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Vol 11 Issue 4

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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 Asian…

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,…

Travel guides are more than just books that tell you about interesting sights in a destination, or where to eat, and how to get from one place to another. As a guidebook becomes worn and dated over time, it turns into a bona fide history book, providing valuable insights into the past. This is exactly what Handbook to Singapore has become: a history book of sorts documenting life in the colony in the late 19th century. As travel became increasingly popular towards the end of the 1900s, guidebooks were published to fill a gap in the market. Sensing the need for one, Reverend George Murray Reith, resident minister of the Presbyterian Church in Singapore wrote a handy guide for visitors to the island. Printed in 1892, Reith’s Handbook is one of the earliest tourist guides to Singapore. Although by no means the first guide about the island to be published, it was certainly the best of its kind at the time; earlier guidebooks…

The Sejarah Melayu is considered by scholars as an important literary work on the history and genealogy of the Malay kings of the Malacca Sultanate (1400–1511). Partially composed in the 17th century in Jawi – the modified Arabic script used to express the Malay language – the title is derived from its original Arabic name, Sulalat al-Salatin (Genealogy of Kings). But few are aware that its first English translation in the early 19th century, the Malay Annals, was actually undertaken by a Scotsman. His name was John Leyden, a close friend of the founder of modern Singapore, Stamford Raffles, and a prominent figure of the Scottish Enlightenment movement of the late 18th century. The book, published in 1821, is the earliest English translation of the epic work, and opened up the world of Malay history and literature to 19th century colonial scholars. In some ways, the book was so revolutionary that it overshadowed the handwritten Jawi manuscript, as well as the printed Jawi version by the learned scholar Abdullah bin Abdul Kadir (also known as Munshi…

For a brief period in its history – 43 months to be exact, during World War II – Singapore was known by a different name. Between 15 February 1942 and 12 September 1945, Japanese-occupied Singapore was referred to as Syonan-to (昭南島), or “Brilliant Southern Island”, by its new masters. Syonan-to soon became a regional distribution centre for news, magazines and Japanese propaganda. Among the publications were two Singapore-based dailies that borrowed the island’s wartime name. Positioned as the leading broadsheets for the Southern Regions – Japan’s name for its annexed territories in Southeast Asia – the newspapers today provide a wealth of archival information about daily life during the Occupation years. The first issue of The Shonan Times, dated 20 February 1942, was printed in English at 140 Cecil Street, the former premises of The Straits Times, Singapore’s English daily that the Japanese forces took over. The very next day, the paper was renamed The Syonan Times  and sold  for five cents each. On 8 December 1942, the publication was renamed…

A 1946 photograph from the opening of the War Crimes Trials held in Singapore is a grim reminder of the atrocities committed by the Japanese during the Japanese Occupation of Singapore (1942–45) – a dark period in Singapore’s history. The photograph shows members of the court taking an oath. The men in the back row with shaven heads were the first group of Japanese soldiers to be tried in the first of 131 trials held between 21 January 1946 and 12 March 1948. The trials carried out in Singapore were part of the international War Crimes Trials conducted after World War II, the most famous of which was held in Nuremberg, Germany, to bring Nazi war criminals to justice. Internationally, these courts were known for establishing new standards of international justice and rights. The reverse side of the photograph bears the watermark of the Crown symbol of the British monarchy and the words “Crown Copyright Reserved”, an indication that the picture must have been taken by an official Crown photographer. The Singapore trials were held in…

By John Henry Moor’s reckoning, the book he published in December 1837 was beset with failures. Notices of the Indian Archipelago, and Adjacent Countries had been intended as the first part of a magnum opus that the Singapore newspaper editor had grandly announced in 1835. Moor’s goal was to print a massive compendium comprising two volumes: one compiling reprints of articles first published in the Singapore Chronicle newspaper from 1824 to 1834, and a second volume featuring papers on key topics about Singapore and Southeast Asia. But due to the scarcity of printers and paper in early Singapore, Notices, the first volume, took two years to complete. The 400-page volume included six maps, five coloured in outline, that had to be lithographed in Calcutta, India, which contributed to the delay in its publication. Moor later lamented that the tome was “far from producing satisfaction” due to its “wanting arrangement”: the earlier articles were arranged by geography, but later contributions had to be inserted into the appendix.…

By the late 16th century, the Portuguese had dominated the trade in Southeast Asia for nearly a hundred years. Its monopoly depended on closely guarded knowledge about the best sailing routes to the region, known as the East Indies at the time. But a Dutchman called Jan Huygen van Linschoten changed the course of history for Singapore and Southeast Asia by deciphering the secrets of the Portuguese and sharing them with the world. Linschoten was the secretary to Don Frey Vicente de Fonseca, the Archbbishop of Goa, which was then under Portuguese rule. During his employment, Linschoten painstakingly made copies of archives that spelt out the closely guarded sailing directions. Combining this information with his own travel experiences and observations in Goa, Linschoten created a maritime handbook that was published in 1595. The following year, he revealed even more of his hard-earned knowledge in a second, more detailed work: Itinerario, Voyage ofte Schipvaert van Jan Huygen van Linschoten naer Oost ofte Portugaels Indien, 1579–1592 (Travel Account of the Voyage of the Sailor Jan Huygen van Linschoten to…

Among the 19 letters held in the Rare Materials Collection of the National Library is one from Stamford Raffles to his business agent and friend, John Tayler, a London-based East India merchant. Interesting, this is also the first letter by Raffles that the National Library acquired in 1987. This handwritten letter is slightly unusual in the sense that it reveals Raffles’ private thoughts to a confidant and friend, and offers his first-hand insights into the rivalry between the British and the Dutch in the Malay Archipelago. In the letter, Raffles expresses his frustration at being undermined by his supervisor, Colonel John Alexander Bannerman, the Governor of Penang, who was determined to keep Penang’s leadership within his fold at all costs. Raffles’ grievances confirmed the stiff competition between the two British trading posts of Singapore and Penang. By holding on to Penang, Bannerman effectively robbed Raffles of his ambition to advance his career in the Far East. The letter was written during Raffles’ second visit to Singapore…