Sunday, 1 November 2015

European Primary Sources for Ancient Indonesia

     I've recently been delving into the European primary sources on ancient Indonesia, including Pliny the Elder, Marco Polo, Niccolo de' Conti, Antonio Pigafetta, Afonso de Albuquerque (the elder and the younger), Odoric of Pordenone, and Tome Pires. It's actually quite easy to find most of their works in the original languages, or at least an early version if there's no single original language edition (Pigafetta is supposed to have written in French and only afterward published an Italian edition, but actually it's easier to find the Italian).

      So I've been trying to read Marco Polo in Old French, with the assistance of an Old French textbook, an online Old French dictionary, and my knowledge of modern French. It's surprisingly easy to get through, although it probably helps that Polo's discussion of Java and Sumatra is short and formulaic ('the people of [...] are all idolaters, and they do not pay tribute to the Great Khan'). I'm struggling a bit with Pigafetta because I don't know Italian very well, but with a bit of etymological nous and exposure to all of these texts in Old French, Latin, and Portuguese I'm starting to get a real grip on these Romance languages overall. And I have a good chunk of Pigafetta already translated into English in The Best of Borneo Travel.

      It's interesting that most of the early European sources are in Romance languages, although Vladimir Braginsky, the Russian scholar of Malay, has drawn attention to several eastern Christian sources as well (I'm not going to attempt those just yet...).

An artsy photo of an unfinished version of part of Marco Polo's account of Sumatra. This was my first attempt with that script, known as Gothic Textura Prescisus vel sine Pedibus, or foot-less textura Gothic. It's unfinished, but even in this unfinished state you can see that it's not perfect - wonky lines in a script that demands precision.

       I haven't just been reading these texts; I've been copying them. It seems to help with recall and understanding, which isn't surprising at all given the amount of engagement with each word this requires.

       I started by making single A4 pages of calligraphic versions of Marco Polo (see here), but a while ago I decided to copy them into a couple of chunky hardback black notebooks with thick acid-free pages that I bought at Paperchase. That puts all the disparate sources on ancient Indonesia in one spot.

       I started with a dip pen and a pot of Indian ink, but that's laborious to say the least. I transitioned to copying them with soft tip pens in a semi-calligraphic script called littera hybrida, but, after about a hundred pages, realised that it could be both quicker and less expensive than that. I was using Faber-Castell PITT calligraphy pens, which are certainly good quality, but they're clearly not intended for writing a hundred pages of dense hybrida; the edges of the tips would fray eventually, the ink would dry in the well, and the page would look scrappy and ugly. So I'd have to buy another one every dozen pages at £2.99 a go. Not cheap.

This is a fairly typical page spread from my first attempt at copying Pigafetta calligraphically. This script is easy to write and it looks fairly bold and impressive, but it's expensive to do this and there are faster ways. There are also more attractive ways; I can't say this is my favourite script.

     So now I've started a new notebook in a much easier but still sort-of-period-accurate script generally called secretary hand (or late court hand). It was used primarily for writing English between the late-fifteenth century and the beginning of the eighteenth, and it's much less expensive than the old way, as I can use my normal Lamy fountain pen with an extra-fine nib. You can read about secretary hand here, on Cambridge's English department website, which was an enormous help. I also used Michelle Brown's A Guide to Western Historical Scripts from Antiquity to 1600 - a relatively inexpensive guide to older handwritten European scripts (it says nothing about print).

This is what a couple of pages of Niccolo de' Conti in my secretary hand looks like. It's clearly handwritten and, while not particularly calligraphic, it is fast and easy to write like this. Yes, it's a bad photo, but you get some idea of how it looks.

      I've also started a notebook for the Chinese sources - all of the bits and pieces Paul Wheatley assembled a long time ago in The Golden Khersonese, the classic work on the historical geography of the Malay Peninsula. I want to find the other sources, on Java, Maluku, and so on, but I'll deal with the low-hanging fruit first.
Close-up shot of my secretary hand version of Afonso de Albuquerque the younger's piece on the conquest of Melaka by his father. I can write this as quickly as my normal handwriting, which is why it isn't particularly good-looking (although it's significantly more calligraphic than some examples I've seen). This is probably the most exciting European document on the area, full of royal elephants being struck by Portuguese javelins.

      As I've mentioned before, I'm also working on the old Malay script, Jawi, in which a large number of older documents exist. A while ago I bought a lovely book by Annabel Teh Gallop called The Legacy of the Malay Letter/Warisan Warkah Melayu, a study of the Malay letter-writing tradition published jointly by the British Library and Arkib Negara Malaysia in English/Malay parallel text. There are photographs of hundreds of Malay letters, most of them from the nineteenth century. Included are the two oldest known Malay letters, written by Sultan Abu Hayat of Ternate (in far eastern Indonesia) to King John III of Portugal in 1521 and 1522, and I hope to copy them at some point, as well as some of the older Malay poems and stories. The letters are surprisingly legible, and it's interesting that they come from the periphery of the Malay-speaking world. I'm going to copy the text of the Terengganu Inscription Stone as well, which is fortunately quite short.

    I've been busy lately, as you can probably tell, and so I haven't been adding anything to my blog, but I'm writing a few posts about bits and bobs from the primary sources as well as a couple of other topics, so hopefully I'll be able to post regularly until the end of the year at least. There are some strange stories repeated in several European texts, and it might be interesting to explore them.

UPDATE: Thought I'd just add this picture of my horrific characters in my notebook version of the Chinese texts on the Malay Peninsula. I've read a lot of Chinese in my life, but I tend not to write very much these days...
What Chinese characters look like if you don't write very often.


  1. Do you happen to know much about current mainland Chinese historiography on the imperial period? I'm curious how much ideological constraints factor in, though I imagine there's plenty of good archival source work done.

    1. I honestly have no idea. Most of the Chinese sources I've been reading have been relatively short extracts from dynastic histories based on travellers' reports, or they've been books written by sailors or monks. Very little referring to China overall - the main historiographic problems are more to do with the transcription of names and traditional stereotyping of southern barbarians, so they're quite specific to Indonesia and the Nanyang. And most of the sources were isolated by European scholars a century ago or more, so current ideology isn't particularly relevant. For the period up to 1511, it's also rather unlikely that we'll find anything new referring to Indonesia in the Chinese archives, so I'm somewhat less interested in it.

      From what I've heard from people (Westerners, though) studying modern China, 'current ideological constraints' are fairly flexible. I suppose the CCP has always had a conflicted relationship with the imperial period, so I doubt they expect anyone to tow any specific party line, as long as they don't besmirch the name of China in their research.


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