Home

Mapping the Maps at Cambridge University Library

Leave a comment

Imagine maps as big as bedsheets, and then imagine the sheets big enough for beds made wide enough to sleep extended families. Only such a double stretch of the imagination can provide the scale of the three Burmese maps in the University Library’s collection, which have recently been made available online in digital format.

From bedsheet to map is not a great leap: all three maps are inked or painted on to generous lengths of cloth. Yet they do not depict lines on a map as the eye in the 21st century is accustomed to seeing them.  The most colourful of the three maps, the map of the Maingnyaung region [Maps.Ms.Plans.R.c.1] is the one which forces the most abrupt lurch, down from that comfortable view on high of modern mapping convention. Instead, the viewer is positioned near ground level, and invited here to view a stupa, there a crocodile down in the river, away in the distance a noble line of hills. Trees are no mere generic features. While the perspective is mostly from the ground, it co-exists with other even less familiar conventions. Pagodas and stupas either loom large or sit very small, their size and their sanctity apparently intermeshed. Towns and villages, rivers and streams are the sole features which come close to appearing from a bird’s eye view. Yet the neat tracings of brickwork, and of waves on the water’s surface, suggest they may be meant to convey not the lay of the land from the air but other rules of belonging, of enclosure or of flow.

The other two maps, the map of the Royal Lands [Maps.Ms.Plans.R.c.3] and map of Sa-lay township [Maps.Ms.Plans.R.c.2], are less colourful than the first, but in some respects even more intriguing. Like the Maingnyaung map, they take many of their bearings from ground level. Manmade landmarks use scales which vary, apparently, according to their importance rather than their physical size. With vegetation, there is an insistence on specifics. Yet both maps feature grids traced carefully and evenly across the entire surface. These maps present two worlds at once. There are vistas to be contemplated and meaningful features to be explored in the landscape. But there is also a view from on high, where trees were counted and areas under crop were calculated, and probably, somewhere off the surface of the map, converted into tax exactions.

Photographing the Burmese maps was quite a challenge for the Library’s Digital Content Unit. The smallest map was made of 126 images, the largest of 420 and it had to be stitched into 9 parts first before being put into one piece. Some parts of the process took a few hours to complete for the computer with 64 GB RAM memory and 3Ghz 8 core computer. The biggest challenge was obviously handling. It was impossible to move the map without changing the arrangement. Hence the last map, the largest [Maps.Ms.Plans.R.c.3] took a long time to prepare as they had to experiment with different stitching methods.

Great credit goes to the Map Department of the UL, both in finding the will and securing the resources to have the maps conserved and digitised, and to the Cambridge Digital Library, for producing digital pages so effortlessly navigable that they take nothing away from the joy of poring over them. They make it easier, in fact, to hover over the details, whether you are contemplating the view from the ground or from on high. What’s more, the speed of the internet has improved to such an extent in modern Myanmar, that these massive cloth maps can be viewed with ease in Yangon or Mandalay. Maps such as these are rare, non-existent even, in the location where they were originally made. No such maps produced on cloth are known to have survived within Myanmar today. This only adds to the hope and expectation that they will be pored over, enjoyed, and further studied and interpreted from quarters near and far.

To read the full article on these three maps and their provenance written by Natasha Pairaudeau, please visit the Cambridge University Library Special Collections website.

Glimpses of early Siam and Burma (Thailand and Myanmar)

Leave a comment

The Royal Commonwealth Society Library has just created an electronic catalogue for one of its largest and most significant manuscript collections: the papers of the diplomat, colonial administrator and orientalist Henry Burney (1792-1845). Burney was born in Calcutta, the son of a Senior Master of the Calcutta Military School for Orphans. His grandfather was the musicologist Dr Charles Burney and his aunt the novelist Frances Burney. Burney was commissioned into the East India Company’s army in 1808, but transferred to its political service when appointed Military Secretary to the Governor of Penang in 1818. From 1825 he served as Political Agent to the states adjacent to Penang and led several political missions. From the beginning of his career, Burney had displayed a gift for oriental languages, soon mastering Hindustani, and during this time he acquired Siamese and Malay. Burney’s grasp of local politics and languages led to his appointment as Envoy to the Court of Siam, and he travelled to Bangkok in September 1825. By June 1826 he had successfully negotiated a treaty with the King.

In 1827 Burney was posted to the new British province of Tenasserim, which had been acquired during the First Anglo-Burmese War (1824-1826), serving as Deputy Commissioner of Tavoy. Burney immediately began learning Burmese. In 1829, he acted decisively to suppress a rebellion. His diplomatic experience and linguistic skill were further recognised in 1829 with the appointment as the Indian government’s representative to the Burmese Court. Burney arrived at the capital of Ava on 24 April 1830, establishing the first British Residency. Burney’s study of Burmese (with the aid of a tutor) had advanced so rapidly that by April 1832 he was able to communicate directly with the Burmese ministers in their own language. He enjoyed initial success, resolving the problem of banditry on the Arakan and Tenasserim frontiers and a territorial dispute on the Manipur border. He also persuaded the Burmese government to pay the final instalment of the indemnity owed as part of the war’s settlement.

King Bagyidaw appreciated Burney’s efforts to foster good relations, honouring him with a Burmese title inscribed on gold leaf, Mahaz-eyayazanawrahta, accompanied with a badge of office, a nine-stranded salwe. Burney’s position, however, was undermined in 1837 when Bagyidaw was deposed by the Prince of Tharrawaddy, who later became King, and he found it difficult to work with the new regime. Burney was recalled on 8 March 1838 and went on furlough to England. In 1842, he returned to active service with the EIC army, but died at sea in 1845 while travelling to England on medical leave.

The collection preserves important records of Burney’s diplomatic missions: his instructions, travel, correspondence, journals and reports, which include rare insight into the Siamese and Burmese Courts. It also contains examples of traditional texts, such as Siamese kradat phlao and Burmese black parabaiks and palm leaf manuscripts. Burney shared the family’s intellectual curiosity and literary flair, and was fascinated by Siamese and Burmese culture. He researched the two countries’ climate, geography, languages, history, philosophy, religion, astronomy, mathematics and astrology, and collected important translations from original sources. Burney presented papers to learned bodies such as the Royal Asiatic Society and published in the ‘Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal’, the ‘Asiatic Journal’ and the ‘Journal of the Statistical Society.’ During the early 1840s, Burney received permission from the EIC to publish the journal of his mission to Siam and it is possible that he also contemplated writing a pioneering English language history of Burma. With the resumption of his military career, ill health and an early death at the age of 53, however, these plans never came to fruition. The RCS is also fortunate to possess a number of early photograph collections relating to Burma dating from the 1870s (RCS Y3029A-F), which complement the Burney archive.

The Janus catalogue of the Henry Burney Collection, RCMS 65, is now available online via the Janus homepage, a project that provides access to more than 1800 catalogues of archives held throughout Cambridge.

Reported by Dr John Cardwell, Archivist of the Royal Commonwealth Society collections in Cambridge University Library

Photograph showing Thibaw (d. 1916), the last King of Burma 1878-85, and his wife and half-sister Supyalat [RCS Y3029D_1]

Photograph showing Thibaw (d. 1916), the last King of Burma 1878-85, and his wife and half-sister Supyalat [RCS Y3029D_1]

Documenting a frontier: spectacular hand-painted fabric maps of Burma

Leave a comment

Cambridge University Library welcomes you to ‘Documenting a frontier’ – an opporturtunity to view some spectacular manuscript maps of Burma dating from the 1860s, alongside rare early photographs of the region from the Royal Commonwealth Society’s collection.

The event forms part of the University of Cambridge’s Festival of Ideas (event 66) and takes place on Saturday afternoon, 26th October 2013 in the Map Room, Cambridge University Library. Ticketed entry is at three times: 1:30pm – 2:15pm, 2:30pm – 3:15pm and 3:30pm – 4:15pm.

Please book your place online at: http://www.cam.ac.uk/festival-of-ideas or by phoning: 01223 766766 (lines open Monday-Friday , 10am – 4.30pm)

Event URL: http://www.cam.ac.uk/festival-of-ideas/events-and-booking/documenting-a-frontier
For more information about the event, please email: rcs@lib.cam.ac.uk or phone: 01223 333146

Map of Maingnyaung region (Cambridge University Library, MS.Plans.R.C.1, courtesy of Rachel Rowe)

Map of Maingnyaung region (Cambridge University Library, MS.Plans.R.C.1, photograph courtesy of Rachel Rowe)