Early donors to the Bodleian Library: Katherine Sandys and colonialism

by Ben Wilkinson-Turnbull

One rich example of the Bodleian’s acquisition of books produced outside of Europe is provided by the donation of £20 (nearly £3000 today) in 1607 from Katherine Sandys née Bulkeley. Katherine was a shrewd businesswoman and the fourth wife of Edwin Sandys: a prominent MP, religious writer, and coloniser.

-The Bodleian’s copy of Fang Gung’s, Dan shi shin fa (Thoughts on Dan Shi) (1522). The vellum cover is annotated in latin with an inscription recording Sandys’ donation Sinica 32/6. Image taken by Ben Wilkinson-Turnbull in 2023.
The Bodleian’s copy of Fang Gung’s, Dan shi shin fa (Thoughts on Dan Shi) (1522). The parchment cover is annotated in Latin with an inscription recording Sandys’ donation. Sinica 32/6. Image taken by Ben Wilkinson-Turnbull in 2023.

In his letters, Bodley complained about donors being allowed to choose the items purchased with their donations. But in the case of this donation, the choice of books made by Bodley and librarian Thomas James may have reflected the Sandys family’s involvement in early colonial activities such as those of the Virginia Company.

Such works included important travelogues containing finely engraved maps. These depicted parts of the world where at this point in history England was a weaker colonising force, such as the Middle East (Arthus Gotthard and Johann Bry’s The Seventh Part of the East Indies (1606)), and Asia (Cornelius Wytfliet’s Universal History of the Indies (1605)). Much like Matal’s atlas, these texts helped to expand Western readers’ understanding of these newly navigated areas. But like Lodge’s manuscript catechism, their subject matter also shone light on the ongoing efforts of European colonists to convert indigenous people to Christianity; making these books fitting acquisitions for a library founded by Bodley as a seat of Protestant learning.

Sandys’ donation also included works acquired from these areas in non-European languages unreadable to Western scholars. This included eight medical texts in Chinese, such as Gong Ting Chien’s Van Bin Hoiye Chun (Cure for all Illnesses) (1573) and Fang Gung’s, Dan shi shin fa (Thoughts on Dan Shi) (1522). Like the Bodleian’s other early Chinese works acquired from 1604 onwards, Sandys’ books are cheaply printed.

Book with Chinese printed characters, Gong Ting Chien’s Van Bin Hoiye Chun (Cure for all Illnesses) (1573)
The Bodleian’s copy of Gong Ting Chien’s Van Bin Hoiye Chun (Cure for all Illnesses) (1573). Sinica 19/2. Image taken by Ben Wilkinson-Turnbull in 2023.

Some are unique survivals of sixteenth-century editions produced in the Fujin province on the southeastern coast of China during the Ming Dynasty. Too cheap to adorn the library of any serious Chinese scholar, they were probably sold by entrepreneurial local booksellers to Dutch merchants, and then exported to Europe by Dutch merchants engaged in the lucrative transcontinental spice trade in the employ of the newly formed Dutch East India Company. Bought in Amsterdam at auction by Bodley’s literary agent, when they arrived at the Bodleian they were simply recorded in the Benefactors’ Register under the catch-all heading ‘volumes in Chinese’. It was not until 1687, when the Chinese scholar and Catholic convert, Shen Fu-Tsung 沈福宗 (Michael Alphonsus), was paid by the Bodleian’s librarian Thomas Hyde to transliterate their titles that their contents became known in England. This enabled the creation of the first catalogue of Chinese Books for the Bodleian, and ultimately paved the way for future scholars to explore the library’s rich East Asian collections.

The books purchased with Sandys’ donation exemplify the complex relationship of the Bodleian’s early collections to colonialism and its legacy. Bodley’s acquisition of Chinese books is part of an explicitly colonial narrative. Likely acquired directly from the emergent oppressive power of the Dutch East India Company, these books were brought to Europe by a chartered company who would come to dominant East Asian trade routes across the Indian Ocean through the forced migration and killing of indigenous people. These books and their acquisition by a Western seat of learning promoted and glorified colonial projects of conquest, trade, and conversion to readers. Bodley did, albeit unintentionally, enable Fu-Tsung and Hyde’s later intellectual endeavours, paving the way for the first known direct Anglo-Chinese scholarly collaboration. The acquisition of these books also ensured the preservation of unique texts of international import and facilitated further study that continues at the library today. But as we continue to unlock their rich histories, we need to consciously centralise, and make accessible, the often-hidden colonial narratives that led to the arrival of items like these volumes at the Bodleian. However problematic and uncomfortable these may be, they are vital to furthering our understanding of the role colonialism played in developing the library’s collection.

My thanks go to Mamtimyn Sunuodula, Curator of Chinese Collections at the Bodleian, for translating the titles of Sinica 19/2 and 32/6. 

Ben Wilkinson-Turnbull is a research associate on the AHRC-funded project ‘Shaping Scholarship: Early Donations to the Bodleian Library’. He is also a final year DPhil student, Clarendon, and Graduate Development Scholar in English at the University of Oxford. His doctoral research focuses on the materiality of women’s texts between 1580 and 1760, and related work has appeared in The Review of English Studies. You can contact Ben via email at b.wilkinson-turnbull@ucl.ac.uk. He can also be found on X (Twitter) @Ben_WT.

Further reading

Cornelius Wytfliet, Histoire universelle des Indes, orientales et occidentales (Douai, 1605)

Arthus, Gotthard  and Johann Theodor de Bry, Indiae Orientalis Pars Septima : Navigationes duas, Primam, trium Annorum, a Georgio Spilbergio, trium navium praefecto, Ann. 1601. ex Selandia in Indiam Orientalem susceptam (Frankfurt, 1606)

Gong Ting Chien,Van Bin Hoiye Chun (Cure for all Illnesses) (Fujin, 1573)

Fang Gung, Dan shi shin fa (Thoughts on Dan Shi) (Fujin, 1522)

David Helliwell, ‘Our Earliest Chinese Accession’, https://serica.blog/2012/11/29/our-earliest-chinese-accession/

William Poole, ‘The Letters of Shen Fuzong to Thomas Hyde, 1687-88’, British Library Journal (2015), article 9. (https://bl.iro.bl.uk/concern/articles/1227de6b-c20f-48fb-8411-b1f811ffa957).

Kerry Ward, Networks of Empire: Forced Migration in the Dutch East India Company. (Cambridge, 2009).


Colonial Connections of the Early Bodleian Library

Book open at a map of the world
Jean Matal’s atlas from 1600: America, sive Novus orbis, tabulis æneis delineatus. I. Matalius. Shelfmark: H 7.2(3) Art.

by Dr Anna-Lujz Gilbert

When Thomas Bodley re-founded Oxford University’s library in 1598, he knew he would need the help of a “great store of honourable friends” for the project to be a success. He asked people he knew to donate to the Library and, as an encouragement, he had the names of donors written into an ornate Register of Benefactors.  Shaping Scholarship is an AHRC-funded project at UCL, in collaboration with the Bodleian, which uses that Benefactors’ Register to examine cultures of library donation in early seventeenth-century England, and their impact on the Bodleian’s book collections. The early Bodleian Library had many colonial connections, and the public database of the early donations to the Library (c. 1600–1620) which we are producing for this project will help further research in this area.

Page of the Benefactor's Book of the Bodleian Library
Bodleian Library Records b. 903, Registrum Donatorum, the Benefactors’ Register

The Bodleian Library was established at a time when England was striving to become an imperial power. Many of the Library’s donors were statesmen, civil servants, soldiers, and courtiers—the kinds of people who were likely to be involved in overseas affairs of different kinds. Some donors were directly involved in colonial activities, such as Sir Walter Raleigh (1554?-1618), who led expeditions to the Americas, and who gifted the library £50 in 1603 (worth over £8,000 today). Others were involved in these activities from afar. Donor Sir Walter Cope (1553?–1614), for example, invested in and energetically raised funds for new merchant companies set up to promote international trade through colonising practices. Companies like the Virginia Company, which established England’s first North American colonies, made substantial losses. To raise money for these colonial ventures, they presented investment as a public-spirited act for the good of the nation. This context can inform how we understand donation to the early Bodleian Library as a similarly public-spirited act.

Overseas conquest, as well as trade and embassy, facilitated the movement of books into the Library. In the 1610s, for example, the Bodleian acquired a manuscript catechism  which had been produced by Jesuits in Brazil to help convert indigenous people. It was written in Tupi, a now extinct indigenous language. [See an online edition of this manuscript at the link here.] It was gifted to the Bodleian by English author Thomas Lodge, who had taken it from a Jesuit library during an English raid on a Portuguese settlement in Brazil. [see footnote 1]  (Lodge’s gift was, however, considered to be too small to be included in the Benefactors’ Register).

Exploration and colonisation helped to expand Western knowledge, and this was reflected in the content of some of the books purchased by the Bodleian. The 1603 gift of Henry Brooke, Baron Cobham, for instance, paid for the acquisition of Jean Matal’s [Johannes Matalius] atlas of the world with its new maps of America.

The Bodleian collected books in non-European languages in the hope that these too would be used to advance Western knowledge, even if, for some of these languages, there was no-one in England who could read them at the time.

By looking at who was donating to the early Bodleian Library and what books were acquired, we can ask how this seventeenth-century project to encompass knowledge was aligned with English and wider European activities to compass the globe itself. Lines of enquiry include examining the colonial activities of donors, the acquisition of books produced outside of Europe, and the kinds of knowledge represented in the books acquired.

footnote 1: See: Vivien Kogut Lessa de Sá and Caroline Egan, ‘Translation and prolepsis: the Jesuit origins of a Tupi Christian doctrine,’ in Cultural Worlds of the Jesuits in Colonial Latin America, edited by Linda A. Newson (London: University of London Press, 2020), 189–206.

Anna-Lujz Gilbert is a postdoctoral research fellow on the ‘Shaping Scholarship’ project at UCL. For this project, she is leading the construction of a database of donations made to the Bodleian Library in its first twenty years, c. 1600–1620, which will be published as a free online resource. Her wider research interests are in the movement to establish semi-public libraries in early modern England.

For more information about the Shaping Scholarship project, see the project website at: http://www.livesandletters.ac.uk/projects/shaping-scholarship 

This blogpost is one of a series exploring the Bodleian’s colonial and imperial connections, as part of the ‘We Are Our History’ project in 2022-24.