THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Asian and African studies blog

20 February 2015

Malay legal texts

Codes of law (undang-undang) and legal digests (risalah) are amongst our most valuable indigenous historical sources on the Malay world, for the rules designed to regulate life provide us with a wealth of information on the societies in which the texts were composed: expected standards of behaviour, and – as well illustrated by the list of transgressions to be legislated against – what commonly went wrong. 

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A Dutch judge and six Javanese officials witnessing the execution and mutilation of four criminals, Java, 1807. Two of the prisoners, dressed in white, are tied to posts while the executioners make ready to despatch them with a keris (dagger). On the left one criminal lies dead, while in the centre foreground another Javanese offender is being trussed up and apparently made ready to have his limbs cut off, a punishment commonly inflicted on counterfeiters. Raffles collection, WD 2977.  noc

The oldest surviving Malay manuscript, written in the Malay language in Indic 'Kawi' script on tree-bark paper which has been carbon-dated to the 14th century, is a pre-Islamic code of laws from the kingdom of Darmasraya in Kerinci, in the highlands of central Sumatra (Kozok 2006). With the arrival of Islam changes were swiftly effected to legal structures in the newly Muslim states of the archipelago. The most famous set of laws in Malay, the Undang-undang Melaka, was codified in the kingdom of Melaka during the reign of Sultan Muhammad Syah (r.1424-44) and completed under Sultan Muzaffar Syah (r.1445-58) (Liaw 1976: 38). Manuscripts of the Undang-undang Melaka are often hybrid compilations containing a number of different parts, most commonly the Undang-undang Melaka proper, relating to the law of the land, and the Undang-undang laut, on maritime law. Over fifty manuscripts are known, many containing local variants of the code from Aceh, Kedah, Patani and Johor.

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Undang-undang Melaka, the code of laws of the Malay kingdom of Melaka, an early 19th century manuscript containing the Acehnese variant of the text. British Library, Add. 12395, ff. 2v-3r.  noc

The first foreign scholar to pay serious attention to Malay legal texts was Thomas Stamford Raffles. Soon after his arrival in Penang in 1805 he began to collect copies of Malay laws, and an English version of the Undang-undang laut was included in his paper ‘On the Malayu Nation, with a Translation of its Maritime Institutions’ read to the Royal Asiatic Society in Bengal, and later published in Asiatic Researches (Vol.12, 1818, pp. 102-159). The Undang-undang Melaka was the subject of a doctoral dissertation by Liaw Yock Fang (1976), and was re-published in his updated study following the discovery of a 17th-century manuscript in the Vatican Library, which turned out to be the earliest and most important representative of the text (Liaw 2003).

Among the Malay manuscripts in the British Library which have been digitised are five legal texts, including two copies of the Undang-undang Melaka, both from the collection of John Crawfurd.  Add. 12395 (source ‘F’ in the study by Liaw 1976), contains a copy of the Acehnese version of the Undang-undang Melaka and the Undang-undang laut. The second manuscript, Add. 12397 (Liaw’s source ‘G’), contains core versions of both the Undang-undang Melaka and the Undang-undang laut, and was copied in Singapore. This manuscript is very precisely dated: it was commenced on 14 Jumadilawal 1236 (17 February 1821) (f.1v) and completed on 10 Syawal 1236 (Wednesday 11 July 1821) (f.92v), a span of nearly four months. A third manuscript of the Undang-undang Melaka, from the India Office collection (MSS Malay D.10), only contains headings of the pasals or articles.

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Undang-undang Melaka, called here al-risālah hukum al-qānūn fī balad al-Malāka, copied in Singapore in 1821. British Library, Add. 12397, f. 1v.  noc

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Undang-undang Melaka, containing titles of sections only; that shown above is on the wages payable for carrying and felling wood (pasal pada menyatakan hukum upahan naik kayu dan menebang kayu). This page appears to be in the hand of Raffles's scribe Ibrahim, and may therefore have been written in Penang in early 19th century. British Library, MSS Malay D.10, f. 2r.  noc

Another recently digitised manuscript (MSS Malay D.12) contains a copy of the Undang-undang Aceh, a code of laws from Aceh, said to have been composed in the reign of Sultan Jamalul Alam of Aceh (r.1703-26), on 1 Muharam 1120  (23 March 1708). The badly-damaged and now heavily-restored manuscript itself was copied by Haji Muhammad bin Abdullah in 1873.

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Opening pages of the Undang-undang Aceh. Begins (after blessings): maka adalah Haji Muhammad anak Bintan  (or Banten? b.n.t.n) menurunkan undang negeri Aceh masa itu Raja Syah Sultan Jamalul Alam kepada hijrat nabi sanat 1120 tahun kepada tahun Muharam [sic] sehari bulan Muharam bahwa dewasa ini adapun ini surat namanya undang2 Aceh diturunkan oleh Tuan Haji Muhammad. The date is written as ‘1160’ but it is not uncommon in Arabic-script manuscripts for numerals occasionally to be written in reversed form, and in this case the ‘6’ should be read 'in negative' as ‘2’. British Library, MSS Malay D.12, ff. 1v-2r.  noc

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Colophon to the Undang-undang Aceh, dated 5 Rabiulawal 1290 (3 May 1873): Tamatlah undang2 Aceh kepada hijrat nabi sanat 1290 tahun kepada lima hari bulan Rabiulawal kepada hari yaum ... yang empunya surat ini tuan Haji Muhammad ibn Abdullah tamat al-kalam wal-salam bi-al-khayr wa-al-salam. Sekarang suda lamanya tengah tiga ratus tahun. British Library, MSS Malay D.12, f. 18v (detail).  noc

Finally, one of the oldest Malay manuscripts in the British Library, from the collections of Sir Hans Sloane and thus present at the founding of the British Museum in 1753, is an Undang-undang manuscript (Sloane 2393) containing a code of Muslim criminal law (Mohd. Jajuli 1986).

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Opening pages of the Undang-undang, an early Malay legal text, probably 18th century. The unusual horizonal format suggests that this undated MS was written at a time when the standard writing material was just changing from palm leaf to paper. British Library, Sloane 2393, ff. 19v-20r.  noc

Further reading:

Uli Kozok, Kitab undang-undang Tanjung Tanah: naskah Melayu yang tertua.  Alih aksara Hassan Djafar, Ninie Susanti Y, dan Waruno Mahdi; alih bahasa Achadiati Ikram ... [et al].  Jakarta: Yayasan Naskah Nusantara, 2006.

Liaw Yock Fang, Undang-undang Melaka: the Laws of Melaka.  The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1976. (Bibliotheca Indonesica; 13).

Liaw Yock Fang. Undang-undang Melaka dan Undang-undang laut.  Kuala Lumpur: Yayasan Karyawan, 2003.

Mohamad Jajuli Rahman, The Undang-undang: a mid-eighteenth century Malay law text (BL Sloane MS 2393): transcription and translation. Canterbury: University of Kent, Centre of South-east Asian studies, 1986.

Annabel Teh Gallop, Lead Curator, Southeast Asia

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