Background: The Riau Archipelago spreads over a vast geographic area in the triangle between Sumatra, Singapore and the Borneo. During the nineteenth century the area was part of the Netherlands East Indies and considered to be the core area of Malay language and culture, and the heir to the legendary port/state of Malacca. In their endeavour to standardize the Malay language, Dutch officials collected manuscripts from the archipelago; these manuscripts became the basis for a standard grammar and dictionary of Malay (which is the basis for Indonesian). This process not only resulted in several large collections of Malay manuscripts preserved in libraries in the ‘metropolitan centre’, but also kindled a renaissance of Malay writing at the court of Riau and beyond. The remnants of this manuscript and book culture can still be found in private collections of books and manuscripts scattered throughout the region.
A well-known centre for this book culture was the island of Penyengat [see photos], once the seat of the viceroy, where the most famous Malay Islamic scholar of the nineteenth century, Raja Ali Haji (1809-1873), lived and worked as well as cultivated an interest for books and study in his siblings and subsequent generations. Most of the research carried out on this revival of Malay writing has centred around Penyengat and Raja Ali Haji, while possible similar developments in other islands, such as Lingga (once the seat of the sultan), Natuna, Karimun, and others have passed unnoticed.
The opportunity to view and record (complete) collections of books and manuscripts in situs may provide insights into the configuration and formation activities of their establishers. Relatively large collections of (mostly) nineteenth-century Malay manuscripts have led to a possibly rather distorted vision of Malay intellectual history, as they were selected by colonial officials or missionaries with their own time-bound predilections. Establishing the composition as well as the contents of private collections will enhance our understanding of the configuration of an indigenous epistemology in this part of the Malay world.
This project also aimed to preserve and list private collections of documents for future generations to enhance possibilities to gain a better understanding of Malay intellectual history. The preservation of these documents is important for the people who own them, as well as as for scholars who want to study the dissemination of ideas throughout the Malay World.
Activities and Results
We have photographed 13 different collections on 4 different islands in the region: Bintan, Penyengat, Lingga and Penuba. The results amount to approximately 8,000 photos of about 450 items, comprising handwritten manuscripts, printed archival materials (forms, receipts, grants) and a few printed books.
We organised a special gathering on one of the islands to disseminate information about the project, have sought exposure in local newspapers and television for the same purpose and organised a workshop for invited manuscript owners and others to generate an interest in manuscripts and give information on safe handling and storage of these documents to local people. We cleaned the manuscripts and put them in special sleeves after digitising, so that the decay would be contained to a certain extent. With the same objective in mind we installed U/V-filters in some display cases in a few ‘institutional’ collections, such as the mosque, a regional museum and a relatively large private library.
However, it proved to be quite difficult to gain access to some collections: the suspicion of the people is strong and historical documents and manuscripts form part of people’s cultural capital, which they do not let go easily. We did not remove any manuscripts outside of the repositories where we found them.
Copies of the material were given to the owner, and have been handed over to the local archival partners: National Library of Singapore, Perpustakaan Nasional Republik Indonesia, and Yayasan Manuskrip Nusantara.
The copies in the libraries will be accessible in the libraries in the near future. We have little information about the access given by the owners to the original manuscripts and whether they still own these manuscripts. There are rumours that people are selling off these manuscripts, but being rumours they are quite hard to verify.
Related publications and talks:
Putten, Jan van der, 2007, ‘Tanggapan Pengarang Riau terhadap Budaya Bandar di Pulau Jiran’, SARI: Journal of the Malay World and Civilization, 25 (Malay World Manuscripts): 127-148.
Putten, Jan van der, (forthcoming), ‘Instances of Malay Erotica: upright sexual ethics in scurrilous verse’, in Monika Arnez and Edwin Wieringa (eds), Sexuality and Morality: Continuity and Change in Indonesian Literature (Leiden: KITLV Press).
Putten, Jan van der, 2009, ‘Digitising Malay Manuscripts: Creating Alternative Collections and Building Heritage’, Roundtable: Manuscript Cultures of Southeast Asia, organised by ARI, NUS, 17 November, Singapore.
Putten, Jan van der, 2009, ‘Riau Manuscripts: the gateway to the Malay intellectual world’, Conference The Fifth Islamic manuscript Conference “Access and Rights”, organised by The Islamic Manuscript Association, 24-26 July, Christ College, University Cambridge, UK.