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Master scribes : Husin bin Ismail, Abdullah bin Abdulkadir Munsyi, their handwriting and the Hikayat Abdullah - article ; n°1 ; vol.61, pg 115-138


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Archipel - Année 2001 - Volume 61 - Numéro 1 - Pages 115-138
Roger Tol
Cet article traite de deux éminentes personnalités du monde des Lettres malaises, qui ont travaillé en étroite collaboration à Singapour, dans les années 1830 et 1840. Le premier, Abdullah bin Abdulkadir connut le succès comme la gloire dès le début de sa carrière. Son autobiographie, Hikayat Abdullah ainsi que ses autres œuvres sont toujours lues et appréciées à l'heure actuelle. Le second, le Bugis Husin Bin Ismail - sans doute le scribe le plus productif en manuscrits malais - demeure beaucoup moins connu. Un examen de leur graphies respectives pourrait conduire à résoudre l'énigme des «deux» Hikayat Abdullah conservées aujourd'hui en Nouvelle-Zélande.
Cet examen est basé sur une prometteuse technique d'analyse des graphies enjawi qui devrait apporter des éléments nouveaux dans le débat sur l'identification de celles-ci.
24 pages
Source : Persée ; Ministère de la jeunesse, de l’éducation nationale et de la recherche, Direction de l’enseignement supérieur, Sous-direction des bibliothèques et de la documentation.



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Roger Tol
Master scribes : Husin bin Ismail, Abdullah bin Abdulkadir
Munsyi, their handwriting and the Hikayat Abdullah
In: Archipel. Volume 61, 2001. pp. 115-138.
Roger Tol
Cet article traite de deux éminentes personnalités du monde des Lettres malaises, qui ont travaillé en étroite collaboration à
Singapour, dans les années 1830 et 1840. Le premier, Abdullah bin Abdulkadir connut le succès comme la gloire dès le début de
sa carrière. Son autobiographie, Hikayat Abdullah ainsi que ses autres œuvres sont toujours lues et appréciées à l'heure
actuelle. Le second, le Bugis Husin Bin Ismail - sans doute le scribe le plus productif en manuscrits malais - demeure beaucoup
moins connu. Un examen de leur graphies respectives pourrait conduire à résoudre l'énigme des «deux» Hikayat Abdullah
conservées aujourd'hui en Nouvelle-Zélande.
Cet examen est basé sur une prometteuse technique d'analyse des graphies enjawi qui devrait apporter des éléments nouveaux
dans le débat sur l'identification de celles-ci.
Citer ce document / Cite this document :
Tol Roger. Master scribes : Husin bin Ismail, Abdullah bin Abdulkadir Munsyi, their handwriting and the Hikayat Abdullah. In:
Archipel. Volume 61, 2001. pp. 115-138.
doi : 10.3406/arch.2001.3615
http://www.persee.fr/web/revues/home/prescript/article/arch_0044-8613_2001_num_61_1_3615Roger TOL
Master scribes : Husin bin Ismail, Abdullah
bin Abdulkadir Munsyi, their handwriting and
the Hikayat Abdullah *
This article deals with two prominent persons in the world of Malay let
ters who worked closely together in Singapore in the 1830s and '40s. One of
them, Abdullah bin Abdulkadir Munsyi gained recognition and fame right
from the start during his lifetime. His autobiography, Hikayat Abdullah, and
other writings are enjoyed up until the present. The other person, the
Buginese Husin bin Ismail - possibly the most productive scribe of Malay
manuscripts ever - is far less well known. An examination of their handwrit
ing styles may lead to solving the puzzle of " two " Hikayat Abdullah now kept in New Zealand. This is based on a
promising technique for investigating jawi handwriting, which it is hoped
will contribute to the discussion on jawi handwriting identification.
Abdullah bin Abdulkadir Munsyi and Husin bin Ismail
For malaici there is actually no need to introduce Abdullah bin
Abdulkadir Munsyi, this great man of letters, who was born in 1797 in
* This article is a slightly revised version of a paper presented at the XXXVIth International
Congress of Asian and North African Studies (ICANAS), Montréal, 27 August - 2
September, 2000. It is a pleasure to thank Ian Proudfoot, Henri Chambert-Loir, Tim Behrend,
Jan Just Witkam, Henk Maier, and Annabel Teh Gallop for their comments. As a matter of
course, all errors are mine.
Archipel 61, Paris, 2001 pp. 115-138 116 Roger Toi
Malacca and died 57 years later in Jeddah during the haj. From the age of 15
until his death he spent his life in close contact with British civil servants -
including Stamford Raffles - and missionaries, both and American.
He worked as a scribe during his whole career, started around 1815 as a
printer in Malacca, taught Malay to many foreigners, edited Malay classics
such as the Sejarah Melayu, and wrote his autobiography, the Hikayat
Abdullah. In all these activities he exercised enormous influence on his con
temporaries and left a heritage that is enjoyed until the present day. He is
most widely known for his Hikayat Abdullah which became a success right
from its first publication in 1849 - a lithograph in his own handwriting - and
has remained unique and pleasant reading ever since. Studies on his work,
life and influence still appear in all kinds of publications. The main sources
of information on this intriguing man are of course his Hikayat Abdullah,
published in a number of editions (i.a. 1953), the annotated translation by
Hill (first ed. 1955), the articles by Skinner (1978), Traill (1981, 1982) and
more recently Carroll (1999), Proudfoot (1999), and Ché-Ross (2000). (i) For
such a prolific scribe and author it is remarkable that manuscripts of the
Hikayat Abdullah have been discovered only quite recently in the United
States and New Zealand. None of the great Malay manuscript collections in
Indonesia, Malaysia, England or the Netherlands possess a manuscript con
taining the Hikayat Abdullah. The manuscripts in the USA are both copied
by Husin bin Ismail. The two New Zealand manuscripts in particular are of
interest. They are known only in the form of reproductions, one page pub
lished as early as 1874, the other two in 1984. Apparently no scholar has
ever seen the manuscripts themselves. Is it possible to establish whether we
are dealing with Abdullah's autograph or autographs ?
One of the most interesting and productive 19th century scribes is Husin
bin Ismail, who lived and worked in the Singapore area, c. 1830-1865. He
was a Buginese from the Wajoq area and was also active as teacher of Bugis
to foreigners, in the same way as Abdullah taught Malay. Abdullah and
Husin must have been close colleagues, who worked in the same environ
ment of merchants, civil servants and missionaries. Both were employed at
the Mission Press in Singapore, which was in operation from 1834 to 1843.
He was active not only as a copyist of Bugis texts, as I have shown in an ear
lier paper (Toi 1997), but produced also a large number of Malay
manuscripts, at least two of them very early copies of the Hikayat
1. As early as 1964 a bibliography of publications on Abdullah appeared (Yahaya Ismail
Archipel 61, Paris, 2001 Master scribes 117
Abdullah. (2) In both respects he is quite exceptional. Very few scribes are
known to have copied texts in different languages. Furthermore the number
of Malay manuscripts copied by Husin that have survived is remarkable by
any standard ; there must be at least one hundred. In addition the results of
his work are found in a number of public collections scattered over the
globe : Jakarta, London, Cambridge (UK), Washington, and Cambridge
(USA). A thorough search in Leiden will most probably also reveal other
manuscripts copied by him, possibly in the Klinkert collection.
In letters written by the missionary C.H. Thomsen in Singapore between
the years 1827-1832, he relates his exploits in learning Bugis. He makes
mention of having met " a man who understands the Bugguese language
well, he is at present employed in transcribing books", a "Bugis Teacher",
"a man was engaged, a few M.S. procured and transcribed by him, he also
translated two Pamphlets from Malay into Bugis ".(3) Without a doubt this
Bugis teacher of Thomsen is Husin bin Ismail. The picture then is that
Thomsen employed Husin for the Singapore Institution and the Mission
Press, mainly for copying Malay manuscripts and translating Malay
manuscripts into Bugis. The were probably procured by
Abdullah, who had been working as a copyist for many years. Both were
employed also as teachers ; Abdullah as a teacher of Malay, and Husin as a
teacher of Bugis. When Alfred North in 1836 succeeded Thomsen in
Singapore, he kept using them as copyists and collectors. (4)
Manuscripts of the Hikayat Abdullah
Although the first lithographic edition of the Hikayat Abdullah appeared
in 1849 in Abdullah's own handwriting, no autographs of his autobiography
are known to exist. As becomes evident from the discussion of the Hikayat
Abdullah manuscripts discovered in the USA, they form copies very close to
the original draft finished in 1843. However, since Husin copied both, we
still do not have possession of the (or an) autograph.
The Malay manuscripts in the collection of the Library of Congress form
one package with the manuscripts now in the Houghton Library of Harvard
2. Husin signed his Bugis regularly with "Guru La Uséng", "Husin the teach
er". In his notes enclosed in the Library of Congress manuscripts, the missionary Alfred
North regularly calls him "Husin, a learned Bugis at Singapore".
3. Fragments of these letters from Thomsen to the London Missionary Society are published
by Noorduyn 1957 : 248-49. See also Milner 1981.
4. Cf. the following sentence from a letter written by the missionary John Stronach in 1841,
as quoted in Milner 1981 : 114, on Abdullah : "(Mr. North here has had him 5 years in his
Thomsen)." North left Singapore in 1843. employment and he was regularly employed by
Archipel 61, Paris, 2001 118 Roger Toi
University and were originally collected in Singapore by Alfred North for
the famous Wilkes Exploring Expedition in January-February, 1842. The
manuscripts were sent in two batches. The first came to the USA on board
one of the ships of the expedition and via the Smithsonian Institution ended
up in the Library of Congress. The second was sent when the Singapore mis
sion where North was working closed down in 1843. This shipment was
directed to the main library of the American Board of Commissioners for
Foreign Missions (ABCFM) in Boston. The ABCFM library and archives
were transferred to Harvard University in 1943 (Proudfoot 1999 : 3).
Already in 1874 it became known that a manuscript of the Hikayat
Abdullah was in New Zealand. In that year J.T. Thomson published
Translations from the Hakayit Abdulla (bin Abdulkadar) Munshi [sic].
Thomson was appointed Government Surveyor in Singapore in 1841, retired
to London in 1855, and later went to New Zealand, where he died in 1884
(Hill 1985 : 23). His introduction is of particular interest. He mentions that in
1846 Abdullah himself asked him to translate his writings, and that he
obtained the manuscript [of the Hikayat Abdullah] " from the
Autobiographer himself" (Thomson 1874 : v-vi). Even more interesting is
the fact that one page of that manuscript was reproduced in full on the fron
tispiece. Was this Abdullah's autograph? Cyril Skinner, the eminent connais
seur of the Malay literary haute cuisine, was quite outspoken : " It is of
course Husain's calligraphy that is illustrated in Thomson (1874), fron
tispiece" (Skinner 1978 : 481).
Then, in 1982, H.F.O'B. Traill published an article on what he called "the
'lost' manuscript" of the Hikayat Abdullah. With this manuscript he meant
the copy kept in the Library of Congress, copied by Husin. In the remainder
to his article published two years later, Traill mentions the discovery in New
Zealand of another copy from 1843 of the Hikayat Abdullah, of which he
reproduced two pages. The manuscript was in the possession of descendants
of Thomson. So, this must have been the manuscript Thomson was given by
Abdullah and which he used for his translations. Traill (1984 : 69) writes
"[...] I received the exciting news that the copy of the 1843 Hikayat which
Abdullah gave to John Turnbull Thomson still exists [...]". However, the
reproductions differ quite a bit in handwriting compared to the page repro
duced in 1874. Were there possibly two Hikayat Abdullah manuscripts in
New Zealand? A clue is given in the description Traill gives (1984 : 69). He
states that the first two pages are different from the other ones. On these
pages the edging frames consist of two sets of double lines instead of one
set, and " on the following pages there are 23 to 24 lines of writing per
Archipel 61, Paris, 2001 Master scribes 119
page". Most unfortunately for our purpose, Traill only reproduces these very
first two pages, which are so different from the rest. To add to the confusion,
the number of lines in the 1874 reproduction is neither 23 nor 24, but 25.
Maybe a comparison of the handwritings could solve the puzzle.
In any case, Traill obviously was also keen to know whether this
manuscript was indeed the autograph. He was quite certain about the hand
writing : " The hand-writing of the New Zealand m.s. is different from that of
the Library of Congress m.s. Therefore it was not the Bugis scribe Hussin
who transcribed this m.s." (Traill 1984 : 69).
The Hikayat Abdullah manuscript in the Library of Congress (shelf mark
Jawi 7) is not signed but according to the accompanying note by Alfred
North, was "taken from the autograph by Husin, a Bugis, who writes a good
Malay hand". Contrary to Asma Ahmat's apparent opinion (1993 : 13), there
is no colophon, although there appears to be one on p. 203, which reads :
" Termaktub Hikayat Abdullah ini dalam negeri Singapura daerah Kampung
Melaka kepada empat hari bulan Rabi ul-akhir tarikh sanat 1259 tahun
yaitu tiga hari bulan May tarikh Masehi sanat 1843 pada hari
Khamis waktu zohor adanya. Tamat. Salamah Allah. " This however refers
to the date Abdullah finished his original work, not the date the manuscript
was copied. Afterwards Abdullah added a few more pages, which were also
copied by Husin. Compare also Abdullah (1953 : 418-429) and Hill (1985 :
309-316), who refer to the addendum as "Volume two". Although the word
ing is a bit different, the dating is identical, as is the structure of the text in
"two volumes". In these two editions the colophon of "volume one" is fo
llowed by a few lines saying that the lithographed text of the Hikayat
Abdullah was produced in March 1849. Since these lines are lacking in
Husin 's manuscript we may conclude that it was copied after 3 May 1843
and in that very year sent to the USA. Unlike the other manuscripts in the
Library of Congress collection, this one was sent to the USA in 1843 after
the departure of the Wilkes expedition.
Very recently, in 1998, another copy of the Hikayat Abdullah was discov
ered by Proudfoot (1999), whose extensive discussion is the main source of
the data provided here on this manuscript. Ian Proudfoot kindly provided
additional data by email in August 2000. As yet I have not seen the
manuscript myself. It is located in the Houghton Library, Harvard
University, Cambridge (USA). As mentioned earlier this collection of Malay
manuscripts is complementary to those in the Library of Congress. The
Harvard manuscript, as that of the Library of Congress, was copied by
Archipel 61, Paris, 2001 Roger Toi 120
The manuscript, MS INDO 23, may have been North's personal copy and
closest to Abdullah's autograph. A substantial note by North - enclosed in
the manuscript - ends with : "This copy was taken from the autograph by
Husin, a Bugis scribe. Many of the Bugis write Malay correctly. " (Proudfoot
1999 : 7). It also contains the note "Presented by Mr. North, 1845", i.e. pre
sented to the ABCFM main library in Boston. Obviously North kept this
manuscript with him for further study and only sent it to the USA two years
Well then, are all Hikayat Abdullah manuscripts copied by Husin ?
Observations on the identification of jawi handwriting
As far as I know this is still an untouched field of research. This is under
standable since the problems are quite numerous. Not only is there a great
variety in handwriting - as in any culture and with any script - but the numb
er of Malay manuscripts signed by scribes is quite small. For this reason
positive identification of scribes is usually difficult. In the case of Abdullah
and Husin we are in a relatively fortunate position since some manuscripts
can be positively identified. Some of these manuscripts are even published,
completely or partly, and can be consulted easily.
Generally, a scribe's style of writing is dependent on a number of factors
and circumstances. Many manuscripts, if not all, were copied on commiss
ion. Those commissioning manuscripts would belong to the Malay aristoc
racy or could be foreigners interested for one reason or another in Malay
manuscripts - and they needed scribes such as Abdullah and Husin to copy
them. Some would require a certain style of handwriting and layout of the
manuscript. The foreigners certainly wanted the manuscripts to be readable
and probably ordered the scribe to write the words a little larger than usual
and to apply lots of space between the lines and margins. This is quite visible
in the many manuscripts copied by Husin for H.T.F.K.E.W.A.C. von de Wall,
the lexicographer who spent most of the period 1855-73 in Riau. These
manuscripts are part of the " Von de Wall collection " kept in the National
Library of Indonesia. They make a uniform impression as regards size, lay
out and writing style. Another example of similarity of handwriting is the
very uniform style of the manuscripts copied at the Algemeene Secretarie in
Buitenzorg (Bogor) around 1830. The scribes who worked there, such as
Muhammad Cing Saidullah, had certainly been instructed by their (Dutch)
superiors to write very carefully and with a typical page layout. These
manuscripts were also used for teaching purposes, which is another explanat
ion for their uniform style.
Archipel 61, Paris, 2001 Master scribes 121
Of course a manuscript written in haste has a more sloppy style than a
manuscript for which plenty of time is available. The strokes will be flat
tened, the curves less distinctive and the dots in disarray. This is evident in
many unofficial or private letters.
Similarly, a scribe's writing tools (type of pen, ink), the kind of paper he
wrote on, and the circumstances under which he did his job could be influent
ial factors on the writing style as well. (5)
Also the type of text could influence the writing style. As Voorhoeve
argued (1964), manuscripts with religious content tended to be copied much
more carefully than with a fictional content. Another instance of
content determining style of writing is the Hikayat Patani copied by
Abdullah. This text is full of Thai words and phrases and from the style of
Abdullah's writing it is evident how painstakingly he tried to copy the text -
which was completely unintelligible for him - letter by letter.
This great variety in styles, clearly visible in both Abdullah's and in
Husin's manuscripts, makes a comparison on the basis of style criteria an
almost impossible task. Rather we should look for specific variants of letters
and spelling, which are less subject to change and are retained in different
styles. Variants of letters and spelling seem to be much more part of the indi
vidual writing mechanism than overall style.
Examples of styles are : upright or inclined writing, curved or straight
strokes, small or large letters. Examples of variants of letters are : v-shaped
lam-alif or arrow-shaped lam-alif ; super ya (isolated ya written above the
line) in specific words with ya as last letter (e.g. hari) ; sub ya (final ya writ
ten backwards under the line) in specific words with ya as last letter (e.g.
'g' (k with a dot or tetapi). Examples of variants of spelling are : indicating
'k' for 'g' (e.g. perki for pergi); word conjunction other diacritic) or writing
(e.g. danlagi, orangyang).
I think it is fair to assume the principle "variant rules over style". So,
hierarchically, distinctive features relating to variants are more important
than stylistic features.
The handwriting of Abdullah and Husin
As a first step I had to choose samples from manuscripts which without
any doubt had been copied by either Abdullah or Husin, and for which
reproductions were at my disposal. Some of them were signed ; others were
5. Abdullah apparently wrote parts of his Kisah pelayaran Abdullah ke Jeddah on board of
the ship that brought him to the holy land (Ché-Ross 2000 : 197-8).
Archipel 61, Paris, 2001 122 Roger Toi
identified by means of enclosed notes by Alfred North, who meticulously
jotted down information about the contents of the manuscripts, the scribes
who copied them, and the prices he paid for them. These manuscripts are
listed in Table 1, which also gives particulars on some external features.
Table 1 - Manuscripts used for comparison
Date Place Signature # lines size
pages per page
ABDULLAH 16 October Singapore not signed 94 18 25x19
Hikayat Patani 1839 [note North: 'Copied by Abdullah ben
LC Jawi 13 Abdulkadir, a learned and accurate native
56 lines of Malacca, at Singapore, 1839']
ABDULLAH 10 April Singapore not signed 441 15 26x21.5
Hit Abdullah, 1849
1849, p.315-16
30 lines
ABDULLAH 1 August Singapore Munsyi Abdullah bin Abdul Kadir 1 20 29.7x21.2
Letter to 1847
20 long lines
Al-fakir Husin bin Isma' il HUSIN 1838 Singapore 393 19 28x21.5
LC Jawi 5 [note [between thick horizontal lines] [note North]
Hikayat Isma North]
Dewa Pekerma
p.393 (last p.)
19 lines
May- HUSIN Singapore not signed 209 23 32.5x21.5
LC Jawi 7: December [note North: 'This copy is taken from
Hikayat 1843 the autograph by Husin, a Bugis, who
Abdullah writes a good Malay hand.']
22 long lines
[Traill 1982,
opp. 1331
Al-fakir Husin bin Isma' il HUSIN 1838 or Singapore 240 19 27x20.2
LC Jawi 9 [note [between thick horizontal lines] 1839
Hikayat North]
p.240 (last p.)
17 lines
Al-fakir Husin ibn Isma' il orang Bugis HUSIN no date Singapore 90 19 32.1x20
PNRIW11 (Kampung Tanbih al Gelang and
ma 'mun Kampung pp.85-86 (last Melayu)
PP) 31 lines
5 Dzul- Enci" Husin orang Bugis HUSIN Singapore 63 19 34.5x21.5
PNRI W 228 kaedah (Gelang) 1281H = Syair Kiamat
1 April p.60
19 lines 1865
Archipel 61, Paris, 2001 Master scribes 123
The most difficult part of the exercise is to establish - or rather to discov
er - the distinctive features of a person's handwriting. There is certainly a
considerable amount of subjectivity involved from the observer's part.
However, the distinction between variant and style is fruitful from the start.
I found the following features to be more or less distinctive in comparing
Abdullah's and Husin's handwriting. Apart from the true variants 'v-shaped
lam-alif ', 'g', 'k=g', 'super ya\ and 'danlagi', I also included two styles, viz.
'lam-alif written smoothly or more rectangular', and 'final vain with or with
out curl'. (6) Then I counted all the occurrences of these features in the
manuscripts. The results are presented in Table 2.
Bearing in mind the relatively small number of sample pages, with all
ensuing consequences for statistics, we might draw some preliminary con
clusions regarding these distinctive features and establish a kind of hierarchy
of distinctive features of Husin's and Abdullah's handwriting. If appropriate
we might formulate more general conceptions. Then we will try to apply our
findings to the two Abdullah manuscripts in New Zealand.
Let us first have a look at the features one by one. All can be found on the
page of the 1849 lithograph of the Hikayat Abdullah that is appended to this
article. Four of them are even present in the form danlagi. Compare :
line 6 : danlagi [conjoined; regular lam-alif; 'g' ; regular end ya] pula iapun
seperti hal Me lay u [regular lam-alif] juga ['g'] meminjam perkataan bahasa
lain! [v-shaped lam-alif] bangsa dijadikannya bahasa sendiri [super end ya] ;
line 3, two last words : hari [super end y a] dari [regular end y a] ;
line 9, last two : lintang pukang [curled final sain's].
lam-alif, v-shape
This variant feature is never used by Husin, whereas Abdullah uses it 5 times
in 2 of the 3 manuscripts. This feature seems to be a reliable one.
lam-alif; smooth versus rectangular
Except for one manuscript (LC Jawi 7, which also in other aspects behaves
" irregularly "), Husin does not use the smooth form, but writes lam-alif quite
rectangular. Abdullah has a great preference for smoothly written lam-alif,
about 93 per cent. Because of LC Jawi 7, where Husin writes almost all lam-
alif smoothly, this is not a reliable feature.
6. A feature which is not relevant in our case but seems to be distinctive in the handwriting of
Von de Wall's informant Haji Ibrahim is his frequent use of sub ya.
Archipel 61, Paris, 2001