A ‘Golden letter’ in Malay to Napoleon III

08 Jun

“This beautiful royal Malay letter (Or.16126) from the ruler of Johor, Temenggung Daing Ibrahim, to the Emperor of France, written in Singapore in 1857, is a triumph of style over substance. Its thirteen golden lines pay effusive compliments to Napoleon III but little else, as can be seen from the translation (see link given below). The letter was accompanied by a handsome gift of Malay weaponry.

It is hard to know what either side hoped to gain from the despatch of such a magnificent missive, for in the mid-19th century French interests in Southeast Asia were primarily focused on Indochina, while Johor’s allegiance was firmly with the British. In the letter the Temenggung makes no requests of the French, and adroitly expresses his greatest praise for Napoleon III in terms of the Emperor’s cordial relations with Queen Victoria, ‘both sides thereby gaining in such strength that no other nation can match them, as long as the sun and moon revolve’ (bertambahlah kakuatan antara kedua pihak tiadalah siapa bangsa yang boleh bandingannya selagi ada perkitaran bulan dan matahari). It is most likely that the French envoy named in the letter, M. Charles de Montigny, who was in 1857 based in Singapore, procured the letter for his own personal or professional advancement.

Politically, historically and diplomatically this letter could be regarded as something of a dead end, but as a work of art it is far more significant. Despite the frequent use of gold in Malay manuscript illumination, this is the earliest known example of chrysography – writing in gold ink – in a Malay letter. It is beautifully illuminated with a rectangular golden frame on all four sides of the textblock, surmounted with an elaborate arched headpiece in red, blue and gold.

In format and structure, this epistle an exemplar of the courtly Malay art of letterwriting. At the top is the kepala surat or letter heading in Arabic, Nur al-shams wa-al-qamr, ‘Light of the sun and the moon’; this phrase is very commonly encountered in Malay letters addressed to European officials. The letter opens conventionally with extensive opening compliments or puji-pujian, identifying the sender and addressee, and with fulsome praise for the Emperor on account of his renown. Strangely, we do not encounter the Arabic word wa-ba‘dahu or its equivalents such as the Malaykemudian daripada itu, traditionally used to terminate the compliments and mark the start of the contents proper, for the simple reason that there is no real content to this letter. The compliments meld seamlessly with a brief mention of the French envoy entrusted with the letter, before gliding into the final section with a statement of the accompanying gift and thence onto the termaktub, the closing line giving the place and date of writing.

Or. 16126, r


“12 Apr 1857, In Malay in Jawi script.

Illuminated letter from the Temenggung of Johor to the Emperor of France, written in Singapore on 17 Syaaban 1273 (12 April 1857), with the black ink seal of Temenggung Ibrahim.

Seal inscription:al-wāthiq billāh Datuk Temenggung Seri Maharaja ibn Temenggung Seri Maharaja sanat 1257 // AL WASEKCUPBILAH DATU TUMONGONG SREE MAHARAJAH BIN TUMONGONG

‘He who trusts in God, Datuk Temenggung Seri Maharaja, son of Temenggung Seri Maharaja, the year 1257 (AD 1841/2) //

He who trusts in God, Datu Temongong Sree Maharajah, son of Tumongong’

Malay text of the letter:Nur al-shams wa-al-qamr

Bahawa ini surat menyatakan tulus dan ikhlas serta suci putih hati hening dan jernih yang tiada menaruh syak dan waham di dalamnya selagi ada peridaran cakrawala matahari dan bulan perkitaran malam dan siang thabit jua ‘ala al-dawam iaitu daripada saya Engku Temenggung Seri Maharaja Johor yang ada bertahta kerajaan kuasa memerintahkan kepada masa ini di dalam negeri Johor dar al-aman wa-al-ihsan mudah-mudahan barang disampaikan Tuhan seru sekalian alam ini jua kiranya datang ke hadapan dengan hormatnya di atas tahta kerajaan majlis to his … Imperial the … [?Malay rendering of French title?]

Imperial Peransis a.p.p.r.a.n iaitu Yang Dipertuan Besyar Maharaja yang maha mulia yang ada bersemayam di atas tahta singgasana kerajaannya di dalam negeri Peransis berkuasa memerintahkan segala daerah takluk selama2nya dengan sejahteranya yang amat setiawan lagi bangsawan serta bijaksana di atas pandai mengambil hati segala sahabat handai taulannya bayan al-qarib wa-al-ba‘id maka termasyhurlah namanya kepada sekalian negeri yang ada manusia di dalamnya di atas angin dan di bawah angin yang kepujian semenanya seperti nara setu yang amat harum bahunya ditiup angin nur al-‘ashiqin melimpahlah kepada sekalian negeri di dalam dunia segala bangsa apa lagi sebab berikat2an Yang Dipertuan Besar Maharaja Permaisuri Inggeris bertambahlah kakuatan antara kedua pihak tiadalah siapa bangsa yang boleh bandingannya selagi ada perkitaran bulan dan matahari dari itu sebab tulus dan ikhlas saya berjumpa dengan wakil Yang Dipertuan Maharaja yang maha mulia iaitu nama Tuan Montigny itulah sebab berita yang amat sangat elok nama yang kepujian yang saya pun banyak suka mendengar khabar wakil Yang Dipertuan Maharaja yang maha mulia, dari itu sebablah saya hadiahkan sesuatu karis dan dua tomba pakaian cara Melayu tiadalah dengan sepertinya hanyalah tanda berkasih2an serta berpanjangan selama2nya haraplah saya akan diterima Yang Dipertuan Maharaja Yang Maha Mulia barang akan jadi gunanya, wa al-salam.

Termaktub surat ini tujuh belas hari bulan Syaaban yaum al-Ithnin di dalam bandar Singapura sanat 1273 seribu dua ratus tujuh puluh [tiga].

English translation of the letter:Light of the sun and the moon

This is a truthful and sincere letter which emanates from a pure unsullied heart, peaceful and clear, which never entertains suspicion and mistrust as long as the sun and moon revolve in the firmament and night follows day, as is the case for all eternity, from me, Engku Temenggung Seri Maharaja of Johor, who is at present on the throne holding the reins of government in the state of Johor, abode of safety and benevolence, may it be conveyed by the Lord of this whole world, entering respectfully into the presence of the throne of His Imperial … of France …, that is, His Majesty the Emperor who sits on the throne of state of France, ruling over all the dependencies evermore in peace, who is most loyal and noble and wise in engaging the affections of his friends and neighbours far and near, whose name is renowned in all lands in which mankind is found, in the west and in the east, whose fame is as a rare herb whose fragrance is spread by the wind ‘the light of the lovers’, enfolding all the nations of the world and all races, who is furthermore in alliance with Her Majesty the Queen the England, both sides thereby gaining in such strength that no other nation can match them as long as the moon and sun revolve, therefore the reason that in all sincerity and honesty I met with Your Imperial Majesty’s envoy named Mr Montigny is because of the great fame of your illustrious name, and I was greatly pleased to hear news from Your Imperial Majesty’s envoy, and therefore I present a keris and two measures of cloth for Malay dress, which are not as they should be, merely as a sign of everlasting affection, may they be of some use to Your Imperial Majesty, with greetings of peace. This letter was written on the seventeenth of Syaaban, on Monday, in the port of Singapore, the year 1273, one thousand two hundred and seventy [three].”

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Posted by on June 8, 2016 in Uncategorized


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