Royal Correspondence in the Curiosity Cabinet

The Leibniz Library in Hanover has published the results of three years’ research into a golden letter held in the library’s strong room for 250 years. It had been sent by King Alaungpaya of Burma to King George II of the United Kingdom in 1756. Instead of answering it, the latter put it in his curiosity cabinet in Hanover.

Golden letter has to be taken literally. The letter is made of finest pure gold and studded with 24 rubies adorning the narrow ends of the letter page. Golden letters were customarily sent to the Emperors of China if you wanted to catch their attention; but the German sitting on the English throne was unaware of how such things were handled in the civilized world and of the unearned honor done to him. As his mother also seems to have missed out on teaching him any manners, the letter went unanswered. 

To add insult to injury, George II treated the letter as a private curio instead of a state missive; instead of filing it in the government archives in London, the letter was sent to the Royal Library in Hanover. In the library, the letter was filed as ‘a letter from a local Indian potentate who doesn't eat meat and reveres fire’ (sic). When King Christian VII of Denmark visited George in Hanover, the curio was shown to him in its envelope, a scooped out elephant tusk. When putting it back, the probably tipsy Danish king managed to damage it severely. 

The letter was dispatched in 1756 and written in Burmese, though accompanied by an English translation. It should have been the opener for mutually beneficial trading relations between the two countries. Alaungpaya was involved in a war, he needed canons , powder, and English assistance against an enemy aided by the French; in return, he offered a secure trading post for the British East India Company. The letter took two years to arrive on George’s desk; by that time, England and France had decided to have their Seven Years War on another continent than Asia which might help explain the disinterest in its content. 

The Leibniz Library is the legal successor to the Royal Library in Hanover. It is a public library serving the University of Hanover, but it is not a museum. In 2002, Georg Ruppelt took over as its new director, and he decided at the start that the old books in the cellar needed some dusting. One notable result of this dusting off was the acknowledgement of the Leibniz letters as UNESCO Memory of the World (MoW) treasure in 2007. The other one was the discovery of the golden letter in the elephant tusk in 2006. 

Thanks to the good offices of the two jolly (and probably drunken) monarchs, it took three years of careful restoration and reconstruction of the original text in Burmese to allow a certified translation. The work was done at the Ecole française d’Extrême-Orient. Leading researcher Jacques Leiden reckons that the letter might be unique, as all others have been molten down for gold meanwhile. In this respect, he classified the ‘disappearance’ of the letter as sheer luck. 

For Hanover and its Leibniz Library, the letter might be impulse for cultural development; Burma has definitely given them a push to remember that Hanover was once capital to a kingdom and that its Royal Library holds many treasures. We may look forward to more surprises coming from the vaults. The golden letter is on public show at the Leibniz Library buildings during opening hours.