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British Library's Malay manuscripts

British Library's Malay manuscripts to be digitised

The complete collection of Malay manuscripts in the British Library is to be digitised thanks to a generous donation of £125,000 from Singapore-based American philanthropists William and Judith Bollinger. The five-year project, in collaboration with the National Library Board of Singapore, will fund the digitisation of materials of interest to Singapore held in the British Library. In addition to Malay manuscripts, early maps of Singapore and selected archival papers of Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles – who founded a British settlement in Singapore in 1819 – will also be digitised and made freely accessible online. 
For centuries, the Malay language has played an important role as the lingua franca of trade, diplomacy and religion throughout maritime Southeast Asia.  It was the language through which Islam spread across the archipelago from the 13th century onwards; it was the language in which visiting merchants from the Middle East, India, China and Europe would barter for spices in the rich port cities of Melaka, Patani, Aceh, Banten and Makassar; and it was the language through which British and Dutch colonial officials communicated with local sultanates. Until the early 20th century Malay was generally written in a modified form of the Arabic script known as Jawi, and Malay manuscripts originate from the present-day nations of Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Brunei and the southern regions of Thailand and the Philippines.

68.c.12, Bowrey map, 1701_720
A map showing the area over which the Malay language was commonly spoken, from the first original Malay-English dictionary, by Thomas Bowrey, 1701  (British Library, 68.c.12)

The British Library holds over a hundred Malay manuscript texts and several hundred Malay letters and documents, dating from the 17th to the 19th centuries. These manuscripts derive mainly from the historic British Museum collections, including Malay books owned by John Crawfurd, who served under Raffles during the British administration of Java from 1811 to 1816, and then as Resident of Singapore from 1823 to 1826, and from the India Office Library (which became part of the British Library in 1983), which holds Malay manuscripts belonging to John Leyden, Raffles’s closest friend and advisor, who died of fever shortly after the British capture of Batavia in 1811; Col. Colin Mackenzie, Raffles’s Chief Engineer in Java; as well as a few manuscripts previously owned by Raffles himself. 
Although not large, the British Library collection of Malay manuscripts includes some very important works, including the oldest known manuscript of the earliest Malay history, ‘Chronicle of the kings of Pasai’, Hikayat Raja Pasai, (Or.14350), describing the coming of Islam to Sumatra; two copies of the most famous Malay historical text, the ‘Malay Annals’, Sejarah Melayu, (Or.14734 & Or.16214) recording the glories of the great kingdom of Melaka up to its capture by the Portuguese in 1511; literary works in both prose (hikayat) and verse (syair), some of which – such as the intriguingly-named ‘Story of the Pig King’, Hikayat Raja Babi (Add.12393), written by a merchant from Semarang during a voyage to Palembang in Sumatra – are unique copies; as well as texts on law and Islamic religious obligations.  A few of the manuscripts are exquisitely illuminated, including a fine copy of an ethical guide for rulers, ‘The Crown of Kings’, Taj al-Salatin, copied in Penang in 1824 (Or.13295). 
A sumptuously illuminated manuscript of an ethical guide for rulers, ‘The Crown of Kings’, Taj al-Salatin, copied in Penang in 1824  (British Library Or.13295, ff.190v-191r)

The Malay manuscripts are being digitised in the British Library and will be fully available on the Library’s Digitised Manuscripts online (search on keywords ‘Malay’ or ‘Jawi’), while the National Library Board of Singapore will also be mounting the images on their BookSG website. Thus through this project, manuscripts which previously could only be viewed by visiting the British Library’s reading rooms in London will soon be made freely accessible online worldwide to anyone with an interest in Malay heritage and culture.
Over the next few months, on this blog we will be exploring in more detail individual manuscripts as they are digitised and made available online. If you would like to keep in touch, subscribe by email (at the top of this page) and follow us on Twitter @BLAsia_Africa.

Further reading
Malay manuscripts in the British Library are catalogued in:
M.C. Ricklefs & P. Voorhoeve, Indonesian manuscripts in Great Britain (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977)

Annabel Teh Gallop, Lead Curator, Southeast Asian Studies

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Sejarah Melayu: a Malay masterpiece
Sometime around the year 1400, a prince from Sumatra named Parameswara founded a settlement at the mouth of the Melaka river on the west coast of the Malay peninsula.  Soon after one of his successors embraced Islam, and Melaka grew to become the greatest Islamic kingdom ever seen in Southeast Asia. Known as the ‘Venice of the East’, its spice trade attracted merchants from as far away as Arabia, India, China and Japan.  Such a honeypot proved irresistible to the Portuguese, who were the first Europeans to navigate around the Cape of Good Hope into the Indian Ocean.  Not content simply to join in the bustling trade, the Portuguese instead attacked Melaka and captured it in 1511. 
Sloane 197-Melaka-ed
Plan of Melaka after its capture by the Portuguese.  Livro do Estado da India Oriental, by Pedro Barreto de Resende, 1641.  British Library, Sloane MS 197, ff.381v-182r.
    The Malay sultan, Mahmud Shah, fled southwards to Johor. As the exiled court began to face up to the realization that their enforced sojourn in Johor would not be temporary, it became ever more urgent to record for posterity the still-vivid memories of Melaka’s magnificence.  A chronicle was envisaged that would testify that the sultan and his kin now settled on the upper reaches of the Johor river were descended from a glorious line of Malay kings, originating in south Sumatra from the site of the ancient empire of Srivijaya, who had gone on to found at Melaka the richest emporium in Southeast Asia.  It so happened that the court official charged with the task, Tun Seri Lanang, was the greatest Malay writer of that or perhaps any period, and he produced what is now regarded as a masterpiece of Malay literature.  
    Entitled in Arabic Sulalat al-Salatin, ‘Genealogy of Kings’, but popularly known as Sejarah Melayu or the ‘Malay Annals’, this work is not only a literary triumph but also a handbook of Malay statecraft, outlining the solemn covenant between the ruler, who promises never to shame his subjects, and his people, who undertake never to commit treason (durhaka).  More than thirty manuscripts of Sejarah Melayu are known, with numerous different versions of the text, some designed to bolster the credentials of other Malay kingdoms by claiming links with the illustrious royal line of Melaka. 
    The enduring popularity of the Sejarah Melayu also lies in the skill of its author in addressing key historical episodes and refashioning these invariably to the greater glory of Melaka.  In one celebrated anecdote, when a delegation from Melaka visited China, all had to bow low and were not allowed to look at the Emperor’s face. When the Emperor enquired as to what food they liked, the crafty Malays specified kangkung, spinach, not chopped up, but left long.  They then ate the kangkung by lifting each strand up high and lowering it into their upturned mouths – thus enabling them to lift their heads and gaze upon the Chinese emperor!
Sejarah Melayu: how the Malays ate kangkung (spinach) at the Chinese court, thereby managing to steal a glance at the face of the Emperor.  British Library, Or.14734, f.84r.
    There are two manuscripts of the Sejarah Melayu in the British Library, Or.16214 and Or.14734, which has just been digitised.   This manuscript was copied in Melaka itself in 1873, by which time the site of the great Malay sultanate had passed through the hands of a whole series of European colonizers, from the Portuguese to the Dutch and then to the British.  It bears the name of E.E. Isemonger, who served as Resident Councillor of Melaka in 1891.
Detail of the colophon, giving the name of the scribe and the date of copying in Melaka as Monday 19 Zulhijah 1289 (17 February 1873):  Tamatlah Hikayat Melayu ini di dalam negeri Melaka sanatahun 1289 kepada 19 hari bulan Zulhijah hari yaum al-Isnin adanya, wa-katibuhu Muhammad Tajuddin Tambi Hitam bin Zainal Abidin Penghulu Dagang Melaka Kampung Telangkira adanya.  British Library, Or.14734, f.200v.

Further reading
C.C. Brown, Sejarah Melayu or Malay Annals.  An annotated translation by C.C.Brown, with a new introduction by R.Roolvink.  Kuala Lumpur: Oxford University Press, 1970.
A. Samad Ahmad (ed.), Sulalatus salatin (Sejarah Melayu).  Kuala Lumpur: Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka: 1986.
John Leyden's Malay Annals.  With an introductory essay by Virginia Matheson Hooker and M.B.
Hooker.  Selangor Darul Ehsan: MBRAS, 2001. (MBRAS reprint; 20).