Saturday, 10 May 2014

Of Malay Savages

Frank Swettenham,  the first Resident-General of the Federated Malay States, writes about when he confronted an American lady's racism

One night, in the early months of this year, I sat at dinner next to a comparatively young married woman, of the type that is superlatively blonde in colour and somewhat over-ample in figure. She was indifferently dressed, not very well informed, but apparently anxious, by dint of much questioning, to improve her knowledge where possible. She was, I believe, a journalist. 

Some one must have told her that I had been in the East, and she, like most stay-at-home people, evidently thought that those who go beyond the shores of England can only be interested in, or have an acquaintance with, the foreign country wherein they have sojourned. Therefore the lady fired at me a volley of questions, about the manners and habits of the Malay people, whom she always referred to as "savages". 

I ventured to say that she must have a mistaken, or at any rate incomplete, knowledge of the race to speak of Malays as savages, but she assured me that people who were black, and not Christians, could only be as she described them. I declined to accept that definition, and added that Malays are not black. I fancy she did not believe me; but she said it did not matter, as they were not white and wore no clothes. I am afraid I began to be almost irritated, for the long waits between the courses deprived me of all shelter from the rain of questions and inconsequent remarks. 

At last, I said, "It may surprise you to hear that these savages would think, if they saw you now, that you are very insufficiently clad;" and I added, to try and take the edge off a speech that I felt was inexcusably rude, "they consider the ordinary costume of white men so immodest as to be almost indecent." 

"Indeed," said the lady, who only seemed to hear the last statement, "I have often thought so too, but I am surprised that savages, for I must call them savages, should mind about such things." It was hopeless, and I asked how soon the great American people might be expected to send a force to occupy London. 

I have just been reminded of this conversation. A few days ago, I wrote to a friend of mine, a Malay Sultan, whom I have not seen for some months, a letter inquiring how he was, and saying I hoped soon to be able to visit him. Now comes his answer; and you, who are in sympathy with the East, will be able to appreciate the missive of this truculent savage. 

In the cover there were three enclosures: a formal letter of extreme politeness, written by a scribe, the Arabic characters formed as precisely and clearly as though they had been printed. Secondly, a letter written in my friend's own hand, also in the Arabic character, but the handwriting is very difficult to decipher. And thirdly there is another paper, headed "Hidden Secrets" written also in the Sultan's own hand. 

The following is a translation of the beginning of the second letter. At the top of the first page is written, "Our friendship is sealed in the inmost recesses of my heart." Then this: " I send this letter to my honoured and renowned friend" (here follow my name, designation, and some conventional compliments). The letter then continues: "You, my dear friend, are never out of my thoughts, and they are always wishing you well. I hear that you are coming to see me, and for that reason my heart is exceedingly glad, as though the moon had fallen into my lap, or I had been given a cluster of flowers grown in the garden called Benjerdna Sri, wide-opening under the influence of the sun's warm rays."

"May God the Most Mighty hasten our meeting, so that I may assuage the thirst of longing in the happy realisation of my affectionate and changeless regard. At the moment of writing, by God's grace, and thanks to your prayers, I and my family are in good health, and this district is in the enjoyment of peace ; but the river is in flood, and has risen so high that I fear for the safety of the bridge." 

There is more, but what I have quoted is enough to show you the style. When this savage has turned from his savagery, he will no doubt write "Dear sir," and "Yours truly"; his correspondence will be type-written, in English, and the flaxen-haired lady will remark with approval that the writer is a businessman and a Christian, and hardly black at all.

Extracted from the chapter "West and East" in Sir Frank Swettenham's "Unaddressed Letters" (1898, London: John Lane). "Unaddressed Letters" is available for download at my Sejarah Melayu Library.


MAHAGURU58 said...

Assalamualaikum Warahmatullahi Wabarakatuh.

Dear Tuan Sabri Zain,
May Allah bless and reward you for your efforts in reminding the Malaysian people of our rich history and may reawaken the spirit of learning in them.

I for one am an ardent fan and reader of your blog. Do keep sharing more and more gems of our nation's past. Insya Allah.

Yours truly,
Haji Zainol Abideen @ Mahaguru58.

Sabri Zain said...

Terima kasih, Tuan Haji. The warm appreciation of readers such as you is what inspires me to do better and post more frequently :) SZ

Snuze said...

That is a wonderful glimpse of Malay scholarship. Thank you for sharing.

Ben Harrasyad said...

Nice work and effort sir..!!! Lots of info here... Thank you sir!