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1400-1509 - Sultanate of Malacca

By 1400, Malaya was divided into a number of small states. Those in the north were under Siamese suzerainty, though Siam itself paid tribute to China; those fronting on the Strait of Malacca probably were under the hegemony of one or another of the Sumatran states, which were in turn vassals of Majapahit.

In the late 14th century, with the collapse of Crivijaya, a prince from Palembang, probably under pressure from the more powerful Javanese, fled across to the Malayan peninsula, and established a new base at Malacca. The Malay Annals, the dynastic history of the kingdom of Malacca, record the tradition that Parameswara, the prince of one of these states, renounced his allegiance to Msjapahit and was forced to flee; after being harried from place to place by both Thai and Javanese, he finally found refuge at Malacca, where around 1400 the small community of fishermen accepted him as their ruler.

From this point on, the political construction of ‘Malay‘ began. To give legitimacy to his new kingdom, an exercise in historical revisionism was required. The Melaka court asserted its centrality in the Melayu world through a court document entitled Sulalat al-Salatin (Genealogy/Descent of Kings). Better known as the Sejarah Melayu, it is a document that makes Melaka the measure of all things Melayu. Another possible motivation for using Malacca as the starting point for the Malay story is that Malacca was the first Malay kingdom to be Muslim.

Malacca had a brief flowering of about 100 years before the Portuguese came and conquered it. However, to this day, the Malaysian national story uses the Malacca state as the launching pad of Malay and Malaysian identity. By doing so, it displaces the origins of the Malay people and culture from the Sumatran side of the Straits of Malacca to the Malayan side, and downgrades the contribution of Crivijaya (which lasted some 6 or 7 centuries) in favour of the later and shorter-lived Malacca. The fact that the peninsula was perhaps more Mon-Khmer than Malay prior to the 14th century has largely been erased. The fact that the peninsula was marginal to the Malay cultural world (though part of the trading network) prior to the founding of Malacca has also been wished away.

Almost immediately the new kingdom, because of its position at the narrowest part of the Strait just beyond the effective control of Siam or Majapahit and by piratically forcing all shipping to stop at its port, was able to achieve dominance of the Strait. Large numbers of Malays and many foreign traders came from Sumatra to the new settlement at Malacca. Both Siam and Majapahit sought to establish suzerainty. Malacca apparently paid tribute to both kingdoms for a few years, but successful diplomacy soon enabled its early rulers to ignore the tribute relationship. The Thai kingdom of Sukhothai was the most threatening power. Early in the fifteenth century its kings assumed the title "Ruler of Singapore, Malacca, and Melayu," and if the title was too ambitious, at least their fleets commanded respect. A Chinese annalist wrote that in 1403 Malacca paid an annual tribute of 40 taels of gold to the Thai.

Chinese policy worked to the benefit of Malacca, however; the Ming emperors claimed direct suzerainty over Southeast Asian states, and beginning in 1405 the Chinese treasure fleet under the famous Admiral Cheng Ho made several trips to the area. Pahang and Kelantan, as well as Malacca, paid tribute to China. In 1409, Cheng Ho brought gifts from the Emperor, symbols of recognition of Parameswara's royalty: a silver seal, a suit of silk clothes and a yellow umbrella. Although the Thai did not easily give up their suzerainty over Malacca, attacking repeatedly, the attacks were repulsed, and Malacca did not again send tribute to Siam.

Malacca was organized for the efficient administration of trade. The ruler imposed regular and nonexorbitant taxes on shipping and chose a shahbandar (port officer) to deal with each of four groups of traders: those from western India; those from eastern India, Pegu and northern Sumatra; those from the Spice Islands, southern Sumatra and Java; and those from China and Indochina. Malacca had become the entrepdt for the textiles of India; the porcelain, pearls, satins and damasks of China; the spices, rice, camphor and sandalwood of Southeast Asia; the tin and gold of the Malay states; the opium of Arabia; and the woolens, mirrors, copper and steel of the Middle East.

Of all the traders who came to Malacca the Gujarati were most important, for their port of Cambay in western India was the major link between the trade of eastern Asia and the trade of Europe. They handled most of the important spice trade between the Moluccas and India; from Cambay the Arab traders controlled the routes to the West, bringing the spices and other goods of the East to the Vene- tians, who distributed them throughout Europe. Primarily through the efforts of the Gujarati merchants, Malacca also became a center for the diffusion of Islam. Although Moslem traders had visited Sri Vijaya and Malaya's ports for centuries, Islam was not accepted by Southeast Asian royalty until it was introduced by the Indians.

The Islam for which the Gujarati merchants proved such effective proselytizers was already mixed with the older beliefs of India and thus did not seem as radical a departure from existing ways as did the Islam of the Arabs. Later, however, the Malays began to consider the Arab countries as the home of their religion and to give positions of special respect to Arab Moslems, as in earlier times they had given them to Indian traders. Indeed, the Gujarati combined their zeal for religion and trade so well that they exported to Southeast Asia great quantities of tombstones with Islamic texts inscribed in classical Arabic.

Parameswara or his son was converted to Islam, but the new religion was not universally welcomed. The next king took the old Sri Vijaya title of "Sri Maharaja," whereas his successor was known by a title reflecting both religions. Only in 1446, when this successor was dethroned in a palace revolution led by Tamil Moslems, did Islam become the permanent religion of the court and "Sultan" the title of the rulers.

In the latter half of the fifteenth century Malacca began to pursue expansionist policies. Between 1446 and 1477, during the reigns of the famous Sultan Muzaffar Shah and his equally famous son Mansur Shah but largely through the efforts of a single chief minister named Tun Perak, Malacca repulsed a strong Siamese attack and conquered Pahang, whose ruler, a relative of the Thai king, was replaced by Mansur Shah's son. By 1477, Malacca's empire embraced Kedah, Trengganu, Pahang, Johore and some of the Sumatran states. Continuing to recognize the distant Chinese suzerainty, Malacca repulsed several more Thai attacks, then took the state of Patani from the Thai and converted its inhabitants to Islam.

In each of the states brought under the suzerainty of Malacca, Islam replaced Hinduism as the court religion. In several the spread of Islam as well as the tie to Malacca was strengthened by royal marriages. Java, too, was converted: the large Javanese community in Malacca, including merchants, their many slaves and a large part of Malacca's army, became Moslem, carrying Islam to their own country and from there to the Moluccas.

Despite a history of growing power and prestige, the Sultanate of Malacca came to a sudden end shortly after reaching the height of its power. The Portuguese had already begun the long series of voyages which were to open up a new trade route around the southern tip of Africa to India and beyond. In 1498, Vasco da Gama landed at Calicut, and within a decade the Portuguese had defeated the Arabs on the high seas, breaking the Arab monopoly of trade between India and the West. Having built a fort at Goa in 1510, the Portuguese announced their further ambitions by the appointment of Affonso d'Albuquerque as Viceroy of India. The settlement and fort at Goa was a strong base from which the Portuguese could direct their trade further to the east, with the goal of taking over the lucrative spice trade between the Moluccas and Europe.

Having broken Arab control of the western trade area, they turned to Malacca, which dominated the eastern area. In 1509, Diego de Sequeira visited Malacca, seeking to obtain spice and other commodities for direct transport to Portugal. The Sultan of Malacca, largely at the instigation of Gujarati traders, refused his request for concessions, and the Portuguese mission left, convinced that control of the spice trade must be won by force. Two years later a Portuguese fleet under Affonso d'Albuquerque overpowered Malacca, possibly finding support among some of the trading com- munity who were dissatisfied with the increased taxes on trade necessitated by Malacca's wars of expansion.

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Page last modified: 10-04-2012 18:39:53 ZULU