This beautiful royal Malay letter 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 13 golden lines pay effusive compliments to Napoleon III but convey little else. 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.” It is most likely that the French envoy named in the letter, Charles de Montigny, who in 1857 was 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 is an exemplar of the courtly Malay art of letter writing. At the top is the kepala surat (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 puji-pujian (opening compliments), 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 Malay kemudian 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.
References: Annabel Gallop, “A ‘Golden letter’ in Malay to Napoleon III," Asian and African Studies Blog, August 22, 2013, http://britishlibrary.typepad.co.uk/asian-and-african/2013/08/a-golden-letter-in-malay-to-napoleon-iii.html.
Note: British Library manuscript reference number: Or 16126
Place: Europe; France; Southeast Asia; Malaysia; Johor; Southeast Asia; Singapore
Institution: The British Library
Physical description: 1 folio ; 510 x 385 millimeters