This collection of letters was amongst the first Asian books and manuscripts at the Library of Congress. It was acquired by the American missionary Alfred North (1807-1869) for the United States Exploring Expedition (1838-1842), alternatively known as the Wilkes Expedition. North worked for the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (ABCFM) and was an avid student of Malay language, literature, and culture, studying under and working with one of the most famous figures in the Malay literary world: Abdullah bin Abdul Kadir, also known as Munshi Abdullah.
When Lieutenant Charles Wilkes, the captain of the US Exploring Expedition, arrived in Singapore in 1842, he requested that North help him obtain Malay and Bugis manuscripts. In his narrative on the expedition, Wilkes noted:
“From Mr. North we obtained a number of rare Malay and Bugis manuscripts, forming a collection which is said to be the largest now in being, that of Sir Stamford Raffles having been lost. Some of them are beautifully written” (Charles Wilkes, Narrative of the United States Exploring Expedition. During the years 1838, 1839, 1840, 1841, 1842, Philadelphia: Lea and Blanchard, 1845, view online version from Hathi Trust External).
The letters were among these rare Malay and Bugis manuscripts. The item “Collection of Epistles of Malay Rajahs” appears in a list of Malay and Bugis books and manuscripts acquired for the expedition found at the Smithsonian Institution Archives (Record Unit 7058, National Institute, Records, Box 14, Folder 6). The price listed is $10.
When the letters first reached the United States, they were very likely put in the care of the National Institution for the Promotion of Science along with other material sourced by the expedition, and stored in the Great Hall of the Patent Office during the 1840s. Charles Pickering, curator of the National Institute, states in a note dated November 22, 1842, “The Institute now possesses… Nineteen volumes of Malay manuscripts; in all probability the finest collection in existence. Eleven volumes of Bugis manuscripts.” The letters would presumably have been among these items.
In 1857, the United States Congress put the collections of the National Institution in the care of the Smithsonian. Then, in 1866, the books and manuscripts in the collections were moved once again, this time to the Library of Congress, as part of the Smithsonian Deposit. It should be noted that for quite a while, the letters were unknown to the scholarly community as they were uncatalogued and also unlisted in published lists of Malay items at the Library. Then in 1990, they were discovered as a bound volume of correspondence. Following this discovery, the letters underwent conservation from 1991-1995. The letters, which had been attached to medium-thick laid backing paper, had to be disbound and re-housed separately to protect the fragile seals.
The letters are now kept as individual letters in preservation framing and matting at the Asian Division of the Library of Congress in the Southeast Asian Rare Book collection.