Asian and African studies blog

23 July 2014

Malay letters from Bengkulu

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.4828*) 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.4828*
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



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