December 2017

The ruins of St. Paul's Church, built by the Portuguese in 1521 and used as a burial ground by the Dutch. Photos © Jinnan Cai

Malacca’s Surviving History

Malaysia’s oldest city is a sleepy port town on the south-western coast of the Malay Peninsula. A great trading empire once rose and fell here five hundred years ago, its power and dreams caught off-guard by the dawn of the European colonial era. Today, Malacca’s rich history can be found living on its streets where a wonderful melting pot of Eastern and Western races, cultures and architecture continues to take its time.

Malacca was the centre of the Malay world in the 15th and 16th centuries. A prosperous, cosmopolitan port prized for its sheltered harbour, fresh water and prime location relative to the shifting monsoon winds. It was a city once so coveted by European powers that the Portuguese author Barbarosa wrote “whoever is Lord in Malacca has his hand on the throat of Venice.” The official adoption of Islam in the 14th century further helped to increase the port’s fortunes by attracting wealthy Arab traders from afar. Malacca traded with merchants of all races and religions along the spice route and its harbour was a cradle to the sails of Chinese junks and spice-laden vessels from every seafaring nation. As many as 84 different languages were spoken here at the height of the city’s glory.

Unfortunately, Malacca’s fame also arrived at a time when European colonists began to expand their empires to the East. In 1511, the Portuguese bombarded and captured the city after a month-long struggle led by Afonso de Albuquerque with a force of some 1,200 men and 18 ships. They fortified the city against the Malays and other European powers by building the formidable walled fortress of A Famosa which ensured Portuguese control for the next 130 years. Malacca continued to prosper albeit at the expense of the local population who hated the Portuguese for their tyranny and cruelty.

In 1641, the Dutch allied with the Sultan of Johor and the Achehnese to wrestle the city from Portuguese hands. They blockaded and laid siege to the city for seven months in which thousands of people died from gunfire, starvation and disease. Malacca was eventually captured in complete ruin with all its Portuguese buildings destroyed by the Dutch. It was a victory that effectively drove the Portuguese from the Malay archipelago but one that also robbed Malacca of its fortunes. The Dutch East India Company rebuilt and governed the port for the next 180 years in relative peace due to a prior agreement with the Sultanate of Johor. However, the Dutch preferred Batavia as their economic and administrative stronghold in the region and kept the port only as a strategic military base.

The Netherlands was conquered by the French in 1795 and control of Malacca was handed over to the British to prevent it from falling into the wrong hands. As the Napoleonic Wars drew to an end, the British returned the city to the Dutch but ordered the destruction of the fort in 1806 to make the city indefensible. The Porta de Santiago is the only remaining gate of this fortress saved by a last minute intervention of Sir Stamford Raffles. It is among the oldest surviving European architectural remains in Asia.

The Dutch soon traded Malacca back to the British in 1824 for Bencoolen in Sumatra, and Malacca became part of the British Straits Settlements together with Singapore and Penang. Malacca was occupied once more by the Japanese during the second world war until Malaysia achieved independence from the British in 1951.

Jinnan Cai

February 5, 2010 by admin · Leave a Comment 

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