William G. Shellabear

Singapore Infopedia

by Cornelius, Vernon


William Girdlestone Shellabear (b. 27 August 1862, England­–d. 16 January 1947, Hartford, Connecticut, United States)1 was a Methodist missionary, scholar in Malay literature, writer, editor, translator and founder of the Methodist Publishing House (first known as the Amelia Bishop Press, then American Mission Press). Shellabear left a legacy of numerous books on vocabularies, dictionaries, textbooks as well as religious and translated works in Malay and English.2 He was awarded an honorary Doctor of Divinity degree in 1913 by the Ohio Wesleyan University in recognition of his translation of the Bible into Malay and the New Testament into Baba Malay.3

Early life
Shellabear was born in Norfolk, England, on 27 August 1862 and raised in a nominally Christian family. He had a religious conversion experience in 1885 and was deployed to Singapore as an officer with the Royal Engineers the following year, arriving on 7 January 1887. During his time as a soldier in Singapore, Shellabear developed a lifelong appreciation of the Malay culture and began learning the language. Being deeply Christian and a pacifist, he left the military service in 1890 to join the Methodist Mission to reach out to the native population of Singapore and Malaya. While on furlough in England as he waited for his appointment as a missionary, Shellabear studied the art of printing in preparation for setting up a printing press in Singapore.4

Printing press
When Shellabear returned to Singapore in October 1890, one of the first tasks he accomplished was the establishment of a mission press known as Amelia Bishop Press. The press was responsible for the publication of many religious and literary materials in Singapore during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. These included tracts, hymnals, almanacs, school textbooks, bibles, dictionaries and vocabularies.5 Shellabear also helped develop the printing trade in Singapore by importing type-casting equipment, which enabled his press to produce its own Jawi type. He also supplied equipment to other local printers.6

Writer, editor, translator

Shellabear devoted himself to the study of the Malay language, classical Malay literature and Islam.7 To reach out to the Malays, support vernacular education and equip Christian workers, he wrote, edited and translated many works into Malay and English.8 Among his notable works are the Sejarah Melayu (Malay Annals; 1896),9 Practical Malay Grammar (1899),10 Malay-English Vocabulary (1902),11 Chrita Orang Yang Chari Slamat (The Pilgrim’s Progress; 1905)12 with Tan Cheng Poh, the Hikayat Hang Tuah (The Life of Hang Tuah; 1908–09)13 with Sulaiman bin Muhammed Nur, and educational materials under the Malay Literature Series.14 He also applied his interest in Malay scholarship to solving the everyday problems of the mission press by developing standards on Malay orthography.15

In 1891, Shellabear became the editor of The Malaysia Message (later renamed Methodist Message). The monthly journal was known for its critique on social issues such as the opium trade.16

In 1900, Shellabear began a revision of H. C. Klinkert’s translation of the Bible in Malay under the auspices of the Bible Society. The New and Old Testaments were subsequently printed in 1910 and 1912 respectively.17 Despite its shortcomings, Shellabear’s version is said to represent the first modern translation of the Bible into Malay, as the translation was based on the most accurate Greek texts available then. The work also attempted to break away from the courtly language and hikayat literary style used in earlier translations, adopting a more vernacular style. In recognition of his translation work, Shellabear was awarded an honorary Doctor of Divinity degree by the Ohio Wesleyan University in 1913.18

Other contributions
In addition to his literary and printing efforts, Shellabear held several positions, including presiding elder, in the local Methodist Mission. He was also a long-time member of the Straits Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, serving as its president for two years.19 Proficient in Malay, Dutch and Chinese, Shellabear’s outreach work extended to the Chinese, women and orphans.20

Retirement from Malaya
Due to ailing health, Shellabear officially retired in 1920 and moved to the United States.21 He taught at the Drew University in New Jersey, and later at Hartford Seminary in Connecticut. During this period, he was editor of the Moslem World journal and continued to translate Malay and English works.22 Shellabear completed his memoir, The Life of the Reverend W. G. Shellabear, D. D., in 1938.23 Shellabear died in Hartford, Connecticut on 16 January 1947 at the age of 84.24

Vernon Cornelius and Gracie Lee

1. Robert A. Hunt, William Shellabear: A Biography (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia: University of Malaya Press, 1996), 13, 341 (Call no. RSING 266.0095957 HUN); “Death of a Malay Scholar,” Straits Times, 21 January 1947, 7. (From NewspaperSG)
2. Hunt, William Shellabear: A Biography, 3–4; William Fitzjames Oldham, Malaysia: Nature’s Wonderland (Cincinnati: Jennings and Graham, 1907), 83–86 (Call no. RCLOS 287.1595 OLD-[RFL]); Peter Hutton, Make What I Can Sell: The Story of Jack Chia-MPH (Singapore: Jack Chia-MPH, 1978), 18–25. (Call no. RSING 338.7610705095957 HUT)
3. Hunt, William Shellabear: A Biography, 226; Robert A Hunt, “The History of the Translation of the Bible Into Bahasa Malaysia” Journal of the Malaysian Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society 52, no. 1 (June 1989): 35–56. (From JSTOR via NLB’s eResources website)
4. Hunt, William Shellabear: A Biography, 13–29, 33, 36, 39, 51–57.
5. Hunt, William Shellabear: A Biography, 65–67, 77; Hutton, Make What I Can Sell: The Story of Jack Chia-MPH, 18–39; Walter Makepeace, Gilbert Edward Brooke and Roland St. John Braddell, One Hundred Years of Singapore, vol. 2. (London: J. Murray, 1921), 268–69 (Call no. RCLOS 959.51 MAK-[RFL]); Oldham, Malaysia: Nature’s Wonderland, 83–86.
6. Hunt, William Shellabear: A Biography, 85, 94.
7. Hunt, William Shellabear: A Biography, 81–82, 113–14, 119–20, 150–51, 164–66, 218–19, 223–25, 232; Rober Hunt, “The Life of William Shellabear,” Journal of the Malaysian Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society 66, no. 2 (265) (1993): 37–72. (From JSTOR via NLB’s eResources website)
8. Hunt, William Shellabear: A Biography, 102–07, 113–15, 148–49, 162–64, 216–18.
9. William G. Shellabear, Sejarah Melayu (Singapore: American Mission Press, 1896)
10. William G. Shellabear, A Practical Malay Grammar (Singapore: American Mission Press, 1899). (Microfilm NL21298)
11. William G. Shellabear, A Malay-English Vocabulary (Singapore: American Mission Press, 1902). (Microfilm no. NL30782)
12. William G. Shellabear, Chrita Orang Yang Chari Slamat (Singapore: American Mission Press, 1905) (Microfilm NL1885)
13. William G. Shellabear, Hikayat Hang Tuah (Singapura: Sidang Methodist, 1908–09). (Microfilm NL1885)
14. Robert A. Hunt, “The Legacy of William Shellabear,” International Bulletin of Mission Research 26, no. 1 (January 2002): 28–31; Hunt, William Shellabear: A Biography, 82, 94, 113–15, 119, 140, 147, 149–51, 162–65, 216.
15 Hunt, William Shellabear: A Biography, 114, 119–20, 137–39, 147–48, 151, 216–17.
16. Hunt, William Shellabear: A Biography, 71–74.
17. William G. Shellabear, trans. Kitab Perjanjian Baharu (Singapore: British & Foreign Bible Society, 1910); William G. Shellabear, trans. Kitab Perjanjian Lama (Singapore: British & Foreign Bible Society, 1912)
18. Hunt, William Shellabear: A Biography, 118–22, 137–40, 226; Hunt, “The History of the Translation of the Bible Into Bahasa Malaysia,” 35–56.
19. Hunt, William Shellabear: A Biography, 4, 93–21, 114, 153–54, 158–62, 168–72, 207–16, 226.
20. Hunt, William Shellabear: A Biography, 72, 100–01, 120, 159, 161, 193; Hunt, “The Life of William Shellabear,” 37–72.
21. Hunt, William Shellabear: A Biography, 243–62; Hunt, “The Legacy of William Shellabear,” 28–31.
22. Hunt, “The Life of William Shellabear,” 37–72.
23. Ian Proudfoot, Early Malay Printed Books ([Kuala Lumpur]: Academy of Malay Studies and the Library, University of Malaya, 1993), 23. (Call no. RSING 015.5957 PRO-[LIB])
24. Hunt, William Shellabear: A Biography, 341; “Death of a Malay Scholar.”

The information in this article is valid as at 2016 and correct as far as we can ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the library for further reading materials on the topic.


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