brunei in the early nineteenth century: some letters from the reign of Sultan Muhammad Kanzul Alam.  From Buckfast to Borneo: essays presented to Father Robert Nicholl on the 85th anniversary of his birth, 27 March 1995, eds. Victor T. King & A.V.M.Horton.  Hull: University of Hull, 1995; pp.207-35.
Robert Nicholl, European sources for the history of the Sultanate of Brunei in the sixteenth century. Brunei: Muzium Brunei, 1975.
W.G. Shellabear, An account of some of the oldest Malay MSS. now extant. Journal of the Straits Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, 1898, (31):107-151.

Annabel Teh Gallop, Lead Curator, Southeast Asia

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10 October 2014

Three volumes of the Yongle Dadian now on display at the British Museum

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The BP exhibition Ming: 50 years that changed China is open at the British Museum until 5 January 2015. During the years 1400-1450 the Chinese empire reached a peak in its own cultural and artistic productions and in its trade and exchange with other cultures. The stunning exhibition at the British Museum vividly represents the first-class  products of those years, with 280 extraordinary works from the Museum collections and from many other institutions.

Among the most interesting pieces from the British Library collections which are now on display, we find 3 volumes of the Yongle Encyclopaedia (永樂大典 Yongle Dadian), which takes its name from the Ming Emperor who commissioned it.
 
Emperor Yongle (Yongle 永樂 means perpetual happiness) as portrayed in an 18th century painted album (British Library Or. 2231)
Emperor Yongle (Yongle 永樂 means perpetual happiness) as portrayed in an 18th century painted album (British Library Or. 2231)
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Emperor Yongle (born with the name of Zhu Di 朱棣) was the third Emperor of the Ming dynasty and he reigned from 1402 to 1424. He was a key figure of the development of the Chinese empire: he transferred the capital of the empire from Nanjing to Beijing and ordered the building of the Forbidden City. Under his reign Admiral Zheng He travelled to the Middle East and East Africa strengthening the trade and diplomatic links with foreign countries. Indeed the importance of China as a production centre for the export of high quality goods during the first half of the 15th century is testified by some exquisite British Library Persian manuscripts, written on Chinese decorated paper, now on display in the exhibition.

Emperor Yongle commissioned the Yongle Dadian in July 1403 and the project involved 2169 scholars and compilers from the Hanlin Academy and the National University. Completed in 1408, it was the world’s largest literary compilation, comprising 22,877 chapters bound in 11,095 volumes. The Yongle Dadian was taken as an example and frequently quoted in the Qing dynasty encyclopaedia Siku quanshu (四庫禁書 “Complete Library of the Four Treasuries”), a colossal compilation in 36,275 volumes commissioned in 1773 by Emperor Qianlong.

The size, the type of paper, and the binding of the volumes are different from the other Chinese encyclopaedias. The paper is heavy with dark red vertical rulings. The subject headings are written in red on the outer edges of the pages. The binding is in the “wrapped-back” style (包背裝 bao bei zhuang), but with a distinctive yellow silk hard-cover to protect the paper.
 
Distinctive yellow hard cover from the volume containing chapters 7389 and 7390 of the Yongle Dadian (Jiajing to Longqing period, 1562-7) (British Library Or.11758)
Distinctive yellow hard cover from the volume containing chapters 7389 and 7390 of the Yongle Dadian (Jiajing to Longqing period, 1562-7) (British Library Or.11758)
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The Yongle Dadian is unique not only for its physical appearance but also for its content arrangement: unlike other Chinese compilations, the parts are not ordered by subject, but by the rhythm system of the dictionary 洪武正韻 (Hongwu zhengyun). This system is closer to the idea of an alphabetical arrangement, and in this way it was easier to find a specific entry.

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A page from the woodblock printed dictionary 洪武正韻 (Hongwu zhengyun) which is named after Hongwu (r. 1368-1398), the first emperor of the Ming dynasty who commissioned this work in 1375. 16th century copy (British Library 15342.b.14)
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The content of the encyclopaedia covers all aspects of traditional “Confucian” knowledge and contains the most representative literature available at that time, ranging from history and drama to farming techniques. It comprises large sections of historical documents and other sources, transcribed character for character, with the name of the author or the source in red.
In fact, the term encyclopaedia, which is commonly used when referring to the Yongle Dadian, is slightly misleading since 大典 (da dian) means grand “canon” or “code” and the Yongle Dadian should be regarded rather as the Chinese literary genre of 類書 (lei shu), which literally means “classified writings”. These literary compilations span a wide variety of texts, such as dictionaries, reference books, manuals and anthologies. Unlike Western encyclopaedias which are based on edited entries, the Yongle Dadian is a collection of readings and excerpts from existing literature. Despite the non-originality (as we understand the term now) of these types of work, the value of the Yongle Dadian is enormous as it preserves many texts which otherwise would have been lost.
Left: Chapter 7389 (Jiajing to Longqing period, 1562-7) of the Yongle Dadian, concerned mainly with funeral rites (喪禮  sang li) (British Library Or.11758, f.1r) Right: Illustration from the same item (British Library Or.11758, f.3v)
Left: Chapter 7389 (Jiajing to Longqing period, 1562-7) of the Yongle Dadian, concerned mainly with funeral rites (喪禮  sang li) (British Library Or.11758, f.1r)
Right: Illustration from the same item (British Library Or.11758, f.3v)
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Even though printing techniques were already well developed in the Ming dynasty (the earliest dated woodblock-printed item, the Diamond Sutra, dates back to the 9th century), the Yongle Dadian was handwritten because of its length and extent. The only 1408 manuscript was almost destroyed by fire during the sixteenth century, and as a result two other copies were produced during the reigns of Jiajing 嘉靖 (1522-1566) and Longqing 隆慶 (1567-1572). This was not enough to keep the precious manuscripts safe: during the fall of the Ming dynasty and the rise of the Qing in 1644, the 1408 copy was destroyed and some of the later ones were lost or dispersed. The 1562-7 copies were at that time the earliest edition to survive and the number of volumes went down to 800. During the Boxer Uprising in Beijing during the spring of 1900, half of the remaining volumes which were stored in the Hanlin Academy were destroyed and now less than 400 juan (chapters) remain. They represent only the 3% of the total initial corpus.
Soy bean recipes on folio 3 (verso) of  chapter 13340 from the Yongle Dadian (British Library Or. 12020, Jiajing to Longqing period, 1562-7)
Soy bean recipes on folio 3 (verso) of  chapter 13340 from the Yongle Dadian (British Library Or. 12020, Jiajing to Longqing period, 1562-7)
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David Helliwell, Curator of Chinese Collections at the Bodleian Library in Oxford, has worked extensively on the Yongle Dadian volumes held in the European libraries (see Helliwell below), tracing their arrival from Beijing and identifying in 1997 a new volume in the University of Aberdeen Library [1]. Today there are about 56 volumes in Europe (51 in the United Kingdom and the remaining 5 in Berlin). The British Library currently holds 24 volumes of the Yongle Dadian, corresponding to 49 chapters. During the 1930s the National Library of China made copies of some chapters and donated them to the British Museum Library. Furthermore, in 1960, the Chinese publisher 中華書局 Zhonghua Shuju produced facsimiles of all the existing volumes.

Geomantic diagrams in chapter 14219 from the Yongle Dadian dedicated to geomancy (British Library Or. 14446, f. 5r, Jiajing to Longqing period, 1562-7)
Geomantic diagrams in chapter 14219 from the Yongle Dadian dedicated to geomancy (British Library Or. 14446, f. 5r, Jiajing to Longqing period, 1562-7)
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Ming: 50 years that changed China is open at the British Museum until 5 January 2015.
The British Library’s Yongle Dadian volumes 7389-90, 14219-20 and 13340-41 pictured in this article are on display.

References
Grinstead, Eric Douglas, “The Yung-lo Ta-tien: an Unrecorded Volume”, in The British Museum Quarterly no. 26, 1962.
Harrison-Hall, Jessica, “‘Ming: 50 years that changed China’ at the British Museum”, in Orientations, vol. 45, no. 6, 2014.
Helliwell, David, “Holdings of Yongle Dadian in United Kingdom libraries” in Yongle Dadian bianzuan 600 zhounian guoji yantaohui lunwenji, Beijing, 2003.
Shih-shan, Henry Tsai, Perpetual Happiness: the Ming Emperor Yongle, University of Washington Press, 2001.

 


Sara Chiesura, Asian and African Studies
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[1] Helliwell, David, “The Aberdeen volume of Yongle Dadian”, lecture given to the University of Aberdeen Chinese Studies Group, 16 March 2009.



21 August 2014

Persian letters from the Nawabs of the Carnatic 1777-1816

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Following the Seven Years War or, in India, the Third Carnatic War (1757-63), the Nawabs of Arcot (styled Walajah)—former dependents of the Nizam al-Mulk of Hyderabad—were confirmed as independent rulers of the Carnatic region of India (covering Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, and Telangana states) by the Mughal Emperor, Shah ‘Alam, in 1765. Fostering relations with European settlers establishing military outposts along the Coromandel Coast, at Pondicherry (Puducherry) and Madras (Chennai), for example, the nawabs became closely involved with the transactions and officials of the Honourable East India Company, the British parliament, and even members of the Hanoverian royal family. The character and extent of these relations is reflected in the record of correspondence, treaties, and legal documents of the time. The British Library has inherited from the India Office Library a small collection of such correspondence, consisting of 12 letters in Persian (the official and literary language of the Mughal state), from which a small selection is described here. These were described by M.Z.A. Shakeb in 1982 in a short catalogue which has long been unavailable. A PDF version can be downloaded here.

Aquatint based on a picture by Francis Swain Ward (1736-1794) of the mosque adjoining the palace of the Nawab of Arcot at Tiruchchirappalli, Tamil Nadu. Plate 1 from 24 Views in Indostan by William Orme, 1803 (British Library X768/2/1)
Aquatint based on a picture by Francis Swain Ward (1736-1794) of the mosque adjoining the palace of the Nawab of Arcot at Tiruchchirappalli, Tamil Nadu. Plate 1 from 24 Views in Indostan by William Orme, 1803 (British Library X768/2/1)
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The letters written by or issued in the name of the nawabs are on thin oriental paper and are unified as a group by a number of common features: 1) the narrow, vertically elongated scroll format; 2) the placement of ruled panels of text in the lower left corner leaving broad margins along the upper and right edges; 3) floral motifs in gold; 4) 2 separate cartouches for a short invocation followed by the fuller quotation of the koranic basmalah (Qur’an, XXVII:30); and 5) fine flecks of gold (zar afshani) within cartouches and panels of text.

Letter written in 1801 from ʿAzim al-Dawlah, Nawab Walajah III, addressed to King George III (British Library IO Islamic 4359)
Letter written in 1801 from ʿAzim al-Dawlah, Nawab Walajah III, addressed to King George III (British Library IO Islamic 4359)
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The first of these letters, IO Islamic 4359, is distinguished by broad margins covered in opaque gold wash surrounding the ruled panel of text. In keeping with conventions borrowed from imperial ordinances (farmans), this opulent effect is commensurate with the importance of the letter’s addressee, George III, described as

King of Great Britain, France, and Ireland, Defender of the Christian faith, Duke of Brunswick-Lüneburg (Hanover), Chancellor and Prince-Elector of the Holy Roman Empire, Emperor of the Oceans, etc…

Written in an uneven Indian ta‘liq hand by the third nawab, ‘Azim al-Dawlah, the letter announces the death of the second nawab, ‘Umdat al-Umara, on 15 July 1801, and confirms his own accession with the aid of the East India Company.

Letter written in 1801 from ‘Azim al-Dawlah, Nawab Walajah III, addressed to the Prince of Wales (British Library IO Islamic 4361)
Letter written in 1801 from ‘Azim al-Dawlah, Nawab Walajah III, addressed to the Prince of Wales (British Library IO Islamic 4361)
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The designs of letters communicating with other members of the British royal family are less opulent, but no less attractive, with repeated floral motifs in diaper arrangement, loosely painted in gold. The contents of letter IO Islamic 4361 are similar in tenor. Written again by the same nawab, this time in a more legible hand, it additionally requests the intercession of the Prince of Wales (George Augustus Frederick, later Prince-Regent, later King George IV) with his father, the king.

Letter written in 1816 from ‘Azim al-Dawlah, Nawab Walajah III, addressed to the Directors of the East India Company congratulating them on the marriage of Princess Charlotte to Prince Leopold of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld (British Library IO Islamic 4252)
Letter written in 1816 from ‘Azim al-Dawlah, Nawab Walajah III, addressed to the Directors of the East India Company congratulating them on the marriage of Princess Charlotte to Prince Leopold of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld (British Library IO Islamic 4252)
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Following a similar design scheme, the letter IO Islamic 4252 addresses this time officials of the East India Company. Commencing with a reference to the Battle of Waterloo (1815), the letter congratulates British forces on their ‘great victory’ in Europe (referred to here as vilayat) before going on to express pleasure at news of the marriage of the Prince-Regent’s daughter, Charlotte Augusta, Princess of Wales, to Prince Leopold Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld, Duke of Saxony (later Léopold I, King of the Belgians), in 1816. The primary object of this letter is set out in the final few lines: to remind the Prince-Regent of his neglect in replying to earlier petitions, whereas the king did favour the nawab with a reply.

While other letters were written in the nawab’s own hand, this letter is written in a neat nasta‘liq hand by a practiced scribe. That its transcription was supervised by the nawab himself is indicated by the addition at the end of the text (bottom left corner) of the bold and stylised word, bayaz (fair copy), thus validating the letter’s authenticity.

Letter dated 14 Rabiʻ II 1216 (24 August 1801) from Nawab Walajah III’s uncle to the Chairman, Court of Directors, East India Company (British Library IO Islamic 4251)
Letter dated 14 Rabiʻ II 1216 (24 August 1801) from Nawab Walajah III’s uncle to the Chairman, Court of Directors, East India Company (British Library IO Islamic 4251)
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Envelope with the seal of Anvar al-Dawlah Husam Jang Sayf al-Mulk Muhammad Anvar Khan Bahadur (British Library IO Islamic 4251)
Envelope with the seal of Anvar al-Dawlah Husam Jang Sayf al-Mulk Muhammad Anvar Khan Bahadur (British Library IO Islamic 4251)
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Perhaps one of the least typical of this assemblage is the design and character of the letter IO Islamic 4251. Although lacking any ornamentation, defined panels and cartouches of text within rulings, and the narrow, elongated format seen in the previous 3 examples, it consists of 2 thin sheets of silver and gold-flecked paper (sim va zar afshan) covered on both sides in a densely-written nasta‘liq hand.

Written and composed by Muhammad Anvar Khan, brother of the second nawab, the first part of the letter sets out arguments disputing the East India Company’s decision to invest ‘Azim al-Dawlah as the third Nawab of Arcot. Although polite and coached in diplomatic prose, the letter is surprisingly direct in its expression of the extended nawabi family’s strong displeasure, specifying objections on grounds of illegitimacy, inheritance and succession rights under the shari‘ah, the author’s superior claims to the seat (masnad), and possible benefits to the Company if he were to succeed.

The second part of the letter discusses in greater detail the dynasty’s status as the confirmed rulers of the Carnatic region, the genealogy of the main claimants, the author’s claim, and the way in which the East India Company managed the succession. Taken as a whole, the letter vividly illustrates inherent tensions between the nawabs and the East India Company, which eventually took over the administration of the nawab’s domains following the Fourth Anglo-Mysore War (1798-99).


Saqib Baburi, Asian and African Studies
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24 June 2014

‘The Kuwait Cat’s Meat Crisis’ & British Imperial Control

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On 11 January 1937, the British Political Agent in Kuwait, Gerald Simpson De Gaury (1897-1984) returned to Kuwait City from a tour of the interior. Upon his arrival at the Agency, De Gaury was informed by his Head Clerk that a British subject had been arrested and detained by the local authorities. The subject in question, a Pathan [Pashtun] restaurant owner named Abdul Muttalib bin Mahin, had been charged with “selling cat in his restaurant instead of mutton”.

As Muttalib was a British subject, his arrest was contrary to the provisions of the Kuwait Order-in-Council, the agreement between the British Government and Kuwait’s rulers that governed the relationship between the two states. De Gaury’s response to this breach of the agreement was decisive and illustrates well the extent of the British Empire’s control over Kuwait during this period.

According to a letter De Gaury sent to his superior, Trenchard Craven Fowle (1884-1940), the British Political Resident in the Persian Gulf, within half an hour of his return to the city, he had successfully secured Muttalib’s release from prison and temporarily detained him in the Agency instead.

The first page of De Gaury’s letter to Fowle reporting the details of Muttalib’s case, 18th March 1937 (IOR/R/15/1/506 f. 207)
The first page of De Gaury’s letter to Fowle reporting the details of Muttalib’s case, 18th March 1937 (IOR/R/15/1/506 f. 207)
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‘A Herd of Eight Fat Cats’

The next day, the ruler of Kuwait, Shaikh Ahmad Al Jabir Al Sabah apologised to De Gaury in person for the “error in procedure” and then sent a letter to the Agency that presented the ‘evidence’ against Muttalib. According to the letter, the Kuwait Town Watch had visited Muttalib’s house and “found a herd of eight fat cats there”. The letter ended with a request for De Gaury to approve Muttalib’s deportation from Kuwait. In the words of De Gaury, “His Excellency or his officers had thus in effect tried, and convicted the man and I was to be merely his executive official for the deportation”.

Subsequently, De Gaury called for Shaikh Ahmad’s Lieutenant (who was head of the Town Watch) to come to the Agency. Once the Lieutenant arrived, De Gaury informed him that he intended to try Muttalib the following day at 3pm and asked for the witnesses to be ready at that time. In his letter to Fowle, De Gaury states that as he had previously seen an unusual number of cats in the Lieutenant’s own home, he “sharply” asked him how many he himself kept, to which the Lieutenant fearfully responded that his household had “about fourteen, including those in the harem” (the area of a house reserved solely for women).


Evidence: A Dead Cat’s Hair

The next day, De Gaury was told that Shaikh Ahmad had gone away on a hunting trip and that it was not possible to call the witnesses to trial without the Shaikh’s permission. Undeterred, De Gaury held the trial regardless and swiftly dismissed the case against Muttalib due to a lack of evidence. In his letter to Fowle, De Gaury mentions that the American Mission[1] had become involved in the case “with their habitual elan” when Dr. Charles Stanley Mylrea from the Mission’s hospital had analysed a hair found by the Mayor on a table in Muttalib’s restaurant and certified it to be the same as that on a dead cat from a dustbin in the neighbourhood. However, much to the chagrin of the Mission, De Gaury decided that, in the absence of all other witnesses, Mylrea’s assessment carried no weight as evidence.

Dr. Mylrea’s Gravestone at the Old Jewish & Christian Cemetery in Kuwait City. Courtesy of Julia & Keld
Dr. Mylrea’s Gravestone at the Old Jewish & Christian Cemetery in Kuwait City. Courtesy of Julia & Keld

Playing on the Shaikh’s Weakness

According to De Gaury, by this point, the town had split into pro- and anti-Muttalib factions as a result of the controversy and in order to show his support, De Gaury visited Muttalib’s restaurant and publicly rebuked the Mayor of Kuwait who had initially brought the case against the restaurateur. De Gaury’s actions, combined with pressure from Kuwait’s religious establishment (who also supported Muttalib, “owing to his past charity”), soon led the local authorities to lose interest in the case. 

De Gaury believed that the Mayor had initiated the case against Muttaliib in order to try and gain control of his restaurant and had been assisted in this effort by the Town Lieutenant, said by De Gaury to be an “ambitious, jealous man who plays on the Shaikh’s weakness”. At this time, a large number of Indian merchants had recently been expelled from Iran and Iraq and in the words of a British official “were keen to try their luck in Kuwait”. This eventuality worried Shaikh Ahmad as he was concerned that an influx of these merchants into Kuwait would bankrupt their local competitors and cause instability. It is possible that he supported the Mayor’s call for Muttalib’s deportation due to this broader concern.

De Gaury explained to Fowle that the Mayor made the error of attacking a British subject thinking that foreigners would be “easier game” than Kuwaitis and since the Shaikh had “concealed the provisions of the Kuwait Order-in-Council from most of his subjects”, had not realised “that he would in the end encounter me”.


Diplomatic Humour

After receiving De Gaury’s letter, Fowle reported the details of the case onwards to the British Government in India in a letter of his own on 5 May 1937.  In this letter, Fowle joked that by using the ‘capital’ of 14 cats, the Lieutenant and the Mayor “could doubtless have started a flourishing business in the restaurant line”. 

Fowle’s light-hearted commentary on the final page of his letter to the Government of India regarding Muttalib’s case, 5 May 1937 (IOR/R/15/1/506 f. 214).
Fowle’s light-hearted commentary on the final page of his letter to the Government of India regarding Muttalib’s case, 5 May 1937 (IOR/R/15/1/506 f. 214).
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Although the charges against Muttalib were dropped, under the belief that his business would suffer as a result of the accusations nevertheless, he wound up his affairs and left Kuwait. Fowle sardonically remarked that it was not known whether he left “with or without his eight cats”. Thus ended what was known while it lasted as the ‘Kuwait Cat’s Meat Crisis’, and in De Gaury’s words “at one time threatened to be rather serious”.

Although De Gaury may have sympathised with Muttalib’s plight on a personal level, the underlying motivation for the decisive action he took in his support clearly had a wider context. As De Gaury observed, many Kuwaiti subjects were unaware of the depth of Britain’s imperial control over the country and the extent to which the Kuwait Order-in-Council infringed upon on the country’s sovereignty. The crisis therefore served to visibly underline the British Empire’s commanding presence in Kuwait. Muttalib’s almost immediate release from prison and the dismissal of the case against him the next day sent a strong message that all British subjects in Kuwait, even those accused of a crime, were under their government’s protection and could not be arrested or prosecuted by the local authorities.


Primary Sources
London, British Library, ‘File 53/32 V (D 128) Kuwait Miscellaneous', IOR/R/15/1/506

Further reading
al-Ḥātim, ‘Abd Allāh ibn Khālid, Min hunā bada’at al-Kūwayt, 2nd edn (al-Kūwayt: Maṭba‘ah Dār al-Qabas, 1980)

 

Louis Allday, Gulf History & Arabic Specialist
British Library/Qatar Foundation Partnership
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[1] The Arabian Mission of the Reformed Church in America.

05 June 2014

Alexander Dalrymple’s Treaties with Sulu in Malay and Tausug

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When the East India Company began to look for a base in the Philippine islands in order to gain access to the China trade, attention focussed on the Sulu archipelago, lying east of the northern tip of Borneo. In January 1761, the Scottish hydrographer Alexander Dalrymple (1737-1808) arrived on the island of Jolo, the seat of the Sultan of Sulu, charged with the task of negotiating for a trading post for the Company. The then ruler of Sulu was Sultan Muhammad Muizzuddin, also known as Bantilan. He was the younger brother of Sultan Azimuddin I, who at the time of Dalrymple’s visit had been in exile in Manila since 1748 because of local opposition towards his policy of friendship towards Spanish Jesuit missionaries. Following the death of Muizzuddin in 1763 and the brief accession of his son, Sultan Muhammad Azimuddin II, Dalrymple was instrumental in helping Sultan Azimuddin I (usually referred to in European-language sources as ‘Alimuddin’) to return from Manila to Sulu and re-accede to the throne in 1764, where he ruled until his death in 1778.  

Alexander Dalrymple, in a painting of c.1765 attributed to John Thomas Seton (c.1735-1806). Copyright National Museums of Scotland.
Alexander Dalrymple, in a painting of c.1765 attributed to John Thomas Seton (c.1735-1806). Copyright National Museums of Scotland.

A mosque in Sulu, from Narrative of the United States Exploring Expedition, 1844.  British Library, 10001.d vol.5, opp. p. 354.
A mosque in Sulu, from Narrative of the United States Exploring Expedition, 1844.  British Library, 10001.d vol.5, opp. p. 354.  noc

Between 1761 and 1764 Dalrymple negotiated and signed four major treaties with successive sultans of Sulu, leading to the establishment of an East India Company trading post on the island of Balambangan in 1773. Most of the original bilingual treaty papers have survived in the India Office Records in the British Library: the first treaty of 1761 was in Malay and English; the second treaty of 1763 was also originally in Malay and English, but only the Spanish translation of the Malay has survived; and the third and fourth treaties of 1764 were in Tausug (the main language of Sulu) and English.

First Sulu Treaty of 28 January 1761, signed between Sultan Muhammad Muizzuddin of Sulu and Alexander Dalrymple for the East India Company. British Library, IOR: H/629, pp.456-457
First Sulu Treaty of 28 January 1761, signed between Sultan Muhammad Muizzuddin of Sulu and Alexander Dalrymple for the East India Company. British Library, IOR: H/629, pp.456-457.  noc

The English texts of the Treaties are well known, but the Malay and Tausug texts, written in Arabic script, have never been studied, and a close examination inevitably reveals a number of differences with the English text. A typical example is the English text of the first Treaty of 1761, which in clause 1 states that the British shall be granted ‘perpetual’ possession of the ground for their settlement, a word which is absent in the Malay version. But perhaps the most poignant aspect of this Treaty is the addendum found on the reverse of the Malay page: a strong rejection of the sale of opium, and a tight control on arms.  This clause – which is unnumbered and does not appear in any published English version of the treaty – appears to have been included at the request of the Sulus, judging from the detailed exposition in four lines of Malay, ‘The aforementioned trade goods prohibited by His Highness Sultan Muhammad Muizzuddin are opium, while no kinds of arms, big or small, may be sold to to anyone, even to the children and grandchildren of His Highness the Sultan, without the express permission of His Highness the Sultan; only His Highness the Sultan may buy these goods,’ compared with the laconic one-line English translation ‘Opium is contraband & arms & ammunition to any but the Sultan’.  Yet Dalrymple himself apparently strongly supported this prohibition; the culprit responsible for later developing the Sulu trade in opium and arms was the unscrupulous John Herbert, chief of the East India Company post at Balambangan, who was also responsible for a massive fraud against the Company itself which led to the financial collapse of the Balambangan settlement.

Addendum to the first Sulu Treaty of 28 January 1761, banning the sale of opium and restricting the sale of arms, in Malay with brief English translation: Maka adapun dagangan yang dilarangkan Paduka Seri Sultan Muhammad Muizzuddin yang telah tersebut itu iaitu apiun, dan demikian lagi segala alat senjata besar kecil tiada boleh dijual kepada orang lain, jikalau pada pihak anak cucu Paduka Seri Sultan sekalipun jika bukan izin daripada Paduka Seri Sultan, hanya Paduka Seri Sultan yang membeli jua adanya. Opium is contraband & arms & ammunition to any but the Sultan.  British Library, IOR: H/629, p.455.
Addendum to the first Sulu Treaty of 28 January 1761, banning the sale of opium and restricting the sale of arms, in Malay with brief English translation: Maka adapun dagangan yang dilarangkan Paduka Seri Sultan Muhammad Muizzuddin yang telah tersebut itu iaitu apiun, dan demikian lagi segala alat senjata besar kecil tiada boleh dijual kepada orang lain, jikalau pada pihak anak cucu Paduka Seri Sultan sekalipun jika bukan izin daripada Paduka Seri Sultan, hanya Paduka Seri Sultan yang membeli jua adanya. Opium is contraband & arms & ammunition to any but the Sultan.  British Library, IOR: H/629, p.455.  noc

The first Treaty is also notable for high standard of the formal Malay language used, and its proficient calligraphy. An unusual aspect of the diplomatics of the treaties is that when the various royal Sulu seals were stamped across two pages, the two sheets of paper were first folded along an inner vertical margin, with the seal applied across the folds, resulting in an impression of two halves when the paper was flattened out.  The East India Company seals on the same documents, however, are simply stamped on the flattened sheet of paper. This peculiar method of sealing is not found in any other Muslim kingdom in Southeast Asia. Interestingly, the only other Islamic seal impression known displaying the same characteristic of having been stamped across the folds of a document, yielding a two-part impression, is the iconic seal impression of the Mughal emperor Babur, found on what is possibly the oldest surviving original Mughal document, a land grant dated 1527.

A second copy of the Malay text of the first Sulu Treaty of 28 January 1761, ratified in September 1761by 24 nobles of Sulu listed on the right-hand page. British Library, IOR: H/629, pp.460-461.
A second copy of the Malay text of the first Sulu Treaty of 28 January 1761, ratified in September 1761by 24 nobles of Sulu listed on the right-hand page. British Library, IOR: H/629, pp.460-461.   noc

Further ratification of the first Sulu Treaty of January 1761, signed in Manila on 20 November 1761 by Sultan Muhammad Azimuddin I. This document was probably obtained by Dalrymple, who appears to have been in Manila from 9 November-1 December 1761 (pers.comm., Andrew Cook).  British Library, IOR: H/629, p.459.

Further ratification of the first Sulu Treaty of January 1761, signed in Manila on 20 November 1761 by Sultan Muhammad Azimuddin I. This document was probably obtained by Dalrymple, who appears to have been in Manila from 9 November-1 December 1761 (pers.comm., Andrew Cook).  British Library, IOR: H/629, p.459.  noc

Dalrymple’s third Sulu Treaty, in Tausug and English, signed between Sultan Muhammad Azimuddin I of Sulu and Alexander Dalrymple for the English East India Company, Jolo, Sulu, 2 July 1764.  British Library, IOR: H/629, p.488-489.
Dalrymple’s third Sulu Treaty, in Tausug and English, signed between Sultan Muhammad Azimuddin I of Sulu and Alexander Dalrymple for the English East India Company, Jolo, Sulu, 2 July 1764.  British Library, IOR: H/629, p.488-489.  noc

Dalrymple’s fourth Sulu Treaty, in Tausug and English, signed between Sultan Muhammad Azimuddin I of Sulu and Alexander Dalrymple for the English East India Company, Jolo, Sulu, 28 September 1764. British Library, IOR: H/629, p.pp. 495–502.
Dalrymple’s fourth Sulu Treaty, in Tausug and English, signed between Sultan Muhammad Azimuddin I of Sulu and Alexander Dalrymple for the English East India Company, Jolo, Sulu, 28 September 1764. British Library, IOR: H/629, p.pp. 495–502.  noc

Further reading:
Allen, J. de V., Stockwell, A. J., and Wright, L. R., A collection of treaties and other documents affecting the states of Malaysia 1761-1963.  London: Oceana, 1980. 2 v. [The Sulu treaties are published in v.2, pp.371-388.]
Cook, Andrew S., Alexander Dalrymple (1737-1808), hydrographer to the East India Company and the Admiralty, as publisher : a catalogue of books and charts.  Ph.D. thesis, University of St Andrews, 1993.
Costa, H. de la, ‘Muhammad Alimuddin I, Sultan of Sulu, 1735-1773’, Journal of the Malaysian Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, 1965, 38 (1):43-76.
Majul,Cesar Adib, Muslims in the Philippines.  Quezon City: University of the Philippines Press, 1999.
Warren, James Francis, The Sulu Zone 1768-1898.  Singapore: Singapore University Press, 1981.

Annabel Teh Gallop, Lead Curator, Southeast Asia

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19 March 2014

BL Event: Korean Literature: Past and Present

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In connection with the London Book Fair 2014 the British Library is holding an event entitled Korean Literature: Past and Present from 6.30-8 pm on Tuesday, 8th April.  One of Korea’s foremost novelists, Yi Mun-yol, will be in conversation with Dr Grace Koh, Lecturer in Korean Literature at SOAS, and Brother Anthony of Taizé, a noted translator of Korean literature.

Cho Ung chǒn “The Tale of Cho Ung“, Korean novel in hangŭl script. c.1850 (British Library 15260.c.7 )
Cho Ung chǒn
“The Tale of Cho Ung“, Korean novel in hangŭl script. c.1850 (British Library 15260.c.7 )
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Korea has been chosen as The London Book Fair’s Market Focus for 2014 to reflect the country’s status as one of the top ten publishing markets in the world, and its expanding reputation within the international literary community.

The event will also include a brief intoduction to the British Library’s Korean collection which contains many historical and contemporary literary works, notably a collection of rare 19th century novels in hangŭl script.

For more details of the Event see the BL website:  What's on

For information on the BL’s Korean collections: Help for researchers: Korean collections

 

Hamish Todd, Asian and African Studies

 

28 February 2014

The Adviser (المستشار): Charles Belgrave and Modern Bahrain

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At the time of his death on 28 February 1969, Charles Dalrymple Belgrave had not set foot in Bahrain for more than a decade. Yet for over 30 years – between 1926 and 1957 – when he served as Adviser to the rulers of Bahrain, Sheikh Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa (reigned 1923-1942[1]) and Sheikh Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa (1942-1961), Belgrave was an immensely powerful figure in the country and played an instrumental role in its development during this period.

Shaikh Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa and Charles Belgrave, Bahrain, 1945. (Dmitri Kessel—Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images)
Shaikh Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa and Charles Belgrave, Bahrain, 1945. (Dmitri Kessel—Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images)

Born in England on 9 December 1894, Belgrave was educated at Bedford School and Oxford University. After leaving Oxford he joined the British Army and during WWI he served in Egypt, Sudan and Palestine with the Imperial Camel Corps Brigade. After the war, he served as an administrator in the Siwa Oasis in Egypt before becoming an administrative officer in the British mandate of Tanganyika Territory (formerly German East Africa).

In the summer of 1925, while on leave in London from his posting in Tanganyika, Belgrave saw an advertisement for a vacancy in the personal column of The Times newspaper that was to transform his life.

Young Gentleman, aged 22/28, Public School and/or University education, required for service in an Eastern State. Good salary and prospects to suitable man, who must be physicially fit: highest references; proficiency in languages an advantage. Write with full details to Box S.501, The Times, London E.C.4.
(The Times, 10 August 1925)

Belgrave applied for the post and after a series of interviews with British Government officials (including the British Political Resident in the Persian Gulf, Francis Prideaux) he was offered the position of Adviser to Shaikh Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, the ruler of Bahrain. A letter Belgrave wrote to Prideaux in September 1925 reveals that he had conveniently forgotten his own age when he applied (he was 31 at the time and the upper age limit was 28).

First page of a letter sent from Belgrave to Prideaux, 11 September 1925 (IOR/R/15/1/362 f. 1E)
First page of a letter sent from Belgrave to Prideaux, 11 September 1925 (IOR/R/15/1/362 f. 1E)
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Before setting out for Bahrain, Belgrave completed a three-month Arabic course at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London in order to refresh his Arabic and married his fiancée, Marjorie Lepel Barrett-Lennard. The newly-married couple arrived in Manama in March 1926 having combined their journey to Bahrain with their honeymoon.

Belgrave began his new role at a tense time in the country, Shaikh Hamad had been installed as ruler by the British only three years earlier when his father Shaikh Isa bin Ali Al Khalifa had been forced to step down. This had led to lingering tensions between Shaikh Hamad and factions within Bahrain – including members of his own family – that supported his elderly father, Isa.

Belgrave was Adviser to Shaikh Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, the ruler of Bahrain (pictured above) from 1926 until Hamad’s death in 1942. Source: Wikimedia Commons
Belgrave was Adviser to Shaikh Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, the ruler of Bahrain (pictured above) from 1926 until Hamad’s death in 1942. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Though Bahrain was nominally independent, Britain had dictated its foreign policy since the 19th century, before consolidating its power over the islands in 1900, with the creation of the post of British Political Agent in Bahrain. Although Belgrave was an employee of the Shaikh and not the British Government, as his hiring process clearly demonstrates, his position was closely tied to the colonial aims of the British in the region. Belgrave swiftly became a powerful figure in Bahrain and came to be known simply as ‘The Adviser’ (المستشار). He essentially ran Bahrain’s government, was the head of its police force and – in the absence of an organised legal code – personally operated its courts. Belgrave oversaw a programme of modernisation that saw the creation of an education system, a police force, a health service and an extensive series of public works (including roads, power stations, piers and airports). This transitional period also saw a centralisation of power and the consolidation of both the British and Al Khalifa family’s position in Bahrain. Belgrave was also instrumental in supporting oil exploration in the country, which was the first in the region to discover oil, in 1932.

A 1935 Indian postage stamp picturing King George V that is marked for use in Bahrain. Source: Wikimedia Commons
A 1935 Indian postage stamp picturing King George V that is marked for use in Bahrain. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Belgrave is an extremely visible presence in the records of the Political Agency, Bahrain, and elsewhere in the India Office Records held at the British Library, with a very large amount of correspondence and other papers bearing his name, paying testimony to the range of matters he covered and to his great attention to administrative detail. In fact, Belgrave’s fastidious attention to detail was something for which he was criticised. In May 1941, Charles Geoffrey Prior, the British Political Resident in the Persian Gulf wrote to his superiors in India that Belgrave had a “tendency to waste time on trivialities”. In the same letter, Prior also claimed that Belgrave’s increasing aloofness had caused a drop in his popularity and that he “and the other Bahrain officials have had their way for so long without any supervision, inspection or control that they have become a society of self-satisfied Czars”.

Extract of letter from Charles Geoffrey Prior to O.K Caroe at the India Office in London, 25 May 1941. (IOR/R/15/1/344 f. 129)
Extract of letter from Charles Geoffrey Prior to O.K Caroe at the India Office in London, 25 May 1941. (IOR/R/15/1/344 f. 129)
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Prior’s concern was prescient as by the 1950s Belgrave had become an unpopular figure in Bahrain; many Bahrainis had grown angry at the amount of power that was centralised in his hands. Belgrave had come to embody British Imperialism in the Middle East at a time of fervent Arab nationalist activity and when, after the Suez Crisis, Britain’s standing in the region had reached a nadir. Belgrave was viewed by many in Bahrain as an impediment to the country making the transition to a democracy and as shown in this BBC archival clip from 1956, calls for him to leave the country were at the forefront of the demands of protestors at the time. As one protestor stated to the BBC reporter, “Belgrave is not just an adviser – he is the judge, and when he goes to the court he is also the police commandant. He is everything in Bahrain, he is not an adviser.” Eventually, in April 1957, Belgrave was forced to leave and was never to set foot in Bahrain again.

Once back in the UK, Belgrave wrote an autobiography named Personal Column which offers a fascinating insight into his life and the development of Bahrain during this period. In the book’s conclusion, Belgrave states his belief that if a more liberal system of government is to be introduced in Bahrain, it should be done so gradually and that any attempt to “rush the process” would be “disastrous” - a clear expression of the attitude that eventually made his position in the country untenable and forced him to leave. Ultimately, Belgrave’s legacy in Bahrain remains a contentious issue, but it is one that anyone wishing to understand the modern history of Bahrain must seriously engage with.

More stories related to the modern history of the Gulf can be found on the British Library's Untold Lives blog.


Further reading:

BL IOR/R/15/1/362: 'File 19/204 I (C 55) Bahrain, Appointment of Financial Adviser, Belgrave and Assistant, Luard'.
BL IOR/R/15/1/344: 'File 19/169 III (C 80) Bahrain Reforms'.
Charles Belgrave, Personal Column (London, 1960).
Charles Belgrave, The Pirate Coast (London, 1966).
Mayy Muḥammad al-Khalīfah , Tshārlz Biljrīf : al-sīrah wa-al-mudhakkirāt (Beirut, 2000).
Photographs of Bahrain: Life Magazine, Life in the Middle East: Power and Petroleum in the Gulf in 1945.

Louis Allday, Gulf History/Arabic Specialist, British Library/Qatar Foundation Partnership
Twitter - @Louis_Allday





[1] Note: some do not recognise Hamad’s reign as formally beginning until the death of his father, Isa in 1932.