Highlights: Treasures of the World from the British Museum

4 12 2015

It is from the treasure trove of what our ancestors have left behind that we find out much of what makes us who we are, the remarkable progress of the human race, and perhaps the common values that binds humans even the most diverse of cultures together. We have now an opportunity in Singapore to have a look at some very significant artefacts that have help to tell us the colourful and eventful story of humankind’s existence when the Treasures of the World from the British Museum exhibition opens on 5 December 2015. The exhibition, which will run for six months until 29 May 2016 , brings some of the best from the British Museum’s rather sizeable collection to the National Museum of Singapore.

Bust of Emperor Hadrian. From Tivoli, Italy. Around AD 125–130. Marble.

Bust of Emperor Hadrian. From Tivoli, Italy. Around AD 125–130. Marble.

The British Museum’s repository of history provides us with a view that spans a period of more than two million years. For the exhibition, the oldest object being brought over is an 800,000 year old hand axe. The Quartzite axe, dates to the lower Palaeolithic period and originates from the Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania. Said to be the “Cradle of Mankind”, the gorge is where some of the earliest evidence of existence of our ancestors has been found.

Stone handaxe. Olduvai Gorge, Tanzania. Lower Palaeolithic, about 800,000 years old. Quartzite.

Stone handaxe. Olduvai Gorge, Tanzania. Lower Palaeolithic, about 800,000 years old. Quartzite.

The exhibition has been laid out such that it spans out from the axe, much as humankind has spread out from the African continent. Objects are presented at a regional or continental level, providing a taste of the evolution of the diverse cultures in regions such as Africa, the Middle East, Asia, Europe, the Americas and Oceania.

The exhibition spans out from the 800,000 year old axe.

The exhibition spans out from the 800,000 year old axe.

Among the exhibits, all of which have more than a story to tell, several caught my eye. There is the must-have mummy plus objects from the tomb from the museum’s well-known collection of Egyptian antiquities. The 2nd Century mummy, that of an adolescent boy, is particularly interesting for its “mummy portrait” – which shows the influence of the Greco-Roman tradition. The portrait – an Egyptian practice, is Roman in terms of style and technique. Such naturalistic portraits are thought to be among the finest surviving works of art from classical antiquity.

Mummy of an adolescent boy. Hawara, Egypt Roman period, AD 100–120 Human tissue, linen, gold, wax.

Mummy of an adolescent boy. Hawara, Egypt Roman period, AD 100–120
Human tissue, linen, gold, wax.

Among the funerary objects is 900 BC mummy board that gained the reputation of being an Unlucky Mummy. A series of misfortunes were attributed to the board – including a suggestion that it was onboard the ill fated SS Titanic when she sank on her maiden voyage.

Mummy-board. Probably from Thebes, Egypt Late 21st or early 22nd Dynasty, 950–900 BC Wood, painted detail on plaster.

Mummy-board. Probably from Thebes, Egypt Late 21st or early 22nd Dynasty, 950–900 BC Wood, painted detail on plaster.

Another exhibit that is worth looking at is a memorial portrait bust of a priest from Palmyra – especially so with the recent destruction of the antiquities there. The limestone bust dates from AD 150 to 200 and is identified as that of Yedibel, the son of Oge Ya’ut. The hat identifies him as a priest.

A memorial portrait bust of a priest from Palmyra, Syria.

A memorial portrait bust of a priest from Palmyra, Syria.

A set of objects from pre-Columbian America also provide a rare insight into the cultures of the period. One artefact that caught my attention is a deity mask representing Xipe Totec, a principal god of the Aztecs. The stone mask, interestingly, has a decorated inside surface carved with a four-armed figure – thought to represent a priest or the deity. Another interesting fact is that Xipe Totec means the “the flayed one”. This apparently alludes to the practice of wearing the flayed skin of sacrificial human victims during springtime planting festivals to ensure the renewal of life – the mask of dead skin was likened to dead vegetation concealing new life beneath it.

Deity mask. Mexico. Aztec (Mexica), around AD 1400–1521. Grey volcanic stone. (The reflection shows the carved inside surface).

Deity mask. Mexico. Aztec (Mexica), around AD 1400–1521. Grey volcanic stone. (The reflection shows the carved inside surface).

Lintel showing a Maya ruler. Yaxchilán, Mexico. Maya, AD 600–900. Limestone.

Lintel showing a Maya ruler. Yaxchilán, Mexico. Maya, AD 600–900. Limestone.

Besides the Aztec mask, the funerary and memorial objects, many other representations of human forms and deities are noticeable throughout the exhibition. There are some of the tallest and heaviest exhibits that are found amongst these. One seemingly friendly chap is a 2.4 metre Welcome figure of the Kwakwaka’wakw people from Vancouver Island, who holds a hand out in welcome. Another tall object and striking form is one that was one half of a pair of door posts from a New Caledonian chief’s house.

Welcome figure. Vancouver Island, Canada. Kwakwaka’wakw people, 19th century AD. Wood.

Welcome figure. Vancouver Island, Canada. Kwakwaka’wakw people, 19th century AD. Wood.

Door post. New Caledonia. 19th or early 20th century AD. Wood.

Door post. New Caledonia. 19th or early 20th century AD. Wood.

The Oceania section.

The Oceania section.

A skull holder from New Guinea.

A skull holder from New Guinea.

Two Young Explorers’ Zones, designed for children aged 7 to 12, will provide the younger ones with an excellent learning opportunity to. The zones feature activity sheets and learning stations. Also, in conjunction with the exhibition, public programmes such as workshops, curated tours, lectures by representatives from the British Museum and other historians, and theatre performances will be held. More information on this can be found at the National Museum of Singapore’s exhibition page. Admission charges apply.

An activity sheet for young explorers.

An activity sheet for young explorers.

A young explorer zone (in the foreground).

A young explorer zone (in the foreground).


Some other highlights:

Figure of a pregnant woman. Cyclades, Greece. Early Bronze Age, 2600–2400 BC. Marble.

Figure of a pregnant woman. Cyclades, Greece. Early Bronze Age, 2600–2400 BC. Marble.

During the third millennium BC, relatively prosperous and wellpopulated settlements flourished on the Cycladic islands in the central Aegean Sea. Among the most striking artistic creations of this period are schematic figures carved in marble. Most are female and are typically shown with their arms folded across the chest, the right arm always placed under the left. This well-carved example is notable for its swollen abdomen, which suggests pregnancy.

The significance of Cycladic figures has been the subject of considerable debate. Many come from graves, perhaps indicating that they were made particularly for funerary use. However, since numbers of them have also been found in settlements, they may have been important in the rituals of the living as well. The depiction of sexual characteristics, and occasionally pregnancy, points to an emphasis on female fertility.


Early erotica perhaps. Marble group of a nymph escaping from a satyr. Tivoli, Italy. 2nd century AD. Marble.

Early erotica perhaps. Marble group of a nymph escaping from a satyr. Tivoli, Italy.
2nd century AD. Marble.

In ancient Greek myth, satyrs were part-human, part-animal beings closely associated with Dionysos, the god of wine. Given to wild passion, they are often shown in art as sexual predators chasing after nymphs and maenads, the female followers of Dionysos. In this marble group, a nymph struggles to free herself from a rapacious satyr who has locked his arms around her waist. Such images of amorous wrestling couples gave vivid expression to male erotic fantasies.

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The sculpture is one of several known Roman versions of an earlier Greek work of the second or first century BC (now lost). With its complex composition of interacting bodies, designed to be seen in the round, it is typical of Hellenistic (later Greek period) art. The collector Charles Townley acquired the sculpture in 1773 through the English dealer Thomas Jenkins. It appears in the famous painting by Johan Zoffany, Charles Townley’s Library (1781–83), now in the collection of the Townley Hall Art Gallery and Museum, Burnley, England.


The Three Crosses. Rembrandt (Harmensz van Rijn) (Dutch, 1606-1668). AD 1653. Dry point etching.

The Three Crosses. Rembrandt (Harmensz van Rijn) (Dutch, 1606-1668). AD 1653. Dry point etching.

The celebrated Dutch painter Rembrandt made over three hundred etchings, and the present work is one of his masterpieces. This scene of Christ’s crucifixion is extraordinarily dramatic on account of the bold contrast between light and shade, with the frail figure of Jesus spotlighted in the centre. The crowd of figures beneath the cross can just be made out in the gloom, an effect that heightens the sense of confusion and suffering that surrounds Christ’s death.

Rembrandt began training as an artist in Leiden at the age of 15. His skill and imagination led to great success once he moved to Amsterdam in 1631. Printmaking was a central element of his production. It supplemented his income and due to the portability of prints it also won him an international reputation, which was important to him since unlike many Dutch artists, he never travelled to Italy.

The Reformation emphasised the importance of private prayer, and prints such as this were both great works of art and a means of bringing Biblical stories vividly to life.


The heaviest treasure, approximately 1100kg. Grave Relief. Probably from Athens, Greece. 4th century BC; head re-cut in the early 1st century AD. Marble.

The heaviest treasure, approximately 1100kg. Grave Relief. Probably from Athens, Greece. 4th century BC; head re-cut in the early 1st century AD. Marble.

This grave relief depicts the idealised figure of a youth, naked but for a cloak over his left arm and shoulder. He holds a scraper or strigil, identifying him as an athlete. Although the stele and its image are of the 4th century BC, it was reused in the early 1st century AD to commemorate the death of a certain “Tryphon, son of Eutychos”. His name is inscribed on the architrave above the figure in Greek letters of the Roman period. To personalise the stele even further, the head was re-carved in contemporary Roman style. Once again, the “portrait” is idealised and may have borne no resemblance to the actual person it was intended to represent. This recycled artefact has survived in remarkably good condition.


Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles collection. General view of the temple at Borobudur. Around AD 1814. Watercolour on paper.

Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles collection. General view of the temple at Borobudur. Around AD 1814. Watercolour on paper.

The temple complex at Borobudur in Central Java is undoubtedly one of the greatest Buddhist monuments in the world. It was built in the 8th and 9th centuries under the patronage of the kings of the Saliendra dynasty (ruled around AD 775−860) as a Buddhist pilgrimage site. Shaped like a stepped pyramid, the main temple is remarkable for its terraces that are richly decorated with relief carvings and Buddha figures. The site began to decline in the 10th century as royal power shifted away from Central Java to the east, and was eventually abandoned in the 16th century.

Borobudur was brought to the attention of European audiences by Thomas Stamford Raffles (1781−1826) during his time as British Lieutenant-Governor of the island. In 1814, when Raffles was informed about a huge “lost” monument deep in the jungles near Yogyakarta, he dispatched the Dutch engineer H. C. Cornelius to investigate. With a force of 200 workers at his disposal, it took Cornelius two months to clear the site and partially reveal the huge terraced pyramid seen in this drawing. It seems likely that the image was produced for Raffles around this time.


Earliest recorded batik and Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles collection. Batik cloth. Java, Indonesia. Before AD 1816. Cotton.

Earliest recorded batik and Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles collection. Batik cloth. Java, Indonesia. Before AD 1816. Cotton. In the foreground, Dagger and scabbard. Java, Indonesia Before AD 1816. Metal, silver, wood.

Indonesia and the island of Java particularly, is unrivalled for the scope and variety of its batik textile production. Although the technique of patterning cloth through the application of wax is known in other parts of the world, it reached the highest level of refinement and complexity on Java.

This sarong skirt cloth is one of two in the British Museum that are among the earliest known examples of Javanese batik in any collection. It consists of a central panel (kepala) made up of triangular motifs (tumpal) with vertical panels to either side, and a main body (badan) on which the broken knife (parang rusak) design has been drawn. Stylistic traits, particularly the parang rusak pattern that was restricted to royalty, mark it as a piece from the Central Javanese court of Yogyakarta.

As Lieutenant-Governor of Java, Stamford Raffles visited the Yogyakarta court on two occasions, in December 1814 and again in January 1816. It is probable that the British Museum batiks were presented as diplomatic gifts on one of these state visits.

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A kris (or keris) is a type of dagger associated primarily with Indonesia and Malaysia, but also found in other areas of Southeast Asia. It is composed of three parts – the blade, the hilt and the scabbard – each of which may be decorated, with significance coming from the form and patterning. The blade is often, but not always, of a wavy shape. Worn by men, the kris was supposed to correspond with its owner’s physical proportions and temperament. As well as being weapons, kris are also heirlooms, part of ceremonial dress and a marker of social status. They are believed to have numerous magical properties, such as bringing good fortune or enhancing bravery. While a kris might bring back bad luck to one owner and have to be discarded, it could function benevolently with another individual.

This kris was collected by Sir Stamford Raffles during his posting as British Lieutenant-Governor of Java from 1811 to 1816.


Standing figure of the Buddha. Ancient Gandhara, Pakistan. AD 100–200. Grey schist.

Standing figure of the Buddha. Ancient Gandhara, Pakistan. AD 100–200. Grey schist.

Located in the region between modern northwest Pakistan and eastern Afghanistan, ancient Gandhara flourished as a major centre of Buddhism in the early centuries of the first millennium AD. Under the patronage of the ruling Kushan dynasty, numerous monasteries and shrines were constructed and furnished with narratives reliefs and devotional sculptures of the Buddha and bodhisattvas (Buddhas-to-be).

This serene figure, carved in grey schist, is representative of the classic Gandharan image. Draped in an elegant monastic robe, the Buddha assumes abhayamudra, the gesture of reassurance, offering protection to the worshipper with his raised hand (now lost). The halo surrounding the head signals his enlightened status. The sculptural traditions of Gandhara were greatly influenced by Greco-Roman prototypes, as is revealed here in the deeply cut folds of the robe and treatment of the hair.


(L) Painting of the bodhisattva Samantabhadra. Tang dynasty, around AD 750–850. Ink and colours on silk. (R) Painting of Lokapala Virūpākṣa, Guardian of the West. Tang dynasty, around AD 850–900. Ink and colours on silk.

(L) Painting of the bodhisattva Samantabhadra. Tang dynasty, around AD 750–850. Ink and colours on silk. (R) Painting of Lokapala Virūpākṣa, Guardian of the West. Tang dynasty, around AD 850–900. Ink and colours on silk.

The subject of this painting is the bodhisattva Samantabhadra, the special patron of the followers of the Lotus Sutra. He is shown seated on a lotus and riding a six-tusked white elephant, his familiar mount. During the Tang dynasty (AD 618–906) Samantabhadra was closely associated with Mañjuśrī, the bodhisattva of wisdom, and the painting may have been one of a pair of votive banners that were hung together for use in worship. Though the colours are today quite faded, in its original state the painting would have featured sumptuous highlights in blue, yellow, pink and red.

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This painting shows the lokapala Virūpākṣa, one of four heavenly kings who together protect the cardinal points of north, south east and west. He is depicted holding a sword, the jewelled scabbard of which rests directly on a demon’s head, only the sparse red hair of which remains. As with many such banners from Dunhuang, the image originally featured borders down each side and a band of lozenges at the bottom.


One of two brass plaques. Benin, Nigeria. Edo people, 16th century AD. Brass.

One of two brass plaques. Benin, Nigeria. Edo people, 16th century AD. Brass.

The powerful West African kingdom of Benin is famous for its brass castings, and particularly for its relief plaques which are unique in Africa. They were made from around 1550 to 1650 and were probably produced in matching pairs to clad the wooden pillars of the royal palace in Benin City. The palace was the centre of political and religious activities that ensured the well-being of the entire Edo state.

Some of the plaques portray important historical events while others depict scenes from court life and ritual. Both plaques illustrated here are dominated by the imposing figure of the Oba, or king, of Benin. On the left (a), the Oba is shown in the act of sacrificing a cow, assisted by five male priests who hold the animal’s legs and head still for him. He wears several items of royal regalia, including an elaborate headdress and necklace that signify his elevated social status and power. On the right hand plaque (b), the Oba is depicted with a spear in one hand and shield in the other. On his belt is a brass ornament in the form of a leopard’s head; the leopard being one of several creatures closely connected with royal power and authority. In the upper corners a pair of Portuguese traders are shown, each carrying a gift for the king. Depicted below are two attendants wearing pangolin (scaly anteater) skin helmets of the type associated with the leopard hunter’s guild.


Book of the Dead papyrus. Egypt. 21st Dynasty, 1069–945 BC. Ink on papyrus.

Book of the Dead papyrus. Egypt. 21st Dynasty, 1069–945 BC. Ink on papyrus.

This sheet of papyrus comes from one of the longest illustrated manuscripts of the ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead to have survived. Originally over 37 metres long, it is now cut into 96 separate sheets. The Book of the Dead was a collection of spells, typically written on papyrus and placed in the tomb. These spells ensured that the deceased had access to the knowledge required to be successfully reborn into an eternal life. This sheet records part of spell 17, a long and complex discussion of the nature of the creatorgod. The illustration depicts the falcon headed sun-god Ra-Horakhty wearing a headdress composed of the solar disc.

The manuscript was made for a woman named Nestanebisheru, the daughter of the High Priest of Amun Pinedjem II. In this particular illustration, she is seen kneeling in front of Ra-Horakhty, raising her hands in adoration. She is accompanied by her spirit (ba) in the form of a bird with a human head.


(L) A divine attendant Nimrud, northern Iraq. Neo-Assyrian, 810–800 BC. Limestone. (R) Relief showing a protective spirit. North-West Palace, Nimrud, northern Iraq. Neo-Assyrian, around 875–860 BC. Gypsum.

(L) Second heaviest treasure. A divine attendant Nimrud, northern Iraq. Neo-Assyrian, 810–800 BC. Limestone. (R) Relief showing a protective spirit. North-West Palace, Nimrud, northern Iraq. Neo-Assyrian, around 875–860 BC. Gypsum.

This is one of a pair of guardian deity figures that stand in an attitude of attendance. The figures originally flanked a doorway in the temple of Nabu, an important god of writing, in the Assyrian capital of Kalhu (modern Nimrud). The cuneiform inscription carved around the guardian’s body states that they were dedicated to Nabu by the local governor, on his own behalf and on behalf of king Adadnirari (ruled 811–783 BC) and the queen mother Sammuramat. The inscription ends with the request that the reader should trust Nabu above all others.

The statues were discovered at Nimrud in 1854 by Hormuzd Rassam, who was excavating the site on behalf of the British Museum. According to his account, there was another pair of statues without inscriptions carrying basins, but these were subsequently lost or destroyed.

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This relief from a royal palace shows an Assyrian protective spirit. The winged eagle-headed spirit, originally one of a pair that reached out and touched the “sacred tree”, carries a tree cone or “purifier” that was probably covered in liquid from the bucket. The sacred tree, partly preserved on the left, possibly represents the fertility of the land.

The decoration of Assyrian palaces with extensive stone bas-reliefs was an innovation from the West first found in the palace of king Ashurnasirpal II (ruled 883−859 BC) at Nimrud. While some of the decoration in this palace, particularly in the throne room, was narrative and depicted events, the majority of reliefs depict protective spirits that were designed to ensure the well-being and prosperity of the palace’s inhabitants and Ashurnasirpal’s kingdom.


Ivory figure of St. Joseph. Hispano Philippine. 17th Century AD. Ivory, gilded.

Ivory figure of St. Joseph. Hispano Philippine. 17th Century AD. Ivory, gilded.

This carved ivory figure of St. Joseph, the foster father of Jesus, was produced in a workshop in Manila. Many fine ivory figures of Christian saints like this were produced in the 17th and 18th centuries, when the Philippines was under Spanish control. They were intended for churches, monasteries and wealthy homes in the Americas and Spain.


Ru dish with emperor's inscription. Qingliangsi, Henan province, China. AD 1086-1125. Stoneware with celadon glaze.

Ru dish with emperor’s inscription. Qingliangsi, Henan province, China. AD 1086-1125. Stoneware with celadon glaze.

Ru is the rarest of all the major Chinese ceramic wares. It is greatly admired for its elegant forms and duck egg blue glaze. The pink blushes on the glaze of this dish may have been caused by the great fire at the Chinese imperial palace in Beijing in 1923. On the base is an inscription by the Qianhong emperor (ruled AD 1736-1795), which comments on the quality of the vessel.


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See a 13th century copy of the Magna Carta here in Singapore

11 11 2015

The historic Magna Carta, the Great Charter, dates back to 1215. It serves as the foundation of the principles in English Law – later Common Law, which Singapore and the UK both share – that everyone, even the ruler, is subject to the law, and that everyone has certain rights that must be protected by the law. We in Singapore will get to see a rare copy of it when Hereford Cathedral’s copy of Magna Carta, just one of four copies from 1217 still in existence, goes on display at the Supreme Court from 19 to 23 November 2015. The document will be accompanied by the only surviving copy of the 1215 King’sWrit, a letter from King John to local authorities announcing the issuing of Magna Carta.

An image of part of the Hereford Cathedral's 1217 copy of the Magna Carta that will be on display at the Supreme Court (source: Hereford Cathedral).

An image of part of the Hereford Cathedral’s 1217 copy of the Magna Carta that will be on display at the Supreme Court (source: Hereford Cathedral).

Brought to Singapore as part of a world tour of nine cities to mark the Magna Carta’s octocentenary, the stop in Singapore is also to mark the island nation’s golden jubilee, and to recognise Singapore’s status a legal hub. The other stops in the tour are New York, Luxembourg, Beijing, Guangzhou, Shanghai, Hong Kong, Malta and Lisbon. The document is being conveyed by British Airways in its First Class flight and airport facilities. Sponsors for the exhibition in Singapore are UK law firm Clifford Chance and its local partner Cavenagh Law LLP.

The display of the Magna Carta in Singapore will be complemented by an accompanying exhibition that the Supreme Court of Singapore is holding, titled “Magna Carta and Us”. This accompanying exhibition will present a collage of historical footprints tracing the birth and development of the Singapore Constitution and the rule of law in Singapore to the Magna Carta.

Details for the exhibitions, which will be held at the Supreme Court Auditorium, will be as follows:

Date:  19 to 23 November 2015

Time:  8.30am to 8.00pm

Venue:  Supreme Court, Auditorium Level B2, 1 Supreme Court Lane,  Singapore 178879

Admission: Free to all

More information is available at the British High Commision’s website and also at the Supreme Court’s website.


Magna Carta Competition: My Great Charter

(run by the British High Commission)

Magna Carta is Latin for ‘Great Charter’. If you could issue a Great Charter of your own, what would put in it?

To enter our ‘Magna Contest’ tell us what rules you would put into your own Great Charter.

These could be both serious or humorous. For example:

Everyone must speak to their neighbours at least once a day.

In order to increase happiness, good food must be shared.

For the benefit of tired eyes, all people to stay in bed an extra hour on Mondays.

Selected entries will receive two cinema tickets to watch the new Star Wars Film, Star Wars: The Force Awakens, which was filmed in the UK. To apply, please e-mail your rules for your own Great Charter to Competitions.Singapore@fco.gov.uk or message us on Facebook https://www.facebook.com/UKinSG.


Useful Information related to the Magna Carta:






A Changi well hidden from sight

18 10 2013

Looking across a sun baked tarmac during a rare opportunity I had to pay a visit to Selarang Camp, it was quite difficult to imagine the square decorated by the shadows of rain trees along its its periphery, cast in the dark shadows of the war some 71 years ago.

The sun-baked Selarang Camp Parade Square decorated not by the shadows of yesterday, but by those of today.

The sun-baked Selarang Camp Parade Square decorated not by the shadows of yesterday, but by those of today.

Surrounded not by rain trees, by the buildings of Selarang Barracks, the shadows of yesterday were ones cast by the events of the early days of early September 1942, events for which the barracks completed some four years before to house a battalion of the Gordon Highlanders, would long be remembered for.

A model of the barrack buildings around the square as seen on a sand model in the Selarang Camp Heritage Centre.

A model of the barrack buildings around the square as seen on a sand model in the Selarang Camp Heritage Centre.

Little is left physically from the days of darkness in today’s Selarang Camp. One of the oldest camps still in use, it is now occupied by HQ 9th Division of the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF). There is little resemblance the tarmac and its surroundings bear to the infamous barrack square now half the size of the original where scenes, possibly descending on chaos from the thousands of Prisoners of War (POWs) – estimates put it at some 13,350 British and 2,050 Australian troops, a total of 15,400 (some estimates had its as high as 17,000) who were made to crowd into a square which measured some 800 by 400 feet (244 x 122 metres), and the seven buildings around it – each with an floor space of 150 by 60 feet (46 x 18 metres) – a density of 1 man for every 2.3 square metres not counting the kitchen tents which had to also be moved into the square and makeshift latrines which had to also be dug into the square!

The original square seen in a 1967 photograph.

The original square seen in a 1967 photograph.

The event, referred to as the Selarang Barracks Incident, is one which is well documented. What had triggered it was an escape attempt by four POWs, two Australian: Cpl Rodney Breavington and Pte Victor Gale, and two British: Pte Harold Waters, and Pte Eric Fletcher. To prevent similar attempts in the future, the Japanese captors, under the command of the newly arrived Major General Fukuei Shimpei (under whose charge the internment and POW camps in Malaya had been placed under), tried to persuade the men in captivity to sign a non-escape statement.

The barrack square during the incident (photograph taken off an information board at the parade square).

The barrack square during the incident (photograph taken off an information board at the parade square).

This was on 30 August 1942. The statement: “I, the undersigned, hereby solemnly swear on my honour that I will not, under any circumstances, attempt escape” – was in contravention to the Geneva Convention (of which Japan was not a signatory of) and the POWs were unanimous in refusing to sign it. This drew a response from the Japanese – they threatened all who refused to sign this undertaking on 1 September with “measures of severity”.

The Non-Escape Statement (Selarang Camp Repository).

The Non-Escape Statement (Selarang Camp Repository).

It was just after midnight on 2 September, that orders were given for all British and Australian POWs (except for the infirmed), who were being held in what had been an expanded Changi Gaol (which extended to Selarang and Roberts Barracks which was used as a hospital), to be moved to the already occupied Selarang barrack buildings which had been built to accommodate 800 men.

From Australia in the War of 1939–1945, Series 1 – Army, Volume IV – The Japanese Thrust (1st edition, 1957).

From Australia in the War of 1939–1945, Series 1 – Army, Volume IV – The Japanese Thrust (1st edition, 1957).

There was little the POWs could do but to make use of whatever space that was made available, spilling into the non-sheltered square around which the barrack buildings stood. The space was shared with kitchens which the captors insisted had to also be moved into the area. Conditions were appalling and access to water was restricted and rations cut (some accounts had it that no food at all was provided), and were certainly less than sanitary. With water cut-off to the few toilets in the barrack buildings rendering them unusable, trenches going as far down as 16 feet had to be dug into the hard tarmac of the parade square to provide much needed latrines.

The ‘Selarang Square Squueze’ as sketched by a POW, John Mennie, as seen on an online Daily Mail news article.

To put further pressure on the POWs to sign the statement, the Japanese had the four recaptured men executed by an Indian National Army firing squad. This was carried out in the presence of the POWs’ formation commanders on the afternoon of 2 September at the Beting Kusah (also spelt Betin Kusa) area of Changi Beach (now under an area of reclaimed land in the vicinity of the Changi Airport Cargo Complex). The execution and the escape attempt by the two Australians is described in detail in Australia in the War of 1939–1945, Series 1 – Army, Volume IV – The Japanese Thrust (1st edition, 1957), Chapter 23 (see link):

The four men executed included two Australians—Corporal Breavington and Private Gale—who had escaped from a camp at Bukit Timah on 12th May, obtained a small boat and rowed it about 200 miles to the island of Colomba. There in a semi-starved condition they had been rearrested, and at length returned to Singapore where Breavington was admitted to hospital suffering from malaria. At the execution ground Breavington, the older man, made an appeal to the Japanese to spare Gale. He said that he had ordered Gale to escape and that Gale had merely obeyed orders ; this appeal was refused. As the Sikh firing party knelt before the doomed men, the British officers present saluted and the men returned the salute. Breavington walked to the others and shook hands with them. A Japanese lieutenant then came forward with a handkerchief and offered it to Breavington who waved it aside with a smile, and the offer was refused by all men. Breavington then called to one of the padres present and asked for a New Testament, whence he read a short passage . Thereupon the order was given by the Japanese to fire.

Map of the Changi area in 1942.

Map of the Changi area in 1942.

Another account of the execution which also highlighted the bravery of Cpl Breavington was given during the trial of General Fukuei Shimpei in February 1946 at the Singapore War Crimes Court:

All four prisoners refused to be blindfolded, and 16 shots were fired before it was decided that the men were dead. One of the prisoners, Cpl Breavington, a big Australian, made a vain, last-minute plea to be allowed to bear alone the full responsibility and punishment for the attempt to escape. He dies reading the New Testament. The first two shots passed through his arm, and as he lay on the ground, he shouted: “You have shot me through the arm. For God’s sake, finish me this time.”

An aerial view of the Changi Airfield, the construction of which was initiated by the Japanese in 1943. The coastal end of the east-west intersecting strip was where the Beting Kusah area and Kampong Beting Kusah was located. The kampong was cleared in 1948 to allow an RAF expansion of the airstrip.

An aerial view of the Changi Airfield, the construction of which was initiated by the Japanese in 1943. The coastal end of the east-west intersecting strip was where the Beting Kusah area and Kampong Beting Kusah was located. The kampong was cleared in 1948 to allow an RAF expansion of the airstrip (photograph taken off a display at the Changi Air Base Heritage Centre).

After holding out for a few days, the fast worsening conditions became a huge cause for concern due to the threat of the disease and the potential it had for the unnecessary loss of lives. It was with this in mind that the Allied commander, Colonel Holmes, decided to issue an order for the POWs to sign that the non-escape document under duress. With the POWs signing the statement on 5 September 1945 – many were said to have signed using false names, they were allowed to return to the areas in which they had been held previously.

POWs signing the non-escape statement (Selarang Camp Repository).

POWs signing the non-escape statement (Selarang Camp Repository).

The incident was one which was certainly not forgotten. It was on two charges related to the incident that General Fukuei Shimbei was tried in the Singapore War Crimes Court after the Japanese surrender. The first charge related to the attempt to coerce the POWs in his custody to sign the documents of non-escape, and the ill-treatment of the POWs in doing so. The second was related to the killing of the four escapees. General Fukuei was sentenced to death by firing at the end of February 1946 and was executed on 27 April 1946, reportedly at a spot along Changi Beach close to where the four POWs had been executed.

A photograph of the executed General Fukuei Shimbei from the Selarang Camp Repository.

A photograph of the executed General Fukuei Shimbei from the Selarang Camp Repository.

Walking around the camp today, it is an air of calm and serenity that one is greeted by. It was perhaps in that same air that greeted my first visits to the camp back in early 1987. Those early encounters came in the form of day visits I made during my National Service days when I had been seconded to the 9th Division to serve in an admin party to prepare and ship equipment and stores for what was then a reserve division exercise in Taiwan. Then, the distinctive old barrack buildings around the square laid out on the rolling hills which had once been a feature of much of the terrain around Changi were what provided the camp with its character along with the old Officers’ Mess which was the Division HQ building.

The former Officers' Mess - one of two structures left from the original set of barrack buildings.

The former Officers’ Mess – one of two structures left from the original set of barrack buildings.

Another view of the former Officers' Mess.

Another view of the former Officers’ Mess.

It is in the a heritage room in the former Officers’ Mess, only one of two structures (the other a water tank) left from the wartime era that the incident is remembered. The Selarang Camp Heritage Centre is where several exhibits and photographs are displayed which provide information on the incident, as well as how the camp had been transformed over the years.

The Selarang Camp Heritage Centre.

The Selarang Camp Heritage Centre.

Pieces of the old barrack buildings on display in the former Officers' Mess.

Pieces of the old barrack buildings on display in the former Officers’ Mess.

Among the exhibits in the heritage room are old photographs taken by the POWs, a sand model of the barrack grounds and buildings which came up between 1936 to 1938, as it looked in September 1942. There are also exhibits relating to the camps occupants subsequent to the British withdrawal which was completed in 1971. The camp after the withdrawal was first used by the 42nd Singapore Armoured Regiment (42 SAR) before HQ 9th Division moved into it in 1984. It was during the HQ 9th Division’s occupancy that the camp underwent a redevelopment which took place from July 1986 to December 1989 which transformed the camp it into the state it is in today.

An exhibit - a card used by a POW to count the days of captivity.

An exhibit – a card used by a POW to count the days of captivity.

An exhibit from more recent times at the heritage centre.

An exhibit from more recent times at the heritage centre.

A photograph of a parade in the infamous square at the heritage centre.

A photograph of a parade in the infamous square at the heritage centre.

A view of the parade square today.

A view of the parade square today.

One more recent relic from the camp before its redevelopment is a bell which belong to a Garrison Church built in 1961. The church was built as a replacement for what had been a makeshift wartime chapel, the Chapel of St. Francis Xavier, which was, as was St. Luke’s where the Changi Murals were painted, a place which offered solace and hope to many POWs in extremely trying times.

The Garrison Church bell.

The Garrison Church bell.

The bell, now supported by a structure – said to resemble a 30 foot bell tower which originally held it up, can be found across the road from the parade square. The bell was transferred to Sungei Gedong Camp by 42 SAR before being returned to Selarang by HQ Armour in July 1999. It is close to the bell, where a mark of the new occupants of the camp, a Division Landmark which features a soldier next to a snarling panther (a now very recognisable symbol of the 9th Division) erected in 1991, is found standing at a corner of the new square. It stands watch over the square perhaps such that the dark shadows and ghosts of the old square do not come back to haunt us.

A sketch of the makeshift St. Francis Xavier Chapel.

A sketch of the makeshift St. Francis Xavier Chapel.

The division landmark.

The division landmark.

While there was a little disappointment I felt on not seeing the old square, I was certainly glad to have been able to see what’s become of it and also pay a visit to the heritage centre. This has certainly provided me with the opportunity to learn more about the camp, its history, and gain greater insights into events I might have otherwise have thought very little about for which I am very grateful to the MINDEF NS Policy Department who organised the visit.  It is in reflecting on events such as the Selarang Barracks Incident that I am reminded of why it is important for us in a world we have grown almost too comfortable in, to do all that is necessary to prevent the situations such as the one our forefathers and their defenders found ourselves in barely two generations ago.

Another photograph of the Chapel of St. Francis Xavier from the Selarang Camp Repository.

Another photograph of the Chapel of St. Francis Xavier from the Selarang Camp Repository.





50 years ago on 16 September 1963

16 09 2013

50 years ago on 16 September 1963, Singapore together with the Borneo states of Sabah and Sarawak, became a part of Malaysia. For Singapore, it was a union which lasted less than two years – with Singapore separating from Malaysia on 9 August 1965. The date, is celebrated as Hari Malaysia or Malaysia Day by our northern neighbours.

(Photo: National Archives online catalogue http://a2o.nas.sg/picas/)

(Photo: National Archives online catalogue http://a2o.nas.sg/picas/)

Straits Times News articles on 16 September 1963:

The Straits Times front page

It’s here (Tengku Abdul Rahman’s Malaysia Day Message)





The ‘Tombs of Malayan Princes’

16 07 2013

Lying somewhat obscurely and hidden at Jalan Kubor off Victoria Street is the Old Malay Cemetery. The cemetery, which is across Jalan Kubor from the Madrasah Aljunied Al-Islamiah Cemetery, another old Muslim cemetery better know perhaps for an incident in 1972 involving two gunmen, is the oldest Malay burial ground in Singapore on record. Quite prominently identified on maps dating from the 1820s and 1830s, it is shown on J. B. Tassin’s Map (Map of The Town and Environs, Singapore) of 1836,  as the ‘Tombs of Malayan Princes’.

IMG_1525b

The burial grounds are described in a heritage trail guide put together by the National Heritage Board (NHB) on Kampong Glam:

MALAY BURIAL GROUNDS AT JALAN KUBOR

In the early maps of Singapore, these burial grounds were marked as “Mohamedan cemetery” and “Tombs of Malayan Princes”. According to 19th century reports, there were three distinct burial plots here – a 5 1/3 acre Malay cemetery, the 3-acre Sultan’s family burial grounds located within the Malay cemetery and a cemetery for Indian Muslims. In 1875, the municipality closed down the Malay cemetery but agreed to the Sultan’s request that his family could continue to use the royal burial grounds. The sultan’s burial grounds were walled in and the graves were situated in elevated plots. It was noted in the early 20th century that non-Muslims were not allowed to enter them.

An extract of Tassin's map of 1836 showing the location of the "Tombs of the Malayan Princes".

An extract of Tassin’s map of 1836 showing the location of the ‘Tombs of the Malayan Princes’.

More information on the cemetery also came to light during a recent talk by A/Prof Imran bin Tajudeen of the National University of Singapore’s (NUS) Department of Architecture. A synopsis written for the talk also provides some insight into the area and the cemetery:

Several old settlements existed in Singapore besides the Temenggong’s estuarine settlement at Singapore River before Raffles’ arrival in 1819. Among these, Kampung Gelam and the Rochor and Kallang River banks were also sites of historic graveyards related to old settlements of Singapura both before and during colonial rule. The Jalan Kubor cemetery is the only sizable cemetery grounds still largely undisturbed. It belongs with Kampung Gelam history but has been excluded from the “Kampong Glam Conservation District” boundary, and is important for several reasons. It forms part of the old royal port town that was developed when Tengku Long of Riau was installed as Sultan Hussein in Singapore, and is aligned along the royal axis of the town. It is also the final resting place of several traders of diverse ethnicity from the old port towns of our region – neighbouring Riau, Palembang, and Pontianak, as well as Banjarmasin and the Javanese and Bugis ports further afield. Some of these individuals are buried in family enclosures, mausolea, or clusters. Conversely, there are also hundreds of graves of unnamed individuals from Kampung Gelam and surrounding areas. The tombstone forms and epigraphy reflect this immense socio-cultural diversity, and were carved in Kampung Gelam by Javanese and Chinese stone carvers, except for a number of special cases. Several large trees of great age are also found in this lush ‘pocket park’.





The Chinese Church – another National Monument in need

24 05 2013

The Bras Basah Road area is one blessed with several monuments which date back to the 1800s. It was at the heart of an area where four of these monuments were erected largely through the efforts of the early French Catholic missionaries. Built to serve the needs of the growing Catholic community in Singapore, as well as to provide education for those in need, the monuments were not built to be functional but also were expressions of the love and dedication that they had been built with. While two of the four, the buildings of the former St. Joseph’s Institution (SJI) and the Convent of the Holy Infant Jesus (CHIJ), have since been converted for uses other than what they had been attended for, the other two, the Cathedral of the Good Shepherd and the Church of Sts. Peter and Paul, are still used as they had been meant to be.

The Church of Sts. Peter and Paul in Queen Street.

The Church of Sts. Peter and Paul in Queen Street.

The two are also ones which are also badly in need of repair and restoration. The plight of the Cathedral, Singapore’s oldest Catholic church building,  is of course a more dire one. Its structure, ravaged by both time and nearby construction activity, shows obvious signs of damage. Repairs which are due to commence sometime this year will cost the Cathedral  some S$40 million, of which it has raised only a quarter of. The Church of Sts. Peter and Paul, the  second oldest Catholic church building, while less in need of repair, does still need to raise some S$10 million to have, among other work, its roof and termite infested wooden structures repaired.

An appeal for funds at the church's entrance.

An appeal for funds at the church’s entrance.

The Church of Sts. Peter and Paul, built from 1869 to 1870, its steeple once featuring prominently in the area’s skyline alongside that of the Cathedral’s and the Chapel of CHIJ, and the dome of SJI, is one of several beautiful examples of the tropical adapted Neo-Gothic religious architecture the French Missionaries gave to Singapore (other examples include the CHIJ Chapel and Nativity Church). Built to house the growing Chinese and Tamil speaking Catholic community by a certain Fr. Pierre Paris (whose remains are buried in the church), the church also features some beautiful wrought iron work as well as stained glass panels (which are said to have been made by French artisans).

Ironwork at the church's entrance.

Ironwork at the church’s entrance.

A view towards the sanctuary behind which five long stained panels can be be seen.

A view towards the sanctuary behind which five long stained panels can be be seen.

A close-up of the five panels of stained glass.

A close-up of the five panels of stained glass.

A close-up of the central panel.

A close-up of the central panel.

A stained glass rose window.

A stained glass rose window.

The church is also one I have had many interactions with through the days of my youth. My parents who often referred to it as “Chinese Church” did on occasion take me there for mass and it was in this church as well as the Cathedral where I, as a schoolboy in SJI, would attend masses organised by the school – the school’s chapel was too small to accommodate the school’s population of Catholics. The church is also one I often associate with Catholic High School – the school having been housed at buildings within the church’s compound (now 222 Queen Street) and across the road (now SAM at 8Q).

A view through the grills of  the building which once housed Catholic High School.

A view through the grilles of the building which once housed Catholic High School.

The grills of the stairwell - the building is now used as an arts centre.

The grilles of the stairwell – the building is now used as an arts centre.

That it was commonly referred to as the “Chinese Church” stems from it having housed the Chinese Mission which saw to the needs of the various dialect speaking groups including the large number of Teochew speakers who remained with the church after the other communities moved out. The other communities included the Hakka and Cantonese speaking congregation who would in 1910 move to the Church of the Sacred Heart in Tank Road, and the small Hokkien Catholic community who moved to the Church of St. Teresa in 1929. Interestingly, the church also housed the the Tamil speaking community as Fr. Paris who built the church, also administered to that community having had a command of the Tamil language. The Tamil community was the first to move when the Church of Our Lady of Lourdes completed in 1888 was built to house them.

Fr. Paris' remains are buried in the church.

Fr. Paris’ remains are buried in the church.

In silent prayer.

In silent prayer.

There are several interesting facts about the church. One is that it once housed a pipe organ built by the renowned 19th Century French organ builder Aristide Cavaillé-Coll in 1877 which unfortunately fell into disrepair and was removed in the 1960s. Another is that the boundary wall is thought to have been paid for by Napoleon III based on a 1914 report attributed to the then Bishop of Malacca (the diocese of which included Singapore), Monseigneur  Emile Barillon who served as Bishop of Malacca from 1904 to 1933.  The building as we see it today is also one that has been enlarged – the transept, sacristy and sanctuary were added in 1891-92. More on the building and the history of the church can be found at:

The boundary wall seen on Waterloo Street today - the original wall was said to have been paid for by Napoleon III of France.

The boundary wall seen on Waterloo Street today – the original wall was said to have been paid for by Napoleon III of France.

A look down the nave - the nave had originally had three sections, separated by huge hardwood columns which were removed in the 1890s.

A look down the nave – the nave had originally had three sections, separated by huge hardwood columns which were removed in the 1890s.

The choir loft at the end of the nave.

The choir loft at the end of the nave.

A wooden door at the transept entrance.

A wooden door at the transept entrance.

A view across the transept - the transept was added in 1891-92.

A view across the transept – the transept was added in 1891-92.

Another view down the nave.

Another view down the nave.

The tropical adapted neo-gothic design features windows which allow both light and ventilation into the church.

The tropical adapted neo-gothic design features windows which allow both light and ventilation into the church.

The statue of St. Peter at the entrance.

A statue of St. Peter at the entrance.

And one of St. Paul.

And one of St. Paul.





Monoscapes: Dawn on the strait

18 04 2013

7.20 am on the last day of March 2013, a man is seen casting a net, dwarfed by the silhouettes of towering structures of the approaching new world. The casting of the net, was an economic activity on the strait which was common in times past. Economic activities of the modern world have in the last four decades or so, made their appearance on the strait, and have made the activities of the old world less relevant.

IMG_0200

The Straits of Johor where this photograph was taken, also known as the Tebrau Strait or Selat Tebrau, was once the domain of a group of sea dwellers, a nomadic people referred to as the Orang Laut (which translates to “Sea People”) or Sea Gypsies. The sub-group of the Orang Laut,  referred to as the Orang Seletar or in their own language, Kon Seletar, moved around on boats which also served as homes through mangroves which once dominated both sides of the strait, living off the waters. The boats they lived on were about 20 feet long with a stove at one end and their dwellings at the other end under an awning of sorts.

The suggestions are that the group, who had already established themselves in the area well before Raffles landed in 1819 – it was reported that there were an estimated 200 Orang Seletar living on some 30 boats in Singapore when Raffles landed, took its name from the Sungei Seletar or Seletar River – which once spilled into the strait (it has since been dammed at its mouth).

Another suggestion is that the group had in fact given their name to the river. Seletar is also a name that the northern coastal area of Singapore which included what is Sembawang today (Sembawang Road was originally called Seletar Road) became known as. Seletar Island which is close to the mouth of Sungei Simpang, had in fact hosted a community of Orang Seletar up to 1967 or so.

One of the last to settle on land, the Orang Seletar have today largely assimilated into the larger Malay society and a greater number of them now live on the Johor side of the strait. In Singapore, there were several individuals from the community who intermarried and settled in Kampong Tanjong Irau. The kampong was also known to be the home of some Orang Kallang, another Orang Laut group who were originally from the mouth of the Kallang River who had initially been displaced from places such as Kampong Kallang Rokok on the Kallang River, moving first to the Seletar area. The construction of the airbase at Seletar meant they had to move again and some chose to move westwards to Tanjong Irau.








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