This article investigates European collecting of Malay manuscripts during the colonial era to address two inter-related questions: was this collecting instrumental in destroying the Malay manuscript tradition, and are colonial collections accurate representations of Malay manuscript culture? It makes the case that while European intervention was certainly destructive, in fact the majority of Malay-language literary texts survive only in colonial-era collections. It also considers whether colonial collections, precisely because they are high in Malay literary texts and low in Arabic religious texts (known as kitab), are unrepresentative of Malay manuscript culture in the nineteenth century and earlier. Taking Marsden’s seminal collection of Malay manuscripts as its case study, the article provides a fuller account of how this collection was assembled, and traces the individuals known to have acquired manuscripts for Marsden. Newly documented manuscript collections that remain in situ in Indonesia and in Malaysian institutions are discussed as a counterpoint.