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British colonial administrator John Crawfurd once wrote that the Chinese in 19th-century Southeast Asia have a “propensity to form secret societies [that] has sometimes proved inconvenient”. But on the whole “they are peaceable subjects”, he added, and in the event of a foreign invasion, “their cooperation might certainly be relied on by a British government”. This and other nuggets of information about colonial Southeast Asia are recorded in A Descriptive Dictionary of the Indian Islands & Adjacent Countries, Crawfurd’s last scholarly publication before his death in 1868. Crawfurd, who was first posted to Penang in 1808 and served as Singapore’s second British Resident from 1823 to 1826, was one of a small school of colonial officials who industriously studied the local languages and cultures of the areas they governed and then published their observations. Their efforts provided the earliest reliable documentations of the region, laying the foundation for modern Southeast…

Soon after Singapore gained independence in 1965, the government announced that English would be the lingua franca that would unite the linguistically diverse population. But attempts to forge a common language in Singapore had begun as early as the 19th century, when Chinese migrants to Singapore – the majority of whom spoke Southern Min dialects(闽南语) such as Hokkien – tried to communicate with the Malay-speaking indigenous population. Several Chinese-Malay dictionaries – listing Malay words with their equivalent terms in Chinese – were produced in the 19th century. One of the earliest was Hua yi tong yu (华夷通语), published in 1883.

A 455-year-old map of Southeast Asia tells of the seafaring adventures of 16th-century voyagers, whose journeys took them to exciting, uncharted territories waiting to be explored. As the intrepid voyagers discovered new trade routes in Asia, these unknown lands slowly came into prominence. We are familiar with most of them today; one, in particular, stands out – a place indicated on the map as C. Cinca Pula.

On 7 August 1918, residents in Singapore would have woken up to read an unusual notice in their morning paper: an invitation to contribute interesting stories of their island over the last 100 years. The public call, issued in The Straits Times, sought to gather useful and relevant information so that an official history of the civic, public and social life in Singapore since Stamford Raffles’ arrival in 1819 could be compiled. The celebratory project had been specially commissioned by the Singapore Centenary Committee to commemorate the island’s centenary. The notice was also published in The Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser (1884–1942) on 8 August. One Hundred Years of Singapore was only published three years later in 1921 and covered the period from 6 February 1819 to 6 February 1919. It was only the second major publication on Singapore’s history, the first being Charles Burton Buckley’s An Anecdotal History…

Originally drawn in 1604, Discripsao chorographica dos estreitos de Sincapura e Sabbam. ano. 1604 (Chorographic Description of the Straits of Sincapura and Sabbam 1604 A.D) is one of the earliest maps to depict pre-colonial Singapore, and more importantly, identifies recognisable names of places – Sunebodo (Sungei Bedok), Tanamena (Tanah Merah), Tanion Ru (Tanjong Rhu) and an island called Blacan Mati (Pulau Blakang Mati or Sentosa) – along its eastern coast. The map refers to the main island as Sincapura – one of several early names given to the island. Another early name for Singapore, as recorded by Flemish merchant Jacques Coutre in the early 1600s, was “Ysla de la Sabandaria Vieja” or “Island of the Old Shahbandaria”. On this map the term “xabandaria” (shahbandar’s or harbour master’s compound), which is marked near the Singapore River, confirms this early reference. This map – which is part of a manuscript entitled Declaracam de Malaca e India Meridional com o Cathay  – is also important because it is one of the earliest to indicate the various maritime channels around Singapore.…

Singapore has never hesitated to roll out the red carpet for visiting dignitaries, and this is exactly what a British royal experienced when he sailed into Singapore nearly 150 years ago. In December 1869, Prince Alfred, Duke of Edinburgh and Queen Victoria’s second son, paid a visit to Singapore on the HMS Galatea. As his tour marked the first time a member of the British royal family was to set foot in Malaya, officials and merchants scrambled to prepare for his arrival with a suitably grand programme of entertainment. The Chinese community in particular was anxious not to be outdone. More than 80 leading members of the upper crust of Chinese society came together to sign a Loyalty Address to Prince Alfred, taking advantage of the opportunity to showcase the community’s prosperity and display their political allegiance to the Queen. Among the group were men who were considered as the colony’s leading lights of industry: Tan Kim Ching, the eldest son of Tan Tock Seng; Seah Eu Chin, who helped set up Ngee Ann…

Love it or hate it, most people find expatriates’ accounts of Singapore endlessly fascinating. One of the earliest newspaper columnists was Charles Burton Buckley, whose writings on Singapore were published as early as 1902 – the first of its kind at the time. This two-volume work spans 48 years of Singapore history from its founding in 1819 to the transfer from the British East India Company to the Colonial Office in 1867. There are a total of six complete sets in the National Library. One set is part of the Gibson-Hill Collection, two sets belong to the Ya Yin Kwan Collection and another set was donated by Yeh Sui-Yen. Organised in a chronological order, the publication is not so much a serious academic work but a collection of Buckley’s lighthearted columns aimed at entertaining the local reading public. The columns were written by Buckley for the Singapore Free Press, along with some new information. An Anecdotal History of Old Times in Singapore is nevertheless an important publication as it offers a selected archive of historical documents that…