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The First Asian Books in the Library of Congress

(The following is a post by Hong Ta-Moore, Reference Librarian, Asian Division.)

In 1865, America experienced major social and political changes: President Lincoln was assassinated; the American Civil War ended; and the 13th Amendment to abolish slavery in the United States became law. Unrelated to all these changes, Congress authorized, that same year, additional funding to expand its library, and arranged for the transfer of a collection of Malay manuscripts and early printed books from the Smithsonian Institution to the library. These Malay materials, acquired during the United States Exploring Expedition of 1838–1842, became the first documented Asian books in the Library of Congress.

“Sejarah Melayu,” 1840. Asian Division, Library of Congress.

The United States Exploring Expedition was a four-year expedition authorized by Congress and tasked with surveying areas of the Pacific Ocean region that were largely unknown to Americans. Under the command of Lt. Charles Wilkes, the voyage, also known as the Wilkes Expedition, brought together a team of scientists, artists, interpreters, and philologists who helped collect countless samples from various locales for the American scientific community. The Wilkes Expedition also collected unique printed works from distant lands. During its visit to Singapore in 1842, one of its members, philologist Horatio Hale recruited the help of Singapore-based American missionary Alfred North to acquire many printed works now in the Library of Congress, including the “Sejarah Melayu” (Malay Annals).

The “Sejarah Melayu,” written in Jawi (Malay in Arabic script), provides an account of early Malay history and has been translated numerous times and written about extensively over the centuries. The “Sejarah Melayu” is believed to have been originally written in manuscript form in the early 1600s, but in the mid-19th century it was lithographed and published by the Mission Press in Singapore. Two copies of this 1840 edition are now part of the Southeast Asia rare collection in the Asian Division.

“Hikayat Abdullah,” 1840. Asian Division, Library of Congress.

Another important Jawi literary work, obtained during the Wilkes Expedition, was the “Hikayat Abdullah” (The Story of Abdulah), written by Munshi Abdullah bin Abdul Kadir, who is often regarded as the “founder” of modern Malay literature. The “Munshi” part of his name means language instructor because of his prodigious fluency in Jawi at an early age. By the age of 15, he was already preaching the Quran to Indian soldiers and teaching Jawi to scholars and government officials. The “Hikayat Abdullah” serves as a record of life in the Malay world, at the turn of the 19th century, from a local perspective. It mixes together folktales, engaging details of daily life, and historical figures like that of Sir Stamford Raffles, who founded British Singapore in 1819. The Asian Division’s copy of this book is housed in the Southeast Asia rare collection and is a reminder of the lasting benefit of the Wilkes Expedition.

Day of Judgment in Buginese script, 1840. Asian Division, Library of Congress.

At the time of the expedition, Jawi was one of many prominent languages in the region. The philologist Horatio Hale, recruited while still an undergraduate at Harvard, documented many of these languages. He also helped collect works in Buginese, an Indic-derived script using the Lontara alphabet still in use by some 4 million ethnic Bugis in Malaysia, Indonesia, as well as in some parts of the Philippines. One of these works, “Day of Judgment,” explains the punishments for various crimes according to the teachings of the Qur’an. Hale would later become a noted scholar of Native American languages, and his work serves as a rare documentary history of early Native American cultures.

In 1842, Wilkes returned to the United States a hero but with serious legal problems. He was court-martialed for the harsh treatment of his crew, although he was later exonerated of all charges. His cantankerous disposition earned him the nickname “stormy petrel” of the Navy, and it is said that he was the inspiration for the character Captain Ahab in Herman Melville’s novel “Moby Dick” (1851). Regardless of how Wilkes has been viewed by historians, he and the members of his expedition team helped enrich the Library of Congress with the valuable printed works they collected during their four-year exploration of the Pacific.

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