Rev Benjamin Peach Keasberry was born in Hyderabad, India, on October 30, 1811 and raised in Surabaya in Indonesia during the British occupation of Java. He was an early Protestant missionary who pioneered education among the Malays in Singapore.
His parents — Lieutenant Colonel John Palmer Keasberry, an army officer with the East India Company, and Eliza Breithaupt — were married on April 18, 1808 in Irichinapaty, India. He had two older brothers and a younger sister who died at 10 months.
Keasberry completed his education in Mauritius and Madras. He initially opened a store in Singapore. When that failed, he returned to Java to work as a clerk in a mercantile firm in Batavia (present-day Jakarta). After the death of a close friend, he decided to devote himself to religious work and applied to become an assistant missionary with the Batavia station of the London Missionary Society (LMS).
Keasberry apprenticed under Rev Walter Henry Medhurst of the LMS between 1830 and 1834. During this time, he learned Bible translation, village preaching, hospital chaplaincy, and teaching in mission schools. He also acquired the skills of printing, book-binding, lithography, and literature distribution. This was to prove invaluable in his later ministry in Singapore.
In 1837, he went to the US where he completed his studies at the New Brunswick Theological Seminary of the Dutch Reformed Church in New Jersey. There, he met 22-year-old Charlotte Parker and they were married on September 24, 1837.
In 1839, the couple set sail for Canton, China as independent missionaries, hoping that financial support would come from the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (ABCFM). However, upon arrival in Macau, they were denied entry into China. They then set sail for Singapore with the intention of returning to Java.
When they disembarked in Singapore, Keasberry noticed the potential for work amongst the Malays and decided to remain there. A talented artist, he initially supported himself by giving drawing lessons while interacting with the Malays. Munshi Abdullah, Stamford Raffles' interpreter who was fluent in Malay and English, helped him to hone his Malay language skills.
His fluency in Malay led to an invitation to join the LMS in September 1839. He began his ministry with the LMS Malay chapel at Bras Basah Road and Malay services resumed. The Malay-speaking ministry grew and a larger meeting place was soon needed. With public donations, he acquired a piece of land in Kampong Bencoolen for the construction of a new chapel, the Malay Mission Chapel (also called the Prinsep Street Chapel), which was completed in August 1843.
At its inaugural service, more than 60 Straits-born Chinese and Malays attended. Due to his close association with the chapel, the church was popularly called Greja Keasberry, meaning "Keasberry's Church" in Malay. The chapel held regular services in Malay and English, and its members included early Straits Chinese community leaders such as Song Hoot Kiam.
He was a prolific translator and publisher who began printing educational materials in 1840 with a lithographic press borrowed from the ABCFM missionaries. Among his earliest publications were children’s Bible stories which he had translated from T.H. Gallaudet’s The Picture Reading Defining Book. He also published a collection of Malay hymns and a Natural Philosophy book. However, progress was slow due to defective lithographic stones and a lack of printing supplies.
Keasberry appealed to the LMS for new printing equipment and supplies and in September 1842, it transferred its English and Malay printing press in Malacca to Singapore. A bookbindery was added in 1843. Keasberry also bought two lithographic presses and stones from Germany with money inherited after his father’s death in 1840.
On April 21, 1845, Keasberry’s wife, Charlotte, died in Singapore at the age of 30, leaving him with three young daughters. His second marriage to Ellen Louisa Scott (1828-1899) on September 16, 1845, produced seven sons and eight daughters.
In 1847, the LMS closed its Singapore station to focus on its work in China. Keasberry, having established his ministry in Singapore, chose to stay on and resigned from the society. He continued his work with the Malay ministry as an independent missionary until shortly before his death in 1875. Rev William Young, a former LMS missionary and a Batavian Eurasian, took over and helped shape what became the Straits Chinese Church. By then, most of the Malays had stopped attending services there and the majority of the congregation were Malay-speaking Peranakan or Straits Chinese.
In 1882, Rev John A. Bethune Cook continued the work of the Malay Mission and initiated the purchase of the Malay Chapel from the LMS in 1886. The church was renamed Prinsep Street Church and the Straits Chinese congregation came under the English Presbyterian Mission. By the 1950s, the number of Peranakan Chinese had dwindled and the Malay services stopped. In 1956, a referendum was held and the church was renamed the Prinsep Street Presbyterian Church.
Although Keasberry’s life work was focused on the Malay-speaking people, his ministry also extended to the Chinese as well. In 1861, he partnered with catechist Ching Kwang and preacher Tan See Boo of the Presbyterian Church to establish a preaching point in Bukit Timah. The Malay Chapel congregation raised funds to build a chapel (now the Glory Presbyterian Church) for the Chinese community at Bukit Timah in 1862.
In 1846, the LMS left Singapore and the Malacca printing press was shipped to China. But Keasberry continued his successful Mission Press printing operations in Singapore. He had received a fount of types from the LMS mission in Penang and a small lithographic press and printing materials from the LMS Anglo-Chinese College in Malacca. He also procured his own printing equipment and supplies for the printing of Malay materials and converted the old chapel, which the LMS had deeded to him, into a printing and bookbinding establishment.
The printing press undertook the printing of educational and religious materials such as schoolbooks, biographies, journals, Bibles, hymn books, prayer books, and tracts. It also took on commercial jobs like office stationery and Chinese newspapers Tifang Jih Pao (Local News) and Jit Sheng (Rising Sun), two of Singapore’s early news publications.
Keasberry was recognised for advancing the innovative use of lithography in Malay printing by using a decorative technique to reproduce a form of the Malay manuscript resembling handwritten calligraphy. Cermin Mata (The Eye-Glass), a Malay journal, was among his finest lithographic works.
Keasberry’s success boosted the new printing technology among the local Malay commercial press. It marked a gradual transition from the manual copying of manuscripts and was cheaper than typography. When Malay schools expanded in the 1870s, the government produced many textbooks that resembled those that Keasberry had developed for his Malay school, in terms of form and content.
He also produced notable translations. One of these was a revised translation of the New Testament in Malay which was printed in Romanised Malay in 1853 and in Jawi in 1856. The British and Foreign Bible Society had commissioned Keasberry to undertake the translation work, assisted by Munshi Abdullah.
Keasberry was also a pioneer of Malay education and first taught Malay classes at the Singapore Institution Free School with Alfred North, an ABCFM missionary, and Munshi Abdullah. Although the classes later ceased due to low enrolment, he continued to serve in the school as an examiner for writing and drawing.
In 1840, Keasberry started a Malay boarding school in the Rochor area where students resided for one to four years. Aside from reading, writing and arithmetic, students learnt geography, music, Bible scripture in Malay, natural sciences and English. With a functional printing press and book bindery, Keasberry was able to introduce vocational training in bookbinding, lithography, printing, and typesetting in English and Malay to his students. The older boys worked for wages to provide them a means of living after graduation and some were eventually hired as apprentices in Keasberry’s Mission Press.
As the Malay boarding school grew, Keasberry moved it and relocated his residence to larger premises, which he renamed Mount Zion, at River Valley Road in 1848. In 1857, he added a Malay girls’ school where his wife and two of his daughters taught. Two of his sons taught classes for boys and he also hired Munshi Abdullah to help with the teaching.
Some of the students at Keasberry’s institution included members of the Johor royal family. Although Colonel Butterworth, the then governor of the Straits Settlements, had suggested that the Malay princes be sent to England for their education, Temenggong Daeng Ibrahim of Johor was adamant in placing them under Keasberry’s care. Abu Bakar, who later became Sultan, and his brother Abdul Rahman were both boarders at Keasberry's house.
After serving in Singapore for 38 years, Keasberry died suddenly from a heart attack on September 6, 1875 aged 64 whilst preaching at Prinsep Street Chapel. He was buried at the Bukit Timah cemetery.
“Benjamin Peach Keasberry”. In British Map Engravers – A Supplement. https://britishmapengravers.net/entries/k-entries/%20benjamin-peach-kea…
“Benjamin Keasberry”. Singapore Infopedia: https:// eresources.nlb.gov.sg/infopedia/articles/