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


One response to “Munshi Abdullah and the Majapahit Mirage

  1. Pingback: Raffles: Invasion of Java

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