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Collection William Farquhar Correspondence

About this Collection

The Southeast Asian Rare Book Collection of the Asian Division of the Library of Congress has a unique and important collection of forty-six Malay letters written in the Jawi script—an adaptation of the Arabic script for writing the Malay language. This correspondence is mainly from Malay kings and notables to William Farquhar (1744-1839), a key figure in the founding of modern Singapore. William Farquhar arrived in Melaka in 1795 and went on to serve as the British Commandant (a military role) of that port city starting in 1803, and subsequently as British Resident and Commandant (civilian and military leader) from 1813 to 1818. After more than two decades in the port city of Melaka—during which Farquhar forged close relationships with influential Malay leaders and local society—Farquhar was appointed Resident of Singapore. He held this post from 1819 to 1823, and was instrumental in leveraging his relationships with Malay rulers for the success of the British East India Company's enterprise in Singapore. The letters in this collection speak to this dynamic. Beyond this, the letters also showcase examples of original nineteenth-century Malay letter-writing.

In addition to correspondence with Farquhar, the collection also holds a few letters between Malay notables and businessmen, Chinese among them, and thus allows a glimpse into the intercommunal connections that formed the larger context of the world in which Farquhar and Malay rulers operated.

In terms of chronology and geographical scope, the letters cover the period 1812 to 1832 and come from Brunei, Kelantan, Terengganu, Pahang, Johor, Riau, Lingga, Palembang, Pammana, Siak, Singapore, and as far afield as Cambodia. Two unique items in the collection are a letter bearing Farquhar's signature (Item 35), unusual in the context of the collection because it is the only letter written and signed by him out of the forty-six, and a letter from Sultanah Siti Fatimah binti Jamaluddin Abdul Rahman of Pammana (Item 40), which offers a rare instance when one hears the voice of a woman from the Malay-speaking world from almost two hundred years ago. Sultanah Siti Fatimah's letter is in fact one of the only known extant Malay letters from a reigning female monarch.

This collection of letters is one of three main sources for Farquhar's Malay correspondence. The other two are namely “The Farquhar Letterbook,” at the British Library (Add. 12398 External), and three letters from Farquhar to Riau published by A. Meursinge in Maleisch leesboek voor eerstbeginnenden en meergevorderden External (Tweede stukje, Leyden: Luctmans, 1845), p. 64-70. These sources provide one with a view of both the outgoing letters and incoming replies between Farquhar and his correspondents, as well as the process of negotiation and diplomacy in the context of the early nineteenth-century Malay world. When considering all three sources, what sets the Library of Congress collection apart is that almost all the letters are originals instead of scribal copies. In that way, the collection at the Library of Congress affords an excellent opportunity to appreciate not only the nuances of language in Malay letter-writing, but also the importance placed on visual presentation, such as calligraphy, layout design, and folding of the letter.

One particularly significant aspect of original letters that should be mentioned are the impressions of seals used by various Malay rulers and important persons in their correspondence. Such seals contain crucial information sometimes not found in the letters themselves, such as the name of the sender rather than just the person's title. The position of the seal on the page also offers clues concerning relationships of power, since the position of the seal on the page depended on the relative status of the sender and recipient.

A finding aid to the collection is available online.