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Liquid Market, Solid State:

The rise and demise of the great global emporium at Malacca, 1400-1641
ShawnaKim Blake Lowey-Ball

At the turn of the sixteenth century, the city of Malacca was a vibrant trade

hub. Its position between the Indian Ocean to the west and China and the Moluccas

(the Spice Islands) to the east resulted in a great gathering of international

merchants eager to do business with one another. Gujaratis, Tamils, Chinese,

Javanese, and Malays all at one time or another served as advisors to the sultans;

Arabs and Italians visited the city and left their impressions. Yet within a decade of

the Portuguese conquest of Malacca in 1511, the city had lost its prominence and

much of its population, to the consternation of its European administrators. How did

this happen?

I argue that Malacca's greatest strength - diverse trading populations - was

also its chief weakness and the reason for the city's post-1511 decline. The Malay

sultanate that administered Malacca from 1400 to 1511 took a laissez-faire

approach to government as well as trade. People of all backgrounds were welcomed

and the city mostly refrained from homogenization. For example, in the period to

1511, city leaders imposed different taxes on traders of different ethnicities

(allowing some to pay in cash while others paid in kind). Four different but parallel
shahbandars (port officials) were drawn from the four biggest ethnolinguistic

communities, and they presided equally over the city’s port. Religion in Malacca was

extremely varied, with facilities catering to Muslims, Hindus, adherents of Chinese

folk religion, and Nestorian Christians, among others. In Malacca's markets, traders

exchanged dirhams, ducats, tin, Chinese cash, and several other forms of specie; only

the exchange of gold for gold or silver for silver was forbidden by law.

This openness drew merchants from across the Asian world, and they in turn

made Malacca famous as a Southeast Asian market city unparalleled in wealth,

population, or reputation.

But the city’s multinational community was fragile. Malacca’s streets were

often riven with violence, a result of cross-communal tensions coupled with local

Malay ideas about honor and manliness. At the Malaccan court, identity politics

played a major role in political factionalization. Few Malaccans formed strong ties to

the city where they lived.

When the Portuguese conquered the city, they did so by exploiting the

divisions between Malacca's Muslims and Hindus. The Portuguese then brought

greater strictures to the governance of the city, including a Catholic conversion

program, uniform currency, monolingual political administration, and policies

designed to establish a monopoly over the spice trade. Portuguese Malacca also

came under frequent attack from neighboring Malay states.

For many Malaccans, the combination of a more controlling administration

and a constant state of siege was an onerous hardship. These relatively rootless
people found it easy to emigrate to other, more laissez-faire ports. And this, in turn,

explains the city’s swift decline.

Liquid Market, Solid State: The rise and demise of the great global emporium at
Malacca, 1400-1641

A Dissertation
Presented to the Faculty of the Graduate School
Yale University
in Candidacy for the Degree of
Doctor of Philosophy

ShawnaKim Blake Lowey-Ball

Dissertation Director: Benedict Kiernan

May 2015
UMI Number: 3663599

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LIQUID MARKET: TRADE AND THE CITY, 1 4 7 0 s -1511 176





Malacca and Sumatra, 1706

Dutch Malacca Town, 18th century

Malacca and Evirons, 18th century

For John.
This dissertation was completed with generous financial support from the Jewett
Foundation and from the MacDougal Center at Yale University. I received support of
a more intellectual kind from Benedict Kiernan and all the faculty, students, and
staff affiliated with the Council on Southeast Asian Studies at Yale, and I can't thank
them enough for giving me an intellectual home at the university. Finally, I would be
remiss if I did not mention Helen Porter and all the staff at the Royal Asiatic Society,
London, for helping to make my time there so pleasant and productive.

BEFEO Bulletin de l'Ecoie Franfaise d’Extreme-Orient

JESHO Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient

JMBRAS Journal of the Malayan Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society

JRAS Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society

JSEAS Journal of Southeast Asian Studies

JSRAS Journal of the Straits Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society

RAS Royal Asiatic Society Archives


"The city of Malacca is the richest seaport with the greatest number of wholesale
merchants and abundance of shipping and trade that can be found in the whole
world. Gold comes thither in such abundance that the leading merchants dealing in
it do not value their estates nor keep their accounts except in bahares of gold.”

- Duarte Barbosa,1 1516

What happened to Malacca? In many ways, this study is little more than an

effort to answer that question.

Of course, Malacca is still right where it always has been, on the Malay

peninsula, very near the straits which bear the city's name. It's a nice town. Of the

many cities that have at one time or another exercised control over the Straits of

Malacca, it’s my favorite.

There has always been at least one great Straits port. Malacca itself was

preceded by Palembang, on the Sumatran east coast. Then in the 16th century,

Malacca was displaced by Aceh. This in turn gave way to Dutch Batavia (modern-day

Jakarta) on the island of Java. (Batavia, of course, is not on the Straits of Malacca, but

practically it functioned much as though it was. The Dutch controlled the sea lanes

1 Duarte Barbosa, The Book o f Duarte Barbosa, an Account o f the Countries Bordering on the Indian
Ocean and Their Inhabitants, edited by Mansel Longworth Dames, vol. II (Farnham, England: Ashgate,
2010), 175.

through the Straits, they briefly cornered the market in the westbound clove trade,

and their port was by far the largest and most important in the region.) In the 19th

century British Singapore replaced Batavia, and it remains the region's premier port

today; indeed, today’s Port of Singapore is the world’s busiest transshipment hub,

handling more container traffic and more shipping tonnage than any other port

anywhere in the world.

But what happened to Malacca? Built up under Malay administration in the

1400s, the town was then conquered by the Portuguese in 1511, after which it

rapidly degenerated. When combined Dutch and Johori troops reconquered Malacca

in 1641, so unimportant was the city itself that the Sultan of Johor agreed to leave it

entirely to Dutch administration. (Johor's motivation in the war had simply been the

expulsion of the Portuguese, which they achieved.) For their part, the Dutch let

Malacca play second fiddle to Batavia, expending minimal time and energy on the

new colony. By 1824, the city was such an afterthought that Dutch negotiators

happily swapped it for Bencoolen (on the island of Sumatra) when they concluded

the Anglo-Dutch treaty of that year.

Meanwhile, Malays in particular have remembered, misremembered, and

mythologized Malacca under the sultans. Today the city boasts a mock-up of the Flor

do Mer, a ship which featured in the Portuguese conquest of Malacca, as well as an

imaginative reconstruction of Sultan Mansur Shah's lS^-century palace. Pupils from

across Malaysia and Singapore visit the city on "study trips." UNESCO has made it a

World Heritage site.

And today’s Malacca is a pleasant city, cooled by breezes that blow inland off

the water and graced by stately buildings left over from various periods of colonial

rule. The city has mosques, churches, and a Portuguese settlement. It includes a

Chinese quarter and a western-style mall. Malacca remains very much "there," a

thriving city in rapidly modernizing Malaysia. But for all of Malacca's present

pleasures, and for all that this project delves into historical details of slavery,

religion, and trade in the city, the clear undercurrent throughout this project is the

question of where Malacca - wealthy, famous, populous Malacca - went.

Today, anybody can go to Malacca. But in today's Malacca, nobody keeps

their accounts in gold.

jGe Sf

■ "

J If*?

What happened to Malacca? Why, it's right there! Map reproduced from Pieter Vander Aa's Naaukeurige Versameling der
Gedenk-Waardigste Zee en Land-Reysen na Oost and West-lndien (Leiden, 1706).

This chapter includes a b rie f review o f the state o f the fie ld and gives an
introduction to the overall project.

In 1969, the eminent Cornell Southeast Asianist O.W. Wolters wrote, “The

status of South East Asian history is still such that the student's working priority

should be the needs of the next generation [‘making available hitherto unpublished

sources'] rather than exploiting the achievements of earlier generations.”2 For years

after (and indeed for many years before Wolters made the point explicitly), this

remained the guiding principle behind Southeast Asia scholarship in general, and

behind work on Malacca in particular. Yet I believe that the time has come for us to

undertake this unabashed exploitation of earlier primary-source work. Where

Wolters made it his business to buy up manuscripts, I offer instead an interpretation

of the swift rise and even swifter fall of the Malay port city of Malacca, leaning

heavily on documents that others have bought, catalogued, and whisked away into

orderly archives the world over. Where Wolters excavated the foundations of early

Southeast Asian buildings, I merely consulted maps (some of them Wolters’ own) to

2 O.W. Wolters, The Fall ofSrivijaya in Malay History (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1970), xii.

reconstruct Malacca's neighborhoods. The work was, perhaps, relatively


Yet it has also yielded something new. For, although 15th century Malacca has

been remembered as a site of great wealth and power, until now the study of the

city has been almost entirely philological in nature. Modern scholarship on Malacca

began with officials in nineteenth-century British Malaya, who chiefly sought to

establish the age and veracity of texts that they and their colleagues had collected

during their time in the country. Raffles was perhaps the first and best known of

these collectors, but it was his successor colonial administrators Wolters and R.O.

Winstedt who have contributed most to the scholarship regarding the seminal

Malacca texts. Wolters’ extensive work on the Malay Annals (Sejarah Melayu) has

given us a basis from which to distinguish historical fact from legendary fiction in

that text, while Winstedt, in one of his many contributions to early Malay history,

was able to date the Malaccan Law Codes (Undang-undang Melaka) to the middle of

the 15th century.3 Yet they and other scholars were chiefly concerned to corroborate

or invalidate the various claims made by the texts that came their way. This kind of

work was necessarily comparative, seeking to ground Malay traditions in

chronologically more-reliable Chinese histories or to find confirmation of early

Malay place-names in the works of Arab geographers who wrote

contemporaneously. It was frequently also archaeological: Wolters was inclined to

believe accounts that the Malays were a great trading people in large part because of

the number of foreign coins he was able to dig up out of Malay soil.

3 Richard Winstedt, "The Date of the Malacca Legal Codes," JRAS (April 1953): 31-33.

Early scholarship of this sort was wildly successful, in its way: the colonial

scholarly tradition discovered, translated, and preserved many previously-unknown

documents, often helping to establish lost histories of insular Southeast Asian

peoples. These first multidisciplinary Southeast Asianists uncovered and then

conclusively proved the existence of the great maritime empire of Srivijaya. They

had the linguistic, historical, and cultural knowledge to link the Chams in southern

Vietnam with the Acehnese on the northern tip of Sumatra, an identification that we

acknowledge today. These early scholars also sought out and then carefully

interrogated native texts to learn previously-unknown contours of early Southeast

Asian political history. Success followed success.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, then, we find that more recent scholarship continues

this venerable fact-finding tradition. Paul Wheatley has collected and collated

sources for early insular Southeast Asian history, considerably (and heroically)

expanding our knowledge of the area.4 John R. Bowen teases truth out of

complicated and inconsistent genealogical data, another thankless but important

task.5 Perhaps most immediately relevant to this study, Liaw Yock Fang has made a

methodical, careful comparison of (nearly all of) the extant variant versions of the

4 The realization of this tendency par excellence is certainly Wheatley’s The Golden Khersonese, but
the same thread of finding sources and making them publically available runs through his "A history
of classical Malay literature,”/M B /M S vol. 17, no. 3 (1940), and indeed through much of Wheatley's
w ork on Malacca specifically and the Malay realms in general.

5 For example, in his "Cultural Models for Historical Genealogies: the Case of the Melaka Sultanate," in
Melaka: The Transformation o f a Malay Capital, c. 1400-1980, eds. Kernial Singh Sandhu and Paul
Wheatley, volume I (New York: Oxford University Press, 1983),162-179.

Malacca Laws.6 These efforts are invaluable. They have given us "the stuff of history,”

that is, a body of relatively reliable source material and a timeline by which we

might date various events that occurred in island Southeast Asia.

A scholar studying early modern Europe or Song Dynasty China may take this

kind of basic historical information for granted. Not so the Southeast Asianist.

Southeast Asian history is a young field, dating back not to medieval universities but

often only as far as French or British colonialism.7The great kingdom of Srivijaya

was first postulated to have existed only as recently as 1918, after the French

historian George Coedes solved a problem touching on Malay and Cola epigraphy as

well as the linguistic reconstruction of words preserved in both Arab and Chinese

texts.8 It is therefore entirely reasonable that the field is still focused on discovery

and documentation in a way that other historical studies are not. Yet it seems to me

that we are missing something in these accounts of pre-European insular Southeast

6 Liaw Yock Fang, Undang-undang Melaka (The Hague: M. Nijhoff, Bibliotheca Indonesica no. 13,
1976); and the chapter by the same author, "The Undang-Undang Melaka" in Melaka: The
Transformation o f a Malay Capital, eds. Sandhu and Wheatley, volume I, pp. 180-194. Note that this
work excludes the earliest known text of the Malaccan legal code, which was subsequently
discovered in the Vatican Archives.

7 Here it is worth noting that although the Portuguese, Spanish, and Dutch all brought their own
colonial projects to the region, these tended to be more single-mindedly mercantile or (in the former
two cases) both mercantile and religious in nature. It was chiefly the British who brought w ith them
an interest in amateur (although often high-level) scholarship, and the French very much followed
suit. At the same time, the Thais (never colonized, frequently open to new ideas) adopted their own
western-style scholarly tradition.

8 The relevant w ork is Coedes' "Le royaume de Crivijaya," BEFEO vol. 18, no. 6 (1 9 1 8 ): 1-36. Joseph
Toussaint Reinaud had noticed the problem and understood something of the importance of Srivijaya
as early as 1845, but although he was aware of references to the kingdom he did not make its study a
priority and he certainly did not go so far as to suggest that it was independent or had gained
anything like the size and importance that we now understand to have been the case. See J.T. Reinaud,
Relation des voyages p ar les Arabes et les Persons dans Tlnde et a la Chine dans le o r siecle de I'ere
chritienne, vol. 1 (Paris: Im prim erie royale, 1845), Ixxiii-lxxv.

Asia. We know, now, that Srivijaya existed and ruled over a vast area; the empire has

been conclusively confirmed in its grandeur by inscriptions, architecture,

archeological remains, art objects, and repeated mentions in geographies and annals

of other states. We are confident that much of the Malay Law Code was first written

down in the m id-lS * century. We have a good grasp of the Malay Annals and the

degree to which they record pseudo-history of a mythical nature instead of actual

fact, as well as the degree to which they do tell us something real about the time and

place of their composition. We know that Malaccan houses were commonly built

upon stilts,9 that the color yellow was reserved for the exclusive use of the royal

household,10 that Malacca's port was home to hundreds of ships at a time,11 and

even that the late-15th-century sultan Mahmud Shah was trying to have his kingdom

replace Mecca as the destination of choice for Southeast Asian Muslim pilgrims.12

Because of the good work that has been done over the last one hundred and fifty

years, we have amassed quite a lot of "the basic stuff of this particular history.

It remains true that Southeast Asianists have a responsibility to edit,

translate, and verify previously unpublished documents that can flesh out lost

histories. Southeast Asia is not yet China, Italy, Baghdad, or England. Given the

9 W.P. Groenevelt, Historical Note on Indonesia and Malaya. Compiled from Chinese Sources (Djakarta:

10 Undang-undang Melaka, fasl 1.1, the Royal Asiatic Society Archives, MS Raffles 74. Hereafter cited
as Undang-undang Melaka Raffles 74.

11 Ludovico de Varthema, Itinerario di Ludovico de Varthema, Bolognese: nello Egitto, nella Surria,
nella Arabia deserta e felice, nella Persia, mella India e nella Etiopia, la fede, el vivere e costumi de tutte
le prefate provincie, ed. Paolo Giudici (Milano: Alpes, 1929), 246.

12 Luis Felipe F.R. Thomaz, "The Malay sultanate of Melaka," in Southeast Asia in the Early Modern Era,
ed. Anthony Reid (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1993), 89.

paucity of documents and the relative lack of an extensive annalist tradition or

extant literary culture, however, the truth is that Southeast Asia - with the exception

of Sinicized, record-keeping Vietnam - will never rival these great historical nations

when it comes to the proliferation of text and countertext. This does not mean that

we should neglect the story of this part of the world in favor of the perpetual search

for ever-more-esoteric documents buried in the back rooms of ever-less-scrupulous

antiques dealers. To be sure, these searches continue and ought to continue;

Southeast Asianists still seek information not just in archives in London, Paris,

Leiden, Lisbon, and local national capitals, but also in the particular places and

among the particular peoples that interest them. Nonetheless, insular Southeast

Asian history is today moving away from soil and sea-lanes and into archives and

established collections. Wolters' 1969 admonition seems to me to show its age; on

the subject of Malacca in particular, one may rightly say that we have now amassed

an excellent body of diverse and accessible source material.

What we don't yet have is a composite analysis of these sources. What was it

like to actually live in an early Malay state? We have determined the age and

authenticity of the Malaccan Laws of the Sea; but what, we may ask, do they actually

tell us about Malacca?

1believe that we are ready for a new kind of early Southeast Asian history. In

saying this, of course I do not mean to suggest that Southeast Asianists in general

eschew "big questions" - indeed, scholars of Southeast Asia have long done just the

opposite, as evidenced by Jim Scott's musings on power and resistance, Benedict

Anderson’s work on community and nationhood, and Clifford Geertz on religion, to

name but a few examples. But I do mean that, with the notable exceptions of Coedes,

Anthony Reid, and Victor Lieberman, scholars have treated early Southeast Asian

history as a different and delicately incomprehensible thing. I disagree: it is my view

that we have available to us both the necessary information and the basic human

insight to be able to understand the people of even 15th-century Southeast Asia.

It is thus time for somebody to paint that composite picture of Malaccan

society and its history, incorporating all of the important philological and textual

work that has gone before but adding a further analytical and experiential element

to the subject. We have enough now to know much of what happened in 15th- and

early 16th-century Malacca. The time has come to ask why these things should have

happened where they did in the way that they did, what it meant then, and what it

means now for history and for mankind.

This, then, is the first hope for this study: I aim to produce a full

interpretation of Malaccan life and culture in the period from the founding of the

city in about the year 1400 through its fall to the Portuguese in 1511. My aim is to

paint a vivid historical picture of the city and its people during its period of greatest

prominence and importance.

Malacca's golden age was brief - lasting only from sometime in the 1420's

until the aforementioned Portuguese conquest - but it was uncommonly glittery.

Arab geographers like ibn Majid remembered Malacca for its spices, jewels, and

large numbers of ships. European observers were equally awed by the wealth that

flowed through Malacca port; upon seeing the quantities of spice traded there, the

Portuguese writer, explorer, and apothecary Thome Pires famously wrote that

"whoever is Lord of Malacca has his hand on the throat of Venice."13 As late as the

1390s, Malacca was a fishing village of negligible size; contemporary population

estimates suggest that at the turn of the 16th century the city had some 190,000

residents or more, making it one of the largest cities in the world at that time

(although the city's population fluctuated by season, with the monsoon). Yet

Malacca was a city of paradoxes. By all accounts, most parts of the city were

exceptionally violent - but Malacca was the first Southeast Asian power to adopt a

codified (if sometimes ineffectual) set of laws. Malacca under the sultans was

incredibly wealthy - yet the city minted few coins, and those chiefly to express the

legitimacy of the ruling sultan. (By contrast, trade in dirhams, ducats, and Chinese

cash was common.) Very early on the Malaccan court adopted Islam as the religion

of the ruling family, and many of the sultan's advisors (of whatever nationality)

were Muslim by creed - yet traditional Malay adat law and customs were often

preferred over well-known Islamic admonitions, even among state agents, even

when they were not Malay. And despite its large population, Malacca supported

negligible amounts of agriculture and imported almost all of its rice (though some

fruit was grown in the city).

These features suggest a characteristic of the city that will become more

13 Tome Pires, Thesuma oriental o f Tom 6 Pires, an account o f the East, from the Red Sea to Japan,
written in Malacca and India in 1512-1515, vol. 90, ed. Armando Cortesao (London: the Hakluyt
Society, 1944), 132.

pronounced as our study progresses, and this is the unprecedented and

experimental nature of much of what went on in 15th-century Malacca. In a sense,

we may say that Malacca embodied a laissez-faire attitude not just towards trade,

but also towards governance and culture. Everything from the city's eccentric tax

structure to its early adoption of Islam was unusual. Foreigners rubbed shoulders

with one another on the streets of Malacca, on ships in Malacca's harbor, and in the

sultan's gardens, and together they invented new economic instruments, new ideas

about what it meant to be a state, and new interpretations of old traditions.

Unusually, the state's rulers eagerly endorsed many of these new ideas, codifying

some of them and actively engaging with others (for example, by partaking in new

trade opportunities and by seeking to make Malacca a new variety of religious site).

Many of these experiments led to wild commercial successes. Nonetheless, a few of

these innovations came with dramatic drawbacks: Malacca's accommodation of

foreigners - which extended so far as to give them significant tax breaks if only they

would establish residency in the city - was not just unusual, but ultimately caused

the downfall of the city when discontented Tamils quietly opened the river gates to

an attacking Portuguese fleet in 1511.

The mention of the international character of Malacca leads to the second

major goal of this book: I hope to put Malacca into a broader regional context,

arguing that the city was not just internally experimental but that it was in fact a

new kind of Southeast Asian state. In some ways, this comparative project is

unavoidable. If this is a study of the particularities of culture and economics in one

small polity, it is also necessarily a study of the broader Asian world that presaged

Malacca's rise and that pressed in upon the city as it became established and

subsequently very wealthy. We know that Malacca had diplomatic relations with

China, and that various Malaccan sultans even visited Beijing. We know, too, that the

city was largely dependent upon Java for the continued provision of staple

foodstuffs. Border skirmishes with the expanding new Siamese kingdom of

Ayutthaya were a recurring feature in the lives of Malacca's residents. Malacca both

courted and competed with other regional commercial powers like Perak, Pasai, and


Malacca was at the forefront of a shifting cultural and political landscape that

characterized the region in this period. Where the great Southeast Asian states of

Pagan, Angkor, Srivijaya, and Majapahit had left vast monuments attesting to their

grandeur, Malacca became fabulously but only ephemerally wealthy; it left behind

texts and legal codes in lieu of temples and stonework. And where these earlier

states had been imperial in outlook, seeking to expand their respective borders,

Malacca remained a city-state without territorial ambition (though the city’s rulers

did value personal relationships that joined the Malaccan aristocracy to other

important families from around the Malay world). Malacca was essentially

mercantile, not essentially agrarian like its immediate Southeast Asian predecessors.

And, consistent with its new emphasis on text and law, Malacca emerged into a

newly Islamizing world in which indigenous folk religion and Hindu and Buddhist

cult were giving way to a stricter monotheism coming in from the west.

This is not to say that Southeast Asia was without independent city-states in

the years leading up to 1400; this is not the case, and with the fall of Srivijaya in the

13th century many port cities re-established themselves as independent

principalities along the chief littoral routes in the region. Nonetheless, Malacca was

unique in that it gained and maintained great wealth and power in a way that

previous individual cities had not. And once wealth had been assured, Malacca's

rulers embraced a new ideal of statehood when they chose not to expand

territorially, neither inward into the Malaysian jungle (on the model of Malacca's

great continental predecessors Sukothai and Angkor) nor overseas (like the city's

insular predecessors, Majapahit and Srivijaya). This restraint was surely a

consequence of Malacca's extreme mercantile character: Malacca's merchant-elite

remained quite happy to rule over a city of manageable size while investing in the

sea-trade with the remainder of their time. Malacca's sultan never had (and never

sought) great religious authority to rival the stature of the rulers of Pagan or Angkor.

Indeed, we would do well to see the role of Malacca's sultan as "trader-in-chief," an

idea given to us by Luis Filipe Thomaz. Because Malacca's aristocracy encouraged

trade instead of agricultural production, state officials were able to enrich

themselves through lucrative personal investments in merchant shipping. This helps

to explain why Malacca chose commerce over empire-building.

Malacca is well-located to take advantage of a preference for commerce. The

city is situated at the periphery of two separate trading realms: at the extreme

southwestern edge of the South China Sea trade, and at the extreme eastern end of

the Indian Ocean trade. This happy location made Malacca a ready enabler, bringing

together merchants from each side and allowing them each to purchase goods from

much farther afield. Moreover, because of the peculiarities of the monsoon winds in

the Straits of Malacca and the particular island formation just seaside of the city's

port, Malacca was located in a harbor-beyond-a-harbor, where ships could anchor

safely even during a storm. The median location on the narrow Malaccan straits kept

the city's waters calm and sheltered.

Politically, Malacca embraced its role on the periphery. Both its lack of strong

emphasis on state religion and the absence of great local monuments serve to show

that Malacca's residents did not particularly value their home as the center of any

universe. (By contrast, the great Buddhist monuments of Borobudur, on Java, and

Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom, in Angkor, today’s Cambodia, both place the

mountain-at-the-center-of-the-world firmly at the center of their respective capital

cities.) Malacca had an ingrained self-conception as a stop on a route rather than as

the hub of a wheel. This led the city to actively encourage immigration. It also kept

Malacca from developing a coherent single culture of its own.

With this in mind, my book has a third and final aim. I find that much of

Malacca's strength was in its differentiated diversity. Thome Pires said that 84

languages could be heard on the streets of Malacca,14 and whether this was strictly

true or not - it is, after all, relatively unlikely that he lounged about on street corners

counting them up - this does give a good indication of Malacca's welcoming attitude

and multicultural population. Gujaratis, Tamils, Chinese, Javanese, and Malays all at

one time or another served as advisors to Malacca's sultans; Arabs and Italians

visited the city and left their impressions. Yet Malacca mostly refrained from

homogenizing tendencies. The city had different taxes for traders of different

14 Pires, Suma Oriental, vol. 89,2 68 -9.

ethnicities. It had four different but parallel port officials (called shahbandars)

drawn from the four most important trading communities. It had at least two

different but equal police chiefs, to serve the Chinese residents (on one side of the

river) and the non-Chinese (on the other). Malacca was largely segregated, with

residents living in their own parts of town, subject to different laws (for example, a

Muslim could have more wives than a Hindu), and frequently trading in different

specie. Yet all of these people had to interact with one another, at court and at

Malacca's port. This fruitful atmosphere for exchange was one of Malacca's great

economic strengths.

But one conclusion of this work must be that Malacca's diversity was fragile

indeed. Difference was enshrined into administrative practice by making the

ethnoreligious community the basic unit of governance. But though heterogeneity

guaranteed Malacca's great wealth (since it ensured a place for traders of all

backgrounds), it also seems to have made Malacca an exceptionally violent city.

Greater control over the population as a whole must have been tempting, simply for

reasons of public safety; yet robust attempts to homogenize - intentional or not -

only hurt the city by compromising its position as a trade leader.

The final confirmation of this fact is illustrated by the Portuguese case. Upon

their ascent to power, the Portuguese immediately set about rationalizing the

administration of what had been an extraordinarily lawless laissez-faire port.

Portuguese administrators mandated the use of a uniform currency, they replaced

communal leaders and officials with their own single set of Portuguese

administrators, and they brought with them a zealous missionary arm that set out to

win Christian converts in the East. These changes threatened the many cultures that

were practiced on the ground in Malacca, and so predictably they grated on the

population of the city. Importantly, the very vast majority of Malacca's residents had

only been in the city for a few generations at the most; they almost invariably had

trading ties to other parts of the world. When conditions in Malacca became more

onerous for the city's residents, those residents simply left. This explains the swift

decline of the city. It also highlights the fragility of its productive diversity, so bright

and shining for such a short period.


Malacca was a city o f foreigners. This chapter emphasizes the degree to which even
the Malay inhabitants o f Malacca (and certainly Malacca's Malay ruling fam ily)
had their origins elsewhere. I t also explores Malacca's earliest links with China.


The city of Malacca was built for trade. It was always a way station, a place

where goods were aggregated before being sent out again to the Coromandel coast

or the South China Sea, a place where wanderers met and where sailors counted out

the weeks before a seasonal shift in wind could take them on their way once more. It

was well-situated for this role: Malacca lay on the southwest coast of the Malay

peninsula at a point where the eponymous Straits of Malacca met a fine natural

harbor and a navigable river. The straits formed a narrow choke-point through

which nearly all trans-Asian shipping necessarily had (and still has) to travel, and so

in the fifteenth century Malacca grew fabulously wealthy as a consequence of its

dominant position along the India-to-China sea-route. In the words of the great

Portuguese apothecary and traveler Tome Pires (writing in 1509), "Malacca is a city

that is made for merchandise, better than all other [cities] on earth, the end of some

monsoons and the beginning of others. It is surrounded and lies in the middle, and

the trade and commerce between the various nations for a thousand leagues on

either side must come to Malacca."15

In the days of sailing ships, it was the monsoons that ensured Malacca’s

prominence. Navigators sailing before the wind found that they were naturally

blown towards the city in either summer or winter (depending on their point of

origin), thence to be blown home again six months later. This wind-shift was

dramatic; within the space of a September week in 1699, the English navigator

William Dampier was able to watch the winds change from southerly to northerly,

and they changed from easterly to westerly over the course of a three-week period:

"From the Time of our coming to our last Anchoring place, the Sea-
Breezes which before were Easterly and very strong, had been
whiffling about and changing... from the East to the North, and thence
to the West, blowing but faintly, and now hanging mostly in some
Point of the West.16

The changing winds that Dampier witnessed were just a small part of the vast trans-

Asian weather system that particularly favored the Straits of Malacca. In general, in

the (northern hemisphere) summer months, hot trade winds blew from west to east

across the Indian Ocean, towards the Malay peninsula and from there

northeastwards as far as Korea. At the same time, the Indo-Australian monsoon

blew in from the southeast, bringing ships north from the Molucca islands and the

Australian coast. In the winter, by contrast, these winds reversed so that the East

Asian monsoon blew from the northeast down towards the Malay peninsula, the

15 Pires, Suma Oriental, vol. 9 0 ,5 0 9

16 Dampier kept careful records during his voyage in 1699, but first published this account in 1729.
W illiam Dampier, A Voyage to New Holland, ed. James Spencer (Gloucester: Alan Sutton Publishing,
1981), 151.

South Asian monsoon blew from the southeast towards the Indian subcontinent,

and the Indo-Australian monsoon pushed back towards the southeast; this last was

the monsoon that Dampier watched roll in in the excerpt above. For a brief period in

the spring, all three systems met at the Straits of Malacca, putting the city at the

center of Asia's long-distance sea trade. (Note, though, that mariners hoping to ride

the monsoons to Malacca from different directions would scarcely have seen each

other in the middle; the journey itself took long enough that the fortuitous meeting

of winds could not practically result in a meeting of ships.17)

Importantly, throughout the year and whatever the prevailing winds, the

straits themselves remained navigable. The island of Sumatra protected Malacca

from westerly winds, the Malay peninsula and the island of Borneo together blocked

northeasterly winds, and winds from the southeast were cut off by the Indonesian

island chain. And even when storms did rarely sweep through the straits, the port of

Malacca itself remained a calm anchorage: the river that bisected the city could also

shelter small boats, while an offshore island served as a substantial windblock to

shield the harbor from any untoward wind and waves.

17 To understand why a sailor from the Coromandel coast and a sailor from China would not meet
despite the fact that the monsoons briefly sent all boats towards the Straits of Malacca in the
springtime, consider that the navigator from Coromandel would only just be setting off for Malacca
on the first eastward-bound winds in late spring, at which time the Chinese sailor would still be at
Malacca waiting out the last gasp of the monsoon winds still blowing southwest across the South
China Sea. The monsoons themselves would thus be blowing, briefly, towards Malacca from both
directions - but soon enough the winds over the South China Sea would shift w ith the reversed
summer monsoon. A responsible sailor heading east would set out as soon as the winds were stable,
leaving Malacca before the Indians could yet arrive. For more detail on monsoons and wind patterns
across Asia, see Masatoshi M. Yoshino, "W inter and Summer Monsoons and the Navigation in East
Asia in Historical Age [sic]," Geojournal, Vol. 3, no. 2: The Asian Monsoon and its Economic
Consequences (1979), 161-169. Also see R.O. Whyte et. al., "The Ecological Setting," in Melaka: The
Transformation of a Malay Capital, vol. I, 71-76. Finally, also see Bin Wang, The Asian Monsoon (New
York: Springer, 2006).

The consequence of these several happy geographical accidents was that

Malacca was ideally situated to serve as the entrepot joining east to west, the link

between China, India, and the spice islands. The location was right, the winds were

favorable, and the harbor was sound. In hindsight, it seems only natural that

Malacca became an important international port.

To contemporary eyes, however, this must actually have seemed unlikely.

Before the fifteenth century, Malacca was inhabited by only a very small population,

perhaps only hundreds or dozens of people, or perhaps none at all. Prior to 1403,

there is no mention of Malacca in any Arabic, Chinese, or Malay document, or indeed

in any other known text.18 The 1365 Javanese panegyric the Negarakertagama

includes a geographical section listing Southeast Asian maritime cities; Malacca is

not on the list. No stela naming Malacca has been found to pre-date 1403. And

archaeological excavations from earlier periods suggest that the area hosted only a

tiny coastal population.

Tom6 Pires wrote that early Malacca was inhabited exclusively by primitive

"sea pirates" who harried shipping through the straits: they were "corsairs in small

light craft... men who go out pillaging in their boats and fish, and are sometimes on

18 The earliest known reference, from 1403, is in the Ming Taizong Shilu, juan 24.5b, in which the
eunich Yin Qing was directed to bring silks and parasols to the Malaccan king. Anthony Reid,
"Economic and Social Change c. 1400-1800,” in The Cambridge History o f Southeast Asia, ed. Nicholas
Tarling, Vol. 1, part 2 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 133.

land and sometimes at sea.... They carry blow-pipes and their small arrows of black

hellebore which, as they touch blood, kill."19

Despite Malacca's desirable location and excellent harbor, this was a

naturally hostile territory. Malacca's waters were full of saltwater crocodiles, some

reaching to lengths of twenty feet or more. Crowded by thick jungle on all sides, the

village’s inhabitants were surrounded by tigers (reported Tome Pires),20

rhinoceroses and leopards (according to Chinese tributary records),21 in addition to

the more innocuous deer, mouse deer, tapirs, lorises, monkeys, birds, and other

wildlife that inhabit so much of the Southeast Asian forest. Rather more threatening

was the land itself. Although they practiced a certain amount of subsistence

gardening, the people living at Malacca before its development as a city were not

farmers; despite the pressing jungle, the poverty of Malacca's ferralitic soil meant

that large-scale agriculture would never be practiced there.22

19 This is his description of the Celates, whom he later identifies as the original inhabitants of Malacca.
Pires, Suma Oriental, vol. 89, 233 and 235.

20 Ibid., 234-5.

21 Ming Shilu, Xianzong juan 141.2b-3a (9 June 1475). I am indebted to Geoff Wade, who maintains a
brilliantly-searchable scholarly website with translations of and references for vast portions the Ming
shilu. When I refer to the Ming shilu or the Veritable Records of the Ming, I have always consulted
W ade’s translations. (My own translations do not always follow his exactly. We chiefly differ in our
preferred translation conventions for place names, and I occasionally diverge from him in other small
ways; where a change is substantive, 1 have noted this). I have also made unabashed use of his search
function. Geoff Wade, translator, Southeast Asia in the Ming Shi-lu: an open access resource (Singapore:
Asia Research Institute and the Singapore E-Press, National University of Singapore,
http://epress.nus.edu.sg/msl), accessed 2 /1 2 /2 0 1 3 .

22 R.O. Whyte reports on ferralitic soil that "the prevailing feature of such soils is, in varying degrees,
low natural fertility.” Ultimately, he concludes, "Melaka’s resources and potentialities have inhered
prim arily in her strategic location rather than her site. The latter, both in the narrow sense of the
land on which the city stood and in the broader sense of its immediately dependent territory, was
never especially well-endowed and could, in fact, have been duplicated a hundred times in western
Southeast Asia." R.O. Whyte, op. cit., 84-94.

There is something poetic in the fact that Malacca's land was inherently

inadequate to feed a population of any size, for this was always a city that looked to

the sea for sustenance. Pires’ sea pirates were by turns also fishermen, and they

would subsequently form the basis of Malacca's legitimate navy. They lived on the

edge of a sea-based Malay world, sharing cultural and linguistic ties with people

elsewhere on the coasts of the Malay peninsula, eastern Sumatra (across the Straits

to the west), and Borneo (across the South China Sea to the east). If their village was

entirely forgettable, their 14th-century way of life would likely have been familiar to

the seagoing Malays who lived in coastal settlements scattered across the

Indonesian archipelago. Indeed, during the period of the once-great Srivijayan

empire, these "sea-pirates" would in fact have been integrated into a much larger

political system.

But as late as the 1380s, activity at Malacca was minimal, unimportant even

to Malacca's closest neighbors. Without widespread agriculture or recorded long­

distance trade in staple foodstuffs (and it is reasonable to think that literate, rice-

exporting Java in particular would have recorded such trade), with few nearby

natural resources, and given its glaring absence in the extant archaeological and

historical record, Malacca could not have been more than a very small village at this


Yet in 1411, less than a decade after its first mention in any literature

anywhere, Malacca sent a 540-person embassy to China. The mission returned with

more than "100 liang of gold, 500 Hang of silver, 400,000 guan of paper money,

2,600 guan of copper cash," numerous varieties of silk, and various specific gifts.23

Where did this populous, valuable, suddenly-important city come from? Who were

those 540 people and how did they come to represent Malacca in China?


From the outside, it is easy to embrace idea that Malacca’s foundation and

swift growth occurred ex nihilo. Historical and archaeological records show us

nothing, and then suddenly they describe for us a great city seemingly formed in

little more than a historical moment. Later Malay legend reinforces this reading:

famously, the Sejarah Melayu explains that a Malay prince decided to found the city

when he saw a small mouse deer kick one of his hunting dogs (precisely the type of

dog that would hunt a mouse deer) into the Malacca river.24 This unlikely story gave

Malacca an origin that was mystical, lucky, even magical.25 According to the legend,

the city was a one-off, the site of extraordinary events from its very beginning.

Yet the truth is that Malacca did not at first represent a very great break from

the recent past, nor did it flourish magically where once there had been nothing.

Malacca was founded in the wake of great regional instability, including in particular

the fall of Srivijaya, the vast Malay maritime empire that crumbled in the fourteenth

23 Ming shilu, Taizong, juan 119.2b-3a (2 Oct. 1411).

24 Sejarah Melayu, Library of the Royal Asiatic Society, MS Raffles 18,4. (Hereafter, cited as Sejarah
Melayu Raffles 18.)

25 It also gave Malacca the same origin story as its near Malay neighbor Pasai and as several towns in
South India where the story originated. Wheatley, Impressions o f the Malay Peninsula in Ancient Times
(Singapore: Eastern Universities Press, 1964), 121.

century. Chinese and European sources agree that Malacca's founder was the Malay

prince Parameswara, an heir to the Srivijayan throne made itinerant by the

protracted collapse of his empire under pressure from the expanding Javanese

kingdom of Majapahit. Seen in this light, the story of the mouse deer besting the

hunting dog is no longer just a tale of magical new beginnings explaining the rise of

a great city. Instead, it reflects a world in which things are topsy-turvy: at Malacca,

the weak become strong and the hunted become the hunters. Obscured by the

knowledge of Malacca's subsequent greatness, the city's foundation myth thus

retains the historical memory of a dispossessed court and its hope for renewed

power while under threat from stronger enemies.

The first Malaccans did not see their city as a new polity in its own right but

as the Srivijayan successor to earlier capitals just across the straits at Palembang

and Melayu-Jambi. This is a key point. Chinese naval officers, Portuguese traders,

and Dutch and British colonial officials all knew Malacca as a safe harbor that

catered for itinerant seafarers, but they all also saw Malacca as a fundamentally

Malay kingdom: yes, the city was full of foreign occupants by the mid-fifteenth

century, and yes, Malacca’s chief commercial strength was its usefulness as a port

for people with backgrounds in diverse and far-flung places - but after all, Malacca

had a resident Malay population, a native Malay ruling family, and local Malay

traditions which were very much indigenous to the site. Surely it was easy to know

who counted as "foreign" and who counted as "local."

In a way, this was all quite correct. Malacca’s first inhabitants were indeed

Malay. Their social and later legal conventions were similar to those found across an

extensive sea-based Malay ethno-linguistic zone. Moreover, the site was clearly

within an old and well-established sphere of Malay political and cultural power,

close to other Malay cities on the peninsular coast and very near the recent center of

Malay power on eastern Sumatra.

But in a different way, fifteenth-century Malacca was a city of foreigners in

the truest sense of the phrase. If Malacca was physically close to other Malay cities,

nonetheless the city's Malay inhabitants (and certainly Malacca's Malay ruling

family) had their origins elsewhere: they came primarily from Sumatra but also

from points scattered across island Southeast Asia and the Malay peninsula, where

they had made their homes as late as 1395. The raja Parameswara shepherded

Malacca through its tumultuous beginnings and he rightly gets the credit for

founding the city, but Parameswara himself was never very strongly tied to the

place; he had ruled from three other locales before Malacca and saw himself, first, as

heir to the Srivijayan throne, no matter where that throne might be physically

located at any particular time. Malacca itself held no special importance for him.

Indeed, when Malacca sent its 540-person embassy to China in 1411, Parameswara

personally led the trip, leaving the city he founded to fend for itself while he was


It's tempting to see the China trip as just one more instance of Parameswara

abandoning a city in the same way that he had previously abandoned Palembang,

and the cities of Temasik and Muar as well - but in this case he did return several

months later on the next monsoon and there is no real reason to doubt that that was

the intention all along. Nonetheless, the trip emphasizes the degree to which

Parameswara thought of Malacca as a convenient but expendable home, a place that

he and many of his followers would leave behind for months even when the site was

threatened by local rivals.

Malay loyalty was to person, not to place. Parameswara's followers, the first

Malay inhabitants to come to Malacca in any numbers, were loyal to Parameswara

as an individual (or perhaps as a representative of a particular dynasty), but they

were in no way loyal to Malacca as such. Like their ruler, they saw themselves as

transients; and like him, hundreds of them went to China in 1411. Even more

tellingly, when the 1511 Portuguese conquest of Malacca prompted an exodus from

the city, ethnic Malays were some of the first to abandon the place (which they did

en masse). A careful look at the Malay Annals, which are usually interpreted as a

history of the Malaccan kingdom, shows that they, too, are more accurately

understood as a dynastic record of a single ruling family and its many itinerant

followers;26 and indeed, the Annals begin their story in Palembang (strictly, they

begin with Alexander the Great, but he is mentioned only in passing) and end at

26 "The Malay Annals,” Sejarah Melayu in Malay, is a slight misnomer: sejarah means "history" in
modern Malay and is conventionally translated as "annals" in the case of a number of similar
historical texts, but the word once meant something more like “genealogy” and this gives a better
sense of its true meaning here. A variant version o f the Annals text has even come down to us with
the title Turunan raja-raja Johor, or, “the descent of the Johor kings." Notably, what was important to
those who recorded these particular histories was not nation-as-place but rather nation-as-people.
Here there is no terroir, no "promised land" or "homeland" or, indeed, any land at all to give the
"Malaccan" Malays a history. Rather, the Annals prominently feature important acts and individuals,
and tell their interlinked human stories with very little reference to attachment to Malacca or indeed
to any place at all.

Johor. And even into the seventeenth century, Malaccans - now displaced to Johor,

in the latest chapter of their wanderings - remembered themselves as being

primarily from Palembang, attached to and glorified by their connection to the

Srivijayan royal family despite the fact that Srivijaya itself had ceased to exist more

than two hundred years before.27 Even for the Malays, then, Malacca was no

permanent home.

But though he led a historically peripatetic group, Parameswara didn’t

simply wander his way to China. Rather, the 1411 trip was Parameswara's attempt

to forge a military alliance that would protect his loyal followers. To understand

why such a trip was both sensible and necessary, we have to delve much more

deeply into the history and geopolitics of Parameswara's Southeast Asia.


Between the 9th and the 13th centuries, insular Southeast Asia was dominated

by Srivijaya, a Malay maritime empire that would eventually extend from Sumatra

to Borneo, from southern Thailand around the entire Malay peninsula to perhaps as

far away as the Visaya islands in today's Philippines.28 It was a thalassocracy which

controlled linked seaside city-states; "land routes, apart from the trans-isthmian

27 This becomes very dear, in particular, when reading the Johor version of the Malay Annals
preserved at the Royal Asiatic Society, London, MS Raffles 18 (op. cit.J.

28 For the earliest inscriptions and other evidence for expansive Srivijaya (including 7th century
archaeological finds], see Coedes, Les Etats Hindouises d'Indochine et d’Indonesie (Paris: E. de Boccard,
1964), 154-161.

portages, were practically non-existent," according to Paul Wheatley.29 Yet despite

the fact of little landed territory, Srivijaya’s maritime control meant that the empire

grew to be both powerful and wealthy, and in the Arab literature in particular it

became legendary. For example, al-MascudI wrote of "the kingdom of the maharaja,"

who ruled over "Java and the other islands in the Chinese Sea, among them Kalah

and Srivijaya [ c ^ “, here misidentified as an island]." "The empire has an enormous

population and armies beyond counting," he wrote, and "even in the fastest boat

nobody can visit these islands in two years’ time, and all of these [islands] are

inhabited."30 For their part, the Chinese reported that Srivijaya conducted

international business not in the usual Chinese copper cash but rather in "chopped

off lumps of silver,” which it seemed to have in abundance. They wrote, too, of

golden offerings and jeweled headdresses that were used for Srivijayan court

functions. When somebody became mortally ill, it was said that the maharaja of

Srivijaya "distributes his weight in silver among the poor of the land" to stave off

29 Wheatley, Impressions o f the Malay Peninsula in Ancient Times, op. cit., 84.

30 Gabriel Ferrand, Relations de Voyages et Textes G6ographiques Arabes, Persons et Turks Relatifs a
L'Extreme-Orient du 8eAu 18e SiHcles, vol. 1 (Paris: Ernest Leroux, 1913), 109-110. Note that Srivijaya
was not, of course, an island - but its inclusion in Mas'udl's text does confirm that he is talking here
about the correct maharaja. There is a long tradition in both Arabic and Chinese texts of identifying
"Srivijaya" sometimes as a city (Palembang), sometimes as an island (Sumatra), and sometimes as the
entire maritime empire that I and other modern scholars call by that name. This synecdoche is akin
to our use of "Rome" for both city and empire, or of "Downing Street" to indicate in turns a road in
London’s Westminster, the British prime minister’s office, the government of Great Britain, or (in
times past) the entire British overseas empire. Here, "Srivijaya" is being used as a proxy for
Palembang specifically, while Kalah (ruled over by the same maharaja) is named explicitly because it
is on the Malay peninsula on the other side of the Straits of Malacca; "it was clearly possession of both
sides of the straits that constituted the power of the maharaja of Zabag [£>.>*= Srivijaya]," says
Coedes in his The Indianized States o f Southeast Asia. (For this, see specifically the edited English-
language version translated by Susan Brown Cowing and edited by W alter F. Vella, East-West Center
Press, Honolulu: 1968, pg. 130. The original 1948 French edition includes much the same quote
about the importance of controlling both sides of the straits, but it is only in the later English version
that Coed£s adds the compelling justification for rendering the Arabic J ^ i n t o the now-more-
fam iliar Srivijaya.)

death, a religious practice consistent with Srivijaya's Buddhism but also an

extraordinary display of worldly treasure.31 Such wealth allowed Srivijaya to show

off abroad: according to an inscription erected at Canton in 1079, the maharaja of

Palembang (the Srivijayan capital) gave 600,000 pieces of gold to a Taoist Temple in

China.32 Meanwhile, the Xin Tangshu, a Chinese history, declared that Srivijaya

controlled 14 cities;33 Zhou Rugua later listed 15 Srivijayan dependencies including

not only Langgasuka and Palembang on Sumatra, but also Pahang, Kelantan, and

Trengganu on the Malay Peninsula, Sunda (western Java), and also (unbelievably)


Parameswara was heir to all of this. He was born in Palembang and could

trace his lineage back through the Palembang aristocracy to the Srivijayan glory

days. But Parameswara's youth was characterized by the slow collapse of his

birthright, and by 1400, Srivijaya as a coherent empire was no more.

31 This might seem unbelievable or at least exaggerated to us today, but Hirth and Rockhill assure us
that not only is the claim possible but the practice itself is much-attested in various parts of
subcontinental India. Chau Ju-kua [Chao Rugua ffi'& iii], His Work on the Chinese and Arab Trade in
the twelfth and thirteenth Centuries, entitled Chu-fan-ch'i, ed. and trans. Friedrich Hirth and W. W.
Rockhill (St. Petersburg: Printing Office of the Imperial Academy of Sciences, 1911), 60-61 & 64-65,
note 11. As for Buddhism in Srivijaya, it seems that religious fervor in Palembang was very much
reduced since the time in the seventh century when "more than a thousand Buddhist priests" taught
in Palembang and when Chinese pilgrims were advised to stop for a year or two in Srivijaya to study
Buddhist rules and practice before moving on to their real goal of reading Buddhist texts in India.
Coedes, Les Etats Hindouises, 141-143.

32 Yeok Seong, "The Sri Vijayan inscription of Canton (A.D. 1079)," Journal o f South East Asian History,
2 (1965), 18-19.

33 Wolters, The Fall o f Srivijaya, 9.

34 Hirth and Rockhill, op. cit., 62.

The collapse came in slow motion. It began in the late thirteenth century

when repeated attacks from the Javanese kingdom of Majapahit to the south forced

the Srivijayan court to move north to Melayu-Jambi, largely abandoning their

historical and cultural capital at Palembang. Deprived of their best port and with the

Javanese contesting control of all of southern Sumatra, Srivijaya fractured and split.

In 1370, the Chinese sent an envoy directly to Brunei, which they had previously

recognized only as a Srivijayan dependency,35 and four years later Brunei was

mentioned as a wholly separate kingdom, independent and without obligation to

any regional power.36 That same year, a confusion of tributary missions led the

Chinese to record that there were now three different competing kings of

Srivijaya;37 and though Wolters thinks the three kings were not contemporaneous,38

even he doesn’t deny that in 1374 there were at least two separate and seemingly

uncoordinated Malay missions to China: one originating from Jambi, the other from

Palembang. (The “third" Malay king is a mystery, but may have referred to the ruler

of non-Malay Majapahit, which was recorded intercepting Chinese envoys to

Srivijaya and which sent a tribute ship to China with 75,000 catties of pepper in

13 8 2.39) It is probably correct to say that by this time there was little left of any

unified Malay polity, and if Srivijaya still existed at all, it was only within its

35Ming shilu, Taizu, juan 55.4a (12 Sept. 1370)

36 Ming shilu, Taizu, juan 88.4b-5a (9 May 1374).

37 Wolters, The Fall o f Srivijaya, 59.

38 Ibid.

39 Ming shilu, Taizu, juan 141.4a (29 Jan. 1382).

Sumatran capitals at Palembang (long-since demoted in status and now under

Javanese suzerainty) and Melayu-Jambi. For 20 years, the Chinese would hear

nothing at all of the Malay empire.40 Finally, in 1397, the Ming Annals reported, "Java

has already destroyed Srivijaya and taken possession of it... Srivijaya is a ruined


Malacca grew out of the fights that are missing from the Chinese record, the

fights between Javanese forces (representing Majapahit) and Palembang forces left

over from the old Srivijayan empire. Sometime in the 1390s, Java attacked and

finally despoiled Palembang. Tome Pires, the Portuguese chronicler, recorded

Parameswara’s ignominious flight from his hometown that resulted:

"When Paramjcura [Parameswara], king of Palembang, saw this [that the

Javanese were nearby and killing indiscriminately], he collected about a
thousand men and their wives in junks and lancharas, and embarked them,
and he stayed on land with about six thousand men to give battle to the king of
Java, his brother-in-law. After both sides had engaged in battle, Paramjcura
fled and took refuge in the junks and fleet he had in the river, and all the
people he had to defend him fell into the hands of his brother-in-law, and [he
had] only the people who had embarked with him. He sailed to Singapore
where he arrived with his junks and people...."42

If Tome Pires is to be believed, Parameswara must have arrived in Singapore

(then called Temasik) with about a thousand Malay men and women who knew him

40 Wolters, The Fall o f Srivijaya, 66.

41 Quoted in Wolters, The Fall o f Srivijaya, 71.

42 This information was hearsay passed down over the course of the previous hundred years, and
Pires' story was certainly colored by his Malaccan informants in order to paint the Malays as heroes
and the Javanese as villains. Yet even Pires agrees that Palembang had become a vassal to Majapahit
long before the final attack that was to "abolish" the city and force the ruling Parameswara to move
his court abroad.42 And even he can’t help but tell the story as a tale of grave m ilitary defeat and
hurried maritime flight. Pires, Suma Oriental, vol. 89, 231.

as their ruler. We needn't trust to the literal truth of this round number in order to

believe that the accompanying entourage was substantial. The numbers cited by

Pires are plausible, if not particularly well corroborated; the Sejarah Melayu records

a similar flight from Palembang comprising 300 boats (likely a memory of the same

event described by Pires, although the early history of the Sejarah Melayu is

complicated by the inclusion of myth, legend, and substantial political bias in favor

of Malay greatness).43 And recall that Parameswara’s grand 1411 embassy to China

included some 540 of his "attendants” who together managed the journey from

Malacca to Beijing, giving us some independent idea of the kind of following this

ruler was able to command and the scale of Malay seafaring over even very long


At any rate, Parameswara certainly had enough support to feel safe

assassinating the ruler of Temasik soon after his arrival there. He then took over the

city for himself, and "the channel and towns remained under the sway of

Paramycura."45 This "sway" was no Srivijaya-style littoral control; piracy in the

straits continued in the years leading up to 1400 and trade unsurprisingly stayed

away. (Indeed, Parameswara’s Temasik may have been as much a part of the

problem as a victim of it: the king was reported to have "no trade at all except that

his people planted rice and fished and plundered their enemies."46) Despite the

43 Sejarah Melayu Raffles 18, 7-8.

44 Ming shilu, Taizong juan 117.3b-4a (14 Aug. 1411).

45 Pires, Suma Oriental, vol. 89,2 32 .

46 Ibid.

limited extent of his rule, however, Parameswara had usurped the throne of a city of

some consequence. The combined Malay populations of old Singaporeans and

newcomers from Palembang numbered in the several thousands. Temasik itself

grew to become the center of a now modestly larger kingdom which included towns

located on the many islands off the south coast of Singapore. And, importantly,

Parameswara's small domain was becoming a thorn in the side of the young and

growing kingdom of Ayutthaya, which claimed (but had not yet established)

dominion over the whole of the Malay peninsula and Singapore.47 Consequently, five

years after taking power in Temasik the minor Malay king Parameswara would

again be fleeing with a large cohort of followers - but this time the pursuers would

be not the Javanese but rather agents of Ayutthaya. This latter flight would take

Parameswara north, briefly to Muar and thence to Malacca, where he would finally

be able to make a name for himself in presiding over a stable city.

Parameswara's tale of battle and flight must be understood in the context of

much larger forces affecting all of Southeast Asia at the turn of the fifteenth century.

Palembang’s fall and Malacca's rise came at a time of broad turmoil across a vast

region. For the several hundred years leading up to 1300, Southeast Asia had been

dominated by a few great powers: Pagan ruled over the Irrawaddy delta in the west;

Angkor controlled the majority of the Indochinese peninsula including the Mekong

and Tonle Sap basins; Champa maintained a maritime empire on the far east coast;

independent Vietnemese dynasties ruled over an efficient Chinese-style

47 Paul Wheatley catalogs the expansion and aspirations of Ayutthaya on the Malay peninsula in his
The Golden Khersonese: Studies in the historical geography o f the Malay Peninsula before A.D. 1500
(Kuala Lumpur: University of Malaya Press, 1961}, 301-305.

administration immediately north of Champa in what is today northern Vietnam;

and Srivijaya controlled Malay lands in Sumatra, Borneo, and on the Malay

peninsula as well as the Straits of Malacca, the Sunda Strait, the Java Sea, the

Karimata Strait, and parts of the South China Sea. All of these polities were long-

lived: Srivijaya was first attested in an inscription from Palembang written in 683,

while Angkor, Champa, and Pagan dated to the ninth century. Independent

Vietnamese rule came with the rise of the Ngo dynasty in 939 after a protracted

period of struggle against the Chinese. Yet by the time Parameswara had usurped

the Temasik throne, Srivijaya and Pagan had both disappeared, and both in living

memory (just, in the case of Pagan). Ayutthaya had gained control over much of the

Angkorian hinterland and had an eye on Angkor itself, while Vietnam was less than

a decade from renewed Chinese occupation for the first time since the early 900s.

Only Champa seemed to be standing firm, and even there it appears in hindsight

that much was tenuous; Vietnamese forces would sack the Cham capital at Vijaya in


Victor Lieberman calls this the "fourteenth century crisis" in Southeast Asian

history,48 but it might be better to see this period merely as a time of great change -

for in crisis was also opportunity. New powers were rising to take advantage of the

power vacuum across the region and new ethnic groups saw this as their moment of

ascendency. Numerous small empires disputed over control of the Irrawaddy, each

hoping to inherit the wealth and power of Pagan. Thai Ayutthaya was eager to take

48 Victor Lieberman, Strange Parallels: Southeast Asia in Global Context, c.800-1830: Volume 1.
Integration on the Mainland (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 120.

over from Khmer Angkor, while Sukhothai pushed into the same region from the

west. Javanese Majapahit, of course, was looking to the waterways once controlled

by Malay Srivijaya. Parameswara and his renegade Malays were part of an old world

order that was swiftly being superseded.

Portuguese and Malay sources agree that Temasik was attacked in the 1390s

as retribution for Parameswara's murder of the former ruler, making no mention of

the broader political forces at work. It was probably true that one motivation for the

attack was indeed revenge: the Thai king was father-in-law to the ruler that

Parameswara had murdered, while an important official at Patani was the same

man's maternal grandfather.49 Under the direction of Ayutthaya (to which Patani

paid tribute), the Patani mandarin led the attack that drove Parameswara from

Temasik, thus regaining his gransdon’s throne. It therefore makes sense to see the

Thai-Patani attack on Temasik as an act of revenge for a very personal wrong.

Nonetheless, despite the familial ties and the personal nature of the outrage

at Parameswara's usurpation in Temasik, it would be wrong to say that this episode

was carried out merely as an act of personal vengeance. To some extent, this is

because the personal and the political were intentionally intermixed in pre-modern

Southeast Asia (as in the pre-modern world generally): diplomatic marriages like

those linking Ayutthaya to Temasik and Patani to Ayutthaya were arranged

precisely in order to solidify alliances and tributary relationships. Anthony Reid

writes that, among the rulers of Southeast Asia, contracted marriage was a

49 Pires, Suma Oriental, vol. 89,2 32 .

"diplomatic weapon”;50 Clifford Geertz wrote that the exchange of royal women

(who did have some agency in the arrangement) could comprise "a form of tribute,

an act of homage, [or] an oath of fealty."51 The very point of the Temasik prince

marrying a daughter of the Thai raja was to broadcast to the world that Ayutthaya

had granted him legitimacy and support. The arrangement meant that Ayutthayan

prestige was equally at stake when Parameswara had attacked and deposed (and

killed) the ruler of Temasik. And if this Ayutthayan interest wasn't explicit, it was

nonetheless well-understood; when Parameswara and his thousand Malays stormed

into Temasik at the end of the fourteenth century, they certainly knew that seizing

the throne would thrust them into a much bigger regional struggle.

It may be that they also believed Temasik to be sufficiently distant from the

heart of Thai power that Ayutthaya and its allies would leave the city for lost despite

the coup and the attendant decline in Ayutthaya's reputation in the region. After all,

Temasik was at the far southern tip of the Malay peninsula while the Thais mostly

occupied the area north of the Kra isthmus; whatever its claims, Ayutthaya had little

real control over the space in between. This must have informed Parameswara’s

usurpation. And initially, such a calculation was correct. For, despite the received

tale of personal vengeance and offended kinsmen, in fact we find that in 1390

Ayutthaya was preoccupied fighting on its northern borders and no retaliating army

50 Anthony Reid, Southeast Asia in the Age o f Commerce, 1450-1680: Volume One: The Lands Below the
Winds (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1988), 151.

51 Clifford Geertz, N egara: the Theatre State in Nineteenth Century Bali (Princeton, New Jersey:
Princeton University Press, 1980), 35.

was forthcoming. It took five years before the Thai-Patani force saw fit to launch the

attack that forced Parameswara to leave Temasik.

The truth is that to some large extent the usurpation of the Temasik throne

and the murder of its former occupant must have been as much a pair of excuses for

a politically expedient attack as they were genuine reasons for the campaign.

Temasik was less important than the cross-cultural fighting that had kept Ayutthaya

occupied on the continent until 1395, and Ayutthaya was therefore willing to let

Parameswara's usurpation go unpunished at that time. But even as Parameswara

consolidated his power over Temasik and the nearby small islands, Ayutthaya’s

struggles against Angkor and other neighbors were giving way to greater stability

for the young and increasingly powerful continental kingdom. The subjugation of

Sukhothai was effected sometime during the second rule of King Ramesuan (r.

1388-1395], and the Ayutthaya chronicles relate the conquest of Chiang Mai (then

capital of Lan Na to Ayutthaya's northwest] in 1390. The time was ripe for

Ayutthaya to turn its attentions southwards and to attend to the business of

reaffirming its suzerainty over Temasik and the whole of the Malay peninsula. This

is why a well-coordinated, well-armed attack on the city was only forthcoming in

the mid-1390s, several years after Parameswara had murdered the former Temasik


And so Parameswara and his followers were once again faced with the

prospect of all-out war. From Temasik, "about a thousand men” fled yet again, this

time to Muar on the Malay peninsula, very close to the future site of Malacca.52 Here

they stayed for several uneventful years - Tome Pires suggests six years, and

various scholars suggest anywhere between two and six - before moving to Malacca

proper, with its excellent harbor and small but fierce population of pirate-fishermen

This is the true beginning of the story of Malacca.


All of this may seem incidental to a study of Malacca itself. But in fact, it is

essential to understand the background against which the rapid construction and

population of this remarkable city took place. For, when they finally got to Malacca,

Parameswara and his Malay followers had been wanderers without a permanent

home for more than a decade. Twice they had been forced to flee ahead of larger,

better-equipped forces. Palembang was their original point of departure and it was

remembered as the home of an empire legendary for its wealth and power, but it

had also been recently humiliated at the hands of Majapahit and many of Malacca's

first residents would have been present at the battle where this humiliation had

happened. Malacca would later be remembered as the quintessentially international

city, a trade port where 84 languages were supposedly spoken and where Tome

Pires was able to find men of 63 different nationalities when he visited in 1509,53

but in origin Malacca was straightforwardly Malay and not at all far removed from

52 Pires, Suma Oriental, vol. 8 9,2 32 .

53 Pires, Suma Oriental, vol. 8 9 ,2 68 -9.

the death throes of old Srivijaya; if anything, Parameswara's Malays saw themselves

as continuing the Srivijayan empire from a new and perhaps even temporary site,

much as Temasik and Muar had proved to be.

These new Malaccans must have resented the fourteenth-century rise both of

Javanese Majapahit in the islands to the south and of Thai Ayutthaya to the

continental north. Both of these polities were relative upstarts on the Southeast

Asian scene; neither had the lineage and history of power that Malay Srivijaya could

rightly claim; and yet together they were squeezing the Palembang Malays in a kind

of vise that seemed to leave them no safe harbor either in the Indonesian islands or

on the Southeast Asian mainland. Malacca may have been resource poor and

undeveloped, but counterintuitively it seems likely that by the mid-1390s the exiled

Malay population of Palembang was drawn to Malacca precisely because it was not a

city of any consequence. Moving into a pre-existing peninsular port had only drawn

the notice (and ire) of Ayutthaya. If Parameswara was persona non grata in both the

Javanese and the Thai realms, where was he to go? A wholly new city must have

been the only option.


When Parameswara and his followers came to Malacca, they settled

primarily on the south side of the Sungai Melaka, the brackish Malacca River that

would later bisect the (much larger) city. For a maritime people this river was not a

boundary but rather a road and lifeline; and although the south bank remained ever

after the preferred residential area, even very early on we have evidence of

Malaccans building waterfront houses on both riverbanks.

Life in early Malacca remained focused on the river and the sea, and for the

average Malay inhabitant Malacca retained the much of the flavor and many of the

ways of a small fishing village, even if the population had suddenly increased many

hundredfold. When Zheng He's Chinese navy arrived in 1404 or 1405, they found

that Parameswara's men still "mostly practice fishing for a livelihood," and they did

so using simple tree-trunk boats made after the fashion of a dugout canoe.54 Such

craft were notably much simpler than the double-hulled perahu attested in the

region far earlier, and were simpler still than Chinese junks, lateen-rigged ships

from the Coromandel coast, the long-distance padewakang traders from Sulawesi, or

any number of other foreign or Malay boats that so commonly plied the Malaccan

straits in this era;55 but early Chinese traders reported finding none of these on their

first foray into the Malaccan harbor. Yet Malacca's location on the straits and the

history of its population as a peripatetic group with origins in Palembang makes it

nearly impossible that the population would have been unfamiliar with the perahu,

the planked dhow, or the junk. The unexpected conclusion has to be that Malacca

was poor on land, but very richly endowed at sea: thus it wasn't worth the time and

effort needed to build complex boats from the meager resources available nearby

when even a very simple canoe could guarantee enough fish to sustain a family.

54 Ma Huan, Yingyai shenglan, ‘‘The Overall Survey of the Ocean’s Shores [1433], trans. J.V.G. Mills
[Cambridge: Cambridge University Press for the Hakluyt Society, 1970), 110. Hereafter, cited as ‘‘Ma

55 For more, see George Hourani’s famous Arab Seafaring in the Indian Ocean in Ancient and Early
Medieval Times (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton UP 1995), and Pierre-Yves Manguin, "The
Southeast Asian Ship: an Historical Approach,” JSEAS Vol. 11, No. 2 (September 1980), 266-276.

But though Malaccans were protected from attack on their sleepy fishing

town, life in the new city was very difficult. Malaccans inhabited a site with few

products worthy of trade. Apart from boat-seam resin (likely gum sarandac), the

only interesting local resources were a few incense-bearing trees (especially

sandalwood) and some nearby tin.

The importance of tin to the early Malaccan economy is itself indicative of

Malacca's early poverty. Although gold, silver, and copper were known across the

Malay world, for at least the first decade of the 1400s Malaccans used locally-

available tin as their preferred currency. This was at once a currency that was near-

worthless for foreign trade and a currency that was far too abundant to be truly

practical even for local exchange. Malacca's main tin deposits were located some 20

kilometers from the city, but it was possible for an industrious fisherman to bring

tin up from the Malacca river simply by sieving the riverbed. This obviously made

the metal a peculiarly unsuitable basis for a stable means of exchange. Indeed, so

much tin was floating around Malacca that by Ma Huan's first visit to Malacca in

1404 the smallest block in circulation weighed more than a pound and a half, and

even these hefty blocks were frequently rattan-bound into bigger bundles of 10 and

40 tin blocks each (which must have weighed more than 16 pounds and some 65

pounds, respectively).56 By contrast, the royal court at Palembang had traded chiefly

in gold, while Chinese copper and silver coins were current in many cities across

Southeast Asia at the turn of the fifteenth century. We may guess that for practical

reasons of weight, for fiscal reasons to do with inflation, and simply for the prestige

56 Ma Huan, 111.

of having a rare and universally valuable metal, Malaccans would have preferred to

trade in something other than tin or barter. That they were unable to do so merely

emphasized the degree to which they had very little of value to offer to the outside


Malacca’s terrestrial deficiency was a growing problem. The same poor soil

that ensured Malacca's commercial poverty also made provisioning difficult and

contributed to a largely subsistence lifestyle in early Malacca. "All is sandy, saltish

land," reported the Chinese chronicler Ma Huan, and "the fields are infertile and the

crops poor; [and] the people seldom practice agriculture.”57 Joao de Barros,

reporting at second-hand in what was perhaps the first comprehensive western

scholarly work on Asia, called Malacca a "barren land."58 The soil issues were

obvious enough that even a very transitory visitor could see that very little produce

grew near the city: despite spending only a few days (certainly less than a week) in

Malacca, the Bolognese traveler Ludovico di Varthema in 1510 found it necessary to

comment on the infertility of the land and the fact that few staple foods could be

grown there.59 When the Malay laws were collected in the 1440s, it was still the case

that a thief stealing agricultural produce by night could be killed for the crime, with

no adverse consequences for the killer.60

57 Ma Huan, 109.

58 Joao de Barros, D4cadas da Asia Primeira D6cada, ed. Antonio Baiao (Coimbra: IN-CM, 1932), 245.

59 Varthema, Itinerario, op. cit., 276.

60 Undang-undang Melaka, fasl 1.1, Leiden University Archives MS Cod. Or. 1706 (hereafter Undang-
undang Leiden 1706). Also, Undang-undang Negeri dan Pelayaran fasl 1.1, Leiden University Archives
MS Cod. Or. 1705 (hereafter Undang negeri Leiden 1705). Liaw Yock Fang has worked out a

Meat and poultry were also hard to come by in early Malacca. "Oxen, goats,

fowls and ducks, though they have them, are not plentiful; prices are very dear....

Donkeys and horses are entirely absent," reported Ma Huan in a work he compiled

in 1416.61 Although Malacca eventually gained horses and other livestock in greater

numbers, a further measure of the relative value and rarity of large livestock is

nonetheless available by looking at their importance and value in the Malay legal

digests, which feature endless permutations on the themes of buffalo theft,

accidental livestock injury and death, fines and rewards for returning escaped

buffaloes, and even slavery(!) as a punishment for thieving various stock.

In the first decade of the fifteenth century, we may therefore imagine Malacca

as a place with 150 or 200 households (using Anthony Reid's well-justified measure

of about 6.5 people per household,62 and allowing for some growth as Parameswara

attracted other Malays to his new city). Most of these homes were lined up on the

riverside to take advantage of the excellent fishing (although Parameswara's royal

household was located far from the water, near one of Malacca's rare groves of fruit-

bearing trees);63 few people had access to productive agricultural land. These were

stilt houses and, consistent with the practice across island Southeast Asia, those

families with livestock would have kept them in the open area beneath the house's

numbering system for the Malay Laws, accounting for variation across texts, and 1 have adopted the
same system for consistency's sake.

61 Ma Huan, 112.

62 Anthony Reid, Southeast Asia in the Age o f Commerce, 1450-1680: Volume 2: Expansion and Crisis
(New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995), 69.

63 C.H. Wake, "Melaka in the Fifteenth Century," in Singh and Wheatley, Melaka: Transformation o f a
Malay Capital, vol. 1., 142.

raised floor.64 Malaccans lived a chiefly subsistence lifestyle, both because of the

extremely limited resources to be found at Malacca and because money-based trade

was limited by the weight, abundance, and impracticality of the tin currency in use

there. Though they remained relatively unmolested in the fledgling city, and though

the site was weatherproof and the fish were plentiful, Parameswara’s Malays could

not have seen this as a promising permanent home after the wealth of Palembang or

even the relative prosperity they had found at Temasik.

Life at Malacca was difficult in other ways. Malaccans retained much of the

militant ferocity and disdain for death that had impressed Zhou Rugua years before

when he described the Palembang navy,65 but in the decades after the fall of

Srivijaya this violent energy was frequently directed inwards. One example of this

was Malacca's problem with "amoks." "Running amok" had long been a military

mainstay across the Malayo-Javanese world and amoks occupied a place of honor in

the legends and armies of maritime Southeast Asia.66 In Malacca, amoks were meant

to be "knights," according to Tome Pires, "who resolve to die, and who go ahead

with this resolution and die.... There are many of these people in Malacca and

throughout all these parts."67 But peacetime Malacca was plagued with amoks who

went on rampages through the town itself, seemingly for no reason. Violence and a

64 Ma Huan, 68.

65 Hirth and Rockhill, 68.

66 See, for example, T.J. Bezemer, Beknopte Encyclopaedic van Nederlandsch-lndie, II (Leiden: Brill,
1921), 317, for a description of how Balinese armies would open the attack with a foreguard of
special warriors running amok, or Raffles, The History o f Java, vol. I (1817), 298, for a description of
Amoks in Java.

67 Pires, Suma Oriental, vol. 89, 266.

willingness to die in close combat were seen as signs of admirable bravery,68 making

it difficult for Parameswara to control even the most damaging sort of street

violence. It is telling that when Malacca came to codify its laws in the 1440s, the part

of the law code that dealt specifically with the question of how to handle those who

ran amok in public made it clear that the acceptable solution was for bystanders to

kill the amok man themselves.69

Predictably, the acceptance and even promotion of violence shocked outside

observers. Nicolo de Conti, a Venetian traveller who spent the 1420s and 30s in Asia,

said of the people of the Malacca straits region that "they exceed every people in

cruelty," and

"They regard killing a man as a mere jest, nor is any punishment

allotted for such a deed. Debtors are given up to their creditors to be
their slaves. But he who, rather than be a slave, prefers death, seizing
a naked sword issues into the street and kills all he meets, until he is
slain by some one more powerful than himself: then comes the
creditor of the dead man and cites him by whom he was killed,
demanding of him his debt, which he is constrained by the judges to

If any one purchase a new scimiter [sic] or sword and wish to try it, he
will thrust it into the breast of the first person he meets, neither is any
punishment awarded for the death of that man. The passers by
examine the wound, and praise the skill of the person who inflicted it
if he thrust the weapon in direct.”70

68 Reid, Southeast Asia in the Age of Commerce I, pp. 124-125

69 These codes did pay lip service to the idea that the amok man should be arrested where practical,
that is, if he stopped running amok long enough to be apprehended. Undang-undang Leiden 1706 and
Undang negeri Leiden 1705; Undang-undang Melaka Raffles 74; and Cambridge University Library Or.
1364 Risalah Kanun dan Undang-undang Laut (hereafter Cambridge Undang-undang Or. 1364);
Section 6 in each.

70 Poggio Bracciolini, "The Travels of Nicold Conti in the East in the Early Part of the Fifteenth
Century,” trans. J. W inter Jones, in India in the Fifteenth Century, ed. R.H. Major (London: The Hakluyt
Society, 1857), 16. Conti's description of a creditor seeking his debts off of the man who killed his
amok debtor is precisely corroborated by the later Malay legal codes, which stated explicitly that if

For his part, Ludovico de Varthema chose to head his Malacca chapter "Capitulo

della cita Melaca e Gaza fiumara [...] e ledda inumanita della uomini," which is to say,

"The Chapter of the City of Malacca and the River Gaza [that is, the Straits of

Malacca]... and of the Inhumanity o f Men. [emphasis mine]"71 His own take on the

city was entirely consistent with Conti's: "One cannot walk around on the land at

night because [people] are killed in the manner of dogs. And all the merchants who

arrive here go to sleep in their ships... Those of [this] land take the law into their

own hands and I believe that they are the worst race on earth."72 Varthema later

explained why he spent so little time in the Malaccan port: "The Christians who

were in our company made us to understand that we should not stay too long

because they are an evil race."73

None of this is to say that Malacca was ungoverned or ungovernable. Rather,

we should understand that bravado, swagger, bravery, and even invulnerability

were positively valued within Malacca and across the Malay world. Amoks and other

fearless fighters were celebrated as possessing magical powers when they survived

fights, and legends about such men were common. The Malay Annals record a story

about a Malacca man who forestalled a Thai attack by throwing his spear into the air

and allowing it to fall point-first onto his own back, for example; the spear bounced

you kill a man who owes money, even if the killing is licit, then you do indeed become liable for his

71 Varthema, op. cit., 275. The river "Gaza” here actually refers to the straits of Malacca, w ith the word
"Gaza" likely coming from the Arabic boghaz, "strait."

72 Ibid., 276-277.

73 Ibid. 277.

off of his skin leaving him wholly unscathed.74 Another example (provided,

remarkably, by the prominent Portuguese nobleman and admiral Afonso de

Albuquerque) has a Malay captain who was defending Malacca get repeatedly

wounded by Portuguese fire. The Malaccan remained unharmed and would not

bleed until his attackers were able to locate and remove the magic armband he was

wearing, at which point he expired unceremoniously.75

Powerful, charmed fighters of this sort were prized in Malacca whether they

showed their prowess in battle or even just in the street. As a consequence, fighting

seems to have been one of the few ways that young men could rise to positions of

prominence in Malacca c. 1400. Early on, only "youths of good family" were

appointed as court attendants,76 while "young nobles" watched from the raised

galleries. "Princes of the blood royal" were privileged to occupy the left half of the

carefully-arranged, hierarchical court. All of these men would have been related to a

handful of prominent Malaccan families with roots in the old Palembang aristocracy,

and it is likely that these nobles comprised only a few dozen people at most. But

even without sharing noble blood, fearless "knights” and battle-proven, sword-

wielding "warchiefs" were welcomed into the right-hand side of Parameswara's

court.77 For an average Malaccan unrelated to the Srivijayan ruling house, physical

prowess meant practical power and advancement at court. (Later, as Malacca

74 Royal Asiatic Society MS Raffles 18,68-69.

75 Afonso d'Alboquerque, The Commentaries o f the Great Afonso d'AIbuquerque [1557] trans. W alter
de Gray Birch (London: Hakluyt Edition, 1880), 61.

76 Royal Asiatic Society MS Raffles 18,49-50.

77 Ibid., 50-52.

became an international hub, descent and family became less important and people

of modest or foreign birth were frequently promoted to even the very highest non­

military positions.)

The prominence of soldiers, fighters, and amoks at court was hardly

coincidental. With all the vicious swordplay in Malacca's streets in the 1400s and

1410s, it is easy to forget that Malaccans made up a twice-defeated population

which had been expelled from the illustrious capital at Palembang and which was

now forced to live a subsistence lifestyle in far-from-perfect territory. Although

some scholars have rightly highlighted the prominence of China in the making of

Malacca,78 it is clear that the Malaccans themselves were more preoccupied with

their immediate neighbors, especially Ayutthaya. There is a source bias which

means that we necessarily read about very early Malacca in Chinese sources simply

because the Chinese were the most likely to keep good records in this period; but

from a Malaccan perspective, China was a dominant but distant power, useful

precisely insofar as its influence could help them with the more pressing neighborly

issue. If it is true that Ayutthaya in the early fifteenth century was again busy

organizing large campaigns against Angkor and fighting smaller skirmishes in order

to also extend its territory westward, it was nonetheless also the case that the Thais

continued to claim suzerainty over the whole Malay peninsula and to back up their

claim with naval craft that actively monitored the cities on the Malay coast. More

importantly from a Malaccan perspective, Ayutthaya had shown both the

78 The two chief examples are Winstedt (especially in The Fall o f Srivijaya in Malay History) and Wang
Gungwu (in numerous works on the Chinese in Southeast Asia).

willingness and the capability to take on Malay armies when it had successfully

dislodged Parameswara from his seat in Temasik.

With claims to the whole of the Malay peninsula (even if the reality of the

1400s and 1410s was far more complicated), the Thais were not content to be

merely passive observers of the Malaccan phenomenon. Ma Huan tells us that, for

the first few years of the fifteenth century, Malacca "was not designated as a country

[15]" - and by this Ma means to tell us something about the official Chinese

bureaucratic designation for Malacca (the question of 'nation' status was not an

observation about what Malaccans thought of themselves but rather a statement

about the way in which China recognized Malacca) - because "this territory was

subordinate to the jurisdiction of Hsien Lo [Thailand]." Malacca paid the Thais an

annual tribute of forty liang of gold; "if it were not [to pay]," said Ma Huan, "then

Hsien Lo would send men to attack it."79 Of course paying tribute was preferable to

all-out war as at Temasik, but for the Malay heir of Srivijaya this state of subjugation

was deeply grating.

After he settled at Malacca, the Ayutthaya problem was to occupy

Parameswara for the rest of his life. He found his solution in a growing and

carefully-cultivated relationship with China. When Zheng He's powerful Chinese

fleet stopped at Malacca in 1403-4, it presented an obvious opportunity for an

alliance between Malacca and an incredibly strong but comfortably distant foreign

power. Parameswara sent an envoy back with the fleet and it seems clear that the

Malaccan ruler not only tolerated a Chinese presence in his harbor but that he

79 Ma Huan, 108.

actively encouraged it as a bulwark against Thai aggression. In 1404 Parameswara's

city was small, violent, and impoverished; but it provided a fine anchorage at the

place where three oceans and three Asian monsoon systems met, and this gave the

Malaccans a valuable bargaining chip.

Taking advantage of Malacca's good location still involved active diplomacy,

however. After all, it was by no means obvious that Malacca should become a

regional rendezvous point for the Chinese fleet (which, however, it did become). The

navigational convenience of the straits region was well-known by 1407 and had

been exploited by traders and adventurers for centuries without ever before

needing any harbor at Malacca. The peculiar wind patterns that favored Malacca had

also favored Palembang on the eastern Sumatran coast as well as favoring any

number of smaller ports dotting the nearby Southeast Asian islands, and we may

reasonably imagine that the monsoon winds go a long way towards explaining the

wealth and dominance of Srivijaya for the 500 years that that nation had

overshadowed the Southeast Asian maritime world. The Chinese treasure fleets80

were well aware of Palembang (which they had started to call the "Old Harbor," ft

'M), and indeed they had originally thought to stop and regroup there instead of

Malacca. Parameswara's backwater port, previously unattested within China, was

literally not on the map in 1404.

But when the Chinese called at Palembang in 1403, they found the city to be

full of "bandits" and "pirates" (many of whom were Chinese mariners from

80 A common term even in the Chinese literature, although perhaps a misnomer if, as Geoff Wade
believes, Ma Huan's missions were as much about power and conquest as they were about
exploration or wealth. Geoff Wade, "Melaka in Ming Dynasty Texts," JMBRAS 7 0 ,1 (19 97 ), 31-69.

Guangdong).81 Those who lived in the city reported "acts of savagery" on the part of

the local chief Chen Zuyi, who irritated the Chinese for the different reason that he

worried the shipping offshore. Ma Huan described Chen as "wealthy and tyrannical...

whenever a ship belonging to strangers passed by, he immediately robbed them of

their valuables."82 Zheng He's forces intervened militarily and the "pirate Chen Zuyi"

was brought to China to be beheaded. In one sense, this may have been a

satisfactory ending to the episode - certainly the Chinese imperial court seemed to

think so, as those who took part in the "pacification" of Palembang were richly

rewarded83 - but it left the Chinese fleet without a safe harbor in the straits. (We

may, I think, presume that the "treasure ships" were unwelcome at Palembang after

the battle with Chen, or at least that their presence in the port would have been

fraught. Conditions there could have been in no way conducive to the kind of

protracted waiting imposed by the monsoons that determined the rhythm of

shipping, especially since Palembang would have had to host official Chinese court

appointees directly alongside the ethnically Chinese pirates and defectors who had

made the city their new home.)

Parameswara took full advantage of this situation. When the Chinese fleet

briefly stopped at Malacca in the early 1400s, he took the unusual (though not

unheard-of) step of sending an envoy back to China with the returning ships. It

81 Ming shilu,Taizong, juan 38.4b (20 Feb. 1405) and Taizong juan 71.1a, (2 Oct. 1407).

82 Ma Huan, 99-100.

83 Ming shilu,Taizong, juan 71.6b-7a (29 Oct. 1407).

seems clear that this envoy openly asked for protection against the Thai forces

pushing in at Malacca's borders.

The mission was a great success. After recognizing Malacca as a "country" H

and Parameswara as its king 3:,84 the Chinese court presented the envoy with an

unusually effervescent tablet reaffirming the relationship between the two nations.

In this text, the emperor made clear that China was the superior partner as well as

the protector nation; Malacca was subordinate but, importantly, was to be protected

and placed above her neighbors:

"The envoy sent by you, king of the country of Malacca, came to Court and
made known your sentiments. He said that your land is in harmony, the people
are healthy, things are abundant, the customs are pure and splendid, that you
cherish virtue and admire righteousness and wish to become like a division of
China, so that you will be superior to the other border regions.... Bowing your
head and requesting our command, your perfect sincerity is to be commended.
Truly, the plenitude of my Imperial father's righteousness and noble felicity
have spread all the way to your land. They have extended even that far! The
ancient Emperors enfeoffed mountains and fixed territories, allotted wealth
and conferred protection, in order to show special favour to the 10,000

Zheng He's fleet then began to use Malacca as the staging ground that Palembang

could not be:

"Whenever the treasure-ships of the Central Country [China] arrived there,

they at once erected a line of stockading, like a city wall, and set up towers for
the watch-drums at four gates.... The ships which had gone to various
countries returned to this place and assembled; they marshalled the foreign
goods and loaded them in the ships; [then] waited till the south wind was
perfectly favorable."86

84 Ming shilu, Taizong, juan 46.2a-b (3 Oct. 1405).

85 Ming shilu, Taizong, juan 47.4a-b (11 Nov. 1405).

86 Ma Huan, 113-114.

At this point, we should not yet envision Malacca as a real entrepot, for there

is little evidence in the early 1400s and 1410s of the large-scale international trade

or of the commercial communities that would soon make Malacca famous. However,

surely the presence of vast numbers of Chinese trading ships kept safe and

unplundered at a desirable site on the straits was the first step on the way towards

Malaccca's commercial development.87 Nearby nations hoping to trade or discourse

with the Chinese must have quickly realized that they could do so in Malacca;

Ayutthaya and other polities hoping to dispute with Malacca must have quickly

realized that it was impolitic to do so while the Chinese fleet enjoyed Malacca’s


If protection was Malacca's plan, it seems largely to have worked. Ayutthayan

forces captured Champa's envoy to China in 1405 and at about the same time they

seized the various "seals and patents” that conferred Chinese legitimacy upon

Malacca (doing the same for Samudera, in Sumatra). But Parameswara, who had fled

before the Thais in the past, was not to be dislodged from his new Malaccan home.

Instead, Malacca sent a second envoy to China in 1407 to complain about attacks

from the Thais, and the court responded favorably. Chinese official records report,

"The kings of the countries of Samudera and Malacca also sent people to
complain that Siam had been overbearing and that it had sent troops.... They
also noted that the people of their countries were scared and unable to live in
peace. At this time, orders were conferred upon [the Thai envoy] as follows:
’Champa, Samudera, Malacca and you have all received the Court's orders. You
stand as equals. Why have you, relying on force, detained their envoy to the
Court and taken away their seals? The illustrious way of Heaven is to bring

87 Zheng He’s voyages contained on the order of 300 boats each, depending on the year, but it seems
probable that only a part of the fleet (perhaps a third) would have regrouped at Malacca, while other
boats made use of Surabaya on the island of Java for the same purpose. Ma Huan, (introduction by
J.G.V. Mills), 10-13.

prosperity to the good and calamity to the evil. The Li bandits of Annam, both
father and son, previously met disaster. You can take warning from that.
Immediately return the Champa envoy and the seals and title patents
conferred upon Malacca and Samudera. From now on you should look to your
own affairs, maintain propriety, live in peace with your neighbours and
protect your territory."88

Lest this sound like an empty threat or a statement of faith in divine karma, it

is worth repeating precisely what happened to the "Li bandits of Annam." The Li

pbre and Li fils of the Chinese annals are the Ho Quy Ly and his son Ho Han Thtrang

of Vietnam's Ho Dynasty. In 1400 they overthrew their government and seized

power for themselves, gaining more than 100,000 military followers during the

course of their civil war.89 The usurped Tran government invited Ming Chinese

troops to enter the country in 1406, and they immediately got to work "punishing"

the "bandits.” According to Chinese reckoning, their troops beheaded 37,390

"bandits" in an action in early February 1407, and another 10,000 later that

month.90 When they later captured a number of Ho officials in a major victory at the

Fuliang river, "tens of thousands of officers and troops were beheaded [such that]

the water in the river ran red.”91 Ho Quy Ly and Ho Han Thirong were themselves

captured in June.92 At that point, China instituted direct Ming rule over Vietnam,

including the suppression and forced assimilation of the Vietnamese population.93

88 Ming shilu, Taizong, juan 72.4b-5a (20 Nov. 1407],

89 Ibid., juan 52.6a-7a (4 April 1406).

90 Ibid., juan 63.1a (8 Feb. 1407) and juan 63.2a-b (21 Feb. 1407).

91 Ibid., juan 65.5a-b (4 May 1407).

92 Ibid., juan 67.1b-2a (16 June 1407) and juan 67.2a (17 June 1407).

931 have only quoted Chinese sources in this paragraph, in part because it is from a Chinese
perspective that the Ming court was admonishing Ayutthaya. Even so, to understand the real

For an Ayutthayan envoy in Beijing in late 1407, this would have been recent history

indeed. It would certainly have been understood as a chastening and very

threatening example of direct, large-scale Chinese intervention.

In November of 1407 neither the Chinese court nor the Southeast Asian

envoys would know that Ming domination over Vietnam was destined to remain

tenuous, lasting for only 20 years before Vietnamese discontentment brought the

experiment to an undignified end. But China, Ayutthaya, Samudera, and Malacca

would all have known at least that the Thai and Vietnamese situations were not

wholly comparable: Ayutthaya was much farther from China than Vietnam (which

borders China to the south), and historically and culturally Ayutthaya was more

distant still. It would not have been unreasonable for the Southeast Asian envoys to

have regarded China's strong threat with a certain degree of skepticism.

But the military threat against Ayutthaya had at least some teeth. Zheng He's

fleet sailed the Southeast Asian waters repeatedly in the early years of the fifteenth

century, carrying more than 20,000 men of whom a majority were trained

soldiers.94 And, despite later protestations that these were wholly peaceful missions

contours of this conflict it is essential to have an appreciation for the belligerence of China (which is
whitewashed completely in the official records) and for the Vietnamese perspective on the invasion;
the best book on the subject is John K. W hitmore’s Vietnam, Ho QuyLy, and the Ming (1371-1421)
(New Haven: Yale Center for International and Area Studies Council on Southeast Asian Studies,
1985). Especially relevant here is chapter V, "Destruction of the Vietnamese State." (For an amusing
example of the biases of the Chinese record, it suffices to quote a speech that the Ming Annals put in
the mouth of a Vietnamese representative responding to the successful Chinese “pacification" of his
country. He is purported to have said, "In ancient times, Annam was Chinese territory, but later when
it was lost, we sank into barbarian ways and did not know of propriety and righteousness.
Fortunately, the Imperial Court has wiped away the cruel and evil spawn, and the troops and the
people, the old and the young, are now able to gaze on the excellence of Chinese culture, clothing, and
headwear. They are exceedingly jubilant and all wish that the ancient prefectures and counties be re­
established." Ming shilu, Taizong, juan 65.1b-2a (17 April 1407).

94 J.G.V. Mills, 10 and 12.

(they were mostly peaceful missions), they were not averse to interfering militarily

when necessary (for example in Palembang in 1407, in Ceylon in 1411, and in

Semudra in 1415 or thereabouts95). With the 1407 order to the Ayutthayan envoy to

the Ming court, China clearly stated its positions: Malacca was not a vassal state of

Ayutthaya (Siam); the Thais had no right to extract tribute from or to attack Malacca;

and China felt within its rights to use military force to protect the "perfectly sincere"


Here it is in order to consider the reasons why Malacca might prefer

subservience to China rather than to Ayutthaya, for it is certain that neither the

Malaccans nor the Chinese saw their relationship as a meeting of equals. First,

perhaps, is the simple fact that China was farther away from Malacca than were the

Thais. China's military was much more formidable than Ayutthaya's, but practically

China was never going to stage a mission exclusively in order to overthrow the

Malaccan aristocracy (although they might have done so in passing, as they did at

sites around Southeast Asia). China had and would never have any desire to set up

direct rule or a full Chinese administration in the Malay world as it had done in

Vietnam. Additionally, tribute paid to China yielded commercial returns and

sometimes even profit, while the same could not be said of tribute paid to Ayutthaya.

Repeatedly, Malaccan tribute ships brought modest local goods to China only to

return with cargoes of valuable silks. (The Ming Annals mention "patterned silks,"

"fine silks," "patterned fine silks," "silk brocade," "variegated silks," "silk gauzes,"

"embroidered silks," "headwear," "robes," "kneeling gowns," and "suits of clothing,"

95Ibid., 10-13.

some of which were "interwoven with gold thread," and this only accounts for the

years through 1414 when Parameswara's reign came to an end).96 This is in no way

to suggest that Malacca and China saw each other as simple trade partners - they

certainly did not, and the argument that the China tribute was merely voluntary

trade by another name cannot be accepted for this period - but it does highlight the

very real benefits that accrued to Malacca in return for its subservience to China. By

contrast, Ayutthaya exacted tribute as a kind of protection-money; paying it gained

Malacca nothing, while refraining from payment risked attack. Inviting Chinese

ships into her harbor therefore served to bring Malacca some material gain while

protecting it against a very large potential loss. And finally, it's worth pointing out

that there had been a long history of Chinese trade across the Malay archipelago for

many hundreds of years before ever the Ming "treasure fleet" set sail.97 State-

sponsored commerce and power-projection were new (and certainly the scale of the

Ming venture was unprecedented), but Chinese communities already existed on Java,

Sumatra, Borneo, and the Malay peninsula, and Parameswara's Malaccans would

have been relatively experienced and comfortable in dealing with Chinese agents.


This comfortable relationship between China and Malacca culminated in

Parameswara's extraordinary 1411 expedition to Beijing. In August of that year, the

96 Ming shilu, Taizong juans 24.5b (28 Oct 1403), 71.1a, (2 Oct. 1407), 72.4b-5a (20 Nov. 1407), 83.3b
(17 Oct. 1408), 88.2a (16 Feb. 1409), 117.3b-4a (14 Aug. 1411), 119.2b-3a (2 Oct. 1411).

97 See, for example, Wang Gungwu, Only Connect! Sino-Malay Encounters (Singapore: Times Academic
Press, 2001).

Malaccan king personally visited the Chinese capital and brought with him an

enormous retinue of more than 540 people, including his extended family and a

large number of slaves and personal servants.98 The size of this entourage is notable;

we must imagine that in the decade before the visit to China Malacca's population

had grown significantly. Certainly, despite his peripatetic nature and his lack of real

connection to Malacca itself, Parameswara did not leave the city empty or

undefended for the several months necessary to complete his trip; the Malay court

returned home on the winter monsoon with few adverse consequences despite the

extended absence, finding homes and boats intact and cared-for at their return. Still,

the 540 China-bound Malaccans represented a significant proportion of the city's

total population in 1411. If he left many people behind to care for his new city,

Parameswara nonetheless also found himself leading an uprooted, itinerant group

once again.

In Beijing, the Chinese mandarins seem to have been baffled by the vast and

unexpected embassy. In the official records, it warranted an unusual amount of

chatter. For example, noting that the king of Malacca had arrived with "his wife,

children, and attendant ministers," Chinese records hint at worries about the

intentions of the Malaccan embassy and at confusion about how a king could leave

his kingdom: "on being advised of the [Malaccan] king's impending arrival, the

Emperor had been concerned as he knew that, without qualms, the king had left his

homeland and travelled far across the seas," they record.99 Then, in early October,

98 Ming shilu, Taizong, juan 117.3b-4a (14 August 1411).

99 Ibid.

Parameswara received "imperial orders" whose content was also memorialized;

these stated, in part,

"you, king, travelled tens of thousands of li across the ocean to the

capital, confidently and without anxiety, as your loyalty and sincerity
assured you of the protection of the spirits. I have been glad to meet
with you, king, and feel that you should stay. However, your people
are longing for you and it is appropriate that you return to soothe
them. The weather is getting colder and the winds are suited for
sailing south. It is the right time."100

If the emperor was puzzled, so are we; it remains difficult to gauge the precise

reasons for Parameswara's journey (trade? settlement? diplomacy? worries about

Ayutthaya? worries about China itself?), but it is clear that China wanted to manage

the unusual trip - and its successful conclusion - in order to return things to


It is not difficult to see that the journey was rather less extraordinary from a

Malay perspective than it would have been from a position on the Chinese throne,

however. If we can understand Chinese hesitancy, we can also understand

something of Parameswara's position. In the Malay world, kings were often

expected to lead from the front in order to prove their worth and strength through

combat and action, and the Malaccan king was doing just that by venturing out

himself. Moreover, Malays were a seafaring people and Parameswara had been a

wandering king in years past; it was not so unusual to think that rulers might move

about, taking their courtiers with them. (Indeed, a long-distance mission in some

ways must have cemented Malacca’s place among the seafaring Malay nations; this

100 Ibid. juan 119.2b-3a (2 Oct. 1411)

was no longer a city of dugout canoes and mere small-time fishermen.) And, finally,

it is likely that Parameswara left behind his capable eldest son to rule in his stead.101

Anyway, none of the worries floating around Chinese official documents

should be read as suggesting that the embassy ultimately fared badly. Indeed, quite

the contrary happened: skilled Ming administrators immediately rounded up a

number of interpreters to accompany Parameswara during his time in China and the

Malaccan king was feted at banquets while his entire (very large) party was well-

provided for in food, drink, and lodging. On the day that the Malaccans offered their

tributary goods at court,

"The Emperor personally banqueted and rewarded the [Malaccan] king at

Fengtian Gate and provided a banquet for the king's consort and officials
elsewhere. He also ordered the Court of Imperial Entertainments to daily
supply the guests with meats and Imperial wines. The Ministry of Rites was
ordered to confer upon the king two suits of clothing embroidered in gold, a
set of qilin robes, gold and silver utensils, drapes, mats and bedding. Patterned
fine silks, silk gauzes and suits of clothing, as appropriate, were conferred
upon the king's consort, children, nephews, ministers and attendants."102

On subsequent occasions, Parameswara and members of his company were gifted "a

gold and jade belt," "a horse with a saddle," hats, and robes.103 It was at the official

farewell banquet that the emperor expressed "feelings of concern" for Parameswara

(requesting him even to eat well and take good care of himself on the journey back!),

and then presented the enormous series of gifts that opened this chapter: there was

another gold and jade belt,

101 See C. H. Wake, "Melaka in the Fifteenth Century," pg. 142.

i °2 Ming shilu, Taizong, juan 117.3b-4a (14 August 1411).

103 Ibid., juan 118.1a (20 Aug. 1411)

"ceremonial insignia, two 'saddled horses', 100 Hang of gold, 500 Hang of silver,
400,000 guan of paper money, 2,600 guan of copper cash, 300 bolts of
embroidered fine silks and silk gauzes, 1,000 bolts of thin silks, two [units] of
"mixed gold," (W ^:) patterned fine silks, and two long-sleeved "kneeling
gowns" interwoven with gold thread.... In addition, headwear and a set of
robes, 200 Hang of silver, 5,000 guan of paper money and 60 bolts of brocaded
fine silks, silk gauzes and thin silks as well as four suits of clothing made from
patterned fine silks and silk gauzes interwoven with gold threads were
conferred upon the king's consort. Headwear and belts were conferred upon
the king's sons and nephews. Silver, paper money, copper cash and variegated
silks, as appropriate, were conferred upon his accompanying ministers."104

This lengthy list is especially notable because Parameswara's farewell banquet

doubled as the farewell banquet for embassies from a number of other countries,

yet the record as it pertains to those nations is much more sparse (and much more

usual); it reads, in its entirety, "as the envoys from Calicut and other countries were

also taking their leave, they too were all banqueted and farewelled. It was also

ordered that they be given patterned fine silks interwoven with gold thread,

clothing embroidered in gold, gold-spangled drapes, parasols and other goods to

confer upon the kings of their countries."105 The disparity between the way that

these envoys were treated and the way that Parameswara was feted may have had

something to do with Parameswara's position as a "king" instead of as mere

ambassador; if so then here we immediately see that sending a king to China

dramatically and effectively changed the way that the Chinese court treated Malacca.

And, needless to say, if the mere presence of Parameswara instead of an ambassador

was not the reason (or not the whole reason) for the special treatment, then in that

104 Ibid., juan 119.2b-3a (2 Oct. 1411]

105 Ibid.,

case we are left with an even stronger impression of peculiar Chinese favor towards


Parameswara's reception in 1411 also contrasts sharply with the Chinese

attitude towards Malacca just seven years before, when the city was declared to be

"equal" to Ayutthaya, Champa, and Samudera. Malacca's status in China was still

officially that of parity with all other Chinese-designated nations (IB), of course, but

in practice it is clear that Malacca was being treated better than its neighbors both

in terms of presents made and in how Malacca was written about in official records.

Although we cannot say exactly why this should be, it must be that Chinese regard

was at least informed by the successful Zheng He missions: the shared port

arrangement that suited Ayutthaya-wary Malacca so well helped China, too; Zheng

He would continue to gather his boats at Malacca to await the homeward-bound

winds until his death a decade-and-a-half later.

Parameswara returned to Malacca on the winter monsoon as advised by the

Ming court, arriving in late 1411 or early 1412. Two years later he died, handing the

kingdom off to a son who would take the regnal name Megat Iskandar Shah.106 That

i°6 There is a dispute in the literature about whether Parameswara died in 1414 or whether, rather,
he simply changed his name to Iskandar Shah, either because of a marriage to a Muslim woman or in
recognition of the growing importance of Muslim traders in the region, or both. It seems to me that
the argument has a conclusive and unproblematic resolution. Richard Windstedt, usually so
admirable in his scholarship, has led the charge in claiming that Parameswara was Iskandar Shah
who was the first ruler of Malacca (see, for example, his "The Malay Founder of Medieval Malacca,"
Bulletin o f the School o f Oriental and African Studies, XII, 3-4 (1948), pp. 726-729); but here he has
been misled by the Malay Annals which are notoriously unreliable for the earliest years. Christopher
Wake presents the controversy (and comes down against Winstedt's reading) in his "Malacca's Early
Kings and the Reception of Islam," Journal o f South East Asian History, V, 2, (1964), 104-116. In my
view it is Wolters who most expertly answered Winstedt in his The Fall ofSrivijaya in Malay History,
pp. 109-111. Here, Wolters points out something that seems to me conclusive: in 1414, the Chinese
recorded that a new Malaccan ruler, son of the last, visited them on an embassy at which time they

the handoff was peaceful and uncontested was a testament to Malacca's new-found

stability, contrasting markedly with the inter-Malay dynastic struggles that

characterized Parameswara’s own rise to power. (The peaceful transition also

supports Christopher Wake's suggestion that Iskandar Shah had been left capably in

charge during the 1411 embassy to China.)

Parameswara's life and death framed a period of great change across the

Malay world. He was himself a party to the disintegration ofSrivijaya as the

empire's Malay rulers were forced finally to abandon their old capital at Palembang;

he was witness to the decline of numerous other longstanding Southeast Asian

empires, including Tran Dynasty Vietnam; he had seen the rise of Ayutthaya and had

contested against it; he had been to China and had negotiated friendship with the

Chinese fleet and protection for his fledgling city at Malacca. If he never felt truly at

home in the adopted city of his death, then at least we may say that Parameswara

knew that the world had changed and that he had been a part of this evolution.

Yet Parameswara's death was also symbolic of great change yet to come.

Malacca's founder and first ruler remembered Palembang and retained much of his

magic-filled, Buddhist upbringing. He styled himself raja, ruled under a name of

Sanskrit origin, and, despite his intercourse with the Chinese, for much of his life he

ratified him in his kingship and invested him w ith a seal of office. Again, in 1419, the same new ruler
returned to China and was this time explicitly named as Iskandar Shah (and not Parameswara, who
was mentioned by that name in 1411). Given the size and importance of the 1411 embassy where
Parameswara was repeatedly feted and during which time he lived at the official Chinese
Interpreters Institute, it stretches credulity past the breaking point to believe that the same man had
returned but that no Chinese translators, court officials, or royals noticed that the new Malaccan king
was the same as the old king whom, just three years previously, they had hosted for a full 10 weeks.
Moreover, it makes no sense to believe that Parameswara would have wanted to perpetrate a switch
or that, the mistake having been made, he would have let it stand as the Chinese invested him with
the various seals of office which he would already have received once before.

ruled over an almost exclusively Malay population. Even as Malacca grew into a

position as a preferred straits port in the late 1400s and early 1410s, Parameswara

preferred his home outside the city center and he kept his court far from the main

harbor.107 In the final years of Parameswara's reign, it was Iskandar Shah who ruled

the city of Malacca proper, as he had likely done during his father's absence in China.

Iskandar was the man who had to contend with violence in the streets of a growing

urban center, and it was he who dealt with the foreign ships that increasingly took

shelter in Malacca's waters. From his own home atop the hill on the south side of the

Malacca river, Iskandar Shah could command an easy view of the seaway, the river,

and the town, although not of his father's more distant compound.108 And, on his

ascent to the throne in 1414, it was he who first took on both a Persian name and

the regnal title sultan, a clear indication of the growing importance of Malacca's

trade links with the west.

107 Pires, Suma Oriental, vol. 8 9,2 37 -23 8. Also Barros, in Ferrand, op. cit., 435-6.
108 C.H. Wake, "Melaka in the Fifteenth Century," 142.


This chapter uses the diversity o f Malaccan religion and aristocratic Malay
concerns over Islamization as a firs t lens through which to view heterogeneity
and pluralistic society in 15th-century Malacca,


We have seen that the first major Malay influx into Malacca at the turn of the

15th century brought with it both the memory of Palembang and the promise of

unusually close relations with the Chinese. The cultural tolerance shown by

Parameswara - for example, when he encouraged Zheng He's ships to gather in

Malacca's harbor - set a precedent that his successors would follow until the

Portuguese conquest of Malacca more than a hundred years later. Yet Iskandar

Shah's accession to the Malaccan throne in 1414 nonetheless represented a marked

break with Parameswara's Srivijayan past. Parameswara had been the last member

of the Palembang aristocracy to have ruled in his ancestral city. In the years

following his abandonment of Palembang, Majapahit nominally ruled that city from

Java, while various Chinese pirates and administrators had actual political control

over the remains of the port. The loss of this heritage was a serious personal defeat

for the first Malaccan king.

Iskandar, by contrast, is unlikely ever to have known Palembang. And

whereas Parameswara had probably never truly believed Malacca to be home -

coming to the site only after peripatetic wanderings up and down the Malay coast,

and even then establishing his country home in Bertam upriver from the Malaccan

port and far from the growing urban center near water's edge - Iskandar embraced

Malacca as a valuable entity in itself. Parameswara had seemingly abandoned

Malacca entirely in 1411; but in what was likely his first taste of practical city

leadership, Iskandar had stayed behind during the mass China trip. And when he

finally inherited the Malaccan throne, Iskandar moved the court to St. John's Hill on

the bustling south side of the river, an ideal site from which to take the pulse of both

port and riverine activity below.

One measure of Iskandar's dedication to Malacca as such was his emphasis

on a new kind of uniquely Malaccan courtly ritual. Of course the etiquette and

conventions of his court borrowed heavily from earlier Hindu-Buddhist Malay

tradition, but by formalizing the status of his advisors and the scope of their duties

Iskandar was building the machinery of a new state. His father had had advisors and

warchiefs, but they had been Parameswara's personal devotees: they received regal

favor and broad privileges, but their jobs were ill-defined, mobile, and in no way

particular to Malacca. Iskandar now created site-specific offices, resurrecting some

traditional Malay roles (like shahbandar, that is, "port-king" or port governor) and

creating others out of nothing (formally recognizing leaders of foreign communities,

for example). Most importantly, Iskandar is credited with formalizing the roles of

the "four officials" that would come to assume responsibility for running Malacca as

well as numerous later Malay states. These officials were the chief port officer

(shahbandar), the police chief (temenggong), the head of army and navy (laksamana,

often translated "admiral"), and the chief vizier and head of the treasury

(bendahara).109 None of these titles were unknown in the broader Malay world, but

only Malacca's administration was formalized to the extent that these officials had

specific duties and obligations. Iskandar’s innovation was to restructure his

government so that his officers looked and acted as bureaucrats with specific jobs,

instead of as courtiers with specific loyalties. Among other things, this emphasizes

the degree to which Iskandar and his successors cared about the administration of

Malacca itself: they established a government to run a city with a permanent

population, instead of just a seaborne court with a loyal entourage.

Of course this does not mean that the person of a charismatic leader became

unimportant under Iskandar, nor that bureaucratic hierarchies replaced personal

relationships at lower levels. Slavery, debt-bondage, and personal devotion were

traditional among Malays before Iskandar came along, and they continued to play an

important role in Malacca throughout the city’s history. The bendahara was

established as a heritable role, for instance, and was limited only to members of the

best Malay families (although within those families succession was competitive).

This changed in the latter half of the 15th century, but it does nonetheless emphasize

the continuing importance of personal relationships even in the innovatively

bureaucratic Malaccan state under Iskandar.

109 Royal Asiatic Society Sejarah Melayu Raffles 18,49.

Even so, the move from personal fealty to a mixture of more formalized

interactions - and ultimately to contractual guarantees - was very real in 15th

century Malacca, and was perhaps counterintuitively indicative of the opening of a

more laissez-faire state. This is because the emphasis on loyalty within traditional

Malay social organization implied a concomitant emphasis on conformity: a man

could prove his loyalty by always doing what his lord [tuan, tun, tuhan) asked of him,

and by never offending his lord’s sensibilities by striking out in alarming new

directions. In Malacca, by contrast, good social behavior was evolving to include

people who fulfilled agreed-upon obligations, whatever their personal beliefs,

cultural background, or political loyalties. In some cases these obligations were

obligations of office, in which guise they applied to the most important of the

sultan's subjects and courtiers; but in the same spirit merchants of all backgrounds

now began to be accepted as subjects in good standing as long as they met

contractual financial obligations and legal social obligations that applied to

everybody in the city.

Nowhere is this open attitude and general Malaccan move towards varied

personal convictions as clear as in the realm of religion. Iskandar Shah is commonly

credited with bringing Islam to Malacca; in fact, this attribution is unlikely for a

variety of reasons discussed below, and reasonable historians might doubt that he

ever even professed the faith. Nonetheless, it is right to say that the religious

landscape in Malacca changed dramatically during and after Iskandar's reign.

Parameswara had brought a Malayocentric worldview to Malacca (though he had

been forced to reach out to China when confronted with Siamese aggression);

Iskandar and his successor Sri Maharaja (later Muhammad Shah) continued the

tradition of political openness but presided over a concurrent religious flowering as

well. Where the Palembang ruling family had traditionally embraced a particular

court-centered Mahayana Buddhist orthodoxy distinct from and supposedly

superior to folk religion (although Palembang Buddhism was always Buddhism

"with Malay characteristics"), Iskandar and his successor both allowed heterodoxy

at court and among the common people in Malacca. With Iskandar’s rule and for the

rest of Malacca’s history as an independent state, religious syncretism and outright

religious innovation prevailed. As religion, so too all else: the history of Malacca in

the 15th century is nothing if not the history of a city embracing laissez-faire faith,

laissez-faire custom, laissez-faire languages, and of course laissez-faire economics.


At its height, Srivijaya had been the acknowledged seat of Mahayana

Buddhism in the western archipelago. Srivijaya’s Buddhist history was grand: when

ninth-century Sailendra kings built Borobudur, the great Buddhist temple in central

Java, intermarriage meant that Srivijaya shared Sailendra rule and had therefore

helped to fund the temple's construction. Chinese pilgrims hoping to study

Buddhism in India were commonly advised to stop for some years at Borobudur in

order to learn Sanskrit and prepare for the journey ahead and, as Javanese rulers

waned in power, Palembang in turn became a center of Buddhist learning in its own

right with reportedly more than a thousand monks, numerous pilgrims, and a

program for teaching Sanskrit.110 By the eleventh century, Srivijaya had a walled

Mahayana temple complex at Muara Takus,111 and Palembang's ruling family

continued to expand that site into the twelfth century at least.112 Meanwhile, local

princelings built numerous Buddhist temples in northern Sumatra under Srivijayan

suzerainty.113 One of the largest known temple complexes of any kind in all of

Southeast Asia was the Buddhist agglomeration maintained at Melayu-Jambi

beginning in the eleventh century and dramatically expanded in the thirteenth

century following the Javanese sack of Palembang, all under Srivijayan auspices.114

Less monumentally, the Palembang monarchy embraced the Buddhist ideal of the

generous, karma-conscious chakravartin king. Chinese visitors remarking upon the

Palembang maharaja's habit of distributing vast sums to the poor in 1079 were

witnessing a Buddhist ritual. Land grants throughout the tenth, eleventh, twelfth,

and thirteenth centuries show that rulers from the intermarried Sumatran and

Javanese leading families regularly endowed plots of land for the sustenance of

Buddhist monasteries.115 It was this rich Buddhist legacy that Parameswara and his

followers carried with them when they fled to Malacca.

110 Frederic M artin Schnitger, Forgotten Kingdoms in Sumatra. (Leiden: Brill, 1939J, pg. 2.

111 Gugusan Dan Sejarah Candi Muara Takus. Department of Education and Culture, Riau Province.
November 1992.

112 Schnitger, Forgotten Kingdoms in Sumatra, 1-14.

113 For example, the vast l l th-century Candi Bahai complex located in Padang Lawas. See Frederic
Martin Schnitger, The Archaeology o f Hindoo Sumatra. (Leiden: Brill, 1937). 16-37.

114 Eric M. Oey, Sumatra, (Hong Kong: Periplus Editions (HK) Ltd., 1996).

115 For this, see the Iron Monastery Records at the Indonesian National Museum in Jakarta, and the
"plaque records” housed at the Perpustakaan Nasional in Kuala Lumpur.

Yet by the year 1400, aristocratic Malay religion was syncretic. Srivijaya's

pre-eminent early Buddhism had long been augmented with Hindu and especially

Shivaite accretions so that, for example, Shiva was sometimes credited with the

possession or impersonation of those animals that Malays believed to be sacred

[kramat): tigers, crocodiles, and elephants. Shiva was also remembered in the

Hikayat Sang Samba, a poetic epic that served as a Malay version of the Hindu-

Javanese Bhaumakavya with origins in the Mahabarata.116 Stories from the Hindu

Ramayana circulated across the Javanese-Malay world of the 15th century and had

probably reached Palembang many centuries earlier.117 And, in a nod towards

Hindu rather than Buddhist nomenclature, fifteenth-century Malaccans

remembered the mountain at the center of the Indie world as "Mahameru" (and as

late as the 19th century, peninsular Muslim Malays were still able to identify Mount

Mahameru with Saguntang-guntang, a mountain on the outskirts of Palembang

across the straits].118 Shivaism was tolerated at court119 and numerous Shivaite

116 W alter W. Skeat, Malay Magic (New York: The MacMillan Company, 1900), 86; L.F. Brakel,
Literaturen, Volume 1 (Leiden: Brill, 1997), 124-126.

117 The earliest attested such text is the Hikayat Seri Rama. Dating these texts is notoriously difficult;
some have claimed that our earliest copies of the Hikayat Seri Rama may date back as far as the 13th
century, but this seems optimistic (by how much we don't know). We do have a later text
uncontroversially datable to the 17th century, but that seems far too late given the paper and
discovery conditions for various other texts. At any rate, repeated offhand references to the
Ramayana suggest that the stories ( if not these particular w ritten texts) must have come into the
Malay world long before Malacca was founded and probably during the fifth- and sixth-century
flowering of Indie culture in insular Southeast Asia. Temples on Java and Sumatra - notably, but not
exclusively, Prambanan in central Java - include clear references to this Hindu story in their relief
work, as well. See Brakel, op. cit., 124-127, and, for more about the Ramayana across Southeast Asia
(including Thai, Cambodian, and Balinese variations) the various chapters in Monike Thiel-
Horstmann, ed. Ramayana and Asian Variations in Ramayana (New Delhi: Sahitya Akademi, 1983).

118 Skeat, 2.

temples also dotted the Javanese and Sumatran landscape (although rarely with the

same prominence as their Buddhist counterparts).120

Parameswara's court would thus have been Buddhist in belief and "Hindu-

Buddhist in cultural inspiration," to use the words of Christopher Wake.121

Parameswara’s conception of royal privilege and generosity, the politics of personal

fealty that so characterized his reign, and even the aesthetics of courtly life and

behavior in Malacca’s early years all would have borne a close resemblance to

Hindu-Buddhist antecedents in Palembang and across the Javanese-Malay world,

dating back several centuries at least. Ayutthaya, too, belonged to this broad cultural

sphere (although Siamese Buddhism was chiefly of the Theravada variety, and

active practice of Shivaism appears to have been much less prevalent there than it

was in island Southeast Asia). When Siamese forces moved against Parameswara in

Temasik, and when they intercepted Malaccan ambassadors to China in 1407, they

therefore undertook operations against a cultural confrere.

But for all that the Palembang aristocracy (now relocated to Malacca)

emphasized systemized religion in concert with their Southeast Asian neighbors,

neither Buddhism nor any of the various varieties of Hinduism had ever entirely

displaced indigenous, uniquely Malay mythology on Sumatra or the Malay peninsula.

119 And some Malay court complexes included accommodation for a Shivaite priest alongside a large
Buddhist monastery or temple, although to the best of our knowledge this was not the case at

120 Schnitger, The Archaeology o f Hindoo Sumatra. This whole book catalogues the physical Hindu
remains on Sumatra, and compares them with Buddhist and later Muslim stelae, temples, and other

121 C.H. Wake, "Melaka in the Fifteenth Century: Malay Historical Traditions and the Politics of
Islamization,” in Sanhu and Wheatley, Melaka, 128.

To be sure, non-Buddhist, non-Hindu Malay folk belief is almost entirely absent from

the stories we have about the religious practices of Palembang, even when these are

reported by outsiders like the Chinese; nor do local magic and myth feature in

inscriptions or temples from the pre-Malaccan period. On the other hand, accepted

court religion shows clear kinship with folk beliefs that persisted in the Malay world

even into the 19th century. When Shiva took on an animal avatar (in a manner

consistent with the accepted court religion), Malays believed that certain magical

animals were the ones most likely to be impersonated; and even those Malaccans

who emphatically embraced other, non-Shivaite religions (like Islam) would later

agree that tigers, crocodiles, and elephants might all occasionally possess

supernatural qualities. This is a place where we see a legacy of folk religion

burnished - but not replaced - by official Hindu-Buddhist cult. At the same time, the

Shivaite restatement of this particular belief illustrates the degree to which courtly

emphasis on certain accepted cult effectively suppressed and recast indigenous

Malay myths during the Srivijayan golden age: it's not that this tiger is magical in

itself, but rather, Shiva (an accepted god) is embodying the tiger.

This cooptation and recasting did not happen in Malacca. Parameswara’s

move to the Malay peninsula (and perhaps also the temporary decline in Malay

regional importance after the fall ofSrivijaya) brought about a renewed tolerance

for indigenous Malay magic and religion at the expense of traditional Buddhism

(with Hindu characteristics), and Malacca in particular became a rich home of Malay

folk tales. Stories abound in which tigers are addressed as "grandfather" (datoh) or

obliquely referred to as "Grandpa Long Claws" (To/i Panjang Kuku).122 Later Malays

told stories about men and demons who could take feline form to become were-

tigers; about tigers with human souls; about tigers who built their own villages out

of human skin and bones.123 But though it's difficult to uncover folk religion from so

long ago, similar stories are also attested in 15th-century Malacca. Were-tigers in

particular were repeatedly reported in foreign works; for example, in c. 1436 Ma

Huan wrote that "in the town there are tigers which turn into men. They enter the

markets, and walk about mixing with people,"124 while as late as 1613 Eredia

explained that Roman Catholic intervention successfully stopped a spate of people

"who changed themselves from men into tigers, came by night to the town of Malaca,

and killed unresisting women and children."125 "Ghost tigers" {harimau kramat) -

perhaps white tigers, although the Malay kramat connotes something supernatural

or otherworldly beyond pallor or whiteness - were especially magical, and their

deaths were considered to be at once unlucky and a source of great power.126 Ghost

elephants (gajah kramat) were likely also revered, much as the white elephant is in

Thailand today; in more modern times, killing them was thought to bring personal

calamity, natural disaster, or even warfare.127 Less specifically (but from a much

122 Skeat, 91 & 157, for modern stories that owe a legacy to this early tradition; Sejarah Melayu RAS
Raffles 18, chapter 23, for older stories.

123 Skeat, 157.

124 Ma Huan, 113.

125 Godhino de Eredia, Eredia's Description o f Malaca, ed. J.G.V. Mills, (Kuala Lumpur: MBRAS Reprint
1 4 ,1 99 7 ), pg. 41.

126 Skeat, 163.

127 Ibid., 153.

earlier source text), "elephant lore" and "men deeply versed in elephant lore"

feature in the Sejarah Melayu any time elephants are lost or rampaging, or when

they behave in peculiarly "human" ways (like seeming to sympathize with a

captive).128 On manuscripts, crocodiles were (rather opaquely) drawn as

illustrations near magic number squares.129 Again drawing from more modern

anthropological work that may shed light on the reasons for such illustrations in

earlier Malacca, we find that crocodiles are invoked in sailors' rhymes, sometimes

on their own, sometimes with one or several of the local names for Shiva, and at

other times as a spirit somehow separate from the crocodile itself130 (and the

supernatural powers these sailors attributed to saltwater crocodiles seem

particularly apropos when we consider the parallel nautical-terrestrial habits of the

Malay sailors themselves). Malevolent crocodiles (or demons impersonating them)

were credited with causing tidal bores and floods: when they swam through the

Straits or up the Melaka River, it was thought that they caused the waters to

overflow their banks.131 Marsden also suggests that 15th-century Malays

understood eclipses in terms of a crocodile or dragon devouring the sun; this idea

has parallels in both Hinduism and in Chinese folk religion, but since 15th-century

128 For example, in Royal Asiatic Society Sejarah Melayu Raffles 18,91-92.

129 See Royal Asiatic Society Raffles MS 25 back cover, for example.

130 Skeat, 89.

131 Royal Asiatic Society Sejarah Melayu Raffles 18, chapter 2.

Malacca was in the unusual position of passing an entire century without ever

seeing a solar eclipse the point must remain theoretical for our purposes.132

More generally, the coastal Malays who comprised the early population of

Malacca inhabited a world filled with spirits, ghosts, gods, and magic. Animals were

particularly "sacred" or "supernatural" (kramat) because it was clear that they had

independent will, but trees and even clothes, named weapons,133 and instruments of

office (like personified drums and sticks134) might each be made magical via the

appropriate use of language and ritual. Natural objects could harbor "animal" souls

which might afford protection or give power: fruit-bearing trees, for example, each

were thought to have particular animal-like personalities that could be swayed by

song or sacrifice,135 while tin was animated by a buffalo-shaped spirit such that the

Malay tin-miner "considers that the tin itself is alive and has many of the properties

of living matter, that of its own volition it can move from place to place, that it can

reproduce itself, and that it has special likes - or perhaps affinities - for certain

people and things, and vice versa."136 In the 19th century, Malays from the interior of

132 W illiam Marsden, The History o f Sumatra (London: J.M’Creery, 1811), 157; NASA “Solar Eclipses of
Historical Interest and Historical Eclipse Data,”
http://eclipse.gsfc.nasa.gov/SEhistory/SEhistorv.htmI. accessed 4 April 2013.

133 Undang-undang Melaka RAS Raffles 74, section 2.1.

134 Ibid.

135 Skeat, 64-65 for a modern example and for a fleshing out of the theology of the animal soul; Royal
Asiatic Society Sejarah Melayu Raffles 18,76, for an example of such a song dating to the 1500s.

i 3* Abraham Hale, “On Mines and Miners in Kinta, P e r a k JSBRAS, Vol. 16 (1885), 310-311.

the peninsula said similar things about gold, which they believed to be animated by

a spirit in the shape of a golden roe-deer (kijang).137

Amulets, krises, and other talismans didn't necessarily need a "soul" or

animating spirit in order to gain potency, however. Objects like the armband of

invulnerability reported by Afonso d’Albuquerque (mentioned in the prevous

chapter of this work] might be passed from hand to hand, with their origins

shrouded in mystery and their power thus inimitable. But similar talismans abound

in the Sejarah Melayu and they often have very carefully-recorded histories: we

encounter protective bracelets, invincible or supernaturally powerful swords,

amulets made of charmed shell or of animal teeth which were believed to keep the

wearer from illness, and numerous formulae which might bring magical protection

to the sailor at sea.138 These gained their potency through the mediation of an expert

in folk religion (a practice that continued into the 20th century long after the arrival

and widespread adoption of Islam). Or, lacking an expert to help them, Malays

trusted in the intercession of minor (often naturalistic) deities whom they could call

on themselves; for, despite professed belief in the Way of the Buddha tempered by

Shivaist cult, Malays invoked the god of the wind (Raja Angin), the "god of the mid­

137 Skeat, 271

138 On krises of invulnerability, see G.C. Griffith Williams, "Origin of the Malay Keris," JMBRAS No. XV,
vol. iii (December 1937), 136. All of these examples, and other similar ones besides, can be found in
the Sejarah Melayu.

currents" who controlled tides (Mambang Tali Harus), gods of thunder and lightning,

gods of celestial bodies, and of course the spirits of various potent animals.139

Coincident with all of this animistic belief was a widespread belief in the

power of words. If certain linguistic formulae could invoke spirits or work magic,

then it made sense to believe that words themselves must be used with care.

Powerful swords therefore had to be referred to by name to get the best out of them,

as did certain musical instruments. Other names were to be avoided, and so the

Malay language was also full of forbidden words and situational taboos. Malay

fishermen out of sight of land would "not willingly mention the names of birds or

beasts while at sea," according to Hugh Charles Clifford, for fear of never seeing land

again.140 Other dangerous animals or objects could only be alluded to obliquely if a

Malaccan wanted to avoid tragedy. In particular, the person of the sultan (or raja)

was sacrosanct in Malacca, and this was partially emphasized by the many and

varied forms of linguistic taboos surrounding him: on pain of death it was illegal for

any but the sultan to use words like patik (I, me, in reference specifically to

somebody of rank), titah (command), murka (wrath), or kurnia (generosity,


139 These names are given to us by Skeat, 85-89, and may be anachronistic for our story of early
Malacca. On the other hand, the general impression of a divine world w ith gods that govern the
natural things of heaven and earth is very much corroborated by the stories of the Sejarah Melayu. To
give just one example of such a story, in one instance Malay warriors sing a rhyme addressed to Allah
and to the thunder, and the seas miraculously calm. Royal Asiatic Society Sejarah Melayu Raffles 18,

140 H.C. Clifford, In Court and Kampong (London: Grant Richards, 1903), 147-148.

141 Royal Asiatic Society Sejarah Melayu Raffles 18, chapter 2.

In these fragmentary glimpses of early Malaccan belief, it is difficult to

disaggregate magic and religion. Magical objects got their power from gods who are

sometimes unattested outside the incantations that evoked them. Inanimate objects

were believed to have souls, but our knowledge of what that meant includes almost

no theological content. Malay rulers in Malacca embraced well-established world

religions (Buddhism, and then Islam) but also enforced linguistic taboos and kept

empowered staffs and magical drums, among other objects that they thought would

magically (divinely?) ensure their continued strength and good luck.

Nonetheless, it is important that these varied traditions and beliefs

flourished in Malacca in a way that it seems they had not in Palembang. Of course

Malay folk culture pre-dated the foundation of Malacca, but the fact is that Malacca's

sultans allowed varied folk religion to come to the fore where earlier it had been

overlooked in favor of the official Buddhism (and the officially-tolerated Shivaism).

Many of the strains of nature-worship described above were peculiarly tied to

Malacca and the surrounding area, and seem therefore guaranteed to have emerged

precisely there. Consider the location of the chief (magical) tiger village, for example:

it was said to be at Mount Ophir, in today's Malacca Province and not far outside the

15th-century city.142 Such a belief could not have originated in Palembang, nor is it

Buddhist; it may well have existed locally in Malacca’s villages before the city was

ever founded. Similarly, incredibly esoteric and lengthy examples of tin-related

magic are another example of Malacca-centric folklore that simply makes no sense if

viewed in a (tinless) Sumatran context.

142 Skeat, 157.

From the time of Iskandar Shah, the Malaccan ruler's active participation in

enforcing taboos and engaging magicians shows that he was very much a part of the

common world of folk magic in Malacca, unlike his predecessors on Sumatra in

degree if not necessarily in kind. This trend continued as the 15th century

progressed, with the old state religion largely falling by the wayside while popular

imagination and widely varied practices were allowed to flourish in Malaccan

streets. The entire absence of references to Buddhism in any of the known records

referring to the Malacca court or indeed to any Malaccan Malays after

Parameswara's time certainly strongly suggests that religion in 1410s Malacca was

at once both vibrant and uncontrolled by any state cult.

Against this background, many have been inclined to see Iskandar Shah as

Malacca's first Muslim ruler, fighting against a religiously out-of-control subject

population whose beliefs led them in a number of different and unsophisticated new

directions. Common wisdom (in Malaysia in particular) is that Parameswara had

inherited Mahayana Buddhism as the religion of the ruling family; the ragtag

Malaccans themselves believed in a complex amalgam of folk religion and Indo-

Chinese polytheism; but Iskandar found something new and compelling in a textual

Abrahamic faith which he subsequently forced upon his population, very much to

the betterment of all.

Certainly it is true that no later than 1451 a Chinese observer was able to

write of Malacca that "the king and the people are all Mohammedans and they

carefully observe the tenets of this religion,”143 and certainly Iskandar's regnal name

- a matter of personal choice among hereditary Malay leaders - suggests an

intentional pivot to the Muslim west (both "Iskandar" and "Shah" have Persian

antecedents). By additionally adopting the Arabic title "sultan," which was in wide

use across the Muslim world, Iskandar also abandoned the centuries-old practice

common among straits-region Malay rulers whereby they used the Sanskritic "raja"

or "maharaja," both terms possessing Indian (especially Hindu) associations. But

although scholars and others have frequently repeated the suggestion that Iskandar

was an important Islamizing force in the Malay world, this conclusion is

unsupportable. Malay leaders characteristically adopted a number of titles,

sometimes to the point of requiring subordinates to use obviously grotesque,

overwrought accretions of names; Sri Paduka Raja ("radiant" "ruler" "king") of

Trengganu is a characteristic example (of the norm, not the extreme). It may

therefore be that "Sultan" was just the most memorable of Iskandar's many titles,

including, for all we know, several titles of Hindu-Buddhist origin as well. Relying on

the evidence of Iskandar Shah's chosen name is less compelling still: "Iskandar"

recalls the Malay genealogical story that traces royal blood to Alexander the Great

(=Iskandar), while "shah" was essentially titular, meaning simply "king." If both

names are ultimately Persian and suggest close relationships with Muslim traders

(perhaps Gujarati Muslims from India’s west coast), nonetheless neither name is

143 Ma Huan, 123. The complex history of the document cited here means that we can't be sure
whether this observation dates to 1416 (when the text was first compiled immediately after the
author's return from Malacca), 1451 (when it was first published, w ith amendments and annotations
to the original), or to any time in between (and there is evidence that modest updates were made in
the 1430s). For more, see Paul Pelliot, “Les grands voyages maritimes chinois au debut du XVe si£cle,”
T’oung Pao, vol. 30 (1933) pp. 241-338 and 398-400.

religious in character. Indeed, insofar as Alexander the Great was an inspiration for

the sultan's name, he may be said to have rather continued the old Indie traditions

that themselves passed into Muslim genealogies than to have marked any kind of

substantial cultural break. On the basis of weak evidence like this, we cannot say

confidently that Iskandar embraced Islam as his own.

What we can say, however, is that he embraced Islam in others. This is most

obvious (and most literally true) when we consider that Iskandar married a Muslim

princess from Patani,144 a diplomatic match that linked Malacca to the Muslim

dynasty that ruled the northeastern part of the Malay peninsula. In adopting the title

Sultan and in choosing regnal names that were of Persian origin at a time when

Persia was most assuredly a Muslim nation, Iskandar was at the very least making

conscious use of his position to court rulers and merchants who were Muslims.

Whatever Iskandar’s personal convictions, the cultural emphasis of his court had

dramatically shifted. No longer did the Malaccan court privilege the Hindu-Buddhist

beliefs that linked the city to its Srivijayan past or Siamese present. Rather, the court

under Iskandar was turning towards a Muslim future that would bind Malacca most

strongly not to near regional relatives but rather to more distant trading partners.

Early kings of Malacca

Parameswara c. 1 3 9 8 - 1414

Megat Iskandar Shah 1 4 1 4 -1 4 2 4

Sri Maharaja, Muhammad Shah 1424 -1 4 4 5

144 C.H. Wake, "Melaka in the Fifteenth Century," 143.


There is nothing in the documents to suggest that this shift was contentious.

The Malaccan aristocracy under Iskandar seems to have allowed for religious

differences without much fanfare and, if some nobles stood firmly by their Buddhist

beliefs, nonetheless they appear to have valued political acumen as much as

religious orthodoxy. For, in the face of Siamese aggression, Malaccan-Muslim

alliances were certainly politic. Siamese claims to the entire Malay peninsula and its

surrounding sea lanes naturally drove peninsular Malaccans and seagoing Muslim

merchants into one another's arms. When in 1418 or 1419 Ayutthaya sent an

(unsuccessful) armed attack against Iskandar Shah’s Malacca,145 this was just one

more skirmish in the continued battle over sovereignty and suzerainty in Malaya,

the same battle that had resulted in Parameswara’s expulsion from Temasik at the

end of the 14th century as well as the Chinese admonishments sent to Siam in 1407.

And even as this terrestrial war proceeded, a related conflict was bringing tension to

the seas. Muslim traders annoyed the Siamese by traversing Malay waters without

their permission, routinely bringing their wares around the Malay peninsula and as

far north as the Malay port of Patani on the eastern coast but only rarely calling at

important Siamese cities. Ayutthaya was at pains to intercept this trade, but from its

urban centers further beyond the Kra Isthmus (which joins the Malay peninsula to

continental Southeast Asia), there was frequently little Ayutthaya could do. This

145 Ming shilu, Taizong, juan 217.1a-b (30 October 1419).

maritime dispute was so fierce and sustained that even though Ayutthaya would

welcome Muslim merchants into its capital city, Christopher Wake can breezily (and

correctly) refer to “the enmity between Muslim and Thai" that prevailed throughout

the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries.146

These terrestrial and maritime conflicts were inextricably linked. The Malay

peninsula (and Malacca upon it) was valuable to Ayutthaya in large part because it

was from the Malay coasts that kings and princelings could control nearby

waterways and thus benefit from the lucrative Straits trade. When Malacca's

continued independent existence was guaranteed by Chinese allies who called at the

port with well-equipped naval forces in 1406-7,1408-9,1414-15,1418-19 (this trip

resulted in the record of the Siamese attack mentioned above), and 1421-22 (as well

as later during the reign of Sri Maharaja in 1432-3),147 this cut the Siamese out of

any share in the Straits trade. Merchants who made Malacca their home port on the

Straits did so at the expense of any Siamese - or Javanese - cities that might

otherwise have hosted them. That Malacca generally refused to pay tribute to

Ayutthaya from the reign of Iskandar onwards only made his policy of courting

Muslim merchants that much more egregious in Siamese eyes.

Yet from a Malaccan perspective Muslims must have been obvious allies.

Muslim merchants from both east (Patani) and west (Gujarat, Pasai) carried wealth

into the city and added to Malacca’s now-substantial population. These merchants

146 Christopher Wake, "Melaka in the Fifteenth Century: Malay Historical Traditions and the Politics
of Islamization." In Sandhu and Wheatley, Melaka, V ol.l, 141.

J.G.V. Mills, 8.

formed a bulwark against an aggressive Ayutthaya by bringing with them personal

and financial connections to other trading states, not only to nearby Patani and

Pasai, but also to Majapahit (which was not itself Muslim), to Qa'il on the

Coromandel Coast, Cambay in Gujarat, and even Aden and Jeddah on the Red Sea.148

Close Muslim communities like those on the northeastern coast of the Malay

peninsula were not coincidentally also trading states that Malacca may have hoped

to emulate (and which Malacca would soon surpass); after all, Islam had taken hold

in these sites only because long-distance Muslim traders had repeatedly called at

their ports. But the more important factor in Malacca’s own calculations must have

been the great wealth and numerous connections of established Muslim merchants

from farther afield. Gujarati Muslims, in particular, were enticed by Malacca's

convenient location and low rates of tax (three percent for residents from the west

like those from Gujarat; six percent for western traders who lived abroad instead of

making their permanent home in Malacca; and varying rates for merchants coming

from China and other Southeast Asian ports).149 From the 1420s at least these

Gujarati merchants therefore moved to the city in great numbers. It was an

obviously good choice for them: in most Indian Ocean ports, port safety and heavy

taxation (and regulation) went hand in hand; but in Iskandar's Malacca, the periodic

presence of the Chinese fleet maintained a basic level of safety even as the court’s

interest in controlling foreign communities was initially very slight. Gujaratis were

148 Om Prakash, "The Indian Maritim e Merchant, 1500-1800/" JESHO, Vol. 47, no. 3, Between the Flux
and Facts of Indian History: Papers in Honor of Dirk Kolff (2004), pg. 444.

149 Pires, Suma Oriental, 329.

therefore able to ingratiate themselves with the city's Malay population with little

hindrance, and they set up permanent homes near the port from which they became

intermediaries in the trade of western textiles and eastern aromatics and tin. These

Indian merchants in turn had close connections to Muslim Arab, Persian, and

Turkish networks via the western-facing Gujarati port of Cambay, and so trading

ships operated by Arabs, Persians, and Turks all therefore also began to call at

Malacca (although few of these people would actually settle permanently on the

Malay coast).150

At the same time, prominent Chinese Muslims were the chief political

intermediaries between Malacca's Malay court and the government in China, which

was the source of most of the city’s early diplomatic and naval force. If it is

unexpected that Malaccans may have considered their high-ranking Chinese friends

to be substantially of the Muslim faith, it is nonetheless likely to be true: Zheng He,

the admiral who directed the treasure ships, was Muslim, as were his chief physician

and scribe and many ships' captains under him. The fleet famously navigated using

maps of Arab origin. And in 1421-22, the Chinese ships called at Mecca not only to

trade, but also in time to participate in that year's hajj. Indian commercial

connections clearly benefitted Malacca by giving the city distant allies who shared a

financial interest in its continued success and stability; but the privileged place of

the Chinese as Malacca's favorite strategic ally meant that the tolerance of Islam (or

even the wholehearted adoption of that religion) also contributed to safety in a

much more direct way. It simply made good military sense.

150 Prakash, "The Indian M aritim e Merchant, 1500-1800,” .444.

For these reasons, then, the traditionally-Buddhist Malaccan aristocracy

accepted Iskandar's Islamic overtures with equanimity. Yes, the Siamese were

Buddhists too (though Theravada), but the politics of trade and warfare meant that

religious convictions were subordinated to more worldly concerns. We may assume

that most of the Malay nobility remained true to the Mahayana Buddism with which

they were raised, but importantly, as a point of policy it’s clear that the Malaccan

court under Iskandar was religiously ambivalent. Malay aristocrats could not deny

the myriad benefits that came with the toleration of foreign religion or unofficial

religious practice, and so they chose not to enforce religious uniformity on Malacca’s

subject population. It must therefore come as no surprise that, along with Islam, folk

religion, animism, mysticism, and even Chinese cult practices flourished in this


Of course, it may be that Iskandar Shah was relatively unmoved by political

considerations and was in fact the entirely sincere, wholly-converted Muslim that he

is today often claimed to have been; given the minimal evidence of his personal

convictions one way or another, this is undeniably possible. Yet when Iskandar died,

his son and successor reverted to Indie form and in 1424 took the throne under the

name Sri Maharaja. This return to Sanskritic naming tradition suggests that any

conversion or sincere Muslim practice during Iskandar's reign was seen as personal

eccentricity and not as state policy. Iskandar may have been titularly a sultan and

his wife a Muslim, but his son, at first, was neither - and that was acceptable within

the fluctuating religious atmosphere of 1420s Malacca. The suggestion that the

sultan was truly and sincerely Muslim thus only reinforces the conclusion that

Iskandar’s Malacca supported a wide variety of religious belief. Under Iskandar Shah,

the majority of Malaccan courtiers could remain Buddhist, the sultan's son could be

raised in the Hindu-Buddhist tradition, and the sultan and his wife could be Muslim,

all without substantial dissention in the ranks for the full decade of his kingship.

Tolerance at court was tenuous, however, and in the reign of Sri Maharaja it

is clear that Islamization was beginning to divide the Malaccan nobility. Sri

Maharaja's first bendahara (whom perhaps he had inherited from his father,

although this seems unlikely since the two clearly disagreed on many points of

policy) was the conservative Tun Perpatih Permuka Berjajar, a Malay out of the old

aristocratic tradition and the leader of the traditionalists at court. Berjajar

supported a Hindu-Buddhist faction; he may even have advocated alliance with or

subjugation to the Siamese as a means of preempting attack.151 As bendahara,

Berjajar was Sri Maharaja’s chief advisor; his role was crucial during the early years

of the reign. Among other things, Berjajar was likely the caretaker governor of

Malacca for a few months in 1424 when the newly-installed raja once again went

personally to China. Sri Maharaja's venture differed greatly from Parameswara’s

earlier trip - the size of his embassy was not recorded in the Chinese histories and

may therefore be presumed to have been fairly unremarkable, and this time the

Malaccan king spent only ten days in the Chinese capital152 - "the reason for this

journey [being] that the father had died and he had newly inherited the throne"153 -

151 C.H. Wake, "Melaka in the Fifteenth Century," 146.

152 Ming shilu, Taizong, juan 269.3b (20 April 1424) and 270.1b (30 April 1424)

153 Ibid., juan 269.3b (20 April 1424)

but in the crucial respect of the monarch leaving Malacca to fend for itself the two

trips were similar. But even as Sri Maharaja was reaching out to helpful foreign

powers (and here it is relevant that once more China singled out Malacca with

unusually lavish gifts),154 Berjajar was consolidating his position at the top of a

nativist party back in Malacca itself. From subsequent events it is clear that Berjajar

commanded a great deal of support and respect within the Malaccan aristocracy,

many of whose members must have been increasingly uneasy with the cavalier way

in which old traditions were thrown out while new people and new religions were

so easily welcomed into their midst. Berjajar remained in power for several years

and so along with being an able administrator he must have also enjoyed the firm

backing of the raja.

But the changes first ushered into Malacca under Iskandar were gaining

traction at court as well as among the vibrant and religiously-experimental

Malaccan populace. Tun Perpatih Besar was a junior member of the bendahara’s

family who gained his own followers as a champion of the Islamic cause at court.

Besar promoted closer relationships with Muslim merchants, and he even married

one of his daughters to an Indian (probably Gujarati) Muslim called Baginda Mani

Purindan,155 thereby formalizing his personal relationships with the Muslim

154 Ibid., juan 270.1b (30 April 1424). Compare this extensive list of carefully-catalogued large
quantities of precious metals, silks, damasks, and clothing woven w ith golden thread, among other
things, w ith the cursory "paper money, patterned fine silks and silk gauzes, as appropriate" that had
been conferred upon Siamese ambassadors just three years before, Ming shilu, Taizong juan 236.4a
(20 May 1421).

155 Sejarah Melayu RAS MS Raffles 18, 88-90. Crucially, see C.H. Wake’s "Melaka in the Fifteenth
Century" in Sandhu and Wheatley, Melaka, pp. 146-148, for a nuanced and careful disentanglement of
the complicated genealogies in the sources above.

community. We have no particular evidence that Tun Perpatih Besar was himself a

Muslim or even sympathetic to Islam as a system of beliefs, but he was a shrewd

political actor who saw that Malacca’s independence and indeed its glory was

guaranteed by the good relations the city maintained with all those who plied the

straits trade.

With continued Siamese attacks and even an attempted naval blockade in

1430 or thereabouts,155 it was perhaps inevitable that Tun Perpatih Besar's position

would gain ascendency and that he should ultimately prevail over the ingrained

nativism of Tun Perpatih Permuka Berjajar. Nonetheless, it took the question of Sri

Maharaja's marriage to bring things to a head. Although the story is whitewashed in

Malay histories in order to pursue the fiction that Malacca’s conversion was a matter

of deep conviction and mass Islamization, Portuguese sources confirm that Sri

Maharaja converted to Islam and took the name Muhammad Shah in order to marry

the Muslim daughter of the king of Pasai.157 It’s likely that Tun Perpatih Besar

advised on the match; at any rate, he was promoted to the position of bendahara (at

what precise date we cannot be sure, but the timing was coincident with Sri

Maharaja's conversion and name change), while Berjajar and his followers were

effectively sidelined for the rest of the reign, through 1445.158

156 Wake, Ming shilu, Xuanzong, juan 76.6b-7a (20 March 1431). The naval blockade can be presumed
from the language noting obstruction and limits on Sri Maharaja's movements, recorded in this entry.

157 Pires, Suma Oriental, vol. 8 9 ,2 39 -42 , and Alboquerque, Commentaries, vol. 3, 77.

158 The genealogy of various nobles and their promotions and demotions in this period are captured
in the Bustanu'l-Salatin, a text that has been published in translation and in the original several times.

Malays writing in the 17th century, looking back from a position of well-

entrenched Islam, preferred to see Muhammad Shah's conversion as a matter of

miracle and not realpolitik. In numerous variant copies, recensions, and local

versions of the Sejarah Melayu, they repeated the idea that, rather than being just

the most pragmatic of several religious options in Malacca, Islam had been adopted

wholesale following a particularly miraculous occurrence. In their account, Sri

Maharaja (known here by his Hindu-Malay epithet Raja Tengah, "the king of the

center [of the world?]”) had a prophetic dream, and on the strength of the dream

and its subsequent fulfillment he went on to entertain Muslim theologians, to

employ Muslim clerics, and to personally embrace the truth of Islam. The Sejarah

Melayu tells the tale:

"The apostle of God [Muhammad] said to Raja Tengah, ’Recite to yourself,

’Ashadu an la ilaha ilia ’Llahu wa ashadu anna Muhammad Rasul Allah.’ [’I
testify that there is no god but Allah and that Muhammad is the Apostle of
Allah,’ the basic statement of Muslim faith and conversion known as the
shahada]’ And Raja Tengah exactly followed [turut] what the Apostle of God
had said to him. Then the Apostle of God said, ’Your name is now
Muhammad. Tomorrow, at the time for the 'asar [afternoon] prayer, a boat
from jeddah will come and a man will descend onto the Malacca beach from
that boat. Be sure to do whatever he tells you.’ And Raja Tengah answered,
’I will!’ Then the Prophet of God disappeared from his sight.

The next day came and Raja Tengah woke up and he saw that he had
been circumcised. His mouth ceaselessly repeated the phrase ’Ashadu an la
ilaha ilia ’Llahu wa ashadu anna Muhammad Rasul Allah.’ All the women of
the palace were astonished to hear what he recited. The king's ministers
said, 'Should we be frightened that this Raja is possessed by a devil [shaitan]
or is he just mad? It would be good to inform the bendahara immediately.'

And the bendahara said, 'What language is this that the raja is speaking?'
And [the Raja] answered, 'Last night I had a dream.'f...] And the bendahara

However, it is Christopher Wake who makes sense of the text in his article "Melaka in the Fifteenth
Century,” op. cit. For this specific instance of religious infighting, see pg. 144.

said, 'what evidence do you have [to show whether or not] this dream is
true?' And the Raja answered, 'I am circumcised.' [...] Then the bendahara
said, 'If indeed a ship does arrive at the time of the 'asar prayers, then your
dream will be confirmed. If no ship comes, then surely a devil is possessing
the king.'159

Luckily for Raja Tengah (who was Sri Maharaja, who would become

Muhammad Shah], the Jeddah ship came precisely at the prescribed hour. The

Sayyid 'Abdu'l-Aziz disembarked and prayed, causing people to 'fall over themselves

[tunggang-tunggit] to see him' until the beach was packed full and the population

was 'in uproar' [haru-biru]. The raja excitedly confirmed that this was all exactly as

he had foreseen in his dream; the bendahara went to greet the Sayyid on a white

elephant, a sign of great respect; and he was invited to the sultan's court. Raja

Tengah embraced the new religion (and his new name and title, Sultan Muhammad

Shah), and commanded his bendahara and indeed all his people to follow him in his

new faith.160

In reality, the arrival of Islam could not possibly have been the astonishing,

crowd-pleasing revelation portrayed in this story. Rather, Islam would have been

familiar under the rule of both Parameswara and Iskandar Shah, and in fact its

presence in the region long predated both of them. Persians had been sailing into

the Straits of Malacca since at least the 10th century; Arab geographers had been

familiar with Srivijaya in generations past; and Muslim seafarers repeated stories of

159 This version conies from a Malacca version of the Sejarah Melayu dated 1608, RAS MS Raffles 18,
pp. 49-51. The same story is told in the Shellabear manuscript, pp. 54b, and in local variants of the
Sejarah Melayu copied and extended at Johor and Riau in the 18th or 19th centuries. See C.C. Brown,
"Sejarah Melayu or'M alay Annals’," IMBRAS No. 159 (February, 1953), 7-11.

160 Sejarah Melayu, RAS MS Raffles 18, 51.

Palembang at Hormuz in the 11th century. The Chinese admiral Zheng He was not

only a Muslim but had hajjis for parents; in 1421-22 his boats actually called at

Mecca in order to allow the admiral and many of his seamen to take part in that

year's hajj before returning to China via Malacca. Pasai on the north Sumatran coast

had become the center of a small island Muslim world sometime in the 14th

century161 and was in regular communication with Malacca throughout the 15th

century, exporting rice and other foodstuffs to feed the large Malaccan population.

Terengganu was home to notable Muslims in the 1350s or thereabouts,162 while

Kedah, also on the Malay peninsula, provides us with a 1380 inscription of a Muslim

song in praise of Allah.163 Iskandar's marriage to the Muslim princess of Patani

means that we know of at least one practicing Muslim who was both ethnically

Malay and physically present at the Malaccan court from 1414 at the latest. That

was a decade before Muhammad Shah's rise to power (as Sri Maharaja) and perhaps

two decades before his own Muslim marriage and explicit conversion.

The arrival of Islam to Malacca was thus neither forced nor precipitate,

whatever the later Malay accounts may have said. It’s true that Muhammad Shah's

reign was a turning point: his marriage and Tun Perpatih Besar's promotion seem to

have cemented the factions at court. Even so, Besar’s victory is chiefly notable for

how well it illustrates the tolerance and cultural openness that would characterize

the Malaccan city-state for the rest of the century. His promotion made it clear that

161 Christopher Wake, "Melaka in the Fifteenth Century,”141.

162 C.O. Blagden, "A note on the Trengganu inscription," JMBRAS vol. 2. Part 3 (1924), 255-63.

163 W.F. Stutterheim, "A Malay sha'ir in old Sumatran characters of 1380 A.D." Acta Orientalia, vol. 14
(1936), 268-79.

new religion and foreign traditions were no longer barriers to practical

advancement in open-minded Malacca. At the same time, Berjajar and his tradition-

minded partisans retained a place at court (though not in the bendahara's seat), and

there was no forced conversion of the Malaccan nobility or the population as a

whole. Dissention and uncertainty among Malacca's aristocracy was real, but

despite Malacca’s strongly hierarchical power structure these disputes notably did

not translate into oppression or forced profession among the masses. Malacca

would never have any equivalent to the jizya (tax on non-Muslims) prevalent in the

wider Muslim world, nor would there ever be any program of Islamic conversion

like that later pursued by Portuguese Catholics in Malacca and elsewhere in the

century to come.


This leaves us with a picture of Malacca in the 1410s, 20s, and 30s as a

hesitantly Islamizing peninsular Malay stronghold characterized by the popular

resurgence of animist folk belief and deeply infused with Mahayana (Buddhist) and

Shivaite (Hindu) religious and cultural traditions. This is accurate as far as it goes,

and we have no reason to doubt Ma Huan (writing in the first half of the 15th century)

when he states that both ruler and population generally professed Islam and

adhered to the faith’s basic tenets.164 But though by mid-century most of Malacca's

Malay population had embraced a relatively orthodox Sunnism, it would be very

164 Ma Huan, 123.

wrong to conclude that Malacca at this time was a merely Muslim state. The city's

religious landscape was rich and varied, and diverse Malaccans would have seen

and practiced religions from across Asia. Moreover, these "foreign" religious

traditions were in some very real sense also themselves Malaccan, since, in the

words of Duarte Barbosa c. 1518, “in this city are many foreigners of various lands,

who live there and are born in the country.”165 Malacca's meteoric population

growth (from a few thousand circa 1400 to perhaps 200,000 by 1511166) was driven

by immigration; and, of course, immigrants brought their own religious and cultural

traditions with them.

Islam itself was very much a religion of foreigners, of course. The faith was

embraced by Iskandar Shah, perhaps, and certainly by Muhammad Shah after him,

but it was practiced too by people of many nationalities who made Malacca their

new home. Malacca was only one of a number of Southeast Asian polities that found

this new western religion compelling, and many of Malacca's foreign-born Muslims

would have been from Patani, Aru on the northeast Sumatran coast, or other nearby

states which occupied a cultural milieu similar to that of Malacca itself. Yet Islam in

1420s and 1430s Malacca was largely an Indian affair. The city's uniquely large

Gujarati Muslim community meant that Indian Muslim practices were imported

quickly and wholesale, and Gujarati Muslims settled, prayed, and built mosques at

the main port area at the mouth of the Malacca river. Far from being a fringe group

165 Duarte Barbosa, op. cit., 176.

166 Thomaz, ‘‘The Malay Sultanate of Melaka," 71.

that needed to be humored, we have seen that in Malacca these foreigners became

an essential part of Tun Perpatih Besar's anti-Siamese policy.

Crucially, Gujarati convictions were neither halfhearted nor new (and in this

way, Gujaratis differentiated themselves from Southeast Asia's native Muslims, who

were in the 15th century at the very forefront of that region’s conversion]. Gujarat

had housed immigrant Arab communities from at least the 8th century, and the

region underwent mass conversion in the 1200s. By the 1400s, Gujarat and other

regions on India's west coast were actively engaged in military campaigns aimed at

spreading Islam across the subcontinent. Southeast Asian states with few

permanent foreign residents were certainly familiar with this kind of firmly-

entrenched Islamic faith, but the size of Malacca's Gujarati community meant that

compared to their Southeast Asian neighbors, Malaccans found Islam to be

unusually politically and socially transformative. In Malacca, Gujaratis made their

way into government as well as trade. (We have seen that a Gujarati married into

Tun Perpatih Besar's family in the 1420s, but by the end of the century a Gujarati

Muslim would sit not just among the Malaccan nobility but also at the right hand of

the sultan in the bendahara's seat.167) Gujaratis brought from abroad an

appreciation of Islamic scholarship that shows up clearly in the local law codes

(more on this in our next chapter). The prevalence of Islam, a self-described

"religion of the book,” may also go some way towards explaining why Malacca

adopted the ja w i script (in which Malay is written in Arabic characters) so early and,

167 Royal Asiatic Society, Sejarah Melayu Raffles 18,211.

relatedly, why Malacca produced written legal digests as early as the 1440s. (To the

best of our knowledge, this is nearly two hundred years before any other Malay

polities did the same, with Aceh the next off the mark in the early 1600s.168)

Certainly it is notable that 15th century Malacca was home to dozens (perhaps

hundreds) of copies of the Quran at a time when many other Malay polities had no

written script at all.169

But Gujarati Muslims were by no means the only immigrants to come to

Malacca from the Indian subcontinent. In 1516 the Portuguese officer Duarte

Barbosa wrote about the "Gentiles, particularly Chetis, who are natives of

Cholmendel [Coromandel]." Barbosa catalogued their wares: various scents, cloth

from Bengal and Palecate (Pulicat), iron, saltpeter, silver, and other luxury goods

from India's east coast.170 In fact, lS^-century Malacca was host to thousands of the

South Indians known as Chetties (so named for one of the chief Hindu merchant

castes) or as Kling (also transliterated keling, a general Malay term for any person of

South Indian extraction)171. These Hindus - chiefly Tamil - settled at Kota Kinabalu

168 In fact, Johor produced a legal code in the 16th century, but the Sultanate of Johor was then merely
the displaced Malacca Sultanate, and the legal code was nothing more than a slightly modified and
expanded version of the Undang-undang Melaka. I do not think we should regard this as the
production of a new legal code. Rather, the Johor code was a simple copy of the old Malacca code,
produced under the auspices of the same ruling family and supplemented w ith a small number of
added provisions and changed word choice.

169 The Perpustakaan Nasional in Kuala Lumpur houses a collection of 127 Malaccan Qurans that are
thought to date to the 15th century (with more or less evidence for their antiquity in each individual
case), for example.

170 Duarte Barbosa, 407-8.

171 The word keling has its origins in the name Kalinga, an ancient Hindu state located on the
subcontinent’s northeastern coast. In certain contexts, Kalinga may still refer to that northern Indian
district. This can cause confusion for the Southeast Asianist with a background in the Indian Ocean
world. In insular Southeast Asia, keling has a long pedigree and widespread evolving meanings;

and the predictably-named Kampong Keling, districts to the east of Malacca’s Malay

quarter and main port area. In 1529, Fernao Lopes de Castenhada added the

important observation that members of this large South Indian community had

made Malacca a permanent rather than merely seasonal home:

“In the northern part [of the city] live merchants known as Quelins [klings];
in this part the town is much larger than at any other.... There are at
Malacca, many foreign merchants, who, I said before, live among
themselves. They are moors and pagans. The pagans come principally from
Pulicat, they are installed permanently [emphasis mine], [and] they are very
rich; they are the greatest merchants of the world at this period."172

Castenhada wrote of the 15th century as a historian, but he also spoke from personal

experience of Malacca in the 16th century. He is wrong to attribute the lG^-century

wealth of Malacca's "pagan" Tamils to the 15th-century Chetty community; indeed,

their lG^-century predominence over the Gujarati Muslims was precisely a

consequence of the post-1511 Portuguese bias against Muslims both on the Iberian

peninsula and around the world generally. Nonetheless, Malacca’s Chetty

neighborhoods did not emerge fully formed with the Portuguese conquest in 1511;

and if Tamils were not yet as wealthy as Gujaratis, they were certainly present in

large numbers by the 1410s.

Malacca's South Indian community was willing to engage in trade with

Muslims as well as with practitioners of other religions while in Malacca - indeed,

Kalinga even provides the name of an upland location in Luzon. In the Malay world, by 1400 keiing
had long since ceased to refer to people from Kalinga itself, shifting instead to refer to Hindus from
any part of the subcontinent. Since north India (including Kalinga) was by that time Muslim, keling
became a historically-inaccurate stand-in for South Indians. It should also be noted that for most of
its history, including during the 15th and 16th centuries, keling was free of the offensive, racist
connotations that the word carries in Malaysia today.

172 Castenheda, Histdria do descobrimento e conquista da India pelos portugueses, Book II, chapter ii.
Lisboa 1529.

this is why they came to Southeast Asia in the first place - but chetty traders were

fiercely Hindu nonetheless. Saying this risks anachronism: "Hinduism" as a unified

ritual or theological system is an artifact as much of 19th-century British scholarship

as it is of any real religious unity in India before that time.173 Yet in the entirety of

premodern Indian history, the 15th century is perhaps the single period during

which South Indian worshippers of widely varying deities felt the most culturally

and religiously unified. In Malacca, we see this unity in the preference for a shared

residential quarter and in the eventual designation of a single shahbandar whose

role was to manage chetty traders.174 We see it, perhaps, in the laws that allowed

kling males to have no more than one wife, thus defining them as a coherent group

with coherent social practices.175 But the fellow-feeling among Tamil merchants

comes through most clearly when we consider the South Indian community's strong,

univocal unwillingness to compromise with Muslims when it came to questions of

religion or culture. Tamils would not be compelled to refrain from eating pork, and

it appears that some of them even refused to participate in government alongside

Gujarati ministers (although they did compete for prominence against Malaccan

Gujaratis). Seeing their wealthier subcontinental cousins living across town near

Malacca's main port, the South Indian community proclaimed its differences from

the city's eastern fringe. If it is true that Klings variously worshipped Vishna, Shiva,

Hanuman, and a number of smaller, more local deities, in this context it is

173 For more on the construction of Hinduism, see John Stratton Hawley, "Naming Hinduism," in The
Wilson Quarterly, Vol. 15, no. 3 (summer 1991), pp. 20-34.

174 RAS Sejarah Melayu Raffles 18,12.

175 Pires, Suma Oriental, vol. 89,1 32 .

nonetheless reasonable to speak of them as a single Hindu group that drew a clear

distinction between themselves and the city's multinational Muslim community.

This coherence is a direct consequence of the religious landscape of 15th-

century India. Long-haul traders that they were, Malaccan Tamils were well aware

of the sectarian conflicts then raging on the subcontinent, and in the context of

Indian religious strife it was clear that they were all on the same side with broadly

similar religious practices to unite them. A merchant living in Malacca’s Kota Keling

would have known about the mobilization of armies in 1398-9 and 1415, when

Hindu Vijayanagara suffered heavy defeats at the hands of the Muslim Bahmanis;176

in 1419, when the South Indians won "overwhelming victory" against their

attackers;177 in 1428, which brought another victory for the Hindu cause;178 in 1435,

when Vijayanagara joined a battle between Muslim Kalinga and Hindu Rajahmundry,

again victoriously;179 in 1436, when well-organized Muslim forces attacked from the

north;180 and so on for the duration of the 15th century. If the pre-eminent southern

Indian kingdom of Vijayanagara did not see itself as uniformly "Hindu," it certainly

did promote fervent religious traditionalism, erecting great temples to cult gods and

goddesses and defending a border between the Muslim north and the polytheistic

south that remains recognizable even today. Moreover, Vijayanagara explicitly

176 Nilakanta Sastri, A History o f South India From Prehistoric Times to the Fall ofVijayanagar (New
Delhi: Oxford University Press, India, 1976), 256.

777 Ibid. 257

178 Ibid. 258

179 Ibid. 259

180 Ibid. 259

promoted itself as the last bastion of true Indian culture standing up to the

onslaught of the Delhi Sultanate and other Muslim principalities encroaching from

the north. The same broad forces that compelled Islamic Gujarat to war on India’s

west coast also compelled Hindu Vijayanagara to fight from the southeast.

Chetty traders based in Malacca were more than just informed about this

grand war between religious cultures: through their trade they became active

participants in the battles. Terrestrial Vijayanagara was militaristic by design and

the late 14th and early 15th centuries had seen the kingdom reform its ruling

structures around fortresses, garrisons, and vast lines of fortification across the

Deccan plateau. In the 15th century, these fortifications were extended across the

Eastern Ghats to South India's chief coastal cities like Pulicat and Mangalore.

Maintaining lines of defense was costly; in the Vijayanagaran ideal, fully half of

government revenue was to be set aside to pay the army for its anti-Muslim

campaigns.181 With fighters to finance and fortifications to build, the Hindu empire

looked to its wealthy port cities to contribute. Vijayanagara therefore increasingly

financed its warfighting efforts through customs duties paid by Chetty traders and

others at Mangalore, Honavar, Bhatkal, Barkur, Cochin, Cannanore, Pulicat,

Machilipatnam and Dharmadam.182 Moreover, Vijayanagara engaged a large number

of official merchants with privileged factories up and down the Coromandel coast.

181 Ibid., 295.

182 Note that agricultural production remained essential to Vijayanagara’s tax system throughout the
15th century, and that Vijayanagara’s tax base was in fact always chiefly agrarian. 1am not arguing
here that coastal trade provided the majority of Vijayanagara's income. Rather, I want to emphasize
only that chetty traders in Coromandel coastal ports would have interacted with ever larger numbers
of Vijayanagaran port officials and state trade agents as the 15 th century progressed.

These merchants thus became government agents who brought revenue to the

South Indian kingdom directly via their own high-seas trade.183

Chetties who left the turbulent Indian world to make Malacca their

permanent home constructed houses in Kota Keling and even moved whole families

to Southeast Asia, but they were certainly not homebound on the Malay coast for the

duration of the “Malaccan century." Chetties were long-distance merchants by both

custom and class; their wealth stemmed precisely from their skill in navigating the

seaways between Malacca and various ports on India's east coast. For them as for

others, the chief attraction of Malacca was not safety but rather the excellent

location as a Straits port from which to conduct their commercial activities. This

meant that Malacca's "permanent” Chetty community comprised thousands of

people who spent their adulthoods materially supporting the Hindu cause - not

opposing Islam in Malacca itself, but via taxation to finance the fierce sectarian

warfare on the Indian subcontinent. Malacca’s wealthiest Chetties would have had a

great deal of intercourse with government officials in South India, too. Here they

would have had to contend with the long arm of state privilege in the Coromandel

trade, but they would at the same time have been privy to the thoughts of those

particularly favored by the staunchly anti-Muslim Vijayanagara government.184

Perhaps most importantly, Malaccan Chetties of all classes had seasonal contact

with their counterparts who lived on the South Indian coast, where they would have

183 Om Prakash, "The Indian Maritim e Merchant, 1500-1800," 450.

384 Ibid.

received news of the latest policies, rituals, and battles in a state that defined itself

by its religious traditionalism.

We see then that in the early years of the 1420s and 1430s, Malacca served

as a useful neutral space where South Asian Hindus and Gujarati Muslims could live

alongside one another, worship as they pleased, and trade between themselves (as

well as with others). Yet the communal tensions of the Indian subcontinent were

imported to Southeast Asia along with the cottons and spice; and the religious

openness that drew wealth to the Malacca Sultanate at this time also planted the

seeds of the Sultanate’s downfall in 1511 - as we will see in the penultimate chapter

of this study.


The tolerance that allowed Malaccan Buddhists to privilege Muslims

politically (and increasingly theologically, as Malacca's Malays converted) while also

welcoming animists and Hindus into their midst was extended too to Chinese

settlers who brought their own practices with them to the city. Trying to reconstruct

the beliefs of Malacca's 15th-century Chinese communities is difficult; few sources

mention their practices directly. The one exception - a much-celebrated Malay story

that the sultan Mansur Shah (1446-1459) married a Chinese princess (with

outlandish but religiously interesting pomp and circumstance) - is an outright

falsehood that tells us nothing about actual Chinese ritual in Malacca (or anywhere

else).185 Additionally, because the contours of Chinese religions are complex, it is

very hard to guess a p rio ri which elements successfully crossed the South China Sea

at this early date and which elements were modified or left behind.186 Nevertheless,

several small but tantalizing pieces of evidence allow us to construct at least a

partial picture of the Malaccan Chinese community.

In fact, by the mid-15th century Malacca was home to several distinct Chinese

communities. This is unsurprising: a typical voyage of the Zheng He treasure fleet

would include some 27,000 people recruited from across China,187 not to mention

the very many unaffiliated Chinese visitors to Malacca’s shores. When any of these

arrived in Malacca they would generally take up residence in a specially-constructed

quarter erected on the north side of the Sungai Melaka, the river that ran through

185 The story can be found in the Shellabear manuscript of the Sejarah Melayu, chapter 13, but is
absent from both other Sejarah Melayu texts and, crucially, from Chinese court records, which would
certainly have noticed such a marriage.

186 Timothy Brook opens his discussion of Chinese religion in this period by saying, "The fact of the
m atter is that most people of the Yuan and Ming were promiscuous in their beliefs,” and this gets at
an essential truth. China's three chief religions were Buddhism, Daoism, and Confucianism; but these
were not mutually exclusive and each provided different elements of religious ritual. Official state
cult was largely Confucian, a point firm ly made by the Yongle emperor in 1403 when he rejected a
gift o f Daoist texts w ith the dismissive, "I use only the Five [Confucian] Classics to rule the realm. Of
what use are Daoist classics?" Officials and scholars therefore debated Confucian ideals amongst
themselves. But the Confucian emphasis on filial piety was pervasive across all of China and across
the social classes as well; for example, many of the household rituals around burial rites and grave-
tending were heavily influenced by Confucian precepts. A t the same time, for practical religious help
most Chinese people relied on the Buddhist priests and Daoist monks who were better able to
administer to their day-to-day needs. Among other duties, Buddhists provided funeraiy services and
could be called upon to heal the sick, while mendicant Buddhist monks performed a wide array of
useful functions from entertainment to exorcism. Daoists were China’s geomancers, in tune with
natural forces, able to read the lay of the land and the sea, and good for finding auspicious days and
healthy, lucky locations. In addition to all of this there existed a wide array of local beliefs ranging
from worries about the destructive power of dragons to concern about the bureaucratic afterlife,
from the ritual of native-place associations to free-form shamanism [which certainly did migrate to
Malaysia sometime between the 15th and the 19th centuries, but which is very difficult to pin down
further). See Timothy Brook, The Troubled Empire (Boston: Belknap Press, 2010), 169 and 171.

187 Ma Huan Q.G.V. Mills introduction), 31-32.

the middle of the city. This quarter comprised a wooden palisade and wooden walls,

drum towers, watchtowers, warehouses, temples, and various other trappings of

their Chinese home;188 it was described in a Chinese account from the 1530s as

having a "line of stockading, like a city-wall, [with] towers for the watch-drums at

four gates. At night they had patrols of police carrying bells; inside they erected a

second stockade, like a small city-wall, [within which] they constructed warehouses

and granaries; all the money and provisions were stored in them.”189 This quarter

must have been a home for extended periods to people waiting for the fleet to

gather or for the winds to change; Johannes Widodo suggests that the vast complex

was also permanently occupied by caretakers or even "as a permanent Chinese

colony" whose "Chinese inhabitants took Malay wives and raised their families in

Melaka."190 In fact, the Chinese quarter was not a "colony" in any political sense, but

the existence of a permanent Chinese community is confirmed by the sultan's

appointment of a temenggong (police chief, chief of security) especially for

Malacca's Chinese inhabitants on the north shore.191 (That appointment is

188 w.P. Groeneveldt, Historical Notes on Indonesia and Malaya Compiled from Chinese Sources

(Batavia: [no publisher given], 1876).

189 Ma Huan, 113.

!9° Johannes Widodo, "A celebration o f diversity: Zheng He and the Origin of Pre-Colonial Coastal
Urban Pattern in Southeast Asia,” pg. 117. In Leo Suryadinata (ed.), Admiral Zheng He & Southeast
Asia. Singapore: Institute for Southeast Asian Studies, 2005.

191 W e see little precedent for Chinese colonization in other ports visited by Zheng He and no
evidence whatsoever that the Ming empire was interested in such a project. In fact, there is
considerable evidence that the Ming rejected emigration outright and that the Zheng He voyages
were meant in large part to draw foreigners in towards the Chinese center - not the opposite. This
needn’t make us dismiss the idea that the Chinese quarter was permanently occupied, nor should we
conclude that the temenggong for Chinese peoples was laughably unnecessary; other evidence pulls
in the opposite direction. In today's Malacca a substantial Chinese community continues to live on the
site of the Zheng He complex and it is widely believed that the Baba-Nyonya Chinese (and Malayo-

attributed to Iskandar Shah, although variant versions of the Sejarah Melayu are

inconsistent as to whether they say this explicitly or not.192) Chinese-Malay

intermarriage is also implied, for example in 1436 when Fei Xin reported his

observation that “the people of Malacca are dark in skin [color], but those of a fairer

complexion are the descendants of the Chinese."193

Even so, permanent residence in the military-standard palisade is only half of

the Chinese story. A second, smaller Chinese community grew up inland on the

Malay (south) side of the river, at Bukit Sina (today's Bukit Cina, "China hill"). In a

Malaccan context, the site was unusual: it did not have access either to Malacca's

harbor or to the river, and so provided a peculiarly disadvantageous neighborhood

for anybody hoping to prosper from the sea (or in the sea trade). As far as we have

evidence, throughout the 15th century no Malaccans lived farther from navigable

water than did these Chinese immigrants (with the exception of some members of

the Malay nobility who outfitted homes for themselves in the countryside... to

accompany second homes on or near the Malaccan quay, however194).

It is difficult to account for the rise of this inland Chinese neighborhood

without also acknowledging the importance of Chinese geomantic ideas about

mountains and water, or without considering the role that Chinese children played

Chinese) community dates back to the 15th century, for example. Widodo’s hypothesis of permanent
occupation goes a long way towards explaining this apparent continuity.

192 Sejarah Melayu, RAS MS Raffles 18; RAS Maxwell 24; Leiden 2310 Javaanische KL 4

193 Fei Xin Ed. Feng Chengjun Xin cha sheng Ian [jiao zhu], [ $ / i ] ([The
Annotated and Revised] Overall Survey of the Ocean's Shores). Beijing, 2007 (reprint), 23.

194 Sejarah Melayu, RAS MS Raffles 18, 32.

in tending their parents' grave sites or making ritual incense offerings in memory of

a parent. With these ideas in mind, however, it becomes easy to understand the

attractions of the Bukit Sina area. With its high slope and view of the water, the hill

had the virtue of being a perfectly situated Chinese burial ground. The Chinese who

lived in the Bukit Sina neighborhood were looking for a location that would allow

their graves to be optimally sited and carefully tended, and they quickly claimed the

hillside as Malacca’s chief Chinese graveyard (a function it still serves today). We

may infer from this that these Malaccan Chinese were neither traveling back and

forth with great frequency nor were they members of the mobile Chinese navy;

those who lived near Bukit Sina expected to die there, too. These, at least, were long­

term Chinese residents of Malacca. And for these immigrants, religious practices

were a crucial factor in determining the location - perhaps even the existence - of

Malacca's second Chinese settlement.

The growth of the [bipartite) permanent Chinese community in Malacca

must have had a great deal to do with Ming trade policy during this period. For,

despite the Zheng He missions, the early Ming was a time of domestic retrenchment

and extreme Sinocentricism. Remembering the upheavals under the Mongol

[foreign) Yuan dynasty - and the upheavals that had come with overthrowing the

Yuan - Ming administrators emphasized Chinese tradition and social stability above

all else. Foreign trade failed on both counts: it certainly involved setting one's sights

abroad and commingling with uncultured, non-Chinese people; but more damaging

still, traders contributed to a destabilizing distribution of wealth. Famously, the

Ming resurrected [and enforced, for example when classifying households) the

Confucian principle of dividing people into four ranked categories: scholar-gentry,

peasant, artisan, and merchant, with merchants firmly at the bottom of the heap.195

We see this attitude reflected clearly in a 1387 text by Wang Shuying, who wrote to

the court on economic issues:

"Merchants make more money and have far more material possessions than
they need while peasants working on land are always short of food and
clothing. Driven by profit, merchants tend to trade in luxurious
commodities that are neither edible nor wearable. A single trip by a
merchant generates more income than a peasant can make in a whole

To counteract this problem, Ming mandarins banned private international maritime

trade (although in rare cases it was possible to get a permit for licit trade); they

outlawed brokerage; and they set predetermined commodity prices. In 1401, the

Jianwen emperor forbade coastal Chinese from having "private contacts with

foreigners."197 Merchants were excluded from the civil examinations that led to

government power. They were not allowed to wear boots (and thus were unable to

travel, in theory). And under the Ming they were also newly forbidden from using

rice for various long-practiced ancestor-worship rituals.198

Such prohibitions hit the population of China's cosmopolitan south coast

especially hard, and so it is no surprise that Malacca's Chinese population (and the

195 For more on the shi-nong-gong-shang iH L T jf g or "four occupations" ideology in the Ming, see
Timothy Brook, The Confusions o f Pleasure, 72-73.

196 Wang Shuying Zhaodai jingjiyan i f cited in Li Kangying, The Ming Maritime
Trade Policy in Transition, 1368 to 1567. Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz Verlag, 2010.

197 Timothy Brook, The Troubled Empire, pg. 22 and note 16 on page 293.

198 Li Kangying, 33-38. This is an excellent and exceptionally grounded piece of scholarship on the
various limitations and abuses suffered by m aritim e merchants under the Ming, well worth a full
read in its own right.

Chinese populations of 15th-century Southeast Asia more generally) came

predominantly from Fujian, Guangdong (including speakers of both Cantonese and

Teochew), and Hainan island.199 For many on the Chinese south coast, international

trade (most frequently going only as far as Japan) was their livelihood. Giving it up

was a grave hardship: "The coastal people regarded pirates not as their enemy, but

rather as suppliers of their 'daily bread,"' wrote one administrator in

exasperation.200 Another reported from Fujian that "Pirates and traders are the

same people. When trade flourishes, pirates become traders, and when trade is

banned, traders become pirates.”201 As the century progressed, Chinese merchants

came to act more like the lawbreakers they were, for example by removing their

operations to the lee side of offshore islands in the hope of avoiding the winds of

unwelcome scrutiny from piracy-suppression officials.202 Unable or unwilling to

forego their boats, demonized as pirates and excluded from traditional paths to

respectability (like the imperial examinations), even small-time merchants had to

decide whether it made sense to wait out the Ming maritime trade ban elsewhere.

Many came to Malacca. Seeing the move as a long-term choice possibly helps

to explain the inland community centered on Bukit Sina; and this context certainly

helps to explain the year-round presence of Chinese traders in Zheng He's Chinese

199 Widodo, op. cit. 99.

200 Zhu Wan, Piyu zaji, in Li Kuangying, 17.

201 Tang Shu JiHE, Fu Hu Hailin lun chu Wang Zhi (A reply to Hu Hailin’s Decision on the
Punishment of Wang Shi), in Li Kuangying pg. 17.

202 See Timothy Brook, The Confusions o f Pleasure: Commerce and Culture in Ming China. Berkeley:
University of California Press, 1998, pg. 123 and more generally pp. 71-79 and 119-124.

quarter on the north side of the river. Southern Chinese looking to continue a

lucrative trade - or even just looking to continue in the modest seafaring

professions they knew best - found much less government interference in Malacca,

while also discovering there a pre-built Chinese quarter complete with drum towers,

watchmen, and familiar temples.

One of these temples - the only one we know anything about - was a shrine

to Mazu an indigenous Chinese sea-goddess who had come also to occupy a

place within the Daoist and Buddhist pantheons.203 Mazu was a deity of water and of

seafaring, and so it is fitting if unsurprising that it is her cult that we find in Malacca.

Importantly, people of all social classes turned to this goddess in times of trouble.

Chinese imperial administrators and men engaged in illicit sea trade both

worshipped her and paid her homage, while diplomats and pirates both offered

incense at her altars.204 This wide appeal gave the Mazu cult longevity within the

multifaceted Chinese diaspora.

The published archaeological evidence of a Mazu temple in Malacca's larger

Chinese quarter is not accompanied by any description of the practices there.

Nonetheless, the ubiquity of Mazu-worship in South Chinese seafaring communities

allows us to reconstruct something of its nature. We know, for example, that Mazu-

203 Klaas Ruitenbeek calls Mazu-worship "an important non-Buddhist cult," and this is essentially
correct for the 15th century. However, because of the fluid nature of Chinese folk religion, Mazu has
been claimed by both Buddhists and Daoists over the years. See Klaas Ruitenbeek, "Mazu, the
Patroness of Sailors, in Chinese Pictorial Art." In Artibus Asiae, Vol. 58, no. 3 /4 (1999), pg. 281. Also
see Lee Irw in, "The Great Goddesses of China." In Asian Folklore Studies, Vol. 49, No. 1 (1990), pp. 5 3 -
68. Finally, see Judith Magee Boltz, "In Homage to T ’ian-fei,"Journal o f the American Oriental Society
106 (1986), especially pp. 211-212.

204 Ruitenbeek, pg. 282, points out that she was the goddess of choice for pirates as well as diplomats,
for example.

worship involved making obeisance or burning incense to a goddess-statue of the

woman Mazu (who worshippers believed lived in the 10th century). One Daoist-

Mazu text circulating among Chinese Southeast Asia captains during the period from

1409 to 1420 - and reappearing again for the compilation of the Daoist Canon in

1444-1445 - gave an idealized description of these supplications:

"All mankind gives way to prayer, with golden censors held aloft;
Submitting our hearts en masse, we all devote ourselves to earnest
supplications. We pay obeisance in whole-hearted submission."205

The text argues for its own efficacy as well:

"If they but chant this scripture once through, and then a hundred, [or
a] thousand times, they will have achieved an alleviation of their
stress and hardship. All aberrant demonic forces, moreover, will be
wiped out, maladies and afflictions will be spontaneously cured, and
[in a statement that suggests the maritime prohibitions of this era]
troubles caused by public officers will be forever curtailed."206

This text is not particularly connected to Malacca, but circumstantial evidence

that it was known there is good; certainly it was known to two different Chinese

captains on two different long-haul sea voyages during Malacca's early years,

one of whom reached the Andaman sea off the west coast of Siam (which means

that his ship must have passed through the Straits of Malacca sometime

between 1409 and 14 1 2).207 Malacca was the largest Chinese port in Southeast

Asia at this time, so it makes sense to think that the ship would have called there

for news and supplies. And even if this exact homage to Mazu remained

unknown in the Malacca temple, this kind of contemporary shipboard text is

205 Boltz, 217.

206 Ibid., 226.

207 Ibid., 214.

suggestive. With many thousands of Chinese sailors moving through 15th-

century Southeast Asian waters (some with the backing of the Ming government

and some emphatically without), there existed a watery Chinese cultural space

where texts, stories, and important practical tips were swapped and passed

along. The Mazu text above gives color to a cultural milieu that certainly

extended to the Malay coast whether or not the text itself was ever read there. It

gives us a sense of what was circulating among those Chinese who plied the

Straits trade in the early 15th century.

These supplications were meant to bring practical benefits. Believers thought

that Mazu could pacify the weather: under her influence, "the rains become

seasonable and the winds harmonious," according to the Daoists,208 while in a 1431

memorial that he left in one of Mazu’s temples, Zheng He himself reported that

"thick fogs" and "windswept waves" disappeared as soon as somebody evoked the

goddess's name.209 Mazu could pacify people, too. In a later memorial substantially

similar to the one mentioned above, and also erected in a Mazu temple on the South

China coast, the navigator recorded:

"In the midst of the rushing waters it happened that, when there was
a hurricane, suddenly there was a divine lantern shining in the mast,
and as soon as this miraculous light appeared the danger was
appeased, so that even in the danger of capsizing one felt reassured
that there was no cause for fear. When we arrived in the distant
countries we captured alive those of the native kings who were not

208 Ibid, pg. 221.

209 J.J.L. Duyvendak, "The True Dates of the Chinese M aritim e Expeditions in the Early Fifteenth
Century," in T'oung Pao, Second Series, Vol. 34, Livr. 5 (1939), pg. 347 and the original Chinese text of
this memorial reproduced in full on foldout page 345. It is surprising and underreported that Zheng
He left memorials in in Mazu temples!

respectful and exterminated those barbarian robbers who were
engaged in piracy, so that consequently the searoute was cleansed and
pacified and the natives put their trust in it. All this is due to the favors
of the goddess."210

Thus, our “St. Elmo's fire" - a burst of light that sometimes appears at mastheads

during electrically-charged storms - came to be known among the seafaring Chinese

as the particular sign of Mazu's help in stormy weather. It is clear from the

comments on piracy in this passage, however, that Mazu's abilities extended far

more broadly than mere protection from the weather.

Credited with miracles in both the natural and the political realms, and

backed by a powerful cult following on China's southern coast, Mazu was elevated to

various official honors throughout the course of the Ming dynasty. She received a

temple in the Chinese capital (then Nanjing) in 1407, a second major temple at

Beijing sometime before 1451, and numerous honorific titles and official

ceremonies along the way.211 As a consequence, the Mazu cult in China became a

part of both gentry and common ritual. But Mazu was not controlled by the Ming

court; and the goddess herself was certainly not China-bound. In fact, she was

frequently represented as being physically attached to the shipboard altars that

could commonly be found on Chinese boats - which is to say that her worship was

inherently tied to her mobility. Additionally, in Malacca and across Southeast Asia,

Mazu's terrestrial temples were built to mimic the physical layout of a junk (but not,

notably, the layout of the chief transport ships of the officially-sanctioned treasure

210 Duyvendak, Ibid. pp. 351 and accompanying (unpaginated) photographs.

211 Ruitenbeek, 282.

fleet). By replicating on land the altar that they had had at sea, members of the Mazu

cult made it clear that her "real” home was not on land at all:

"In every southern Chinese immigrant's ship, there was usually a

special shrine for Mazu, guarding the compass or the steering wheel,
the sails, and all passengers aboard. Once... they decided to settle
down, the ship would be dismantled.... The nucleus of the new
settlement was reconstructed based on similar conceptual-spatial
pattern as the ship, where the Mazu temple would be located."212

In Malacca specifically, the temple faced the harbor, with two ships' masts

placed in front of the temple's entrance doors. Inside, there was an altar, which

"housed the statue of Mazu, which [had] once protected] the Chinese

immigrant's ship."213The Mazu cult with its "ship-shape” temples and moveable

goddess statues was thus uniquely suited to international expansion along the

littoral routes into Malacca and across all of Southeast Asia.

Of course Mazu-worship was not the only manifestation of Chinese religion

in 15th-century Malacca. We know that Chinese Islam was present in the city, and it

would be naive to think that some of the shamanistic practices later noted among

the Chinese communities in Penang214 were not also found there. Chinese people

continued to worry about auspicious sites (for graves, for example, and seemingly

also when orienting their Malaccan homes) and they constructed native-place halls

where individuals of common lineage could gather for both social and ritual

purposes. Mazu worship in Malacca must have been only one element of a complex

212 Widodo, 100, and generally pages 98-104.

213 Ibid.

214 For which, see Jean Elizabeth DeBernardi, The Way that Lives in the Heart: Chinese popular religion
and spirit mediums in Penang, Malaysia (Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 2006].

Chinese religious and cultural sphere; and yet it is a particularly compelling part of

that story. Through Mazu, Chinese Malaccans kept intact their ties to native Chinese

religious practices, sharing the object of their worship with others up and down the

South China coast as well as across Southeast Asia. Yet in doing so these sailors

chose to privilege a goddess not of homeland but of seafaring and travel. The Mazu

temple in the Chinese compound on Malacca's north shore thus reflected both the

growing permanent Chinese population (which needed space to worship on land)

and paradoxically the impermanence of that population (ready to invoke the

goddess of seafaring once again when necessary).


Yet this still does not complete the Malaccan religious picture. From the first

days of the city, Malacca had had close interactions with Java (including, of course,

the war with the Javanese Majapahit empire that had originally caused

Parameswara to leave Palembang for the Malay coast). Because of its salty soil,

Malacca soon came to import the bulk of its rice from that island; and so a sizeable

Javanese population with Buddhist, Shaivite, and Vaishnavite elements took up

residence on the north side of the Melaka river, upstream from the Chinese

compound. The transient Javanese community shuttled between homes in Malacca

and island residences to the south, but when they were present in the city their

religious practices must have reminded old-style Malaccan aristocrats of their own

Hindu-Mahayana Buddhist heritage.

At the same time, Siamese Theravada Buddhism was never far away. Despite

their often tense political disagreements, Ayutthaya and Malacca had close

mercantile relations with one another. Ayutthayan belligerence over the Malaccan

port arose precisely because Siamese boatmen in Malacca reported back that the

city was wealthy and the port was conducive to trade. Ayutthaya in the early 15th

century thus begrudgingly obtained many of its luxuries via Malacca, and in return

Malaccans relied on the Siamese as a second source of rice and other staples.215 Let

us not forget, too, that early in Iskandar Shah's reign the bendahara Tun Perpatih

Permuka Berjajar had advocated closer relations with the city’s Siamese northern

neighbor. Nowhere in the literature do we see that Malacca's rulers ever seriously

considered embracing the more monastic form of Theravada Buddhism, but they

and others in Malacca must have been aware of (and unfazed by) Siamese traditions.

Perhaps more surprisingly, Islamic Malacca also housed a Nestorian church.

We don't know the date of the church's construction; it may well postdate Iskandar

Shah or even his successor Sri Maharaja (Muhammad Shah). But although we can’t

date the church exactly, it must have been in use within decades of Malacca's

founding, and it must have been abandoned sometime before the Portuguese

conquered the city in 1511. (It may have been abandoned immediately before the

conquest, in anticipation of it.) The Portuguese themselves only learned of the

church's existence when they excavated it in 1610,216 and this is the source of our

knowledge, too. For this reason, much about the community that worshipped there

215 Ma Huan, 134.

216 Thomaz, "The Malay Sultanate of Melaka,” 82.

is a mystery to us. The Portuguese guessed that these were Armenian worshippers,

and this may be true - but the hypothesis is made uncertain by the loose way in

which "Armenian" was sometimes used as shorthand for "Nestorian" in these early

Portuguese accounts. Yet even without certain knowledge of those who used the

building, the mere fact of this church's existence in Islamicate Malacca is notable as

yet another example of the diverse society that gave the city its multicultural


Malacca was therefore religiously varied, playing host to a number of

different faith groups and, increasingly, to a number of corresponding ethno-

linguistic residential areas each with their own respective characters. But although

on the one hand multifarious religious traditions cleaved the Malaccan population

into separate religious groups, on the other hand religion in Malacca also had the

ability to cross ethnic and linguistic lines to create new shared communities. Most

obviously, of course, Patani princesses and Gujarati merchants highlighted the

attractions of Islam for a Malay population with Buddhist background. The

conversion of the Malay court may have been politically motivated, but no amount

of political expediency is sufficient to account for the widespread peaceful

conversion of Malacca as a whole. Rather, it took religious intermingling to change

the faith and practice of the broader Malay population. It is with a certain

unrecognized irony, then, that in 1462 the Arab navigator ibn Majid excoriated

cross-communal marriages in Malacca; "They have no culture at all,” he wrote of the

Malaccan Malays, and "the infidel marries Muslim women while the Muslim [man]

takes pagans to wife. You do not know whether they are Muslims or not."217 But

where ibn Majid saw an uncultured dilution of his faith, we recognize instead an

intimate, familial agent of Islamic penetration. The religiously-complicated story of

Iskandar Shah, his Muslim wife, and his conversion-minded son Sri Maharaja (later

Muhammad Shah) was replicated repeatedly among common coastal Malays.

Gujarati merchants took homes alongside Malay fisherfolk on Malacca's southern

shore and took Malay wives to keep those homes. Together they produced mixed-

Muslim children who recognized both the sovereignty of the Malaccan sultan and

the primacy of the Quran. Meanwhile, Malaccan women (Muslim and non-Muslim

alike) became internationally notable for the way they covered up and stayed in

their homes, a clear adoption of Muslim norms among a population that had

previously been known for its strong women and relative gender equity.218

But if the Malay adoption of Islam is the most obvious illustration of the free

exchange of religious ideas in Malacca, we nonetheless see the same patterns of

intermarriage, cultural exchange, and religious adoption and adaptation with

respect to numerous other outside traditions. We see it, for example, in the

evolution of the Malay word kramat ("sacred"), a word which had originally had

overtones of nature-worship. Kramat was a general designation, used

indiscriminately in the early literature to refer to holy places, sacred trees, magic

animals, and powerful objects. But over the course of the 15th-century, in Malacca in

217 Shihab al-Din Ahmad Ibn Majid, "al-Mal'aqiya," [1462], in G.R. Tibbetts, A Study o f the Arabic Texts
Containing M aterial on South-East Asia. (Leiden: Brill, 1979).

218 Anthony Reid, The Land Below the Winds, 212.

particular, the term kramat evolved so that its use became specifically attached to

burial sites of the sort that the Chinese - and apparently many Malays - turned into

places of keen religious significance. Blagden was even moved to write of kramat

graves that "the reverence paid to them [by Malays] and the ceremonies that are

performed at them savour a good deal too much of ancestor-worship"219 - a nice

confirmation of the practical effect of Chinese ideas about death and family on the

language and practice of even Muslim Malays.

We see similar adaptations of foreign religious practice in the Mandi Safar

water festivals that brought Malaccans of many faiths together for coastal

celebrations (and to meet partners from across the spectrum of Malaccan cultures).

Mandi Safar - named, Islamically, for the second month of the Muslim year -

involved gathering at the seaside for food, games, and ritual immersion.220 This

practice continues today as a decidedly Muslim ritual, and is mentioned in the

Sejarah Melayu as a general Malay celebration. But, as S. Singaravelu points out, in

its earliest form Mandi Safar was in fact a Tamil Hindu practice.221 In origin, the

baptismal elements of this festival therefore had more in common with ritual

immersion in the Ganges than with any sort of Malay cultural heritage or Muslim

purification practice. In multinational Malacca, however, this essentially Tamil idea

219 C.O. Blagden, "Notes on the folk-lore and popular religion of the Malays," JSBRAS, No. 29, pg. 1.

220 The celebration is named in the Sejarah Melayu as a Malay ceremony, but it goes unregulated in

the legal codes and we know little about its exact contours in the 15th century. See Sejarah Melayu
book 22.

221 S. Singaravelu, “Malay-Tamil Culture Contacts and Mandi Safar." In Asian Folklore Studies, 1986
(vol. 45, no. 2), pp. 67-78.

became a Malay institution. Here again we see compelling evidence of Malacca's

relaxed attitude towards religious faith and cultural mixing.

In all of this, we see the subtle workings of difference and exchange. Malacca

was a place where individuals of numerous different backgrounds were welcomed,

where cultural differences were at best celebrated and at worst begrudgingly

allowed. If the Malay aristocracy struggled with accepting Islam as their own in the

1410s and 1420s, they certainly seem not to have struggled with the idea of

accepting Muslims. Similarly, they welcomed Hindus, Buddhists, Mazu-worshippers,

and myriad others into their midst. By the mid-1420s, even the Venetian explorer

and baptized Catholic Niccolo de’ Conti had visited Malacca (though in this case

Malaccans would be forgiven for overlooking the subtleties of his faith since de'

Conti travelled in the guise of a Muslim merchant). From this jumble of people came

intermarriage and religious adaptation, as well as great wealth. For, by allowing this

diversity of creed, Malacca was particularly able to attract traders of all religions

and nationalities. There is a special irony in the fact that some Gujarati and Tamil

traders felt the need to come east to Malacca in order to do business with one

another, but the neutral religious space which attracted them also attracted many


What was it about the Malay aristocracy that made them so uncommonly

welcoming and so unconcerned about the religious preferences of their myriad

subjects? For, we will soon see that the court was not afraid to make laws or to

provide officials for members of any community that had obvious need. Simply,

Malacca’s sultans did not see religion as a particular thing to be commanded.

To understand this, it is poetic that we should return to the old Hindu-

Buddhist idea of a mandalaform world with a central mountain and a surrounding

sea, an idea that early Malaccans embraced with gusto. Whereas others across Asia

had sought to remember Mount Mahameru artistically, as in Tibetan mandala

paintings, or they had tried to represent it physically in the form of the great temple

complexes like those at Borobudur on Java or Angkor Thom in Cambodia, for

Malaccans Saguntang-guntang on the Malay peninsula was Mount Mahameru. By

making this identification, Malaccans clung to a religious worldview in which

Malacca was distant from the certainties of established religion, distant even from

its own religious heartland.222 Parameswara and his followers may have accepted

the idea of a Sumatran Mount Mahameru because they genuinely believed

Palembang to be the home of legitimate worldly power - Palembang was, of course,

their own home - but the tenacity of Saguntang-guntang's identification (even into

the 19th century) suggests that later Malaccans were perfectly happy to continue

placing the center of the religious world someplace far away, even long after their

connection to Palembang had waned. Siting Palembang firmly at the center of the

early Hindu-Buddhist Malaccan universe merely emphasized the degree to which

Malaccans felt that they themselves remained on the fringe of that universe.

222 We can fruitfully compare this attitude to that of the inhabitants of Pegu, Angkor, or the Magelang
Plain on Java; in each of these cases, rulers sought actively to build physical representations of
Mahameru - "the center of the w orld” - directly on the respective sites of their capital cities.

In fact, this attitude continued into the Muslim period in Malacca. Malay

stories about Muslim religious heroes have always featured Arabs (or sometimes

Indian Muslims) coming on a distant journey to Southeast Asia, bringing religion

and learning with them.223 By beginning the Sejarah Melayu with the claim that

Malacca's ruling family was descendent from Alexander the Great, the author of

even that very orthodox and Malayocentric text also placed Malacca at the very edge

of an Indo-Arab Muslim world. In other words, formal Malay religion in Malacca was

never chiefly local, even for the Malays.

Perhaps this explains why Malacca was never to feature a "god-king" after

the model of the Chinese emperor, nor would the population value monks or clerics

with anything like the fervor of nearly-contemporary Pagan. Perhaps it explains, too,

why when Islam became the nearest thing to a state religion under Muhammad

Shah, other religions were nonetheless openly practiced both at court and on the

Malaccan quayside (while Islamic law was known but explicitly eschewed). Like

Mount Mahameru and the Muslim saints who would make it into 17th-century lore,

systematic religion was treated as a thing that resided elsewhere: in some mythical

foreign homeland, perhaps, or in the distant Arab cities whose merchants had

brought the Quran. It is unsurprising that with this context Malacca was a religious

as well as cultural melting pot, allowing Hindus, Buddhists, Taoists, Muslims,

animists, Mazu worshippers, and others to interact freely for the entirety of the 15th


223 For numerous examples, and the nearest thing we have to a comprehensive list of these storied
figures, see chapter two of Howard M. Federspiel’s Sultans, Shamans, and Saints: Islam and Muslims in
Southeast Asia [Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 2007).


This b rie f chapter tries to orient the reader to the organization and layout o f the city,
as seen from the water.


By now, we have a good understanding of the many communities that called

Malacca home. But how did Malaccans see their city? How was space organized?

Where were things located?

Almost all Malaccans came to the city from the Straits. Sailors first came into

Malacca's sheltered harbor; bigger boats anchored here, on the leeward side of the

harbor’s main island where they were protected from sea and storms. From the

decks, these sailors would have seen Malacca laid out on the two sides of the Sungai

Melaka, the river that united the city and ran through its center. Smaller boats or

launches then proceeded to the river itself, using it to enter into the heart of the city.

From the 1450s, a bridge spanned the river. From the land, the bridge joined

Malacca's two sides; for those approaching by boat, the bridge was a barrier. It

provided a platform for oversight by the shahbandars who monitored Malacca's

An 18th Century Dutch military map of Malacca, showing settlements to the "left and right" of the river as well as some topography. We can
clearly see the bridge at the river mouth as well as the hill that was behind the sultan's compound (on this map, part of the city's fort, to the
south of the river). The main Chinese settlement is on the other side of the river, mostly pink. Note that north is to the left when viewing this
map. (Picture from the Dutch National Archive, Kaartcollectie Buitenland Leupe, Access num. 4.VEL, File 1113.)
Detail from an 18th Century Dutch military map of Malacca, showing settlements to the "left and right" of the river as well as some topography.
Note the big hill in the upper left-hand quandrant of the map; this housed Malacca's second Chinese settlement and the Chinese graveyard.
North is to the left when viewing this map. (From the Dutch National Archive, Kaartcollectie Buitenland Leupe, Access num. 4.VEL, File 1112.)
shipping, and if a merchant wanted to enter the city, he would need to stop at the

bridge (which could be guarded by a barrier) to pay tax.

From the mouth of the Sungai Melaka and facing east (inland), a sailor would

see the sultan's palace complex extending down the right-hand side. This was the

southern quarter, where nobility lived.224 Behind it loomed a large hill with vistas

over the river and harbor. In Malacca's early days, this hill housed Sultan Iskandar

Shah and his court, but later it became a place for a mosque, a church, and

eventually a tourist site. Looking left, an early visitor would have seen the walled

Chinese settlement established for sailors attached to the Zheng He missions. Over

time, this Chinese settlement overspilled its walls growing into a large Chinatown

and commercial center on the north side of the river; by the early 16th century,

Canstanheda reported that "here the city is most extensive.”225

Further down the Sungai Melaka, one reached Malacca's second market

quarter, on the right-hand side of the river behind the royal complex (as things

would be viewed from the harbor). Further on, after the river took a sharp curve to

the left, the bazaar gave way to large numbers of Malay houses built to face the

water. These houses "are of wood, and principally by the sea-side,” as Castanheda

224 John Crawfurd, A Descriptive Dictionary o f the Indian Islands & Adjacent Countries. London:
Bradbury & Evans, 1856. Pp. 245-246.

225 ibid.

wrote it.226 Bukit Sina, a hill with a smaller, less wealthy secondary Chinese

settlement atop it, was behind the strip of houses on the riverbank.

Meanwhile, to the north - that is, on our imaginary sailor's left-hand side -

the main Chinese community eventually gave way to a Javanese quarter, and then to

random suburbs occupied chiefly by Malays. This in turn gave way to jungle. Beyond

that, our boatman would come to villages of fisherman and, very far down the river,

to the various garden estates kept as an escape by many of Malacca’s most

important noblemen. At this point, he would be in "the districts.” While Malays here

looked to the Malaccan sultans (and officeholders) as their chief political leaders,

society here was far more monolithic, far more impoverished, and far less

cosmopolitan than it was in Malacca itself.

226 Ibid.


This chapter explores the way that codified law allowed Malacca to thrive despite the
great differences that characterized the city's diverse population. Through the
Malaccan Laws, we also get a rich picture o f the legal and social concerns current in
the city during the latter h a lf o f the 15th century.


The codification of the Malay laws was a key step on Malacca’s road from

traditional Malay polity to major international port. With the law code -

substantially completed by 1458 - Malacca moved away from a reliance on Malay

convention or personal fealty and towards a more inclusive idea of "civic virtue" as a

way to enforce social norms. In many ways, the law code was anti-egalitarian; and

yet, importantly, it applied equally to Malays and Gujaratis, Tamils and Javanese,

and indeed to almost all Malaccans regardless of background (though Chinese

people living in the city’s Chinese compound appear to have been exempt). The

written code owed its existence to Islam; and yet it also applied to Malaccans of all

religions and frequently (and explicitly) rejected Quranic punishments and

obligations. Because the Malay laws were meant to apply broadly, to all Malaccans

regardless of background, they opened the door to the large numbers of foreigners

who would predominate in Malacca in the 1470s, 80s, and 90s.

Before we consider the law code in detail, however, a technical note is in

order. The Malay legal documents that have come down to us divide into two main

bodies of law. The first, the Malaccan Law Code (Undang-undang Melaka), is a

collection of law and legal precedent first compiled under Sultan Muhammad Shah

(1424-1444) and completed during the reign of Sultan Muzaffar Shah (1445-58).227

This digest deals with the varying roles of the sultan, the ministers, and the

commoners (in the process codifying some of Iskandar Shah's earlier prohibitions,

for example those against using taboo words and wearing the color yellow without

royal sanction228); with slavery and debt-bondage; with murder, theft, and sexual

offenses; and with agriculture and land-use law. The second major document, the

Laws of the Sea (Undang-undang Laut), was compiled under Muzaffar Shah. It

codified the roles and responsibilities of those undertaking sea voyages, and dealt

too with issues of trade and tax. For the most part, we shall deal with the Laws of the

Sea in chapter five of the present work (the chapter about finance).

This simple summary elides layers of complication. We have today no

“original” pre-1511 Undang-undang Melaka text. Rather, the many copies that have

come down to us have been amended and modified in different ways for different

uses. Post-1511 courts in Perak, Pahang, Minangkabau, Johor, Riau, and Aceh

adopted versions of the code, which were modified to reflect local needs - so an

essential part of reading any given Undang-undang text involves figuring out its

227 Liaw Yock Fang, Undang-undang Melaka, pg. 38

228 From the Sejarah Melayu we know that these prohibitions pre-date Muhammad Shah’s rise to

lineage and, where necessary, disregarding local variations or additions.229

Additionally, most extant texts contain three recognizable parts, each with its own

significance for our purposes. The core of the Malaccan Law Code is shared across

all versions with only slight variation, and this is what I consider here as the 15th-

century original.230 Further provisions dealing with Muslim marriage law and

Muslim sales and administrative procedures postdate the core Malaccan text by as

much as 200 years, although in many versions they were packaged as a part of the

Undang-undang Melaka proper. Additionally, contained within the Undang-undang

Melaka text is a third, wholly separate law code known as the Laws of the Land

[Undang-undang Negeri231), dealing chiefly with theft and agricultural law. Although

this comprises a mere section of today's Undang-undang texts, it is in fact a distinct

text with its own well-signposted beginning and ending. The Laws of the Land

probably also date to the reign of Muzaffar Shah;232 they appear to form a

condensed version of the Malaccan Legal Code for use "in the districts,” which is to

say, these laws were likely designed for local Malay chiefs who owed fealty to the

229 A helpful but incomplete list of descendent legal codes can be found in M.B. Hooker, A Concise
Legal History o f Southeast Asia (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1978), 51-68. These codes include the
Undang-undang Kerajaan (Laws of the King) used variously in Perak, Pahang, and Johor as well as
numerous variants with titles o f the form Undang-undang [City] (Laws o f [City]).

230 Essentially all scholars - Winstedt and Liaw being the most important among them - agree that
this is the core text; additionally it is clear from the language and form of certain sections that they
form a consistent, very early, coherent text.

231 "Laws o f the Land” is the conventional English name for this code, but it is an imprecise translation
of "Undang-undang Negeri." More accurate, perhaps, would be something like "Laws of the Country"
or "Laws of the State." ["Negeri" literally refers to a city, but across Southeast Asia the term and its
cognates were used as a kind of synecdoche referring to the nation as a whole, just as "Westminster"
is journalistic shorthand for "Britain" on newscasts today.)

232 There is within this section an attribution to that sultan, but Liaw Yock Fang (the greatest
scholarly authority on the Malaccan Laws) wonders whether that fragment might be a copyist's error.
It is my own view that we have no reason to doubt the text as it stands. See Liaw Yock Fang, Undang-
undang Melaka, 36.

sultan in Malacca. In general, I leave these out of my discussion of law and

convention in Malacca itself. (Where I do mention this code-within-a-code, I do so


These many compilations complicate the history of the Malaccan Laws and

make it difficult to disaggregate the earliest provisions from later accretions, but

they also testify to the practicality of the Malaccan legal code and the reach of the

Malaccan Sultanate under Muzaffar Shah in particular. The Undang-undang Melaka

served as a basis for district-level administration in wide swaths of the Malay

peninsula. It was imported by sultans across the Malay world, including some

overseas in Sumatra and on Kalimantan, and it became the basis for later Muslim

legal codes in the region. The Malay laws long survived the fall of Malacca in 1511,

traveling to Johor with the displaced Malaccan court and moving far and wide with

Malaccan traders. In fact, parts of this robust document survive today in the

Malaysian law code!


Where did the Malaccan laws come from? To the modern mind, the shift from

remembered tradition to written legal code seems momentous. Malacca's laws form

one of our earliest attested indigenous Southeast Asian legal codes233 - Vietnam's Le

233 For a general overview of Southeast Asian legal traditions, again see Hooker, op. cit.

code was compiled contemporaneously234 - and so Muhammad Shah's decision to

record commands for posterity marks a particularly important cultural juncture.

Written laws have been seen as a key step towards modernity, a step away from

taboo and superstition as the chief guarantor of ethical civic behavior. They may

also be the harbinger of a modern nation-state: writing laws down unifies a

population while simultaneously recognizing that regulations have an existence

beyond the mere whims of a sitting ruler. But in practice, the transition to written

law is rarely so stark: the common law inheritance in Anglo-Saxon legal cultures is

nothing if not a reliance on long-held tradition, for example, and surely the national

legal frameworks which derive in part from Roman Catholic canon law occupy a

space in between religious taboo and hard-nosed civic reason. Tang China,

Caesarian Rome, and ancient Judea all had written law, but it would be absurd to

suggest that this inclined any of them towards modern statehood.

The 15th-century Malaccan legal codes were only softly transitional, on the

one hand signaling a growing civic awareness but on the other hand deriving clearly

from what had come before. Many provisions merely codified local tradition, writing

down for posterity what had been done for generations. Some sections of the Malay

Laws conflicted with others (a point to which we shall return later in this chapter).

And religion remained deeply important as a guarantor of moral behavior.

234 The earliest sections of the Vietnamese code were promulgated sometime before 1434, w ith the
code as a whole finished by 1483. For more, see The Le Code in Traditional Vietnam: A Comparative
Sino-Vietnamese Legal Study with Historical-Juridical Analysis and Annotations, translated and
annotated by Nguyen Ngoc Huy and Ta Van Tai (Athens: Ohio University Press, 3 vols). Volume one,
pages 2 4 ,39n, 191-8, and 217, and volume two, pages 189 and 250, deal w ith the earliest known Le
code provisions.

That was no coincidence. The arrival of Islam was a catalyst for the

codification of law in Malacca specifically, as in insular Southeast Asia more

generally.235 In the first instance, the Malaccan legal digest was a collection of laws

sensitive to local norms - but it was also a collection of laws written with a Muslim

audience very much in mind. Provisions concerning rape and adultery speak in

terms of zinah an Arabic loan word.236 Explanations of legal procedure borrow

the language of 'adil justice, as when making it clear that a man being judged in

court for one offense cannot be convicted of a different offense. (For example, one

section of the Malaccan legal digest involves the case of a man being tried for

unlawful intercourse: "Of a person involved in a legal dispute about zinah, if he had

unlawful intercourse two years ago, and then he did it again later with a different

woman, the old zinah offence may not be punished until that case is brought before

a judge. [...] This is called 'ad//.”237) The legal code is not a document of Islamic

235 But note that Islam, trade, wealth, and regional power often traveled together. Islam was one of a
number of clustered cultural phenomena that together encouraged the creation of w ritten law codes
around the Indian Ocean world; but I do not claim here that religion as such was the only or even
necessarily the most important factor in their creation. Exposure to "the Islamic world" was clearly
antecedent to the codification of the Malaccan Laws and clearly informed their development; the
influence of religious faith is a different (though related) question. Note, too, that many later
Southeast Asian legal codes are influenced not just by Islam, but by Malacca and Malaccan Islam in

236 Note that where Arabic characters are used in this chapter, they are in fact the Jawi originals of
particular Malay words. Most of these are loan-words from Arabic; however, the corresponding
Arabic word may be spelled differently. For example, I w rite j, zinah, because that is how the word
is commonly spelled in the Malay texts; but the Arabic spelling of the same word is Uj, zina. In cases
where there is a preferred Malay spelling which is different from a direct transliteration of the Jawi, I
favor the standard spelling; thus abdi, not ‘abdi.

237 Leiden University Cod. Or. 1705 and 1706; RAS Raf. Mai. 74, Cambridge University Library Or.
1364; Fasl 16.1 in all three texts. Most of the laws cited in this chapter can be found in each of the
most important early legal manuscripts in identical or very nearly identical form. For this reason, I
will refer to them by fasl (section) number only unless there is notable disagreement across these
texts (in which case of course I will give the full manuscript citation along with the fasl number).

jurisprudence - it does not even presume that those who use it will know or

understand the Arabic terms, which are frequently translated or defined in-text (as

'adil in the above excerpt) - but even so the code was clearly constructed by people

who were familiar with Muslim legal norms. The Malay Laws were drafted by judges

and courtiers who saw Islam as a rich source for legal thought as well as a technical

legal language.

The ties between Islam and Malaccan law were more profound than the mere

adoption of loan-words. The most obvious cultural link is evident even to the

untrained eye: all of the extant fragments and copies of the Malaccan Laws are

written in Jawi, a form of the Malay language written in a (slightly modified) Arabic

script. This is not as predictable a scriptal antecedent as it may at first appear to us.

After all, the Malays had a long tradition of interactions with the Chinese, and as we

have seen the Malaccan court was particularly close to courtiers and mandarins (as

well as seafarers and pirates) who represented that very literate culture. Yet the

Malay laws were never recorded in Chinese, a script that requires years of

specialized study to learn well. Rather, it was the arrival of Islam - with its universal

pretensions and simple alphabetic script - that prompted a very new interest in

official documentation in Malacca. Jawi documents included not just legal codes but

also lengthy genealogies, mythological stories like those recorded in the early

sections of the Sejarah Melayu, written proclamations, and sponsored copies of

Quranic texts. Islam thus brought not just literacy (at least for a privileged few), but

also a wider culture of literacy that prompted the creation and curation of texts for

myriad practical and ritualized purposes.

In the Malaccan legal digest in particular, we find more subtle hints about the

ways that Islam was shaping the Malaccan worldview by the mid-15th century.

Perhaps reflecting the multiplicity of views amongst the Malay aristocracy, the laws

were ambivalent about whether the city's leader was a "sultan" on the new Islamic

model or a "raja" on the old Hindu-Buddhist model - in at least one case even calling

him by both titles in the same provision.238 But this kind of surface-level

compromise (or evolution) only distracts from the many ways that an Islamic

worldview was already entrenched by the time of Muzaffar Shah's reign. For

example, in the laws we see repeated references to "the law of God" (hukum Allah,

where hukum and Allah are both terms of Arabic origin and of great significance in

the Islamic world).239 The phrase is repetitive and formalized in the legal code - and,

importantly, no Malaccan legal texts or fragments that I have found refer explicitly

to any other gods (although various traditional religious and superstitious practices

do make the occasional appearance). It is thus clear that by 1458 Allah had been

adopted as the usual name for God, and that a Muslim religious sensibility was

commonplace even among non-Muslim Malaccans.

Moreover, Malaccan law appealed to Islamic principles to justify certain

exhortations and punishments. Sometimes the Muslim antecedents are explicit, as

when the death penalty was considered (but ultimately rejected) as the appropriate

punishment for killers who had been seriously provoked; we see one such example

238 "If there is a man who is subject to the raja, and he takes another's wife who willingly goes with
him, then he may not be killed by the [wronged] man. If he [the lover] is killed, it is treason under the
sultan...." FasI 5.4.

238 See, for example, Fasls 5 ,8 ,1 0 ,1 1 ,1 2 ,1 4 ,1 6 , and 18, among others.

in the provision that states, “If a free man abuses the wife of a slave ('abdi) [and is

killed by her husband in recompense], then according to custom (adat) there is no

longer any issue [to settle in court] because offenses against children and wives

must not be taken lightly. [...] But according to the law of God [Allah], he who kills

must also be killed...."240 This Hammurabic, non-adat "eye-for-an-eye" idea recurs

frequently in the Undang-undang Melaka (although, as in this case, the idea is very

often mentioned only to be subsequently dismissed as inappropriately harsh); it is a

clear reference to the Muslim jurisprudential principle of qisas (Arabic "equal

retaliation"). (Provisions like these illustrate well just how entrenched a Muslim

worldview had become by mid-century: Malaccans did not necessarily adopt Islamic

law, but notably, they felt compelled to tell us "the law of God" even when they chose

not to adopt it.) Other provisions do not mention "the law of God" explicitly, but

nonetheless we see that Islamic notions have clearly interposed themselves into the

Malay legal framework. Thus, for example, a law declaring that "he who steals from

inside a house, his hand shall be cut off'241 - referring to Surat Al-Ma'idah of the

Quran, "[As for] the thief, the male and the female, amputate their hands in

recompense for what they committed as a deterrent [punishment] from Allah"242 -

and thus, too, the explanation that certain cases are included in detail in the digest

because they may be useful for those attempting to resolve similar disputes using

240 Fasl 8.3.

241 Fasl 11.1.

242 The Noble Quran, Sahih International translation, 5:38 (brackets in the original).

the Sunni methodology of deductive analogy (o M - Malay kias, Arabic qiyas -

spelled the same in the Jawi of our Malaccan texts and in Arabic).243

Yet the Malaccan laws are emphatically not sharia, nor are they even sharia

laws in diluted form. Just as the slippage between "sultan" and "raja" suggests that

scribes were not dogmatic and were generally open to ideas from various traditions,

so too the laws themselves suggest a population eager to adopt certain Muslim legal

principles while also reaffirming the importance of traditional, non-Muslim

practices. In this vein, the legal code dutifully records instances where Malaccan

legislation differs from sharia law. Thus we find repeated cases like the one

recorded in a section laying out the fines for stealing livestock: under Malaccan law,

a thief was required to reimburse the owner of the stolen animal at fair value, and

additionally to pay a fine ranging from five to ten small gold coins (emos) - "but by

the law of God a man who takes a buffalo, cow, or goat from its pen must only return

its value. He need not be made to pay anything additional, as long as he pays

compensation.”244 Or, again, a provision about rape: "If a free person is taken and

raped, and she makes this known to a judge and he [the rapist] is called before the

judge, he will be made to marry her... [or else] he is fined three tahil in addition to

243 Although the appeal to kias does show up elsewhere in the Undang-undang Melaka, it seems that
Malaccans found it most useful for establishing fines along a sliding scale that depended upon the
severity of the offense in question. For example, one provision says, "If we go to kill, wound, or hurt
somebody, then... the fine is established by analogy [kias]. The greatest fine for interfering is five
tahil and a quarter. The average fine for interfering is two tahil and a quarter. The smallest is one
tahil and a quarter." The implication is that a judge has discretion over the final fine that must be paid,
but that he should use precedent and analogy to keep punishments reasonable and consistent.
Importantly, the use of analogy here takes place w ithin the context of local custom and Malay
punishment norms. See, e.g., fasl 16.3. (Also note that the tahil is cognate w ith the tael current in
contemporary China, another indication of Malacca’s lS^-century links to the w ider trade world.)
244 Fasl 11.4.

the customary wedding gift for a subject of the king. But according to the law of God,

if he is a married man ( 6 - ^ , muhsan), he should be stoned [to death]...."245 Here, it

is especially notable that the language surrounding the "Godly" punishment is

particularly Islamic: both muhsan meaning "married” and direjam meaning “stoned"

(from the Arabic , rajama, "stoned") were direct Arabic loan-words commonly

used in Islamic jurisprudence the world over, and both were apparently new to the

Malay language. We may conclude that those in charge of Malacca’s laws were very

likely to have had a good command of Arabic - yet they did not feel bound to follow

sharia, nor to adopt practices that they must have known to be common in the wider

Muslim word. (Islamic legal orthodoxy was deemed important enough for

Malaccans to at least keep track of the discrepancies between their laws and the

differing orthodox Muslim proscriptions, however.) One use of the written Malaccan

code may even have been to rein in (foreign?) judges who were overzealous in

applying strict Islamic rules by reminding them that Quranic knowledge and a

command of the hadith were insufficient bases for judgment suitable to the

Malaccan context.

Indeed, it is overwhelmingly the case that the content of the Malaccan laws

was adat, Malay custom, and not sharia, Muslim religious law. Sections outlining the

responsibilities of sultan, shahbandar, police chief (temenggong), admiral (nakhoda),

citizen, and slave, owe almost nothing to Islam. Rules about running amok seem

purely Malay. The vast majority of references to Allah cite Muslim laws (or

punishments) that are not to be followed by Malaccan judges. In acknowledging this

245 Fasl 12.2

fact, the Undang-undang Melaka once again borrows the terminology of a wider

Muslim world even as it rejects Muslim religious law: alongside the idea of adat the

code repeatedly says, "this is kanun,” "this is kanun law," using a Turkish term for

local regulations meant to supplement sharia.246 Of course the Malaccan Laws were

written not to supplement sharia, but in very many cases to displace it altogether -

thus the common formulation, "according to the law of God, X, but according to our

law, Y."


What, then, do the laws actually say? What are the customs codified in the

Undang-undang Melaka, and what can they tell us about practical life in 1450s


The first thing to say is that while these laws give us a multifaceted view of

majority-Muslim Malacca (the town east of the river), the Chinese settlement west

of the river is almost wholly absent from the legal texts. The clear implication is that

although the Malaccan sultan provided for the policing of the Chinese compound,247

disputes and civil order there were governed by some other set of conventions that

functioned mostly independently of the Malay court. However, with this caveat in

246 Kanun in the Ottoman empire, like the Malay Undang-undang, made practical concessions to local
custom and endeavored to fill in the blanks where sharia had nothing to say or was unclear. In
Malacca, it is clear that the Undang-undang was to supersede any conventions under Islamic law. This
was not so in the Ottoman context. While kanun was at the discretion of the Ottoman sultans, in
theory [though rarely in practice) it could be invalidated by religious experts. Note that the word -
kanun in Malay and in Turkish, qanun in Jawi and Arabic - is cognate w ith "Canon law" of the
Catholic Church. It ultimately has its origins in the Greek kanon, xavoiv.
247 Pires, Suma Oriental, vol. 89,1 32 .

mind, it is fair to say that Malaccan legal texts provide rich documentation of the

disputes, cares, interests, and attitudes that aroused the city's inhabitants. Laws deal

chiefly with burglary, instances of insult or public shaming, offenses of a sexual

nature (which were considered the business of a state), and the value of lost or

broken property (including livestock). Slavery and hierarchy feature prominently.

Shipping rules, too, have their place. The general impression from the Malaccan

code is that violence was widespread (and very often sanctioned or at least

judicially forgiven); social status was all-important (a point made repeatedly by

commentators from Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles to Anthony Reid); and masculinity

was closely related to both.

The original impetus for the Malaccan laws seems to have been twofold: first,

to safeguard the interests of the nobility and (as a corollary of this) to reinforce the

status quo in terms of social hierarchy - a topic to which we will return - and

second, to rein in violence in a city that was increasingly populated by immigrants

unused to the Malay penchant for armed conflict and vigilante justice. Here it is

worth remembering that much of the city's Malays population had arrived in

Malacca a scant 50 years before the laws were first promulgated, and they came as a

ragtag group of displaced seafarers and sometime-pirates. By 1450 this population

had been very greatly supplemented by settlers from both the Indian Ocean rim

(sometimes called "the Muslim Sea") and from South China. Neither immigrant

group would have been comfortable in Malacca's relatively lawless kris-and-dagger


It seems that the rule of law did not come naturally to Malacca's streets,

however, and the law code reflects a persistent struggle to control extra-judicial

violence. We see this in the many provisions that prescribe punishments for those

who killed even guilty offenders. For example, one law had to explain that while a

man running amok might be killed in the attempt to bring him under control, once

he had been arrested he was under the jurisdiction of the ruler and ministers and it

was not acceptable to simply kill him and be done with it; indeed, the punishment

for taking justice into one's own hands in this way was death.248 A different law

imposed a stiff fine for killing a murderous slave hoping to escape his master: "If...

he has already been taken prisoner [ditangkap], and then he is killed, a fine of five

and a quarter tahil is incurred for negligence because the situation was not brought

before a minister." (The law did allow an exception in the case of mercy killings so

that the offending person could be dispatched swiftly if he had been gravely

wounded in the fight to take him into custody.)249

In other cases, the law simply required would-be vigilantes to present their

grievances to a judge before avenging themselves on those who had wronged them.

A man running amok could be killed after his arrest i f the punishment had been

endorsed by a judge beforehand, although the killer became liable for the funeral

expenses.250 A wronged man could legally hire somebody to strike his enemy in the

street, as long as it was done with the foreknowledge of a judge; else the hirer was

Fasl 6.1
249 Fasl 6.4

250 Fasl 6.2

liable for a hefty fine.251 Even contract killing was allowed. The nobility's chief

concern in the Malaccan legal code was not to soften the usual consequences of

criminal or deviant behavior, but simply to try to control ubiquitous violence. It is

for this reason that we find a series of provisions designed not to outlaw but simply

to regulate contract killing: "If a man is hired to kill another man, and succeeds in

killing him, but is then killed in retaliation, then the hirer is in the wrong and shall

be fined ten tahil” in addition to funeral expenses. But if the killer was hired with the

knowledge of a judge, then no fine was incurred (although the hirer remained liable

for medical expenses, funeral expenses, and any agreed-upon wages for the killing -

which had to be paid to the killer's family if he himself had died while executing the


Laws like this give us a sense of Malacca as a site of almost casual fighting

and bloodshed. A very physical masculine bravery was highly prized among Malays

in particular,253 and this contributed to the culture of violence. No man was

expected to stand calmly by while his wife had an affair, much less if she was raped

by somebody, for example. Instead, in such cases the law acknowledged that

retaliatory murder was both understandable and acceptable. The Undang-undang

Melaka maintained that death was the prerogative of the ruler and his courts, but

killing a lover was one of very few enumerated cases where the murderer would

251 RAS Raf. Mai. 74 and Cambridge University Library Or. 1364 only, Fasl 17.1
232 Fasl 17.1

253 For a discussion of the place of combat and bravery in Malay culture at about this time, see
Anthony Reid, Southeast Asia in the Age o f Commerce I, 124-125.

receive an automatic pardon.254 Even a slave was absolved of any guilt if the man he

killed, slave or free, could be shown to have abused his wife.255 Other provisions

excused murder when a thief was caught in the act of his theft, emphasizing that a

brave man would always do his utmost to protect his property.256 But multi-actor

confrontations protection was less clearcut, reflecting the intrusive ambitions (if not

always the prowess) of the state. Joining a fray in the defense of a friend was thus

the epitome of a legally problematic case in Malacca. From the amount of space

spent teasing out variations of this theme in the Malay Laws, we may be confident

that young Malaccan men frequently did enter into other people's disputes,

escalating a two-person disagreement into a pitched swordfight with many

participants on both sides. Lawmakers understood the importance of backing a

friend - violently when necessary - and did not seek to outlaw the practice entirely.

However, they did endeavor to define who counted as a "close" friend, who counted

as a friend "in need" (the elderly or helpless particularly fit this category), and what

counted as a legitimate grievance granting the right to immediate recourse (it

helped to be traveling far from a judge or to be otherwise unable to bring a case to

court).257 In some cases, judges were advised to simply throw up their hands in

defeat: "If a man argues or disputes [with another man] and they then start stabbing

each other, and another [third] person arrives and aids [one of them] in stabbing or

beating or slashing [the other], then even if he is stabbed or beaten, or if he himself

254 Fasl 5.2

255 Fasl 8.3

256 Fasl 11.1

257 See fasls 16.2 and 16.3, among others.

kills, there is nothing for the judge to say about it” because such a situation was just

too complicated and it would be absurd either to blame the third man for a dispute

started by others or to protect him from a dispute he willingly joined.258

All this makes Malacca sound like a place where commoners operated

without any sense of impropriety or bad conduct. In fact, the opposite is true.

Despite a very high tolerance for hand-to-hand combat among the citizenry,

Malaccans operated under a complex set of social codes which it was "unmanly" to

disregard. Killing from behind was "unmanly" - what the English-speaking world

might call "unsporting" or "dishonorable." Delaying an attack for several days so

that a rival might let down his guard or think his offense forgiven was "unmanly”

and carried a fine. Pursuing a robber caught red-handed was certainly "manly," but

attacking him in the street on another day (instead of reporting the robbery in front

of a judge) was forbidden and could result in prosecution.259 In Malacca, improper

conduct, or angkara,260 was a weighty concept that merged ideas of greed, cruelty,

dishonor for others, and selfishness. Ferociously attacking a man who could defend

himself was expected in certain situations, but reneging on a marriage agreement,

seducing somebody else's wife, attacking an unarmed or unprepared man, and

treason in the presence of one’s ruler all constituted angkara and were punishable

by varying levels of fines, physical punishments, or even death.261

258 Fasl 16.1

259 For these, see fasls 8.4 and 11.1

250 Cognate with Sanskrit angraha

261 Fasl 18.1, among others

Consistent with this worldview, some of the very worst offenses in 15th-

century Malacca were offenses against dignity. However, not all were judicially

punishable. Insult and shame were particularly grievous, but were expected to be

personally avenged: no law prohibited insult, though many provisions explicitly did

excuse violent or extreme behavior in the service of avenging a perceived offense

against dignity. We can understand the distinction by considering the law in relation

to slapping somebody (in public), an act that was both especially derogatory and

apparently quite common in 1450s Malacca. Public insult of this kind was entirely

legal; there is little in the law codes to suggest that a slapper was subject to public

censure or prosecution for inciting discord or some other offense, and it was even

legal to hire an agent to hit or strike others in your stead if this was done with the

prior knowledge of a judge (who might allow such a thing if the hirer was physically

unable to slap on his own behalf).262 This is not to say that such insults were taken

lightly, but rather emphasizes they were thought of as personal matters to be

worked out - often violently - between the two interested parties. In fact, the

Malaccan laws made it clear that private censure was the expected and wholly

allowable consequence of such an ignominious act. Thus we read a list of exceptions

like this one: "There are [only] four circumstances under which somebody may kill

without the knowledge of the ruler and ministers. The first is killing a [spouse's]

lover. The second is killing an angkara man, but one must try to arrest him first and

then to bring him before a judge, where he will customarily be fined 1 tahil and a

quarter [for his behavior]. If he cannot be taken because he is wild [makar], then it is

262 Fasl 7.1

appropriate that he should be killed. The third is killing a thief who cannot be

captured [in the course of trying to arrest him]. The fourth is killing a man who

brings disgrace, for example [by] slapping somebody or [doing] anything that brings

great shame.”263 Public shame and adultery were the two privileged offenses that

even judges understood to incite passions beyond the control of the state judicial

apparatus. [The other two exceptions to the "no killing” rule existed more by way of

a pardon for causing accidental death under the difficult circumstances surrounding

an effort to apprehend a violent offender.) And, as in the case of adultery, even

slaves were thought to have a right to defend their honor where public insult was

involved. Legally speaking, a free man was perfectly allowed to slap an ill-behaved

slave [a point stated explicitly in the laws);264 but practically this was quite a

dangerous thing to try because a violent response was quite legal. “If a free man

slaps a slave ['abdi], and the free man is killed [in return]," said one law, "then no

offense has been committed."265 Indeed, even the law of God could not stand in the

way of swift, legal retribution for slapping offenses: "According to the law of God,

slapping should be returned also by slapping, so that justice may be done”266 - but

the law of Malacca was quite different: “if somebody is stabbed by the man he

263 Fasl 5.2. This provision, allowing murder in some cases, is absent from the Udang-udang negeri,
Leden MS Cod. Or. 1705, but it is present in the other early versions of the law codes.
264 Fasl 8.2, “If somebody has a slave [hamba] who sins w ith his mouth, as in the case of [verbal]
abuse, then there is no offense if a free man [slaps him.]’’

265 Fasl 8.2

266 Leiden University Cod. Or. 1705; RAS Raf. Mai. 74, Cambridge University Library Or. 1364, fasl 8.2.
This is an evocation of qisas, discussed above. Note that Leiden Cod. Or. 1706 doesn’t include the
phrase about God’s law, however.

slapped, and he dies of his wounds, this is not an offense."267 The implication was

clear: no Malaccan man of any worth, lawless or law-abiding, free or enslaved, could

let such a personal offense go unpunished (and conversely, many good men would

react violently in such a situation). It is telling that the only legal limitation on

retributive murder in cases of public shaming was a three-day time limit. (If the

offender was killed after the three days were up, judges could impose a fine on the

killer, “because it is not in accordance with the rules of manliness [adat laki-laki]."268)

Judges made use of this Malaccan abhorrence of public shame. Misdemeanors

could be punished publically and embarrassingly. If a husband was unable or

unwilling to give chase to the man who had seduced his (willing) wife, for example,

then one judicial solution was to have the adulterer publically prostrate himself

before the wronged husband. Refusing to do so incurred a large 10.25 tahil fine; if

the husband then killed the seducer, he would incur only a 5.25 tahil fine,

approximately half that value.269 (Because it is extremely difficult to reconstruct the

real value of Malaccan fines - among other things, the tahil is a unit of weight, not a

form of specie - I have generally refrained from commenting on their worth.

However, I do think it instructive that certain fines were comparatively high or low.)

The 5.25 tahil fine makes it clear that Malaccan judges looked askance at any violent,

retributive outbursts coming after the end of the three-day period during which

267 Fasl 8.4

268 Note in particular the use of adat, Malay customary law, to explain why killing after the three-day
lim it was unacceptable. Adat laki-laki is literally the "adat governing men.” Islamic legal norms are
nowhere to be found here. Fasl 8.4

269 Fasl 12.1

passionate anger was tolerated, and the wronged husband was expected to abide by

the decision of the court even if he did not receive the gratifying public triumph over

his rival that he felt he deserved. But while the husband's violence would be

punished, it is clear from the much larger 10.25 tahil fine for refusing a judgment of

public subordination (and the loss of status it occasioned) that that was the more

weighty offense.

Older Hindu-Malay traditions codified (and nominally Islamized) in the

Malaccan legal code further illustrate the status-obsessed culture of public honor

and humiliation in 15th-century Malacca. Tazir - referring, in orthodox Islamic

law, to any punishments not addressed in the Quran and thus left to the discretion

of a judge270 - was reinterpreted for the local Malaccan context to refer to a specific

non-Quranic "parade of shame.” Thus, an accessory to theft was required to "suffer

[kena] tazir" by being put atop a white water buffalo and taken around the city

[negeri] with a food-cover on his head "like an umbrella," his face smeared with lime,

charcoal, and turmeric, with the property he stole (if found) hanging around his

neck.271 (We may presume that in many cases, some representative bit of stolen

property was used in place of the whole.) This procession was designedly public;

any tazir parade was incomplete without a man to broadcast it far and wide via the

270 So, for example, the Quranic penalty for thieves, that a person who steals should have his or her
hand cut off as mentioned on page 202 o f this work, is not tazir because it comes directly from
revealed text. But what about a woman who knowingly hides stolen goods, or a man who knowingly
sells them? These kinds of offenses are not explicitly mentioned in the Quran, and so punishing them
is left to the discretion of worldly powers like lawmakers and judges. A punishment for those crimes
would be tazir.

27> Fasl 11.1

loud beating of gongs.272 Those who stole agricultural produce - seen as a

misdemeanor compared to "full" theft of property or crafted goods - were also

sentenced to tazir in addition to having to pay a small fine and a requirement to

compensate the owner for any produce already consumed.273 Tazir was also used as

a backup sentence in cases where judgment went against a poor man who could not

afford a prescribed fine, but who did not deserve the usual poor-man's alternative of

slavery or debt-bondage. For example, Malaccans were generally held responsible

for the behavior of those whom they allowed to get drunk in their own homes - but

if a man died of alcohol poisoning, or if he was killed due to his own drunken

belligerence, a homeowner was not expected to subordinate himself to the dead

man’s kin for the rest of his life.274 Instead there was a fine to pay; "if he cannot pay

the fine because of poverty and powerlessness [da 'if <• he must suffer tazir,

that is, [he must] go around the city [negeri] proclaimed by gongs.”275

272 Ibid.

273 Fasl 11.2, "There is a law [for] a person who steals produce like sugar cane, bananas, betel leaves
and areca nuts, or any other kind of fruit: he w ill not be cut [have his hand cut off] according to the
law, but if he is taken in the night while stealing, and he is stabbed by the owner of the [stolen]
produce, then he simply dies and there is nothing more to say about it [that is, there will be no
further prosecution nor any further investigation into the matter]." But if the owner only discovers
the theft afterwards, "then [the thief] will be fined ten emas and all that he stole w ill be suspended
from his neck, and he w ill be taken around the city. If the fruits or sugar cane or bananas have been
completely eaten up, then the judge will make him pay the cost of the stolen produce and in addition
there w ill be a fine of ten emas." Note that an emas was a small gold coin with a value significantly
less than that of a tahil. (Although this law is found in all of the early law code manuscripts, there are
minor vocabulary differences. My translation here was made on the basis of Leiden University Cod.
Or. 1705.)

274 As an aside, it is notable that despite Islamic principle alcoholic drink was both legal and widely
enjoyed in 1450s Malacca. Drunken behavior was also well-known, but rather less acceptable under

275 Fasl 18.5.

This punishment illustrates the multi-ethnic, multi-religious context of 15th-

century Malacca. In name, of course, it was an Islamic sanction. Yet in Malay practice

the Arabic term ta'zir was stripped of its most important connotation, that is,

judicial discretion. In Malacca, the tazir punishment was understood to be non-

Quranic, but it was also understood to be a particular, closely-defined sanction with

little leeway allowed for a prudent or innovative judge to sentence according to his

own best judgment. More than this, the "parade of shame" described in the Law

Code evokes Hindu ideas of criminal transgressions against purity expiated through

ritual practices (seen, in part, in the use of the water-buffalo-as-sacred-cow for

Malaccan purposes). Yet the old Hindu-Malay notions of caste and "good face”

remained salient even in majority-Muslim Malacca. We need not think that a

Malaccan Muslim bought into, or even necessarily understood, the old symbolism of

charcoal and turmeric on the face to see that the tazir punishment might have been

effective for him: humiliation alone worked as a punishment even for those

Malaccans who had long since disavowed the Hindu origins of the practice.

Ceremonies of humiliation reinforced hierarchies of power and status for all

15th-century Malaccans. The tazir punishment was literally degrading; that is, it

resulted in a public loss of face that significantly lowered the offender's position in

society, his rank relative to his neighbors and friends, his grade in public life. In

some cases, those who suffered tazir were even made to serve those whom they had

wronged (either temporarily, or permanently as slaves),276 doubly emphasizing

their disgrace and accentuating their newly diminished status. The loud gonging

276 See, for example, Fasl 11.1

associated with tazir was therefore a necessary component of the punishment,

because it was the very public performance of powerlessness that gave this

punishment its force. In Malacca, masculinity demanded action, often with a knife in

hand - and this demand for action was especially keenly felt when there was an

affront to honor or dignity. Public shame provided just such an affront, but

accompanied it with enforced inaction: bound atop a buffalo, or bowed down before

an angry husband, an offender was obliged to give a public show of subservience.

What was painful about such a punishment was not the act of riding around town,

but the fact that everybody else knew you had been made to do so.

Because it made clear who held power over whom, public shame was an

ideal way to punish those who would upset Malacca's social hierarchy by

undermining city officials. Consequently, lying to Malacca's bendahara could result

in “smearing the face'':277 a suitably public spectacle, as friends and acquaintances

would see the brightly colored makeup and know that the man in question had

committed some offense. But a far stronger public sanction was reserved for those

seeking to impersonate a court-appointed official, a harbormaster, or a member of

the aristocracy, by his words or by forging any of the signs of office.278 Conviction on

this count brought exposure to ridicule and verbal abuse "in front of a crowd of

277 Fasl 13.3

278 The original - "jikalau orang berjual kata orang besar-besar atau syahbandar... disuruh maki di
hadapan orang banyak" - is problematic. It literally translates, "if a man sells the word of a dignitary
or shahbandar... [he] shall be abused in front of a crowd." "Selling another man’s word" is clearly
idiomatic; its exact meaning is far less clear. To interpret this difficult Malay passage, I partially
follow Liaw Yock Fang, pp. 86-87, who suggests, "a man who forges and counterfeits instrument [s/c]
of high dignitaries or the Harbour-master...." W hether this offense refers prim arily to impersonation,
fraud, or forgery, is not as clear as this sounds. Importantly, however, any of these interpretations
would support the idea of an offender who constituted a threat to the established social order.

many men.”279 It might seem strange that in so violent a city as Malacca, the

preferred punishment for near-treasonous impersonation was mere public abuse.

But in fact, this ought to emphasize to us just how seriously Malaccans took their

notions of honor and respect. To the Malaccan way of thinking, a "manly" man with

his dignity intact might well attack at the first sign of insult - but an offender against

the state hierarchy could be humiliated in the city center, abused by all and sundry,

without any ability to respond whatsoever. Everybody from the highest official to

the meanest slave was allowed to insult him; truly he was the meanest of them all.


These considerations lead us to a reflection on social class and social

hierarchy in lS^-century Malacca. We have seen that Malacca had slaves and

aristocrats, fisherman and traders, warlike amoks and literate, well-educated judges.

The primary legal classifications - and thus in all probability society’s primary

conceptual categories - divided this great heaving populace into four essential

groups: the ruler, a class unto himself; the nobility, headed by the bendahara (who

was the sultan’s chief advisor, and also very often his kinsman280); freemen or

commoners, who were subject to the authority of the police chief (temenggung); and

hamba, slaves. Importantly, "slavery" in Malacca was usually a kind of debt-bondage

entered into when obligations could not be repaid. It was therefore possible to

2” Fasl 13.3

280 See Christopher Wake, in Sandhu and W heatley, and note that the bendahara and the sultan were
often related by marriage, not by blood.

redeem a slave by repaying his debt - and because hamba could work for wages in

any free time available to them, debt-slaves could even buy back their own freedom

after lengthy periods of work and servitude. Some Malaccans were abdi, "eternal

slaves," with no prospects for future liberation, but even this condition was thought

of as a subset of debt-bondage. Simply, an abdi owed his master his life, an

irredeemable debt. (This could happen when one man saved another's life, or when

a victim spared a life in a situation where murder would have been an appropriate

response. A judge could also declare eternal servitude a fair punishment for certain

crimes.) Slaves of all types shared the same (lack of) rights and were governed by

much the same rules, but in the grand scheme of the Malaccan hierarchy only a true

debt-slave (hamba but not abdi) could have any hope of improving his estate.

Here we shall address the rights, privileges, and presumptions of each of

these social categories. But first, a word of caution: there is a temptation to think of

the Malaccan laws - and thus of the entire apparatus of government and hierarchy -

as an exclusively Malay concern. In fact, this was not so. We know of a Hindu

bendahara from Coromandel,281 Gujarati members of the nobility,282 Javanese (free)

fishermen who owed allegiance to the Sultan of Malacca,283 and Portuguese slaves

(taken after an aborted attack on the city in 15 09),284 among others, and it is clear

281 Here I refer to Nina Chatu, made famous by Luis Filipe F.R. Thomaz in his book Nina Chatu and the
Portuguese Trade in Malacca (Melaka: Luso-Malaysian Books, 1991).

282 Royal Asiatic Society Sejarah Melayu Raffles 18 has many examples of Gujarati and half-Gujarati

283 Ibid., 1 2 2 ,2 1 0 ,2 1 9 ,3 2 2 .
284 Talked about in detail in chapter six of the present work.

that they all had their place in the city's complex hierarchical web. The Undang-

undang Melaka itself - the very document which gave the quadripartite social

division the respectability of law - was substantially informed by precedent and

principle originating in the Islamic Middle East; it was certainly intended to apply to

Malacca's Muslim residents regardless of ethnicity or place of origin. So while it is

true that the city's substantial Chinese community did not conform well to the social

categorization characterized here, the rest of Malacca’s residents did find

themselves bound and privileged according to their place in the hierarchy outlined


The sultan was a category unto himself, the only Malaccan not bound by the

laws of state. Ultimate power rested with him, and he alone had the right to suspend

law and to overturn judicial decisions. This meant that the sultan was above

regulation. Consequently, almost all of the legal provisions that mention Malacca's

ruler do so to assert his special place in society and to guard against usurpation. The

legal code from the 1450s thus formalized rules of exceptionalism that we have seen

before: Malaccans were banned from using certain words reserved for the ruler,

under penalty of death;285 they were mostly banned from carrying krises with

golden handles (a privilege reserved for the sultan and descendants of the

bendahara only); and they were banned from wearing yellow, a related prohibition

apparently based on the visual similarity between yellow and gold.286 Sheer fabrics,

allowed on Malacca’s streets, were banned at court as a form of disrespectful dress.

285 Fasl 2.1

286 Fasl 1.1

(The punishment for this offense involved ripping up the offending items.287) In

order to privilege the sultan's words and to safeguard Malaccan law, it was illegal to

give unauthorized commands in the sultan’s name,288 while the death penalty

awaited anybody found to have forged a letter of royal decree [berbuat surat titah].

289 (Incidentally, this ban again attests to the importance of written documents in

15th-century Malacca). Counterfeiting a royal command on someone else’s behalf

[berjual titah] was punished in the same way.290

Though several of these laws functioned practically to protect the Malaccan state,

they were cast in terms of protecting the dignity of the sultan himself. Forgery was

wrong in the first instance because it appropriated the sultan’s "command” [titah]

and not in the first instance because it might compromise diplomacy or be used for

unfair personal gain. Sumptuary laws were explicitly designed to make it easy to

distinguish social rank in a cosmopolitan society where ethnicity, family, and history

were no guarantee of status, but in which status itself continued to be of very great

importance; sumptuary privileges reserved for the sultan emphasized the fact that

he was above the law altogether. And in all cases, the law code emphasized, the

sultan had the right to overturn court decisions. Although the Undang-undang

287 Ibid.

288 Fasl 2.2

289 Ibid.

290 Fasl 13.3. The phrase berjual titah literally means "to sell the royal command.” Liaw Yock Fang
translates this as "counterfeiting] the royal seal,” a possible translation but one that runs the risk of
overinterpretation. Liaw’s translation is tantalizing because, if correct, it provides further evidence of
a well-developed (but now largely lost] w ritten culture in 15th-century Malacca. It would make sense
to forge a royal seal only if documents bearing that seal were relatively common and sufficiently
unremarkable as to go unquestioned when they came into an official’s hands. Liaw Yock Fang,
Undang-undang Melaka, 86-87.

Melaka was interpreted primarily by courts where judges well-versed in Islamic law

presided, and although the Malaccan ruler had little to do with practical legal

enforcement, the law code itself was designed to "support" the sultan. Seemingly so

innovative, this was not a document drafted to reign in monarchy: on the contrary,

while judges and government ministers were statutorily bound not to pardon

egregious crimes like outright murder, "taking away somebody's wife," or Iese

majeste [maharajalela], Malacca’s ruler could offer such pardons as and when he

chose291 and we know that he frequently did so.292

The sacrosanct nature of the sultan’s person and his immunity to legal sanction

extended even to those merely acting on his behalf. In one of the starkest indications

of the Malaccan obsession with hierarchy, one man who had an affair with a (willing)

married woman was exonerated because he was acting as an agent for the sultan at

the time. More than that, when the woman's husband killed the sultan’s agent in

revenge for this humiliation, he was found guilty of "a treasonable offense leading to

death"- even though retributive murder was the "manly" norm for such a brazenly

illicit act, and even though the sultan’s business had nothing to do with the woman

in question 293 In the conflict between two great Malaccan ideals - the defense of

personal honor requiring combat on the one hand, and status requiring deference

and humility on the other - Malaccan judges chose to privilege hierarchy. They

decided that a man acting on behalf of the sultan shared in some measure of the

291 Fasl 6.3

292 Royal Asiatic Society Sejarah Melayu Raffles 18, pp. 74,1 10 , and 124 also C.C. Brown The Malay
Annals op. cit., pp. 142-3 and 190-193.
293 Fasl 5.4

sultan's dignity, and so they punished his killer not as a normal commoner (who

would have walked free in this situation) nor even as a common murderer (who

would likely have been enslaved), but as an outright threat to the state. Endangering

the sultan, even by proxy, was as grave an offense as could be committed in Malacca.

This suggests a key feature of Malaccan political thought: sovereignty inhered in

the ruler, Malaccans believed, and not in some inchoate political entity. Malacca’s

written law thus derived its legitimacy from the person of the sultan; the sultan did

not derive his legitimacy from rule of law and as we have seen he was not bound by

law (nor were his agents, at least sometimes). Related to this was the idea that good

order flowed from the top down as a reflection of the strong command exercised by

the sultan; it did not emerge from the bottom up, for example from the "consent of

the governed.” This is why a case about counterfeit shahbandars' documents could

conclude by emphasizing that "it is the duty of all high dignitaries to see that royal

authority is honored and upheld."294 Strong royal authority is not an obvious first

solution to the practical problem of forged port documents, and doing “honor” to the

sultan strikes the modern reader as an unlikely aid to the future identification of

fraud. But if "rule” in the sense of "law" was thought to be derivative of "rule" in the

sense of sovereign authority, then this exhortation was a real solution: support the

social order, and the practical order will take care of itself.

Yet despite his considerable personal privileges and his position firmly above

the law, the Malaccan sultan had obligations. Notwithstanding a conflation of ruler

294 Fasl 13.3

and state worthy of Louis XIV, l^ -c e n tu ry Malaccans thought it incumbent upon

their rulers to be "merciful,” "generous,” "courageous," and "decisive when ruling on

law,"295 and these qualities were highlighted at the very beginning of their legal code.

Of course there was no legal recourse if a sultan failed to live up to this high

standard - but many Malaccans did believe in a kind of divine or cosmic justice that

could rectify injustice from above. Thus Malaccans could say that their sultan lost a

skirmish with the Siamese in 1432 because he was insufficiently courageous,296 and

thus Malaccans could attribute bad weather and dangerous conditions to the

leadership failings of their ruler.297 If the sultan had no obligations under civil law,

then, it was nonetheless the case that he had great obligations under natural law.

All other Malaccans were bound by the strictures of the Undang-undang Melaka.

Even so, not all were thought equal: the importance of hierarchy and social place

ensured that different rules applied to different subjects in the city. In particular,

Malacca’s nobility occupied a special and rarified place in the hierarchy of state as

well as in the language of law. When they had grievances, courtiers eschewed the

temenggung ("police chief’) and the usual Islamic judges and instead went straight

to the bendahara,298 whose legal duties explicitly included managing the behavior of

courtiers and ruling over aristocrats and high officials.299 The bendahara's decisions

298 Fasl 13

296 C.C. Brown, The Malay Annals, 211.

297 Ibid., 8.
298 Fasl 0.1

299 Ibid.

were often bound by code, but it was a code meant to emphasize the power and

position of those at the top of the Malaccan hierarchy. We see this in the

hypothetical case of a man found guilty of killing somebody else's buffalo. Ifthe

buffalo had been owned by a commoner, the killer would be sentenced to repay the

value of the buffalo plus 10 emas, that is, 10 small gold pieces. But if instead the

buffalo had belonged to the bendahara, temenggung, orang-orang besar ("high

dignitaries"), penghulu bendahari ("state treasurer"), or shahbandar, then the

prescribed sentence was for the killer to become the buffalo owner's slave, a much

harsher punishment.300 Similarly, if a man were to steal a goat from a common

subject {rakyat sekeder), the usual recourse was to force the thief to repay the value

of the goat (along with returning the goat itself, if possible), a sentence imposed by a

normal Malaccan judge; but if instead the thief were brought before the bendahara

accused of stealing from some member of the nobility, he would be required to pay a

hefty fine in addition to the goat's cash value.301

Lest we think the law was written simply to benefit those in power, it's

important to emphasize that while aristocrats benefitted from special protections

under law they were also subject to special punishments. Just as with the sultan, the

privileges granted to those of high status entailed special obligations; but unlike the

sultan's obligations, aristocratic obligations were legislated and enforced by worldly

powers. So although aristocrats had wide leeway to punish their slaves as they saw

fit, certain egregious behaviors on their part demanded unusually harsh punishment

300 Fasl 21.2

303 Ibid.

from the bendahara. When a courtier permanently disfigured a slave who was held

in only temporary bondage, for example, or if an aristocrat committed sexual

transgressions against his slave (rape, or the rape of a slave's wife), the prescribed

punishment was death. (By way of comparison, most sexual crimes involving people

of the same status were left to the involved parties to work out on their own - often

through fighting, to be sure, but in these cases capital punishment was in no way a

prescribed punishment.) Even where the crime committed was relatively forgivable,

aristocrats were to be punished in a way that was proportionate to their wealth and

station in life. If a nobleman killed a thief who was not resisting arrest - a crime,

although a crime that was seen to be in some ways in the service of the state - he

would be made to repay the thief s full value as a slave (that is, what the thief would

have been worth if sold into servitude instead of killed); but a commoner in the

same situation was required to pay only half the thief s weregeld?02 So, while the

strictures of the Undang-undang Melaka acknowledged and indeed reinforced

hierarchy in Malacca, the law was agnostic about the question of whether courtiers

and nobility were especially favored.

But law and convention are different things. While the law mandated special

aristocratic obligations in return for special privileges, outside of the city of Malacca

proper (where Islamic legal scholars were harder to find) courtiers were granted

much greater leeway. By the 1450s, it was common for the Malaccan nobility to

keep fruit groves in the "districts,” inland areas with better soil than that found at

302 FasI 7.4. Note, though, that if it turned out the dead man was innocent of the alleged theft, both
nobleman and commoner would owe his family the same amount in recompense, equal to twice the
dead man’s value as a slave.

Malacca itself. While these districts were never far from the city, Muzaffar Shah's

revolutionary legal code was drafted for urban use; the Undang-undang Melaka did

not apply to privately-held gardens.303 Instead, people with provincial interests -

mostly aristocrats - brought these issues directly to the bendahara. He in turn could

resolve such situations using his own judgment of obligation, right and wrong, good

and bad behavior, and the good of Malacca as a whole, without any guidance from a

written code. The Undang-undang would later be adapted for use in outlying

districts, but in the mid-1400s Malacca's bendaharas used their adjudicating power

there primarily to protect those with money and influence at the Malaccan court.

Significantly, in his own rural territories ("di dalam anak sungai"), the bendahara

was allowed to kill with impunity and he answered to no one at all.304

One way to understand the disparity between the bendahara's decisions within

the city (which frequently asked a great dealfrom members of the nobility) and his

decisions regarding the rural districts (which usually favored nobles at the expense

of the poor, and at the expense of justice) is to say that in the city Malacca's judges

were able to effectively restrain egregious abuse of power. Muslim judges with a

religious education had studied the Quranic idea that believers should be

"persistently standing firm in justice... whether one is rich or poor,”305 and in fact it

303 Many of these inland areas - like the fruit groves at M uar - are reported as having been only
sparsely populated before the influx o f Malaccan nobility clearing land for suburban "fruit gardens."
Where adat ("customary law") traditions did exist, these were largely honored, as long as the dispute
did not involve Malaccan aristocrats. Later versions of the Undang-undang text were modified for
local use, and many of these incorporated local adat into their codes even where the wealthy and
powerful were concerned.
304 FasI 9.1

305 Qur’an, Sahih International translation, Surat an-Nisa 4:135.

was precisely this attitude that led to the codification of law in Malacca in the first

place. But these judges clustered in the city where the population was densest and

the international ties were strongest, and so it was there that they developed

caselaw and interpreted the basic rules of Malaccan justice in a way that guaranteed

justice even to the poor. It was thus only within the city proper that they were able

to restrain the bendahara's natural predisposition to decide in favor of his fellow


A more generous view of the system's urban-rural double-standard takes

account of the fact that the bendahara's judicial decisions (and the punishments he

imposed) must nearly always have had deep personal significance. The bendahara

would have met all courtiers in his official capacity as chief advisor and convener at

the sultan’s palace, and he would have known them as friends and neighbors as well.

Although excellent fighters and skilled advisors certainly could earn their way into

the sultan's inner circle, many of them consolidated their position by intermarriage

so that they, too, forged courtly ties of love and kinship. Bendaharas themselves

frequently negotiated uxorial relationships with many of Malacca's "best” families,

and were commonly related (sometimes tortuously) to the sultan himself.306 When

passing judgment on Malaccan noblemen, then, the bendahara had a considerable

personal stake in the proceedings. Where a code existed to tie his hands, a

bendahara could reasonably force a punishment upon a friend or colleague (as could

similarly-constrained judges from all quarters of the city); but in the rural areas

306 Wake, "Melaka in the Fifteenth Century”

where the Undang-undang Melaka did not apply, not only was the bendahara’s

personal interest far more complicated, but also he lacked the protection provided

by a legal requirement to decide against a friend or family member. Even at court in

Malacca proper the conflicting demands of justice and loyalty caused serious

difficulties: the oft-cited story of Hang Tuah, a real but much-mythologized aide to

sultan Muzaffar Shah, tells us that when Hang Jabat ran amok at the palace in order

to defend Hang Tuah’s virtue, it was Hang Tuah himself who was required to subdue

and kill his closest friend.307 In the countryside where no clear law applied, the

bendahara’s personal role must have been even more confusing.

It is lucky, then, that few Malaccans were subject to courtly justice. Although the

bendahara adjudicated those cases that involved courtiers and other prominent

Malaccans, his primary role was to organize the royal agenda and to advise the

sultan on political matters; for most Malaccans, the bendahara had no role in crime

and punishment. Rather, as the nobility was policed by the bendahara, so Malacca’s

general populace was policed by the temenggung, the state's police chief. His role

was far more limited than that of the bendahara: while the latter served as both

judge and enforcer in aristocratic circles, the temenggung was charged only with

keeping the peace and making arrests. For private disputes between commoners or

slaves, religious judges were asked to intervene. In criminal cases, these judges

turned to the statute book for guidance. The police did make occasional court

307 C.C. Brown, The Malay Annals. This story is also told in the Hikayat Hang Tuah, w ith considerable
elaboration but great entertainment value. Ahmed Kassim, ed., Hikayat Hang Tuah (Kuala Lumpur:
Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka, 1964). The story can be read in several translations in English as well;
one good version is The Epic o f Hang Tuah, trans. Muhammad Haji Salleh, ed. Rosemary Robson
(Kuala Lumpur: Institut Terjemahan Negara Malaysia Berhad, 2010).

appearances, but they had no role in deciding cases and could themselves be found

guilty of egregious or dangerous behavior during an arrest.

Yet even at this lower level, the distinction between social classes was carefully

guarded and fervently maintained. Malacca remained as socially stratified outside of

courtly circles as it was within them, and the temenggung and judges had authority

over slaves and freemen alike. Despite the fact that most servitude in Malacca was

temporary, and even though no slavery was heritable, law and custom both

emphasized the differences between those who were bound to another - slaves -

and those who were not - freemen.

For this reason, most of Malacca's legal precedents concerned the distinctions

between the types of law and punishment proper to slaves and the types reserved to

freemen alone. Whether debt slave or free man, all of the usual criminal offenses

were outlawed: theft, murder (under most circumstances, as outlined above), lying

to a judge, negligence, fraud, and breach of contract were all illegal. But in these

realms and others, the Malaccan legal code distinguished itself by its emphasis on

the differences between a debt slave’s criminality and the criminality of his free


Just as aristocrats enjoyed legal privileges not extended to their free inferiors,

freemen enjoyed legally-determined privileges that did not extend to Malacca's

slaves even when they had committed the exact same crime. For example, if a slave

slapped a freeman - a public humiliation that was particularly stinging in Malacca's

honor-driven culture - the legal remedy was for his hand to be amputated.308 If a

freeman slapped a slave without provocation, however, the freeman was merely

fined.309 In other cases, prescribed punishments were adjusted depending on the

status of the victim. Falsely accusing a freeman of rape, adultery, or other unlawful

intercourse, demanded a 10 tahil fine; but if the false accusation was made about a

slave, then the fine was reduced to 2.25 tahil, a quarter of what it would have been if

the victim had been "his own man."310 Similarly, actually raping a free woman

subjected the free man to judicially-enforced marriage, if the woman desired it, or

else to a direct payment of slightly more than 3 tahil, if she did not311; but "stealing a

female slave and raping her" resulted in a payment of only 1.25 tahil.312

308 w e saw before that "manly" combat and even revenge murder were sanctioned in cases of public
humiliation. This is consistent w ith the punishments given here. While it was legally acceptable for a
Malaccan to challenge the man who insulted him, this was by no means a legal requirement (though
it often was a social one). Meanwhile, the Malaccan government promulgated laws that sought to
punish those who did not conform to widely-accepted standards of good behavior. Judicial sanctions
against bad behavior thus existed alongside the tradition of sword-fights and defense of honor in
combat. This arrangement should be familiar to those well-versed in western history; it is similar to
early modern European dueling conventions that required a gentleman to fight for his honor even as
the state was simultaneously refining laws against libel, obscenity, indecency, and civil disorder.

309 Fasl 8.2. Note that a fine was a particularly troublesome punishment for a debt-slave. This
observation provided a rational explanation for the conventional hierarchy enshrined in law: the
reason why freemen could effectively buy their way out of (some) harsh punishments was that a fine
was the standard punishment, but slaves could not be presumed to be able to pay since it was
precisely their indebtedness which had caused their loss of status in the first place. Of course, many
Malaccan debt-slaves had savings, but they were never given the option of paying the freeman’s fine.
This suggests that the rational explanation was a veneer over the more basic Malaccan sense that
status determined one's place in the world.

310 Fasl 12.3

3“ Fasl 12.2

312 Fasl 15.6 The difference between a "fine" and a "payment," as I have translated it, is that a fine was
paid to the court and then disbursed at the discretion of the judge (who might reserve some or all of
the money to go to the Malaccan treasury), whereas a direct payment was money that the guilty
party was required to give directly to his victim as a form of restitution. The 3 tahil 1 paha payment
to a free woman raped was equivalent in value to the usual set of wedding gifts that a Malay man
would give to his fiancee ahead of their wedding. Though it is not stated explicitly, the legal code thus

Here it is notable that the rapist was not asked to marry the enslaved woman,

even if she should so desire, presumably because this status-transgressive

requirement (in which a slave could determine the action of a free man) was seen as

far too harsh a punishment. Indeed, marriage across the social classes was officially

disapproved of, and misrepresenting social class was one of very few reasons that

an engagement could be broken or a contract breached. In Malacca, any man (slave

or free) could contract a marriage by paying earnest-money to the girl’s family (or to

the girl herself, in many cases), after which point calling off the wedding was seen as

a breach of contract that required the money to be returned twofold;313 unless, of

course, "the man is of lower standing than he initially represented."314 In that case,

the wedding could be called off without consequence. Similarly, a free male suitor

could get his gifts and his money back if he later discovered that his intended had

failed to disclose her slave status.315

The existence of laws like these presents something of a conundrum to the

modern reader. How could it be that freeman status was of supreme importance for

the commoner sort of Malaccan, while at the same time being entirely invisible even

to a serious suitor? It is surely unexpected that a man might visit a woman, woo her

(often through song and poetry), meet her family, and conclude a marriage

suggests that rape made a woman less valuable as a wife. The Malaccan code acknowledged that this
was through no fault of her own by making good the material loss she would suffer, but it did not
particularly compensate her for suffering, humiliation, or fear.
3i3 Fasl 18.1

31* Fasl 18.2

3i5 Ibid.

agreement, all without noticing that she was in fact the debt-slave of some other

Malaccan man. But in fact, this did happen, and it is explained by the peculiar place

of debt-slaves in Malaccan society. The Sejarah Melayu records instances of slaves

who traveled and negotiated deals for their masters while working privately for

wages (the better to redeem themselves) on the way.316 Other slaves were left

behind to keep a household running while their masters voyaged as part of a trade

convoy or pillaging group317; these slaves, too, might work on their own behalf when

time could be spared. Even debt-slaves bound to local freemen might have relatively

unencumbered lives with income and housing of their own. These bounden men and

women were required to do their master's bidding and were subject to his

punishments, within limits; but it seems that most hamba had considerable time in

which to live their own lives when their masters and patrons did not need them.

We get a glimpse of this freedom from the tortuous legal reasoning necessary to

dissect the considerable legal complications that arose if a slave was injured or

killed while working for a third party. Employing another’s slave was different from

borrowing a slave, even though both might cost the same amount: in the first

instance the employer agreed to pay a wage to the slave him- or herself, whereas in

the second case the employer would instead owe a fee to the slave's master.318

Compensation (if any) was determined by whether the slave was working on his

316 C.C. Brown, "The Malay Annals," 4 0 -41 ,1 32 , and 334.

317 Thomaz, Nina Chatu, op. cit, 50.

318 The Malay consistently refers to the latter practice as "borrowing," but given the fee paid for the
use of another's slave, we might more profitably think of the arrangement as a kind of slave rental.
Certainly, "borrowing” another's slave need not necessarily involve the exchange of money; but very
often it did.

own behalf or on behalf of his master; whether he was working with or without the

knowledge of his master; and whether the job was particularly dangerous and, if so,

whether he had undertaken it willingly. Thus in one case a slave died pearl-diving, a

notoriously dangerous pursuit: had he been hired directly, the man who employed

him in diving would have owed the slave's master 2/3 of his market value (unpaid

debt value, in other words) in compensation - but since the slave was undertaking

the work because the master had required it of him, the compensation was only 1/3

of the man’s value because the master knew the dangerous nature of the work

undertaken.319 Or, again, we have the question of compensation if a slave were to

accidently damage his employer's property: according the Malaccan legal code, the

master was liable for the cost of repairing such damage, but only if the slave was

working with his knowledge and blessing.320 In these cases as in others, the law

gave incentives in favor of borrowing debt-slaves rather than employing them

directly; here, a borrowed debt-slave who died pearl-diving would have cost his

temporary employer half as much as if he had been employed outright, while

another employer would stand a much better chance of recouping losses due to a

slave's negligence if that slave was also "on loan" rather than "on hire." But

paradoxically, despite such incentives the existence of these and other similar cases

serves as proof that hamba did work without interference from (or even the

knowledge of) their masters. Moreover, the hair-splitting legal reasoning used in

these cases suggests that such incidents were not infrequent, but rather that they

319 Fasl 15.3

330 Fasl 15.1

came up in new iterations over and over again. Given that this was the case, it is

unsurprising that a debt-slave might sometimes have been able to pass himself off

as a freeman of the poorer sort, even to the point of contracting a marriage


Given the role of private work in the life of the Malaccan debt-slave as well as the

unusual amount of independent agency afforded him, the extreme Malaccan

emphasis on social hierarchy is curious. Materially, there was very little to

distinguish a debt-slave from a free member of Malacca’s urban poor [rakyat miskin),

except perhaps that the hamba was guaranteed food while the freeman was likely to

be a fisherman dependent upon his daily catch. Moreover, social mobility was

relatively easy in 15th-centuiy Malacca. In chapter one we saw that brave young men

of any background could earn a place at court, most commonly by catching violent

criminals at great personal risk or by performing well in battle. Meanwhile, hamba

could buy their freedom by repaying the debts owed to their owners, through years

of labor or simply by obtaining sufficient cash. Rich merchants were welcomed into

the sultan's palace with great ceremony, and when in Malacca were thus subject to

the judgments of the bendahara and not the lower law courts; but if their ships

foundered and they were rescued by common fisherman, they would find

themselves indebted and, perhaps, in servitude. With such easy movement between

the social ranks, it seems strange that Malaccans should have been so obsessed by

rank as an indicator of inherent worth.

Yet it may be that it was precisely the close proximity between free poverty

and debt-slavery that led Malaccans to so privilege the artificial trappings of

freedom and, for that matter, of nobility. It was important that a free Malay could

modestly abuse a slave and receive no punishment, because this was one of the few

things that clearly distinguished the free man from his enslaved neighbor. In the

same way that wearing yellow cloth was a privilege reserved for the sultan,

mouthing off at a debt-slave was a privilege reserved for the freeman, a way of

reinforcing his relative place in society. In the young, complex, multinational state

that was Malacca, strictly hierarchical laws clarified social roles that might

otherwise have been fatally destabilized by an influx of foreign money and

international status. Being a free man did not say much about a man's inherent

worth, in fact; but it did at least mean that he was free, entitled to all the legal

privileges that freedom entailed.


In closing our consideration of slavery and the law in 15th-century Malacca, it

is instructive to notice that by 1450 economic freedom was freedom of person.

Malacca’s extreme mercantile character only reached its full flowering in the 1470s

and 1480s, a period we will explore in the next chapter. But even at this earlier date

slavery in Malacca had departed from the old Malay feudal tradition of patron-client

relationships. Traditionally, whole families attached themselves to a patron, trading

protection for the fruits of their labor.321 This promoted the fierce personal loyalty

that we saw with Parameswara's escape from Palembang and his subsequent trip to

China, both of which included a large personal entourage who followed him even in

defeat. By mid-century, though, commerce had replaced personal patronage and

clienthood had turned into enslavement backed by law. More than this, by 1455

Malaccan slavery was essentially financial, defined in law as an estate determined

by a relationship of debt and credit. Personal loyalty had disappeared from the

equation entirely, and it was expected that slaves would redeem themselves when

they could afford to do so, a purely economic transaction.

The most striking change in Malacca under Muhammad and then Muzaffar

Shah was not the promulgation of a law code [which, after all, seems mostly to have

codified rules that were already commonplace), but rather the end of personal fealty

as a defining characteristic of a Malay principality. It might always have been too

much to ask that Tamils, Javanese, and Gujaratis all adopt the Malaccan sultan as

their own, even to the point of following him in battle or sacrificing their own well­

being to his whim. But even Malacca’s Malays were splintering in this period,

dividing themselves into vibrant new Muslim converts and old-fashioned Buddhist

traditionalists, poor fisherman and increasingly-wealthy merchants who could buy

their way into the sultan's court. In fact, the exacerbation of these divisions and the

concurrent end of the politics of personal fealty help to explain why the Malaccan

laws were commissioned in the first place. By the middle of the 15th century, loyalty

321 For more, see Tony Reid, Southeast Asia in the Age o f Commerce, 1450-1680: The Lands Below the
Winds, 120-172 (the chapter on "Social Organization”).

could no longer be guaranteed in Malacca - but treason could be outlawed. Personal

relationships could no longer be counted on to encourage honest dealing or fair

recompense for damage - but law courts could step into the breach with their

carefully-crafted rules against fraud and negligence. The Undang-undang Melaka

thus marked the beginning of a truly civil society in Malacca. By 1455 a man could

no longer be sure that his neighbor subscribed to the old Malay ideals of honor and

manliness - but, thanks to the law codes, he could still be reasonably certain that the

man would never attack him from behind, or after three days of pretending

everything was fine between them, or when he was injured or lame. By 1455 a

Malaccan might not know whether he could trust his foreign neighbor to tell the

truth in financial deals or when arranging a marriage - but he could rest assured

that the law guaranteed him double his money back if it turned out his neighbor had

lied in making up a contract. The Malaccan laws thus reflected the breakdown of

traditional Malay social norms in which tight families and strong, unified social

pressure had formed the first line of defense against wayward behavior; and, too,

the laws partook in the creation of new norms, a new Malaccan modernity

characterized by legal transparency, straightforward rules, and civic (not religious,

not traditional, but civic) virtue.


This chapter portrays the wealth, the investments, and the experimental nature
o f the Malaccan p o rt during its golden age.


In trying to account for what happened to Malacca, in recent years it has

become common for western scholars to dismiss claims that the city was ever a

truly wealthy, global trade port. This is an honest assessment, apparently based on

the lack of monumental structures preserved in the city today and the unreliability

of the contemporary texts that reported Malacca's great wealth. Many cite a passage

from Joao de Barros as an important corrective: "The town was almost entirely built

of wood, and the houses thatched with palm-leaves, in other places there were

towers, walls, and some examples of better architecture." (He goes on to say, "its

real defenses were a numerous people, and a multitude of ships" - but this is

commonly left out of the critical scholarship.)322

Of course it is reasonable to consider Malay biases when texts that are meant

to aggrandize the Malaccan royal family find (surprise!) that Malacca was very great.

We thus are not surprised to see the Sejarah Melayu playing up the importance of

Mahmud Shah's Malacca, saying,

322 [)e Barros, Decadas, II, book vi, chapter I.

"Now the city of Malacca at that time flourished exceedingly and many
foreigners resorted thither, so much so that from Air Leleh to Hulu Muar
there was an unbroken line of houses, and it was thus too from Kampong
Kling to Kuala Penajeh. People journeying even as far as Jenggra had no
need to take fire with them, for wherever they stopped on the way there
would be a house. Such was the greatness of Malacca at that time, in the
city alone there were a hundred and ninety thousand people, to say
nothing of the inhabitants of the outlying territories and coastal

But Europeans who saw Malacca at its height were, if anything, far more

enthusiastic, generally agreeing with Duarte Barbosa's description of Malacca as the

"richest seaport... in the whole world."324 Ludovico da Varthema - who did not

enjoy his time in the city - nonetheless recorded that "more ships arrive here than

in any other place in the world, and especially there come here all sorts of spices and

an immense quantity of other merchandise."325 Maximilian of Transylvania called

Malacca "the greatest emporium of the East."326 Joao de Barros - he of the "houses

thatched with palm leaves" - also wrote, "Malacca seems a center at which are

323 Sejarah Melayu, Translated here by C.C. Brown, pg. 157; this is pp. 181-2 in the original
manuscript, Raffles MS 18 at the Royal Asiatic Society, London.

324 Duarte Barbosa, op. cit., vol. II, pg. 175. Mansel Longworth Dames reconstructs a bahar as a 448-
pound weight, but even in Southeast Asia's richest trade port this seems unlikely. Perhaps it is
enough to say that some wealthy merchants were able to reckon their accounts by gold-unit
equivalents, without needing to speculate on just how heavy their standard units were. See Duarte
Barbosa, op. cit., vol. I, pg. 157, note 1.

325 Ludovico da Varthema, The Travels o f Ludovico da Varthema in Egypt, Syria, Arabia Deserta and
Arabia Felix, in Persia, India, and Ethiopia, A.D. 1503-1508. Translated by John W inter Jones, Edited by
George Percy Badger. Pp. 224-225. London: Hakluyt Society, 1863.

326 "A Letter from Maximilianus Transylvanus to the Most Reverend Cardinal of Salzburg, very
delightful to read, concerning the Molucca Islands, and also very many other wonders, which the
latest voyage of the Spaniards has just discovered." In The First Voyage Round the World, Ed. and
translated by Lord Stanley of Alderley. London: Printed for the Hakluyt Society, 1874. Pg. 186.
Original letter published 1523.

assembled all the natural products of the earth and all the artificial ones of man. On

this account, although situated in a barren land, it is, through an interchange of

commodities, more amply supplied with every thing than the countries themselves

from which they come."327 Tome Pires visited when the sultanate was at its

economic height and he had much the same impression: "All the things and [Malay]

lands and districts were nothing in comparison with Malacca, because Malacca is the

port at the end of the monsoons, whither large numbers of junks and ships come."328

As for Barbosa himself, he was convinced that "this city of Malaca is the richest

seaport with the greatest number of wholesale merchants and abundance of

shipping and trade that can be found in the whole world," and, he was astonished to

find, "gold comes thither in such abundance that the leading merchants dealing in it

do not value their estates nor keep their accounts except in bahares of gold.”329

These European informants were not naive travelers. All had visited ports in

Spain, Portugal, or what would later become Italy. They had been to India, and most

had traveled widely in Southeast Asia. It may be right that we should attribute some

of their enthusiasm to the pleasure of seeing a bustling port after months or years

away from Europe (though, as for that, India certainly had bustling ports of its own);

but we are wrong to dismiss them entirely. A very great deal of trade came through

Malacca in the late 15th and early 16th centuries, and to those who visited, Malacca

was obviously, visibly, notably, surprisingly wealthy.

327 de Barros, Dicadas II, book vi, chapter 1.

328 Pires, Suma Oriental, 251 (folio 169v in the original manuscript)

329 Duarte Barbosa, Vol. 1,157.

It seems to me that a great deal of the skepticism about Malacca's wealth can

be attributed to presentist notions of what wealth is, and western notions of what it

should look like. When we envision wealthy cities in early modern Europe, we think

of Venetian merchants in brightly-colored tunics, stone cathedrals, cobbled streets,

trumpets, fine wines, art, castles, and mounds of coins. It's a rich visual landscape

that is familiar to many of us, chiefly from the painting and sculpture of the time.

Malacca didn't have the same tradition of visual art, and so it's hard for us to picture

what it would mean for the city to be truly wealthy. But despite featuring average

houses with palm-thatch roofs - not so different, after all, from the reed-thatch roofs

of contemporary England and France - Malacca shared a great deal with this

European vision of wealth. The city's biggest mosque was, in fact, made of stone,

despite the fact that this was an impractical building material in insular Southeast

Asia (where the goal of most constructions was to be light and airy in the tropics,

not closed and warm in a European winter]. The sarongs worn by Malaccan men

and women were quite as brightly colored as anything in Europe, with saffron

yellows and vermilion reds in particular catching the eye of foreigners.330 Malaccans

did not drink much wine - grapes don't grow in Southeast Asian climes, and anyway,

many professed a religious objection to drink - but they did announce the arrival of

important people with trumpets, gongs, and drums.331 They didn’t have cobbled

streets (largely because waterways were used as the primary thoroughfares for the

city), but an entire street of moneychangers did weigh and jingle coins just as

330 See, for example, Pires, Suma Oriental, 269 (folio 174r).
331 Royal Asiatic Society Sejarah Melayu Raffles 18,15-19.

Europeans did in their grandiose counting-houses. Wealthy merchants rode horses

in the streets of Malacca as they did in the streets of Paris.

In the sections below, I catalogue a veritable litany of expensive trade goods

that flowed through the port of Malacca. In part, I spend time on this to make a point:

there was a lot of wealth in the city. But readers must also embrace the idea that

nutmeg, grain-scarlet, and various kinds of incense really were the stuff of wealth,

really did constitute "real" wealth. Certainly, this is what Malays, Klings (that is,

Hindu Indian traders), Gujaratis, and indeed the Portuguese all thought. In an era

before banks (with some few exceptions in Italy), a bank balance simply couldn’t

serve as a proxy for wealth; and in a place like Malacca, grand landed estates didn't

make much sense, either (although some merchants did maintain "gardens" outside

the city, in addition to their portside homes). I therefore urge the reader to get

herself into the head-space of a trader, or indeed a peasant, of the 16th century, and

to take seriously the idea that observers from around the Asian trade world - and

from Europe - really did find Malacca to be "the greatest emporium of the east."


But first, we should consider the political changes that marked Malacca's rise

to preeminence. Malacca’s trade reached world-beating proportions under the reign

of Mahmud Shah, beginning in the 1480s and ending a few years after Portuguese

forces took the city in 1511. Yet it was under the rule of Mansur Shah (r. 1459-1477)

that the city first grew from a local port of some Southeast Asian consequence to a

major regional entrepot with international pretensions.

As we saw in previous chapters, Malacca's sultans were enmeshed in local

Malay politics. They married wives from around the Malay peninsula and were

especially closely related to the aristocratic families of Pahang, Kampar, and

Indragiri. Malacca routinely paid tribute to the Javanese, Siamese, and Chinese

courts (all at the same time), shrewdly sending trade goods, elephants, and various

valuable gifts to each of these powers so as to secure peaceful relations with all of

them.332 Nonetheless, skirmishes with the Siamese were frequent as the two powers

fought for control of the Malay peninsula.

Yet the politics of the region w ere changing. Malacca's close diplomatic

relationship with China (discussed in chapter 2) had given way to more routinized

tribute missions after the death of Zheng He and the end of China's naval

explorations. And as the Ming empire turned inward, Malacca found that it could no

longer depend on official Chinese help when the city came under siege or, in one

case, when the Siamese detained Malaccan diplomats.333 Mansur Shah thus

negotiated an uneasy peace with Siam, sending members of his court to speak

directly to the Siamese king. While the two powers were never very friendly,

332 Pires, Suma Oriental, pg. 250 (folio 169v].

333 Ming shilu, Xuanzong, juan 76.6b-7a (20 March 1431)

hostilities lessened and the peace was eventually cemented via intermarriage

between the aristocratic families of Malacca and Siam.334

This appears to have affirmed Malacca’s importance regionally; at the very

least it freed up soldiers and sailors for other activities. So when a dispossessed

(former) sultan of Pasai called upon Mansur Shah to help restore the kingdom that

he had lost in a popular uprising, Malacca's military was again available to help. The

Pasai sultan declared that he would accept Malaccan suzerainty if the Malaccan

army would help him regain his throne; Mansur Shah sent his bendahara, his

laksamana (naval admiral), and a large number of his followers to reinstall the man.

Doing so proved Malacca to be the most important power on the Malay peninsula,

able to impose a king at will - though as for that they were sometimes quite

unwilling. The Pasai sultan was dispossessed for a second time soon after the

Malaccan forces had left his city, and Malacca refused to intervene again.335

What was the relationship between Malacca and Pasai at this juncture? It's

complicated. A great deal of intermarriage joined the Malaccan nobility to their

counterparts in Pasai (and, not incidentally, promoted the cause of Islam, which was

much more strongly established in Pasai than in Malacca), but it's not clear whether

the bipartite decision to reinstate an unpopular leader, and then to refuse to

reinstate him a second time, would have endeared Malaccans to the Pasai populace

or not. The chief consequence of this episode must surely have been to emphasize

334 R.J. Wilkinson, "The Malacca Sultanate," JMBRAS, Vol. 13 no. 2 (122) (October 1935), pg. 40. Note
that this is a nice summary of the contents of the lengthy Sejarah Melayu, but it is not a critical text.

335 Ibid., 48-49.

Malacca's newfound power on the peninsula; this was the power to make or break

Malay kings, the power to save or damn a royal dynasty.

Through similar political machinations, Mansur Shah's administration

dramatically increased Malacca's stature in the region. When Singapore tried to

coerce regional trade to stop at their port (instead of at Malacca), Mansur Shah was

able to muster "five hundred large ships as well as a vast assembly of small craft" to

defend the status quo;336 this both reflected Malacca's growing power and projected

it outwards. When Kampar needed military help against the Siamese, Malacca

provided that help, in exchange for promises of personal fealty. By the time of his

death, Mansur Shah had "turned a little trading-port into a small empire covering

Pahang, Siak, Kampar, Trengganu and Johor," according to the Malay Annals337

(although much of the credit for this empire-building must go to Mansur Shah's

bendahara, Tun Perak338).

Mansur’s successor Alauddin Riayat Shah (r. 1477- c. 1484) continued to flex

Malacca's military and diplomatic muscles. He sent the city’s navy to subdue pirates,

and "added to Malacca many islands belonging to the Celates, who are corsairs....

Through his captains he took the islands of Lingga which are on this side of Banka,

almost opposite to Palembang."339 And on the Malay peninsula itself, Alauddin Shah

had his administration keep a vigilant watch over the small empire that Mansur

336 Many of these ships would have come from surrounding lands who owed fealty to Malacca’s
sultan. Royal Asiatic Society Sejarah Melayu Raffles 1 8 ,1 0 3 -4

337 Wilkinson, "The Malacca Sultanate," 49.

338 Ibid., 49-50.

339 Pires, Suma Oriental, vol. 89, 250 (folio 169v].

Shah had won. Alauddin's advisors never missed a chance to assert Malacca’s place

in the Malay order. For example, the Sejarah Melayu includes a story about an

execution at Siak, imposed by the local sultan on his own cognizance. Siak was,

however, one of Malacca's dependencies. Angry not to have been consulted on a case

of capital punishment, and fearing that this punishment (which all agreed was just)

meant that the local sultan was emphasizing his independence, Sultan Alauddin

Shah immediately sent a representative to Siak. He returned with a "humble letter of

apology" from the Siak sultan. And, as the Annals say, “From that time all death-

sentences in the provinces were sent for confirmation to Sultan Alaedin."340

Yet Alauddin was not himself very actively involved with the development of

Malacca's port. In fact, he was rarely to be seen in the city at all, instead preferring to

spend time on his country estates (made more secure now that nearby villages

acknowledged him as sultan). He was "more devoted to the affairs of the mosque

than to anything else; and he was a man who ate a great deal of afiam [opium]... and

sometimes he was not in his right mind."341

More generally, by this time "the most distinguished" Malays lived outside of

Malacca, "in houses... with many orchards, gardens and tanks, where they lead a

pleasant life. They have separate houses for trade within the city; they possess many

slaves with wives and children who live apart and obey all their orders."342 This

arrangement meant that wealthy Malaccan Malays could live on grand estates

340 Wilkinson, "The Malacca Sultanate," pp. 53-54.

341 Tome Pires, Suma Oriental, vol, 8 9 ,2 5 1 (folio 169v).

342 Duarte Barbosa, Vol. II, 176.

without concerning themselves overmuch about the day-to-day affairs of the rough-

and-tumble port. Administrators, judges, and those with official jobs in Malacca

were therefore left to run things without the sort of personal interference that so

often characterized Malay polities. Yet at the same time, because of their interest in

trade and their trading houses in the heart of Malacca town, most members of the

Malay aristocracy quickly noticed if things went awry at the port. Alauddin's

preference for religion, opium, and gardens may therefore have fostered a kind of

benign neglect appreciated by traders looking to avoid the heavy hand of harsh

regulation or excessive taxation.

Alauddin died young, probably poisoned by his brother the sultan Mahmud

Shah of Pahang; Wilkinson shows that Alauddin was probably only about thirty

years old at the time.343 His son Mahmud Shah (of Malacca] nominally ascended to

the throne, but in actual fact Alauddin's bendahara ruled the country as regent until

the Malaccan Mahmud Shah reached the age of majority, probably sometime in his

late teens.344 Mahmud grew up knowing he would be king, and so perhaps it is

unsurprising that he became a larger-than-life character: he was vigorous but

overconfident; bold, manly, proud of his city, perhaps megalomaniacal. Like his

father, Mahmud took opium; unlike his father, he was "a great eater and drinker,

brought up to live well and viciously," according to Tome Pires.345 In his youth,

343 Wilkinson, 54 and 62.

344 Ibid.

345 Pires, Suma Oriental, vol. 89, 253 (folio 170r).

Mahmud delighted in personal combat, but he was also tutored in the affairs of state

that his father had neglected and he seems to have taken his studies seriously.

Alauddin's poisoning was intended to throw wealthy Malacca into chaos. It

was entirely unsuccessful. In fact, the murder seems to have produced no real

discontinuity in the city's administration. In part, this was because Alauddin had

already been something of an absentee ruler. In part, it was because Alauddin's

skilled bendahara Tun Perak remained at the head of government after the sultan's

death, acting as regent for the young Mahmud Shah. In part, a sizeable foreign

community shared an interest in seeing Malacca's port continue. But in large part,

Malacca's stability was due to the city’s robust civil administration. To a very great

extent, the city was governed by port officials, policemen, judges, and laws. The

sultan contracted marriages, raised armies, and signed off on legislation, but in

many ways he was a figurehead, an ornament gracing the front of the ship of state.

Mahmud Shah also refrained from interfering in the day-to-day life of his city,

although he took a far more active interest in regional and global politics than had

his father. In his youth, Mahmud had boasted that "he alone was strong enough to

destroy the world.”346 He would later come to make similar claims about Malacca,

presuming that the city could never be threatened because "the world needed his

port because it was at the end of monsoons."347 The same idea was eventually

expressed as the claim that Malacca was at the center of the world, or even the



center of Islam; Mahmud Shah hoped that "Malacca would be made into Mecca” and

he suggested that local Muslims should make the hajj to his kingdom instead of to

the Arabian peninsula.348 (This is particularly interesting because Mahmud's father,

the late Alauddin Shah, had intended to make the hajj - to Mecca - as a part of his

more orthodox religious fervor.349)

Lest we be tempted to see this as mere swagger, we should note that

Mahmud backed up his beliefs with actions. Remarking that neither Siam nor Java

was better or richer than his own country, Mahmud Shah stopped sending them the

customary tribute gifts. "Why should Malacca be obedient to kings who were

obedient to China?" he is supposed to have asked.350 This snub predictably provoked

an attack from Siam in the 1490s. Mahmud Shah led his navy to sea and they met the

Siamese forces off the coast of Pulo Pisang; Malacca won a decisive victory. From

this point onward, Siam and Malacca suspended any sort of trade relations (though

they would be resumed once the Portuguese took over).351

By this time, Malacca now controlled much of the Malay peninsula, either

directly or through subordinate sultans. (For example, the sultan of Pahang was a

vassal of Malacca under Mahmud Shah, owing him fealty in return for military


349 Ibid., 251 (folio 169v).

350 Ibid., 253 (folio 170r).

351 Ibid.

protection from Siamese encroachments.352) For all his obvious swagger, Mahmud

was a genuinely brave and charismatic military leader who attracted large numbers

of Malay followers, many from places quite far afield indeed.353 With military

backing from kingdoms across the Malay world, some twenty years after Mansur

Shah's expansionist reign Mahmud Shah was to add Manjong, Bruas, and Kelantan to

Malacca's growing list of dependencies.354

By about the year 1500, then, "Malacca State was co-extensive with what is

now [in 1935] British Malaya except for Kedah and Perlis; but to set against this

deficiency it included Siak, Kampar, and Indragiri on the other side of the Malacca

Straits as well as the Riau-Lingga Archipelago."355 The city's sultan was a keen

military leader but a reluctant administrator. He engaged in trade but, like his father,

he did not interfere in the running of the city's port, the chief source of Malacca's

wealth and strength.


352 Duarte Barbosa describes the Sultan of Pahang as having "rebelled" against Siam in favor of
Malacca. He points out that, after the Portuguese conquest of the city in 1511, Pahang immediately
sent gifts acknowledging Portuguese suzerainty. Duarte Barbosa, Vol. II, 179.

353 Mahmud Shah boasted that he had raised 90,000 men to take up arms against Siam in the battle
mentioned above, and though this number is almost certainly a gross exaggeration it does speak to
Mahmud’s charisma as well as to the size of his kingdom (including those who owed him fealty in
time of war). Pires, Suma Oriental, vol. 8 9 ,2 5 3 (folio 170r).

354 Wilkinson, "The Malacca Sultanate," 58

355 Ibid.

The flowering of Malacca's port began in earnest in the 1470s under

Alauddin Riayat Shah, Mahmud’s father. The port (and consequently, Malacca's

wealth) reached its greatest heights during Mahmud Shah's own reign (r. 1484-

1511). For the forty years leading up to the Portuguese conquest in 1511, Malacca

saw an every-growing trade in goods both prosaic and luxurious. On the more

prosaic side we have records of rice,356 honey,357 wax,358 and nails359 being brought

to Malacca. (Nails would have been a relative luxury to Malaccans themselves -

metal was in short supply, such that even local shipbuilding conventions eschewed

nail-based joinery360 - but their broader trade value was not high.) Catechu, a plant

derivative, was imported to add an attractive red color to chewed betel.361 Local

slaves were also exchanged at Malacca,362 which must sometimes have taken on the

character of a regional slave market; and indeed, Ferdinand Magellan went to

Malacca to buy a Moluccan ("Spice Islander”) slave sometime in the 1510s (before

bringing that slave with him on the journey to circumnavigate the globe).363 But

Malacca's most prosaic imports were surely foodstuffs: "victuals of various kinds,” in

356 Pires, Suma Oriental, vol. 8 9 ,2 6 8 (folio 174r).

357 Duarte Barbosa, Vol. II, pg. 175.

358 Probably from the Philippine Islands; see Kernial Singh Sandhu and Paul Wheatley, "The
Historical Context," in Sandhu and Wheatley, eds., M elaka: Transformation o f a M alay Capital, c. 1400-
1980. Also, Duarte Barbosa, Vol. II, 175. Also, Antonio Pigafetta, The First Voyage Round the World, by
Magellan, translated by Lord Stanley of Alderley (London: The Hakluyt Society, 1874), 152-153.

359 Pires, Suma Oriental, vol. 8 9 ,2 6 9 (folio 174r).

360 George Hourani, A rab Seafaring, op. cit., 91-97.

361 Pires, Suma Oriental, vol. 8 9 ,2 7 0 (folio 174r).

362 Ibid. pg. 268 (folio 174r); and also Duarte Barbosa,Vol. II, 175.

363 "A Letter from Maximilianus Transylvanus," op. cit., 200.

the words of Duarte Barbosa,364 including “great stores of rice, beef, sheep, swine,

deer, 'salt meat,’ fowls, garlic, and onions." 365 For a city with no great hinterland, the

comestible trade was essential.

These were not the products that excited Malacca's visitors, however. The

Chinese referred to “large amounts of expensive goods"366 in their accounts of 15th-

century Malacca, and Europeans spared no ink in meticulously cataloguing exactly

what those goods were. Thus we learn not just that Malacca was the center of the

trans-Asiatic cloth trade, with silks passing through on their way westward and

cottons generally headed east, but also that it was easy to obtain "cloth of thirty

kinds" at the Malaccan market.367 This included "Western Ocean cloth" from

India,368 "Cambay cloths dyed in grain,"369 and "printed and white cotton cloths that

come from Bengal."370 Colored woolen cloth arrived from Venice via Cairo.371

Malaccan market stalls carried white silk, white damask, colored silks, and other

Chinese cloths,372 "sewing silk in various colors," 373 and "very fine raw silk,”374 in

364 Duarte Barbosa, Vol. II, 176.

365 Ibid., 174.

366M ing shilu, Xianzong, juan 288.8a (20 April 1487).

367 Pires, Suma Oriental, vol. 8 9 ,2 7 0 (folio 174r).

368 M ing shilu, Xianzong, juan 288.5b (16 April 1487).

369 Duarte Barbosa, Vol. II, 173. “Dyed in grain" refers to kermes dye (the source of the English word
"crimson"), which yields a brilliant red color and is derived from the grain-like bodies of dried insect
eggs. This is thus a reference to bright red cloth.

370 Ibid.,

371 Pires, Suma Oriental, vol. 8 9 ,2 6 9 (folio 174r)

373 Ibid., 270 (folio 174v) and 272 (folio 174v).

addition to damasks, brocades, and colored satins.375 There was at least a modest

Malaccan trade in tapestries.376 Scarlet-in-grain,377 vermilion,378 and an indigenous

yellow safflower dye called kasumba379 were all available for those who chose to

trade in color as well as textile.

Perhaps unexpectedly, a literally roaring trade in animals also excited (and

occasionally annoyed) foreigners. Ludovico da Varthema remarked upon Malacca's

domestic animals, including elephants, horses, sheep, cows, and buffaloes.380 (It's

not entirely clear which "sheep" Varthema is referring to, though there are several

plausible candidate species; it's unlikely that continental European or Asian sheep

would have survived well at Malacca. The cows were presumably zebu, long since

imported to the region from South Asia.381) We know that Malaccan sultans kept

stables of elephants from the local jungles, naming their favorites,382 but the animals

373 Duarte Barbosa, Vol. II, 173.

37+Ibid., 172.

375 Ibid., 172-173.

376 Pires, Suma Oriental, vol. 8 9 ,2 7 0 (folio 174r).

377 Ibid., 269 (folio 174r).

378 Ibid. Also, Duarte Barbosa Vol. II, pg. 173.

379 Duarte Barbosa refers to this phonetically as cazunba. Duarte Barbosa, Vol. II, 174.

380 Ludovico da Varthema, ed. Badger, 224-225.

381 For possible Southeast Asian species that bear a phenotypic or genotypic resemblance to sheep
and cattle that would have been fam iliar to Varthema, see Barbara Richkowsky, ed., The State o f the
World's A nim al Genetic Resources fo r Food and Agriculture, Rome: Commission on Genetic Resources
for Food and Agriculture, Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 2007, especially
the figure on page 106.

382 Royal Asiatic Society Sejarah Melayu Raffles 18

played an important role in trade and diplomacy as well as in domestic peninsular


Mamsursa [Mansur Shah] always maintained firm allegiance to the

Javanese, Chinese, and Siamese, and he always presented them with
elephants, because the jungles of Malacca produce many, and [he] had
great numbers of them."383

Chinese records corroborate the idea that Malacca frequently sent both live

elephants and elephant ivory as tribute gifts to the Chinese court.384 Similarly, in

lS^-century Malacca horses were both used for domestic travel and gifted as

expensive trade and tribute objects.385

Outsiders were far more impressed by the wild beasts that came through

Malacca. Chief among these were colorful birds and fearsome felines from around

Southeast Asia and the Pacific. Traders brought parrots,386 peacocks (from India),

387 and birds of paradise388 from Malacca to China. Birds and feathers from the

eastern archipelago were also sold westward, "for plumes for the Rumes [the

Ottomans], Turks [in Central Asia], and Arabs.”389 Cassowaries available for sale in

383 Pires, Suma Oriental, vol. 8 9 ,2 5 0 (folio 169v).

384 Ming shilu, Xianzong, juan 141.2b-3a (9 June 1475); juan 218.1a (27 August 1481); and Ming shilu,
Wuzong, juan 113.2a (27 June 1514].

385 M ing shilu, Xianzong, juan 141.2b-3a (9 June 1475); juan 219.1a-b (23 September 1481).

386Ibid., (both references).

387 Ludovico da Varthema, ed. Badger, 224-225.

388 Pires, Suma Oriental, vol. 8 9 ,2 7 0 (folio 174v).

389 Ibid.

Malacca so impressed the Chinese that they made it into official Chinese records.390

Live leopards were loaded onto boats headed in both directions from Malacca,391

and it may be that a trade in tigers (and medicinal tiger parts?) was also included

under this heading.392 Lions were particularly impressive.393 (Nonetheless, they

baffled and frustrated Chinese administrators in Beijing. On one occasion, for

example, a diplomat from Samarkand planned to "return to his country through

Guangdong [going] to the country of Malacca to try to purchase a lion to present.

The lion is a useless animal," they wrote. "It is requested that orders be quickly

conferred to stop this mission."394)

More traditional luxuries were far less problematic. Gold, gold dust, and gold

coins were all easily (if expensively) obtainable at the Malaccan port.395 Coins

arrived from distant lands, but unminted gold chiefly came from Minangkabau

390 M ing shilu, Xianzong, juan 141.2b-3a (9 June 1475) Note that the presence o f cassowaries in
Malacca in 1475 or before suggests (though it by no means proves) a knowledge of northern
Australia more than 125 years before the first (confirmed) European sighting of that continent. There
were (and in some cases still are) cassowaries on New Guinea and a few small islands near the
Australian coast, so such speculation must be taken with appropriate skepticism. Also interesting is
the origin of the English "cassowary,” which is simply the Malay "kasuari.” For more, see A.F. Gotch, A
Guide to the Scientific Classifications o f Reptiles, Birds, and Mam mals. New York: Facts on File, 1995
[1979], pp. 178-179.

391 Ming shilu, Xianzong, juan 141.2b-3a (9 June 1475); also Ludovico da Varthema, ed. Badger, 224-

392 The Malay peninsula is home to a number of big cats, including both the Indochinese leopard
Panthera pardus delacouri and the Malay tiger Panthera tigris jacksoni. We have seen how tigers
figured in indigenous religion in the region, and Tome Pires also reports their presence. Suma
Oriental, col. 8 9 ,2 6 0 (folio 171 v). The leopard is at once more common (on the ground) and more
elusive (in the literature; it's not clear whether outsiders differentiated between the tw o species.

393 Ming shilu, Xianzong, juan 266.3b (25 June 1485); Xiaozong juan 32.4a-b (10 December 1489).

394Ming shilu, Xianzong, juan 266.3b (25 June 1485)

395 Ming shilu, Xianzong, juan 141.2b-3a (9 June 1475); Duarte Barbosa, Vol. II, 174.

sources in nearby central Sumatra.396 "Golden glassware" may have started its

journey in Venice.397 In addition, Malacca boasted "great stores of fine silver,"398

glass and glass beads,399 "pearls in abundance,”400 seed pearls,401 coral "shaped and

strung, and ready for shaping,"402 tortoise-shell,403 mother-of-pearl,404 "bells and

basins,"405 and "gilded coffers, fans, and many other baubles."406 "Porcelain in

abundance" came from places as far afield as South China and inland Persia.407

Saltpeter came from China to be used in fireworks, artillery, and eventually to

supply European muskets.408 Chinese coins 409 copper 410 lead,411 tin 412 iron,413

396 Duarte Barbosa, Vol. II, 174.

397 Pires, Suma Oriental, vol. 8 9 ,2 6 9 (folio 174r) refers to "golden glass” w ithout further explanation.
This may be a reference to color alone, in which case the class may have originated almost anywhere;
on the other hand, Venice alone appears to have been able to mass-produce glass w ith gold strands
or gold flecks in it at this time, and it is relatively easy to see how Venetian products might have made
their way first to the Arab world and thence to Malacca. For more, see Paul Hills, Venetian Colour:
Marble, Mosaic, Painting, and Glass (N ew Haven: Yale University Press, 1999).

398 Duarte Barbosa, Vol. II, 173. Tom6 Pires also mentions silver: Pires, Suma Oriental, vol. 8 9 ,2 6 9
(folio 174r).

399 Pires, Suma Oriental, vol. 8 9 ,2 6 9 (folio 174r).

400 Duarte Barbosa, Vol. II, 173.

401 Pires, Suma Oriental, vol. 89, pg. 272 (folio 174v) and Duarte Barbosa, Vol. II, 173.

402 Duarte Barbosa, Vol. II, 173. and Tom6 Pires, Suma Oriental, vol. 89, pg. 269 (folio 174r).

403 M ing shilu, Wuzong, juan 113.2a (27 June 1514).

404 Wilkinson, "The Malacca Sultanate," 26.

405 Duarte Barbosa, Vol. II, 175.

406 Ibid., 173.

407 Pires, Suma Oriental, vol. 8 9 ,2 7 0 (folio 174v) and Duarte Barbosa, Vol. II, 172.

408 Duarte Barbosa, Vol. II, 173.

409 Ibid., 175.

410 Pires, Suma Oriental, vol. 89, 269 (folio 174r) and 272 (folio 174v); Duarte Barbosa, Vol. II, pg. 175.

steel,414 and various base metal coins [fruseleira]415 were valuable for their trade

possibilities; base metals in particular were bought in the form of small arms -

"spears, 'daggers,' short swords all finely worked and damascened on fine steel-

iron axes, knives, cutlasses, swords"416 - for local use but also to trade on to

Moluccan Islanders in return for spices.417

Given this litany of luxury, it is unsurprising that we also find that drugs were

available in quantity at Malacca, as were spices - and we should remember that, in

the premodern world of the 15th and early 16th centuries, the two were often

interchangeable (in fact, in China, both drugs and aromatics were included in the

category xiangyao # H ) . Narcotics, strong tastes, and attractive scents were all

thought to be able to balance the humors and heal bodily pains.418 The importance

of this trade simply cannot be overstated. Nearly all of the valuables listed above

411 Duarte Barbosa, Vol. II, 175

412 Pires, Suma Oriental, vol. 8 9 ,2 7 2 (folio 174v).

413 Duarte Barbosa, Vol. II. 174.

414 Ibid.

415 Pires, Suma Oriental, vol. 89, 272 (folio 174v).

416 Duarte Barbosa, Vol. II, 174-175.

417 Pires, Suma Oriental, vol. 8 9 ,2 6 9 (folio 174r).

418 This view was held by both Western medicine and the Islamic medicine from which it was largely
derived (though, of course, this in turn had Greek roots). In humorist systems of medicine, herbs and
spices were essential to balancing the four basic bodily fluids - blood, black bile, yellow bile, and
phlegm - and so proper eating was essentially medicinal and good medicine was essentially
constitutional. Meanwhile, on the other side of the Straits of Malacca, Chinese doctors routinely
prescribed herbal remedies for physical problems. For more, see Maguelonne Toussaint-Samat, A
History o f Food (New York: John W iley & Sons, 2009), especially chapter 15. Also Jack Turner, Spice:
The History o f a Temptation (New York: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, 2008). Finally, Linda L.
Barnes, Needles, Herbs, Gods, and Ghosts: China, Healing, and the West to 1848, Cambridge (MA):
Harvard University Press, 2009.

were traded in the service of Malacca's spices and aromatic goods. Coins, precious

metals, and luxuries like vermilion, coral, and mother-of-pearl were all exchanged

for westward-bound spice and incense. Silks, saltpeter, and Chinese cash were

offered in exchange for opium and incense going the other way. Even the more

quotidian products coming through Malacca frequently served this trade: small

arms, cotton cloth, and base metals were all useful as trade goods to be taken to the

spice islands on the next monsoon, for example.

Malacca’s market district was thus filled with spices, incense, and medicinal

goods (of both real and imagined efficacy). Venders sold opium,419 alum,420

quicksilver (liquid mercury)421 and rosewater422 to traders of all nationalities. Gall-

nuts for medicinal use were "brought inland from the Levante to Cambaya by way of

Meca," and were ultimately headed to Java and China via Malacca.423 Rhubarb,

saffron, and sugar could all be had seasonally.424 Bezoars, believed to protect

against poison, became big business in Malacca,425 with stones taken from

419 Pires, Suma Oriental, vol. 8 9 ,2 6 9 (folio 174r) and Duarte Barbosa, Vol. II, pg. 173.

420 Tome Pires, Suma Oriental, vol. 89, pg. 272 (folio 174v).
421 Pires, Suma Oriental, vol. 8 9 ,2 6 9 (folio 174r) and Duarte Barbosa, Vol. II, 173.

422 Ibid.

423 Duarte Barbosa, Vol. II, 173.

424 Ibid., 172 and 173.

425 Wilkinson, “The Malacca Sultanate,” Journal o f the Malayan Branch o f the Royal Asiatic Society, Vol.
13 no. 2 (122] (October 1935), pg. 26.

Southeast Asian apes and porcupines amongst the most expensive single items

available in Europe in the 15th and 16th centuries.426

Malacca was also reported to be the world’s best source for fragrant

woods427 and "much incense."428 In the city, merchants could purchase sapan-

wood,429 sandalwood,430 calambac,431 the Indian pachac root,432 "enormous

quantities of apothecary's lignaloes,"433 camphor,434 and liquid storax (an aromatic

balsam resin)435 and benzoin (a related balsamic resin)-436 Ambergris from the

425 Bezoars from Malacca were generally the preserve of European monarchs and high aristocracy,
being unobtainable for most of even the gentry and merchant classes. For more on this fascinating
history, see Peter Borschberg, “The Euro-Asian Trade in Bezoar Stones (approx.. 1500 to 1 7 0 0 )/' in
Michael North, Artistic and Cultural Exchanges in Europe and Asia, 1 4 0 0 -1900: Rethinking Markets,
Workshops and Collections (Surrey, England: Ashgate Publishing Limited, 2010).

427 Wilkinson, "The Malacca Sultanate," 26.

428 Pires, Suma Oriental, vol. 8 9 ,2 7 0 (folio 174r).

429 Ming shilu, Wuzong, juan 113.2a (27 June 1514).

430 Pires, Suma Oriental, vol. 89, 270 (folio 174v) and 272 (folio 174v).

431 Ibid., 272 (folio 174v).

432 Ibid., 270 (folio 174r).

433 Also called lignum aloes, garu, gaharu, or agarwood. This quote is from Pires, Suma O riental,vol.
8 9,2 70 (folio 174v), but lignum aloes are also mentioned in Duarte Barbosa, Vol. II, 175.

434 Wilkinson, "The Malacca Sultanate," 26.; Pires, Suma Oriental, vol. 8 9 ,2 7 2 (folio 174v); Duarte
Barbosa, Vol. II, 175.

435 Pires, Suma Oriental, vol. 8 9 ,2 6 9 (folio 174r).

436 Ibid., 270 (folio 174v) and Duarte Barbosa, Vol. II, pg. 175.

Nicobar islands437 and musk from continental Asia438 were available for those who

preferred more earthy scents.

Spice formed an essential part of this "health-and-wealth" trade. By the time

of Mahmud Shah, Malacca had warehouses full of pepper, cloves, mace, and

nutmeg 439 The latter three spices, in particular, grew only in the remote spice

islands to the east,440 but were most valuable in Arabia and Europe to Malacca’s

west. This geographical fact considerably complicated trade and storage in Malacca;

it may even have inspired the city’s complicated trustee laws (discussed below).

This is because spices came into Malacca on the same easterly monsoon that blew

Indian Ocean traders out of the city and off towards India and the Arabian peninsula.

In the time it took for the spice-ships to arrive at Malacca, westward-bound trade-

ships had necessarily already left the city. It was thus essential to find methods to

reliably store and police spices as Malacca awaited the turn of the monsoon and the

arrival of the Indian Ocean trade fleet once again.

437 Note that Barbosa actually refers to the Nicobars (along with other islands) as the "archipelago of
Malaca," telling us something about the extent of Malaccan influence all along the Andaman Sea.
Duarte Barbosa, Vol. II, 173.

438 Pires, Suma Oriental, vol. 8 9 ,2 7 0 (folio 174v) and Duarte Barbosa, Vol. II, pp. 180-181.

439 Ming shilu, Wuzong, juan 113.2a (27 June 1514); Pires, Suma Oriental, vol. 89, 270 and 272 (folios
174r-174v); Duarte Barbosa, Vol. II, 173; Antonio Pigafetta, The First Voyage Round the World, tr.
Alderley, 131.
440 "The Banda Islands,” said Pigafetta; "The Ises of Maluco," said Barbosa. Both were grossly right,
but spice production was far more limited than Barbosa in particular implies. "Before 1600,” says
Linda Shaffer, “the only clove orchards of any commercial significance grew on five miniscule
volcanic islands - Temate, Tidor, Motir, Makian, and Batjan." Meanwhile, nutmeg and mace
production were limited to the ten tiny islands that make up the Banda group of islands; taken
together, these total less than 70 square miles of land area. Lynda Shaffer, M a ritim e Southeast Asia to
1500, (New York: M.E. Sharpe, Inc, 1996). Also, Antonio Pigafetta, The First Voyage Round the World,
131. Also, Duarte Barbosa, Vol. II, pg. 175.


The geography of the Asian monsoons coupled with the importance of the

spice trade therefore forced Malacca to formally regulate trade, at least to some

small extent.

Like most insular Southeast Asian cities, early Malacca had had a market

district, the pasar ("bazaar”). The market was laid out along the Sungai Melaka, the

Malacca River, opposite the official Chinese settlement on the other bank. Early on

this market district probably grew up organically; it is surely no coincidence that it

was so conveniently located alongside the city's river. By the 1460s, however, the

market had been formalized, and the old organic market district had turned into a

fortified, stockaded bazaar. Most of Malacca's population lived in the "outer town,"

and though saleswomen walked the streets with their wares by day,441 by night the

commercial quarter was closed and closely guarded by the Malaccan police force.

Traders felt comfortable keeping "stores, money, and provisions" in their stalls

within this secure, walled market district.442

From the 1480s at the latest, police were stationed at each cross-roads in the

commercial quarter, and there was additionally a central police station in Malacca

town where complaints could be lodged and lost objects reclaimed. The city’s

temenggong ran the police force, while favored young men were put in charge of

specific streets. Police abuses were taken seriously; stealing objects or funds that

4+1 Pires, Suma Oriental, vol. 8 9 ,2 7 4 (folio 175r).

442 Wilkinson, "The Malacca Sultanate,” 26.

had been returned to the station or taking goods recovered from thieves for

personal use was punishable by having a hand cut off!443

One story from the Sejarah Melayu valorizes Sultan Alauddin Riayat Shah (r,

1477-c. 1484) while also providing a (surely fictionalized) account of how policing

came to be so good and robbery so rare in Malacca's market district. On hearing that

the police were slacking off in their duties in the bazaar, Sultan Alauddin "set out

one night, ill-dressed and with only two guards, to see what was going on."

"On his round he met five men, two carrying a box and three following.
On seeing him they dropped the box and ran. Leaving one of his men
to guard the box Alaedin gave chase, caught the hindmost thief on the
brow of the hill and cut him in two with a single swipe of his sword.
He then followed the remaining four as far as the peepul-tree on the
bank of the river.... In the fight that followed two of the thieves were
killed and the other two dived into the river and escaped. Alaedin
returned, found the man who was guarding the box and had it taken
to the palace.

In the morning when the Court was sitting the Sultan turned to his
brother-in-law [the police chief] Tun Mutahir, and asked, 'Were your
police on duty last night?' 'Certainly, Your Highness.' 'Well,' said the
Sultan, ‘I am told that three men were killed, one on the brow of the
hill, one under the peepul-tree and the third near the bridge; did your
police kill them?' ‘I know nothing of this,' said the Temenggong. 'What
sort of a guard is this you are keeping?'" the sultan asked.444

Then the situation was explained and the box's owner traced. And, as the

Sejarah Melayu would have it,

443 Ibid., 52.

444 Ibid.

"After this episode the Dato Seri Maharaja [the temenggong] took his
duties more seriously and followed his master's example by going on
rounds himself. On one occasion he saw a thief trying to break into a
shop; so he lopped the thief s arm off and left it lying on the window­
sill. When this was seen in the morning the object-lesson was enough;
there was no more thieving.”445

Filtering out the ahistorical heroics here still leaves us with a pair of stories that

take it for granted that Malacca's market district was well-guarded and that theft

from a Malaccan shop was very rare, certainly in the period after the reign of

Alauddin Riayat Shah. (Incidentally, this story also corroborates the general

impression of Malacca as a violent city where masculinity and personal derring-do

were prized, as discussed in chapter 3.) In seeking to legitimize the Johori royal

family for whom the S e ja r a h M e la y u was written, the author of this text invokes the

well-known safety and security of Malacca's commercial quarter.

This security was of utmost importance in Malacca because the value of the

city’s trade was simply enormous. Malacca’s richest merchants reckoned their

worth in gold, which they used as a unit of account.446 Tome Pires reported that in

1509 Malacca had perhaps a thousand Gujarati merchants of such consequence,

including those "who were representatives of others," and more than 3,000 wealthy

Parsees, Bengalis, and Arabs, again including "some who were factors for others."447

Duarte Barbosa rather slyly described the Chetty traders from Coromandel as "very

445 ibid.
446 Duarte Barbosa, Vol. II, 175.

447 Pires, Suma Oriental, vol. 8 9,2 5 4 -2 5 5 (folios 170r-170v).

corpulent, with big bellies" to match their big riches.448 Whatever the actual quantity

(and corpulence) of these traders - and we shouldn't think that Pires made an exact

count of Malacca's foreign merchants while bored on the quayside one day - these

impressions clearly depict a very large, wealthy merchant community making

regular use of Malacca's market district.

We can account for some portion of this large-scale trade more precisely. By

about 1500, each ship coming from Gujarat to Malacca could be valued at "fifteen,

twenty, or thirty thousand cruzados, nothing less than fifteen thousand," while the

yearly shipment from Cambay was worth "seventy or eighty thousand cruzados,"449

and ships from Pulicat were worth even more than that.450 (To put this in some kind

of perspective, the ecclesiastical revenues for all of Portugal were just under 1

million cruzados in 1515, or roughly 13 Cambay ships' worth of cargo bound for

Malacca.451) Each year’s monsoon brought several major shipments from Gujarat,

three or four from the Coromandel coast, and one or two from Pulicat, in addition to

the Cambay fleet.452 From the rest of India, there might be "some ten ships each

448 Duarte Barbosa, Vol. II, 176.

449 Pires, Suma Oriental, vol. 8 9 ,2 7 0 (folio 174r}.

498 Ibid., 272 (folio 174v).

451 How to interpret such a comparison left as an exercise to the reader. These comparisons are
always, always imperfect. See Eugenia Mata, "From pioneer mercantile state to ordinary fiscal state:
Portugal, 1498-1914." In Bartolome Yun-Casalilla, Patrick K. O'Brien, eds., The Rise o f Fiscal States: A
Global History, 1500-1914. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2012. Pp. 215-232.

452 Pires, Suma Oriental, vol. 8 9 ,2 7 2 (folio 174v).

year,”453 with as many as an additional three or four occasionally arriving from one

of India's major merchant families.454

The value of the China trade is far less well-documented, but reasonable

readings of the available histories suggest that China was in fact Malacca's largest

(though perhaps not most important) trade partner, certainly in terms of tonnage

shipped. At any rate, taken together, J.C. van Leur estimated that the total straits

wholesale trade was carried out by some 480 large- and medium-sized ships

(between 200 and 400 tons each),455 including traditional Chinese junks,456

Southeast Asian "three-masted cruisers"457 and "four-masted ships" from India,458

as well as thickly sided long-haul trade junks from Java, "great junco ships... built of

thick timber, so that when they are old a new planking can be laid over the former

and so they remain very strong."459 The odd expedition also arrived from much

farther afield: Samarkand (though the overseas part of these ventures would likely

have originated in Hormuz or elsewhere on the Persian coast), 460 Ryukyu (which

came to Malacca hoping to purchase trade goods for China tribute),461 and Aden

453 Ibid.

454 Duarte Barbosa, Vol. II, 176.

455 J.C. van Leur, Indonesian Trade and Society: Essays in Asian social and economic history (The Hague:
W. van Hoeve, 1955), 126.

456 Undang-undang M elaka, fasl 23.4.

457 Sejarah Melayu, translated C.C. Brown, 76.

458 Duarte Barbosa, Vol. II, pg. 172.

459 Ibid., 173-4.

460 M ing shilu, Xianzong, juan 266.3b (25 June 1485).

461 Ming shilu, Xiaozong, ]uan 204.2a (27 October 1503), also juan 218.9a (26 December 1504).

(which eventually sent enough boats that a small Aden community grew up in

Malacca itself).462

It's even harder to account for what J.C. van Leur calls the "peddler trade”

undertaken by thousands of Southeast Asians circulating through Malacca in dhows,

lateen-rigged perahus with outriggers 463 and flat-bottomed sampans inspired by

Chinese riverboats 464 Of course Malacca's harbor bustled with "great wholesale

merchants of every kind, both Moors and Heathen," in the words of Duarte

Barbosa,465 but traders from places much closer to home were far more numerous

yet, and this small-scale trade, too, had to be kept safe and secure at Malacca's port.

Just as international traders came to Malacca in greater numbers as the 15th

century moved into its latter decades, so too the scale of the peddlar trade grew as

Malacca’s local sphere of influence grew over the same period. By 1509 the Malacca

sultanate directly controlled not just the port itself but also the fruit groves and

private estates at Muar (now a bustling district of a few thousand, under the

personal jurisdiction of the bendaharay66 and all of the area from today's Kuala

Lingi (called Acoala Penajy by Pires, and labeled Rio Panagrim on Eredia’s 1613 map)

to Kuala Kesang (Pires' Acoala Cagam, Eredia's Casan). In addition, smaller towns "in

the districts" paid tribute to Malacca's sultan and came under a modified version of

462 Pires, Suma Oriental, vol. 89, 245 (folio 168r).

463 Undang-undang Melaka, fasl 23.5.

464 Ibid.

465 Duarte Barbosa, Vol. 11, pg. 172.

466 Pires, Suma Oriental, vol. 8 9,2 6 1 -2 6 2 (folio 172r).

Malacca's laws. These included settlements at Sungi Jugra, Klang (listed on

Berthelot's 1635 map as R. de calan), Selangor, Bernam (Bernan on Berthelot's map),

Mimjam, Bruas, and a number of villages on the Perak river.467 At times, settlements

of this size - hundreds of people at the most - were governed by members of the

Malaccan (Malay) aristocracy (sometimes including the sons of the sultan), while at

other times aristocrats from a more local lineage were in charge. In either case,

residents of these nearby settlements came to the city regularly in order to do

business. "The ordinary people [of these districts] always come to trade in Malacca

in small paraos [perahus]. They bring timas [tin] and rice, chickens, goats, figs, sugar

cane, oraquas and things like that," says Tome Pires. "The people in these places are


Less poor were the traders of Sumatra, Java, and coastal (not inland) Malaya.

By the 1480s, this entire region was also tightly tied to Malacca's politics and

economic power. For example, the Sumatran kings of Kampar and Indragiri were

cousins to Malacca's sultan Mahmud Shah, as was the king of Pahang, on the Malay

peninsula.469 Their subjects moved in and out of Malacca with alacrity.470 Meanwhile,

small-time traders from Siak (Sumatra) bought cloth in Malacca and sold

Minangkabau gold in Malacca's market.471 Pirates from Purim (also on Sumatra)

467 Ibid., 260-261 (folios 171v-172r).

468 Ibid. 261 (folio 172r).

469 Ibid. 263 (folio 172r-172v).

470 Ibid.

471 Ibid., 262 (folio 172r).

traded valuables in Malacca "to make fair of the things they steal.”472 Thousands of

Javanese brought food, weapons, gold dust, and other goods to the Malaccan port.473

It is therefore unsurprising that by the early 1500s trade had spilled out of

Malacca's protected market district and had moved into every Malaccan quarter.

Lesser merchants conducted trade from their homes, stalls, and factories located all

along the Malaccan coast. In theory, such selling required a petition, and Tome Pires

remarked that "as a great favor an inhabitant was allowed to have in front of his

door a stall for selling or hiring," no matter where his residence 474 To get around

the prohibition, everyday goods were sold by mendicant merchants with no set stall

or factory. As for these wandering saleswomen - and it was mostly women who

peddled in this way - by 1509, "in Malacca, they sell in every street."475

In order to impose some semblance of order on this mad mass of humanity,

access to the market quarter (and to Malacca more generally] was regulated by

strict shipping controls. This was possible because of the geography of trade in

Malacca. The city’s market was laid out along the Sungai Melaka, the Malacca River -

convenient for those who brought goods in by boat, but also convenient for those

who hoped to tax and regulate shipping, too. Malaccan shahbandars (port officials)

controlled foreign trade through the simple expedient of laying a barrier across the

473 Ibid.

473 Pires, Suma Oriental, vol. 8 9 ,2 4 6 (folio 168v); Duarte Barbosa, Vol. II, pg. 174.

474 Pires, Suma Oriental, vol. 8 9 ,2 7 4 (folio 175r).

473 Ibid.

river mouth whenever a large ship was seen to approach, (However, this peaceful

barrier method was backed up by considerable numbers of arms of Malay, Chinese,

Indian, and eventually European origin.476] Once foreign ships had paid the

necessary fees (whether in cash or in kind), they were given entrance to the river

and free access to the Malaccan market477

Shahbandars were thus the gatekeepers of Malacca's market quarter. But

though they were understood to be port officials in the first instance, shahbandars

had much wider regulatory latitude than their title (which literally means "port

king") implies. In addition to controlling shipping in the Sungai Melaka, they

measured and collected tax, assigned warehouses, and enforced trade policy as it

pertained both to foreigners and to the assigned market district. Shahbandars also

had a dual role in the economic and cultural fabric of multinational Malacca: they

served (and served at the pleasure of) the city's Malay monarchy, but were

intentionally sympathetic to traders of various ethnicities.

For this reason, shahbandars themselves were generally of foreign origin.

Under the sultans, there were always four shahbandars, "one of China, another of

Java, another of Cambaya [Gujarat], another of Bengal. And all the [trading] lands

were divided among these four men, and everyone had his portion," according to

Tome Pires.478 Of course, Malacca's traders came from many more than four places:

476 These included "blow-pipes for shooting poisoned arrows, bows and arrows, lances of Java, and
various other weapons," in addition to cannon pointing seawards. De Barros, Chapter xxviii, 380.

477 Wilkinson, “The Malacca Sultanate,” 26.

478 Commentaries o f Afonso DAlbuquerque, III, op. cit, 87-88.

"Moors from Cairo, Mecca, Aden, Abyssinians, men of Kilwa, Malindi,
Ormuz [Hormuz], Parsees, Rumes [Greeks, Ottomans], Turks [from
Central Asia], Turkomans [from the Middle East], Christian Armenians,
Gujaratees, men of Chaul, Dabhol, Goa, of the kingdom of Deccan,
Malabars and Klings, merchants from Orissa, Ceylon, Bengal, Arakan,
Pegu, Siamese, men of Kedah, Malays, men of Pahang, Patani,
Cambodia, Champa [southern Vietnam], Cochin China [southern
Vietnam], Chinese, Lequeos [Ryukyu islanders479], men of Brunei,
Lugoes [men of Luzon], men of Tamjompura [Tanjongpura, Penang],
Laue, Banka, Linga (they have a thousand other islands), Moluccas,
Banda, Bima, Timor, Madura, Java, Sunda, Palembang, Jambi, Tongkal,
Indragiri, Kappatta, Menangkabau, Siak, Arqua, Aru, Bata, country of
the Tomjano, Pase [Pasai], Pedir, [and the] Maldives.”480

To deal with this diversity, by Malaccan convention the shahbandar for the Gujaratis,

"the most important of all," handled trade from the entire Islamic west (much of

which probably came through Cambay, Gujarat’s chief port, even if it originated

further west and even if the sailors involved were Arab, African, or Turkish).

Similarly, the shahbandar for Bengal dealt with shipments coming from Pegu

(modern-day Bago, Burma), Pasai (Sumatra), and places associated with what Pires

called the Bunuaqujlim (the Malabar and Coromandel coasts of South India) in

479 Much ink has been spilled on the identity of the Lequeos, but it seems to me that we can say with
certainty that this refers to Ryukyu islanders. Because Pires writes elsewhere that "the Lequeos are
called Guores - they are known by either of these names" ( Suma Oriental, pg. 128 [folio 162v]),
Denuce concluded that it "appears to derive from 'Korean' ["parait deriver de Coriai, les Cor£ens”]
{M agellan, p. 164). Gabriel Ferrand points to two 15th-century Arabic manuscripts that identify
"Likyu" and "Likiwu,” respectively, with Formosa. (Ferrand, Melaka, II, 126 seqq.) But C.R. Boxer
believes the Gores to be from Japan {Some Aspects o f Portuguese Influence in Japan, 1542-1640, pg. 14),
and this is much closer to the mark. Fernao Pinto was shipwrecked in the Lequeos, and he describes
the llh a Lequeia extensively in the Peregrinapao, chapters 137 to 147, clearly describing the Ryukus.
This seems to me to be conclusive. But if further confirmation is desired, one need look no further
than F.H.H. Guillemard’s The Cruise o f the Marchesa to Kamschatka & N ew Guinea w ith notices o f
Formosa, Liu-kiu, an d various islands o f the M a la y archipelago. Guillemard includes maps as well as a
travelogue. (London: John Murray, 1886)

480 Pires, Suma Oriental, vol. 89, 268 (folio 173v-174r).

addition to Bengal itself; or, put more succinctly, he handled the non-Muslim west.

The shahbandar for Java dealt with small boats and shipments of Southeast Asian

origin (from the "lands below the winds"), including Java itself, but also Palembang,

Tanjongpura on the island of Borneo, the Moluccas, the Banda islands, and Luzon in

today's Philippines. The Chinese shahbandar was in charge of shipments from the

south China coast, but also from Japan ["Lequeos"], Vietnam [ “Champa"], and

Quanzhou in Fujian ["Chancheo"].481

Although politically, culturally, and linguistically the Japanese were not by

any stretch the same as the Chinese, nor were Luzonese and Javanese identical, this

system was intended to create shahbandars who were "sympathetic to the

merchants and of the same nations as the merchants."482 Outsiders found this

organizational structure relatively straightforward, speaking of the "jurisdiction" of

each shahbandar, but also saying that "each man applies to the shahbandar

[Xabamdar] of his nation when he comes to Malacca with merchandise or messages,"

suggesting an ease with the idea of notionally-shared nationalities.483 As an aside,

we may easily see how these institutionalized unities and divisions - legal fictions

that were meant to make it possible to control a dizzying variety of trade and trade

convention - would ultimately contribute to the factionalization of the Malaccan


« » Ibid. 265 (folio 173r).

482 Ibid., 273 (folio 175r)

482 Ibid., 265 (folio 173r).

Malacca's shahbandars were meant both to rule over and to care for the

traders under their jurisdiction. The Malaccan laws summed up this relationship in

an uncharacteristically flowery passage, calling shahbandars "the mothers and

fathers [ibubapak] of all the traders."484 On the official side, shahbandars "receive[d]

the captains of the junks, each one according as he is under his jurisdiction. These

men [shahbandars] present them to the Bemdara [bendahara], allot them

warehouses, dispatch their merchandise, provide them with lodging if they have

documents, and give orders for the elephants [for ceremonial and practical

purposes]."485 Shahbandars collected tax and in some cases they were required to

value cargoes for the Malaccan crown. They had ultimate authority over market

regulations (hukum pasar) and over the rules governing weights and measures

(including foreign weights as used at the port of Malacca - so they regulated the

gantang and cupak, but also the kati [catty], and tahil [tael]).486

Yet in keeping with their duties of "care" and "sympathy," shahbandars were

also given wide leeway to personally forgive certain transgressions committed by

sea-captains who fell under their jurisdiction. It was often up to the relevant

shahbandar to determine whether a foreign trader could reasonably have been

expected to know or follow Malacca’s laws, for example. (This was especially true

with respect to laws that were informed by adat, traditional Malay morality, or

when the issue was to do with conventions that were otherwise peculiarly Malay in

484 Undang-undang Melaka, fasl 24.1.

485 Pires, Suma Oriental, vol. 8 9 ,2 6 5 (folio 173r].

486 Undang-undang Melaka, fasl 29.

character.)487 In other cases where the transgressions were to do specifically with

tax evasion at the port of Malacca, shahbandars could not dismiss the crime

themselves, but they were permitted to intercede on behalf of the ignorant or

deceptive trader. If a sea-captain failed to pay Malacca’s custom-duties, for example,

Malacca's laws stated that "if he returns to the country again, the law is that either

[his goods] shall be confiscated or he shall be fined twice the customs duties,

because he has twice entered the country, and furthermore, he did outwit the high

dignitaries [orang besar-besar] and the shahbandar of the country" - but the law

also provided for an exception whereby the sultan could pardon the transgression,

"only at the behest of the shahbandar," and on the understanding that "his behavior

in this country was uncivilized," if also uninformed.488

However, Malacca’s traders had little reason to avoid customs duties. Paying

up was a good way to ensure the favor of the relevant shahbandar, a great help to

any trader needing warehouse space or temporary accommodation. More than this,

Malacca's taxes were very low. This built up the port, but it also suited the sultans,

who made most of their money on trade and not tax (about which more below).

During the reign of Mansur Shah (r. 1459-1477), for example, the sultan "lowered

the duties on merchandise... wherefore he was so much esteemed by the natives and

foreigners that he achieved great wealth, and amassed a great treasure."489 That

treasure was not gifted by native and foreign traders, of course, but rather came as a

487 Ibid., fasl 24.1.

488 Ibid.
489 Pires, Suma Oriental, vol. 8 9 ,2 4 9 (folio 169v).

consequence of participation in Malacca's markets and the growing market trade

that a low-tax policy induced.

What were Malacca's customs duties? The question is complicated by a tax

structure that discriminated based on residency, country of origin, and type of trade

good. Rice from Java went entirely untaxed, being a staple food in a land that could

not produce it. Meanwhile, cheap merchandise from the west was taxed, but only at

the extraordinarily-low rate of 1% by base weight, without regard for the actual

content of the shipment. This weighing was an imperfect but speedy process that

allowed objects like ornamental jewelry, nails, onions, dishes, and baskets to be

roughly valued without wasting much time. One unit was to be paid "on each

hundred the merchandise was worth, and for this the king has secretaries and

receivers. And everything was weighed, even tar-lamps.”490 Payment itself could be

made in either tin or gold, apparently at the preference of the merchant;491 this

variation played to local currency preferences since Southeast Asian lands to the

west of Malacca often circulated tin ingots (as did Malacca itself) while those from

the Indian subcontinent and places farther west were more likely to be carrying

small gold coins known to Malays as emas.492

More valuable merchandise was taxed at a higher (though still comparatively

low) rate. Gujaratis, Klings from the Malabar coast, and traders from Bengal and

490 Ibid., 274 (folio 175r).

491 Ibid., 275 (folio 175v).

492 Kenneth R. Hall, "Local and International Traders in The Straits of Melaka Region: 600-1500,”
JESHO Vol. 47 Issue 2, 2004, pp. 213-260.

Burma generally had their ships assessed by valuers working under the watchful

eye of the relevant shahbandar. They then paid 6% on the stated valuation.493 These

merchants also had the option of gifting "one cloth per hundred" to the bendahara

(to pay for law courts and palace necessities), laksamana (chief naval officer,

representing the military), tumunggong (representing the state treasury) and

shahbandar (for his personal payment) in lieu of the 6% tax, but though this may in

the end have worked out to a lower tax rate, "the [western] merchants regard [this]

as a great oppression, and therefore they have the ship valued; at the lowest a

Gujarat ship is valued at... twenty-one thousand cruzados [in 1509, under sultan

Mahmud Shah] 494 and on this they pay at the rate of six per cent.”495 Why would a

Gujarati merchant prefer a 6% cash rate to a functional 4% rate on goods? Surely

this must have been due to local convention and beliefs about legitimacy and

"seemliness," in the same way that the modern American prefers to pay a higher

speeding ticket than a less expensive direct cash transfer - that is, a bribe - to the

policeman who has caught him.

Yet the payment-in-kind was perfectly legitimate under Malaccan law. It was

especially well-suited to those merchants who came from the east: Chinese traders

used to a tribute system, on the one hand, and those spice islanders who generally

493 Pires, Suma Oriental, vol. 8 9 ,2 7 0 (folio 174v) and 272 (folio 174v).

494 Translating these values into modern-day equivalents is a fool’s errand, but we may attempt to
gain some perspective by comparing the value o f a Gujarati ship to the nearest good data point
available: in 1515, the ecclesiastical revenues for all of Portugal were just shy of 1 million cruzados,
roughly as valuable as some 48 Gujarati merchant ships, by Pires’ estimation. See Eugenia Mata,
"From pioneer mercantile state to ordinary fiscal state," op. cit.

495 Pires, Suma Oriental, vol. 89, 270 (folio 174v).

had little in the way of precious metal or cash with which to pay, on the other.

Malays (some from very far east indeed) couched their payments in terms of

"tribute to the sultan" while Chinese understood the gifts as "respectful;" for their

part, the Portuguese referred to "a matter of present" as they watched easterners

pay in this way.496 In the end, the amounts paid by all traders were probably about

the same. Those who paid in kind gave 4% away in various mandated gifts - to

representatives of the court, the police force, the navy, and to the shahbandar, as

mentioned above - but they also lost additional goods in personal gifts to the

sultan.497 If we make the reasonable assumption that these gifts were generally

grander and more valuable than the silks, spices, and other goods given to lesser

officials, then the total paid certainly approached (and may have surpassed) the 6%

rate charged to western merchants. The parity was not lost on observers. "Large

numbers of junks and ships come, and they all pay dues, and those who do not pay

give presents which are much the same thing as dues" according to one source 498

"The entire East does not pay dues on merchandise, but only presents to the king

and to the persons mentioned above," said another, but

"the presents are a reasonable amount, something like dues. There

were taxing officials who made their estimation. This was the general
custom, but the presents from China were larger than from all other
parts. And these presents amount to a great deal because the number
of sea-traders who paid presents is considerable."499

498Ibid., 273 (folio 175r).

497 Ibid., 274 (folio 175r).

498 Royal Asiatic Society Sejarah Melayu Raffles 18.

499 Pires, Suma Oriental, vol. 89, 274 (folio 175r).

Finally, Malacca established tax-based residency incentives. As we saw from

the example of Alauddin Riayat Shah above, Malacca's sultans themselves gained

wealth by ruling over a vibrant, bustling port. To foster trade relationships and to

maintain Malacca as the premier regional entrepot, Mahmud Shah oversaw a regime

in which "locals" only paid half the usual port tax. This was not an ethnically-

preferential policy, but rather applied to all "merchants, Malayans or from other

nations, who have their wives and settle in Malacca." 500 This 3% rate thus

simultaneously offered a break for small-scale Malaccan merchants who would

never compete with the major Gujarati, Kling, and Chinese trade conglomerates and

at the same time acted as an inducement encouraging wealthy foreigners to make

their homes in the city.


Once sea-captains had paid their custom duties, they were cleared to trade in

the city. When traders needed to offload their wares quickly, Malaccan convention

dictated that they unload at the entrance to the city, pay their taxes, and then sell

their goods to a group of local middlemen:

"As soon as the merchants arrive they unload their cargo and pay
their dues or presents.... Ten or twenty merchants gathered together
with the owner of the said merchandise and bid for it, and by the said
merchants the price was fixed and divided amongst them all in

500 Ibid.

proportion. And because time was short and the merchandise
considerable, the merchants were cleared [of goods], and then those
of Malacca took the merchandise to their ships and sold them at their
pleasure; from which the traders received their settlement and gains,
and the local merchants made their profits. And through this custom
the land lived in an orderly way, and they carried on their

This convention allowed time-pressed volume traders to sell even large cargoes in

an efficient way, while also allowing ten or twenty local middlemen to share the

proceeds of the trade. It was, moreover, a way to keep profitable trade from being

wholly monopolized by a single wealthy high bidder.

More commonly, however, traders large and small had considerably more

time than this. (For many long-haul traders, in particular, Malacca was a final port-

of-call from which to wait out the shifting monsoon winds.) Once these merchants

had paid the necessary taxes, the relevant shahbandar would allow them to bring

their boats onto the Melaka River and ultimately into the city’s market district,

where they could trade freely. Shahbandars could grant factory space for storage

and might also direct a trader to the right residential quarter or explain local law

and points of Malay cultural sensitivity. For the most part, however, trade from this

point on was free and could proceed with minimal state interference.

This is not to say that there were no laws governing trade on the streets of

Malacca. Such laws certainly did exist. But in almost all cases, Malacca's financial

regulations were in the service of liberal free trade. For example, Malacca's financial

501 Ibid., 273-274 (folio 175r).

district included a street of money-changers, "probably natives of India," according

to Badger,502 "a colony of Hindus... whose profession is to try gold by the touch and

to refine it," suggests Crawfurd.503 The latter suggestion is relatively unlikely; we

know that Malaccan sultans appointed official gold assayers, plum positions from

which it was easy to grow rich since payment for services was to be made from the

gold being tested,504 and so it seems implausible that private assayers would also be

allowed to ply their trade in a profitable way. Regardless, these money-changers

were allowed to operate freely, exchanging coins and precious metals at floating

market rates. But in Malacca there was a law making it "illegal to sell gold for gold,

and silver for silver,” allowing exchange "only for a different specie, that is, gold for

another kind of precious metal, for example for silver cash."505 This law, coupled

with the official appointment of gold assayers, suggests that the government had

concerns - perhaps imported from elsewhere in the Muslim world - about money

laundering and the purity of specie. After all, the only reason to exchange gold for

gold would be if the trader knew that one of those gold pieces was of a greater

degree of purity than the other.

502 The Travels o f Ludovico da Varthema, ed. Badger, 239, note 1.

503 John Crawfurd, A Descriptive Dictionary o f the Indian Islands & Adjacent Countries (London:
Bradbury & Evans, 1856).

504 Pires, Suma Oriental, vol. 8 9 ,2 7 6 (folio 175v).

505 Undang-undang Melaka, fasl 30. This section belongs to the later Muslim law of sale and procedure.
Many of the provisions are based on a Muslim original that had long circulated and been refined
outside of Malacca. The Malay sources for that text are damaged, and Liaw Yock Fang’s
reconstruction from both Malay and Arab sources is necessary to fully understand this commercial
law. However, the section on trading gold for gold and silver for silver exists undamaged in
numerous Malay copies of the Undang-undang Melaka. See Liaw Yock Fang, Undang-undang Melaka,
34-36 and 136-137.

And in fact, we know that gold of wildly differing inherent value circulated on

the streets of Malacca. Pires reported that gold from Brunei could be as little as "four

and a half, five” mates [a measure of purity], while gold from Java is of eight mates or

more, that from Minangkabau [central Sumatra] was nine mates, and that from

Cochinchina [southern Vietnam] "is the best gold in these parts; it is gold [good

enough] for cruzados, of nine and a half mates or more, almost two thirds.”506 This

made for a world equivalent to an America in which some nickels are inherently

worth five cents, some are worth eight, and the best are worth as much as nine-and-

a-half cents, all while looking similar.507 As one might imagine, fair trade is difficult

under these circumstances, at least without officials to assay gold, determine its

purity, and keep tabs on its trade. The laws constraining the trade of gold in Malacca

therefore served not to limit trade, but rather to encourage it. By regulating the

exchange of precious metals on the streets of Malacca, the sultans and their officials

in fact rendered the trade in specie possible even for those small-scale traders who

could not afford to assay it themselves.

Malacca also had sophisticated laws concerning consignment, that is, using a

third party to trade or to deliver goods or money. These laws, too, were designed to

encourage trade under the unique circumstances that governed commerce in a

monsoon-dependent port. Malaccans (and those who traded through Malacca) often

spent half the year away from the city on the far side of the monsoon winds. They

therefore depended on their agents to conduct business for them in their absence.

506 Pires, Suma Oriental, vol. 8 9 ,2 7 5 (folio 175v).

507 Or, if you prefer, a world in which a dime might in fact be worth as little as a nickel; or a hundred
dollar bill as little as a fifty; and so on.

Indeed, both the complexity of consignment law and the many consigned goods

explicitly mentioned in the legal codes - including gold, silver, cloth, and rice -

suggest that third-party trade and delivery was common practice in lS^-century


In Malacca, misdelivered consignments were generally the liability of the

consignee, that is, the person entrusted with the delivery of those goods. But it was

common for the intended recipient to be unavailable - perhaps out of the country on

a trade voyage, perhaps fighting the Siamese, or simply away at a country estate

instead of at his home in the heart of the city. In these cases, consignees often

intentionally misdelivered consigned goods instead of holding onto valuable objects

that might have been lost, damaged, or stolen while in their care.509 This kind of

intentional misdelivery was outright illegal in cases where there was a written

agreement naming a particular intended recipient.510 But in other cases,

misdelivering to a trustworthy friend, relative, or associate was common, and

probably necessary to keep Malacca’s wholesale trade running smoothly. In these

cases, the consignee had to use his judgment of character to ensure that he would

not end up liable for losses due to misdelivery.

If large amounts were at stake, consignees could go through the law courts to

validate misdelivery. In these cases, a consignee's best protection was to appear

before a judge alongside his chosen "wrong" recipient in order to get judicial

508 Undang-undang Melaka, fasl 24.2.


510 Ibid.

sanction for the handoff of goods. Such sanction was dependent upon the character

of the "wrong" recipient, his relationship to the named "right" recipient, and the

reasons for needing to hand the consigned goods to somebody other than the

person named by the consigner. If judicial sanction was indeed granted by this

method, then under Malacca's laws, "the consignee cannot be sued... even if the

money is completely used up [by the "wrong" recipient, against the wishes of the

consigner], because it was done with the knowledge of the judge. The consignee

cannot be held negligent."511

But unless a consignment was worth a very great deal, it would only rarely

come before a court of law. In other cases where the named recipient couldn’t be

found, consignees did a number of things to protect themselves from successful

lawsuits after the fact. For example, consignees customarily asked neighbors or

other witnesses watch them make their deliveries so that if necessary they could

later prove that they themselves had not stolen or used the goods entrusted to them.

This practice was especially common when goods were misdelivered, presumably to

protect against untrustworthy recipients protesting that they had never received

the goods claimed by the consignee.512 (We can imagine an unsavory character of

this sort "innocently" asking, "and why would he have left the gold with me, when he

511 Undang-undang Melaka, fasl 24.2. Here, I've used language from Liaw Yock Fang, who has
carefully worked through complexities in the Malay originals. I must credit him w ith recognizing that
this complicated section of law deals prim arily with consignment, and especially w ith many of the
word choices that bring this law into common idiomatic English. Most importantly, 1 follow him in
translating wakil as "consignee." The usual sense is something like "representative," "stand-in," or in
some cases "subordinate," and we can see how all of these senses are related to its use in this section
of law. (The word is most commonly used today to refer to the wakil presiden, the Vice President, in
Indonesia.) Nonetheless, the translation is unorthodox. In my estimation it is also correct. See Liaw
Yock Fang, The Undang-undang Melaka, 125-126.

512 Undang-undang Melaka, fasl 24.2

was explicitly told to deliver it to my cousin?") Additionally, consignees generally

attempted to misdeliver to close relatives of the recipients named by their

consignors, preferring to deliver to an intended recipient's son or nephew instead of

to his neighbor or friend, all else being equal. But familial closeness was not as

important as the personal character of the man who ultimately took delivery of a

consignment; in lawsuits, judges were instructed to consider whether the recipient

was publically known to be a man of "good character, and not wicked,” or if, by

contrast, he was publically known to be "very bad." Leaving goods with a "bad" man

made the consignee wholly or partially culpable for their misuse, no matter how

closely related the "bad man" was to the consignor's intended recipient.513

Yet it was understood that misdeliveries were common, even unavoidable, in

a city as mobile in Malacca. Commercial interactions were the lifeblood of the city,

but residents were frequently away from home and thus unable to conduct their

own business (often precisely because they were pursuing commercial

opportunities elsewhere). Although consignees were legally culpable for

irresponsible misdeliveries, even in these cases every effort was made to return the

goods (or their cash value) to the consignees in order to make them whole again.

That is to say, if a misdelivery resulted in the loss of something of value - if the

chosen recipient squandered silver that was meant for his father, for example - then

the consignee who had delivered the silver was (usually) immediately responsible

for the loss and was required to repay the consignor who had entrusted delivery to

him. Nonetheless, courts would go to some lengths to endeavor to recover the value


of the lost goods from the man who had squandered them - in this example,

reclaiming the value of the lost silver by repossessing cash or objects of equal value

from the son who had "used up" the delivery that was meant for his father. Any

money that was recovered was then used to repay the consignee for his loss.

Sometimes, of course, recovery was impossible - as when the recipient had

absconded with his windfall. Much of the time, however, it appears that

misdelivered goods could be partially or wholly returned without substantial

loss.514 The laws concerning consignment were thus constructed to protect first the

consigner (the one who wanted goods delivered) and second the consignee (the one

doing the delivering), allowing for reasonable misdeliveries while heartily

discouraging those who received deliveries that were ultimately meant for others

(usually their relatives). The practical legal acknowledgement that misdelivery was

sometimes unavoidable once again encouraged trade, this time by allowing goods to

be exchanged even when the parties to the trade could not both be present in the

city at the same time.

Malacca's sophisticated consignment law thus highlights the fact that the

city’s traders were often separated by a great distances. In their absence, they

necessarily entrusted their affairs to third-party agents. In a city at the end of both

the Indian Ocean monsoons and the monsoons that governed trade along the

eastern Indonesian archipelago and north to China, some exchanges had to be

conducted through third parties simply because of straightforward geographical

constraints: when the monsoons blew from west to east, those involved in the China

514 Ibid.

trade left Malacca for points east, while those involved in the India trade arrived at

Malacca from points west. The same dynamic applied when the winds shifted back

the other way, of course. Those who plied the routes between China and Malacca (or

the Spice Islands and Malacca), on the one hand, and those who went back and forth

between Malacca and India, on the other hand, simply never met at the port in the

middle. Any trade between these two groups thus had to be mediated by those who

stayed behind in Malacca itself.

This dynamic meant that a great deal of wholesale trade in Malacca was

separated not just by distance but also by time. A shipment of silks (from China) or

cloves (from the Moluccas), both coming from the east, had to be left in Malacca for

some months before Indian Ocean traders arrived to load these goods for the

westward journey and to unload other goods in return. We've already heard about

how this made many Malaccans very wealthy middle-men; and indeed, the sultan

himself gained a great deal of wealth in this way. But it also meant that Malacca

needed rules for governing credit and debt, since payment from one direction was

not always received at the same time that goods were available from the "other side

of the winds."

In general, Malacca's credit rules were sensible and straightforward. Credit

was extended easily, either via written contract or in the presence of trustworthy

witnesses (including, sometimes, judges). Creditors could demand payment after a

single trade season, in court if necessary, and if a debtor was unable to pay then his

creditors were entitled to assess his estate and repossess an equitable proportion of

his goods in lieu of repayment. Once a judge had declared a man insolvent and

subject to this kind of repossession, "the insolvent no longer has (the right of) free

disposal of his property and it is unlawful for him to give trade goods in

consignment."515 If a debtor was out of the country when a decision was rendered

against him, then he was liable to face repossession on his return; if he was present,

it was illegal for him to leave until the debts had been settled in court.

These laws strike the modern reader as unremarkable. Even so, it is

surprising that Malacca had rules governing - or even acknowledging - trading on

credit. Malacca's residents, and especially the city’s major traders, purchased goods

on the promise to repay later: an everyday sort of arrangement now, but one that

was often seen as sinful or immoral in the premodern world. In Europe, Christians

quoted Thomas Aquinas: "if a man wishes to sell his goods... expecting the buyer to

pay later, it is plainly a case of usury, because such waiting for payment has the

character of a loan [that is, the time given is of some value]," and, "likewise, if a

buyer wishes to buy for less than the just price, on the grounds that he pays the

money before the thing can be delivered to him, it is [also] a sin of usury.”516 This

rhetoric also played into interreligious conflict in Europe and North Africa,

especially when Christians excoriated Jews for usury and moneylending. In fact, the

1492 expulsion of the Jews from Spain was exactly contemporary with Malaccan

515 Undang-undang Melaka, fasl 32. This is also from the Muslim law o f sale and procedure later
appended to the original Undang-undang text. See Liaw Yock Fang 34-36.
516 As quoted in S.M. Ghazanfar, "The economic thought of Abu Hamid Al-Ghazali and S t Thomas
Aquinas: some comparative parallels and links." In S.M. Ghazanfar, Medieval Islamic Economic
Thought: Filling the Great Gap in European Economics. London: RoutledgeCurzon, 2003, pp. 184-208.
Pg. 199.

laws that encouraged both of these suspect practices [at least, insofar as usury

simply implies interest payments or taking extra time to repay].

More important to the Malaccan context, Islam was also intensely suspicious

of credit, debt, and delayed repayment. The Quran’s Surat al-Baqarah ("The Cow")

admonished Muslims never to charge interest under pain of hellfire, and allowed

debt only under carefully-controlled conditions (even then suggesting that

indebtedness is a worrying and problematic state, if not an outright sinful one). The

Persian theologian and jurist Al-Ghazali remained the most influential Muslim

thinker in the Islamic Indian Ocean world throughout the fifteenth and sixteenth

centuries (though he himself lived in the 1100s]; he advised leniency in credit and

debt transactions, including, ideally, foregoing repayment wherever possible. (This

was on the grounds that a seller should consider the good of his immortal soul. If he

can live without repayment now, so the argument went, then it was likely that he

could live without repayment in the future, as well. In that case, charity, debt

forgiveness, and "benevolence in the marketplace” were to be the principles

governing economic transactions].517

Malacca’s rules regarding credit, debt, and repayment were therefore

distinctly out of keeping with prevailing Islamic thought. Yet in a distinctly Malay

context, long-term indebtedness was extremely common. The institution of the debt

slave, discussed at length in chapter 3, meant that Malaccans understood formalized

debtor-creditor relations in a very personal and natural way. They also had a

s»7 Ibid., 196-200.

preexisting system for accounting for debt and its repayment, since, after all, most

debt slaves were at least theoretically able to redeem themselves over time in order

to regain their status as freemen. What would it mean for Malacca’s hierarchical

society if these debts were to be forgiven as an act of "benevolence in the

marketplace?" How would military service or courtly life function if the vocabulary

of debt and redemption were disallowed? For Malaccans, promissory notes and

declarations of indebtedness before a judge were more than mere economic

transactions. They were, at least sometimes, the stuff of life itself.

With this in the background, it is unsurprising that providing for long-term

credit and debt was also consistent with local practice when paying for major trade

expeditions. Most large expeditions originating in Malacca were paid for on a share

system, with any given individual committing only a part of the cost of the venture

on the understanding that he (or she!) would receive proportionate profits if the

venture was successful.518 Malacca’s sultans grew wealthy by funding this kind of

trade and reaping the returns on the resulting commodity sales;519 "the king of the

country puts his share in each junk that goes out, and that is a way for the kings of

Malacca to obtain large amounts of money," wrote Tome Pires.520 (In fact, this was

one reason that Malacca's government was so attuned to the needs of the merchant

class: the sultan, his courtiers, and many of the traditional Malay aristocrats who

played a disproportionate role in Malaccan politics were all merchants-by-proxy

518 Undang-undang Melaka, fasl 23.4.

519 Sanjay Subrahmanyam, The Career and Legend o f Vasco da Gama (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge
University Press, 1997), 102.

52° pires, Suma Oriental, vol. 8 9,2 51 (folio 169v).

themselves. They all had a vested interest in seeing trade thrive, because they all

took out shares in various Malaccan expeditions heading to Java, Sumatra, and the

Moluccas.) Malaccan women, constrained in many ways, nonetheless also bought

trade shares with any money that was theirs to control; we know that ethnically

Malay women, in particular, frequently did this. Especially common was the practice

of a woman funding a part of her husband's venture, in which case he was required

to return to her both the money "and the profit on it” once the gains had been

realized.521 Less common, but much more interestingly, Malay documents record the

practice of selling the rights to one’s shares prematurely, at a discount: on at least

two occasions (and probably much more often than that), those needing to leave

Malacca before the arrival of shipments in which they had an interest chose to sell

their shares on to someone else.522

Unsurprisingly, Malaccan law therefore required local sea-captains to return

to the city with alacrity in order to pay off investors. Bad weather or mistiming the

monsoon was no excuse for an excessively late return: "If a person spends a year on

an island, due to heavy storm... if he is a free man, he shall have to pay five emas. If

he is a slave, it is seven emas per person" (a greater amount because the slave had

obligations not just to investors but also to his master).523 Personal business

dealings also could not justify a late return: "If a captain overstays [at a port] due to

business dealings [thus missing the monsoon], the fine inflicted is the same, because

Ibid., 267 (folio 173v).

522 Royal Asiatic Society Sejarah Melayu Raffles 18,4 2 and 98-99.

523 Undang-undang Melaka, fasl 23.4

the captain is held negligent towards the junk \jung] or small vessel [for which he is

responsible].524 Under Malaccan law, the "junk or small vessel" was not the captain's

alone, but rather belonged jointly to all those who had paid to outfit the expedition

for which it was being used.

In the Malaccan context, then, it was common for individuals or consortiums

to pay for long-haul trade expeditions and then wait for months or even years to see

their returns. It is easy to see how any profit from such ventures might be

interpreted as a kind of long-term debt owed by the expedition’s leader to his

financial backers. (Indeed, the emphasis on a speedy return, and the punishments

for dawdling, strongly suggest that such an interpretation was commonplace. Why

fine a captain for taking time on his return, unless he is shirking some duty, evading

some debt?) Even so, the legislation of creditor-debtor relationships in this period

was unusual both in Islamic spheres (which generally operated on Quranic

principles) and across Southeast Asia.525

Prompted by its place "at the end of some monsoons and the beginning of

others,” Malacca was thus a financial innovator. The apportioned share system that

paid for major Malay trade expeditions out of Malacca was notably different from

the way similar expeditions were funded in contemporary Europe (where the crown

would generally pay all costs, and receive all profits - though of course to some

extent these profits were redistributed back to successful sea-captains). In fact, the

524 Ibid.
525 In Vietnam at about the same time, the L£ Code did legislate both contracts and maximum
monthly interest rates, however. See Ta van Tai, "Vietnam’s Code of the Le Dynasty." In The American
Journal o f Comparative Law, Vol. 30, No. 3 (Summer 1982), 528-529.

Malay system for financing trade expeditions has resonances in the joint-stock

companies that would make the Dutch and English empires so wealthy in the 17th,

18th, and 19th centuries.526 Or, again, laws about trusteeship, credit, and debt in

Malacca anticipated the creation of modern finance regimes in much of Europe and

the Middle East. Selling shipping shares prematurely is an early form of futures

trading in which sellers see immediate but modest profits on their initial investment

(in the Malaccan case, the investment was the cost of outfitting a trade expedition)

while buyers expect that they will receive much greater payouts when (or if) the

gains are realized (when the trade expedition returns).527

Yet Malacca's wild, laissez-faire market innovations did not exist in a vacuum

- quite the opposite, in fact. For example, problems of specie debasement were well-

known in China (where they had contributed to financial crisis in the thirteenth

century528) and much-discussed in Egypt (where repeated debasement of the

526 It is a leap of the imagination - though not an impossible one - to suggest that conditions in
Southeast Asia informed the creation of European joint-stock trading companies. The first such
company, the Dutch VOC, was formed only after that nation's first major expedition to Southeast Asia.
But private enterprise has always thrived where there is money to be made, and businesses with
shared ownership arrangements flourished in Europe as in the rest of the world, in the 1600s and
(long) before.

527 To make this concrete, imagine the situation where Mr. J pays $1000 to help send a boat to
Ternate. He anticipates large profits - say, $500. But Mr. J is concerned that the ship may founder, or
he needs to leave home, or he is otherwise unwilling or unable to w ait out the return of the shipment
that he has helped pay for. In Malacca, one of his options would have been to sell his share in the
shipment to somebody else entirely, agreeing to the transfer of rights before a judge. In the usual
course of things, Mr. J would sell his rights for more than the $1000 he spent in the first place, but for
less than the $1500 he expects to make on the venture (since there remains some risk that the boat
won’t come in after all, or that the profits will be low). This sale - for, say, $1300 - is no more or less
than a straightforward shipping future.

528 See, for example, Herbert Franke, "Ahmad." In In the Service o f the Khan: Eminent Personalities o f
the Early Mongol-Yuan Period (1200-1300), ed. Igor de Rachewiltz, Hok-Iam Chan, Hsiao Ch’i-ch'ing
and Peter W. Geier (Wiesbaden, Germany: Harrassowitz Verlag, 1993), pp. 539-557.

dirham greatly concerned Mamluk thinkers529). Meanwhile, while the Islamic world

and much of Europe looked askance at the formalization of large-scale credit-debt

relationships, in the Italian trading states the extension of credit was common at this

time. "Wholesale trade in wool, cloth, wine, tin, and so on was heavily dependent on

credit, with the great Italian merchant banking houses, those of Bardi, Peruzzi, and

Ricardi being among the most prominent" to extend large advances on credit.530 The

Italians were enmeshed in the same Muslim trading world that extended to Malacca

and as far east as the spice islands, and if their ideas were not embraced by devout

Muslims, they must at least have been known to some of them. More than this, we

know that rare Italians like Ludovico di Varthema and the Venetian Niccolo de Conti

made it to Malacca many years before the arrival of the Portuguese. Is it any

surprise that Malacca was a part of the same world of ideas?

529 See, for example, Adel Allouche, Mamluk Economics: A Study and Translation o f al-M aqrizi’s
Ighathah (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1994).

530 Glyn Davies, A History o f Money (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2003), 173.


This b rie f chapter outlines the events leading up to the Portuguese conquest o f
Malacca, and explains how the city fin a lly fe ll in 1511


In 1511, all the wealth and swagger in Asia could not keep Mahmud Shah’s

Malacca from falling to the Portuguese. Afonso d'Albuquerque and his fleet attacked

the city with intent, and despite a vigorous defense by Malacca’s territorial army

(which manned the bridge guarding the entrance to the Sungai Melaka) and its far

larger navy (which engaged in battle in Malacca's harbor), the commercial district

was torched and the city ransacked.531 Malacca would not be ruled by a Malay again

for almost 450 years, until the creation of an independent Malayan Federation in


It is easy today to attribute Malacca’s downfall to superior European

firepower, greater European military ruthlessness, or Europe's technological

superiority over if not over all of Asia, then at least the odd little Southeast Asian

outposts like Malacca. Yet in fact, none of these factors obtained with respect to the

Portuguese in Malacca in the early 16th century. Albuquerque arrived with a force of

531 [Afonso Bras de Albuquerque], Comentdrios, Ed. Antonio Baiao (Coimbra: Imprensa Da
Universidade, 1923), 446-447.

17 or 18 ships and about 1000 men (200 of whom were Indians);532 Malacca

commanded dozens of ships, an army of small boats, and thousands of men (not

including the many who lived in outlying dependencies like Muar, Indragiri, and

Pahang, who owed military allegiance to the Malaccan sultan and had fought on his

behalf against the Siamese in 1490). Portuguese forces came armed with cannon

and newfangled muskets, and their Indian auxiliaries carried swords and shields; on

taking Malacca, they recovered 3,000 pieces of artillery, both brass and iron, and

“matchlocks [espingardas, of European manufacture], blowpipes for shooting

poisoned arrows, bows and arrows, lances [...] and various other weapons which

excited the wonder of the captors."533 Afonso d'Albuquerque was by all accounts

something of a military genius, and his plan for besieging Malacca was intelligent

and effective; but we have already discussed the amoks and the wonder they excited

among the Portuguese, and it would be wrong to say that European forces were any

more vicious or cruel in warfare than were the Malaccans themselves. And finally,

Malacca was not in 1511 the "odd little Southeast Asian outpost" that it has become

in the 21st century. The Portuguese heard its name when da Gama's fleet first landed

near Calicut in 1498, and even the most conservative estimates of Malacca’s

population in 1511 suggest that the city proper had some 150,000 inhabitants -

532 De Barros, Chapter 6; but Merle Ricklefs, generally extremely trustworthy as a scholar, writes that
the force was "some 1200 men.” I am unable to locate the source of these numbers, but 1 don’t doubt
their possibility. See M.C. Ricklefs, A History o f Modern Indonesia Since c. 1200, New York: Palgrave
Macmillan, 2008. pg. 25.

533 [Afonso Br&s de Albuquerque], Comentdrios, 446-447.

perhaps double the number of people in Lisbon, a fact not lost on contemporary


How, then, did Albuquerque conquer Malacca? For answers, we should look

not to Portugal's strengths but rather to Malacca's own inherent weaknesses.

Malacca’s very wealth made it a worthwhile target even if taking it came with

considerable costs. And while the city was easily defensible, it was subject to naval

blockade and so easily starved when deprived of the food imported from Java and

elsewhere in Southeast Asia. But by far the most important factor in Malacca's

conquest was the city's internal division between various nationalist and religious

factions. The immigration that had made the Malaccan entrepot also made it fragile:

Hindus disliked Muslims (especially those from India); Chinese distrusted Javanese;

Malays competed for power at court and complained that Muslims from western

lands were monopolizing law courts and administrative roles. Mahmud Shah chose

Tun Mutahir (head of the Gujarati Muslim faction at court, and himself of Indian

ancestry) as bendahara in about the year 1500, and this especially rankled.

534 1 w ant to assure the reader that I myself have done a back-of-the-envelope reality-check on this
number, and it is easily plausible. Portuguese administrators measured the city as just over a league
in length (following the winding course of the Sungai Melaka) and perhaps half-a-league in depth on
average on both sides of the river, though extending rather farther inland for near the river-mouth on
the river’s south side (as shown on a number of Portuguese maps from the 16th century). The
Portuguese nautical league of 1500 is about 3.5 modern miles long; this yields a population-density
not unlike that of any number of leafy New Jersey suburbs within striking distance of New York City
(or, if you prefer, not unlike modern Bilbao in Spain’s Basque country). While such estimates are in
no way rigorous, they do allow us some basic fram ework for understanding and accepting (or
rejecting) the reported numbers, especially in the absence of census data. For Malacca's population,
see John Crawfurd (who collates Portuguese accounts of Malacca’s population at the time of the
conquest), A Descriptive Dictionary o f the Indian Islands and Adjacent Countries, 245-246. For Libson's
population c. 1500, see Paul Bairoch, Cities and Economic Development: From the Dawn o f History to
the Present (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991), 180.


Though the Portuguese took Malacca in 1511, the groundwork for the

conquest was laid in 1509, when Diogo Lopes de Sequeira made Portugal's first

official visit to the city. At that time, the Portuguese sought trade agreements in the

spice ports of the east, and with Malacca in particular. Though Sequeira's mission

involved the undeniably provocative act of building a fort in Malacca, in fact the

Portuguese crown took great pains to emphasize that Portuguese trade should be

established as peacefully as possible. The Portuguese force was instructed to

"subjugate and bring the kings and lords of the islands [that is, nearby kings who

looked to Malacca as the regional power] to our obedience, and agree with them on

how this can best be done fo r our service,”535 suggesting negotiation as the preferred

method for establishing a Portuguese presence in the region. With regards to

Malacca itself, instructions were far more explicit. Sequeira acted under orders from

Francisco da Almeida, the first governor of the Portuguese Estado da India; Almeida,

in turn, had been explicitly directed by the crown "to set up a fortress in Malacca but

to avoid conflict with the local people, and to explain to them that the fortress was

solely for the protection of the Portuguese and their merchandise, and not built with

any warlike intent.”536

535 Letter from the King to Almeida, M arch/April 1506. In A rtur Basillo de Sa, Documentacao para a
histdria das missdes do podroado portugues do Oriente: Insulindia, Volume I (Lisbon, 1954). Emphasis
536 John Villiers, ''The Estado da India in South East Asia," 154-155, in Paul H. Kratoska, Ed. South East
Asia: Colonial History. Volume I: Imperialism Before 1800. New York: Routledge, 2001. Emphasis mine.

I want to emphasize that we are not reading propaganda here, but rather the

internal instructions from within the Portuguese state: first, build a fortress for

personal protection, and second, avoid conflict with local people. It may be that the

act of claiming territory and building a fortified factory is presumptuous or, indeed,

outright threatening; I myself would certainly support that claim. But I want to

emphasize that Sequeira's mission was not, in the first instance, a military one; and

it was certainly not intended to open hostilities with the Malaccan court. Moreover,

as we know from other Portuguese ventures both on the Indian subcontinent and in

the spice islands, successful negotiation did indeed often result in the construction

of a Portuguese outpost with the professed support of the local ruler.

It was with this commission in hand that Sequiera outfitted four ships in

Lisbon in May of 1509. He first took them to India where they were provisioned for

the journey ahead. In Goa, Sequiera took onboard several Indian pilots, almost

certainly Hindus given the longstanding strife between Muslims and Portuguese, as

well as a number of Malay-speaking slaves and a cargo of gifts and trade goods for

the Malaccan market.537 He also finalized his Portuguese contingent; many of those

who accompanied Sequeira to Malacca would later become famous in the annals of

navigational history, among them Francisco Serrao, later the Portuguese factor in

the spice-laden Moluccas, and Ferdinand Magellan, who would set off to

circumnavigate the globe some ten years after this expedition.538

537 F.C. Danvers, Report to the Secretary o f State fo r India in Council on the Portuguese Records relating
to the East Indies (Great Britain: India Office, 1887), 144.
538 Subrahmanyam, The Career and Legend o f Vasco da Gama, 270.

In August, Sequiera’s small fleet arrived at Malacca, where they sent a

merchant ashore with gifts for sultan Mahmud Shah. Questioned as to their

intentions - we may guess that this was an interview with the shahbandar for Hindu

India, although this is not stated explicitly in any extant records - the Portuguese

said that they had come "for trading purposes, and also in the hope that the King

would conclude a treaty with Portugal, after the manner of the Kings of Cochin,

Cananor, Ceylon, and Melinde.”539 The diplomatic reply met with success. The

shahbandar granted the Portuguese living space in the fortified part of the city "as

near the water as possible,” and they were allowed to trade freely and to wander the

town as they waited out the shift in the winds.540

Yet as the season progressed, Malaccan attitudes soured on the Portuguese.

Indian merchants brought tales not of peaceful trade, but of gunboat diplomacy all

along the Indian Ocean rim. Additionally, Portugal’s strong anti-Muslim biases

became increasingly clear at a time when the Gujarati faction was very much in the

ascendancy at court and, more generally, in the Malaccan administration under

bendahara Tun Mutahir. Muslims understood that they were enemies of the

Portuguese in a struggle for wealth and territory that crossed Asia, Africa, and

Europe. More locally, they understood themselves to be in trade competition with

Tamils and other non-Muslim Indians who sided with the Portuguese in Malacca.

It's crucial here that the nature of Malacca's shahbandar system had the

consequence of creating factions and alliances where they might not have otherwise

539 Danvers, Report... on the Portuguese Records relating to the East Indies, 144-145.

540 Ibid., 145.

existed. Non-Muslims from the west found themselves on Portugal's "side" partly

because of preexisting relationships in a number of Indian cities - but also because,

as non-Muslim westerners themselves, the Portuguese befriended and depended

upon "their" shahbandar, the same shahbandar who served all other non-Muslim

westerners. The communal neighborhoods, politics, and sensitivities that were built

into Malaccan law and custom therefore served to bind the Portuguese to certain

members of the Malaccan community, while severing them from others.

When Sequeira arrived in 1509, there were "a thousand [important] Gujarati

merchants in Malacca,” according to Pires, including "rich ones with a great deal of

capital, and some who were representatives of others;" these last were part of

Malacca's large network of consignees discussed in chapter 4.541 In addition, major

Malay and Javanese merchants joined a large number of wealthy "Parsees, Bengalis,

and Arabs" to make for a grand total of more than four thousand important Muslim

traders in the port of Malacca.542 These constituted what I have been calling the

"Gujarati faction."

As days stretched into weeks, this faction became increasingly discontent.

They sent a multinational group of representatives to the sultan, claiming that,

"besides robbing by sea and by land," the Portuguese were known to have designs

on Malacca and indeed on all India.543 Malacca’s bendahara, too, became embroiled

541 Pires, Suma Oriental, vol. 8 9 ,2 5 4 -2 5 5 (folios 170r-170v).

542 Ibid.

Ibid., 255 (folio 170v).

in the politics of religion and the wider Indian Ocean trade. As the anti-Portuguese

voices became more fervent, a number of Gujaratis advocated killing the Portuguese

outright, knowing that this would do away with vicious competitors and believing

that "the news could not reach Portugal for a long time, if ever, and [so] Malacca

would not be lost, nor its merchants."544

It's almost certainly untrue that either Sequeira or his superiors had any

interest in taking Malacca outright, or even in wiping out the Muslim trade to the

city. The expense of administering Malacca would have been enormous - indeed, so

it would prove to be two years later - and at any rate we have seen that the explicit

instruction from the Portuguese crown to Almeida (Sequeira's commanding officer)

was to "avoid conflict with the local people" at Malacca. Nonetheless, we have every

reason to think that the cautionary tale offered by the Gujarati faction was made in

good faith. Consistent with Gujarati traders' claims about Portuguese designs on

India, the Portuguese had indeed built factories at Cannanore, Cochin, and Quilon on

India's Malabar coast. In 1505, Almeida's forces had built a fort at Anjevida, south of

Goa, and left a garrison of 80 troops, a galley, and two brigantines. They also built a

fort to replace the old factory at Cannanore, leaving 150 men and 2 patrol ships to

defend it. In Cochin, they reinforced the fort built in 1503; Almeida took it upon

himself to crown a local king.545

Perhaps most important, though, were two incidents that took place in India

in 1505. In mid-October of that year, Almeida’s forces attacked the city of Onor

544 Ibid.
545 De Barros, Decadas II

(today's Honnavar), sacking and burning the harbor and extracting a promise of

preferential treatment from that city's governor. And at Quilon, relations between

the Portuguese and the local authorities broke down to the point of violence when

the Portuguese factor there tried to freeze Muslims out of that city’s spice trade.

While Almeida was busy in Onor and Cannanore, the factor Antonio de Sa was

working unsuccessfully to convince Quilon's rulers to deny Gujaratis access to the

wholesale markets at the port. In a final resolution that autumn, Quilon authorities

denied de Sa's request. De Sa then took matters into his own hands, managing to

convince one of Almeida’s subordinates to use his sailors to board and dismast a

number of Muslim ships in the Quilon harbor. This blatant breach of port etiquette -

which went against explicit orders from the Quilon authorities - resulted in anti-

Portuguese riots. Numerous Portuguese were massacred, including de Sa himself;

some took shelter in Quilon's Syrian church, which was in turn burned to the ground.

Almeida was already under orders to fortify the Portuguese factory at Quilon; the

Portuguese force that had been put together for this purpose instead took revenge

for the Quilon massacre by bombarding the town and burning the merchant ships in

Quilon harbor.546

It's unsurprising, then, that Malacca's Gujaratis looked on the Portuguese

with suspicion and fear. But though in 1509 court politics in Malacca were

dominated by the Gujarati faction, Sultan Mahmud Shah would not be moved. Malay

sources would later attribute this to Mahmud's well-known willfulness and

5+6 Ibid.

overconfidence, a character trait also noted by the Portuguese. (The Sejarah Melayu

has Tun Mutahir and his police chief repeat "many times" that "My Lord should not

trust these white people" and "it is not good that My Lord protects these

newcomers," for example, while headstrong, overconfident Mahmud Shah dismisses

their concerns out of hand. "I do not see how these white people can take our land,"

he replies glibly.547) A different interpretation might emphasize the oddity of the

Gujarati position in the Malaccan context. Malacca was a major multinational

entrepot built on the idea of welcoming outsiders. The city revolved around trade

and catered to foreigners in everything from differential tax policies to

neighborhood design. It must have seemed ridiculous to intentionally turn away a

new set of traders, and an outright absurdity to slaughter them.

Yet even if Mahmud Shah's opposition did stem from hubris, he was not

obviously wrong in his assessment of Malacca's abilities. Sequeira's 1509 mission

contained five ships tasked with securing what must have been a relatively small

piece of the western spice trade. And Portugal did not conquer Malacca in 1509; nor,

in fact, did it attempt to do so.

What happened instead was that Malacca's Gujarati community allied with

bendahara Tun Mutahir to work out a plan for the expulsion (and murder) of the

Portuguese. (Tome Pires claims that wealthy Gujaratis bribed the bendahara548 but

547 Luis Filipe F.R. Thomaz "La prise de Malacca par les Portugais vue par les Malais (d'apr£s le
Ms.Raffles 32 de la Royal Asiatic Society)" in Cultural Contact and Textual Interpretation, ed. C.D.
Grijns & S.O.Robson (Leiden: Foris Publications, 1986).

548 Tome Pires, Suma Oriental, vol. 8 9 ,2 5 5 (folio 170v).

any exchange of gifts may have been less cynical and more normalized than this.

Certainly Tun Mutahir's sympathies already lay with Malacca's South Asian Muslim

community; indeed, he was by both ethnicity and religion a member of that

community.) The Gujarati faction brought gifts to the laksamana Hang Nadim (head

of Malacca’s navy) and to temenggong Tuan Hasan (head of the police force for

Malacca town and the bendahara’s brother); in the conversations that naturally

followed, they hinted at the value of Portuguese trade goods and, especially, at how

useful it would be for Malacca to take possession of Portugal's ships. Although these

conversations were held in secret and apparently without the knowledge of the

sultan, over the course of about a month many of Malacca’s most important citizens

became party to an increasingly well-defined conspiracy. As Diogo Lopes de

Sequeira unloaded his cargo and established his trading factory in the Malaccan

market district, the sultan’s highest advisor (the bendahara), the chief naval officer,

the police chief (also in charge of Malacca's modest territorial army), many wealthy

Gujarati merchants, and additionally the son of the highest Javanese official in

Malacca all knew of the plan to murder the Portuguese delegation. They agreed that

once this was a fa it accompli the bendahara should ask Sultan Mahmud Shah for the

Portuguese flagship for himself, a request that would be backed by all involved. The

Javanese nobleman was to lead the riskiest part of the attack, and in return he too

would be rewarded with a ship. Trade goods and other Portuguese cargo were for

the most part reserved for the sultan, so as to make him complicit in the killings and

to ensure his favor after the fact. The Gujarati merchants who had pushed so hard

for the attack were willing to leave most of the material gain to others.549

And so, less than two months after the arrival of Diogo Lopes de Sequeira and

his four-ship fleet in September of 1509,550 a Javanese princeling - the son of Java’s

"raja" in Malacca, mentioned above - was caught preparing to stab Sequeira on the

deck of his own flagship.551 Sequeira escaped, firing as he went, "the flashes of fire

from the cannon being like flashes of lightning in the heaven and the weapons falling

like heavy rain," according to Malaccan accounts.552 Those left ashore were not so

lucky as Sequeira himself: several were killed, and 19 others were taken captive.553

Mahmud Shah went along with the action (as his advisors had predicted he

would), adding Portuguese wealth to his personal coffers and endorsing the

imprisonment and forced conversion of those Portuguese who had not escaped with

Sequeira. As a part of their "conversions," many of the captives were reportedly

549 The conspiracy against the Portuguese is laid out both in Tome Pires, Suma Oriental, pg. 255 (folio
170v], and in the Sejarah Melayu, two independent sources that serve to corroborate one another. De
Barros covers it in detail as well, and a precis from the Malay point of view can be found R.J.
Wilkinson’s "The Capture of Malacca,” in the Singapore Diocesan Magazine, Ed. Rev. Frank G. Swindell
(November 1911), pp. 8-18. All of these accounts are in basic agreement about the facts, although the
reasons given for the conspiracy and the storytelling emphases differ.

550 Sources disagree on the exact date of the Portuguese arrival, but all place it in August or
September, and this is consistent with the seasonal wind patterns that are necessary to bring sailing
ships from India to the Malaccan straits. Castanheda generally has the best chronologies here, and he
says that Sequeira arrived on September 11,1509. Castanheda, Histdria do descobrimento &
conquista da India pelos portugueses (Coimbra, 1552-1561), Vol. II, chapter cxiii.

551 Pires, Suma Oriental, vol. 8 9 ,2 3 5 -2 3 6 , footnote 1.

552 Sejarah Melayu, trans. C.C. Brown, 158.

553 Pires, Suma Oriental, Hakluyt Edition, 235-236, footnote 1.

circumcised "by force with their hands tied.’’554 This, in turn, had the effect of

galvanizing Malacca’s non-Muslim community, which saw itself as under threat from

an almost completely Muslim administration that had proven itself hostile to non-

Muslims from India. (The Chinese managed to recuse themselves from these

debates, largely by remaining on the other side of the Sungai Melaka, but they were

not immune to the anti-Muslim sentiment; indeed, when the Portuguese returned

two years later, Chinese traders joined their attack on the city.) The Portuguese

prisoners immediately benefitted from this backlash: Nina Chatu, a wealthy Kling

merchant, bribed the Malay guards who were in charge of the Portuguese captives

in order to make sure they got decent food and reasonable treatment.555 Over the

longer term, of course, the Portuguese would benefit in a much bigger way.


For all of Mahmud Shah's braggadocio, then, we see that he was essentially

right about the balance of power between Sequeira’s forces and his own. Though he

had not approved the action against the Portuguese, he was pleased to be able to

claim victory after the fact.

554 Pires, Suma Oriental, vol. 8 9 ,2 5 8 (folio 171r).

555 Barrios, book II, chapter vi, pg. 3. More generally, Nina Chatu was to emerge as a m ajor friend and
ally of the Portuguese, who would in turn grant him "bendahara" status when they took over the city
(though, because of Portuguese political restructuring, this position came w ith much less power and
privilege than it had done during the period of the sultanate). Much has been w ritten about Nina
Chatu in the Portuguese period; Luis Felipe Ferreira Reis Thomaz's Nina Chatu and the Portuguese
Trade in Malacca is the best of the works available in English. Malacca: Luso-Malaysian Books, 1991.

Yet even as Malacca's Gujaratis embraced their place at the top of the city's

civil and military hierarchy, the Portuguese position in India was dramatically

strengthened with the arrival of a new viceroy. Afonso d'Albuquerque was a far

better military strategist than Almeida had been - and he was far less squeamish

about advocating the use of force. In 1510, Albuquerque conquered Goa and made it

the headquarters for the Estado da India. Then, in retaliation for the Malaccan plot

against Sequeira’s fleet, and surely also in an effort to liberate the Portuguese

prisoners still being held in there, Albuquerque personally brought his fleet to


It was in April of 1511 that Albuquerque set sail for Malacca with his fleet of

17 or 18 boats and about 1,000 men, including Indian auxiliaries.556 On his arrival,

Albuquerque sailed his boats upriver with flags flying and guns blazing in salute.

They went as far as the bridge that joined the two halves of the city (which also

marked the point of entrance to Malacca proper, the place where assessments were

made and duties paid), then turned around and sailed back out to the safety of the

city’s large harbor. Having shown off his big guns, Albuquerque then sent a letter to

Mahmud Shah requesting the release of those Portuguese imprisoned in the 1509

fiasco, and including an additional demand for reparations because of damage done

to Sequeira's fleet. Mahmud stalled and used the time to fortify defenses (though it

appears that this was merely good policy; neither Mahmud Shah nor his advisors

took the Portuguese threat very seriously, a reasonable position given the small size

of the European force.) Over a period of several weeks, Mahmud and Albuquerque

556 More-or-less; see note 529, in this chapter.

exchanged letters, and the Portuguese grew ever more impatient: Albuquerque's

intention was conquest, but the desired battle for Malacca was developing at a very

leisurely speed indeed. Yet Albuquerque knew his force could not win an all-out

land battle for control of Malacca. To try to draw Malacca into a fight at sea (where

most Malaccan artillery would be useless), Albuquerque ordered his men to destroy

a number of Gujarati ships and a few riverfront buildings. Mahmud Shah released

the Portuguese prisoners, but once again refused to engage with the Albuquerque’s


Reading the histories, one can’t escape the impression that Mahmud Shah

found the Portuguese to be a trivial new problem. In the summer of 1511, Mahmud

was far more concerned by Malaccan politics than he was by the Portuguese: he

found himself aligned with the Gujarati faction, upon whom he relied in the persons

of many of his most important administrators, but Mahmud knew that his son

Ahmad had been courting the city's discontented Kling traders. He feared a move to

take his throne at the same time that he feared that getting rid of Ahmad would

further alienate his richest subjects. Meanwhile, Tun Mutahir had overseen a great

expansion in Malacca’s trade (and a concurrent expansion in Mahmud's wealth), but

he was also the focal point for many of the city's divisions. Compared to the threat of

usurpation and dispossession, Portuguese boats lingering half-a-mile offshore must

have seemed a rather minimal distraction.

557 An excellent summary of the Portuguese campaign for Malacca can be found in Bailey W, Diffie
and George D. Winius, Foundations o f the Portuguese Empire, 1415-1580 (St. Paul [USA]: University of
Minnesota Press, 1977) pp. 254-260. Details are also available in De Barros, Castanheda, and to a
lesser extent in Pires.

This changed on the 25th of July. At dawn that day, Albuquerque had his men

take the bridge over the Sungai Melaka, effectively giving him control over the

entrance to the market quarter and over the entirety of the city’s trade.

Albuquerque's forces came under a hail of artillery fire and poisoned arrows, and

they were forced to abandon the bridge by nightfall. But it was now clear that they

had to be fought.

The next day, the Portuguese once again landed forces near the bridge, this

time making an all-out assault on the city with a bravery that both astonished the

Malays and alarmed foreign traders who found themselves in the middle of a

pitched battle.558 The Portuguese landed their canons and used them in the city,

securing the bridge, several streets, and a large mosque. But Malaccans responded

with equal vigor. Barbosa described Malaccan forces who “fought very bravely with

abundance of artillery, guns, poisoned arrows and excellent long spears, also with

valiant men of Jaoa [Java], and many elephants equipped with wooden castles with

fighting men therein after the custom of India.559 But because of their exploits in

India, the Portuguese knew how to deal with elephants - cutting the trunk, jabbing

the eye - and the great Malaccan charge turned to chaos as the elephants tramped

through the streets uncontrollably. The impression that comes through in the Malay

accounts, especially, is that despite their bravery the Malaccan forces were

hopelessly outclassed. The Malay Annals describe the sultan mounted on his war

elephant, armed with a spear as "the cannonballs came like rain" and "the noise of

558 Diffie and Winius, Foundations o f the Portuguese Empire, 258.

559 Duarte Barbosa, Vol. II, 179.

their [Portuguese] matchlocks was like that of ground-nuts popping in a frying

pan."560 The image evokes the sad vision of a premodern king, noble but primitive,

listening to his empire fall to the sounds of modern warfare.

Yet this image is completely wrong. The Portuguese technological advantage

has commonly been overstated, and Malays writing 100 years after the fact were as

guilty of doing this as were Europeans writing in the 20th century. For, in the first

place, European matchlock rifles [which the Malaccans didn't have in any great

numbers] tended to be large and cumbersome, they commonly misfired, and

anyway in 1511 the Portuguese had only just introduced them to the Asian fleet.561

As a measure of their effectiveness, we would do well to consider that Albuquerque

kept a standing guard of "300 pikemen, 50 crossbowmen and 50 matchlockmen" at

the Goa fort, proportions that are hardly a ringing endorsement of the gun.562 In

1519, Portuguese arquebusiers were beaten by an equal force of Muslim archers at

Dabul in India; and as late as 1526, fifteen years after taking Malacca, Portuguese

soldiers were still being told to abandon their spent matchlocks and to use pikes,

swords, and other small arms instead.563

560 Sejarah Melayu, trans. C.C. Brown 167. This is a beautiful rendering of an even more beautiful
original: "dibedilnya dari kapal, seperti hujian datangnya, bunyinya sepertiguroh dilangit, k ila ta p i
seperti kilat di-udara, bunyi istinggar bagai kacang direndang." Royal Asiatic Society Sejarah Melayu
Raffles MS 18,166.

561 Richard j. Garrett, The Defenses o f Macau: Forts, Ships, and Weapons over 450 Years. Hong Kong:
Hong Kong University Press, 2010. Pg. 176.

562 Caspar Correa, quoted in Richard Stephen Whiteway, The Rise o f Portuguese Power in India 1497-
1550 (Westminster [London]: Archibald Constable & Co, 1899), 38.

563 w hitew ay, The Rise o f Portuguese Power in India 1497-1550,38-39. Note that the Portuguese did
actually win the w ider battle of Dabul in 1519.

On the other side, elephant warfare, so commonly derided as “backwards"

and even "Asiatic" (always said with derision), had a long history of being effective.

It was especially useful for surveying a field from on high; meanwhile, elephant hide

could withstand even a gunshot wound, given the guns of the time. As for Malay

pikes, they were as sound as those of the Portuguese. But probably the most deadly

weapon available in Malacca in 1511 belonged to the Malay forces. These were the

poison-tipped arrows used by Malaccan troops. The bamboo arrows were shot by

blowgun troops; the poison that coated their tips would cause vomiting, convulsions,

diarrhea, and ultimately death.564

This pitched land-battle is often misconstrued as the moment of Portuguese

victory. But in fact, despite the mayhem with the elephants, Albuquerque's forces

had not been able to get into the heart of the city, and they ended up in control of no

more than the bridge at the entrance to the Sungai Melaka. For some nine days, the

Portuguese buried their dead, recuperated on their ships, and kept a round-the-

clock watch on this bridge. Diffie and Winnius call this "a strange lull in the

battle."565 Yet this was the battle: by controlling the bridge, Albuquerque was able to

maintain a naval blockade at the river-mouth. Fishermen were not allowed out of

564 Called ipoh on the Malay peninsula, we know this poison as antiarin, derived from the Antiaris
toxicaria tree. One account from 1906 reported that a man "struck by one of these poisoned arrows,
feels for several minutes nothing but the pain of the wound. This is then followed by muscular
spasms and vomiting, and death follows in a few (more) minutes, if a strong preparation of the
poison has been used. If, however, the poison is no longer fresh (or in any way too weak), the agony
lasts for several hours, in the course of which the would inflames and acquires a bluish tinge." For
more, see "Ipoh Poison of the Malay Peninsula, Antiaris Toxin, Lesch." In the Bulletin o f Miscellaneous
Information (Royal Gardens, Kew) Vol. 1891, No. 50 (1891), pp. 25-31, and W alter W illiam Skeat and
Charles Otto Blagden, Pagan Races of the Malay Peninsula, Volume 1. New York: The MacMillan
Company, 1906. Pg. 267.

565 Diffie and Winius, Foundations o f the Portuguese Empire, 258.

the city to take their daily catch; Javanese rice-boats were kept from delivering their

regular shipments. "In this position he maintained himself for nine days," de Barros

wrote of Albuquerque, "until the Malays were worn out and forced to abandon the

town. Among them was such hunger that in order to steal a little rice from houses in

which they knew there was a supply, they preferred risking their bodies against our

steel to losing their lives through lack of food."566 The city-without-a-hinterland

found itself very vulnerable indeed.

On August 24, almost exactly a month after the abortive attack on Malacca's

bridge, the Portuguese finally took Malacca in a quick campaign of burning and

looting. A number of Klings colluded to let the Portuguese into the city during the

night; we are not told how they did this, but the most reasonable guess is that they

opened the gates to the market district, allowing the Portuguese to enter and to put

it to the torch. Albuquerque "directed Gaspar de Paiva, with 100 men, now that the

sea-breeze had set in, to fire the commercial part of the town, and Simao Martinez,

with an equal number, to do the same to the king's palace. When the fire took effect,

it consumed a great part of the city, and the Moors, in consequence, kept at a

distance from our people."567 One major Chinese junk may have joined the attack on

the royal residence and main mosque complex;568 several certainly offered help,

although for the most part the Portuguese declined their generosity "with

566 De Barros, book II, chapter 6.

567 Quote from the Comentdrios, as found in John Crawfurd, A Descriptive Dictionary o f the Indian
Islands and Adjacent Countries, 247.

568 Diffie and Winius, Foundations o f the Portuguese Empire, 258.

thanks."569 Mahmud Shah fled to Muar, accompanied by a large number of Malays

and Gujaratis; the Portuguese pursued, and were gratified to find that at almost a

thousand Indians, Burmans (from Pegu, today's Bago), and Javanese joined them in

their pursuit.570

Thus did the Malacca sultanate fall into foreign hands, a state of affairs that

persisted through Portuguese, Dutch, English, and Japanese occupation, and into the

latter half of the 20th century. Yet in another sense, Malacca was already in foreign

hands: the sultanate came from Palembang, the bendahara was ethnically Indian (or

perhaps part-Indian), the most influential political block was Gujarati, and the

richest individual residents were Kling merchants. Confronted by the threat of

Portuguese conquest, the Malacca sultanate was confounded not by inferior military

might nor even by superior tactics (though the idea of a blockade certainly helped

the Portuguese cause]. Rather, Malacca’s multiethnic, multi-religious community

was divided, with large segments of the population unwilling to back the sultan or

especially his Muslim-friendly administration. At various times during the month­

long battle for Malacca, Portuguese troops found themselves fighting alongside the

Chinese, Indians of various sorts, and Southeast Asians from of a number of different

nations. Most crucially, a substantial part of Malacca's military (including many dart-

gun regiments] drew from the local Javanese community; Java had not yet been

comprehensively converted to Islam, and when the Portuguese followed Mahmud

569 Crawfurd, Descriptive Dictionary, 247.

570 Ibid.

Shah out of the city during his retreat in August 1511, they found themselves joined

by some 600 Javanese troops who had turned against their old ruler.571

The multinational nature of Malacca led to factionalization in both the town

and at Mahmud Shah's court. Many of Malacca’s policies were designed to keep the

different ethnic communities happy; examples include letting the Chinese pay taxes

in kind and not in cash, establishing ethnic quarters where foreigners would feel

more at home, and assigning sympathetic shahbandars to each of the major trade

communities. But instead of ensuring domestic tranquility, in the end these policies

contributed to a strong communal competition that would ultimately bring down

the sultanate.

Malacca's great strength had always been its multinationalism. In Malacca,

trade, economic innovation, wealth, and diversity all reinforced one another: trade

at Malacca was good precisely because so many traders from so many places

congregated there; economic innovation grew from the intermixing of ideas of many

origins; law was passed to help trade (and society) function; and law, economic

innovation, and good trade opportunities in turn drew ever more merchants to

contribute to the cycle yet again. The strength of the city and all its institutions was

built on foreign merchants and their many intangible as well as tangible

contributions. But the story of the Portuguese conquest highlights something

different. Malacca's greatest strength may have been its massive multinationalism;

but this was also its greatest weakness. Because of ethnic and religious differences,

571 Ibid., 248.

Malacca had natural fault lines. One small shake-up in the form of the Portuguese

was all it took for the entire city to crack, quake, and fall to pieces.


Here we fin a lly discuss the question that opened this work. What happened to
Malacca? The Portuguese expected to grow wealthy o ff o f their new possession,
but they didn 'I Why not?


This dissertation has so far discussed the rise and fall of the Malacca

sultanate, including sections on the heterogeneity of both people and policy under

Malay rule. We have seen how lS^-century Malacca had few true natives, how

Islamic influences and adat tradition combined to form laws in a relatively lawless

state, and how communal conflict led to the fall of a great world entrepot.

But that brings us to a question, an obvious postscript. Once Mahmud Shah

fled, what happened to Malacca itself? Where did the city of "spices and gold" go? Of

course, in some sense it stayed right where it always had been: the Portuguese took

the city and rapidly built a fort at the mouth of the Sungai Melaka. Albuquerque

dispatched a few boats eastward towards the spice islands and then left with "a rich

booty, [having] obtained great wealth from the inhabitants who remained there."572

Yet to Albuquerque’s dismay, the ship carrying most of the proceeds from the

Malaccan conquest foundered and sank off the coast of Sumatra, an episode that

572 Duarte Barbosa, Vol. 11,179.

would come to be a fitting metaphor for the Portuguese Malaccan venture as a

whole. When the Portuguese had set out to conquer the city in 1511, their hope had

been to monopolize the spice trade and reap extravagant financial rewards from

doing so. But though revenue from Portuguese India was initially enormous - da

Gama’s first voyage made a 6,000 percent profit, chiefly from pepper573 - profits fell

precipitously as the Portuguese moved farther and farther east. Not long after

Albuquerque’s appointment as governor-general in 1510 (and not long after the

conquest of Malacca in 1511), the cost of administering the Estado da India

outstripped any financial gains associated with the India trade (including trade in

Malacca and the spice islands).574

Why? A number of great scholars have focused on problems with the

Portuguese Asian empire generally - citing issues such as corruption, financial

competition, and incompetence to explain its decline - and I am not in a position to

add to this work. But in Malacca specifically, perspective from the city's own days as

a multinational emporium and Malay sultanate (all at the same time!) can add a

helpful new perspective. Portuguese attempts to convert Muslims and to stifle

Gujarati trade (and Muslim trade more generally) contrasted markedly with the far

more liberal social and economic policies of the city’s sultanate period. Relatedly,

the Portuguese emphasis on monopolizing the wholesale spice trade may have been

lucrative within the Estado da India as a whole (or not, in fact), but in Malacca in

particular it dramatically undermined the city’s formerly-vibrant free market. And

573 H.V. Livermore, A New History o f Portugal {London: Cambridge University Press, 1976), 142.

574 Ibid., 143.

finally, for a number of reasons including a lack of local knowledge, a lack of interest

in wider regional politics, and continued assault from the rump Malacca sultanate

(now in Johor), Portugal failed to replicate the Malacca sultanate’s close

relationships with either nearby Malay communities or with the Chinese. This left

Malacca a lonely outpost, one of a string of modest Indies fort-towns, and one that

was constantly under military attack.

What I offer in this chapter is thus a comparison between two different

administrative regimes in Malacca. This is not a comprehensive assessment of the

Portuguese period, but is rather an overview, a comparison between Portuguese

policies and norms and those of the Malay sultans who preceded them. My intention

here is to offer an analysis of the local forces that played a part in the city's post-

1511 decline.575


"The Portuguese held Malacca for 130 years, a period of disaster throughout,"

wrote John Crawfurd, the diplomat, scholar, and 19th-century Resident of Singapore.

575 For those readers who are indeed looking for this comprehensive survey of Portuguese India,
Sanjay Subrahmanyam’s The Portuguese Empire in Asia, 1500-1700: A Political and Economic History
is the quintessential textbook. New York: Longman, 1993 [reprinted by Wiley-Blackwell, 2012]. A.R.
Disney's two-volume A History o f Portugal and the Portuguese Empire: From Beginnings to 1807 is
another great w ork that looks at Portugal alongside that country’s expansion into Asia and the
Americas. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009. For Portuguese Malacca, the best sources in
English are Luis Felipe F.R. Thomaz's Early Portuguese Malacca, Macau: CTMCDP, 2000. [Note that
this is essentially a translation of Thomaz's 1964 dissertation] and Paulo Jorge de Sousa Pinto’s The
Portuguese and the Straits o f Melaka 1575-1619: Power, Trade and Diplomacy. Singapore: NUS Press,
2012. [This, too, is an English translation of an earlier work, in this case a w ork published in 1997.]

"With the exception of courage and daring, they exhibited none of the qualities fit to

rule an Asiatic people."576 It’s a harsh (and blatantly Orientalist) judgment, but one

that is justified by the correspondence of the time. Linder Portuguese administration,

Malacca’s trade declined precipitously; by the latter half of the 16th century, letters

from the King of Portugal to Estado da India administrators fretted that "the city’s

residents... have stopped running goods and the city's habitual trade no longer

exists."577 This in turn severely depressed income available for the maintenance of

city infrastructure; in 1588, the Bishop of Malacca complained that "the city is very

poor, and does not have revenues for her needs such as streets, bridges, and

fountains."578 Writing immediately after the Portuguese lost Malacca to the Dutch in

1641, historian Manuel de Faria e Sousa was able to look back and report that the

net revenue paid into the Malacca exchequer never exceeded 70,000 cruzados

throughout the period of Portuguese rule (although the various perquisites of

Portuguese officials added another 150,000 cruzados to the total),579 a shockingly

576 Crawfurd, A Descriptive Dictionary, 248.

577 Letter from the King of Portugal to Dom Duarte de Meneses, March 1584. Quoted in Paulo Jorge de
Sousa Pinto, The Portuguese and the Straits o f Melaka 1575-1619,282.

578 Bishop of Melaka, Dom Jo3o Ribeiro Gaio, to the King [of Portugal], Melaka, December 3 1,1 58 8 . At
the Archiveo General de Simancas, Secretarias Provinciales collection. Book 1551, fls. 403-414v.
Reprinted in Paulo Jorge de Sousa Pinto, The Portuguese and the Straits o f Melaka 1575-1619, 296.

579 Manuel de Faria e Sousa, Historia do livro segundo de descobrimento & conquista da India pelos
Portugueses, Coimbra, series published 1552-1561 (no publication date on this exact volume,
however), pg. 222. Note that Faria y Sousa died in 1649. Several of his works were published
posthumously, but it must be that he wrote this volume immediately after the fall of Malacca. Also see
John Crawfurd, A Descriptive Dictionary, 241.

low sum; Tome Pires had once estimated the value of a single 1509 shipment from

Cambay to be worth this same amount.580

This was not what Albuquerque had in mind when he sailed for the city in

1511. Though he fought for Malacca in part to avenge Sequeira's disastrous trade

mission in 1509, the bigger goal was certainly "to take Malacca out of the hands of

the Moors, [so that] Cairo and Mecca would be entirely ruined, and Venice would

then be able to obtain no spiceries except what her merchants might buy in

Portugal.”581 Such confidence had a history in Portuguese Asia. The summer after da

Gama's first (successful) voyage to India, for example, the Florentine Guido di Detti

needled Venetians with the claim that they would have to "go back to fishing" now

that the Portuguese were in the game.582 The famous quote from Tome Pires

belongs to the same genre: "whoever controls Malacca,” he wrote, "has his hand on

the throat of Venice."

Yet it was the first part of Albuquerque's pronouncement - the part about

dispossessing the Moors, not the part about crushing the Venetians - that is the

more relevant to the decline of Malacca. In their own time, the Portuguese

understood their ventures to the Indies as seeking "religion and spices," in that

580 Of course his number was an estimate, but it was informed by the valuations conducted by
Malacca’s shahbandar. Moreover, Pires in fact estimated the value as "between 70,000 and 80,000
cruzados," so even if he estimated with avaricious eyes we may give him the benefit of the doubt here.
Pires, Suma Oriental, vol. 8 9 ,2 7 0 (folio 174r).

581 Quoted in E. Denison Ross, "The Portuguese in India," in H.H. Dodwell, Ed., The Cambridge History
of the British Empire: Volume IV, British India 1497-1858 pp. 1-27. Cambridge: Cambridge University
Press, 1929. Pg. 11.

582 Turner, Jack. Spice: The History o f a Temptation, (New York: Random House, 2005), 21-22.

order. It's easy to emphasize the attractions of Malacca as a spice market, and it

seems obvious that Albuquerque came to Malacca seeking aromatics and the

attendant wealth that they might bring to Lisbon (and to himself personally). But in

his Conversions and Citizenry, Delio de Mendonfa rightly cautions against

discounting the importance of religion. "The issue of conversions is usually

explained from an economic perspective.... Conversions aimed at creating citizens

for an economic project," he writes. "But when the Estado da India was bankrupt

and without almost any hope of recovery, royal funds for the work of conversion did

not stop, and earlier spiritual claims continued unchanged."583 This suggests that the

spice trade was in service of religion, not the other way around (though, of course, if

wealth and souls could be won at the same time, then this was all for the better).

Portugal justified the mare clausum - the “closed sea" on which others were only

allowed to trade with Portuguese sanction - on the grounds that monopolistic

material gains would ultimately be used to "uphold the crusading spirit in the lands

of the infidels."584 Spice revenues were "but a compensation for much expenditure

and incurred losses, for future works to be undertaken, and for blood shed in the

cause of the faith."585

In Malacca, this perspective led to some obvious difficulties. By 1511, a large

proportion of the city as a whole was Muslim, including both traders from the west

583 Delio de Mendon^a, Conversions and Citizenry: Goa under Portugal, 1510-1610 {New Delhi, India:
Concept Publishing Company, 2002), 51.

584 Ibid., 37.

585 Ibid.

and Malays from the Malay peninsula and nearby islands. They followed a legal code

that was inspired by Islamic principles. Even much of the currency in the city was of

Muslim origin, with dirhams common on the city's streets.

Yet Malacca under the sultans was not an Islamic or indeed a culturally

monolithic state. Different treatment catered to different religious and cultural

expectations - from the variable port taxes ("dues" from westerners, and "presents"

from the Chinese586) to laws that allowed Muslims to have more wives than Hindus.

The city’s chief financial officer under Mansur Shah was a "heathen Kling.”587 Tun

Talani, a Malaccan nobleman, went to Siam on a diplomatic mission aimed at ending

naval skirmishes between Malaccans and the Siamese; he came back with a Siamese

wife, almost certainly Buddhist.588 Others, too, blended their families both ethnically

and religiously. Muzaffar Shah was half-Tamil, caught in the middle of family

religious disptues. Mansur Shah took wives from Siam, Java, and China (or possibly

of Chinese ethnicity but immediately from a less distant locale);589 the Malay Annals

also refer to a son of Mansur Shah with the name "Ratu di-Klang” (or, in the

Shellabear manuscript, "Radin Kelang"), suggesting Indian descent.590 More than

this, Mansur Shah was remembered for taking the daughters of "Parsee merchants

and the Klings who pleased him" and giving them away in marriage to "Moors" (i.e.

586 pires, Suma Oriental, vol. 89, 251 (folio 169v).

sa? ibid., 249 [(olio 169r).

588 Wilkinson, “The Malacca Sultanate,” 40.

589 Ibid.

590 Sejarah Melayu, Translated C.C. Brown, 83.

Muslims) of Malay as well as non-Malay extraction, paying their dowries himself.591

More generally, "the country observes this custom: heathens marry with Moorish

women and a Moor with a heathen woman... and this custom of marrying people of

different sects causes no surprise in Malacca.”592

The Portuguese were far less accommodating. They banned Muslim

wholesalers from Malacca altogether, and they drove many Gujaratis out of Malacca

and south to Johor, now the seat of the old Malaccan royal family. But even Hindu

South Indians, Portugal’s purported allies against the Muslim threat, found it

difficult to work alongside the Catholic Portuguese. One observer complained that

"the Captains of Melaka seize and buy at an unfair price all the spices and wares of

tin, gold and other things that come to this fortress by means of the heathens... and

pay them in cloth and other inferior goods, by which they greatly coerce the said

infidels and cause great losses... and the infidels, on account of the harassment, no

longer return to the fortress.”593 Royal instructions sent to the governor of the

Estado da India in 1584 reveal concerns about this poor treatment of such

"heathens," who wrote to the crown to ask that they "be allowed to load and unload

their merchandise freely, without them being hindered nor seized at the customs

house, nor outside it, and that they be able to take these goods to their houses and

591 Pires, Suma Oriental, vol. 8 9 ,2 4 9 (folio 169r).

592 Ibid. 249 and 268 (folios 169r and 173v).

593 Letter from the Bishop of Melaka, Dom Joao Ribeiro Gaio.to the King [of Portugal], Melaka,
December 3 1,1 58 8 . At the Archiveo General de Simancas, Secretarias Provinciales collection. Book
1551, fls. 403-414v. Reprinted in Paulo Jorge de Sousa Pinto, The Portuguese and the Straits o f Melaka

sell them freely, and that in addition no person be allowed to buy nor obstruct the

ships nor take goods that are not theirs."594 The letter continued,

"The Kelings and heathen people of the city of Melaka sent me a letter
complaining of some vexations that they face in the said city by my
officials and magistrates, both ecclesiastical as well as secular, about
which I have written to the Captain of that city... to help, keeping in
mind the services that they render in that city and fortress. [...] They
have written to me to request that in recompense for their services
that it be ordered that those of their slaves who converted and
became Christians may be sold in public auctions according to the
price set by their owners, despite the provisions in this regard by the
provincial synod."595

Here we see clearly how Portuguese religious preferences undermined trade at the

port. Klings found themselves targeted by ecclesiastical authorities, while Christians

(including Christian converts) found themselves especially protected. (Of course we

all agree that the provincial synod here was in the right to limit the slave trade

generally; nonetheless, a limitation that targeted traders of one religion and helped

only those slaves of another religion does highlight the religious-based differential

treatment embraced by the Portuguese at Malacca.) Though they were at least

allowed to trade at Malacca, their religion meant that Klings suffered harassment at

the port and loss of profit in the market.

These excerpts also call attention to the formal role of clergy in Malacca. The

city’s first Catholic chaplains arrived with Albuquerque in 1511, and from this

594 This letter, royal instructions to the Viceroy Dom Duarte de Meneses, dated March 3 ,15 84 , is held
in the Portuguese National Archives. Here again I quote from Paulo Jorge de Sousa Pinto, The
Portuguese and the Straits o f Melaka 1575-1619, 281.

595 Ibid., 283.

humble beginning Malacca rapidly grew into a destination for missionaries hoping

to evangelize the east. By 1515, the formidable stone Church of Our Lady of the

Annunciation commanded a view of Malacca and the harbor from the city's most

prominent hill,596 and this was soon joined by two more churches within the walled

part of the city (called the fortaleza, constructed atop the old market quarter - now

burned down - in 1511).597 The Portuguese built Dominican and Augustinian

convents for missionary friars, which were in turn overshadowed (literally!) by the

new Franciscan Capuchin convent established on Bukit Cina (another hill) in the

1550s.598 Beginning in 1545, the famous Jesuit missionary Francis Xavier made

Malacca his home base for the evangelization of the east, including his trips to the

spice islands and Japan; he was even briefly buried in Malacca, though his remains

were disinterred and brought back to Goa in 15 5 3.599 Dominicans missions also

prospered: aside from hyper-local evangelism, the convent at Malacca sponsored

repeated journeys to Siam, Cambodia, Flores, Timor, other islands in the Lesser

Sundas, and points much farther east throughout the 16th century.600 As conversions

accelerated in Malacca itself, seven new churches were built outside the walls of the

fortazela. In 1557, Pope Paul IV raised Malacca into its own diocese, and practical

596 P. Decroix, History o f the Church and Churches in Malaysia and Singapore (1511-2000), (Penang,
Malaysia: Fr. P. Decroix M.E.P.), 211-212.

597 Eredia, op. cit., 120.

598 "Convent" here refers to a living space for men, not women. See M. Teixeira, The Portuguese
Missions in Malacca and Singapore, 1511-1598 (3 vols., Lisbon: 1961-1963), II, 133-135 and 145-148.

599 Henry James Coleridge, S.J., The Life and Letters o f S t Francis Xavier (New Delhi: Asian Education
Services, 1997), 571-579.

600 Donald F. Lach and Edwin J. Van Kley, Asia in the Making o f Europe, Volume III: A Century o f
Advance (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1993), Book 1,135-144.

responsibility for all Southeast Asian missions was granted to the Malaccan

bishop.601 By the very early 1600s, ecclesiastical records showed 7,400 Christians in

Malacca, four missionary convents, "eight parishes, fourteen churches, two chapels

of the 'Hospitallers/” and a number of hermitages or religious retreats.602

In short, Malacca was not only run by Catholic Portuguese civil and military

administrators, but it was in fact a center of Catholic missionary zeal. Indeed, so

many missionaries came to Malacca that the city's second bishop, Joao Ribeiro Gaio,

exhorted the Portuguese authorities to limit their numbers, asking only for those

who were "virtuous and able to endure hardships,” while refusing any who were

"old and sick, that cannot withstand the hardships of this work, and hunger, or any

other impediment that may intervene." "The number of young Christian men in

Malacca is already sufficient" for a wide range of missionary activities, he wrote,

"and though we always encourage the kingdom of God in all of the world, we have

reached a time when we may use discernment to choose men who are suited to

conditions in Asia.”603

601 Catholic Encyclopedia, vol. ix, pg. 562.

602 Robert Norman Bland collated this information from various sources, archaeological as well as
historical, and he presents the most comprehensive short summary of the religious situation on the
ground in l^ -c e n tu r y (Portuguese) Malacca despite doing so only in the introduction to a bigger
w ork about tombstones and inscriptions in the city. A number of others w rite about missionary w ork
in Malacca during this period (Teixeira, op. cit., foremost among them, and excellent), but they tend
to focus on single religious communities or the relationship between Malacca’s diocesan officials and
Goa (or Lisbon), instead of presenting a more comprehensive view o f Catholicism as it affected the
population of Malacca as a whole. See R.N. Bland, Historical Tombstones o f Malacca o f Mostly
Portuguese Origin (London: Elliot Stock, 1905), 1-4.

603 Bishop of Melaka, Dom Joao Ribeiro Gaio, to the King [of Portugal], Melaka, December 3 1,1 58 8 . At
the Archiveo General de Simancas, Secretarias Provinciales collection. Book 1551, fls. 403-414v.
Reprinted in Paulo Jorge de Sousa Pinto, The Portuguese and the Straits o f Melaka 1575-1619,294.

This, then, is the first major difference between prosperous Malacca (under

the sultans) and impoverished Malacca (under the Portuguese). The Portuguese

actively tried to evangelize in Malacca and regionally. They excluded the Gujaratis

(to the point that they made it policy to burn their ships and ban their coins) and

discriminated against Hindus (less dramatically). They promulgated new laws to

displace the Muslim-inspired (but inclusive) Malaccan law code, and they

encouraged a sizeable missionary community to settle in the city, exacerbating

communal problems. Efforts to target Muslims and convert Hindus directly

undermined trade and thus the economic viability of the Malaccan port; indeed, this

is a perfect illustration of a case in which one finds it impossible to fully serve both

God and mammon.

By contrast, Malacca under Malay administration was open to people of all

faiths. It certainly had communal problems of its own, but there was simply no

equivalent to the official role given to the Catholic Church under Portuguese

administration. In chapter 2 of this work, we saw how, in the early days of the

sultanate, Malay aristocrats themselves disagreed about religion: some were

attracted to Islam, but others clung to an older Malayo-Javanese amalgamation of

Hiduism and Buddhism. Under the sultans, large Muslim, Hindu, and Chinese

communities not only thrived, but they intermarried, and this was common and

accepted by the authorities. There was no equivalent to the missionary structure

that flourished under the Portuguese. And even as the Gujarati faction grew in

power after the year 1500, Hindus (and others) were welcomed at court and in the

Malaccan administration. (Indeed, until 1500, the bendahara was a Hindu Kling; it

was his replacement by the Gujarati Tun Mutahir that had shifted court religious

politics so dramatically). In the end, it took a secret, murderous, anti-Portuguese

conspiracy to change Malacca into a state that officially preferred Islam over other

faiths - and that very conspiracy turned out to be the downfall of the Malay state

two years later.

It’s easy to see how forceful anti-Islamic sentiments would drive major

Gujarati, Malay, and Javanese traders away from Portuguese Malacca. It is less

intuitive to suggest that the Portuguese obsession over spices did much the same

thing. Yet in fact it did. The Portuguese desire to monopolize the spice trade worked

directly against their interests in Malacca. Where the sultanate had built its role as a

middleman, "at the end of some monsoons and the beginning of others," the

Portuguese situated themselves as traders first and as port administrators only as a

distant second. Yet Portuguese trade monopoly was the single greatest enemy of

prosperity in Portuguese Malacca, which had historically relied on a diversity of

traders to keep its markets vibrant and its tax receipts healthy.

Religious fervor notwithstanding, the control of aromatics [and the wealth

that followed from that control) was certainly the chief reason for the conquest of

Malacca.604 Malacca was a useful home base for the conduct of local spice runs: it

604 1 do not mean to discount the importance of Portuguese religious fervor, discussed in some detail
above. This was obviously a key reason for the Portuguese conquest of the greater East Indies, and in
fact, 1think historians are frequently guilty of wrongly discounting such motivations very much to
the detriment of our work. But though Catholicism provided a major motivating force for Asian
exploration, we should nonetheless notice that there were potential converts across all of the Asian

was on the Straits, insulated from the weather, and had "pleasant waters;" the

Malaccan hinterland, such as it was, contained "a great deal of wood" along the city's

western boundary, "most of it growing straight up to the sky, for masts and other

things.”605 It was, of course, also a major entrepot where aromatics of all sorts were

exchanged for a variety of "western ocean goods."

Crucially, however, the Portuguese Estado da India was determined to

monopolize the wholesale spice trade. Albuquerque's plan was not in the first

instance to make money by facilitating the preexisting Malaccan trade, despite the

success of this strategy in the past. Instead, the Portuguese crown and Albuquerque

as governor of the Estado da India were agreed that Malacca should be taken so that

the Portuguese could disrupt and replace the dominant Venetian-Gujarati trade

networks that joined the Indies to European markets.

With this in mind, within months of having taken Malacca in August of 1511,

Albuquerque dispatched three ships to seek "clove islands" to the east.606 Three

ships and 120 men represented a considerable proportion of the Portuguese Indian

ocean fleet at the time, especially for an errand such as this, but in the words of

Antonio Galvao (later governor of the Portuguese fort at Ternate, in the spice

continent and the Southeast Asian islands. W hy go to Malacca? It must have been because of the

605 Suma Oriental, vol. 8 9 ,2 6 0 (folio 171v).

606 Portuguese chroniclers disagree about the exact date, w ith Gaspar Correia saying that the
expedition left in November and Castanheda, Fernao Peres de Andrade, and Jorge Botelho recalling a
December departure date. But 1think a letter from August 1512 must be conclusive, being w ritten by
far the closest to the actual sail date, and by someone in a position to know all the necessary details:
the fleet "sailed in the month of November,” wrote Afonso da Albuquerque, less than a year later. For
a summary of these positions, see Francisco Rodrigues’ introduction to his English-language edition
the Suma Oriental (New Delhi: Asian Education Services, 1990), pg. lxxx, note 2.

islands), "no more vessels nor men went to discover new Spain with Christopher

Columbus, nor with Vasco da Gama to India, because the Moluccas [the spice islands]

are no less wealthy than these, nor should they to be held in less esteem."607 And

indeed, having made their way to the Moluccas, the Portuguese stuck to their

original plan and established forts across the region's islands. Malacca became the

main administrative center for this eastern trade.

Malacca's sultans had gained their wealth primarily by sponsoring shares in

Malay and non-Malay trading vessels, and superficially this might look similar to

Portuguese attempts to monopolize the wholesale trade. But in fact, Malacca’s

biggest shipments had always been run by private consortiums (or individuals), and

the Malaccan sultan invested on an equal footing as any other investor. By the late

1400s, there was a particularly close relationship between members of the Malay

aristocracy and a number of Muslim merchants with connections to South Asia, and

the two groups often collaborated to fund shipping under the Malaccan share

system. But of course the Portuguese had a notably poor relationship with Muslims

generally, and with Indian Ocean Muslims in particular. Instead of collaboration and

investment as "the first among equals,” the Portuguese used military force to

reserve a number of trade privileges for themselves. There is no single obvious

reason that this shouldn't have worked to gain the wealth of the Indies - but in fact,

in Malacca, it didn’t.

607 Antonia Galvao, Tratado que compds o nobre & notauel capitao Antonio Galuao, dos diuersos &
desuayrados caminhos, por onde nos tempos passados a pimento & especearia veyo da India as nossas
partes, & assi de todos os descobrimentos antigos & modernos, que saofeitos ate a era de mil &
quinhentos & cincoenta. Lisbon: loam Barreira, 1563. Folio 35r.

The Portuguese policy of the mare clausum, the "closed sea," meant more

than controlling rival European powers in the Indian Ocean. It meant, too,

attempting to control all Asian trade taking place in the seas claimed under the

Estado da India. In order to be "legal" - under Portuguese rules, of course - Asian

vessels, like those from Europe, were required to purchase from Portuguese

authorities a cartaz. This was a kind of identity card showing that the shipment had

been commissioned by Portuguese authorities; each cartaz stated the size and cargo

of the ship in question, as well as details about captain, crew, and itinerary. Ships

found without a cartaz could be confiscated; captains and crew found in violation

were subject to slavery or even death.608

The cartaz was an income-generator in its own right,609 though fees for an

individual pass tended to be relatively modest. More importantly, though, the cartaz

system signaled Portuguese monopolistic intentions. Gujaratis were almost never

granted legal papers, while in Malacca in particular almost all cartaz documents

went to ships commissioned by the Estado da India and owned by the Portuguese

crown. Sanjay Subrahmanyam has famously claimed that the Portuguese were "just

another Asian trade community," not particularly different from their

contemporaries the Gujaratis, Arabs, Tamils, or even the Chinese;610 and, indeed,

608 "The Estado da India in South East Asia," 156.

609 Ibid.

610 This simplifies a subtle w ork enormously. Nonetheless, the major claim of Subrahmanyam’s epic
tome on the Portuguese in Asia is that the dichotomy between the (early) modern European powers
in Asia and their Asian contemporaries is a false one. This is a claim that Malaccans themselves may
initially have endorsed, rather tellingly referring to their first Portuguese visitors as "white Bengalis.”
And at the level of individuals who traded alongside their Asian neighbors, Subrahmanyam is very
compelling. At the level of government and state functions in Asia, however, Portugal was very unlike

Portuguese attempts to monopolize and eventually monopsonize the spice trade

had parallels in the nearby sultanates of Aceh and Banten, among others.611 But

Malacca’s rulers had never imposed monopolistic controls on the trade that took

place in their city, and before the arrival of the Portuguese, well-equipped Asian

ships could simply avoid or overpower those cities that did have monopolistic


In the eastern Indonesian archipelago in particular, the Portuguese were

interested in taking over the spice trade entirely. They built forts on all the major

spice islands and on many minor ones - including forts at Ternate, Tidor, Ambon,

Halmahera, and Banda, but also on more than 90(!) other islands612 - and negotiated

(often at gunpoint) exclusive trade treaties with the sultans on these islands. As a

general rule, Portuguese boats in the Maluccas attacked rivals who had come to

retrieve spices, especially if they were headed westward; indeed, frequently the

content of local treaties required the Portuguese to do this, under the guise of

"protection" for the island in question.

Portuguese attempts to take over the spice trade had predictably detrimental

effects on the port of Malacca. Many individual Portuguese administrators made

the preexisting administrations, especially in the eastern part of their empire. See Sanjay
Subrahmanyam, The Portuguese Empire in Asia, 1993.

611 Denys Lombard, Le sultanat d'Atjeh au temps d’lskandar Muda (1607-1636). Paris: EFEO, 1967, pp.
101-126. Claude Guillot, "Libre entreprise contre economie dirig6e: Guerres civiles & Banten, 1580-
1609," Archipel A3 (1992).

612 Manuel Lobato, "From European-Asian Conflict to Cultural Heritage: Identification of Portuguese
and Spanish Forts on Ternate and Tidore Islands.” In Laura Jarnagin, ed., Portuguese and Luso-Asian
Legacies in Southeast Asia, 1511-2011. Singapore: Institute o f Southeast Asian Studies, 2012. Pp. 179-
207. See also Jarnagin’s introduction to the book for more detail on the forts of Portuguese Southeast

considerable money off the cartaz system (since they were preferred as the

"licensed" captains in the Indies), but Joao de Barros acknowledged the role of

Portuguese policy in stifling both the Indian Ocean trade and the fortunes of the city

of Malacca. Writing about Malacca specifically, he said that "this busy trade lasted

until our arrival in India, but the Moorish, Arabian, Persian, and Gujarati ships,

fearing our fleets, did not dare to undertake the voyage now, and if any ship of theirs

did so, it was only by stealth and escaping our ships." This, he said, had led to a

significant loss of both revenue and population in Malacca.613

De Barros published the second volume of the Decadas da Asia, source of the

above quote, in 1553. It's clear that Malacca's situation did not improve in the

following decades. In 1588, the Bishop of Malacca wrote emphatically of the damage

that the trade monopoly was doing to the city:

"The captains, mainly those of Melaka, do not allow anyone to

navigate, and they sell the voyages [to the highest bidder, that is, they
auction off the cartaz papers], on account of which much disservice is
done to Our Lord and losses to your treasury, and to your vassals who,
if they were able to sail freely, as God and Your Majesty order, would
bring to this fortress many wares upon which duties would be paid,
and your vassals would be able to live. [The Portuguese
administrators] do not let anyone load unless [it is] their own [ship],
and there are no merchants who wish to come to this fortress any
longer. And the [Portuguese] captains of the Moluccas, and the
captains of the voyages do not let the [foreign] merchants load cloth,

613 De Barros claimed, however, that the exodus of traders began before the Portuguese conquest in
1511. "The king, Mohammad of Malacca immediately began to experience a loss in the duties which
he levied on trade," he wrote. "He began to recompense himself for his loss by plundering the
resident merchants, and they, consequently, began to leave the place.”613 This account is belied by
contemporary Portuguese accounts confirming the great numbers and influence of Muslim Gujarati
traders at the Malaccan court, and indeed attributing the 1511 alliance between Tam il Hindus and
Portuguese forces to the crushing power of Gujarati merchants at the Malaccan court. Joao De Barros,
Decadas II, book vi, chapter 2.

and the [Portuguese] captains of the voyages of Banda do the same, so
that they alone can buy [spices in exchange for cloth], by which your
treasury suffers losses.


And the galleons that go to the Moluccas run up great expenses and
show little profits; as I have written to you in the past, Your Majesty
must make these voyages freely accessible, so that everyone can go to
the Moluccas and Banda, and so everyone might pay the tergos [taxes]
and duties at Melaka."614

The Bishop was a relatively impartial observer -not being eligible to bid on

captaining the spice ships, he did not stand to gain from the Portuguese trade

monopoly - but he was writing with a purpose: under the patronage system set up

jointly by the Portuguese government and the Catholic Church, clergy salaries in

Malacca came from the city’s coffers, and at this time those coffers were so low that

many of the clergy were not being paid. Yet this only serves to buttress his point.

Because they depended on Malacca's municipal revenues for their income,

ecclesiastical authorities are in some ways an excellent proxy for the city as a whole.

And as this letter makes clear, Portuguese administrators at Malacca promulgated

and enforced policies that put personal gain above the good of the port.

Under the sultans Malacca had been a wild west, a laissez-faire port in which

Mahmud Shah and his predecessors had taken shares in major trade voyages but

had otherwise interfered only minimally in the city's shipping. Most trade-related

6HNote that the bishop was not advocating fully free trade; elsewhere, he endorses the idea that
Muslims should continue to be banned from major ports in Portuguese India. Bishop of Melaka, Dom
Joao Ribeiro Gaio, to the King [of Portugal], Melaka, December 31,1 58 8 . At the Archiveo General de
Simancas, Secretarias Provinciates collection. Book 1551, fls. 403-414v. Reprinted in Paulo Jorge de
Sousa Pinto, The Portuguese and the Straits o f Melaka 1575-1619. Singapore: NUS Press, 2012, pp.
289-297. Pg. 290-295.

judgments had been left up to shahbanders who were sympathetic to the foreign

traders over whom they had power. Under the Portuguese, however, once Malacca’s

governors started to outfit carracks of their own, they immediately (and

shortsightedly) began to restrict competing shipping. Direction from Lisbon

encouraged this, believing the surest way to wealth to be the monopolization of the

eastern spice trade. This, too, proved shortsighted: the crown was left having to pay

for an enormous military operation (including many dozens of forts across

Southeast Asia, in addition to ships and personnel), when the Malay experience

suggests that third parties could have been relied upon to bring spices to Malacca at

their own risk and expense.

The Portuguese never had much of a chance to try that method. So concerned

were they to take over the spice trade at its source that sending warships to the

Moluccas was Albuquerque's firs t official act after conquering Malacca in 1511. This,

then, was the second major difference between wealthy Malay Malacca and poor

Portuguese Malacca. The Malay sultanate welcomed traders of all nationalities,

passed laws to encourage trade, and beyond the imposition of a simple (low) tax it

generally did not interfere politically in the lives of foreign traders. (Notably, the one

occasion when foreign merchants really were targeted was in 1509, and this episode

led directly to the fall of the sultanate.) For their part, the Portuguese restricted

trade, essentially banned Muslim wholesalers from entering the port (by taking

their goods and burning their boats, if not by explicit policy), and hyper-regulated

trade even to the point of naming the individual legal spice-fleet captains. Malacca

under the sultans was a market; Malacca under the Portuguese was a corporate

headquarters. The Portuguese goal was no longer to run Malacca as a (nearly) free

port, but instead to make it the private and exclusive port of the Portuguese spice-

trading concern.615 To some extent, corruption and the undeniable need for

common trade goods (like food) compromised this vision, but the impressions of

disinterested Portuguese (like clergy) emphasize the degree to which even

imperfect monopoly harmed the large-scale, heterogenous markets that were so

necessary to keep Malacca thriving and lucrative.

This brings us to a third difference between Malacca under the sultans and

Malacca under the Portuguese: Malacca under the sultans reveled in its diversity,

while Portuguese Malacca tried to impose a much greater degree of uniformity

across all aspects of daily life. This is reflected in differing attitudes to religion and

trade mentioned above: the sultanate was live-and-let-live, both in terms of allowing

a proliferation of religious practice in the city and by welcoming all to come to the

port, pay tax, and trade at Malacca's market, while the Portuguese administration

embraced mass conversion and a single-player wholesale market.

But the homogenization of Malacca under the Portuguese extended into

many more realms than just these. For example, the Portuguese made an effort to

standardize weights and measures on the Portuguese model, no longer using the

615 For obvious reasons, Malacca never would become precisely this ideal exclusive base of
operations for the Portuguese. The city included many thousands of non-Portuguese citizens, a
majority of whom probably used the port, and it was of course dependent on outside imports of food.
Nonetheless, the Portuguese ambition remained to monopolize the wholesale spice trade that flowed
through Malacca.

weights known by local merchants but instead commanding that "Portuguese

weights be used, as are used as the norm in all the fortresses of [Portuguese]

India."616 In 15th-century Malacca, weights and measures were also regulated, but

numerous different measures were in use concurrently, including both the Chinese

catty and the Javanesegantang (a volume measure primarily used for dry rice).617

Or, again, the mere existence of four different shahbandars and at least two different

police chiefs [one to regulate Malays, and one for the Chinese settlement, though

there may have been others at times) speaks to the ways in which heterogeneity and

a diversity of tradition were accepted and even embraced in Malay Malacca.

The Portuguese, by contrast, implemented a single comprehensive port

policy overseen by the Captain of the city. Under the Malays, tax policy had

differentiated between (and catered to) the various trade communities, allowing

"presents" from the east but requesting cash fees (based on valuation of goods) from

the west; but under Portuguese administration, all were taxed equally and taxed in

cash. This change appears to have been almost accidental, a result of

thoughtlessness rather than careful policy consideration. Certainly Tome Pires

glosses this as if paying on percentage were only natural: “Pahang and all the places

as far as China, all the islands, Java, Banda, Moluccas, Palembang, and all [places] on

the island of Sumatra" paid dues in kind and not in cash, he wrote, before blithely

continuing that "afterwards it was decreed that on each 300 cruzados 15 should be

616 Letter from the King of Portugal to Dom Duarte de Meneses, 1584, reproduced in Paulo Jorge de
Sousa Pinto, The Portuguese and the Straits o f Melaka 1575-1619. Singapore: NUS Press, 2012, pp.
279-283. Pg. 280.

617 Undang-undang Melaka, fasl 29

paid in dues as a standard, and this the officials for the different nations collected for

the King."618 (This is a 5% tax rate, modestly lower than the 6% foreigner rate

applied during the days of the sultanate - but as Subrahmanyam has pointed out,

the amount almost immediately went back to 6%, then up to 8%. In the latter half of

the 16th century, the port tax fluctuated wildly as administrators tried to make

Malacca profitable; by the 1590s, goods headed to India started to be assessed exit

duties in addition to the usual import tax allowing access to the Sungai Melaka and

Malacca's market.619)

One final example of Portuguese efforts to rationalize the chaotic Malaccan

financial landscape is their attempt to regulate - and coin - Malaccan currency. We’ll

recall from chapter 4 of this work that moneychangers were a common feature in

Malacca under the sultanate, and that the only major currency prohibition at that

time involved the exchange of precious metals for coins or bullion of the same metal

(gold coins for gold dust, for example).620 Malaccans did use local tin for mundane

market transactions - buying baskets, rice, or fruit - but larger market deals

involved outside currency. Chinese cash and dirhams from a number of Muslim

states were especially common, though excavations have also found Venetian ducats,

13th-century coins from Samudra-Pasai (Sumatra), and Vietnamese currency in use

6iB pires, Suma Oriental, vol. 8 9 ,2 7 4 (folio 175r).

619 Sanjay Subrahmanyam, "Commerce and Conflict: Two Views of Portuguese Melaka in the 1620s."
Journal o f Southeast Asian Studies, Vol. 19, No. 1 (Mar., 1988), pp. 62-79. Pp. 64-65.

620 Undang-undang Melaka, fasl 30.

at the port.621 De Barros interpreted this situation as having "no coined money other

than that made of tin, which served only for ordinary market transactions” and this

may have been the view of Albuquerque as well, for he quickly ordered that money

should be coined for use in Portuguese Malacca.622 But Castanheda gave a slightly

different interpretation which seems to me to ring rather more true, especially since

most western traders paid Malaccan port duties in cash. He acknowledged that coins

were in general use in Malacca, but pointed out that most of them came from

Muslim realms to the west. It was for this reason, according to Castanheda, that "the

Governor General ordered some [new money] to be coined, not only that he might

extinguish the Moorish coin, but also in order that a coin might be struck with the

stamp and arms of his royal master."623 On this reading, the point was not so much

to provide a necessary (but absent) currency as it was to "extinguish" the "Muslim

coins” that were circulating - dinars, dirhams, coins from India, and possibly also

historic Sumatran coins with Arabic lettering on them.

But whatever the reason for minting new coins, the effect was to standardize

Malacca’s currency. Port taxes were payable only in the cruzado of Portuguese Asia.

Soldiers, sailors, and church officials were paid - when they were paid - in the same

coin. The wild laissez-faire economics that had obtained during the sultanate gave

way to a more normalized, more easily regulated economy, in which values were

621 J.K. Whitmore, "Vietnam and the Monetary Flow of Eastern Asia, Thirteenth to Eighteenth
Centuries.” In J.F. Richards, ed.. Precious Metals in the Later Medieval and Early Modern Worlds.
Durham, N.C.: 1983.

622 DeBarros, Decadas II, Book 2, chapter ii.

623 Fernao Lopes de Castanheda, Vol. II, quoted in Crawfurd, Descriptive Dictionary, 241-242.

easily compared (by using a single currency) and the office of official assayer

disappeared (because the only gold coins that “counted” as legal tender had already

been carefully valued and stamped by agents of the Portuguese crown). This was a

new monopoly, much as the trade in cloves was a new monopoly in the east; but in

this case, it was a monopoly over the control of money, something that is eminently

familiar to us today.

The overall effect of all of these changes was to make the central Malaccan

government far stronger under the Portuguese than it ever had been during the

time of the sultans. Instead of persistent factionalization - Muslim vs. Hindu, old

aristocracy vs. new financial elite - the Portuguese Estado da India had a single

coherent identity that revolved around Catholicism and a single set of social and

financial rules for all. In many ways, homogenization of Malacca's policy and culture

was a sign of the state's strength, an imposition of rational, fair, non-discriminatory

rules that applied equally to everybody. Today, such rules are the norm: in any given

state, we all follow the same tax law; we all marry the same number of wives (or

husbands, a situation less pertinent to Malacca’s case); we all use the same currency

in our daily transactions; and nobody applies to her own communal police chief for

special protection.

But if the Portuguese brought rationality to the Malaccan markets, they also

stifled much of the freedom and innovation that had stemmed from the city’s

enormous diversity and general laissez-faire attitude towards different practices

and cultures. While scholars of Portuguese Asia have focused on the many failures

that accompanied Portuguese attempts to bring "law and order” to the Estado da

India, then, Malaccans themselves must have been surprised to see just how

invasive and effective the new government was.

Portuguese administration differed from the Malay sultanate in one other

key way, and that is that the Portuguese had no historic links to East or Southeast

Asia. When in trouble, they could not call on neighbors to support them, and though

they did try to make regional friends the Portuguese were not particularly adept at

playing the "games" of Malay politics. In addition, Portuguese expulsion of the

Gujarati merchants inadvertently rerouted those Muslim traders to emerging new

ports which would directly compete with Malacca for both economic and political

power in the region; Aceh was the biggest gainer from this rerouting. Finally, by

sacking Malacca and pursuing Mahmud Shah out of the city, the Portuguese had

guaranteed that they would have Southeast Asian enemies for years to come.

Malacca inhabited a closely interlinked Malay world in which marriage

alliances, duties of fealty, and a complex tribute system all allied - and divided - the

various regional powers. By the end of the 15th century, Malacca was by far the most

important city in insular Southeast Asia, but it did not stand alone. Sultan Mahmud

Shah was personally related to the sultans of Pahang, Kampar, and Indragiri, for

example.624 Selangor, Perak, Klang, and Bruas paid set amounts of tin into the

624 Pires, Suma Oriental, vol. 89, 263 (folios 172r-172v).

Malaccan treasury every year;625 Rokan and Rupat, near the Aru islands, were

"obliged to help with men in time of war, without payment.”626 When Siam attacked

Pahang in the reign of Mahmud Shah, Malacca sent forty three-masted cruisers, the

city’s laksamana (admiral), the bendahara, and a selection of soldiers to help defend

the city.627 Mahmud Shah’s laksamana himself was from Palembang.628 Young men

from the Malaccan Malay aristocracy were often trained for higher positions by

being sent abroad within the Malay world; they joined local government, advised

less-important sultans, and oversaw projects funded by Malaccan money, all while

forcefully reminding the Portuguese of provincial Chinese mandarins.629

All this we get from Portuguese sources. Malay histories are less scrupulous

about their facts, but they certainly corroborate the general impression of a Malay

world characterized by close interrelationships. The Malay Annals, for example,

concerns itself with genealogies, intermarriages, and lines of descent from across

the Malay world (including Java); indeed, it might be more appropriate to call this

document a "society handbook" than the more conventional "annals.” C.C. Brown

counted "no less than twenty-eight Sultans mentioned in the Sejarah Melayu, to say

625 Ibid., 260-261 (folio 171v).

626 Ibid, 262 (folio 172r).

627 Royal Asiatic Society Sejarah Melayu Raffles MS 18, chapter XXI, folios 181-182.

628 For that matter, so was the Malaccan royal family, but the laksamana was a more recent arrival
and was seen in Malacca as a relative outsider. Pires, Suma Oriental, vol. 8 9 ,2 4 9 (folio 169r).

629 Indeed, they repeatedly used the word "mandarin" to describe these young men. See, e.g., Pires,
Eredia, Barrios, and Castanheda, all of whom use this vocabulary.

nothing of Rajas and Maharajas who were not Sultans."630 In the Annals, these

sultans moved from Riau to Java, Indragiri men married wives from Pahang, and

Malaccan bendaharas repeatedly outwitted neighboring rajas (or so we read).

Everybody who was anybody was related by marriage, or barring that by oaths of

fealty. Siam was a perpetual enemy of all concerned. If one gets any single abiding

impression from these disjoint tales of rulers and their families, it is of a flourishing,

unified, interconnected Malayo-Javanese world.

But the Portuguese were not interested in an expansive overseas Malay

empire, and of course they were especially uninterested in administering a

territorial empire contesting control of the Malay peninsula against the Siamese.

Portugal wanted Malacca's vibrant trade with none of its wider administrative

nightmares; they wanted a Straits port, but they had no need for the gardens of

Muar, much less the villages of Kedah.

Even when they recognized the importance of local alliances, though,

Portuguese administrators found that they were in no good position to forge such

friends. They did not share a religion with the surrounding sultans - indeed, they

were hostile to the prevailing Malay religion - and they certainly didn't share a

family history with them. Even if it were possible for cultural and linguistic barriers

to be overcome through goodwill, the usual way of cementing these relationships -

intermarriage - was unavailable to the all-male Portuguese administrators at

Malacca. How could they give daughters away, when there were no daughters to

630 Sejarah Melayu,, trans. C.C. Brown, pg. 8.

give? (Perhaps equally to the point, it seems doubtful that any Portuguese woman

would consent to such a match, even if she were in Malacca and in want of a


Meanwhile, because of the complicated, interrelated nature of broader Malay

politics, in the wake of the 1511 conquest the displaced Malacca sultanate was able

to call on debts and friendships from around the Malay world. In the immediate

aftermath of the Malaccan conquest, Mahmud Shah and his closest Malay followers

sought refuge in a number of different polities on the Malay peninsula and the island

of Sumatra, where they were welcomed. When they later regrouped at Johor (on the

southern tip of the Malay peninsula), they came under attack from local rivals

hoping to establish themselves as the new dominant sultanate in the region: the

Acehnese kidnapped Mahmud Shah, for example, and took him back to Aceh as a

prisoner.631 But though Aceh was indeed to rise to economic prominence in the

years to come, Malacca's aristocracy (now at Johor) had the provenance to

legitimize the upstart kingdom and rapprochement (and intermarriage) soon


The Portuguese at Malacca found themselves under almost constant attack

from the Johor sultanate (formerly Malacca's ruling family), but also from their

regional allies. So while Johor single-handedly attacked Malacca for the first decades

631 Diego do Couto, Vida de D. Paulo de Lima Pereira (Lisbon: Biblioteca de Classicos Portugueses vol.
XXXV, 1903), 108. The Sejarah Melayu corroborates this general idea by emphasizing the importance
of Mahmud Shah’s son in the battle for Malacca as well as the founding of Johor, but that text omits
any reference to Mahmud Shah’s capture by the Acehnese. Given that the Sejarah Melayu was w ritten
to glorify the Malacca-Johor sultanate, we should see this as a politic omission, not as a substantially
different view of history than that provided by the Portuguese sources on the matter.

of the 16th century, eventually the rump Malaccan population at Johor and the

ascendant Acehnese kingdom on Sumatra allied to rally a wide array of Malay forces

against the Portuguese. Aceh attacked the Malacca in 1537,1568,1573,1575,1582,

1615, and 1629, often with Johori help. In 1547 and 1551 Perak, Pahang, and Johor

all sailed together against Malacca; the 1551 attack took a page from Afonso

d'Albuquerque's book and besieged the city, forcing the Portuguese to reroute their

spice fleet to harry the Perak, Pahang, and Johor harbors so that the siege might be

lifted.632 In 1603 and again 1607 the sultan of Johor signed military agreements with

the Dutch (who were far better at local negotiation than were the Portuguese), and

the two powers conducted joint raids against Malacca.633 In 1606 Johor once again

staged a solo attack.634 Then the Acehnese sent a "powerful armada” against

Portuguese Malacca in 16 15.635 And in 1641, the coup de grace, Portuguese Malacca

was finally defeated by combined Dutch and Johori forces. (By the terms of their

agreement, the Dutch took control of the city, while Johor gained revenge after more

than 100 years of constant fighting.)

This litany of attack shows just how well-connected the Johor sultanate was

throughout the 16th century. Some of those connections were age-old, and it is in

particular no surprise that Pahang and Perak joined in several of Johor's attacks on

632 R.O. Winstedt and R.J. Wilkinson, A History o f Perak (Kuala Lumpur: The Malayan Branch of the
Royal Asiatic Society, 1974).18-19.

633 De Sousa Pinto, The Portuguese and the Straits o f Melaka, 249.

634 Leonard Y. Andaya, The Kingdom o f Johor 1641-1728 (Kuala Lumpur: Oxford University Press,
1975), 34.

635 De Sousa Pinto, The Portuguese and the Straits o f Melaka 1575-1619,251.

Portuguese Malacca. But other relationships had to be forged on the fly; the

closeness between Johor and Aceh was of this sort. To bring Aceh onside, Johor’s

aristocracy spent considerable time in physical visits to the Acehnese court,

boasting about their sultan's power, engaging in contests of skill and one-

upmanship, and arranging marriages. These activities yielded ever closer alliances,

until in the 1570s(?) Antonio Bocarro could write,

"at daybreak [the Portuguese] came across Aceh’s armada, which was
very large and powerful, because it consisted of two hundred sails,
which included forty royal galleys. The Rayale [Raja Ali, regent of
Johor] was aboard this armada and was bringing the daughter of the
King of Aceh, who was married to the little king [of Johor], who was
the Raiale's nephew.... This armada was coming to assist the Raiale
against [Portuguese] Melaka, and was so large that it amazed the

A different Portuguese source was presumably referring to the same union when he

spoke of "the nephew and heir of the King of Johor, with whom we say that the King

of Aceh had married a daughter and to whom he wished to restore the scepter of

Malacca, which had formerly belonged to his ancestors."637 Here we see the great

importance of these Southeast Asian alliances: by contracting a marriage that joined

the Acehnese and Johori royal families, Raja Ali of Johor was able to travel with

Aceh’s navy, and to direct that navy against his old enemy, the Portuguese. (Note

636 Bocarro, Ant6nio, "A Capitania de Amboino.” In A. da Sila Rego (ed.), Documentafdo para a Histdria
das Missoes do Padroado Portugues do Oriente/India. Lisbon: Agenda Geral do Ultramar, 1958, Vol. IV,
ch. 53, p. 335.

637 "Vida e Apcoes de Mathias de Albuquerque, cappitao e Vis Rey de Estado da India. Primeira e segunda
parte." Reprinted in Paulo Jorge de Sousa Pinto, The Portuguese and the Straits o f Melaka 1575-1619,

that this was neither the first nor the last Acehnese-Johori marriage of the 16th

century, though. Sometimes it's hard to tell one marriage from another, but in 1588

Luis de Gois de Lacerda wrote of "one of [the Sultan of Aceh's] sons, a young boy

[who] was entrusted to... the regent of Aceh, and the King of Johor has contracted to

marry one of his daughters to him."638 Because this is the opposite case to the earlier

scenario, which featured an Acehnese girl and a Johori boy, we know that this, at

least, was a different union.)

All of this warfare could not have been easy on the underpaid, sometimes-

starving Portuguese defenders of Malacca. Malay attacks on the city very often took

the forms of sieges (as the Portuguese themselves wrote) and indeed Portuguese

officials acknowledged that this was "a rather arduous and difficult business for our

men.”639 Yet the Portuguese did not help their cause by remaining aloof from nearby

regional powers, and their eagerness to resort to the gun was both legendary and

deeply damaging to the viability of the Malaccan port. Certainly the Chinese

continued to recognize the Johori sultan as the true king of Malacca for many years

after the conquest,640 and they repeatedly memorialized Portuguese belligerence:

"The Portuguese [Folangji, "Franks”], relying on big guns and crack troops,

plundered Malacca and other countries, and engaged in evil activities across the

638 Letter from Luis de Gois de Lacerda to the King [of Portugal], Cochin, January 1 0,1 58 8 . Reprinted
in Paulo Jorge de Sousa Pinto, The Portuguese and the Straits o f Melaka 1575-1619, 287.

639 Ibid., 277.

640 In 1521, for example, the Malaccan royal family (now in Johor) sent a "gold-leaf memorial and
local products" as tribute, and the gift was not only accepted but came with assurances that Siam
would be commanded to help expel the Portuguese (which command Siam chose to disregard, of
course, given that they and the old Malaccan aristocracy had never been close.) Ming shilu, Shizong
juan 3.14b-14a (25 July,1521).

seas/'641 they wrote in 1523. Or, again, "the Folangji are marked by their cruelty and

by their guile, and their weapons are better than those of all other tributary states

[yi]."642 Or yet again: "The merchants of Malacca [the Portuguese] have long been

known for their coarseness and ferocity.”643

Such a reputation was not accidental. Where the Malays cultivated close

relationships with neighbors near and far, the Portuguese did precisely the opposite.

In one particularly illustrative episode, for example, the (Portuguese) bendahara of

Malacca reported,

"once the fortress of Johor had been destroyed... the raja once again
built another.... I set fire to it and razed it to the ground. And I took the
remnants of the artillery that was left from the first defeat, that
consisted of twenty-five pieces, and going four leagues upriver, I burnt
and destroyed all the places and cities that I found, that were many.
And I sank more than one hundred large vessels that were loaded
with wares, and fifty of which were loaded with provisions."644

This obviously caused damage to the Johor contingent, that is, the old Malaccan

sultanate, and this was the object of the bendahara's raid. But most telling here is

the detail that "more than one hundred large vessels" were also targeted. When the

Malaccan sultanate established a new capital at Johor, a number of traders followed

641 Ming shilu, Shizong, juan 24.8a-b (6 April 1523)

642 Ming shilu, Wuzong juan 194.2b-3a (13 January 1521)

643 Ming shilu, Muzong, juan 38.6a-b (29 November 1569)

644 Letter from Dorn Henrique Bendara to the King [of Portugal], Melaka, December 16,1588.
Reprinted in Paulo Jorge de Sousa Pinto, The Portuguese and the Straits o f Melaka 1575-1619,287-

them to the new port. Instead of trying to entice these traders and their wares back

to Malacca, the Portuguese made enemies of them. Is it any wonder, then, that even

many of those who stayed in Malacca preferred the old Malay administration over

the new Portuguese one? For, in the words of one Portuguese chronicler, the kings

of Malacca at Johor "preserved the title and empire over those Malays who went

with them, and the souls and hearts of all who stayed in Malacca.”645


In this chapter I've highlighted four key ways that Portuguese Malacca

differed from its predecessor state:

1. Religious evangelization and discrimination against non-Catholics (especially

2. Monopolistic policies that stifled free trade,
3. Political rationalization that imposed a greater uniformity on all Malaccans,
4. Lack of experience with local alliances, coupled with a tendency to use
weapons to consolidate local control.

All of these imposed onerous burdens on Malacca’s residents. In the cases of

religious discrimination and the attempt to set up a trade monopoly, the burdens on

those Malaccans not in favored groups are obvious: Hindus found themselves

harassed in the streets, for example, and those merchants not approved by the

Portuguese state found their wares subject to confiscation or worse. Political

rationalization may have seemed sensible to the Portuguese at the time, but in

homogenizing an extremely heterogenous group of people it also forced new and

6+5 "Vida eApcoes de Mathias de Albuquerque, cappitao e Vis Rey de Estado da India. Primeira e segunda
parte." Reprinted in Paulo Jorge de Sousa Pinto, The Portuguese and the Straits o f Melaka 1575-1619,

frequently unwelcome behaviors on those people - as, for example, when Malays

found themselves subject to non-Malay customary laws regarding marriage, or

when long-haul merchants discovered that they were expected to pay tax to a

foreigner they didn't understand in a currency they didn't have.

But it was probably the experience of constant siege which most alienated

Malacca’s permanent residents. The attacks orchestrated by the sultanates at Johor

and Aceh (and their allies at Pahang, Kedah, Perak, Indragiri, Riau, and Batavia)

rarely involved outright land warfare. But for a city as dependent on imports as

Malacca was, a near-constant food embargo was deeply problematic; the Portuguese

themselves wrote of "the hardships of this work, and hunger," when describing the

state of Malacca under siege.646 In addition to hunger, a second and very intended

consequence of repeated naval siege was that major trade shipments could not

easily enter Malacca's harbor. Chinese, Malay, and Kling ships thus diverted to

secondary ports nearby - including both Johor and Aceh. (This explains why there

were "more than one hundred vessels loaded with wares" in the Johor river when

the Portuguese attacked in 1588, despite Johor’s less convenient position with

regard to westward trade in particular. It very much explains Aceh's rise to

prominence as the most important Southeast Asian entrepot in the latter half of the

16th century, too.)

Of course these four changes under Portuguese administration often worked

together to exacerbate an already bad situation. For example, religious

6+6 Bishop of Melaka, Dom Joao Ribeiro Gaio, to the King [of Portugal], Melaka, December 3 1,1 58 8 .
Reprinted in Paulo Jorge de Sousa Pinto, The Portuguese and the Straits o f Melaka 1575-1619,294.

discrimination and monopolistic aspirations together led to a Portuguese policy of

taking or sinking any major Gujarati merchant ships that came through the straits of

Malacca (or, foolishly, to Malacca itself). This had follow-on effects on the city's tax

receipts, too, since it meant fewer boats in the harbor and fewer goods being valued,

taxed, and traded. Or, as another example, though the intermittent loss of neutral

shipping was primarily due to naval blockades enforced by Johor and others, it only

worsened the preexisting problems caused by Portuguese attempts to monopolize

the spice trade. Once again, both factors worked in concert to limit the amount of

trade taking place in Malacca. And of course, every trader who turned away from

Malacca meant one less shipment coming into the city's market, one less set of

wares for others to purchase, and just a little less to recommend Malacca as the

premier market town joining east to west - a vicious cycle that itself played a role in

encouraging merchants to seek out other exchange ports. Taken together, these

factors led to a situation in which Malacca's income was insufficient to pay even

those Portuguese soldiers and clergy who were officially stationed in the city.

One final factor in Malacca's decline was common to both the period of the

sultanate and the period of Portuguese occupation, and this was that Malaccans

were mobile. The population was made up of merchants, sea people (the Malay

orang laut, the people Tome Pires called Celates), and even the odd Chinese criminal

escaping the law in his homeland.647 Parameswara and his Malay followers had

647 Ming shilu, Shizong, juan 363.5b-6b (1 September 1550)

come to Malacca from Sumatra at the turn of the 15th century (and, for that matter,

had decamped to China for several months in 1411); the city's Chinese community

began with Zheng He's missions in the early part of the 1400s; Gujaratis and Klings

were patently from the Indian subcontinent. Despite Malacca's enormous 1511

population,648 then, essentially nobody was truly local.

Under the Malay sultanate, Malacca dramatically grew in size as these

rootless people collected at a convenient port where they were allowed to do much

as they pleased. The law, such as it was, ensured the illegality of basic transgressions

like theft and (in most cases) murder, and it regulated certain kinds of financial

transactions so that trade could flow smoothly. Beyond this, however, residents

were mostly left to their own devices in a place where the potential for profits was

very great. For Tome Pires, the city's growth was almost entirely due to immigration

as merchants sought the economic opportunities available there: "Merchants and

sea-traders realized how much difference there was in sailing to Malacca, because

they could anchor safely there in all weathers, and could buy from the others when

it was convenient. They began to come to Malacca all the time because they got

returns. The king of Malacca [Muzaffar Shah?] dealt kindly and reasonably with

them, which is a thing that greatly attracts merchants, especially the foreigners. He

648 Albuquerque estimated that Malacca and its surrounding countryside had 100,000 dwellings in
1511; Castanheda reckoned there were 30,000 houses in Malacca proper. The Sejarah Melayu claims
that under Mahmid Shah Malacca had expanded to "an unbroken line of habitations" along the Malay
coast totaling 190,000 people. In 1509, Tome Pires wrote that the sultan could control 100,000
fighting men. These numbers are broadly consistent, especially if we remember that Mahmud Shah
had wide-ranging powers over many of his neighboring territories and over settlements across the
straits on the Sumatran coast. His armies, in particular, drew from across the Malayo-Javanese world
and so in times of need these could be larger than Malacca’s port-city alone would have been able to
support. Crawfurd, A Descriptive Dictionary o f the Indian Islands & Adjacent Countries, 247; Sejarah
Melayu, trans. C.C. Brown,157; Pires, Suma Oriental, vol. 8 9 ,2 6 0 (folio 171v).

took pleasure in being in the city much more often than he went hunting, so that he

could hear and decide about the abuses and tyrannies which Malacca creates on

account of its great position and trade. And for this reason, many merchants built

houses in Malacca and made it their home, and the town became a city."649

Yet the threat of mass emigration had always bubbled under Malacca’s

surface. One reason the sultans didn't more strongly enforce a unified vision of the

city is precisely because they worried that their subjects would rebel, not in armed

conflict perhaps, but by taking themselves elsewhere. When the Bolognese Ludovico

da Varthema visited Malacca in 1506, some years before the Portuguese invasion, he

remarked that the sultan was hampered in his attempts to control infighting at court,

because "when the king wishes to interfere with them [the Malay and Javanese

population of Malacca], they say that they will disinhabit this land, because they are

men of the sea."650 Once again we see that the diversity and mobility that

characterized the Malaccan population served the city for good and ill, bringing

wealth and opportunity on the one hand, and factionalization and political

instability on the other.

When the Portuguese replaced the Malays as rulers of Malacca, of course they

inherited this factionalized, rootless population. Perhaps unsurprisingly, when they

introduced new strictures that sought to reshape the city and its residents in a mold

that was more consistent with their vision of a well-ordered Christian state, many of

Malacca's mobile residents really did leave. By the mid-16th century, Duarte Barbosa

649 Pires, Suma Oriental, vol. 8 9 ,2 4 6 (folio 168v).

650 Ludovico da Varthema, ed. Badger, 227.

was referring to "the inhabitants who remained there” to describe those Malaccans

who continued to live in the heart of the city (and depopulation was taking place

from "suburbs" like Muar and Hilir, sometimes called Ylir, too),651 and Catholic

clerics were sounding the alarm bells about the degree to which Portuguese policy

was driving away "the natives" and "the infidels" (though, of course, they never

wrote about how their own evangelizing activities may have been contributing to

the exodus).

In the 16th century, it was easy to flee. Johor was nearby, and home to the old

Malaccan court. The Aru islands were tempting. Indragiri (on the Sumatran coast)

had a relatively good port, access to Minangkabau gold, and good sea-access; its king

was related to the Malaccan royal family.652 Pahang, on the Malay peninsula, had a

“good city," a sound port, and "people accustomed to trade"653 (though it did suffer

from constant warfare with the Siamese pushing south654 - but then, Malacca itself

was constantly engaged in a variety of naval skirmishes that affected the quality of

life in the city). And Aceh was soon to emerge as a key regional port, one that was

particularly friendly to the Muslim traders so antagonized by the Portuguese. All of

these cities had far more open trade policies than Portuguese Malacca. All welcomed

foreigners from a variety of different lands.

651 Duarte Barbosa, Vol. 11,179.

652 Pires, Suma Oriental, vol. 8 9 ,2 6 3 (folios 172r-172v).

653 Ibid. 263 (folio 172v)

654 See, for example, the Royal Asiatic Society Sejarah Melayu Raffles MS 18, folios 154-155.

The Portuguese empire in Asia suffered from a number of overarching

problems, including growing corruption, feudal administrative organization in a

world that was rapidly modernizing, and simple geographical constraints that made

the empire difficult and costly to operate. But in Malacca specifically, the Portuguese

also had to contend with a native population that was "native" only in the loosest

sense of the term. Few Malaccans had any attachment to the place itself; if they

found conditions there unappealing, they also found it easy to leave.

In this, the Portuguese were simply unlucky. Other powers colonized (and

Christianized) to great effect; the Spanish in Manila offer a particularly nice

comparison because of the religious parallels with Portuguese Malacca, but the

Dutch in Batavia and, later, the British in Singapore also come readily to mind here.

All of these colonizers imposed new laws on local people, and to varying degrees

they all discriminated on grounds of race and religion. The Spanish in particular

were no less forceful in their attempts to monopolize lucrative trade, while their

conversion program was far more forceful than that of the Portuguese. But unlike

Malaccans, the residents of the island of Luzon had nowhere else to go when they

found Spanish administration problematic. They truly were native to the island, and

so their wider familial and communal links were relatively proscribed. It should not

surprise us to find that while the Portuguese were driven from Malacca in 1641,

Manila remained under Spanish rule for more than 250 more years.


One common framework for understanding premodern Southeast Asian

politics is the mandala, conceived of as a circle of political power of a size that

waxed and waned with the fluctuating fortunes of Southeast Asian rulers and their

states.655 This model presents rajas, kings, and sultans as ruling from the center of

the circle, with power and influence extending outwards insofar as they were able to

exert military or political power over outlying areas; the model contrasts with

European ideas of statehood by defining polities in terms of their centers instead of

their borders. Importantly, in Southeast Asia, areas of political influence could

overlap (an overlapping of the circles, if you will) without occasioning a territorial

war. It is in this context that early Malacca paid tribute to Siam, Pahang, and China,

all at the same time, and it is in this context, too, that later Malacca under the sultans

received tribute and promises of men from places as distant as Java, the Aru Islands,

Perak, the Borneo coast, and Makassar. It would be wrong to say that in 1490

Malacca was the regional power that controlled, say, Makassar. But it is right to say

that it was a power that extended its influence very far afield.

655 This model is comprehensively and compellingly fleshed out in O.W. Wolters' History, Culture, and
Region in Southeast Asian Perspectives. It features throughout the book, but the third appendix
particularly elaborates on the idea and why it was necessary to come up w ith a new way to describe
early Southeast Asian statehood. Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 1982.

Of course Malacca under the sultans was an economically powerful state. Yet

its regional power was much more bound up in relations of marriage, vassalage, and

personal fealty than it was in wealth or spice. This is one reason why so many

Malays followed the Malaccan sultans to Johor, and why those that didn't could

nonetheless be said to have dedicated their "souls and hearts" to the Johori kings,

successors to the Malaccan sultans.656 It is also a key part of the explanation for why

the fall of the Malaccan sultanate resonated across the Malayo-Javanese world such

that communities near and far besieged the city - over and over and over again -

and viewed Portuguese traders with such suspicion despite welcoming merchants

from so many other places. In China, Tidore, and Ternate, in Makassar, Java, and

Aceh, locals with tributary or marital links to the Malaccan sultanate remembered

the Portuguese conquest of their capital and declared the Portuguese "boorish,"

"uncivilized," "cruel," and especially "illegitimate."657 The Portuguese Estado da

India, for its part, did an exceptionally poor job cultivating relationships with those

same locals, including traders who might have buttressed Malacca’s flailing


This characteristically Southeast Asian form of weak state governance was

replicated at the local level in Malacca itself. Instead of demanding conformity or

direct personal loyalty, Malacca’s sultans ran the city as a series of interlocking

656 "Vida e Agcoes de Mathias de Albuquerque, cappitao e Vis Rey de Estado da India. Primeira e segunda
parte." Reprinted in Paulo Jorge de Sousa Pinto, The Portuguese and the Straits o f Melaka 1575-1619,

657 Of course, the Portuguese established forts in the spice islands anyway. Nonetheless, we can trace
many of the conflicts between, e.g., the Sultan of Ternate and the Portuguese Captain there back to
agitation begun by traders from Aceh, Java, and Johor. For more, see Malyn Newitt, A History of
Portuguese Overseas Expansion, 1400-1668, (Routledge: New York, 2005), 150.

communities, each with their own local norms and leaders. Status and hierarchy

were of great importance in 15th-century Malacca, but the rules governing

interaction across these communities were almost nonexistent: it was understood

that a Javanese slave was lower in the hierarchy than a Javanese amok and freeman,

who was in turn underneath the Javanese shahbandar, but there was simply no

Malaccan law that could decide between the competing rights of the Javanese and

the Cambay (Kling) shahbandars if they found themselves in disagreement. This is

one reason why lS^-century Malacca was so violent and so prone to political


Malacca was rich; there’s no doubt about this. The light hand of the law

(especially with regard to economic transactions) and the laissez-faire nature of the

port encouraged trade and financial innovation to an extent unparalleled in any

other contemporary market. (For example, as far as I can determine, Malacca was a

one-off in being a major trade hub that used foreign currency indiscriminately and

without prejudice, and its very modest market in shipping futures is frankly

astounding.) Yet we must not idealize the city overmuch: it was violent - excessively

violent, indeed - and very unfree, especially for those who found themselves

indebted to others. The Portuguese ran the once-flourishing economy into the

ground and continued to endorse the slave trade in Malacca, but they also spent

considerable effort trying to pacify the city in order to make it less wild-west and

more Christian West (not that the Christian West was all that peaceful in the 1500s,

of course). In this they largely succeeded, but only at great expense, and only

because many tens of thousands of residents actually left the city when they found

that they'd have to live under the more coercive Portuguese regime.

The answer to the question of where Malacca went, then, is that it dispersed

into the sea-space around it. Merchants left for a number of lesser ports, spices

moved along a multiplicity of different routes, and the great 15th-century entrepot

quietly disappeared. The end came not with the bang of conquest but with the

thousand little whimpers of unhappiness caused by the new Portuguese


But we might also say that the great Malaccan market disappeared, not into

other similar cities, but into modernity and new conventions of statecraft. The

uniquely laissez-faire model of port governance that characterized Malacca under

the sultans turned out to be very weak when confronted by an arm of a strong

Portuguese state. Yet Malacca was not in fact, militarily weak; in terms of cannons

and blowguns, elephants, muskets, ships, and the number of soldiers it could

command, and the size of its population generally, Malacca was strong. Rather, the

city was weak because of the disunited nature of its politics and populations. The

personal and economic freedoms that made Malacca's market so vibrant also

brought vulnerabilities that were easily exploited by the more unified, more solid

Portuguese state of 1511 (if not of, say, 1641). Indeed, this pattern of siding with

one faction against another would come to help numerous European powers to sidle

their way into Asia. But, as the Portuguese discovered, efficient administration was

at odds with Malacca's profitable (but chaotic) market. As the world modernized,

the great multiethnic, divided, wealthy, wild port was simply left behind.


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