British Museum collections, £12.99
Collected by Edward Belcher
Gift of A.W. Franks
Africa, Oceania, Americas
Pack of playing cards
Philippines, early 19th century AD
Taken from a pirate ship
Playing cards first appeared in China, but the route by which they moved westwards is still unclear. The first European playing cards, dating from shortly before AD 1370, were based on Islamic packs with the four suits of coins, sticks, swords and cups, much as are used in Italy and Spain today. This pack has the suits of hearts, clubs, diamonds and spades as invented by the French (the knave of hearts is now missing). Now used internationally, these cards were clearly already present in South-east Asia in the middle of the nineteenth century.
The cards were collected by Sir Edward Belcher (1799-1877), a captain in the British Navy who played an active and possibly over-enthusiastic role in the suppression of piracy in the seas around Indonesia and the Philippines in the 1840s. The archipelagos of South-east Asia were crucial zones for maritime trade, particularly between Europe and China, but also between the various islands and their trading partners. A large and renewable workforce was needed to meet the increasing demand for natural products from these islands. Pirates therefore not only profited from the commercial activities taking place in the area but also by running the slave trade. These playing cards are said to have been confiscated by Belcher from a pirate ship.
J.F. Warren, The Sulu zone, 1768-1898: the (Singapore University Press, 1981)