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The King’s Library

/ 05:04 AM January 14, 2022

At the core of the British Library in London is an impressive indoor tower made from lighted glass shelves that contain part of an estimated 65,000 books, 19,000 pamphlets, many manuscripts and ephemera known as the “King’s Library.”

It is unfortunate that George III who should be better remembered for assembling this scholarly library has gone down in history for his madness and the loss of the American colonies.

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It is not well known that George is part of Philippine history too, even as a footnote. He was King during the British occupation of Manila in 1762-1764 and had they not sailed away after sacking the city and demanding more in ransom, we could have been a British colony.

George was surely briefed on the progress of the invasion as evidenced by one of the rare Philippine maps in his Topographical Collection (recently made available online for free by the British Library). The 1739 “Topographia de la ciudad de Manila: Capital de las yslas Philippinas” depicts the town plan of Intramuros in 1717 as drawn by Hipolito Ximenez and presented by Antonio Fernandez de Roxas, Spanish governor-general to Philip V of Spain.

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If you download a high-resolution digital copy and enlarge the details, the map provides a bird’s eye view of the walled city down to streets, rice fields, and even people walking about. When the original was unrolled for me in 2019 by Tom Harper, Keeper of Maps, he pointed out a handwritten inscription on the bottom right that indicated a “Breach” in the city’s defenses. Was this notation in the hand of George III himself?

The above research anecdote is just one of many fond memories of the British Library, having used it as a postgrad student before it moved to its present location in King’s Cross-St. Pancras train station in 1997. This train station is famous not for the library but as the place where Harry Potter boards a magic train for Hogwarts.

The British Library as I knew it, the heart of the British Museum, the Great Reading Room was where research was done under a huge blue dome supported by an astounding circle of bookshelves. When I was bored or needed to stretch my legs, I retreated from the Reading Room to the King’s Library known today as the “Enlightenment Gallery,” the oldest room in the British Museum.

This place was almost always empty because the important books and manuscripts displayed here under glass vitrines were not considered sexy compared with the other crowd-drawers: the Rosetta Stone, the Elgin Marbles, or the room full of ancient Egyptian sarcophagi complete with unrolled mummies. It was so quiet here that one heard the old floors creaking as I admired a manuscript by Shakespeare, a page from Alice in Wonderland, even sheet music in the hand of Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, and the Beatles.

One of the books that stand out in my memory was a small treatise on divorce, opened to a page where Henry VIII scribbled on the page in Latin “Ergo, nec in nobis.” [Therefore, not applicable for us]. Beside this book were books associated with Erasmus and Thomas More. The books were displayed side by side with an erudite caption noting that while Henry was a thorn in the side of the Pope in Rome, one of his titles happened to be “Defender of the Faith.”

During World War II bombing 304 volumes were damaged and 124 completely destroyed, including some Filipiniana that was still reflected in the catalog in the 1990s. I don’t remember now what Philippine book could not be found despite requests, and when I asked for an explanation the reference librarian simply shrugged his shoulders and said: “You will have to blame the Germans for the loss of the book you seek.” The librarian added that after that bombing, the collection was transferred to Oxford during the war because there was, allegedly, an unwritten agreement that the Germans would not bomb Oxford and Cambridge if the British did the same for the ancient university towns of Heidelberg and Tubingen.

When life returns to normal, I hope to revisit the British Library and spend two weeks researching Philippine materials that are not yet available online. On that visit, I will request two books I am intimate with: Antonio de Morga’s 1609 “Sucesos de las Islas Filipinas” copied by hand by Rizal to produce his annotated 1890 Paris edition of which the British Library preserves an autographed copy. My real education was three years of reading in the British Library.

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Comments are welcome at [email protected]

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TAGS: British Library in London, King's Library, London, United Kingdom
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