Tales from the Malay Annals: A Brief Introduction

by Alvin Chua

The Malay Annals (known in Malay as Sejarah Melayu) is one of the most important works of traditional Malay literature. This work is known also as Sulalatus Salatin, which translates as Genealogy of Kings. This is an indication of the primary concern of the Malay Annals, i.e. the rulers of Melaka, the most famous kingdom in Malaysia’s history.

The extent of the Melakan Sultanate during the fifteenth century. Image: Wikimedia Commons, Gunawan Kartapranata (CC BY-SA 3.0)

A fairly large number of manuscripts of the Malay Annals have survived till this day. Some of these are found in Malaysia, under the custodianship of either the Perpustakaan Negara Malaysia (National Library of Malaysia) or the Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka (Institute of Language and Literature). The majority of manuscripts, however, are kept in libraries or institutions outside Malaysia. According to a 1967 article by Roolvink, 11 manuscripts are held by the United Kingdom, 12 by the Netherlands, five by Indonesia, and one by Russia. Although the majority of the manuscripts are late copies dating to the nineteenth century, the fact that so many manuscripts were produced reflects the high regard in which the Malay Annals was held.

The Malay Annals was originally written in Classical Malay in the Old Jawi script (a script adapted from Arabic for the writing of the Malay language). Subsequently, the work has been Romanised, and translated. The first English translation of the Malay Annals, for example, was made by John Leyden, and was published posthumously in 1821. It may be mentioned that in addition to the better-known English translations of the Malay Annals, there is also an incomplete French one. It’s lengthy title, Le Sadjarah malayou (l’arbre généalogique malais), ou, Histoire des radjas et sultans malais : depuis les origines jusqu’à la conquête de Malaka par Alphonse d’Albuquerque, en 1511 translates as The Sejarah Melayu (The Malay Family Tree), Or, History of the Malay Rajas and Sultans: From the Origins to the Conquest of Melaka by Afonso de Albuquerque, in 1511.


Frontispiece of a Jawi edition of the Malay Annals. Image: Wikimedia Commons (public domain).  

There are a number of questions surrounding the Malay Annals that have yet to be fully answered. For instance, the exact date of the text’s composition is unknown. According to Winstedt, the oldest copy of the Malay Annals is the Raffles MS No. 18, dating to 1612. Winstedt goes on to argue that the Raffles MS No. 18 was rewritten and compiled from an older manuscript, which he believes dates to before 1536. This manuscript is also believed to be the one closest to the original version of the text. Incidentally, the Raffles MS No. 18 resides today in London, at the Library of the Royal Asiatic Society.

The identity of the author of the Malay Annals is another unsolved mystery. Winstedt believes that the author of the original text was a Melakan at the court of Sultan Mahmud Shah, who ruled Melaka when it was conquered by the Portuguese in 1511. Winstedt is of the opinion that the writer survived the fall of the city, and that he continued writing until 1535. It is generally agreed that in 1612, the Bendahara Paduka Raja of Johor, Tun Muhammad bin Tun Ahmad, better-known as Tun Sri Lanang, was commissioned by Raja Bongsu (the future Sultan Abdullah Ma’ayat Shah of Johor) to rewrite, revise, and edit the Malay Annals.

The Malay Annals (Raffles MS No. 18) contains 31 chapters, beginning with a brief preface praising Allah, the Prophet, and his companions, as well as detailing the circumstances in which the manuscript was written. The story proper begins with Iskandar Zulqarnain (commonly identified as Alexander the Great), to whom the rulers of Melaka trace their ancestry, and ends with ‘Alauddin Ri’ayat Shah, the first Sultan of Johor. Apart from the rulers of Melaka, the pages of the Malay Annals are filled with many colourful characters, some of whom have become household names in Malaysia.

An artist’s impression of Sultan Mansur Shah’s palace, displayed at Gallery B, National Museum, Malaysia. © Museum Volunteers, JMM. Photographed by Cheong Weng Onn.

Despite its focus on the Melakan rulers, the Malay Annals is much more than a mere royal genealogy. This work sheds light on various aspects of the Melakan Sultanate, including its administration, foreign relations, economy, as well as social norms and customs. Having said that, it should also be noted that the Malay Annals was not meant to be a faithful record of historical events, and that many of its stories ought to be taken with a pinch of salt.

Still, the Malay Annals is a significant piece of work, not only as a work of Malay literature, but also for the information about the Melakan Sultanate it contains, and the strong influence it has exerted on the development of the Malay civilisation. Therefore, in 2001, the Malay Annals, following its nomination by Dato’ Haji A. Aziz Deraman, the former Director-General of Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka,was inscribed on UNESCO’s Memory of the World Register.

The ‘Tales from the Malay Annals‘ series on this blog will look at some of the stories contained within this manuscript. Do look out for these articles.

References

Raslin, A. B. & Effah, I. Z. (2013) ‘Sulalatus Salatin: Karya Agung Melayu di Institusi Simpanan Dunia’ in Seminar 400 Tahun Sulalatus Salatin. Kuala Lumpur, 29-30 October 2013.

Roolvink, R. (1967) The Variant Versions of the Malay Annals. Bijdragen tot de Taal-, Land- en Volkenkunde, 123(3), pp. 301-324.

Sejarah Melayu [Cheah, B. K. (comp.), Abdul Rahman, Hj. Ismail (transcr.), 2009. Sejarah Melayu. Kuala Lumpur: The Malaysian Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society.]

UNESCO, Memory of the World, n.d.. Sejarah Melayu (The Malay Annals). [Online]
Available at: http://www.unesco.org/new/en/communication-and-information/memory-of-the-world/register/full-list-of-registered-heritage/registered-heritage-page-8/sejarah-melayu-the-malay-annals/
[Accessed 24 March 2020].

UNESCO, 2012. Memory of the World. Glasgow: HarperCollins Publishers Ltd..

Winstedt, R. O. (1938) The Malay Annals Or Sejarah Melayu. Journal of the Malayan Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, 16(3), pp. 1-226.

Author: Museum Volunteers, JMM

Museum Volunteers, JMM Taking the Mystery out of History

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