Asian and African studies blog

11 September 2014

Fifty more Malay manuscripts to be digitised

Following the successful completion of the first year of our Malay manuscripts digitisation project – funded by William and Judith Bollinger, and undertaken in collaboration with the National Library of Singapore – we are pleased to announce that photography has commenced for the second year of the project. This year we will be digitising 53 manuscripts mainly from the collections of the India Office Library, as well as a few recent acquisitions. All these manuscripts are listed on our Digital Access to Malay Manuscripts project page.

Sumatra (in yellow) and part of the Malay peninsula (in green) and Java (in red). From a maritime atlas for navigating from the Cape of Good Hope to the Far East. Amsterdam, 1722. British Library, Maps.C.12. f.3, 27  noc

Among the highlights to be digitised this year are the Adat Aceh (MSS Malay B.11), the exceptionally important compendium of port regulations and court procedures from 17th-century Aceh, and a copy of the Undang-undang Aceh, a legal digest from Aceh (MSS Malay D.12). Scholars of indigenous healing techniques will be particularly interested in a work from the court of Pontianak in western Kalimantan, entitled Kitab obat-obat dan azimat, ‘Book of medicines and charms’ (MSS Malay B.15), described as ‘The Malay Materia Medica, from the practice of Tama, Physician to the royal household of His Majesty of Pontiana’, copied on 17 May 1813.

First page of the Kitab obat-obat dan azimat, containing a charm to stop children crying (azimat budak jangan menangis), Pontianak, 1813. MSS Malay B.15, f.1v.  noc

There is a rich corpus of literary works, both in prose (hikayat) and narrative verse (syair), mostly collected by John Leyden in Penang and Melaka. Many of these manuscripts are dated, and were written in Kedah, Penang or Melaka between 1804 and 1811 by scribes known to have worked for the British, including Muhammad Kasim, Ismail, Ibrahim, who was Raffles’s chief secretary, and his brother Ahmad Rijaluddin. In a few cases the manuscripts to be photographed this year contain the same texts as in those already digitised last year such as Hikayat Dewa Mandu (MSS Malay D.1), Hikayat Hang Tuah (MSS Malay B.1) and Hikayat Ular Nangkawang (MSS Malay A.1), allowing textual comparisons to be made. Some manuscripts bear finely illuminated frames around the opening pages.

Hikayat Inderaputera. The red and black decorative motifs suggest a Minangkabau origin for this manuscript, believed to date from around 1821. British Library, MSS Malay B.14, ff.1r, 2r [The MS has been mis-bound, and in the image above the two illuminated pages have been digitially reunited to show how they would originally have appeared across two facing pages.]  noc

The broad linguistic and epigraphic reach of the Malay world is reflected in three manuscripts from south Sumatra written in variants of the pre-Islamic incung script of Indic origin, also called ka-ga-nga script after its first three letters. A manuscript written on folded tree bark contains the Syair Perahu (MSS Malay A.2) in Malay in incung script, and possibly dates from the 18th century. Surat pantun cara Lampung (MSS Malay A.4) is a paper manuscript which contains parallel columns of Malay pantun and quatrains called wayak in Lampung language and script. A third manuscript in incung script is a tembai or myth of origin, written on strips of bamboo (MSS Malay D.11).

Syair Perahu, first few lines of a manuscript in Malay in incung script from south Sumatra, written on folded treebark. MSS Malay A.2, f.a 1 (detail).  noc

Also to be digitised this year are a number of Malay vocabulary lists, mostly collected by servants of the East India Company including Leyden and Raffles. Perhaps most interesting are the working materials of Thomas Bowrey, author of the first original Malay-English dictionary. Alongside his notebooks are also held page proofs for A dictionary English and Malayo, Malayo and English (London, 1701), together with hand-written annotations by Thomas Hyde, professor of Arabic at Oxford, who appears to have helped Bowrey with the Jawi script elements (MSS Eur A 33).

The first lines from a vocabulary of Malay, Javanese and Madurese, arranged not alphabetically but by subject, starting with the concept of God and creation (Tuhan, ketuhanan, kejadian) and other-worldly creatures (dewa, hantu, gergasi, raksasa). This manuscript bears the bookplate of Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles. MSS Malay A.3, f.3v (detail).  noc

Manuscripts which have already been digitised are highlighted above in blue. All the other manuscripts mentioned will be digitised in the course of the coming months.


M.C.Ricklefs & P.Voorhoeve, Indonesian manuscripts in Great Britain: a catalogue of manuscripts in Indonesian languages in British public collections.  Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977.

Annabel Teh Gallop, Lead Curator, Southeast Asia



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