(3 April 2015) Among the Malay manuscripts in the British Library which have just been digitised are a number of vocabulary lists and dictionaries in Malay, compiled by visitors to the region as aids to learning the language. The study of Malay in Europe dates back to the very first voyages to Southeast Asia in the 16th century, for Malay functioned as the lingua franca for the whole of the archipelago, and was an essential business tool for both merchants in search of spices and missionaries in search of souls.
The earliest Malay book printed in Europe is a Malay-Dutch vocabulary by Frederick de Houtman, published in Amsterdam in 1603, and an English version of this Dutch work became the first Malay book printed in Britain in 1614. However it was only in 1701 that the first original Malay-English dictionary was printed in London, the work of Thomas Bowrey (ca. 1650-1713), an East India Company sea captain, who explained in the Preface the urgent need for such a publication: “… I finding so very few English Men that have attained any tollerable Knowledge of the Malayo Tongue, so absolutely necessary to trade in those Southern Seas, and that there is no Book of this kind published in English to help the attaining of that Language; These Considerations, I say, has imboldened me to Publish the insuing Dictionary …” (Bowrey 1701).
This beautifully illustrated story from the British Library is here.