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William Farquhar Correspondence and Other Malay Letters (1812-1832) at the Library of Congress

Among the first Southeast Asian items at the Library of Congress, this collection consists of forty-six letters, mainly from Malay kings and notables to William Farquhar, the first British Resident of Singapore.


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 collection of correspondence mainly from Malay kings and notables to William Farquhar (1744-1839), a key figure in the founding of modern Singapore, is freely accessible online.

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.

Timeline of founding of British settlement in Singapore

1795 William Farquhar took part in the British expedition to capture the strategic port city of Melaka from the Dutch.
1803 Farquhar was appointed commandant of Melaka, and later in 1813, he was designated as Resident and Commandant of Melaka. He held this position until 1818 when the port city was handed back to the Dutch.
1811 Sultan Abdul Rahman ascended the throne of the kingdom of Johor at the expense of his older half-brother Tengku Hussein who was away in the kingdom of Pahang for his wedding at the time of the passing of their father. Despite the support of certain members at court, Tengku Hussein was unable to claim the throne, and relegated to a quiet existence on an island (Pulau Penyengat).
1818 With the return to power of the Dutch in the region following the Napoleonic Wars, the British East India Company began to look for a base in the Malay archipelago that would grant them advantage. Sir Stamford Raffles, the British Lieutenant Governor of Bencoolen (in Sumatra), and Farquhar were instrumental in identifying Singapore as a new base for the British East India Company, and also crucial in the negotiations to gain that port for the British.
1819 The British sought out the noble who controlled Singapore, Temenggung Abdul Rahman, to negotiate a treaty to allow the British to set up a station on the island of Singapore, which was under Johor's sway. To lend legitimacy to their agreement, the British needed the Malay sovereign's approval. It was unlikely that Sultan Abdul Rahman, backed by the Bugis faction at court, and allied to the Dutch, would grant such an endorsement. Knowing that Tengku Hussein was backed by certain quarters as the true heir to the throne of Johor, the British brought in Tengku Hussein to Singapore. With the backing of Temenggung Abdul Rahman, Tengku Hussein was proclaimed the Sultan of Johor, and took the title Sultan Hussein Muadzam Shah, Raja of Johor. In return, the British were granted the rights to a settlement in Singapore. On February 6th 1819, Raffles, Temenggung Abdul Rahman and Sultan Hussein Shah of Johor signed the Singapore Treaty. The Temenggung and Sultan Hussein Shah received a handsome sum of money annually to uphold the agreement. On the day of the signing of the treaty, Farquhar was installed as the first British Resident and Commandant of Singapore.
1822 Raffles returned to Singapore. While he noted Singapore's rapid growth under Farquhar's leadership, Raffles did not approve of the resident's choices when it came to carrying out instructions on town-planning and the issue of gambling.
1823 Farquhar was removed as British Resident of Singapore and succeeded by John Crawfurd. In December of 1823, Farquhar received a grand send off from Singapore. He was much valued by the merchant communities in Singapore, and received lavish farewell gifts.
1824 First census of Singapore shows a diverse population, and subsequent census data (1825, 1826, 1827) show rapid growth over a short period of time.

About the Asian Division

The Asian Reading Room provides public access to more than 4 million items in approximately 200 languages and dialects from across Asia, including Bengali, Chinese, Hindi, Indonesian, Japanese, Korean, Mongolian, Thai, Tibetan, Urdu, Vietnamese, and many others. In the reading room, researchers can use the Asian Division’s collections of printed materials, microform, and databases and confer with reference librarians to answer research questions about the countries of East, South, and Southeast Asia.