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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…

The implementation of English law in Singapore, along with Penang and Malacca, is detailed in Roland St. John Braddell’s landmark The Law of the Straits Settlements: A Commentary. Although this book is not the first attempt at documenting the legal history of Singapore, it has, nonetheless, contributed significantly to its study, and is regarded as a classic by scholars even today. In the 1890s, a group of Peranakan (Straitsborn Chinese) intellectuals decided to publish a magazine for the Straits community in Malaya. Singapore’s legal system can trace its origins to the British colonial era when it first adopted the English legal system. The First Charter of Justice Singapore was established on 6 February 1819, when Stamford Raffles signed a treaty with Sultan Hussein Shah of Johor and Temenggong Abdul Rahman to establish a trading post in Singapore. Earlier in 1807, the British Crown had granted the British East India Company the First Charter of Justice to establish a Court of Judicature in…

This edition of the Qur’an in the National Library is unique because it is one of the earliest extant copies to have been printed at Kampong Gelam in Singapore. The date of its publication, “13th Rajab in the (Islamic) year 1286” corresponds to 19 October 1869. This information in Jawi (Malay written in modified Arabic script), along with the address of the printer – Lorong Masjid Sultan Ali Iskandar – in the Kampong Gelam area, is indicated in the colophon or publisher’s imprint, at the end of the book. In addition, the colophon also contains the name of the printer (Haji Muhammad Nuh bin Haji Ismail) and the copyist (Tengku Yusof bin Tengku Ibrahim). Pre-20th-century Southeast Asian Qur’ans, whether handwritten or printed, are generally scarce because the region’s tropical climate is not conducive to the preservation of paper-based materials. Colophons especially, if they are even included in the book, do not often survive as they undergo much wear and tear due to their placement at the front or end pages. This rare copy of…

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.

An Indian migrant brings his wife to Singapore in the late 19th century to watch the island’s horse races. As the couple travel around the British colony, the husband,N. V. Rengasamy Dasan, describes each building and street they pass to his wife, painting a verbal picture of turn-of-the century Singapore. The travelogue, written in the form of a poem, is the first non-religious Tamil book to be printed in Singapore and notable for breaking new ground in the Tamil literature scene – using colloquialisms such as kampong (village), pasar (market) and kopi (coffee) at a time when most Tamil literature was written in classical Tamil. Published in 1893, Athivinotha Kuthirai Panthaiya Lavani (which translates into English as An Anthology on Horse Racing), the title of the book is misleading as only a small section of its contents is devoted to the sport of horseracing. For the most part the book reads like a travelogue of Singapore. Penned by the husband, N. V. Rengasamy Dasan, the anthology is divided into two broad sections.…