By Diyanah Nasuha Binte Omar Bahri
Fancy taking a trip to 19th century Southeast Asia? We’ve yet to get our hands on a working time machine, but we can still visit the past through Early Voyages and Travels in Southeast Asia at Level 5 of the NUS Central Library, an exhibition featuring eight rare books on sea voyages in Southeast Asia!
In this article, we spotlight one of these rare tomes on display – the French edition of Abdullah bin Abdul Kadir’s opus, Kisah Pelayaran Abdullah ke Kelantan (Account of Abdullah’s Sea Voyage to Kelantan), first published in 1838.
Author Abdullah bin Abdul Kadir, or more familiarly Munshi Abdullah, is often thought of as a literary giant and seen as a notable historical figure in Singapore’s early history. Born in 1796 in Malacca of Jawi Peranakan (mixed Arab and Indian) descent, Abdullah was a 19th-century Muslim intellectual, making his mark as an editor, interpreter, scribe, language teacher, and pioneer of Malay printing. Regarded as the “Father of Modern Malay Literature” by Western scholars, he is best remembered for his autobiographical work, Hikayat Abdullah (The Life Story of Abdullah), which provides a valuable record of the socio-political landscape in the Malay world at the turn of the 19th century.
In addition to this masterpiece, Abdullah also wrote several notable works such as his travelogue, Kisah Pelayaran Abdullah (Sea Voyages of Abdullah), and historical syair (poems) about Singapore, Syair Singapura Terbakar and Syair Kampung Gelam Terbakar. Hadijah Rahmat, the author of Abdullah Bin Abdul Kadir Munshi, describes his body of work as embodying the “zeitgeist of a changing milieu” as they reflected the cultural and physical encounters and conflicts that took place during a time of significant change and upheaval with the fall of the Malay sultanate and the rise of Western colonial powers in Asia.
In Kisah, Abdullah embarked on a maritime journey to the Eastern Coast of the Malay Peninsula, serving as an interpreter and messenger under the patronage of Sir Samuel George Bonham, the British Governor of Singapore.
The purpose of this mission was to relieve four boats laden with valuable merchandise belonging to Chinese and Jewish traders from Singapore, stranded in Kelantan due to an ongoing civil war. To aid these traders, Governor Bonham entrusted Abdullah with delivering letters of appeal to the three prominent rajas of Kelantan — Raja Bendahara, Raja Temenggong, and the Yang Di-pertuan Kelantan. Accompanied by Grandpre, a young nobleman of Portuguese origin, and Baba Ko An, a notable Chinese merchant from Singapore, Abdullah set sail aboard two of Singapore’s swiftest vessels — the Maggie Lauder and the Waterwitch. Their primary goal was to ensure the safe conveyance of the Governor’s letters to the Sultan and provincial chiefs of Kelantan, with the vessels’ speed enabling a timely response to the crisis.
The historical insights into this journey are derived from the journal article Abdullah’s Voyage To The East Coast, Seen Through Contemporary Eyes (1996) by C. Skinner. In this article, Skinner offers a speculative timeline for Abdullah’s maritime voyage to Kelantan, drawing from the account in Kisah, and suggests the approximate durations spent at various waypoints, including Johor, Pahang, and Terengganu. The trip culminated in a six-day stop at Kelantan, where Abdullah and his companions had the opportunity to interact with local authorities and forge connections. Their mission successfully accomplished, Abdullah and his companions returned to Singapore on 24 April 1838, having navigated the challenges of the sea and the complexities of diplomatic negotiations.
Abdullah’s journey to the Malay hinterland was his first, and his subsequent commentary dwelled on his first-hand experiences of the cultural and natural environments of the Malay kingdoms outside of British control. Observing the daily lives and customs of the provincial Malays living under the dynastic rule of a sultan, Abdullah critically reflected on the differences between the realms of the Malay sultanate and the British-governed settlements, comparing and contrasting the two. Despite the richness of the lands under Malay rule, Abdullah was quick to point out the struggles of the ordinary people and what he perceived as the “backwardness” of their cultural and economic practices, religion, education, and welfare. He emerged from this voyage with a newfound appreciation for the modernity that British colonialism offered:
Sebermula maka apabila sahaya ketahui akan segala perbezaan dan kelainan adat Melayu dengan adat Inggeris itu, maka mengucap syukurlah sahaya dengan beribu syukur kepada Allah, sebab sahaya telah diperanakkan di bawah bendera Inggeris dan beroleh aman sentiasa, bukannya seperti orang yang merasa seksa dan sengsara, pada sediakalanya dalam bodoh dan kejahatan itu adanya. (Sweeney 2005: 168).
Now that I know all the differences and dissimilarities between Malay traditions and attitudes in contrast to English traditions and practices, I profess thousands of thanks to God because I was born under the British flag and for the peace and stability that this affords; unlike those wretched, benighted people born in inherent ignorance and vileness. (Sweeney 2005: 168).
Munshi Abdullah offers a complex perspective encompassing both criticism of Malay feudalism and scrutiny of British imperialism. His detailed account is a must-read for anyone seeking a glimpse into the political and economic realities embedded within the worlds of the places he had visited throughout his journey to Kelantan.
However, it must be stressed that he was a functionary within the apparatus of modern colonial capitalism. Fundamentally, Abdullah’s relationship with his colonial patrons was a contractual one, and his pragmatism was reflected through his literary works. He could not possibly risk inciting the anger of his patrons while addressing the Malay Muslims of the time with his criticism of Malay feudal culture, which he saw as corrupt and antiquated.
In retrospect, Munshi Abdullah emerges not just as a chronicler of history but also as a product of his intricate entanglement with colonial forces. His works offer a nuanced look into the confluence of ideologies, power dynamics, and personal survival within the context of the impact of colonialism.
Ahmad, K. (1981). Kisah Pelayaran Abdullah. Kuala Lumpur: Fajar Bakti.
Hamdan, R., Sujud, A., & Bahari, N. (2019). Abdullah Munshi as the Captured Character in His Own Autobiography. International Journal of Scientific and Technology Research, 8 (8), pp. 389-393. Retrieved from https://www.ijstr.org/final-print/aug2019/Abdullah-Munshi-As-The-Captured-Character-In-His-Own-Autobiography.pdf
Munshi, A. (1951). Voyage d’Abd-Allah Ben Abd-El-Kader Mounschy (Homme De Lettres) De Singapore A Kalantan Sur La Côte Orientale De La Péninsula De Malaka, Enterpris En L’année 1838. (Dulaurier, E., Trans.) Paris: Arthus Bertrand. (Original work published 1838).
Rahmat, H. (2020). Nature and Self in the Works of Munshi Abdullah. In Z. A. Rasheed, W. H. Zoohri & N. Saat (Eds.), Beyond Bicentennial: Perspectives on Malays (pp. 233-274). Singapore : World Scientific Publishing. Retrieved from https://repository.nie.edu.sg/bitstream/10497/22583/1/BC-BCP-2020-233.pdf
Singapore Bicentennial. (n.d.). Singapore’s Early Pioneers: Munshi Abdullah and Henry Nicholas Ridley. Retrieved from https://www.sg/sgbicentennial/stories/singapores-early-pioneers-munshi-abdullah-and-henry-nicholas-ridley/
Singapore Infopedia. (2004, December 27). Abdullah bin Abdul Kadir. Retrieved from https://eresources.nlb.gov.sg/infopedia/articles/SIP_503_2004-12-27.html
Skinner, C. (1966). “Abdullah’s Voyage to the East Coast Seen Through Contemporary Eyes.” Journal of the Malaysian Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, 39 (2), pp. 23–33.
Sweeney, A. (2005). Karya Lengkap Abdullah bin Abdul Kadir Munsyi. Jakarta: Kepustakaan Populer Gramedia.