On This Day: 25 November 1700

On this day in 1700, Thomas Hyde wrote to Thomas Bowrey Your work is done, and (as I hope) to your content.

Bowrey’s work was never done. He continued up to the last few days of his life but, in respect of his Malay-English Dictionary, to which Hyde referred, it was indeed complete. It was to be published the following year. Publication marked the culmination of the work he started on his voyage home from India on the Bengall Merchant twelve years earlier.

The dictionary was the only work Bowrey published in his lifetime and remained the only such work in English for over a century. It is believed that it was studied by Stanford Raffles on his voyage to Singapore at the start of his career there. When a standard Romanised spelling system for Malay was developed in 1972, it was (at least in part) based on that developed by Bowrey.

He had not worked alone. He had received some assistance from Hyde and, probably, his step-uncle, Henry Smith. Smith may have believed that he made a great contribution but, as he was highly critical of the dictionary, perhaps not as much as he may have believed. Bowrey himself, somewhat ungratefully, acknowledged this assistance thus:

I do acknowledge my self obliged to some helps I have attained for several Malayo words in the following work; for the truth of which I will not be answerable.

It has been claimed that anyone would still be able to use the dictionary to earn to speak Malay in a passable way. Because of the importance today of the Malay language,  Bowrey’s dictionary still has relevance and the National Library Board of Singapore makes it freely available online.


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