Monthly Archives: March 2013

Munshi Abdullah and the Majapahit Mirage

In the early months of 1811 preparations for the British invasion of Java got underway in the steamy Malayan port of Melaka.  In its day this was the key entrepôt of narrow straits between Sumatra and the Malay Peninsula, and it was here that Thomas Stamford Raffles found himself appointed ‘Agent of the Governor-General with the Malay States’, tasked with intelligence-gathering, propagandising, and treating with Indonesian kings.  As he beavered away at his desk Raffles was surrounded by a motley collection of acolytes, assistants and advisors.

Mounting the Green Horse

One hanger-on of the Raffles clique in Melaka was a precocious local youth of mixed Malay, Arab and Indian blood who was taking in everything he saw and storing it away for future reference.  His name was Abdullah bin Abdul Kadir; he was about 14 years old, and his father, Lebai Ismail, was Raffles’ chief translator.  Years later, living in Singapore, Abdullah recorded his memories of these heady days.  Raffles, he makes it clear, was not your average Englishman:

At that time, there were not yet many English in the town of Malacca and to see an Englishman was like seeing a tiger, because they were so mischievous and violent.  If one or two English ships called in at Malacca, all the Malacca people would keep the doors of their houses shut, for all round the streets there would be a lot of sailors, some of whom would break in the doors of people’s houses, and some would chase the women on the streets, and others would fight amongst themselves or cut one another’s heads open…  Moreover, a great number were killed owing to their falling into the river, owing to their being drunk; all this made people afraid.  At that time, I never met an Englishman who had a white face, for all of them had “mounted the green horse,” that is to say, were drunk.  So much so, that when children cried, their mothers would say, “Be quiet, the drunken Englishman is coming,” and the children would be scared and keep quiet.

Such behaviour by Europeans had long form in the region, and as far back as the 17th century a treaty signed by the Dutch with the sultanate of Banten contained clauses demanding that measures be taken to stop white soldiers and sailors stealing from the markets, behaving in an ‘unseemly’ fashion in mosques, molesting women in the streets and in their homes, and from leering lecherously at the royal ladies when they performed their open air ablutions at the riverside.  Given this heritage it is little wonder that Abdullah was so impressed by a sober white man who took a polite interest in local culture.

Literary Legend

Chronicler: Munshi Abdullah

Abdullah bin Abdul Kadir is usually referred to in English as ‘Munshi Abdullah’.  Munshi is a word of Arabic origin meaning ‘to educate’, but in India and British-ruled Asia it was generally taken to mean a scribe, a translator or a language tutor – in short, a secretary.  Abdullah was far more than this, however: he was a talented and highly original writer, and his autobiography, the Hikayat Abdullah – from which the descriptions of Melaka and Raffles are drawn, and which was first published in 1849 five years before Abdullah’s death during a pilgrimage to Mecca – was hugely influential for later writers, and remains a vital source for local impressions of early colonial Malaya.Today, in the post-colonial era, Abdullah often comes in for criticism – both for the litany of obvious inaccuracies and inventions in his accounts, and for his presumably self-serving devotion to the colonial overlords, as the British were soon to become. But in spite of all this, he is still regarded by many as the founder of modern Malay literature.  He departed from the conventions of highfalutin courtly language and used colloquial Malay to report what he actually saw in clear, descriptive terms.Abdullah’s sketches of the appearance and character of the important Englishmen who passed through Melaka on their way to Java, though rarely less than adoring, are nonetheless full of the little details that are usually lost amidst the clichéd platitudes they heaped upon one another.  He spotted Raffles’ squint and his stoop, and recorded his ceaseless scribbling; he noticed his interests in the flora and fauna of the Malay Peninsula, how he kept a barrel of arak for pickling the corpses of snakes and scorpions brought in for his collection by local hunters, and he pinpointed his various tics and foibles.  Raffles would work each night until after midnight, Abdullah noted, and ‘the next morning he would go to what he had written and read it while walking backwards and forwards’.  Charmingly, he remembered that the Englishman ‘spoke in smiles’, while somewhat less charmingly he noted that Olivia was ‘as active as the cockroach which has no tail’.

Abdullah also remembered a certain trouser-wearing orang-utan, which was a prominent member of the Raffles household.  It had been delivered to Melaka as a gift from the Raja of Sambas in Borneo: ‘So he [Raffles] put trousers on the mawas [orang-utan], with coat and hat complete, which made it as like a little man as possible, and he let it go, when it soon became apparent that its habits were those of mankind; the only fault being that it could not speak.’

Man of the Forest: the Orang-utan

Orang-utans need little introduction as Asia’s only great ape, resident of the jungles of Borneo and Sumatra.  Their name, however, is worth an explanation as it is one of very few Malay terms to have entered English.  It means, quite simply, ‘forest man’, orang being person, and hutan meaning forest.  Mawas, as used by Abdullah, was the local name for the apes in Sumatra.  The other Malay word most commonly used in English is amok, as in ‘to run amok’…

Majapahit State of Mind

While the trouser-clad orang-utan shuffled from room to room, and the young Abdullah squirreled away his astute observations, Raffles had much on his mind.  By early 1811 he had received word from his boss and patron, Lord Minto, that official instructions about the Java project from London were to ignored, and – for the time being at least – Britain would be holding on to the island once the Dutch were ousted.

Raffles was delighted, but something still worried him.  He understood that Java might eventually be abandoned by the British in the event of outright peace in Europe.  With this in mind he had already written of the advantage of overturning all the old treaty arrangements that the Dutch had had with Javanese courts so that ‘the European Enemy shall never again be enabled to repossess his former footing on the Island’.  Sweating away in Melaka and dreaming of Batavia he had begun to come up with an idea of how to go about this.  It was an idea that showed how thoroughly he had burst from the intellectual straightjacket of a colonial administrator, and spiralled off to the outer limits of orientalism.

Colonial-era European scholars of Asia were almost always hidebound by the conventions of their own history, by school-forged ideas of all-powerful Greece and Rome, and the compelling notion of Decline and Fall.  They declared the current natives deeply degenerate, and then raised Parthenons and Coliseums out of the tumbled masonry of Borobudur and Angkor Wat.  In the interests of ensuring that the Dutch would lose Java forever, Raffles now did the same with Indonesia.

He had probably first heard stories of 14th century Majapahit, the last of Java’s great pre-Islamic kingdoms, during his early days in Penang, and the scholar-poet John Leyden had helped him to sketch in the details, peopling its palaces with white-clad, shaven-headed men who looked suspiciously like Roman senators, and making it an all-powerful, all-conquering, Southeast Asia-swallowing empire.  This vision of Majapahit – one first codified by the British in the early 19th century, but not entirely sanctioned by modern historians – remains a key pillar of modern Indonesia’s national identity.  Raffles planned to use it for his own purposes, and he wrote to Minto to explain how:

In ancient times, the Malay Chiefs, though possessing the titles of Sultans or Rajahs, and with full possession of authority within their own domains, yet all held by a superior Suzerain, who was King of the ancient and powerful estate of Majopahit [sic] on the island of Java, and who held the title Bitara…  Now though the present Malay Chiefs are jealous and punctilious in high degree about their own titles, they are by no means equally so respecting holding of a superior whose title would save their own dignity; and I conceive they must easily be prevailed upon by suggestions, to invest the Governor-General of India with the ancient title of Bitara, equivalent to Lord Protector

In short Raffles wanted to raise a mythological Majapahit from the dead, and to make Lord Minto its emperor.  He never quite succeeded; in fact, little more than a year later he would preside over the sacking and looting of the Javanese palace with one of the strongest claims to the Majapahit mantle.  But during their brief stay on the island Raffles and his compatriots would indeed give the pot of Javanese history such a vigorous stir that it would still be seething and bubbling like a strange volcano decades after they had gone…

© Tim Hannigan 2013


The Bali King and the British Agent

At the end of 1810, Thomas Stamford Raffles arrived in Melaka. The British invasion of Java had already been confirmed for the coming year, and Raffles had been appointed ‘Agent of the Governor-General with the Malay States’ –  part intelligence agent, part promoter, part propagandist for the grand imperial adventure. He went to the task with all his customary energy, and ended up engaging in all sorts of long-distance dalliances with the far-flung royals of Indonesia – some sinister, some just plain silly…

The Listening Post

Aquatic appearance: 18th century Melaka

Melaka is a steamy port 250 miles south of Penang.  With an oozing river, a blood-red Dutch church and a tangle of Chinese-style back alleys, Lord Minto wrote that it had a ‘rather amphibious appearance’.  It stands on the eastern shores of the narrowest section of the straits that bear its name, and across the milky channel Sumatra and the sea lock hands in a mesh of mangrove-girt islands and pirate hideaways.  It served the same role as Penang – a trade mart for the Indonesian archipelago, and a staging post for ships heading east towards China and west to India, Arabia and Europe.  Unlike its northern rival, however, Melaka was no mere colonial construct wrought from the jungle by a gallivanting sea captain with a cannon full of small change.  Melaka was an old town with layers of Malay, Chinese, Arab, Portuguese and Dutch paint splashed onto its flaking walls, and fleets from the east – from Borneo, Sulawesi, Bali and Java – had been calling there for centuries.  High-prowed white Bugis schooners crowded the muddy river; Arab and Gujarati dhows and Chinese junks rode at anchor offshore, and small boats ran in from the great landmass opposite on the days when the wet west winds – called ‘Sumatras’ here – blew.   It was the perfect listening post for a man looking to gather news of happenings out amongst the islands.            Raffles had already been to Melaka twice.  Just as Penang had earned an undeserved reputation as a healthy getaway from India, sticky Melaka had been pitched as the place to go when Penang itself wore you down, and a fever-wracked Raffles had sought respite there in 1807 and 1809.

Man on the spot: William Farquhar

The place had been captured from the Dutch in 1795, and as a means of advancing Penang the idea of razing it to the ground had been suggested – and even started.  When Raffles visited for the first time the old fortifications had already been demolished – though the town’s British Resident, William Farquhar, was attempting to convince the higher authorities that the destruction was a woefully wrong-headed course of action.  Melaka’s 20,000-strong population of Dutchmen, Portuguese, Arabs, Chinese, Malays, Javanese, Coromandel Coast Indians – and those whose ancestry was a mixture of any number of these – were well entrenched, and the town was well situated.Raffles had picked up Farquhar’s anti-demolition ideas and made them a key aspect of a lengthy and unsolicited report on Melaka that he sent to India in 1809.  The Governor-General, Lord Minto, had been impressed: to wipe Melaka off the map would be ‘a most useless piece of gratuitous mischief’, he felt.  The original arguments for the preservation of the town might have belonged to Farquhar, but it had been Raffles who – having made them his own – managed to bring them to the attention of the authorities.  When he returned to Melaka aboard the Ariel on 4 December 1810, having sold his bungalow and left Penang for good ‘with very little regret’, he had some justification in regarding himself the saviour of the town.

 A King’s Ransom

But he was too busy to relish the glory.  The first letters were sent out in the direction of little-known princes on little-known islands within days, and through Christmas and the New Year and into the first months of 1811, while the monsoon rains continued to fall away to the south in Java and dirty winds continued to lash the warm tropical seas, Raffles beavered away at his desk in Melaka.

There was intelligence gathering, and strident anti-Dutch propagandising; there were reports about weather patterns and sailing routes to be collected, and all manner of rumours to be sifted.  But by far the most important part of his work in Melaka, Raffles felt, was to start a correspondence with the native courts of Indonesia.  They would, he was sure, be natural allies against the demonic Dutchmen.  With their support an attack on Java would be assured of success; without it failure was probable.  He sent letters, written by local scribes in florid Malay in the Jawi script, to the petty fiefdoms of southern Borneo, to Madura, and to Palembang, across the Straits of Melaka.

One of the most enthusiastic correspondences was with Bali.  Despite Cornelis de Houtman’s much-mythologized visit in 1596, the VOC had never bothered to seize or even to set up a base in Bali.  The island was, however, almost within hailing distance of the shores of East Java, and its rajas were rumoured to have close links with the courts of Yogyakarta and Surakarta.  Raffles was very eager to make contact.

A later Buleleng Raja – without a boat

In February 1811 he sent a package of presents and a sweetly worded letter to Gusti Gede Karang, the Raja of Buleleng, one of Bali’s northernmost principalities, in the care of a Lieutenant Smith – who was given a stern reminder that ‘You will be most particularly careful that neither these instructions nor any Paper or Document that can show the nature of the service on which you are engaged, be allowed on any account or accident whatever to fall into the hands of the Enemy.’            The letter to the Raja requested that, as ‘the friend of the English and the enemy of the Dutch and French’, he would assist wherever possible, and would send word as quickly and as secretly as possible to the Java courts of what the British were planning.

The Balinese reply came promptly back in language so purple that even John Leyden would have been proud of it: ‘Verily this pure writing and friendly and honourable flowing from the light of the heart extremely bright and splendid to diffuse its rays amongst all peoples united in the bonds of brotherhood and friendship’ it began.  The Raja was ‘highly delighted’ with the British plan to oust the Dutch from Java, and he would be happy to cheer them on from the side-lines, but first he had something to ask of the ‘agent of the Maharajah Gilbert Lord Minto who is the highly exalted Raja of all the regions of Bengal’:

We have however a request to make to our brother, by which he will highly contribute to our gratification, which is that our brother would provide us with a pleasure boat of the length of six fathoms, proper in every respect and provided with two masts and all the furniture of which shall be in the English style, 20 kegs of gunpowder, and two kegs of priming powder very fine, one camera obscura, with a reflecting glass, and two hundred pictures, new and properly fitted up in every respect, and a burning glass which will kindle substances by means of the Sun’s rays, and send an account of their true value, and let our brother send them speedily.  The price of the small vessel may be 400 dollars.

The Raja added that ‘We have no token of affection to send our brother, except a Boy of eight years of Age and a Girl of seven years of Age which are not worthy of his acceptance unless as a sign of a pure heart’, and a postscript was tagged on stating that ‘he will be very well pleased if the pleasure boat should be seven fathoms in length, but he wishes it on no account to be more.’  Unfortunately no record survives of whether the Raja’s demands were met.  As for the pair of slave children, they would probably have found a ready place around the fringes of the Raffles household in Melaka, for there were already men from every corner of Southeast Asia dropping by on a daily basis.

© Tim Hannigan 2013