The Malay of Sri Lanka have preserved a spoken dialect and a rich writing tradition for over three centuries. Today, the manuscripts of this community are kept in private collections, and younger generations can no longer read its Arabic script. It is crucial to preserve these manuscripts, to enrich our understanding of the Malay World.
The term “Malay” has been used to refer to people from the Indonesian Archipelago who were exiled to Sri Lanka by the Dutch as political exiles and convicts, or recruited as soldiers by colonial armies. Despite the distance from the Indonesian-Malay world, the Sri Lankan community maintained a flourishing literary culture, with works that closely resemble those produced in the Malay “heartland”. From the 18th to early 20th century, the Malay produced a diverse range of manuscripts, as well as newspapers, books and media.
Most surviving manuscripts are held in private collections in poor conditions. Many in younger generations remember their ancestors owning the manuscripts, but do not know where they are located now.
This project stems from a survey pilot project in 2011, which documented 50 Malay manuscripts, books, letters and notes. This major project digitised over 100 items. The original material remains in private hands, but the digitised copies are available at the Sri Lanka National Archives in Colombo. The creation of a digital archive of this material ensures that future generations will be able to make use of the knowledge of their ancestors, and the Malay community in Sri Lanka can be further explored.