Munshi Abdullah

Munshi Abdullah (b. 1797, Kampong Pali, Malacca–d. October 1854, Jeddah, Saudi Arabia) was also known as Abdullah bin Abdul Kadir.1 Gifted in languages, he mastered Arabic, Tamil, Hindi and Malay. Abdullah was known for his work as a teacher, interpreter and writer. He wrote Hikayat Abdullah (The Story of Abdullah), which was first published in 1849 and became an important source to understand the social history of 19th-century Singapore.2 He is often called the “father of modern Malay literature” for his early literary contributions.

Early life
Born in 1797 in Malacca, Abdullah was the fifth and only surviving child of Sheikh Abdul Kadir, a religious Muslim of Arab-Indian descent. Abdullah’s mother was Sheikh Abdul Kadir’s second wife, Selama, a Malacca-born half-Indian. Abdullah’s four elder brothers all died in infancy.

Abdullah learned to scribble on a schoolboy’s slate at the age of four. At six, he suffered a severe attack of dysentery. Pampered by his grandmother, he was unable to read the Koran even at the age of seven. He could only trace out the written Arabic characters with his pen while the other children chanted their verses.

Furious with Abdullah’s lack of progress, Sheikh Abdul Kadir sent his son to the Kampong Pali Koran School near their home. He also closely monitored his son’s learning each night, and ensured that his son did not neglect his Koran studies.5

To ensure that he learned to write in Arabic, Abdullah’s father made him visit the mosque and write down the Arabic names of all the people he saw there. His father also gave him nightly writing exercises, and severely punished him for any mistakes until he was word-perfect. Finally, Sheikh Abdul Kadir had Abdullah copy the entire Koran in Arabic and translate it into Malay.6

First jobs

By the age of 11, Abdullah was earning money writing Koranic texts. He also taught religion to Muslim soldiers of the Indian garrison stationed at Malacca Fort. From them, he learned Hindustani. The soldiers called him munshi  (sometimes spelt munsyi, which is Malay for “teacher”), a title that stuck with him for the rest of his life and by which he is still known.7 His father, however, insisted that he focus on his Malay studies, which had just begun and were his first real chance at a secular education.8

Abdullah’s first big opportunity to prove his worth to his parents came when his father was away from the office. Abdullah wrote a bond for a ship’s captain in his father’s stead and earned a dollar in the process. As the captain was leaving with his document, Sheikh Abdul Kadir returned. Pleased with Abdullah’s abilities, Sheikh Abdul Kadir allowed his son to understudy him in his petition-writing business, and sent his son to study under the finest scholars in Malacca. Abdullah zealously read all the Malay manuscripts he could lay his hands on, giving his teachers no rest with his questions. He also went to great lengths to seek out tutors who could expound to him the intricacies of Malay idioms. By the age of 14, he was an accomplished Malay scholar.9

Stamford Raffles
In December 1810, Stamford Raffles arrived in Malacca and hired Abdullah as a copyist for Malay manuscripts. Abdullah was then the youngest of several scribes and copyists employed in Raffles’s office.10

In 1811, Raffles had proposed taking Abdullah along to Java, but Abdullah’s mother refused to part with her only child.11 Raffles left for Java, and they met again nine years later in Singapore, when Raffles appointed Abdullah as his secretary and interpreter.12 Abdullah tutored Raffles in the Malay language, and is thought to have taught Raffles many aspects of Malay society and culture.13

Abdullah was very attached to Raffles. He described in his autobiography Hikayat Abdullah how years later, learning of Raffles’s return to Europe, he felt as if he were losing his own parent.14

Missionary connection
In 1815, Reverend William Milne, a missionary from the London Missionary Society, arrived in Malacca and started a free Bible class for local children. Abdullah attended the class to learn English. Milne soon discovered Abdullah’s proficiency in Malay and made Abdullah his teacher. Other missionaries followed suit, and Abdullah was kept busy teaching them Malay and translating the Gospels. One of these missionaries was the German reverend, Claudius Henry Thomsen, who became Abdullah’s lifelong friend. The two later worked together to translate parts of the Bible into Malay, and operate a hand press producing other printed material, including religious tracts.15

On 11 November 1818, Abdullah witnessed the laying of the foundation stone for Anglo-Chinese College’s building in Malacca by William Farquhar, who was then Malacca’s former Resident and later Resident of Singapore from 1819 to 1823.16 

Sometime after June 1819, Thomsen and Abdullah left Malacca together for Singapore, where Abdullah worked for a time as secretary and interpreter for Raffles.17 Following the departure of Raffles and Farquhar in 1823, Abdullah worked as a petition-writer and interpreter, while also teaching Malay. Some leading merchants such as Edward Boustead and the Armstrong Brothers learned Malay from Abdullah.18

In the late 1830s, Abdullah worked as a teacher at the Singapore Institution Free School. There, he met Alfred North  a missionary from the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (ABCFM)19, and Benjamin Peach Keasberry (Reverend)  a former businessman in Singapore and Java who became a missionary in Singapore. Abdullah worked with Keasberry to print a large number of books, and also taught him Malay.20 North encouraged Abdullah to write about his life story. Abdullah began writing Hikayat Abdullah in 1840 and completed the first draft in May 1843.21 

Literary works
Abdullah was the first Malay writer to depart from the traditional Malay literary style by writing in simple, colloquial Malay. Unlike other Malay writing at the time, he eschewed fantasy and legend, and instead wrote realistic accounts of events based on his own experiences and those of others.22 In the words of A. E. Coope, who translated Kisah Pelayaran Abdullah ke Kelantan (Story of Abdullah’s Voyage to Kelantan), “his ‘direct reporting’ acts as a pleasant cool douche after the lushness of Malay romances”.23

Hikayat Abdullah, Abdullah’s autobiographical work, was written between 1840 and 1843, and first printed in Jawi script in 1849.24 It also provides an account of military preparations for a British invasion of Java in 1811.25 The autobiography gives a valuable account of the various figures who contributed to the development of early Singapore, and is an important source for the social history of Singapore in the 19th century.26 In 1874, John Turnbull Thomson, a student of Abdullah, translated and published part of Hikayat Abdullah in London. This version, however, contains notable inaccuracies due to Thomson’s misunderstanding of some of Abdullah’s language. Another translated version, by Methodist missionary and Malay literature scholar William Shellabear, is also regarded as being out-of-date.27

Kisah Pelayaran Abdullah ke Kelantan describes Abdullah’s experiences when he was on a trip in either 183728 or 183829 to a number of northern Malay states, including Kelantan, Kedah, Perlis and Terengganu. Taken from Abdullah’s diary documenting his pilgrimage to Mecca, Kesah Pelayaran Abdullah ke-Negeri Jeddah was published posthumously. It describes the daily events of Abdullah’s voyage up to his death in Jeddah in 1854.30

Abdullah’s writing was not without fault. Hikayat Abdullah bears historical inaccuracies, obscurities and solecisms. His account of the first British landing at the mouth of the Singapore River, for example, neglected to note Raffles’s presence, having been written based on second-hand accounts.31 These inaccuracies notwithstanding, Abdullah is considered as the “Father of Modern Malay Literature”, being the first local Malay to have his works published.32 Munshi Abdullah Avenue in Singapore was named after him.33

Abdullah married an unnamed woman in 1815, with whom he had four children.34

Vernon Cornelius-Takahama

1. Abdullah Abdul Kadir, The Hikayat Abdullah: The Autobiography of Abdullah bin Abdul Kadir, 1797–1854, trans. A. H. Hill (Singapore: Oxford University Press, 1969), 1, 5–6, 19, 35 (Call no. RSING 959.51032 ABD); Charles Burton Buckley, An Anecdotal History of Old Times in Singapore (Singapore: Oxford University Press, 1984), 3, 28–29. (Call no. RSING 959.57 BUC-[HIS])
2. Abdul Kadir, Hikayat Abdullah, 24, 309; Tommy Koh, et al., eds., Singapore: The Encyclopedia (Singapore: Editions Didier Millet and National Heritage Board, 2006), 20–21. (Call no. RSING 959.57003 SIN-[HIS])
3. Abdul Kadir, Hikayat Abdullah, 1, 5–7, 17, 35.
4. Abdul Kadir, Hikayat Abdullah, 7.
5. Abdul Kadir, Hikayat Abdullah, 7–8.
6. Abdul Kadir, Hikayat Abdullah, 8.
7. Abdul Kadir, Hikayat Abdullah, 8; Ooi Keat Gin, ed., Southeast Asia: A Historical Encyclopedia from Angkor Wat to East Timor (Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 2004), 116. (Call no. RSING q959.003 SOU)
8. Abdul Kadir, Hikayat Abdullah, 8.
9. Abdul Kadir, Hikayat Abdullah, 8–9.
10. Abdul Kadir, Hikayat Abdullah, 9, 74 note 1; Buckley, Anecdotal History of Old Times, 29.
11. Buckley, Anecdotal History of Old Times, 29.
12. Abdul Kadir, Hikayat Abdullah, 11; Koh, et al., Singapore: The Encyclopedia, 20.
13. Koh, et al., Singapore: The Encyclopedia, 20.
14. Abdul Kadir, Hikayat Abdullah, 191; Buckley, Anecdotal History of Old Times, 29.
15. Abdul Kadir, Hikayat Abdullah, 11–12, 103, 110.
16. Abdul Kadir, Hikayat Abdullah, 12; Koh, et al., Singapore: The Encyclopedia, 190.
17. Abdul Kadir, Hikayat Abdullah, 13; Koh, et al., Singapore: The Encyclopedia, 20.
18. Abdul Kadir, Hikayat Abdullah, 14–15, 18.
19. Irene Lim, “Mission Press, Singapore Infopedia, published 2008.
20. Abdul Kadir, Hikayat Abdullah, 19; Buckley, Anecdotal History of Old Times, 321.
21. V. Matheson and A.C. Milner, Perceptions of the Haj: Five Malay Texts (Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 1984), 54 (Call no. RSING 301.452971 MAT); Anthony Milner, The Invention of Politics in Colonial Malaya (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2020), 80 (Call no. RSEA 959.5 MIL); Encyclopaedia Britannica, “Abdullah bin Abdul Kadir,” n.d.; Abdul Kadir, Hikayat Abdullah, 19, 22.
22. Abdul Kadir, Hikayat Abdullah, 22, 26; Ooi, Southeast Asia, 116.
23. Abdullah Abdul Kadir, The Voyage of Abdullah (Pelayaran Abdullah): Being An Account of His Experiences on a Voyage from Singapore to Kelantan in A.D. 1838, trans. A. E. Coope (Kuala Lumpur: Oxford University Press, 1967), viii. (Call no. RACL 959.5 ABD)
24. Abdul Kadir, Hikayat Abdullah, 22, 24, 309.
25. Abdul Kadir, Hikayat Abdullah, 10.
26. Koh, et al., Singapore: The Encyclopedia, 20–21.
27. Abdul Kadir, Hikayat Abdullah, vii, 22–23.
28. Mohd. Taib Usman, “A Note on Abdullah’s Account of the Kelantan Civil War in His Kesah Pelayaran Abdullah,” Bijdragen Tot De Taal-, Land- En Volkenkunde 120, no. 3 (1964): 348. (From JSTOR via NLB’s eResources website)
29. C. Skinner, “The Dating of the Civil War in Kelantan Referred to in the Kesah Pelayaran Abdullah,” Bijdragen Tot De Taal-, Land- En Volkenkunde 121, no. 4 (1965): 435. (From JSTOR via NLB’s eResources website)
30. Abdul Kadir, Hikayat Abdullah, 26.
31. Abdul Kadir, Hikayat Abdullah, vii, 22–23; Buckley, Anecdotal History of Old Times, 28.
32. A. C. Milner, “Abullah Bin Abdul Kadir,” in Encyclopedia of Asian History, vol. 1 (London: Collier Macmillan, 1988), 6 (Call no. R q950 ENC); Ooi, Southeast Asia, 116.
33. Peter K. G. Dunlop, Street Names of Singapore (Singapore: Who’s Who Publishing, 2000), 216. (Call no. RSING 959.57 DUN-[HIS])
34. Abdul Kadir, Hikayat Abdullah, 6, 17.

Further resources
Abdullah Abdul Kadir, The Autobiography of Munshi Abdullah, trans. W. G. Shellabear (Singapore: Methodist Pub. House, 1918). (From BookSG)

Bobby E. K. Sng, In His Good Time: The Story of the Church in Singapore, 1819–1978 (Singapore: Graduates’ Christian Fellowship, 1980), 33–34, 54–55. (Call no. RSING 275.957 SNG)

C. M. Turnbull, The Straits Settlements, 1826–67: Indian Presidency to Crown Colony (London: Athlone Press, 1972), 17. (Call no. RSING 959.57 TUR-[HIS])

Ernest C.T. Chew and Edwin Lee, eds., A History of Singapore (Singapore: Oxford University Press, 1991), 299–300. (Call no. RSING 959.57 HIS-[HIS]) 

The information in this article is valid as at 2019 and correct as far as we are able to 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.


Abdullah, Munshi, 1797-1854
Authors, Malay--Singapore--Biography