weblogUpdates.ping Taneak Jang, Rejang Land, Tanah Rejang http://rejang-lebong.blogspot.com Taneak Jang, Rejang land, Tanah Rejang: LIKE A FISH GASPING FOR WATER: THE LETTERS OF A TEMPORARY SPOUSE FROM BENGKULU 1



Author: E. Ulrich Kratz
DOI: 10.1080/13639810601130119
Publication Frequency: 3 issues per year
Published in: journal Indonesia and the Malay World, Volume 34, Issue 100 November 2006 , pages 247 - 280

Publication Cover


The article introduces six Malay letters from 1784 and 1785 which were sent by Ence' Lena of Bengkulu to John Marsden, the elder brother of William Marsden. The letters express in moving words the personal loss and dislocation of a local woman, whose spouse of many years has left her to return to Europe, taking with him two of their three children. The documents are important for several reasons: they give a personal voice to a late 18th-century Muslim female individual from West Sumatra; they contribute to our knowledge of the Malay epistolary in general and provide a historical context to the nature and uses of the Malay language in particular; they throw light on an aspect of British and Asian relations for which we lack contemporary accounts in European languages; they bring the day-to-day life of British settlements around the Bay of Bengal in the late 18th century into focus; and, last but not least, they raise challenging questions about the lives of John and William Marsden.

1 1This article has its origins in an unpublished working paper presented at the 17th KITLV International Workshop on Manuscripts from insular South-East Asia: epistolography, 21–25 January 2002 in Leiden, the Netherlands.

Even before the 19th century, the British had always - despite the might of the presence of the Dutch - shown a definite, if at times sporadic, interest in certain islands in Southeast Asia, for example in parts of the north Moluccas2 and Sumatra. British relations with Aceh are another case in point, as is the East India Company settlement of Bencoolen in West Sumatra. Apart from Java, this was the only region of what is now Indonesia where Britain, albeit through the Honourable East India Company, held territorial control over a protracted period of time.3

The British interest in the islands has been reflected in a succession of significant scholarly publications covering a wide range of fields. The role of the British in West Sumatra between 1685 and 1825, for instance, has been clearly documented and thoroughly discussed in a series of studies by John Bastin (1965) and his then student Jeya Kathirithamby-Wells (1977) who took full advantage of available British records. In a more recent period of greater British interest in Indonesia, money was spent on restoring what is left of 'British' architecture in Bengkulu, to give Bencoolen its present Indonesian name. Only a few years ago, a useful history of the Honourable East India Company's garrison on the West Coast of Sumatra was published by Alan Harfield (1995).

The initial British interest in a west Sumatran presence seems to have been dictated largely by strategic considerations which sprang from the 18th century competition and rivalry between Britain, the Netherlands and France since, financially, the settlement in Bengkulu seems to have been a drain on the Company's purse. Always showing more promise than results, it was unhealthy and, in terms of promotion and social life, undesirable to live in. As Kathirithamby-Wells (1977: 214) writes: 'Within the Archipelago itself, the commercial potential of the West Coast was limited by its geographical position and the development of “country trade” in the region.' Walter Ewer, its Commissioner from 1800 to 1805, had nothing but contempt for the place and its people, the corruption, private profiteering, moral decay and general decadence (Bastin 1965: 96-119). Even the American, Salem-born, sailor and later ship's captain John Blatchford (1865) who had had the misfortune to have been caught off the East Coast of the United States during the War of Independence and consequently found himself doing forced labour in the pepper plantations of the British East India Company in Bangkahulu (as Bengkulu was referred to in Malay documents of the time), has nothing at all to say in his brief memoirs about actual life on the West Coast of Sumatra. The surrender to the Dutch of what was left of British interests in Bengkulu in the Anglo-Dutch Treaty of London of 18244 must have come as a relief to the authorities, as Crawfurd (1971: 47-49 sub Bencoolen) summed up so clearly in the 1850s.

Naturally, there have been passing references to Bengkulu in the books of most British writers dealing with the broader region and the times. But while we know a considerable amount about the price and movement of pepper, mortality rates and the state of the military and administration of Bengkulu, we do not know that much about actual people - be they British or local - and their lives, other than the odd aside and anything that can be inferred and read between the lines. Leaving aside Ewer's comments suggesting a collusion of local British and Malay interests at the expense of the East India Company, there is practically nothing about the commercial and private interaction of representatives of the East India Company and other European callers - the 'country traders' (Parry 2000: 67-69) - with the local people, societies and systems of government and trade.

Ewer's disparaging view of the expatriate community notwithstanding, not least among the late 18th century British residents of the Sumatran West Coast was William Marsden. An employee of the Company in Bengkulu during the 1770s, William Marsden was to become Britain's most famous 19th century scholar of all things Malay. His revised and enlarged History of Sumatra of 1811 (Marsden 1975), which had been first published in 1783, and A dictionary and grammar of the Malayan language of 1812 (Marsden 1984) which he had begun to compile in 1786, were considered highly important and influential by 19th century international scholarship at large. William Marsden spent almost nine years of his life in Bengkulu, between 1771 and 1779. He was 16 years old when he arrived there 'fresh from school', and joined his elder brother John 'in whose family I afterwards lived as long as the routine of the Company's service allowed of his continuing to reside at the head settlement: and from his society and example I derived inestimate advantage. The friendship that thence further subsisted between us, during the fifteen years his valuable life was spared, was to me the source of pure and uninterrupted happiness' (Marsden 1838: 23). John had been in Bengkulu for four years already when William arrived and the two stayed very close. While William remained stationed at Fort Marlborough in Bengkulu, eventually to become a Principal Secretary at the local office of the East India Company, John became the Resident of several out-stations of the Company before he returned to Britain for good in 1783, only to die in 1786. When William returned to London in 1789, he set himself up in business as an agent of 'Eastern interests'.5 Although the precise details are not very clear at present, initially he seems to have been in partnership with his brother John. William also began to pursue what turned out to be an extremely successful career in public life and as an independent scholar.

The Dictionary of national biography of 1893 (Lee 1893, vol. 36: 206-7 sub Marsden) devotes nearly three columns of its space to the life and achievements of William Marsden, 'orientalist and numismatist'. Yet, Bastin's verdict of 1965 that 'a biography of Marsden is urgently needed' (Bastin 1965: 100, n.306) still stands 40 years on.6 Basically, we know nothing about the man who came from an impoverished Irish family and obtained considerable wealth and social standing after his return from the Sumatran West Coast; the man who was First Secretary of the Admiralty in the days of Nelson and Trafalgar - the official notification of Nelson's death was addressed to him; the owner of rich collections of manuscripts and coins; the major donor to the British Museum and one of the founders of its numismatic collections; the member and dignitary of prestigious learned societies who had worked as a clerk between the ages of 16 and 24 years and had no academic qualification beyond school level; the author of important books on the Malay world; the member of the circle around the towering Sir Joseph Banks; the treasurer and vice-president of the Royal Society; the man who, after Trafalgar, handed a considerable government pension back to the nation for lack of want.

We know even less about his elder brother John, but for the little William Marsden has told us. He mentions his brother John twice by name in a very detached manner in his History of Sumatra. On other occasions he refers to him as the 'Resident of Laye'. Other than the quototation above, there is no further mention of his family, nor is there anything more personal.

After his death in 1836, Marsden's widow edited and published his Memoirs (Marsden 1838) which had been written purposely for public consumption. The Memoirs give an account of his life in Sumatra and of his later considerable academic and public achievements. Printed and distributed privately, this is a highly public document in the spirit of the times in which both Marsden and his widow were concerned to evoke a 19th century image of high-minded nobility of spirit and soul. According to these Memoirs work in Bengkulu was easy, promotion was quick, and life was bearable even if it lacked the beauty of culture and sufficient (British) female charm. There is nothing about his own, William's, daily life; we do not know how he learnt Malay or how he communicated with the local citizens. There are excerpts from letters dating from the time John spent in England and France after his return from Bengkulu, but these, like the Memoirs, ooze such quantities of nobility of spirit and soul that they are unhelpful if one is in search of anything specific, let alone genuinely personal. More generally, there is nothing more detailed about the life of the European community than a very brief reference to some amateur dramatics which John seems to have organised and in which William took part, and for which he even wrote some lines. And, as is also to be expected by now, there is no acknowledgement of the fact that a high percentage of European men living in Bengkulu had local consorts and that their offspring were employed by the Company in due course; and there is nothing about the particular local dynamics of such a situation which Ewer describes contemptuously.

The public values of the Victorian age are an important aspect to consider in the 19th century presentation of even late 18th-century events and relations between Europeans and non-Europeans. The values of that age, it would seem, did not allow any more for an acknowledgement of the nature of an interaction which was based on a considerable amount of mutual respect and recognition. There was no place for recognition of the fact that many British men staying for years and decades abroad lived a life quite different from that postulated by society back home. Nor was there acceptance of the fact that many of these men had gained status and position abroad by adjusting to the social, cultural, political and economic system they found in place - albeit conscious of their own, different identity and the distinct role they played within their host environment - and by not imposing ill-suited European concepts and values on their reluctant, bewildered or bemused hosts.

In writing as he did, William Marsden was of course a representative of a time whose emphasis on the public persona and on public propriety would suppress anything that was considered private, or did not conform with public perceptions and the expectations of the age. In his Malay grammar of 1812, for example, he quotes from a letter from the Sultan of Trengganu to Francis Light. In this letter the Sultan accuses the captain of a European ship of deceit for gaining access to the country on production of a letter from the Governor-General in Bengal, allegedly in need of repairing his ship, but actually for the purpose of smuggling opium into Trengganu, thus cheating the ruler out of the revenue which was his by right.7 While the original Malay letter of complaint itself gives the full name of the captain, Marsden only reproduces the first initial of his family name in his own translation and feels it necessary to add 'It may be presumed that the letter in the Governor's name was an imposition' (Marsden 1984: 140). Clearly, the inference is that no government would issue any documents to people of doubtful character, yet one knows that it was not unusual for European captains to carry signed letters from their rulers, be they Kings, Queens or Governor-Generals, extending warmest wishes and friendship while expressing a keen interest in good trading relations, and seeking protection and assistance for their citizens, as and when requested.8 However, by concealing the captain's full name, Marsden seems to suggest that the sultan's accusation should not be taken at face value9 while, at the same time, distancing the East India Company from any involvement in the violation of well-recognised and long-accepted rules.

From what we can gather about British Bengkulu, most representatives of the East India Company acted as 'lords paramount' (Marsden 1984: 213), while 'managing the natives by conciliating methods', as Crawfurd quotes Marsden (Crawfurd 1971: 48 sub Bencoolen). In the case of Bengkulu this meant that many of these representatives were said to have married into the local aristocracy (nothing less of course would have done, if such liaisons could not be avoided) and distinguished themselves by their compliance with local laws and by their knowledge of local languages and customs. I consider it indicative of the way in which relations worked in the Malay world of Bengkulu in the late 18th century that John Marsden was able to provide his brother with a full translation of the Rejang code from 1779 (Marsden 1984: 218-30), and that William's and John's friend John Crisp10 did the same with the Pasumah code as late as 1807 (Marsden 1984: 230-37). Ewer, writing in 1800, does however express a different view on this state of affairs and refers to Bengkulu as 'this sink of iniquity and corruption' (Harfield 1995: 367).

It can be safely stated that most 18th-century English-language sources, like those in Dutch and other European languages, tend to be rather dry about the 'trivia' of relations between Europeans and Malays in the wider sense, yet this does not mean that information does not exist elsewhere. Overlooked by historians, there has always been an extremely large collection of Malay documents which are crucial not just for a more balanced and comprehensive view of Bengkulu in the late 18th century, but precisely also for what they have to tell us realistically about relationships, personal and professional, and about the actual life of real individuals in a pre-imperial age. However, in order to take full advantage of all this material, more primary research, which does not treat data as secondary, is needed. The documents, which belong to a collection that perhaps misleadingly has become known as the Light Letters, are part of the much larger Marsden Collection of manuscripts, which was presented to King's College London, in 1835, and which in 1916 was transferred to SOAS upon its foundation. There the documents are catalogued as MS 40320.11 Marsden himself published a few documents from MS 40320 in his Malay praxis of 1812 (Marsden 1984), and described the collection in his own catalogue of 1827:

Malayan Correspondence, consisting chiefly of letters from the Rajahs and principle native merchants of the Peninsula and neighbouring islands, addressed to Capt. Francis Light and Capt. James Scott of Pulo Pinang. In several Portfolios.

(Marsden 1827: 304)

The 1977 catalogue of Indonesian manuscripts in public collections in Great Britain has this to say about MS 40320:

A collection of several hundred Malay letters, in 11 bundles. Consisting primarily of correspondence received (with some copies of letters sent) by Capt. Francis Light and Capt. James Scott of Penang from (and to) rulers and dignitaries of Malay sultanates in the A.D.1780s and 1790s. But there are also items from Aceh, Jambi, Indragiri, Minangkabau, Palembang, Pedir, Siak, and other places in Sumatra, from Brunei and Sambas, and from Tidore. Various papers, various sizes.

(Ricklefs and Voorhoeve 1977: 162)12

It is worth noting that neither Marsden nor the authors of the 1977 catalogue refer specifically to West Sumatran documents.

The collection has not been looked at it in detail since Marsden went through a considerable number of the documents (all marked in pencil 'Read' and partly annotated with pencilled comments) and selected a few for reproduction in his Malay praxis in 181213, although the Dutch scholar Klinkert published a facsimile of one of the West Sumatran documents at the turn of the century (Klinkert 1903).14 Both Kathirithamby-Wells and Bonney, the author of a study of Kedah between 1771 and 1821 (Bonney 1974), seem not to have been aware of this collection of original source material. Nor has the collection - which also includes contemporary translations, in the most generous sense, of some of the documents - been used by other scholars of the British involvement in Southeast Asia who have instead tended to rely solely on British archival records. The documents relating to West Sumatra and Bengkulu, many of which are undated, seem to come from the 1770s and 1780s. The Bengkulu documents are found mainly in volume 2 of MS 40320, with a few kept in volume 11. Most of the letters are addressed to British officials, among them the botanist Charles Miller and Resident and later Deputy Governor John Crisp, both publicly called friends by William Marsden. Broadly, the letters deal with trade matters and the contractual relations between local rulers and dignitaries and the East India Company. A few of the letters bring the important role of traditional custom to the attention of the Company. The documents include, among others, a treaty with local rulers and a brief history of Aceh, as well as a genealogy and history of the rulers and peoples of Sumatra.

Information on how the Marsden collection came into being is almost non-existent. It can be assumed that the documents relating to Penang were kept originally by Francis Light himself up to his death in Penang in 1794, but it is unknown how they came to be in the personal possession of William Marsden, who left Southeast Asia in 1779 and is said never to have returned, although this may need further research on account of a reference in one of the documents to be discussed here. Presumably the documents which hail from Bengkulu - and which are totally unrelated to the Penang material - were obtained directly by John and William Marsden while in the region, and with the help of friends and former colleagues, most of whom William Marsden represented in London (if we follow Ewer (Harfield 1995: 366), he did so not always in the best interests of the Company).

Marsden mentions in his own Memoirs that soon after his arrival he became fluent in the Malay epistolary. This does not explain, however, why the approximately 200 documents relating to the west Sumatran coast are found in the treasure chest of MS 40320 together with the huge number of documents relating to Penang, other than that they had their origins in the same environment of economic, political, and social contact between the Company, 'country traders', and the local population. Penang was only established after both Marsden brothers had left the then Presidency, but Capt. Elisha Trapaud for example, who was present when Light took possession of Pulau Pinang on 11 August 1786, had been a contemporary at least of John Marsden in Bengkulu. It would be surprising if Light had not visited the west Sumatran port in his earlier years as a country trader, and it is fair to assume that the Marsden brothers would have known Light from his calls at Fort Marlborough. Later, there may have been a business connection between William Marsden and Francis Light, and it may well be that William Marsden acted as an agent of Light's in London. There may also have been an even more personal contact between William Marsden and Francis Light, through Light's son William Light who is known to have been educated in England and who had a respectable (military) career, fighting in the Peninsular War and Crimea, before resigning his commission to go to Australia as a surveyor.15 It is through William Light that William Marsden may have come into possession of this huge collection of documents although, following Light's death, William Marsden may also have gained control over the collection on account of his then official position, his known scholarly interests and his knowledge of the region and his acquaintance with British people living there.16

The Bengkulu collection is extremely varied and rich, but several documents stand out particularly for their highly personal nature and their direct Marsden link.17 In total, there are six letters which are all sent by a woman, apparently from Bengkulu, who introduces herself in the opening address of each letter as Ence' Lena or, even more humbly, as Si Lena. Variously she refers to herself as living on her land right in the plains (duduk di dalam kebun di tengah padang) or in Fort Marlborough. Once she speaks of her country as negeri Pulau Perca, the traditional name for the island of Sumatra, while elsewhere the term negeri remains reserved for any references to England. The letters contain local news which cover the circumference of the Bay of Bengal, and they highlight issues which seem typical for the time and the region and which were apparent not just in Bengkulu but also in many other similar European settlements. Most importantly, however, they speak of Ence' Lena herself, of John and, to a limited degree, of William Marsden.

Generally, the letters use the polite and respectful Tuan, which is most commonly employed to address a European male. The letters are addressed to Tuan saya, Tuan Mister Marsden. The Tuan saya can be variably understood to express a polite my Lord, or Sir, or just you, Sir. However, it must be kept in mind that use of the term Tuan can imply a familiar you when used as an - intimate - form of mutual address between married people. That second form of use may well be implied by the Malay-speaking sender, although this interpetation is not supported by the rather formal use of the English address of Mr Marsden. When speaking about herself beyond the opening address, Ence' Lena does not employ the third person at all and uses the first person saya throughout.

The 'Mr Marsden' of the letters, it should be noted, is never referred to by his first name. All the same, their recipient must have been John Marsden, since we know that only John had to recuperate in St Helena on his return to Europe because he had fallen seriously ill, as is mentioned in one of the letters.

Two of the letters carry a date in 1784 and 1785 and the others must have been written close to each other during the same period, immediately following John Marsden's return to England. The documents seem to be written by more than one hand and while maintaining the conventions of letter-writing as we know them, some have a letter heading such as qaul ul-haqq. They are colloquial in a positive sense and their language is not rigidly stylised but is fresh and alive. Even where their author resorts to traditional figures of speech, these are given an individual and personal meaning. For example, Ence' Lena always humbles herself before John Marsden in a manner becoming the subject of a traditional Malay ruler, by addressing all her requests to his feet. The letters suggest that their sender was a person of some education, even if it cannot be established presently if they were put to paper by Ence' Lena personally or were perhaps written with the help of a professional scribe. The letters are not calligraphic, although some appear neater in writing than others. Some seem to have been written with a certain urgency, as they contain crossings out and late insertions in between lines, some incomplete words and scribal errors. The language of the letters betrays the West Sumatran origins of the sender as it contains some Minangkabau words such as pai for pergi (no. 60), kete' for kecil in the name of one of the girls and the frequent use of a (dangan, lapas and others) where 'standard' Malay might expect a pepet.18

A seventh letter19 to Mr Marsden from someone called Ence' Pua (p-w a), dated 12 January 1784, is full of information on local goings on following the departure of John Marsden in the previous year; and three other letters20 from a Pandita Raja of Kampung Kelawi in Bangkahulu appeal for John Marsden's support in a business dispute with the Company which has left Pandita Raja out of pocket, as the Company seems not prepared to honour agreements which had been made at a time when John Marsden still resided in Bengkulu. This paper will however deal only with the six most personal letters21.

It would appear that the six letters in question were filed slightly out of sequence and I suggest that the last two letters, MS 40320/2 no. 77 and no. 78, belong chronologically at the beginning, followed by MS 40320/2 no. 50 and no. 58 which may or may not be dated to 1784, and then followed by the letters which can be clearly dated to 1785, i.e. MS 40320/2 no. 59 and no. 60. The letters will be discussed here in their presumed chronological order, and not in the order in which the collection may have been left by William Marsden.

All six letters speak about three girls who are referred to as daughters of Ence' Lena; their names are given as Nona Kete' (the little, i.e. younger Miss) and Nona Gadang (the big, i.e. older Miss), and there is also an even older, adult daughter: Nona Nen. Nona Kete' and Nona Gadang are frequently merely called nona, i.e. Miss, which is the Malay address reserved in this context for unmarried females of European extraction, although the term has been and still is used more widely as a mark of ethnic and social distinction. The title nyonya, which is given to married females of similar distinction, comes up once, but never in connection with Ence' Lena, the mother of the two girls.

Apparently the two younger sisters were taken to England by John Marsden when he left Bengkulu. The conclusion that suggests itself is that Ence' Lena had cohabited with the recipient of these letters, and that John Marsden is the father of these three girls. Another of the letters22 also refers to a Tuan Kecil, the Young Sir, as William might have been called and referred to respectfully while staying in John's household. Yet another of the letters refers to the visit of a certain William to Fort Marlborough together with 'his woman', Polly (si Pali in the Malay), as John Crisp calls her in an English addition to one of the letters. Polly, it seems, had gone to England together with Nona Kete' and Nona Gadang and John Marsden, leaving behind two children of her own. Polly returned to Bengkulu together with the said William and stayed with Ence' Lena after William went back to England. The father of Polly's children remains unidentified and there is no suggestion that she has a husband. At present it is difficult to equate the William of this letter with William Marsden, even if such a conclusion appears tempting, given the context of Polly's journey to England and the familiarity she seems to have enjoyed while over there. Leaving aside the fact that there is no mention in William Marsden's Memoirs that he had ever gone back to Asia, the use of a first name without further address sounds out of character, unless one argues that this reflects the particular informality with which Polly and Lena, and perhaps also also his elder brother John, might have referred between themselves to young Master William. Intriguing as the reference to two children of Polly's sounds, we will not know if William Marsden produced children of his own while in Bengkulu, even if the suggestion in his Memoirs of a life of celibacy devoid of European female charm lacks impartial corroboration. It must also remain speculation whether or not Polly, 'William's woman', had sailed to England merely to chaperone John Marsden's girls, or in order to join up with William Marsden. There was some uncertainty expressed in one of the letters as to whether or not Polly, who had left her own two children behind when leaving for England, might stay on. It seems that Ence' Lena owed to Polly the first-hand accounts of how her children were looked after in, I presume, some kind of boarding establishment whose matron acted in loco parentis.

The chronologically earliest letter carries the date 7 November 1784. Together with the following one, these are probably the most intimate of the six and can only be read with sadness as one sees the growing despair of the unfortunate mother who has been separated for good from two of her daughters and who sees the first one, by whom she and John Marsden are now grandparents, leaving her as well. The first letter (MS 40320/2, no. 77) reads:

This letter and many greetings come from Ence' Lena who lives on her land in the plains in the country of Percha Island. Conveyed by Allah they will reach my master, Mr Marsden who lives in [his] country together with my children Nona Kete' and Nona Gadang. I much trust in Allah and by night and day may Allah give you, Sir and my children, the two sisters, a long life in this world.

I am sending you a couple of umbrellas and a pair of cushions, and a box filled with bonito fish and a copy of the Syair Si Lindung Delima. According to the Malays this is the syair with the best message. There is also a bundle of frangipani plants because I have not yet been able to obtain other plants as they are not in season. I can only send those to you after this letter has gone out. I am also sending Nona Kete' and Nona Gadang a sarong each and a fan each as a token that their mother still lives on this earth, and I send hugs and kisses and may they be well and have a long life on this earth. And I hope to Allah by night and by day to receive news from my master and my children, the two sisters. May the Lord Allah keep them safe in [your] country because I have had no news to date. I am asking so much of you and if you have empathy, and if you show affection for Nona Kete' and Gadang, I ask you also to mention me to your representatives who may be able to help me, because you too used the word affection to me. Certainly, I am embarrassed because you still have affection for me. I am asking so much from beneath the foot of my master. Although you are far away, in my heart it seems as if you are also in Bangkahulu. That is why I do not want to change my heart and deeds because I trust in you by night and by day for ever. You may ask other people or Mr Moore about me and my words. Furthermore, ever since you left and sailed away, Mr Crisp has helped me and was the place for me to take my problems and poverty because he too helped me. Just like Mr l-w y, when he was in Bangkahulu. There was nobody else I could ask for assistance but him, because he looked up to you and also you had been good to his offspring and now he is the commander of Pulau Pisang.

Furthermore, Nona Nen has had a son. She followed her man to Padang and when they got there, he sailed to Madras. Nen stayed in Padang and because she was already grave, she returned to Bangkahulu. After sixteen days in my house, the child arrived. Now she is looking after her bright child and shortly she will go and follow her man to Madras because two letters have arrived already, instructing her to come. Nona Nen sends her many greetings to you and her younger sisters, Nona Kete' and Nona Gadang, wishing them well and a long life on this earth. Finis.'

The second, undated, letter (MS 40320/2, no. 78) reads:

This is [from] the mother of the little Nona and Nona Gadang who lives in her garden in the plains where you, Sir, left her. May Allah convey my many greetings to the feet of my master, Mr Marsden, who resides in his country. I wish for Allah to give him and the two children his blessings and a long life in this world.

When you sailed away, there was nothing I could say to you as my heart darkened because you left me, Sir, and because the two children and I were separated; and now I ask so much of you, and please, Sir, don't be resentful towards me. When you sailed away Sir, taking the two children, it felt to me as if you were merely playing pretend. Only now do I feel the separation from you and being left on my own. I am like a fish gasping for water and without any good fortune left or right. Thinking of my fate and being all on my own, I want to ask so much of you Sir, as you said when still at home. Only now do I understand where lies good and where not. I am asking so much at the feet of my lord and if my words are excessive, please do not resent them. Now I am begging at your feet. If I had followed your words at all times, who knows I would not have been separated from you and my children. Now I am asking so much at the feet of my lord, and please, Sir, do not put me behind you. I wish you, Sir, will also remember my fate, living all on my own. Because I cannot let go of my emotions, I always want to depend on you under your feet. I ask a lot of my lord, and want to rely on you under your feet, because I cannot make your kindness to me disappear for as long as there is a soul in my body.

Then, I have hugs and kisses for my two daughters. [I am like] one moon with two suns.

If you want to help, Sir, please tell Polly not to worry. Her two children are well and safe, so that she knows and her heart is pleased.

I believe in Allah the Exalted and I may hear that my two daughters are well with the help of Allah the Exalted. And I ask so much that you, Sir, will write to Bengkulu and will not forget me and will send me news that you are well. This is what I hope from Allah the Exalted, waiting to receive good news from you, my lord. Finis.

These silver dollars are a gift from their elder sister. When you were about to sail she wanted to give a dollar each to her young sisters for their amusement. When my two children were about to sail, I had forgotten about them. I am putting them in this letter now, so that you, Sir, may give the money to them.'

The next, also undated, letter (MS 40320/2, no. 50) starts with a reprimand for John Marsden, tuan saya, for not having informed her of his illness - he had contracted smallpox during the voyage - and of his forced stay on St Helena, and that her daughters had been compelled to proceed to England without him. In this letter, she also expresses her satisfaction that he and the children have since been reunited as she had heard through other sources, and she asks him for a picture of the two, to see whether they had escaped the smallpox and what they looked like. She sends him a box with three birds of paradise, one of them hailing from Tidore.23 She apologizes for not sending more before wishing her tuan a long life and sending kisses for the girls. She also explains that since his departure she has been unwell, could not walk far and had problems with her eyesight. She also conveys greetings, and kisses for the girls, from Nyonya s-m-n24 and also from Nona Nen. She then asks for a pair of glasses for someone of about 60 years of age, i.e. Nyonya s-m-n. She explains that she gets on well with her ever since Nen was with child from Dr Martin, who has now gone to Madras. She also asks for scissors and needles and thread to be sent to her with Polly, or someone else in case Polly was to stay on. She also asks for Polly to be told that, thanks to Allah, her two children are well. She informs her tuan that Mr l-w y25 the commander of Pulau Pisang is dead and has been buried on the island. And even though her tuan might know of all this, she thought it a good idea to keep him up to date. Finally she concludes that she is sending this letter by the hand of Mr Moore26, together with a copy of Syair Si Lindung Delima.27

The fourth letter (MS 40320/2, no. 58) is also undated. It must have been sent soon after the previous one but by a different ship. It was not written as a copy of the first one, as was the custom at the time to ensure that at least one letter arrived safely, but, it seems, as an elaboration to parts of the previous one. The letter opens with greetings, and best wishes for a long life and Allah's help in this world. Basically, she writes, there is little to report other than that she continues to exist as Mr. Marsden provides for her even after his departure and she asks for Allah to redeem his kindness. She apologizes for not having any presents, neither for him nor for the two girls, because she had been in temporary difficulties. She informs him that 'Si Nen' had stayed with her and given birth to a son, while 'her man' had gone off to Madras where he was a doctor. Nen was now due to join him on Captain Granville's ship. There is also mention of Tuan Crisp, who was due to leave Bengkulu at the same time, but on a different ship. She sends her greetings and best wishes for a long life to Mr. Marsden and, with kisses, to the two girls. She asks her tuan to convey her greetings to his younger brother who, she had heard, had been to Bengal but had returned home already. She then also asks him to convey greetings to Mr. Moore.

The fifth letter (MS 40320/2 no. 59), which is dated 19th October 1785, is rather long. In it Ence' Lena acknowledges the receipt of a letter from Mr. Marsden and she expresses her relief over his recovery and safe return to England. She then informs him of Polly's return to Fort Marlborough and that Polly is staying with her. She has heard from Polly that her own children are at boarding school and are being looked after by a certain madam who treats them as if they were her own. She really wants to say much concerning her children and concludes that only Allah can redeem the kindness of this madam. She acknowledges the receipt of the portrait of the children but she asks him for a fuller picture from head to toe so that she can see how they look now and to comfort her. She then notes the arrival of William and Polly and informs him as to who is assisting William in his business and also that Polly, 'his woman', is staying with her. She conveys the devout greetings and thanks of William and Polly. Then she informs him that she had found a suitable woman for Mr. h-l-w y Junior and that she had taught that woman to do needlework, before sending her off to join Mr. h-l-w y in Krui.

She then reports to him that she earns her living by taking in the washing of various English gentlemen and by planting rice for herself and Polly, as there was no other way for them to survive, given the high price of rice in the market in Fort Marlborough. She then reminds him of his promise to look after the two children and requests him not to look for riches here in Bangkahulu, as the full stores were where he lived now. She asks him not to be angry, because in an earlier letter she had requested a picture which by then had not yet arrived despite the fact that Lucy had told her of its existence. So this request had gone off already via China, before the portraits arrived. She also says that she had asked the bearer of this letter to buy two (Chinese?) umbrellas for him. She also gave that person a small box of spices for a stew28. Sadly she did not know who to ask to take a jar of mango pickle to give to Mr. Marsden in England, as she was too embarrassed to ask any of the English gentlemen in Fort Marlborough for assistance. She conveys greetings to Mr. Marsden's younger brother and Mr. Moore and expresses her happiness that everything is well. She includes a gunny bag which she had managed to barter from an English gentleman for her daughters, for sharing out apples and pears at school. Nen, she finally informs him, has returned to Madras five months earlier.

The sixth letter (MS 40320/2, no. 60) is undated. In part it repeats some of the information of the previous one, but in addition there is more news concerning Mr. Crisp29. She informs John Marsden that Mr. Crisp had intended to return to England, had dissolved his household and given freedom to all his servants. Arriving in Madras he found no passage, fell ill and, after recovering, found himself back in Bengkulu as its 'commander'30. Ence' Lena had been asked to assist him in finding all things necessary for a new household, including servants, and she was assisting him as Mr. Marsden had instructed her: 'If Mr. Crisp asks for your assistance, help him; he may be able to help you as well. These were your words, Sir, and I have not altered them'. For his information she also tells him that she is living in Mr. Crisp's house and that he should not listen to people's malicious gossip. Furthermore, Polly had now returned and she had received the picture of the two girls. Si Nen had also come back from Madras on Mr. Granville's ship and was staying with her man at Ence' Lena's place. She apologizes for not having anything to send for a gift and asks Mr. Marsden's forgiveness, sends her greetings, and kisses to the girls. She concludes by conveying her best wishes to the Madame and again apologizes for not having anything to send but her wishes for a long life in this world.

This letter has a peculiar post scriptum written in English, which may have been added by Mr. Crisp himself, presumably at the request of Ence' Lena, who was concerned to show her own good manners by sending suitable presents to all:

PS. I have sent by Mr. Crisp 2 needlebares fillagree chints 2 pieces - muslin one piece for the two children - and a box of curry stuff which I request you do me the honour to accept and I have also sent two pairs of sleeve buttons as a present in acknowledgment of the care the Lady at the School has taken of the Children as mentioned to me by Polly. (MS 40320/2, no. 60 verso)

These, then, are the letters from Ence' Lena to John Marsden. Taken in isolation, and despite the bright spotlight they throw on aspects of life in a remote 'European' settlement, they make unsatisfactory reading, as we want to know more about the people referred to and their relationship. We cannot even guess some of their names accurately, and we have no means of judging if our conjectures are accurate. By its very nature, this is a preliminary introduction which is intended to present new material and to enable a closer and better study. Yet even allowing for all the shortcomings attributable to their present editor in attempting to translate and interpret them, these letters show what a contribution documents in non-European languages can make to our appreciation of a different time and place, and what they can tell us in human terms about the impact of this encounter on the people thus 'visited'. I would go further and state that a knowledge of documents of this kind is essential to highlight some of the issues involved in the reception and appreciation of 19th century European writing about the social, economic, political, communal and individual interaction and its local dynamics in the encounter between Europeans and members of the Malay world in the late 18th century.

The temptation is great to analyze these six letters in the greatest of details with regard to the information they offer concerning the formal and informal relationship between a European man, his local cohabitant and their offspring. What was their legal status and what were the practical consequences of such a liaison once the man returned to Europe and either chose to take those 'said to be his natural children', as many a last will had it, back to his home country or, as I suspect in Polly's case, left them behind, with or without any further provision. The difficult status of the women thus left is well illustrated, worried about being forgotten by their former partners and subject to malicious gossip, cast outside the circle they once were a part of on account of the social status and official position of their partner, but now depending on old favours and generally trying to make a living by building on their understanding of both cultures. The total unfamiliarity of what their children had to expect once in Europe, and the touching attempt to take part and assist - as did Ence' Lena when she bartered for a gunny bag - indicate, however, how little these women knew of life in Europe and the fate of their children, even after years of cohabitation with a European spouse. Yet these are mere details when we read the first two of the six known letters31 Ence' Lena wrote after her consort of many years had left her, taking with him the younger two of their three children. Given that Nona Nen was already of a marriageable age and assuming that she too was one of John Marsden's natural daughters, one must assume that he and Ence' Lena had lived together for the largest part of the sixteen or seventeen years of his stay in Bengkulu. This makes one empathize even more with the outpouring of her personal grief and pain, the moving way in which she expresses her affection for the father of her children and her absolute submission to his will, her deep faith in Allah at a time of total dislocation, and her initial desire to continue as if nothing really had happened, only to be confronted by the realization that this was impossible. Her only comfort left, it seems, was someone who shared this fate, Polly.

When first faced with the issues and emotions expressed here, matters of language use and style seem almost unimportant. They are vital, however, as they give an impression of the vibrancy of the culture Ence' Lena came from, and it cannot be stressed strongly enough that the vivid and in places colloquial tone of the letters, as well Ence' Lena's fresh and personal use of Malay, challenge any stereotyping of the perceivedly rigid and simplistic nature of Malay. The letters make an important contribution to a better understanding of the various and differing facets of the Malay written and spoken in previous centuries which, quite erroneously, tends to be considered devoid of the ability to express any private sentiment and emotion in a meaningful personal and individual way. Yet here we have the distinct voice of a late 18th century Malay woman who has been dealt an unhappy fate. For many years a true companion to the British father of her three children, she has two of them taken away before her spouse abandons her to scrape together an existence by tending paddy fields and taking in the laundry of some expatriates whenever there is an opportunity.

Anti- and post-colonial approaches to the study of the European and Asian encounter have by now retained as little credibility as the colonial approach on whose data they have remained based. Documents like these letters offer the opportunity for a different, fresh and of course critical approach to our study of the dynamics of the European and Asian encounter, and the marked change in attitude from the European respect and appreciation of the early and mid-18th century (Sweeney 1987:44-65) which still can be found in parts towards its end, to the imperialism and condescension of the 19th and early 20th centuries. Looking at the study of the epistolary over the last twenty-five years, it is obvious that we are still only at the beginning of a line of research which is bound to add totally new and different dimensions to our understanding of the past, be it with regard to European and Asian relations, or to the nature of Malay society itself, or to our understanding of the historical role of Malay as a sophisticated medium of emotional expression, communication, culture and learning.

At the core of this different and fresh approach remains the continuing study of the textual evidence in an effort to enhance our understanding of the development, range and use of the Malay language which, in its epistolary expression, varies considerably within the genre itself, depending on its own purpose, time and place, and which differs markedly from the linguistic manifestations of other textual genres. At the very least, acquaintance with these letters makes one even more reluctant to even consider the typecasting of the many and rich shades of expression found in the Malay of the manuscript tradition in a few rather simplistic and stereotypical frames.

These are working thoughts and working transcriptions which are bound to be preliminary. If they help to further discussion on how to deal with this kind of document and, furthermore, if they make the reader reconsider long-traded perceptions of the 18th century encounter between Europeans and some of the peoples of South East Asia, then William Marsden must be thanked for letting a youthful 18th century spirit not be totally suppressed by the etiquette and decorum of the imperial age. This, after all, was the life and encounter which started him on his future career as a man of society and business, of scholastic and public service. By keeping hidden among a plethora of other documents the genuine voice of an 18th century Malay female individual, he has provided the opportunity for further research across a range of disciplines designed to lead to better understanding.


Editorial conventions: round brackets are used for two separate functions, a) to give the original Jawi spellings, indicating with '-' whether or not the letters are joined; b) to indicate words or letters present in the original document which in the opinion of the editor are extraneous.


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