Melaka before 1800 CE, by Caroline Stone
Melaka (Malacca) owes its existence to its harbour and its position between the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea, at the confluence of two wind systems, which allowed it to act as an exchange point for goods from both West and East. In the 15th century, the ruler of Melaka converted to Islam and thenceforth the city played a key role in the Islamization of the archipelago. Melaka was also noteworthy for the many different nationalities trading there. It remained an important commercial city, fought over by the colonial powers, until the 18th century, after which its place was taken by Penang and Singapore.
The city is said to take its name from the fruit bearing Melaka tree. It was founded about 1400 by Parameswara, a prince from Palembang in Sumatra. For centuries, the Sumatran kingdom had controlled the maritime trade in the area and after its decline a new entrepôt was badly needed.
Melaka had the advantages of a central position, good anchorage — rare along that coast — good water, and tin, a commodity much in demand. Above all, it lay at the meeting of the south-west and the north-east monsoons, bringing in traders from all directions. Trade patterns at Melaka were, therefore, complex and seasonal. The ability to provide good and safe warehousing was of great importance, as was the power to control piracy. It was also essential that the taxation system should be deemed fair and not capricious. All this made stability and a strong government essential.
Already, in 1403, the first Chinese fleet under the Admiral Zheng He (Cheng Ho) reached Melaka. An alliance was arranged: China offered Melaka protection against Siam in exchange for Parameswara’s recognition of the Ming Emperor as his overlord. Trade links were strengthened and over the next 30 years, Melaka sent 20 missions to China.
Merchants from the Arab world and Muslim merchants from India had frequented South-east Asia for centuries. In 1414, the ruler converted to Islam, taking the throne name of Raja Iskandar. Melaka became an important center for the spread of Islam throughout the region, with the Arabized form of Malay developed there as its vehicle.
Melaka was both a center for the exchange of local goods and for long distance trade. Malayan tin and gold from the islands; silk, ceramics, camphor and later tea from China; sugar from the Philippines; cloves, nutmeg and sandalwood from the Moluccas; rice and arms from Java; pepper, ivory and printed cottons from India; incense, dye-stuffs, opium and other drugs, weapons, textiles and copper came from various points west.
The European traders were above all interested in spices and wished to buy them directly, cutting out the Arab and Indian middlemen. Afonso de Albuquerque, the Portuguese viceroy of India, soon appreciated the importance of a city where it was said that at any one time the harbour sheltered 2000 ships from all over the east. “Whoever is lord of Malacca”, wrote the Portuguese Tomé Pires, investigating trade conditions there in the early 16th c., in his Suma Oriental, “has his hand on the throat of Venice.” In 1509, the Portuguese reached Melaka and took the city. They fortified it and gave it a new military character. By 1523, with the help of a local merchant prince, Nina Chatu, the Portuguese controlled the spice trade from Melaka to Arabia. Melaka maintained its mercantile importance, but also became a great center for the spread of Catholicism in the East. Missionary priests, among them St Francis Xavier, used Melaka as a base on their way to Indo-China, China and Japan.
The Portuguese not only traded throughout the Indian Ocean, and introduced new flora back home, but via them, information about the East and its customs flowed West. Such works as Declaraçam de Malaca e India Meridional com o Cathay (Malaca, South India and Cathay) by Emanuel Godinho de Erédia, born at Melaka, half Portuguese, half Bugis, stimulated the curiosity and cupidity of Europe. Already by the late 16th century, the Dutch were challenging the Portuguese hegemony in the Indian Ocean, aided by the fact the Portuguese had made themselves hated in many places for their cruelty.
In 1641, after a disastrous siege, the Dutch took Melaka. The city was ruined. The population dropped to 2150 and it was clear that commerce and war could not coexist. There were other reasons for the decline of Melaka. The Hindu Indian merchants, favoured by the Portuguese, preferred to leave when faced with the Dutch ; upheavals in China disrupted the trade from that quarter; Acheh in Sumatra had become a formidable rival; and finally the Dutch, by offering too low prices for local goods, drove trade elsewhere.
The British acquired Melaka in 1795. They wanted both a naval base, and commercial center. Like the Dutch, they were eager to buy spices, tea and other local products, but they were prepared to offer in exchange weapons, gunpowder, arrak and opium, which made them more interesting trading partners to the Malays. In 1786, Penang was founded and a few years later Singapore. It was decided by the British that Melaka should be abandoned and her great fort, A Famosa, destroyed.
Melaka survived, but never regained her commercial importance, which was taken by the new city of Singapore. Melaka remained as a city of cultural importance and since Independence and the growth of tourism has again begun to thrive.
Hoyt, Sarnia Hayes, Old Malacca (Kuala Lumpur: Oxford University Press, 1993).
Sejarah Melayu, trans. by C. C. Brown (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1976). These Annals have come down to us in an early 17th century version, but the core material dates back to the 16th century and possibly even earlier.
“Robert K. H. Leo’s Historical City of Malacca Home Page” is an excellent and informative introduction to the history of Melaka by a well-known local historian. It includes a valuable chronology, interesting maps and illustrations and useful links, for example to Zheng He (Cheng Ho).
Sandhu, K. S. and Paul Wheatley, Melaka: The Transformation of a Malay Capital c. 1400-1980, vols. 1 & 2 (Kuala Lumpur: Oxford University Press, 1983).