Malay history is full of mythological characters, with historical fact shrouded in fable and legends. But none is more mysterious and controversial than Abdullah bin Abdul Kadir, the nineteenth-century literati, writer, innovator, translator, and teacher of mixed Arab and Indian ancestry. He left an autobiography, Hikayat Abdullah, as well as a string of other notable books, which have had a profound impact on Malay thought and literature. His works not only transformed Malay language but also serve as important sources of historical, political, and literary study of the Malays during the British colonial period.
Abdullah was born in Melaka to a well-respected family who valued education. His parents and forefathers were all well-educated, and he received a proper education too, particularly in languages and religious studies. The value placed on a good education paid off well for his family, gaining them economic and social prominence in society. The precocious Abdullah himself began exercising his scholastic abilities in his early youth, helping his uncle with teaching the Qur’an to soldiers of the British Indian Army (Sepoy) in Melaka. Later, Abdullah started working as a scribe and translator for the British, a talent he inherited from his father, notable for his work with British officers in their correspondence with the Malay rulers. He went on to teach the Malay language to British missionaries, officers, businessmen, and traders for a total span of thirty years. Among students included notable British administrators and missionaries. The Sepoys adored him; taking to calling him ‘Munshi’, an Urdu term for teacher, educator, and scribe. The moniker stuck!
The Munshi married his first wife at the age of 25. They had five children; the younger daughter died aged eight; two years later, his wife died too as a result of complications following the birth of a son. Abdullah then moved to Singapore, and although he fails to mention this in his autobiography, we came to know from the discovery of his last testament that he remarried – and had three more children. In February 1854, Abdullah boarded the Sublassalam at a port in Singapore, a ship taking pilgrims to Mecca. He reached Jeddah on 30 April 1854; and set about writing an account of his thoughts and religious experience on separate parchments that were later collected as Kisah Pelayaran Abdullah ke Mekah (The Story of Abdullah’s Voyage to Mecca). The cause of Abdullah’s death remains unknown, but we know he died on 27 October 1854 in Mecca. Eleven days before his death, Munshi Abdullah penned a last testament and will, dividing his assets among his family of six sons, a daughter and a wife.