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Malacca Sultanate

National History - Malacca Sultanate

Early Foundations

When Malacca was established around the turn of the fourteenth century, two well-established entrepots Samudra-Pasai and Aru already existed across the Straits, as well as at Kedah on the Peninsula. Evidence suggests that the founder of Melaka, Parameswara, consciously set out to surpass his potential rivals, first by his careful choice of a site for his new capital. The decisive factor in its success, apart from an abundant supply of fresh water and timber, was probably its naturally defensible position. A prominent hill overlooked the estuary and Melaka’s successive rulers built their residences upstream from Melaka, at Bertam as a furthur precaution against enemy attacks. In its early years, Melaka proper was a settlement of traders, where the ruler was represented by his Orang Laut retainers and guards, and by various nobles appointed to adminster the city’s affairs.

At the very inception of the settlement, Parameswara began systematically creating the conditions necessary for the establishment of a major trading centre. When envoys from China arrived in Melaka in the middle of 1404, he seized the opportunity to solicit vassal status from China by sending a delegation back to the courts of Ming Emperor Yongle (Yung-lo) who desired to expand official Chinese trade overseas. A signal honour was bestowed on Melaka when it became the first foreign nation to receive the emperor’s inscription, which contained the moral and political philosophy of the Ming dynasty and was to be placed on a hill to the west of Melaka, which the emperor designated as its ‘State Mountain’. This guaranteed protection from the Thais and imparted a prestige and respectability to the new entrepot.

Apart from gaining imperial recognition, Melaka’s efforts to assert its position in the Straits by acknowledging the sovereignty of two powerful neighbours, the Tai-speaking kingdom of Ayudhya and Majapahit in Java. These overlords aided Melaka’s growth by sending people and foodstuffs to support the growth of the new settlement.

Reasons for Melaka’s success

The success of Melaka’s international trade was largely due to its efficient legal and administrative machinery, which provided predictability essential for the long-term plans of foreign traders. The Undang-Undang Melaka, initially compiled under the third ruler, dealt with the regulation of commercial matters and a separate codification of maritime laws concentrated specifically on matters concerned with sea-going trade. Apart from this, Melaka’s administrative system also directly responded to the needs of a growing trade community. Four syahbandars, or harbour masters, were appointed, each one responsible different ethnic groupings such as the Gujarati traders from India; traders from Pegu in Burma and Pasai; a third for those from Java, Maluku, Banda, Palembang, Borneo and the Philippines; and finally a fourth for traders from Champa (central Vietnam), China and the Ryukyu Islands. The task of the syahbandars was to police the affairs of incoming traders; to manage the marketplace and the warehouse; to maintain a check on instruments of measure and to adjudicate disputes between ship captains and merchants.

Melaka’s reputation for security, a well-ordered government and multiple facilities created the conditions for safe and profitable commerce, yet its fundamental attraction for traders was the dual role it played as the principal collecting point for cloves from Maluku and the nutmeg and mace of the Banda Islands, and as an important redistributing centre for Indian textiles. These goods were carried by Malay traders to various parts of the archipelago to barter for other products such as spices, aromatic woods, sea products and other exotic items highly prized by foreign traders. These trade flows influenced the success of Melaka as an entrepot. In the Suma Oriental, Tome Pires estimated that 2.4 million cruzados’ worth of trade passed through Melaka in 1510 as compared to 4 million cruzados entering Seville, one of the wealthiest ports of Europe at the time.

Melaka and the Malay Inheritance

In the system of Malay governance as conceptualized in the Sejarah Melayu, the ruling dynasty, bearing the ancestry of Palembang brought Melaka the prestige that distinguished it from other states. According to the same source, ‘Melayu’ was the name of a river flowing near the sacred hill of Bukit Siguntang in Palembang and Pires identifies ‘tana Melayu’ (the land of the Malays) with an area near present-day Palembang. Thus, ‘Melayu’ was a mark of distinction initially sued to denote those descended from Palembang forebears and its heritage remained an important element in the dynastic claims of Melaka kings.

This was further reinforced by the concept of daulat/derhaka which defined the subject-ruler relationship. The ruler was the core of the Malay governance and treason (derhaka) towards the ruler was tantamount to a sin against God. Retribution for this crime was meted out by the authority of kingship (daulat). According to the Sejarah Melayu, the guilty, along with his family, killed, his house uprooted and the soil on which it stood thrown into the sea.

Melaka’s society initially comprised of the small contingent of Melayu-speaking Orang Laut newcomers that had accompanied the king, yet in order to strengthen the royal dynasty, it was vital that local groups (Orang Asli) were assimilated into the system of governance and made subject to the authority of its rulers. According to Portuguese sources, the ‘Celates’ (from Strait-selat, referring to the Orang Laut) and ‘native Malays’ (Malaois naturaes) were brought together by a shortage of women among the migrant community. They then formed one settlement, with the Celates collecting the products of the sea and the Malaois those of the jungle.

Pires mentions that Parameswara further strengthened the existing relationship with the Orang Laut leaders by marrying the daughter of a Singaporean Orang Laut chief and the son of this union succeeded as Melaka’s second ruler. Because of their relatively large numbers, maritime skills and cargoes of sea products, the sea people were essential allies to the Melaka dynasty and remained loyal to the kingdom for several hundred years, thus ensuring its prosperity.

Similarly, the local Orang Asli groups bequeathed obvious commercial benefits to Melaka, because although they were never populous, they could deliver the jungle products valued in international trade. The close relationship between the Melaka courts and Orang Asli groups is mentioned in several sources. Hikayat Hang Tuah, a record of Malay oral tradition, notes that after Melaka’s fall in 1511, the queen retreats intot he kingle and become a member of one of the northern Orang Asli groups, the Batek.

Melaka’s territorial expansion

Under Parameswara (d. 1413-14), Melaka comprised the small settlement at the port itself and the royal residence upriver at Bertam. During the reign of his successor, Megat Iskandar Syah (D. 1423-24), the boundaries of Melaka expanded to include all lands between Kuala Linggi and Kuala Kesang (the borders of the modern Melaka State). Significantly, the areas of Naning, Sungai Ujong and Rembau, which were occupied by the migrant Minangkabau clans from east coast Sumatra, were also brought under Melaka’s authority.

Territorial expansion resumed under Sultan Muzaffar Syah (d. 1459), who incorporated the Dindings, Muar, Singapore and Bintan into the kingdom. Pahang, which fourteenth-century Chinese sources depict as a thriving port on the east coast of the Peninsula, was similarly forced to acknowledge Melaka’s suzerainty. Muzaffar also successfully extended Melaka’s authority across the Straits into Inderagiri and Kampar, which controlled access to the rich pepper and gold of the Minangkabau interior. Sultan Mansur Syah (d. 1477) added Bernam and Perak on the Peninsula to the Melaka kingdom, while SIak on Sumatra’s east coast became another vassal area. On succeeding his father, Sultan Alauddin Riayat Syah (d. 1488) extended Melaka’s conquests southward ‘to the many island belonging to the Celates (Orang Laut)’-namely, the Riau-Lingga archipelagos, much of east coast Sumatra, and the islands of the South China Sea.

Any form of disobedience to Melaka’s autonomous rule was immediately subdues, although the use of force was to some extent ameliorated by royal marriages, which created kinship networks linking the Melaka domains. By the end of the fifteenth century, Melaka had become sufficiently powerful to deny the overlordship of Ayudhya and Majapahit, although she continued to pay homage to the more distant suzerainty of China.

Islam and the Spread of Melaka Culture

The transmission of Melaka-Malay culture throughout the Malay-Indonesian archipelago largely involved the spread of Islam.

Previous sources of Islamic influence in the early fifteenth century came from China, where trade with Persia and central Asia had influenced the perpetration of Sino-Muslim coastal communities in Guangzhou. As these communities expanded their maritime trade into Southeast Asia, Islamic connections with the localities were created, as evidenced by gravestones found in Champa and the Terengganu stones, which are located on the trade route followed by Chinese shipping.

The direct relationship between trade and the spread of Islam continued through the Muslim Indian traders from the thirteenth century onwards. In Melaka, the growing demand for Eastern spices by a prosperous Renaissance Europe brought Gujarati merchants into greater prominence as intermediaries in the spice trade. Their sizable numbers in Melaka, supported by other Muslim Indian traders fro the Malabar and Coromandel coasts in south India, as well as from Bengal in northeast India, facilitated the work of Islamic proselytism in the market and elsewhere in the archipelago.

Importantly, although it is evident that these traders were responsible for introducing local societies to Islam, the actual process by which ordinary people became Muslim is unclear.

Although contradictions in the sources allow for debate, modern scholars generally ascribe Melaka’s adoption of Islam to the third reign. Its rulers in turn persuaded or compelled their vassals to adopt Islam, while its prestige and commercial success ensure that the process of self-Islamization continued in the archipelago. Local traders in the marketplace, observing the heightened status of the royalty and nobility accruing from new titles and pretensions, would have reported back to their respective rulers. Because of these appealing advantages or a genuine attraction to the doctrine, more and more kingdoms were converted to the new faith.

Significantly, the Malay heritage was built upon much earlier traditions. It did not originate solely from Melaka, but rather from its predecessor Srivijaya in the earlier centuries. Srivijaya’s commanding position in the archipelago at the time would have ensured the dissemination of its culture throughout its loosely governed empire. Nevertheless, Melaka did contribute to the evolution of Malay culture by incorporating Islamic ideas. The new religion became closely identified with Malay society, so much so that one ruler even boasted that Melaka could become an alternative to Mecca as a place of pilgrimage.

The Portuguese conquest of Melaka

In 1481, Portugal began to display interest in tapping the sources of he lucrative Asian spice trade. Encouraged by Vasco da Gama’s discovery of Calicut’s commercial sophistication in 1498, Portugal’s king announced that he intended to establish a new spice route around the Cape of Good Hope. Alfonso de Albuquerqe was the principal architect of expansion in Asia and during his tenure of office, he proceeded to dominate the key points in the Muslim trading network through which Asian spices reached Europe, including Goa island in West India, Hormuz at the mouth of the Persian Gulf coast and Melaka in 1511.


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