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1511-1640 - The Portuguese

With the capture of the key market of Malacca, the Portuguese rapidly expanded through the Malay Archipelago as far as the Moluccas; on the Peninsula, however, they limited then1 expansion to a small coastal area surrounding the port. From their stronghold of Malacca they controlled the Strait, and the Malays could only harass their shipping by piracy. The last Sultan of Malacca, Mahmud, escaped overland to Pahang and was able a short time later to establish a new capital at Bintan, in the Riau Archipelago south of Singapore, from which he retained suzerainty over Johore, Pahang, Trengganu and Perak. Kelantan and Kedah quickly reverted to their former position as vassals of Siam. When Mahmud died, his two sons became rulers of Perak and Riau-Johore, of which Pahang was a dependency.

Portuguese insistence upon monopolizing trade, their practice of setting prices to quash the free market and their intolerance of Islam drove many Moslem traders to seek a port outside the zone of Portuguese control. This they found in northern Sumatra, where the kingdom of Acheh, which included the trading ports of Perlak, Passai and Pedir, arose in the early sixteenth century and grew rapidly in power. In 1537 Acheh unsuccessfully attacked Malacca; it then turned on Riau-Johore, hoping to crush the Johore pirates, who had injured the trade of Acheh as well as that of Portugal, and to spread Islam. Conversions to Islam in Southeast Asia were largely the work of Achinese zealots, who were unequaled in proselytization.

The fall of Malacca to the Portuguese in 1511 marked the beginning of a new era in Malaya, inaugurating more than 4 centuries of European dominance and more than 3 centuries of decline in the Malay states. The legendary prophecy of a Malaccan chief as his men retreated before the Portuguese, "Fie upon you, new generation of Malaya! Verily this is the beginning of your end," was borne out as the various peninsular states, through lack of strength and mutual jealousy, found themselves unable to drive out the foreigner. With the destruction of Malaccan suzerainty all states were of relatively equal power; in the ensuing centuries a pattern emerged in which one of them would become stronger and begin to extend hegemony over its neighbors, only to be attacked and subdued by the suddenly fearful western power on the Strait. Periods of peace in the Peninsula became shorter and less frequent, since no one state was able to establish an effective, lasting suzerainty.

The characteristics of government and patterns of political life in the Malay states go far toward explaining the continued conflict which dominated Malayan history throughout these centuries. The policy was for the most part of Indian derivation, and by the sixteenth century the concepts brought in by Indian traders had evolved into a system of government shared by most of the states, a system which persisted relatively unchanged until British influence was exerted toward the end of the nineteenth century.

Before British intervention a ruler's authority in a Malay state was virtually complete, the forms of deference due him reflecting the Hindu concept of divine rule. The kingdom was seen as the cosmos in miniature, centering around the palace as the cosmos centers around Mount Meru, the Hindu Olympus, and the king ruled over 32 lesser gods. Whether the ruler bore the title Raj a (Hindu), Sultan (Moslem) or Yang di-Pertuan (Malay —- "he who is made lord"), he was by birth and by position apart from other men. The Malacca dynasty, which provided rulers for most of the Malay states, traced its ancestry to Sang Sapurba, the legendary founder of a Sumatran kingdom said to have been the son of a daughter of the King of the Sea and an Indian prince. After the acceptance of Islam, Sang Sapurba's ancestry was traced to Alexander the Great. This tradition remains strongest in Perak, where the sultan claims direct descent from Sang Sapurba, through Parameswara. The ceremonial enthronement was thought of as giving the ruler semidivine attributes.

Daily reminders of the ruler's elevated status were sumptuary laws, traditionally a feature of Indian and Chinese courts, which reserved to the ruler colors symbolizing light. Only a sultan could carry a white umbrella, and only the royal family could carry yellow umbrellas, wear yellow clothes or have yellow house furnishings. Certain kinds of cloth and building materials were reserved for the aristocracy. A foreign ambassador was met by ministers and slaves carrying umbrellas whose colors signified the esteem, or lack of it, with which his country was regarded.

Theoretically, there was a limit to the king's authority. A story in the Malay Annals, sometimes quoted to explain the Malays' acquiescence to autocratic rule, relates that Sang Sapurba was accepted as ruler of Palembang only after making a compact with the people, in which he promised never to disgrace his subjects — by using harsh language to them in front of others, kicking them or hitting them on the head — and to punish them only lawfully. In return the subjects promised never to engage in treason.

In practice, the ruler consulted his chief ministers in making important decisions. Their names appeared, for example, on treaties made with European powers. Usually, there were four hereditary ministers, close to the ruler and often members of his family. Most important was the bendahara, the prime minister and commander in chief of the army, who often had a stronger voice in government than did the sultan. The temenggong carried out the administration of justice, the building of prisons and the arrest and execution of criminals. Other officials important especially in trading kingdoms such as Malacca, were the laksamana (admiral) and the pengkula bendahari (court chamberlain). The latter collected the ruler's personal revenues — usually duties on trade—and kept account of the royal slaves.

Since the Malay states were for the most part organized around trade and agriculture, territorial administration was of a quasi-feudal nature. The states were divided and subdivided, usually in accordance with Hindu numerological rules, among a hierarchy of chiefs, the higher of whom were of aristocratic birth and held their positions hereditarily. Although subject to tributary demands by the ruler and sworn to support him in war, these chiefs were virtually autocrats in their own districts. This organization severely limited the freedom of the villager. Although traditionally allowed the right to inherit and cultivate the land of his ancestors and the free use of forest lands, he had no defense against the demands of his chief. All freemen were subject to forced labor as demanded by their chief and usually to the taxes collected by officials at all levels. Each minor chief might collect duty on goods transported by boat through the area of his jurisdiction, and taxes on opium shops, gambling houses and agricultural produce were common. In times of war or of civic cor- ruption taxes were imposed on almost every commodity used by the people, such as plows, cattle, salt'and cloth, and the taxes could easily become extortionate.

Only the state now known as Negri Sembilan shows evidences of an exception to the authoritarian pattern of government. The settlers of the state, the Menangkabau, who migrated from the Sumatran highlands in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, brought with them a matriarchal system of political organization and law as well as a proud awareness of their separate history. Much more democratic than the prevailing Malay governments, the basic unit was the tribe, over whom the ruler of the state exercised a very limited jurisdiction.

Except in Negri Sembilan, changes within a state could be achieved only by a palace revolution. When a ruler was particularly unpopular, the chiefs might conspire against him or intrigue with a neighboring state to come to their aid. In theory a raja or sultan had the right to choose his successor, and he usually did so early in life. The heir apparent was thereafter designated the raja muda (young raja) or the sultan muda. In practice the chiefs sometimes placed a younger son on the throne, or sometimes the line of succession passed to the bendahara's family.

Such changes, usually involving a local war, became especially frequent where there was no effective system of overlordship, as in the period following the fall of Malacca. The tribute system in Malaya - as in the rest of Asia — was a vague but important relationship between states. At the very least it was an annual recognition of inferior status, such as was expressed by the northern Malay states through much of their history in sending to the Thai court the bunga mas, the gold and silver flowers that were symbolic of tribute. Very often it involved the sending of more than such a token.

A very strong suzerain state might have a deciding voice in choosing among contestants for a tributary's throne or in preventing one state from attacking another. The suzerain relationship was also sometimes the incitement to war. The northern Malay states usually took advantage of fighting between Burma and Siam to renounce their dependence, a step which eventually would lead to reprisals by the Thai. Further, wars among the Malay states sometimes occurred when the choice of a royal successor in a state did not meet with the approval of the state claiming suzerainty; there were inconclusive wars of this sort with increasing frequency from the sixteenth to the nineteenth century.

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Page last modified: 10-04-2012 18:39:24 ZULU