Chapter 4, Part 2
At the turn of the 16th century, the Portuguese significantly increased their presence around the Indian Ocean by conquering strategic ports in the region. It was Afonso de Albuquerque, by the order of King Manuel I of Portugal, who led naval military campaigns to capture Aden (the gateway to the Red Sea) and Ormuz (the gateway to the Persian Gulf, known as Hormuz today). Albuquerque’s conquest of Goa, however, was never part of the king’s plan although in the decades that followed the Portuguese colony in the Indian subcontinent would prove to be a very important colonial post.
The same king ordered Albuquerque to capture Malacca, a major port strategically located in Mainland Asia separated from Sumatra by the Strait of Malacca – a busy sea route connecting East Asia and the Indian Ocean. Controlling the trade route from India to China was the main goal of the king, but soon the Portuguese would learn that they were not the only major power seeking control of the historically lucrative sea route.
Established in the early 15th century by Parameswara, a prince from Sumatra who fled from Singapore following the attack of Majapahit, a regional powerhouse based in Java, Malacca grew into an important port within decades. In 1509 the Portuguese made their first ever contact with Malacca, and two years later Afonso de Albuquerque himself set sail from Goa and led a mission to conquer Malacca.
After sustaining assaults for about one month, Malacca eventually fell into the Portuguese hands and its sultan fled to Bintan, an island near Singapore which is now part of Indonesia. However Portuguese control of Malacca was heavily challenged by regional powers, from Java-based Sultanate of Demak to Sumatra-based Sultanate of Aceh. Malacca was also a tributary state of the Ming dynasty at that time, therefore the victory of the Portuguese over the ruler of Malacca led to increased hostilities towards Portuguese merchants and explorers in China.
For decades Portuguese Malacca’s hostile neighbors had attempted to defeat the European power, but none of them prevailed. However such prolonged enmity helped new trade ports along the Strait of Malacca to thrive as many Javanese, Sumatran and Chinese merchants chose to avoid Malacca altogether. The Portuguese determination to defend its possession brought unintended consequences and resulted in the failure to develop Malacca as the most prominent port in the region.
In the late 16th century following the Dutch revolt against the king of Spain and Portugal, the Portuguese shifted their staple port from Antwerp (at that time the most important staple port in the Low Countries) to Hamburg, effectively diminishing access for the Dutch to the spice trade. This unfortunate situation was cleverly exploited by the Dutch merchants to launch their own sea expeditions to the Far East to procure spices straight from their sources. In 1602, the VOC (Dutch East India Company) was founded. Considered to be the world’s first multinational company and the first company to issue stock, the VOC possessed quasi-governmental powers including the right to wage war, negotiate treaties, mint its own coins, and establish colonies. Its massive and sophisticated operations led to its stellar growth and brought unprecedented wealth to the Dutch, which for long had been under the shadows of other European powers.
Toward the mid-17th century, the Dutch posed a serious challenge to the Portuguese hegemony in Asia, and by 1641 they successfully defeated the Iberian power in Malacca. During their colonial rule, the crimson-colored Stadthuys was built at the foot of the hill where a Portuguese fort once stood. However, developing Malacca was not a priority for the Dutch as they focused more on Batavia (modern-day Jakarta) as the center of their vast trading networks in Asia. Through the VOC, and later the Kingdom of the Netherlands, the Dutch maintained its colonial grip in Malacca until 1824 when the port was exchanged with Bencoolen (modern-day Bengkulu in Indonesia), at that time a British possession.
Centuries of trade through the Strait of Malacca not only brought European powers to the once thriving port of Malacca. Merchants from East, Southeast and South Asia, as well as the Middle East came to claim their share of fortunes generated in the city. As Malacca’s influenced waned, some of the foreign traders moved elsewhere. But the rest decided to remain, creating a Peranakan culture which is very much alive in many port cities across Southeast Asia, from Singapore to Semarang in Java.
Vestiges of Malacca’s foreign influences are apparent at the narrow and humid streets of the city today. An ornate Chinese temple with smoke from burned incense sticks wafting through its prayer halls, a whitewashed mosque with green multi-tiered roofs filled with devotees, a yellow Hindu temple a few meters away from the mosque, a crimson Dutch Protestant church next to the Stadthuys, and a towering Catholic Church of St. Francis Xavier are a testament to Malacca’s colorful, albeit at times troublesome, past.
Click here for the full list of stories from the Spice Odyssey series.