Wednesday, May 13, 2009
Munshi Abdullah a.k.a Abdullah bin Abdul Kadir (b. 1797, Kampong Pali, Malacca - d. October 1854, Jeddah, Saudi Arabia), son of Sheikh Abdul Kadir d. 1820 Malacca). With a very strict Muslim upbringing and scholarly education, Abdullah's abilities made him a language teacher and interpreter proficient in Arabic, Tamil, Hindustani, English and Malay. He wrote the critically acclaimed "Hikayat Abdullah" which in Malay means the "Story of Abdullah". He was the first local to give a written account of everyday life in Malaya, published in 1849. For his early literary contributions, he was given the name, "The Father of Modern Malay Literature."Early lifeAbdullah was born in 1797, in Malacca, the fifth and only surviving child of Sheikh Abdul Kadir, a religious Muslim of Arab-Indian descent. At the age of four, he learnt to scribble on a schoolboy's slate. At the age of six he suffered a severe attack of dysentry. Abdullah could not read the Koran, and while other children chanted their verses, he traced out the written Arabic characters with his pen. He was seven years old, when his strict father, furious at his son's backwardness, sent him to the Kampong Pali Koran School. His father closely monitored, and was careful not to let his son neglect his Koran studies. For writing exercises, for example, he made Abdullah write the Arabic names of all the people he saw at the mosque, and was severely punished for mistakes, until he was word perfect. He had to write the complete Koran, and translate an Arabic text into Malay.CareerFirst jobAt age eleven with an implanted passion for the written word, Abdullah was earning money writing Koranic texts. By 13, he was teaching religion to mostly Muslim soldiers of the Indian garrison stationed in the Malaccan Fort. From them he learned Hindustani. The soldiers called him Munshi (sometimes spelt munsyi, it is Malay for a "teacher" of language), a title which stuck to him for the rest of his life, and by which he is still known. But his father insisted he get on with his Malay studies which were just beginning, and his first real chance of a secular education. The first big opportunity he had to prove his worth to his parents, was when his father was away from the office, he wrote out the bond, a signed document required for a ship's Captain. As the Captain was leaving with his document, and Abdullah having beeen paid a dollar for his efforts, in walked his father, Abdul-Kadir. Pleased at his son's abilities, Abdullah was allowed to understudy his father in his petition-writing business, and was sent to study under the finest scholars in Malacca. He was an avid reader of all the Malay manuscripts he could lay his hands on, and his inquiring mind gave his teachers no rest until they answered his questions. He went through great lengths to find tutors who could expound to him the intricacies of Malay idiom. He sat at the feet of and impressed learned visitors from other countries. At the age of 13, Abdullah was writing Koranic Texts for the Muslim Soldiers of the Malaccan Garrison. In 1811, when he was merely fourteen years old, he was already considered an accomplished Malay scholar.Stamford RafflesIn December 1810, Sir Stamford Raffles arrived in Malacca and hired young Abdullah as interpreter to communicate with the native rulers in their language. Abdullah, the youngest employee, was one of the scribes and copyists preserving Malay literature and manuscripts, in the office. In his later book, "Hikayat Abdulah", Abdullah's diary accounts are the only eye-witness records of preparations for the British "1811 Java Invasion" expedition. Raffles had suggested taking him along but his mother refused to part with her only child. They were to meet nine years later in Singapore. He had a very high regard for Sir Stamford Raffles.Missionary connectionIn 1815, Reverend William Milne (b. 1785 - d. 27May 1822 Malacca), a 'London Missionary Society' missionary arrived and started free Bible classes for local children which Abdullah attended, just to learn English. Rev. Milne soon discovered Abdullah's proficiency in Malay, and made him his teacher. Other Western missionaries followed, and Abdullah was kept busy teaching them Malay and translating the Gospels. Another missionary who arrived in September 1815, was a German, Rev. Claudius Henry Thomsen who became Abdullah's lifelong friend. He and Thomsen translated parts of the bible into Malay, and produced lots of other printed material. On 11 November 1818, Abdullah witnessed the foundation-stone laying of the Anglo-Chinese College building by the ex-Resident of Malacca, Major William Farquhar (later Resident of Singapore 1819-1823). Rev. Thomsen left for Singapore on 11 May 1822.SingaporeSometime after June 1819, Abdullah came to Singapore to make a living as an interpreter. He taught Malay to Indian soldiers, British and American missionaries, and on occasion, was private secretary to Raffles. Some of the leading merchants like Edward Boustead and the Armstrong Brothers learnt Malay from Abdullah.In the late 1830s he met assisted Rev. Benjamin Peach Keasberry in his school and Mission Press, and helped Rev. Keasberry to print a large number of books. Abdullah was engaged to assist him in polishing his Malay linguistic skills, and under Keasberry's guidance and encouragement, wrote his own life story. In 1840, he began writing the "Hikayat Abdullah" and continued writing his memoirs until September 1846.FamilyFather : Sheikh Abdul-Kadir (d. 1820)Mother : a Malacca-born half-Indian, Selama (d. 1826). She was the second wife of Abdul Kadir and they were married in 1785.Siblings : Abdullah's first four elder brothers all died in infancy. Abdullah was the fifth son, but the first to have survived.Children : Abdullah had four children from his marriage in 1815 to an unnamed woman (d. 17 May 1840). Towards the end of 1836 his favorite and only daughter died at the age of eight.Literary worksAbdullah was the first Malay writer to depart from the traditional Malay literary style by writing in the colloquial language. Unlike courtly writing, it was realistic and lively, incorporating many Malay idioms and proverbs. A. E. Cooper, who translated "Kisah Pelayaran Abdullah", says, "his 'direct reporting' acts as a pleasant cool douche after the lushness of Malay romances"."Hikayat Abdullah" ("Abdullah's Story", translated by John. T. Thomson in 1874), his autobiographical work was written between 1840 and 1843 and published in March 1849. With vignettes of early years of British colonization, it is an important source of the early history of Singapore soon after it was founded by Sir Stamford Raffles. There were two earlier English translations by John Turnbull Thomson and Rev. Dr. William G. Shellabear, but these works are regarded as out-of-date."Kisah Pelayaran Abdullah ke Kelantan" (meaning "The Tale of Abdullah's Voyage to Kelantan), describes his experiences on a 1837 trip from Singapore to Kelantan. For his early literary contributions he is regarded as "Father of Modern Malay Literature"."Kisah Pelayaran Abdullah ke-Negeri Jeddah" (meaning "The Tale of Abdullah's Voyage to Jeddah"), the last book was published posthumously.Despite Abdullah's obscurities, misrepresentations of fact and occasional solecisms in his books on his literary and pilgrimage to Mecca, Munshi Abdullah became the first local Malay to have his works published, and thus has gained the title of being the "Father of modern Malay Literature", his writings remain an inspiration for modern Malay literature. His diary was brought back by a friend after Abdullah died, and so his last journey was published posthumously. Munshi Abdullah Avenue is named after him.AuthorVernon Cornelius-Takahama, 2001 References Abdullah Abdul Kadir, Munshi. (1969). The Hikayat Abdullah: The autobiography of Abdullah Abdul Kadir, 1797-1854 (pp. 1, 5-26, 31-40, 48-56, 73-75, 103-111, 121, 309). Singapore: Oxford University Press. (Call no.: R SING 959.51032 ABD) Buckley, C. B. (1984). An anecdotal history of old times in Singapore: 1819-1867 (pp. 28-29, 321, 354, 557). Singapore: Oxford University Press.(Call no.: RSING 959.57 BUC)Dunlop, P. K. G. (2000). Street names of Singapore (p. 216). Singapore: Who's Who Pub. (Call no.: SING 959.57 DUN)Shellabear, W. G (Trans). (1918). The autobiography of Munshi Abdullah. Singapore: Methodist Publishing House. (Call no.: RRBS 959.503 ABD) Sng, B. E. K. (1980). In His good time: The story of the church in Singapore, 1819-1978 (pp. 33-34, 54-55). Singapore: Graduates' Christian Fellowship. (Call no.: SING 275.957 SNG)Turnbull, C. M . (1972). The Straits Settlements, 1826-67: Indian presidency to crown colony (p. 17). London: Athlone Press. (Call no.: RCLOS 959.57 TUR)A history of Singapore (p. 300). (1996). Singapore: Oxford University Press. (Call no.: SING 959.57 HIS) Further ReadingsAbdullah Abdul Kadir, Munshi. (1967). Voyage of Abdullah being an account of his experiences on a voyage from Singapore to Kelantan in A.D. 1838. Kuala Lumpur: Oxford University Press. (Call no.: RAC 959.5 ABD)The information in this article is valid as at 2001 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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