(The following post is by Joshua Kueh, Southeast Asia Reference Librarian, Asian Division).
In 1990, an uncatalogued volume of correspondence caught the eye of a librarian from the Asian Division. In the leather bound tome were 46 letters written in Jawi, an adaptation of the Arabic script for writing the Malay language. The letters, many of them originals bearing impressions of seals of sultans and nobles from around the Malay world, had previously been unknown to the scholarly community. It was a major discovery, the letters being one of three main sources for William Farquhar’s correspondence.
Farquhar (1744-1839) was a key figure in the founding of modern Singapore. He arrived in Melaka in 1795 and after more than two decades there—during which Farquhar forged close relationships with influential Malay leaders and local society—he was appointed Resident of Singapore. He held this post from 1819 to 1823, and was instrumental in leveraging his relationships with Malay rulers for the success of the British East India Company’s enterprise in Singapore. The letters in this collection, recently made available online, speak to this dynamic.Beyond this, the letters also showcase examples of original 19th-century Malay letter-writing, and thus afford an excellent opportunity to appreciate not only the nuances of language in Malay letter-writing, but also the importance placed on visual presentation. Elements such as calligraphy, layout design, positioning of impressions of seals denoting relative status of the sender and recipient, and even how the letters were folded are only evident from originals rather than scribal copies.
As exemplars of the literary form and due to their special place in providing a glimpse into the early days of modern Singapore, the letters at the Library of Congress have received attention in various publications over the years. Seven of them were featured in a National Library Board of Singapore exhibition on the occasion of Singapore’s bicentennial celebration in 2019.
Despite being well-known among scholars, the provenance of the collection had not been established with much certainty until recently. The received knowledge had been that the American missionary Alfred North (1807-1869) purchased the collection for the United States Exploring Expedition (1838-1842), also known as the Wilkes Expedition—so named after Charles Wilkes, its commander, said to be the inspiration for the character Captain Ahab in Herman Melville’s novel “Moby Dick” (1851). The expedition was the first scientific mission on a global scale undertaken by the United States, and was charged by Congress with the dual mission of exploring and surveying the area around Antarctica and the Pacific with a view towards commercial interests linked to whale fisheries, as well as pushing the boundaries of scientific knowledge. With the latter goal in mind, the Wilkes Expedition counted among its personnel a group of nine scientists and artists, who went on to collect an unprecedented number of ethnographic objects, plants and zoological specimens, and record vast amounts of data. The collections of the expedition would form an integral part of the Smithsonian Institution’s holdings, and some would with time come to play a foundational role in the formation of an Asian collection at the Library of Congress.
As mentioned, the connection of the Malay letters at the Library of Congress to the Wilkes Expedition has long been asserted since their emergence. The letters were supposed to have been acquired by North for the Wilkes Expedition when it stopped in Singapore in February 1842. On the expedition’s return, the letters were transferred to the Smithsonian Institution. From there, they presumably traveled to the Library of Congress in 1866 as part of a large transfer of books and manuscripts known as the Smithsonian Deposit. This narrative certainly made sense given the presence of tipped in notes by Alfred North in several Malay items in the Asian Division’s Southeast Asian Rare Book Collection, and the “Smithsonian Deposit” label attached to a few of them. Nonetheless, there was no clear indication that the letters were acquired by North except for a cryptic notation in one of the letters in what appears to be North’s handwriting: “These epistles are difficult to be obtained.”
Seeking to examine the Wilkes Expedition link in my role as a Southeast Asian reference librarian, I began a months-long search into the provenance of the Malay letters. Going through Charles Wilkes’ papers, invoices of the Wilkes Expedition, annual reports, institution histories, and the travel journal of Alfred North, some details on the provenance of the letters came into focus.
Institutional narratives support the view that the letters made their way from the Smithsonian to the Library of Congress in 1866, but also suggest a prior home for the letters. Before being housed at the Smithsonian Institution, the collections of the Wilkes Expedition were in the care of the National Institution for the Promotion of Science and kept at the Great Hall of the Patent Office during the 1840s. The National Institution, later renamed the National Institute, arranged for the expedition’s collections to be catalogued. In a note from November 22, 1842, Charles Pickering, the curator of the National Institute and a naturalist on the expedition, wrote that the Institute had custody of 19 volumes of Malay manuscripts—what he called “in all probability the finest collection in existence.” This indicates that Malay manuscripts were indeed being stored at the Great Hall of the Patent Office, and very likely the Malay letters, too.
From the Patent Office, the letters next moved to the Smithsonian when the United States Congress placed the National Institute’s collections in the care of the Smithsonian in 1857. Then in 1866, the letters were transferred to the Library of Congress as part of the Smithsonian Deposit.
While this information helped fill out the picture on the journey of the letters to the Library, there was still no direct mention of the letters. However, the clues did point towards records kept at the Smithsonian Institution archives. After consultation with an archivist, I studied Record Unit 7186 for the United States Exploring Expedition. The path through this group of documents was lined with copious notes and drawings of plants, echinoderms, and seemingly endless lists of minerals, but not a mention of the letters.
Based on knowledge of the custodial history of collections amassed by the Wilkes Expedition, I decided to look at a different set of records at the Smithsonian Institution archives—those of the National Institute: Record Unit 7058. A box labeled “Records of the United States Exploring Expedition” stood out. Sifting through folders of bills, accounts and invoices, optimism turned to tedium and the answer seemed no closer. Working mechanically through a folder tucked towards the end of the box more out of diligence than hope, suddenly a leaf with the following heading appeared: “List of Malay books and Mss purchased by the Rvd. A North Singapore for U.S. Ex.Ex. By request of Capt. Wilkes.”
On the page were 21 items with corresponding prices delineated in a cursive script. Reading down the list, I recognized many of the items—rare Malay manuscripts and early printed books currently in the Southeast Asian Rare Book Collection at the Library of Congress. Then two-thirds of the way down the list, words that finally confirmed the connection between the Malay letters and the Wilkes Expedition materialized: “Collection of Epistles of Malay Rajahs.”
Here at long last was evidence confirming the provenance of the letters.
The successful search for the provenance of the Malay letters at the Library of Congress not only provided strong evidence of the purchase of the letters by North for the Wilkes Expedition, it also led to the rediscovery of a Malay code of law in the Law Library’s collection of rare books. Notably, this code of law was copied by the man many see as the father of modern Malay literature, Abdullah bin Abdul Kadir, or Munsyi Abdullah. The lists from the Smithsonian also suggest the provenance of an 1833 vocabulary of English, Malay and Bugis in the Library’s Rare Book and Special Collections Division.
Following the establishment of their provenance and creation of a bibliographic record, the entire collection of letters was digitized and is now freely available online with an accompanying finding aid. The high resolution images in the digital presentation provide unparalleled access to a notable collection that features letters originating from around the Malay world between 1812 and 1832.
One unique item in the collection is a letter from Sultanah Siti Fatimah binti Jamaluddin Abdul Rahman of Pammana, which offers a rare opportunity in which one hears the voice of a woman from the Malay-speaking world from almost 200 years ago. Sultanah Siti Fatimah’s letter is in fact one of the only known extant Malay letters from a reigning female monarch in the Malay world.
The collection also holds a few letters between influential Malay figures and businessmen, Chinese among them, and thus allows a window to the intercommunal connections of the world in which Farquhar and Malay rulers operated.
The William Farquhar correspondence and other Malay letters collection is housed in the Southeast Asian Rare Book Collection of the Asian Division. For more information, please direct queries to Southeast Asian reference librarians using Ask-a-Librarian.
Subscribe to 4 Corners of the World – it’s free! – and the world’s largest library will send you cool stories about its collections from around the world!