Sultan Mahmud’s letter
Letter from Sultan Mahmud Syah
British Library MSS.Eur.F.148/4, f.105
Copyright © The British Library Board
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A few days after writing this letter to Thomas Stamford Raffles, Sultan Mahmud Syah was taken ill; he died just nine days later, on 14 January 1811. He was destined to be the last full ruler of the empire of Johor, which was founded after the fall of Melaka to the Portuguese in 1511, and had grown to encompass Pahang, Riau and Lingga.
In 1824 the Treaty of London divided the Malay world into spheres of British and Dutch influence, separating the Malay peninsula and Singapore from Sumatra and the Riau archipelago, and splitting the kingdom of Johor in two. Thereafter Sultan Mahmud's younger son, Sultan Abdul Rahman ruled in Riau, while his older son Sultan Husain Syah remained in Singapore, where he had been installed by the British as Sultan of Johor.
With their splendid illumination, elegant calligraphy, intricate seals and courtly and refined language, the finest Malay letters embody all that is most beautiful in Malay culture, civilization and aesthetics. Indeed, Malay letters offer a glimpse of the complex social and political structure of Malay society, for every element - from the position of the heading and seal to the choice of gorgeous yellow silk envelope - was determined by the relative rank of the correspondents, and the diplomatic importance of the missive.
Shown here is a royal Malay letter sent on 9 Zulhijah 1225 (5 January 1811) from Sultan Mahmud Syah of Johor and Pahang to Thomas Stamford Raffles in Melaka. The symmetry of the letter is remarkable: the writing begins and ends unerringly at the same spot in the epicentre of the sheet of paper; the letter-heading is situated exactly in the centre above the main text; and together, the two text blocks form a perfect square. The stunning calligraphy, exquisite illumination and eloquent phrasing make this one of the most beautiful Malay letters known.