Colonialism and manuscript libraries in island Southeast Asia

Leverhulme Research Leadership Award: Mapping Sumatra’s Manuscript Cultures

Call for Papers

Deadline for proposals: February 15, 2023

Most of the manuscripts from the diverse writing traditions of island Southeast Asia that are now held in institutional collections are there as a result of colonial intervention, whether driven by philological or antiquarian scholarship or as the byproduct of conflict between local polities and European agents. Public discourse in Southeast Asia and in Europe increasingly asserts that the displacement of these manuscripts, whether commissioned or looted, was theft, and a deliberate act of violence against indigenous epistemologies. Academic discourse within Malay manuscript studies has tended not to take this view,1 though several scholars have noted the distortions that European collecting may have caused in Malay manuscript culture. 

This workshop aims to take a fresh look at this question, by focusing on manuscript libraries—not individual texts, but collections of books from particular places and times. These are represented by two distinct sets of data. The first are the colonial-era collections in which manuscripts are almost always severed from the libraries in which they were originally found, and thus from crucial contextual information about their original social and intellectual milieux. It is possible, however, by careful philological and codicological work to identify the remains of local libraries and reassemble, albeit incompletely, a more holistic picture of local manuscript libraries.2  The second set of data is manuscript libraries that survive in situ through initiatives such as EAP and DREAMSEA3. DREAMSEA and EAP libraries remain in their places of origin, and may represent a continuous intellectual and literary tradition. But though little research has been done as yet4, it is obvious that these in situ collections have also changed over time, that their contents, use, circulation and significance in the 21st century is not what it was in the 18th or 19th.

By attending to the question of the impact of colonialism on the insular Southeast Asian library, the workshop hopes to provide a well founded and nuanced account of local manuscript cultures—in terms of texts, genres, practices, and materiality—across island Southeast Asia during the colonial era and after. Though engaging with the legacy of Orientalist philology, collecting practices, and epistemology, emphasis will be placed on the responses of local actors, moving beyond a simplistic narrative of destructive European powers and waning local polities.

Papers are invited on the topic of insular Southeast Asian manuscript libraries and colonialism, broadly defined. They may deal with the project case studies (the Palembang palace library, Acehnese personal libraries documented by EAP329, and Minangkabau surau libraries documented by EAP144) or with other libraries or manuscript collections in island Southeast Asia, whether Islamic or not (i.e. in Java, the Malay peninsula, the Philippines, or eastern Indonesia). Topics may include: 

  • accounts of specific libraries or collections; 
  • local actors’ opposition to and/or collaboration with colonial philological activity; 
  • the effect of military intervention on scriptoria or libraries; 
  • colonial philological commissioning of manuscript copies; 
  • comparative studies of manuscript collecting by different colonial regimes; 
  • issues of restitution, ideally going beyond the physical return of the manuscript or collection and into considerations of how these material artefacts may be made meaningful to their communities of origin once again.

Applications are invited to present a paper, or attend the workshop and participate in masterclass sessions for PhD students.

Paper presenters: Please provide a title, short (300 word) abstract and a short biography by February 15, 2023, to and Titles, abstracts and presentations may be delivered in English or in Malay/Indonesian.

Masterclass participation: Researchers at the PhD stage are invited to attend the workshop, and participate in masterclasses. Limited finanicial support for travel and accommodation in London is available. Please provide a short (300 word) account of your research and how it connects to the workshop theme, and a short biography, by February 15, 2023, to and

The workshop will take place over three days (24-26 May 2023) at SOAS University of London. 


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1. E.U. Kratz, “The Editing of Malay Manuscripts and Textual Criticism,” Bijdragen tot de Taal-, Land- en Volkenkunde 137 (1981): 236; Ian Proudfoot, “An Expedition into the Politics of Malay Philology,” Journal of the Malayan Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society 284 (2003).

2. Such as Annabel Teh Gallop, “The Library of an 18th-Century Malay Bibliophile: Tengku Sayid Jafar, Panglima Besar of Selangor,” to be published in Social Codicology, ed. Olly Ackerman; Teuku Iskandar, “Palembang Kraton Manuscripts,” in A Man of Indonesian Letters: Essays in Honour of Professor A. Teeuw, eds. C.M.S. Hellwig and S.O. Robson (Dordrecht: Foris, 1986), 67-72; G. W. J. Drewes, Directions for Travellers on the Mystic Path (The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1977), 198.

3. and

4. An important recent article using EAP material is A.C.S. Peacock, “Arabic Manuscripts from Buton, Southeast Sulawesi, and the Literary Activities of Sultan Muḥammad ʿAydarūs (1824–1851),” The Journal of Islamic Manuscripts 10 (2019): 44-83.

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