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Our Asian and African Studies blog promotes the work of our curators, recent acquisitions, digitisation projects, and collaborative projects outside the Library. Our starting point was the British Library’s exhibition ‘Mughal India: Art, Culture and Empire’, which ran 9 Nov 2012 to 2 Apr 2013 Read more

23 July 2014

Malay letters from Bengkulu

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From the late 17th to the early 19th century, the most enduring British trading base in Southeast Asia was on the west coast of Sumatra at Bengkulu, referred to in contemporary English accounts as ‘Bencoolen’ and in Malay as ‘Bengkahulu’. After being ousted by the Dutch from Banten in west Java in 1682, the English East India Company established a ‘factory’ or trading post at Bengkulu in 1684, which lasted for nearly 150 years until it was exchanged for Melaka under the terms of the Anglo-Dutch Treaty of London in 1824.  

The history of the British presence in Bengkulu is recorded in 162 thick red leather-bound volumes of ‘Sumatra Factory Records’, held today in the India Office Records in the British Library. The story is a desultory one, for the hoped-for fat profits from pepper never materialised and the factory suffered from poor crop yields and even worse administration. Events are almost entirely reported from the English point of view, but very occasionally original Malay sources have survived, which help to give us a local perspective.  

Fort Marlborough, Bengkulu, showing the Government House and Council House.  Coloured aquatint with etching; drawn by Andrews, ca.1794-98; engraved by Joseph Stadler; published by William Marsden, 1799. British Library, P 329.  noc

Among the Malay manuscripts in the British Library recently digitised is a letter (Add.2828*) sent to the commander of the 'Company' in Bengkulu, at the time Richard Farmer. Although the letter is undated and written in the name of Datuk Raja Kuasa, it is annotated in a contemporary English hand From Sultan Cutchell / No.213 / Janry 14. 1718, identifying the sender as Sultan Kecil Muhammad Syah of Anak Sungai (r.1716-1728) (Kathirithamby-Wells 1977: 37). The writer assures the English of his good will and acknowledges the glue of the relationship – a shared interest in trade – but also refers to the slanderous rumours swirling round on all sides. As the letter is quite short, it will be reproduced in full below, with the Malay text followed by an English translation. In line with Malay epistolographic conventions, the letter starts with a religious invocation or heading (kepala surat).  

Qawluhu al-haqq
Bahawa ini alamat surat tulus dan fu(ad) ikhlas serta putih hati sel(agi) ada peridar cakrawala bulan dan matahari akan menerangi malam dan siang {dan siang} tiada berubah kepada Kompeni, iaitu dari pada Datuk Raja Kuasa, barang sampailah kiranya kepada Orang Kaya Komandar Bengkahulu. Adapun seperti hal mengatakan surat Orang Kaya sudah sampai kepada hamba, mengeratilah hamba seperti dalam surat Orang Kaya Komandar itu kata pada hamba jangan mendangar feritnah [i.e. fitnah] itupun hamba tiada bercarai dangan Kompeni, bicara hamba dan setia hamba tiada berubah pada Kompeni, karena Kompeni dagang kami pun Melayu dagang sama2, kita malu juga jikalau dibuwang kita sama2 malu dagang kita itupun jikalau kerja raja2 tiada hamba tahu dan tiada hamba peduli pada bicara raja itu, jangan Komandar mendangar feritnah orang lain kata surat hamba yang di{a}dangar oleh Orang Kaya.  Lagi kata Komandar dahu(lu) kepada hamba berkirim surat pada hamba juru tulis hamba diberi belanja empat rial sebulan sekarang satu pun tiada malu hamba kepada kata itu yang menyurat itu dari Bengkahu(lu) juru tulis anak hamba Encik Beruruk.  Jikalau kan diberi belanja suruh hantar pada m.l.l.a.d.w k.a.t.a.h.n pada hamba ke Pangatang tamat, jikalau ada tiada suruh tamat.

His Word is The Truth
This is an honest letter from a sincere and pure heart, and as long as the moon and sun revolve and light up night and day never shall it waver towards the Company, from Datuk Raja Kuasa, may it be conveyed to the Noble Commander at Bengkahulu.  I have received your letter and understood its contents, whereby you advise me not to pay any attention to the slander, and I assure you I will never be parted from the Company, my word and my loyalty remains firmly pledged to the Company, for the Company is for trade and we Malays too are equally for trade, we would be ashamed to break off relations, for our trade would equally suffer; if that is the decision of the princes then I know nothing of it, and neither will I heed it, so I beg the Commander not to listen to the slander in the letter said to have been written by me which has come to your attention.  Furthermore the Commander had previously informed me in writing that my scribe would be paid four rial per month, and I find nothing to be ashamed of in that, the one who wrote the news from Bengkulu was my scribe Mister Beruruk.  If you are planning to send the payment please send it to …. to me at Pangatang; the end.  But if not, not; the end.

Malay letter from Datuk Raja Kuasa (Sultan Kecil of Anak Sungai) to Richard Farmer, Deputy Governor of Bengkulu, recd. 14 January 1718. British Library, Add. 4828*, f.2v.  noc

The letter was not placed in an envelope, but was folded with the address written on the outer side (Bahawa ini alamat surat dari pada Datuk Raja Kuasa barang sampailah kiranya kepada Orang Kaya Komandar Bengkahulu), and closed with a red wax seal. The letter was presented to the British Museum in 1767 by Mrs Rust, daughter of Governor Farmer. British Library, Add. 4828*, f.1r (detail)   noc

A number of early Malay letters from Bengkulu are known, scattered through the  Sumatra Factory Records or held in other institutions; none of the others  have yet been digitised, but all are listed below for reference.

Malay letters from Bengkulu to the East India Company (up to 1763)

1.     Letter from Tunku Baginda Raja Makota of Anak Sungai to the Orang Kaya Jenderal [Joseph Collett] in Bengkulu, [ca.1712-16]. Bury St. Edmonds, Suffolk Record Office, 613/841. (Gallop 1994: 121).
2.     Letter from Datuk Raja Kuasa [Sultan Kecil] to Orang Kaya Komandar [Richard Farmer] in Bengkulu, [recd. 14 Jan 1718]. British Library, Add.4824*
3.    Letter from Pangiran Mangku Raja and Pangiran Sungai Hitam to the East India Company in Bengkulu, 17 April 1724. British Library, IOR: G/35/8, f.568A. (Bastin 1965: 57).
4.    Letter from Sultan Gandam Syah of Muko-Muko to the East India Company, [Sept. 1733]. British Library, IOR: G/25/8, f.577. (Gallop 1994: 129).
5.     Letter from Pangiran Mangku Raja and Pangiran Khalifah Raja to the East India Company at Fort Marlborough, Bengkulu, Nov 1733. British Library, IOR: G/35/8, f.369. (Bastin 1965: 59-60).
6.     Letter from Raja Mengkuta and Raja Gelumat and the 59 perbatin (perbatin yang kurang esa enam puluh) to the Governor of Bengkulu, [early 18th c]. Cambridge University Library, Add.285, no. 63.
7.    Letter from Pangiran [Makota] Raja of Silebar to Governor Roger Carter, 6 June 1763. British Library, IOR: G/35/13, f.58

Further reading

John Bastin, The British in West Sumatra.  Kuala Lumpur: University of Malaya Press, 1965.
A.T. Gallop, The Legacy of the Malay Letter / Warisan Warkah Melayu.  London: British Library, 1994.
J. Kathirithamby-Wells, The British West Sumatran Presidency (1760-85): problems of early colonial enterprise.  Kuala Lumpur: Penerbit University Malaya, 1977.

Annabel Teh Gallop, Lead Curator, Southeast Asia


18 July 2014

Malay manuscripts on Javanese paper

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I recently wrote on how to tell if a Malay manuscript is written on Chinese paper, instead of the more usual medium of European paper.  Another type of writing material sometimes used for Malay manuscripts, particularly those from Java, is Javanese paper called dluwang (or daluang), hand-made from the beaten bark of the paper mulberry tree, Broussonetia papyrifera, called pohon saeh in Indonesia.  In fact, dluwang is paper in all but name, as the technical definition of paper is a ‘matted or felted sheet, usually made of cellulose fibres, formed on a wire screen from water suspension’ (Encyclopaedia Brittanica), for dluwang is not made from fibres suspended in water and then dried in sheets.  Instead, a strip of the inner bark of the saeh tree is cut out, soaked in water, and then pounded repeatedly and polished until the surface is smooth enough to write on (Ekadjati and McGlynn 1996).


Hikayat Mesa Taman Sira Panji Jayeng Kusuma, written in Malay on dluwang, and hence almost certainly from Java. Add. 12387, ff.4v-5r.  noc

Dluwang is easy to recognize because of its highly distinctive brown, polished surface, with the woody fibres still very visible.  When well-made, the resulting paper provides a fine smooth writing surface which should last for centuries without degeneration.  However, poorly-made sheets of dluwang may be fibrous and of uneven thickness, sometimes with evident holes and knots, and can be very susceptible to insect damage. Dluwang has been used as a writing material in insular Southeast Asia for many centuries. The oldest known example is the Tanjung Tanah Code of Law, a manuscript from Kerinci in central Sumatra in Malay in a pre-Islamic Indic script, which is written on dluwang which has been carbon-dated to the 14th century.  The oldest dluwang manuscript in the British Library is a text on Islamic jurisprudence in Arabic and Javanese from the collections of Sir Hans Sloane (Sloane 2645) dated 1623/4, which is still in excellent condition today.

The Tanjung Tanah manuscript, written on dluwang in the 14th century. Reproduced courtesy of Uli Kozok.

More recently, certainly from the 18th century onwards, there is no evidence that dluwang as a writing material was produced outside the island of Java, and so the use of dluwang in a manuscript is a very strong indication of a Javanese origin. This allows us to track the travels of manuscripts such as a copy of a Panji story (Or. 11365) which is said to have been presented by Tengku Khalid, Bendahara of Kelantan, but which must have originated in Java as it is written on dluwang. It is perhaps hardly a coincidence that most of the Malay literary manuscripts in the British Library written on dluwang contain stories from the Javanese Panji romances, popular since the 14th century. In this cycle of stories Panji, also called Raden Inu Kertapati, prince of Kuripan or Janggala, is betrothed to Princess Candra Kirana of Daha, who disappears on the eve of their wedding. Panji undergoes many adventures on his journeys while seeking his beloved.

A Panji story, probably Hikayat Cekel Waneng Pati. British Library, Or.11365, f.26r (detail).  noc

Beginning of a Panji story, about the Maharaja of Jengolo, written in Malay in romanized script. British Library, Or.16446, f.1r (detail).  noc

Dluwang is made through the same process as tapa or bark cloth, traditionally the main source of clothing in the islands of the Pacific Ocean. Tapa was first described in European sources by Captain James Cook, who collected samples from Tahiti in 1769 during his first voyage of exploration.

‘A girl bringing presents to Captn Cook’, wearing a ‘dress’ consisting of a large quantity of tapa cloth bound about her waist, intended as a gift for Cook.  Drawn by John Webber and engraved by Francesco Bartolozzi, from Cook’s Third Voyage (1776-1780). British Library, Add.23921 f.48.  noc

Further reading

Edi S. Ekadjati and John H. McGlynn, ‘Daluang: traditional paper production’, in Illuminations: writing traditions of Indonesia, ed. Ann Kumar and John H. McGlynn. New York: Weatherhill; Jakarta: Lontar; 1996; pp.116-117.

Uli Kozok, Kitab undang-undang Tanjung Tanah: naskah Melayu yang tertua. Jakarta: Yayasan Naskah Nusantara, 2006.

Annabel Teh Gallop, Lead Curator, Southeast Asia


16 July 2014

A newly digitised unpublished catalogue of Persian manuscripts: postscript

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As a supplement to the newly digitised draft catalogue of Persian manuscripts in the India Office Library, I have uploaded sheets of a fascicle which was originally intended to be the first in a series,  but which never got beyond proofs. These can be accessed by following the link below:

Catalogue of Persian Manuscripts vol III: Qurʼānic Literature

These proofs were returned from the University Press Oxford at various times during 1926 to Charles Storey who was then Assistant Librarian at the India Office Library and was actively engaged in cataloguing both Arabic and Persian manuscripts. As can be seen immediately from the number of mistakes, the proofs fully demonstrate the complexity of the material and the consequent difficulties involved in printing. Although he received the proofs in 1926 it took Storey, according to his dated notes, a full year to revise them. What happened next I have not yet discovered, but nothing ever came of Storey’s wish, recorded at the top of the first page: “We should rather like to get these sheets printed off by the middle of March”.

IO Isl 3840_f1-2_1000
The opening of al-Sūrābādī's commentary on the Qurʼān, one of the oldest Persian manuscripts preserved, copied in Rabīʻ II 523 (1129) by Maḥmūd ibn Gurgīn ibn Gurgsār al-Turkī (British Library IO Islamic 3840, ff. 1v-2r)

The fascicle is headed Catalogue of Persian Manuscripts Volume III and contains:

Qurʼānic literature:

A. Commentaries and translations (cols. 1-36)

B. Glossaries (cols. 36-7)

C. Asbāb al-nuzūl and al-Nāsikh wa’l-mansūkh (cols. 37-8)

D. The pronunciation of the Qurʼān and the variant readings (cols. 38-54)

E. Qurʼānic magic (cols. 54-60)

The titles of the works included in the catalogue, together with their correct manuscript numbers (some have been given new numbers since Storey catalogued them), can be downloaded from the following link:

Index to Catalogue of Persian Manuscripts Volume III: Qurʼānic Literature


Ursula Sims-Williams, Asian and African Studies