In 2013, through the generous support of William and Judith Bollinger, the British Library embarked upon a five-year project, in collaboration with the National Library Board of Singapore, to digitise materials in the British Library of interest to Singapore. The project initially focussed on Malay manuscripts, early maps of Singapore, and archival papers of Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles, who had founded a British trading settlement in Singapore in 1819. The project later also encompassed Bugis manuscripts, reflecting the cultural heritage of a distinctive community within the broader Malay population in Singapore, and the small collection of Qur’an manuscripts from Southeast Asia in the British Library. The digitised materials are being made accessible through the websites of both the British Library's Digitised Manuscripts and the National Library of Singapore's BookSG.
The complete collection of Malay manuscripts in the British Library, comprising about 120 volumes and about 150 letters and documents in Malay, has now been fully digitised. The manuscripts date from the 17th to the late 19th centuries, and originate from all over Southeast Asia where Malay was the common language of trade, diplomacy and religious education. Highlights include the oldest known copy of the earliest Malay historical chronicle, Hikayat Raja Pasai (Or 14350), copied in Semarang in north Java in 1797, and two copies of the history of the great sultanate of Melaka, Sulalat al-Salatin or Sejarah Melayu, one copied in Singapore around the 1830s (Or 16214) and one in Melaka in 1873 (Or 14734). The collection is rich in literary works, both in prose and in poetic (syair) form, and also has a few finely illuminated manuscripts, including an exquisite copy of a ‘mirror for princes’ containing advice on good governance, the Taj al-Salatin or ‘Crown of Kings’ (Or 13295), commissioned in Penang in 1824 by Ralph Rice for his 'bibliomanist' brother, Rev. Rice of Brighton. While technically admirable, of greater cultural significance is a nicely decorated copy of the story of the Prophet Joseph, Hikayat Nabi Yusuf (MSS Malay D.4), copied in Perlis in 1802, as this is the only illuminated Malay manuscript known to identify the artist by name: Cik Mat Tok Muda, or, in more formal terms, Datuk Muda Encik Muhammad. The Malay manuscripts can be accessed here and through BookSG.
Hikayat Nabi Yusuf, the Malay story of the Prophet Joseph, copied in Perlis, 1802. British Library, MSS Malay D.4, ff. 3v-4r.
Many of the Malay letters in the British Library were written to Thomas Stamford Raffles, who spent nearly two decades in Southeast Asia in the service of the East India Company, initially in Penang and then as Lieutenant-Governor of Java (1811-1816) and of Bengkulu in Sumatra (1818-1824). The majority of the letters date from around 1811 when Raffles was based in Melaka making preparations for a British invasion of Java, as the Napoleonic wars in Europe spilled over into the Indian Ocean arena and Southeast Asia. Other letters were sent to Raffles at later dates, including a collection of formal farewell letters on his departure from Java in 1816.
Illuminated farewell letter in Malay from Sultan Cakra Adiningrat of Madura to T.S. Raffles on his departure from Java in 1816. British Library, MSS Eur E378/7.
Early maps of Singapore
Tom Harper, Lead Curator, Antiquarian Maps, describes this part of the project:
"Approximately 250 early maps and charts featuring Singapore have been digitised. Ranging in date from the late 15th to early 20th centuries, these were sourced from across the British Library’s collections including the India Office Map Collection and the Topographical Collection of George III. Of particular significance are the maps of Singapore Island and town drawn by the governor of Singapore William Farquhar a mere five years after the foundation of the British settlement in 1819. Other included maps illustrate the strong continuity and tradition of maritime charting of the Singapore strait from the chart drawn by the Frenchman Jean Rotz and presented to Henry VIII in 1542 (Royal MS 20 E IX), to British Admiralty charts of the straits surveyed and published three centuries later. Finally, the hand-drawn atlas of 1700 by William Hack, formally owned by George III (Maps 7.TAB.125), containing 85 charts of the coasts between South Africa and Japan and prominently featuring the Singapore Strait and surrounding area, was digitised in its entirety for the first time." The map collection can be accessed here.
A chart of the coast of Asia, from Cochin China on the east, to Ormus on the west, with Sumatra, Java, and part of Borneo; drawn in 1578, by Joan Martines of Messina. British Library, Harley MS 3450, f. 7r
Papers of Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles
Antonia Moon, Lead Curator, India Office Records (Post-1858), writes:
"27 volumes were digitised from the India Office Private Papers. These included 14 volumes of Raffles’s own correspondence, journals, notes and observations, which most interestingly reflect his administration of Java, his interest in the history and culture of the people, and his early explorations of Singapore. Also digitised was correspondence with Lord Minto, Governor General of Bengal, which contains Raffles’s narratives of the natural history and antiquities of South East Asia. Five items were digitised from the Raffles Family Papers, including the list of Raffles’s personal possessions lost on board the ship ‘Fame’. Copyright clearance was achieved on most of the material including, importantly, that created by Raffles." The Raffles Papers can be accessed by searching for 'Mss Eur' on BookSG.
Statement of personal property of Sir Stamford Raffles lost on board the Fame, 1824. British Library, Mss Eur D742/4, f. 6.
Singapore is home to a substantial Malay community of Bugis/Makassar descent, who maintain a strong interest in the language, culture and traditions of their ancestral homeland in Sulawesi, Indonesia. The 32 Bugis and 2 Makasar manuscripts which have been digitised, listed here, were taken in 1814 during the British attack on the kingdom of Bone in south Sulawesi, and entered the possession of John Crawfurd, a senior East India Company official. The collection includes an important series of royal diaries kept by senior court officials, including some belonging to the former king of Bone himself, Sultan Ahmad al-Salih Syamsuddin (1775-1812).
Bugis diary of the Maqdanreng (most senior court official) of Bone, showing the entry for March 1729, with a detailed account of activities on 15th March written in a square spiral. British Library, Or 8154, f. 77r.
Southeast Asian Qur’an manuscripts
The Bollinger-Singapore project enabled the completion of the digitisation of the British Library’s small collection of eight Qur’an manuscripts from Southeast Asia, making publicly accessible a selection of Qur’ans representing three distinct regional traditions of the Malay world, from Aceh, Java and Patani on the East Coast of the Malay pensinsula.
Qur’an from Java, 18th-early 19th century, collected by John Crawfurd. British Library, Add 12312, ff. 1v-2r.
The Bollinger-Singapore Digitisation Project was initiated when William and Judith Bollinger moved from London to Singapore in 2012, and extended their already generous patronage of the British Library to a project which they envisaged would enhance collaboration between the British Library and the national library of their new home.
Liz Jolly, Chief Librarian of the British Library, describes the impact of the project: “We are so grateful for this visionary support from William and Judith Bollinger, which has allowed the British Library to make freely and fully accessible a highly significant part of its collections relating to Singapore and the Malay world, benefitting not only the scholarly community but also reaching new audiences, especially in Southeast Asia."
Tan Huism, Director of the National Library of Singapore, expresses appreciation of the project and outlines some of the beneficial outcomes: “It takes a special person, in this a case a special couple, to support digitisation work. While digitisation is largely unseen work done by libraries, it is crucial work in enabling access and the sharing of collections with people all over the world when put online. The National Library of Singapore is grateful to Bill and Judy for their generous support in this project which has not only enabled the Singapore public to engage with these wonderful treasures held by The British Library digitally but the digitisation had also facilitated the loans of some of these materials for exhibitions in Singapore.”
This digitisation project was one of the first to make widely accessible such a range of primary source material for the study not only of the history of the Malay world, but also for its literature, art, calligraphy, book culture and writing traditions.
A video of Judy Bollinger speaking in 2018 at the National Library of Singapore.
Tales of the Malay world, an exhibition of Malay manuscripts at the National Library of Singapore in 2018.