Pote Collection of Islamic Manuscripts: The Online Catalogue

I (re)catalogued about over 550 ‘oriental’ manuscripts of the Pote Collection of Islamic manuscripts in the course of two consecutive projects in 2018 and 2019, generously funded by the Apelles Art History Fund under the direction of Professor Jean Michel Massing of the Cambridge King’s College. This was only possible with great help of Dr Julian Cook (from the Muhyiddin Ibn Arabi Society (MIAS), Oxford). In collaboration with Fihrist Team, we reintegrated the two halves of the Pote Collection in consistent online catalogues and made them universally searchable via the UK-wide union catalogue of manuscripts from the Islamicate world, known as FIHRIST. We aim to digitise the entire collection in future, but for now a photographic archive of the ‘objects’ provides security. This essay briefly discusses the origins of the Pote Collection (its patron and the library to which it belonged) and its cataloguing history. I will present some of the most significant highlights of the collection in King’s and Eton parts in coming pieces.

The Pote collection of Islamic manuscripts

The Pote collection of Islamic manuscripts arrived in England from India in 1790, in a shipment of eight chests. In 1795, following the instructions of the donor, Edward Ephraim Pote (1750–1832), the chests were divided between Cambridge King’s College and Eton College. The first four chests, containing the first half of the collection, with titles from alif to shīn, went to King’s College and the remainder, from shīn onwards, went to Eton College. Both portions of the Pote collection, the property of King’s and Eton, now reside in the Cambridge University Library on long-term deposit. The collection contains valuable manuscripts but remained little studied for two centuries. Previous catalogues, often little more than hand-lists, were produced by different scholars using different approaches and even different numbering systems.

The origin of the Pote collection

In his letter of benefaction, Pote did not mention how in India he had “acquired a collection of Persian Manuscripts amounting to more than five hundred and fifty volumes”. We can now be quite certain that the so-called Pote collection consists of the bulk of the manuscript collection of Colonel Antoine-Louis Polier.

Colonel Antoine-Louis Henri Polier (1741–1795) was a very colourful character: an officer and agent of the East India Company assimilated into the Mughal Courts, he was an orientalist, collector and patron of the arts in Lucknow, and an astute and well-connected gentleman trader. Much of his manuscript collection was purchased in India in 1788 by Edward Ephraim Pote (1750–1832), a resident of Patna in India. He made a gift of the collection to the Colleges of King’s and Eton, where he had received his education.

Polier served the Mughal emperor Shah Alam and as Oudh Nawab’s architect and engineer in Lucknow. He was enthusiastic about Persian and Sanskrit and collected manuscripts and paintings, and commissioned lavish albums. Polier donated a large number of Sanskrit manuscripts to the British Library.[1]

Many of the manuscripts contain impressions of one of Polier’s seals and a few even contain his signature. What is more, on the covers of most of the manuscripts there remains a sticker with a Persian number and a title. This Persian alphabet-based numbering system is surely that which was used by Polier. A study of the “Polier numbers”, found on the Pote manuscripts, indicates that there are few gaps. In other words, Pote’s manuscripts – with 465 distinct numbers applied to over 500 volumes – comprised the lion’s share of Polier’s collection. Although further detailed study is called for, it seems most of the ‘missing’ Polier numbers could be accounted for by the 50 or so Polier manuscripts now in Paris, which are listed in Colas, G. & F. Richard “Le fonds Polier à la Bibliothèque nationale”, Bulletin de l’École française d’Extrême-Orient 73 (1984): 99–123.

Col. Polier’s seal impression. Imtiyāz al-Daula Major Polier Bahādur Arsalān Jung, 1181 (1767).

Previous Catalogues

Pote’s catalogue of his newly acquired collection, prepared in India, arrived in England in 1794. Although it is a handsome object, this catalogue is not easily related to the manuscripts themselves and it has been little used. However, since it is extant in the King’s College Archive (LIB/10/2), it is possible this catalogue would have some value in determining the contents of the few manuscripts which were subsequently lost.

Catalogue of Pote Collection, prepared in India, 1794.

Four years before Pote’s catalogue, when the eight crates of manuscripts arrived, they were each accompanied by a roll list containing a numbered list of manuscripts with brief titles. Between them these roll lists provide an independent record of the contents of the Pote collection. The roll lists for the King’s half exist to this day in the King’s College Archive (LIB/9/8), but the roll lists for the Eton half have been lost. Henry Bradshaw (1831–1886), the King’s College librarian, reports having discovered them in a drawer and being given permission to carry them off to have them transcribed.[2]

Eton Part

Apart from that inadequate hand-list which arrived from India four years after the manuscripts themselves, the codices in the Eton College have only ever been catalogued by the Oxford Professor David Samuel Margoliouth (1858–1940) and printed as a pamphlet in 1904.[3] This, too, is little more than a hand-list and does not even include the Pote classmarks, by which manuscripts should be requested for consultation at the Cambridge University Library. By the time Margoliouth was cataloguing the Eton half in 1904, it would appear the roll lists had been lost, so it seems likely they were never returned to Eton.

Fortunately, Edward Cowell’s transcription of the slightly damaged Eton roll lists is now held in the Cambridge University Library (Ms. Add. 4226). Edward Byles Cowell (1826–1903) was a translator of Persian poetry, the first Sanskrit professor at Cambridge University, and the cataloguer of Persian manuscripts of the Bodleian Library in Oxford. He is the one who discovered a manuscript of Ruba‘iyat (quatrains) of Omar Khayyam in Asiatic Society’s library in Calcutta and sent a copy to his friend Edward Fitzgerald (1809–1883), who translated and published it in 1859.

Margoliouth occasionally cross-references Rieu’s catalogue for British Museum (now British Library) and even less frequently other catalogues.

King’s Part

The King’s half of the Pote collection was catalogued in 1867 by Edward Palmer in The Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland,[4] which was categorised according to the languages of the works: Persian, Arabic, Persian version of Hindu works, Hindi and Hindi in the Persian character, and Urdu. It was subsequently re-catalogued in 1922 by Edward Browne (building upon the work of Mr. Ballard, now lost). Browne referred to help from Mr. Ballard of Clare who died untimely.

“In the cataloguing of the Persian manuscripts in King’s College Library I received valuable help from the late Mr Ballard of Clare, who in 1900-1901 examined and described all that portion of the Pote Collection. His work showed great promise for one who had so recently begun the study of Persian, and his premature death soon after he left Cambridge cut short a career from which I had expected much.”[5]

I have not been able to find much information about Mr. Ballard (even from Clare College), except for the report of his death at the age of 27 in The Daily Telegraph of June 12, 1902.

The Daily Telegraph, no. 14697.J, 12 June 1902, London.

It is possible some of the pencilled notes in the King’s copy of Palmer’s catalogue are by Ballard, even if others are by Browne himself.

Some illustrations of the Pote Collection are catalogued in Hillenbrand, Imperial Images in Persian Painting (1977). In case of Eton manuscripts, Robert Hillenbrand uses a different numbering system from Margoliouth. For both King’s and Eton, he provides references to earlier catalogues. Basil Robinson catalogued some of the illustrations in the Eton manuscripts, but his unpublished notes are kept with the manuscripts, which Robert Hillenbrand checked when working on his catalogue of illustrated manuscripts Imperial Images.

Basil Robinson’s note to Alan Noel Latimer Munby (1913-1974), King’s College librarian, in 1951.

The Fihrist Online Catalogue

Most recently, I re-catalogued King’s part and Eton part of the Pote collection in 2018 and 2019, respectively and made the catalogue available online in Fihrist, the union catalogue of British libraries and collections. We used TEI, and XML

The Fihrist online catalogue generally allows for advanced searches across all the collections, or within one particular collection with the ability to search for specific titles or authors as well. In case of the Pote Collection’s catalogue, in addition to a thorough codicological account for each manuscript – as far as the TEI/XML allowed – we attempted to include information about scribes, patrons, and previous owners in the entries. This allows a more detailed search across the collection to see, for example, all the manuscripts copied by one specific scribe, or all codices bearing one particular seal impression. It helps librarians and curators to investigate objects’ provenances more easily and provides very useful links when building up the content of those libraries of past patrons which are not extant today.


[1] More on Polier: Subrahmanyam, Sanjay, “The Career of Colonel Polier and Late Eighteenth Century Orientalism”, Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society 10, 1 (2000): 43–60.

For a list of Sanskrit manuscripts he gifted to the British Library, see Bendall, C. Catalogue of the Sanskrit Manuscripts in the British Museum, London, 1902.

For Polier’s albums see Schofield, K.B. “William Beckford’s albums on Hindu mythology”, British Library blog (2014). https://blogs.bl.uk/asian-and-african/hinduism/page/2/

For more on Polier and Pote Collection, see: Clarke, R. “A Letter to Richard Clarke, Esq., Honorary Secretary to the Royal Asiatic Society, on the Oriental MSS. in the Library of Eton College”, The Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland, Vol. 8 (1846): 104-106. And Dalby, A. “A Dictionary of Oriental Collections in Cambridge University Library”, Transactions of the Cambridge Bibliographical Society, Vol. 9, No. 3 (1988): 248-280.

[2] Peter Murray Jones, the current King’s librarian has recently published an excellent article on Henry Bradshaw’s work on King’s manuscripts. See Jones, P.M. “Henry Bradshaw and the Manuscripts at King’s College”, Transactions of the Cambridge Bibliographical Society 16(4) (2019): 489-515.

[3] Margoliouth, D.S. Catalogue of the oriental manuscripts in the library of Eton College, Oxford, 1904.

[4] Palmer, E.H. “Catalogue of the oriental manuscripts in the library of King’s College, Cambridge” in The Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland, New Series, Vol III, art. IV (1867): 105-113.

[5] Browne, E.G. A Supplementary Hand-list of the Muhammadan Manuscripts Preserved in the Libraries of the University and Colleges of Cambridge, Cambridge, 1922.

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