Malay used by English country traders of the 18th century

by George Miller


This paper investigates the way Malay was used as a means of communication between English country traders and the Malay states.  It also examines several examples in Malay literature which refer to these same country traders.

Increasing numbers of English ‘country’ traders entered the archipelago between 1750 and 1800 as part of the growing trade of the English East India Company between India, Southeast Asia and China.  Though the country traders were independent of the Company, they played an important link in this trade.  The Company was extending its territory and influence on the sub-Continent at this time.  As well, it was attempting to meet the increasing demand for tea in England through its factory in Canton.  Trade to and through Southeast Asia was a vital part of this growing trade triangle.

The ‘country trade’ was the term applied to the trade around the coast of India and within Asia itself.  In contrast, the Company itself had a monopoly of the trade between Asia and Europe.

Because the country traders were not Company servants, they are mentioned infrequently and coincidentally in the records of the Dutch and English East India Companies at this time, the archives of which have been the main source for the history of the period.  As a consequence, apart from a number of notable exceptions, the country traders have remained largely opaque figures in the imperial history of the time.

Is it possible through an examination the language used by country traders to communicate with the Malays and the references about them in Malay literature to throw some light on these marginal but nevertheless historically important figures?

Malay may be divided into three types:1

• First, the Malay spoken in traditional Malay communities; called by linguists, ‘inherited Malay’.  This is the language spoken and written by ordinary people in those Sultanates on either side of the Straits of Malacca and also those on the East coast of Borneo.  Regional variations also existed across the archipelago.

• Second, ‘literary Malay’, written by priests and court scribes.

• Third: ‘pasar’, ‘bazaar’ or ‘low’ Malay used as a trade language.  Pasar Malay was the lingua franca of the archipelago, used not only between foreigners and Indonesians, but by people of different language groups within the archipelago.

In the 18th century Malay was important, indeed vital for trade.  Trade, and presumably other forms of contact such as diplomatic and political, could not be conducted without Malay.  (Though Portuguese was used in several areas).  As Thomas Bowrey wrote in 1701, “the Malayo tongue, [was] so absolutely necessary to trade in those seas.”.2  Other writers too reiterate the importance of Malay.  Marsden writing in 1812 said Malay was not used in India but “is known only to those merchants and seamen who are engaged in what is denominated the Eastern trade”.3  Francis Light was made first Superintendent of Penang because the EICo recognised, among other qualifications, “his knowledge of the Malay language.”.4


Perhaps the first issue we should address is the method of Romanisation by the English at that time.  Romanisation was then a personal matter, and in several examples we can see the absence of any standardised rules for transliterating from Jawi.  Thomas Bowrey, an early English trader (at the end of the 17thC), was probably the first to Romanise for English speakers.5  The Dutch may have done it using their own spelling, and later Dutch forms of romanisation may be seen in editions of the Hikayat Pelanduk Jenaka and the Hikayat Hang Tuah.  Bowrey published his Malay dictionary in 1701 and in it did not use Jawi.  He set out the reasons why he used Latin characters, as well as his ‘rules’ for Romanisation.

The following examples of early Romanisation are taken from Bowrey and from Thomas Forrest, another country trader who was active in the second half of the 18th century.  Modern Romanisation and English translations are provided.


“Brapa de billecan etoo”

(Berapa dibelikan itu)

[For how much did you buy that?]

“Sebab deoran ada satoo jenis pandee dea soda tingal dungan deoran daen dea carja”.

(Sebab dia orang ada satu jenis pandai, dia sudah tinggal dengan dia orang dan dia kerja).

[Because they were of the same trade he remained with them and worked]


Thomas Forrest provides several examples of spoken Malay in his Voyage to New Guinea.6  The voyage was undertaken in 1774-1776 and the work published in 1780.  In an argument over the sale of a corra-corra (outrigger-type of boat), Forrest quotes a disgruntled Malay as saying:

“Billa corocoro, tida mow bili, tida mow jual”

(Belah kora-kora, tidak mau beli, tidak mau jual).

[Split the kora-kora, I will neither buy nor sell it].

Forrest provides other examples of his Malay Romanisation.  He taught the wife of one of the rulers of Mindanao a “Malay stanza”:

“Ambo jugo burra bansi, bansi,
Dudu debowa batang,
Ambo jugo, ma nanti, nanti,
Manapo tidado datang.”

(Hamba juga bura bangsi, bangsi
Duduk dibawah batang,
Hamba juga, menanti, nanti,
Mengapa tidak (da?) datang)

[ I play on a flute, a flute,
Seated beneath a branch
I wait and wait for you,
Why don’t you come?]

(In Bengkulu the ‘a’ sound at the end of a word was sometimes pronounced as an ‘o’ sound).

Another ‘couplet’ which Forrest quotes is the following:

“Inchy piggy mandi, dekkat mulo sungy,
Scio mow be-jago, scio mow be-nanty.”
(Enche pergi mandi, dekat mula sungai,
Saya mau berjaga, saya mau bernanti)

[You go to bathe near the mouth of the river
I want to watch-over you, I want to wait for you].

Or as Forrest in his florid, Georgian English translated it:

“When in the flood my fair shall glide,
Her distant guardian I’ll abide”.

Gradually the rules for Romanisation became standardised both in the Dutch and English systems, until in 1972, Malaysia and Indonesia reached agreement on a standard spelling system, Ejaan yang disempurnakan.7  So the Romanisation which had begun, at least in the English context, with the country trader Thomas Bowrey’s form in 1701 had finally superseded the Jawi system.  Jawi has been virtually eliminated from use in Malay and Indonesian except for Islamic material and in the reading of traditional manuscripts by scholars.  Is this cultural imperialism, or just simply a natural adaptation of a more efficient way of writing? The same question could be asked about the replacement of Chinese characters for writing Vietnamese by Latin characters using a system devised by French missionaries, or the disappearance of Arabic characters for writing Turkish.


Pasar Malay

How do we identify pasar Malay? It is considered a much more simplified form, for its use only for trade reduced communication needs.  The language would be ‘grammatically simpler’ and ‘lexically reduced’.8

Adelaar and Prentice say it differs from literary Malay in “a reduced morphology and in possessive constructions where the possessor precedes the possessed item and is linked to it by a form of ‘punya’”.9  There is also much use of ‘sama’ and plural pronouns derived from singular pronouns by the addition of ‘orang’.10  Prentice gives the following examples as comparisons:

“He will give the cloth to his wife”.

Dia mau kasi itu kain sama dia punya bini.  (Pasar Malay)

Dia akan memberikan kain itu kepada isterinya.  (Standard Malay)

Other features of pasar Malay include use of ter- and ber- as the only original affixes:

• ada indicating progressive aspect;

• reduced forms of ini and itu;

• reduced form of pergi to mean ‘towards’, as well as ‘to go’;

• causative constructions using kasih/beri or bikin/buat plus the verb.

In the above examples used by Bowrey and Forrest , the language is idiomatic, and it is not literary.  Indeed, Bowrey’s examples are probably totally verbal, because Marsden said Bowrey “appears to have been entirely ignorant of the written language”.11  Is it typical of the type of Malay used by country traders in verbal conversation with Malays? Because of Bowrey’s ignorance of the written languages, his examples are probably the best evidence of the language spoken between the country traders and the local Malays.  Many more examples need to be studied before a definite answer can be given.  Are they available?.

In Forrest’s account of his voyage to New Guinea and the Moluccas there are several occasions in Eastern Indonesia and the southern Philippines where he makes the comment that such and such a person spoke good Malay.  It is noteworthy that an Englishman in the Malay archipelago is judging people’s Malay.  For the most part Forrest is not a judgemental person and appears to be completely at home in Malay society.  It has to be concluded that many people he met did not speak good Malay.  Pasar Malay was therefore the language used as far as the islands off Papua and in the court of Mindanao.12

‘Inherited’ Malay

While it is understandable that the country traders would use pasar Malay, the lingua franca, is there evidence they knew other forms as well? The Hikayat Nakhoda Muda, one of the texts available on the MCP, could be considered in the category of ‘inherited’ Malay.  In this work, written in 1788, there are a few stanzas of conversation, though they are as told by one of the participants several years after the actual event.  The conversation is part of an account of a visit, again involving the country trader Captain Thomas Forrest, to Semangka in southern Sumatra.  Forrest requests provisions from the local Malay community, led by Kai Damang.  The provisions are provided after approval is granted by the Dutch sergeant.

“Maka berkata kapitan [i.e.  Forrest] itu: ‘Kjai Demang, tolong pada hamba! Mintak tjarikan hamba ajam atawa itik atawa kambing akan bekal hamba belajar’.

Serta didengar Kjai Demang kata surian itu dengan koperal serta kapitan itu, maka kata Kjai Demang: ‘Baiklah, kapitan! Hamba tolong, tetapi hamba minta djandji hari pagi.  Kalau boleh hamba tolong, djangan kapitan suka.  Kalau tiada boleh hamba tolong, djangan pulak kapitan gusar pada hamba.’”13

Here we see a fairly simple form of Malay, (unlike the formal, court letters discussed below), e.g.  “akan bekal hamba belajar” - “for my provisions for sailing”, though the formal ‘hamba’ ‘serta’ and the punctuation word ‘maka’, are employed.  There are also colloquial forms of words; ‘atawa’, together with (possibly) ‘mintak’, ‘pulak’, and the obsolete ‘surian’ (sersan = sergeant).  This example can only be marginally relevant to our quest for language associated with country traders, because it is not direct speech, but at least it is an account of an event involving a country trader, given by a Malay several years after the event and as recorded and written down by an English official.

There is likely to be more direct evidence of the language used by country traders in the Light collection of manuscripts held at the School of Oriental and African Studies.  This collection has not been consulted for this article, but there have been a number of articles written about this material which include texts of actual documents.14

An example of ‘standard’ or inherited Malay of the time from the Light collection is that recorded in letters to an English EICo servant who had returned to England from Bencoolen with the two daughters.  The letters are from his Malay mistress, the mother of his daughters.  It is not the high Malay of the decorated letters, the Surat Emas, (see below) but neither is it the pasar Malay of Bowrey.

For example:

“Melainkan saya minta’ ampun pada Allah minta selamat-selamat umur tuan panjang sama-sama tuan punya anak, dan saya kirim cium sama anak saya keduanya”.15

However, here we can see several of the characteristics of pasar Malay identified by Prentice, such as the use of ‘sama’ and ‘punya’.

As Kratz comments in his article from which the above extract is taken, in a great deal of the history written about the British in the archipelago at this time, we learn many facts about trade and politics, but little about the private interaction of the servants of the company and the country traders with the local people.  Hopefully by studying the Malay writing of the period, such as the above-quoted letter, we obtain a better picture of this interaction.

Classical Malay

One example of a letter in the classical form is the official letter written by the pretender to the Sultanate of Tidore, Sultan Nuku, in 1785 addressed to the British Governor of Bengkulu requesting good relations and assistance in Nuku’s campaign against the Dutch.16  It includes most of the formal styles of classical Malay letters.  There are elaborately decorated headings, a seal (cap), extensive use of Islamic terms in Arabic and elaborate personal puji-pujian.  This is not the language that the country traders would have used in daily conversation.  Nevertheless, we know at least two country traders did have the ability to write such letters in classical Malay.

In this particular Tidore letter two English captains are mentioned, Captain Douglas of the Sea Queen and a ‘Kapitan P-a-r-s’, which could be Captain Forrest.17  It is stated that in about 1778, ‘Kapitan P-a-r-s’ wrote a letter to the present Sultan’s father.  This was just about the time Forrest was on his voyage to the Moluccas.  The writer wrote “sweet” Malay:

“Maka tertulis dalamnya bahwa Kompeni Inggris mau hendak masuk bersahabatkan dengan Tuan Sultan di Maluku.  Istimewah pula menyebutkan di dalam warkah nya itu segala perkataan yang sangat indah-indah dan kalam yang amat manis cita rasanya”.

It is to be remembered too, that country traders were frequently employed in carrying such letters between the Sultans of the Malay States and the English Governor-General in India, or other servants of the English East India Company, such as the Governor at Bencoolen.

It is known that an experienced country trader such as Francis Light could communicate in all levels of Malay.  There is an interesting contrast between two of Light’s own Malay letters in the SOAS collection which have been published.  One is to a ruler, the Sultan of Pidir, and the other is to a person of lower rank (while still of importance), the ‘saudagar raja’ or official merchant within the Sultanate of Kedah.  The first one is much more flowery.  Kratz says, “This letter, like all other letters by Light ...  is written in the best of Malay traditions and complies perfectly with the norms and rules of Malay letter writing as explained by R.J.  Wilkinson (1913).  It shows in style and appearance that Light communicated with his Malay counterparts completely within their own frame of reference”.18

“Surat tulus ikhlas muapakat yang tiada berkesudahan selagi ada cakrawala matahari dan bulan, daripada beta gurnadur yang memerintahkan di kota Bandar Pulau Pinang barang disampaikan Tuhan seru alam apalah kiranya kepada pihak sahabat beta Tunku raja Pidir yang akil, bijaksana telah masyhur kepujian sampai kemana-mana ...  .”19

The second contains less flowery language, fewer compliments and gets straight to the point.

“Surat tulus ikhlas serta kasih sayang daripada gurnadur Pulau Pinang sampai kepada sahabat beta saudagar raja ihwal surat.  Ihwal surat sahabat beta dibawa nakhoda ...  .”20


There is therefore a greater likelihood that it is through letters, rather than through traditional Malay literature as such that we learn of the forms of Malay in which country traders communicated.  Unfortunately, Malay literature provides relatively few pictures of English people, either as in general or as individuals.21  Even the portrayal of local individuals is extremely rare.22  This is why Munshi Abdullah is so important, because he is the exception to the rule.  That being the case, traditional Malay literature is a rather unrewarding place to seek for an understanding of how country traders and Malays communicated, even while Malay writers became engaged with English models of justice and education.

But there are a couple of instances when country traders are at least mentioned, Tuhfat al-nafis, Misa Melayu and Cerita Bangka.23

In the Misa Melayu ( a history of Perak), there is a short description of an unnamed English country trader, highlighting a couple of characteristics which the Malays obviously thought peculiar:24

Datang-lah Inggeris hebat yang nyata,
Dengan persembahan di-bawa-nya serta.

Mengadap Sultan yang terala,
Mengangkatkan chepiau senget kepala,
Bermacham jenis di-bawa-nya pula,
Dagangan di-bawa dari Benggala

In addition to noting that the Englishman wore his hat at a slant which he raised as a form of greeting and that he traded a variety of goods from Bengal, it is also related that he sold the Sultan two cannon of reasonable quality.

In the Tuhfat al-nafis a Malay account of the history of Riau, Johore and the Bugis of the area, we do obtain a glimpse of a couple of country traders by name, Captain Glass and Captain Geddis.  We learn that the former took an attractive young Chinese girl, Jamilah, newly converted to Islam, as a partner, and that he then appears to get involved in the politics between the Bugis and the Dutch, at that time.

Syahadan adalah sebab perang Yang Dipertuan Muda Raja Haji dengan kompeni Holanda itu sebab Tun Kecik Tun Dalam Yang Dipertuan Terengganu muafakat dengan Kapitan Gelasi mencari jalan keroskan negeri Riau, iaitu adalah Yang Dipertuan Terengganu ada menaruh seorang anak Cina yang baik rupanya anak Cina itu, baharu dimasukkannya Islam, diberinya nama Si Jamilah.  Maka dikehendaki oleh Kapitan Gelasi itu, make diberi oleh Raja Kecik Tun Dalam minta kepada Kapitan Gelasi itu membuat pokok pangkal perkelahian di Kuala Riau itu, supaya sakit hati orang-orang Riau akan kompeni Holanda itu.  .25

But as Murtagh points out, Malay literature writes mostly about people who occupied the position of authority in society.  Others were “only mentioned because they performed a specific function vital to the plot”, such as trade.26  “Thus the ships’ captains, both those named and anonymous, were seemingly more interesting for what they traded than for any features intrinsic to them as British individuals”.


Preliminary analysis would suggest that at least the most experienced English country traders in the latter part of the 18th century used, or were in some way familiar with the Malay language in all of its three forms, from the pasar Malay of Bowrey, the inherited Malay of such works as the Hikayat Nakhoda Muda to the formal court language of a Tidore Sultan’s letter.


1       Sneddon, James. The Indonesian language; its history and role in modern society. Sydney, UNSW Press, 2003: 41-41 , based on Prentice.(1978).

2       Bowrey, Thomas. A Dictionary English and Malayo, Malayo and English, to which is added some short grammar rules and directions for the better observation of the propriety and elegancy of this language ... . London, Printed by Sam Bridge for the author, 1701: xli.

3       Marsden, William. A Grammar of the Malayan Language with an introduction and praxis. London, Cox & Baylis, 1812: ii.

4       Quoted in Clodd, H.P. Malaya’s first British pioneer: the life of Francis Light. London, Luzac, 1948: 41.

5       See Bowrey, (1701).

6       Forrest, Thomas. A Voyage to New Guinea and the Moluccas from Balambangan ... . London, Printed by G. Scott, 1780. (Reprinted Kuala Lumpur, Oxford University Press, 1969, with an Introduction by D. K. Bassett). 214, 297, 298.

7       Sneddon, The Indonesian language. 128.

8       Prentice, D.J. “The Best Chosen Language”, Hemisphere 22(3): 1978; 18-23 and 22(4): 1978, 28-33.

9       Adelaar, K. Alexander and D.J. Prentice, comps., “Malay: its history, role and spread”, in Stephen A. Wurm,, eds. Atlas of Languages of Intercultural Communication in the Pacific, Asia and the Americas, volume II.1. Berlin, Mouton de Gruyter, 1996, 674.

10      Prentice (1978), 19.

11      Marsden (1812), xl.

12      See also the discussion in Sneddon (2003), 62-65.

13      Drewes, G.W.J. De Biografie van een Minangkabausen peperhandelaar in de Lampongs ... . s-Gravenhage, Nijhoff, 1961, 134-5; Marsden, W. Memoirs of a Malayan Family written by themselves ... . London, Printed for the Oriental Translation fund, 1830, 51-52. Malay Concordance Project, Hikayat Nakhoda Muda.

14      Light was a country trader for about 25 years mainly in the Western part of the archipelago before he persuaded the EICo to found Penang in 1786. He switched to become a Company servant and was appointed the first Superintendent of the island.

15      Kratz, E. Ulrich. “Like a fish gasping for water: the letters of a temporary spouse from Bengkulu”. Indonesia and the Malay World, 34:100, Nov. 2006; 269.

16      Gallop, Annabel Teh. Golden Letters; writing traditions of Indonesia. Surat Emas; budaya tulis di Indonesia. London, The British Library, 1991. 38-39, 129-130.

17      Gallop, Golden Letters. 129-130. (Romanisation by E.Ulrich Kratz)

18      Kratz, E.U. “Some Malay letters on Trade”. Indonesia Circle, No.44: Nov.1987; 11.

19      Kratz, Malay letters on Trade. 12.

20      Kratz, Malay letters on Trade. 14.

21      See discussion in Braginsky, Vladimir and Ben Murtagh, eds. The Portrayal of Foreigners in Indonesian and Malay Literatures; essays on the ethnic “Other”. Lewiston, The Edwin Mellen Press, 2007. 15 et.seq.

22      Braginsky and Murtagh, Portrayal of Foreigners, 163.

23      Braginsky and Murtagh, Portrayal of Foreigners, 123.

24      Raja Chulan. Misa Melayu. Kuala Lumpur, Pustaka Antara, 1966; 166. Misa Melayu, Malay Concordance Project,

25      Raja Ali Haji. Tuhfat al-Nafis. Kuala Lumpur, Yayasan Karyawan dan Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka, 1998; 244.

26      Braginsky and Murtagh, Portrayal of Foreigners, 160.