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Monday, November 28, 2011

MELAKA 500 YEARS ON

Sunday November 27, 2011

500 years on
By N. RAMA LOHAN
star2@thestar.com.my


Yes, we all know the Portuguese came and conquered Malacca in 1511 — but did you know that they tried to take the Sultan’s magnificent bed back to Portugal?

IN the port town of Belem, near Lisbon, a map of the ancient world etched on the ground near the PadrĂ£o dos Descobrimentos (Monument to the Discoveries) has Malacca carefully noted on it. Or “Malaca”, as it’s spelt there. It’s only fitting that this European town on the other side of the world marks our little city/state because it was from Belem that seafaring Portuguese in the 15th and 16th century set off to explore and trade with India and the Orient during the Age Of Discovery – and Malacca’s role during that age was very much more than just a footnote in both Portugal and Malaysia’s history

This year marks the quincentenary of the capture of the famously-rich and thriving port back in 1511 by the second Viceroy of India, Admiral Alfonso de Albuquerque. Of course, anyone who has ever gone through the Malaysian school system will know that date, and the events and consequences of the time the “white man” came to these shores. But behind the sweeping events on history’s stage are intriguing nuggets known mostly to historians or students of history alone. For instance, according to the Portuguese, Sultan Mahmud Shah, the then ruling Sultan of Malacca, was an opium addict! Though the The Malay Annals (Sejarah Melayu) does state that he was also fond of literature and studied religion....


Malacca in the world: In the Mappa Mundi (World Map) etched into the ground in Belem, ‘Malaca’ is about the only location noted for this part of the world (close up, below, right), a sign of the city-state’s influence in the 16th century.
Rocking the status quo

Two years before the landmark events of 1511, though, Portugal and Malacca were already in conflict when Admiral Diego Lopez de Sequeira arrived at the trade-rich entrepot at the behest of Portugal’s king, Emmanuel I, to establish trading ties.

The Portuguese themselves had only then recently rid themselves of Moorish domination within the Iberian Peninsula, a liberation after 800 years. Almost as a backlash, the need to spread their Christian faith grew exponentially, and coupled with the desire to extend its trade dominance, the Portuguese eventually became the first global empire and the longest lasting of the European colonial empires, spanning nearly 600 years.


“Before the Portuguese found their way to India and further to the Far East, the Muslim Moors controlled the spice trade to Europe. Wresting this control was seen as a commercial gain as well as a religious duty – an extension of the crusades the Christians had long waged against the Muslims,” reveals historian Dr Khasnor Johan, who taught history at Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia from 1974-1992 and has the book The Emergence Of The Modern Malay Administrative Elite to her name.

Christianity and the Europeans’ trade request were entertained with little courtesy and the reigning Sultan of the time, Sultan Mahmud Shah, egged on by Gujerati Muslim traders who were hard-done-by the Portuguese previously, chose to attack the very first Portuguese fleet to arrive in Malacca.

“The presence of the Portuguese would have been seen as additional competition and a threat to the status quo, so it is not unexpected that they (the Gujerati Muslim traders) would have been unhappy.

“The Muslims would have used religion as an additional factor in making the argument that the Portuguese should not be welcomed, thus persuading the Sultan not to conclude a treaty of peace with the Portuguese,” Khasnor explains.

“It has to be remembered that under the Malacca Sultanate, a system of trade and community relations had already evolved and worked well. The arrival of the Portuguese injected a new element into that system, upsetting the balance in the process,” Khasnor says.

That altercation would condemn Malacca to impending doom and the day arrived when Albuquerque – along with a thousand-odd men, comprising 800 Portuguese soldiers and 300-600 Malabarian mercenaries – sailed into the port town in July, 1511.

The pretext of the visit was to retrieve the Portuguese men held captive from two years before, but Albuquerque was also determined to wrest control of the renowned spice and China trade, in which Malacca played a crucial role.

Following a fierce battle that raged for three weeks, the Portuguese gained control of Malacca and would reap the benefits of the land and the city’s strategic location, controlling access to the Malacca Strait, a vital part of the trade route between East and West until the Dutch arrived to do the same in 1641. The superiority of the Portuguese proved too much for the men of Malacca to defend their port.

The Sultan’s men and mercenaries were reported to have used arrows, blow pipes with poisoned darts, the kris, lances and even guns. Allegedly, cannon were even discovered, some of which were dislodged from the ships of the Gujeratis and used on land.

Following the aftermath of the battle, the Portuguese retrieved 3,000 pieces of artillery and among them were 2,000 in bronze and one very large gun that the Samorin of Calicut (the ruler of a kingdom in South-West India) had sent to the Sultan of Malacca.

The small calibre guns are said to have been made locally, which is truly illuminating of the weapons technology available to Malacca then.

According to Peter Borschberg, an associate professor in the Department of History at the National University of Singapore, it was the Portuguese fire power that allowed them to defeat the defenders of Malacca easily. “Armour, tactics, military training, discipline of the troops would have all contributed,” he says.

Khasnor concurs: “The small arms of the Malays were no match for the Portuguese cannon, whose range was much further. The Portuguese strategy of attacking the bridge, thereby splitting the Malay forces into two, also played a big role in their victory.”

Albuquerque and his men chose to attack the bridge crossing the river that runs through Malacca town, knowing full well that would effectively divide the administrative part of the town from its commercial centre.


Alfonso de Albuquerque’s stature and impressively long beard reportedly had the Malaccan delegation bowing in awe and reverence when they caught their first glimpse of him on board his ship. — Image from Lendas da India, courtesy of Peter Borschberg
Carving up the region

The story of the fall of Malacca is one that is perhaps not necessarily the most unique. Also, it isn’t in the least bit aided by the history books in school painting a vague account of the events of 1511.

While the prescribed school syllabus for secondary schools by the Ministry Of Education mentions the likes of Albuquerque and of course, Sultan Mahmud, it leaves out colourful characters such as Utimutiraja (the rich and powerful Javanese trader living in Malacca who double-crossed both Sultan Mahmud and the Portuguese!), Nina Chatu (the influential Malaccan Hindu trader who aligned himself with the Portuguese) and Rui de Araujo (one of the captives in Malacca who – in a tale that could have come straight out of a modern thriller – relayed intelligence to Albuquerque with help from Nina Chatu between 1509 and 1511).

Whatever weight the school books give to the events of 1511, they were without a doubt among some of the most significant in Malaysia and Malacca’s history, arguably on par with America’s war of independence with the British in 18th century.

But unlike that conflict, which had a positive impact, giving Americans nationhood and setting them on course to world domination, the arrival of the Portuguese in Malacca, on the other hand, put a halt to the potential expansion of the Malay archipelago’s nascent power.

Things took a turn for the worse when rivalry among European powers further led to the carving up of many Asian regions into different spheres of influence.

Malacca’s fame during the 15th and 16th century as a lucrative entrepot in the region was actually unfortunate, as it made the port a target that the Western powers desired to control.

Malacca’s occupation isn’t merely about statistics or interesting stories confined to the history books because we continue to live with some of the consequences today.

“In view of the emergence of the nation states in Europe and the expansion of naval power and shipping, which allowed expeditionary voyages and long distance trade, it seems almost inevitable that Asia would have eventually been exposed to Western domination,” theorises Khasnor.

The control of the Malay archipelago might have begun at the periphery with the Portuguese and the Dutch, but by the time the British arrived, the Western world was taking much more of a hand in events in this part of the world.

“We are therefore still living with the consequences of that domination. For a very long time, our right to determine our own destiny and direction was taken away from us. But on the other hand, it is hard to see how we might have evolved or developed had we not been under Western domination,” adds Khasnor.

Thailand is a prime example. It was never colonised, yet it has developed, economically and politically, in much the same way Malaysia has, even if details differ.


The Portuguese believed Malacca’s position was so strategic that they constructed A Famosa in the port town to protect the trade route between Asia and their homeland. — File photo
Legacies left behind

The colonisation of Malacca may have very well kicked off the start of globalisation in this part of the world, a point observed by Borschberg, too.

“I was recently (in June) at a conference in Frankfurt (Germany) where issues of globalisation were discussed in connection with the Middle Ages. It was fascinating because the discussion traced the transmission of foodstuffs from Asia to Europe in the 6th to 14th centuries.

“But I suppose what made the case of the Portuguese different was the direct contact (not just gradual transmission, as in the Middle Ages) and the shift from overland to seaborne or maritime trade.

“Seaborne trade in the so-called Age Of Discovery enabled more goods to be exchanged and a greater number of people to interact. The real discoveries are not so much the lands of Asia or the Americas, but rather, the sailing techniques and the navigational routes to get to these places.”

The Portuguese capture of Malacca can be viewed as the case of an Asian port that was plundered by all-conquering colonists who exerted their might in the name of commerce and religion. However, the state today isn’t bitter about its past, claims Khasnor.

“The Malays are still proud of the fact that Malacca was once well known as a sultanate and one of the most important centres of trade and commerce in the East. Today, Malays might feel a sense of regret that Malacca was captured by the Portuguese and was never restored to the Malays until the end of British colonial rule, yet, when Malacca, as a state, celebrates its past history and heritage, it includes among the highlights of its existence the Portuguese influence, the unique blending of the races in the Portuguese Eurasian groups, the Baba-Nyonya and Indian Muslim communities and their cultural contributions,” Khasnor shares.

Historians speak of language and linguistic legacies left behind, and with the language came new ideas and concepts, Roman Catholicism, the introduction of foodstuffs and cooking styles, clothing items, architecture and building styles (the A Famosa Fort, among others).

“But influences are rarely a one-way process. More often than not, in the long run, you give and adopt into your own culture. And then there is the fusion of cultural practices – hybridity,” Borschberg adds.

Although the Dutch were also in Malacca, they stayed clear of making changes when they realised how well-assimilated Portuguese culture was, which is why the presence of the Portuguese remains strong in Malacca to this day, even half a millennium later.

In 1641, when the Dutch took hold of Malacca, the Portuguese were allowed to leave – as amnesty in the name of Christianity – but they weren’t allowed to take their slaves with them. So the backbone of the Portuguese community in Malacca was formed by Portuguese-speaking slaves and the few Portuguese who stayed behind, those who married locals and adapted to the way of life here.

“The Portuguese were in control of Malacca for more than a century and in that period, there would have been a small number of Portuguese who stayed long enough to form a community of their own. There would have been no women among them and for that reason, some would have married local women,” Khasnor explains.

Borschberg reckons that the number of Portuguese who stayed back would have been very small. “According to period documents of the time, 52 casados (a married settler) and their families ... all in all, fewer than 300 souls,” he says.

(According to census figures provided by Malaysia’s Department of Statistics, as of 2000, Eurasians in Malaysia – citizens and non-citizens – number 14,108. In Malacca alone, there are 2,176. The latest figures, from the 2010 census, are not available, as they are still being compiled.)

The Portuguese only had around 600 men in Malacca at any given time during their 130-year reign, and because their strength was in naval activity, they never sought landlocked regions, which is why they stuck with only Malacca and didn’t venture beyond to the rest of the Malay Peninsula.

“The Portuguese in Asia generally didn’t want large chunks of land to look after. It’s also a question of having sufficient manpower to control their possessions, and manpower was always short,” says Borschberg.

Of course, one of the greatest gifts of the Portuguese coming to Malacca are the stories left behind, especially the legends, and perhaps the greatest legends among them all is that of the Flor de la Mar (Flower Of The Sea) and her cargo.

The Flor was the largest carrack (three- or four-masted merchant ships) in its time and was used extensively in the Portuguese conquests of Asia. Close to a year after being in Malacca, when Albuquerque finally decided to sail back to Goa, India, he and his men loaded the Flor with the rich spoils of the Malacca sultanate, including jewellery, ornaments, statues and even the sultan’s bed.

Sailing north to the northern tip of Sumatra, the Flor encountered bad weather and was wrecked on some shoals. The ship split in half and lost all of its treasures, which according to treasure hunters, is the most valued shipwreck in the world. Albuquerque himself nearly perished in the disaster but was rescued.

Portuguese domination of Malacca lasted from 1511 to 1641, but though those events go back hundreds of years today, they have been woven into the very fabric of Malaysian society. In general, many of us treat those events as history book material, but think about it, in a strange way, the Portuguese put Malaysia on the world map all those years ago – they brought the Western world to us and made our presence known to the Western world.

All the countries around Malaysia were colonies of Western powers, except Thailand, so becoming a vassal might have been the only way for us to eventually become a modern civilisation. The accuracy of that opinion is open to debate, but we’ll just never know, will we? If you have an opinion – or an alternate history for Malaysia even! – share it with us at star2@thestar.com.my.

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