Malacca (Malay: Melaka) is an old, historically important city at the west coast of Malaysia, some 200 kilometers north of Singapore, and namegiving for the 'Strait of Malacca'. It was almost for 450 years under European colonial rule. In the past it was the most important seaport in the whole region, but lost this status due to competition from George Town on Penang Island and Singapore, and because of the fact that Malacca's harbour is not deep enough for the big container ships of our time.
St. Paul's Church
Sunrise on top of St. Paul's Hill. Image by Asienreisender, 2005
The strategical importance of the place came due to it's position along the trade route of the Indian-Chinese trade. Malacca's harbour provides a protected place for ships, covered by some islands against tropical storms.
The city is divided by the Malacca River. It's surrounding was originally coined by tropical rainforest, but the forest is long since cleared and replaced by mostly oil palm plantations. There are still rich tin resources in the mountains near Malacca. Together with George Town on Penang Island, Malacca gained status as a World Cultural Heritage of the UNESCO in 2008.
At clear days it's possible to see the coast of Sumatra on the other side of the Strait of Malacca from here. It's less than 50 kilometers away.
The History of Malacca
It's remarkable that Malacca was originally founded by Chinese seafarers as a safe harbour for the pepper trade from the Moluccas. It developed then to a trade port for Chinese, Indian and Arabic trade ships. Until the 15th century Malacca remained kind of a Chinese colony.
The Sultanate of Malacca
The Sultan's Palace in Malacca, a replika. Image by Asienreisender, 2005
In the years short after 1400 CE Malacca became the center of the Malay world. The place became a sultanate, initiated by Ikandar Shah, a renegade nobleman. Within the 15th century Malacca became the capital of a territory which covered great parts of the Malay Peninsula, parts of Sumatra and the Riau Archipelago. In this time Islam was introduced to Malacca and Malaya (around 1430 CE).
The rise and territorial expansion of Ayutthaya raised fears of occupation through the Siamese. It seems that the Malacca elities still maintained good relations with the Chinese, who granted Malacca protection. Though, in 1446 a Siamese army tried to invade Malacca, which was confounded successfully by the defenders. Ten years later the Ayutthaya/Siamese launched another attack, this time a naval one. But again, the Malacca forces gained advantage and forced the Siamese to return home.
The Portuguese Era
The first Europeans who reached Southeast Asia where the Portuguese. They managed to surround Africa's 'Cape of the Good Hope' and followed the coastlines first to India and continued then to Southeast Asia. The Portuguese were the first Europeans who had a trade post in Ayutthaya, which they called 'Siam', as Simon de la Loubere writes in his 'Depiction of the Kingdom of Siam'.
Afonso de Albuquerque (1453-1515) with his coat of arms.
Europes only access to the Oriental spice sources in this time were monopolized by Venetian merchants. The Portuguese now tried to establish their own spice trade. In 1509 a Portuguese envoy of King Manuel I arrived in Malacca for negotiations. Powerful Muslim merchants and Tamil (also Muslim) Indians, who were influential at the sultan's court in Malacca, preached a holy war against the "infidel" Christians. They made up a plot to kill the Portuguese envoy, capture his men and take over the Portuguese fleet. The plot leaked out and the Portuguese could escape from Malacca, though losing some of their men being captured (and some killed, as other sources tell).
Two years later the Portuguese came back, led by the viceroy of the new Portuguese colony of Goa in India, Afonso de Albuquerque. He came with 18 ships and 1,400 men. The 'Flor de la Mar', of which there is a replica to see at the banks of the Malacca River nowadays, was the flagship of the fleet. Albuquerque started negotiations and demanded the formerly captured Portuguese back and the permission to build a fortress.
The Malacca elites tried to delay the negotiations, believing they were capable to stand a Portuguese assault. They weren't. After three month inconclusive negotiations, the Portuguese attacked Malacca. Within one month the Portuguese captured Malacca, stiffling all resistance. The Malays were bombed with the Portuguese ship cannons, but possessed themselves cannons to shoot back. Nevertheless, they lost and didn't gain back Malacca for the next almost 450 years, in which it remained under the rule of changing European powers.
The 'Flor de la Mar'
The replica of the 'Flor de la Mar' (Flower of the Sea) at the riverbanks of Malacca River. It's a museum ship for visitors.
The Flor de la Mar was built in 1502 and the flagship of the Portuguese fleet at Malacca in 1511. With a weight of 400 tons it was about the double size of the other ships of the fleet and one of the best vessels of the time. Designed for the run to Goa/India, the carrack (nau) came repeatedly in trouble when being loaded. In 1511 it was considered not to be a safe vessel. After the conquest of Malacca, Albuquerque was on the ship with the destination Lisboa. The Flor de la Mar was loaded with treasures from Malacca as well as with gifts from the Siamese king of Ayutthaya for king Manuel I of Portugal. It got lost then in a storm at the coasts of north Sumatra. The American treasure hunter Robert Marx claims that this wreck contains the most valuable treasures of any ship which ever sunk.
Learning from the difficulties the big ship had and improving it, the Flor de la Mar became the prototype of the 16th century India nau.
Images and photocompostion by Asienreisender, 2005, 2015
Albuquerque lost the 'Flor de la Mar' 1511 on his way back to Goa in a heavy storm.
The conquerers built a strong fortification, the 'Fortaleza de Malaca', which was completed in 1512. The only remaining part of the fort is one of it's gates, called 'A Formosa'.
The Portuguese rule of Malacca faced a number of problems. Malacca was never self-sufficient and depending on imports from Asian trading partners. It came to scarcities because the old Malay trade network could not fully be restorated by the new rulers. Money was short as manpower was, and the administrative system was inefficient. A part of the Asian traders now bypassed Malacca and went to Johor at the southern tip of the peninsula, which was founded by the former sultan of Malacca. Particularly the Chinese traders boycotted Malacca from now on.
Also the secondary Portuguese aim, to spread out Christianity, couldn't be achieved successfully. Islam was already established some 80 years before and Muslims are not allowed to convert to any other religion (or to become atheists).
Malay forces repetedly tried to recapture Malacca, but all the attempts failed.
Besides the conquest of Malacca triggered great hostility with the Chinese empire. The prosecution of Portuguese in China lasted until some 30 years after the conquest of Malacca. Many Portuguese who came to China were tortured and killed.
The Dutch Rule over Malacca
Despite all problems the Portuguese ruled Malacca until 1641 in a really hostile surrounding. The Dutch East India Company (Verenigde Oostindische Compagnie, VOC) started from the early 17th century on to fight the Portuguese and tried to capture Malacca from them. Several attempts were launched, some battles fought. Also the sultanate of Aceh, an emerged power in north Sumatra, attacked Malacca heavily in 1629, sending several hundred ships. This mission was a complete desaster for the Malays. According to Portuguese sources, they lost all their ships and 19,000 men. Malacca was then captured in an attack initiated by the VOC in alliance with the sultan of Johor and the sultanate of Aceh.
The 'Jonker Walk' in Malacca's Chinatown. Image by Asienreisender, 2005
The Dutch East India Company nevertheless didn't intend to make Malacca it's main base in the 'East Indies'. They strongly built up Batavia (nowadays Jakarta in Java as the center of their colonial empire. That led to a further decline of the importance of Malacca as a trade center. To keep Malacca was for the Dutch rather meaned to keep out other European competitors from occupying the strategically important place. Every European power who came here tried to gain a monopoly in the world region.
An interesting footnote of history: the Portuguese were the first European colonialists in Southeast Asia, and the last. They went out of East Timor in 1975. General Suharto's Indonesia then immediately occupied the small country and the Indonesian army committed horrible war crimes there. But that's another story.
Due to the agreements between the VOC and the sultanates of Johor and Aceh, the Dutch rule of Malacca didn't face as much opposition from the Malay world around. The following decline of Malacca's position promoted not only Batavia but also the Malayan port of Johor.
British Rule over Malacca
'A Formosa', the old gate of the Fortaleza de Malaca. Image by Asienreisender, 2005
The British colonial era in Southeast Asia started with captain Francis Light's foundation of George Town on Penang Island in 1786. When it came to the Napoleonic Wars in Europe, the Netherlands became occupied by France. In response of that the British colonial power took over Malacca in 1795 as well as Java in 1805 to prevent them from falling into French hands. After Napoleon's final defeat at Waterloo (1815) the British gave back Malacca to the Dutch in 1818. The Dutch ruled Malacca then only another six years until 1824, when they gave the place finally over to the British, according to the Dutch-English treaty of 1824. In 1826 it became part of the 'Straits Settlements' together with Penang, Singapore and Dinding (known for Pangkor Island).
During the first British rule over Malacca the British authorities were concerned of giving Malacca back. They expected Malacca would jeopardize the development of George Town. Besides there was the foundation of Singapore already in planning. So, there were British plans virulent to destroy the city completely, and resettle the local population to Penang Island. In 1807 captain William Farquhar got the order to demolish the old Portuguese fort. Just in this time Stamford Raffles appeared in Malacca. He managed to annullate the plans for demolition of the whole place and it's depopulation. He also saved the archway 'A Formosa' of the Fortaleza de Malaca.
Touristic Sights in Malacca
The old city of Malacca, coined in the Portuguese and Dutch colonial time, is a place with many sights. At the red square is the Christ Church from 1753. Nearby is the old town hall (Stadthuys) from 1650, housing the historical museum now. Other sights from the European colonial times are 'A Famosa', the old Portuguese fortress gate which survived the destruction of the 'Fortaleza' by the British and are among the oldest European architectural remains in Asia; St. Francis Xavier Church, St. John's Fort, the ruins of the St. Paul's Church on St. Paul Hill, two more churches and the Victoria Fountain.
The 'Red Square' in Malacca
Malacca's Red Square with Christ Church, the center of the old town. Image by Asienreisender, 2010
There is also a really pretty and clean Chinatown in Malacca, in which many old Chinese buildings are to see. There are some Chinese temples, among them Cheng-Hoon-Teng, of whom is said it would be the oldest Chinese temple in whole Malaysia.
The Sri-Poyyatha Temple represents an Indian piece of architecture.
There are also some traditional Malay buildings to visit. Most of them are mosques. The sultan's palace is a reconstruction, housing the cultural museum of regional history.
The whole historical part of Malacca can best and easily be explored by walking, because the distances are short.
Although the old part of Malacca is not very big and it's possible to visit it all around by walking, it's not too small either. There is a large number of old, colonial and other buildings left. They all look pretty well, means restoration has done a lot here - more than in Georgetown on Penang Island, comparably.
The old cannons flank the former fortress gate 'A Formosa'. They seem to be from the 16th century. The old Stadthuys houses a colonial museum nowadays. The museum is defenitely worth to visit. In front of it stands the clock tower. Catholic churches, Iberian style and a water wheel, a great invention. I have seen a similar one once in Spain.
European houses still coin the inner town, some of them are still clearly from the Dutch times until 1824.
Among the historical buildings are also several Chinese temples. The Chinese were in Malacca before the Europeans arrived and they coined the place considerably until today.
In 2005 there were several antique shops with a great variety of old furniture and other equipment like pictures, smaller statues, clocks, tribal artefacts etc.
Images and photocomposition by Asienreisender, 2005, 2010, 2015
From the 19th century on, arts and crafts more and more disunited in the industrial process for the sake of efficiency. These housefronts represent colonial building styles until the mid 20th century. Meanwhile, as we can see in the following photocomposition 'Contemporary Malacca', architecture is merely naked functionality, subdued under economical aspects.
The masc top right was one of many of the kind in an antique shop; the locus was sitting on a car and the red, Chinese lantern below was adorning one of the roads in Malacca, a remain of Chinese New Year in February.
Images and photocomposition by Asienreisender, 2005, 2015
Typically for modern Malaysia are all these settlements who consist of 'cloned' terraced houses for a growing middle-class. When driving on a bus through the country, they appear as trabant towns around all the bigger cities, often of a considerable size. Many new mosques, usually built in a 'postmodern' design accompany them.
One can walk the Malacca River several kilometers upwards on a paved promenade. Here and there is a bridge crossing the river, and, as to see on the last photo, a park with tourist boats and a maglev train.
Images and photocomposition by Asienreisender, 2005, 2010, 2015
Chinese run the economy of Malaysia. With their international business networks they are extraordinarily successfull. One finds Chinese in almost all positions in society, except in the state administration. The Malaysian state is discriminating any other ethnicity and promoting exclusively Malaysians with Malay roots, of whom practically everyone is muslim. However, without the Chinese and the oil riches along the Malaysian east coast, Malaysia would be certainly an as chaotic country as neighbouring Indonesia is.
The Chinese monk was specialized on producing a weired hocus pocus for tourists to lure a few ringgits out of them. Left of him is a Chinese ancestor shrine. Any of the red/golden tablets is a symbol for a deceased.
Images and photocomposition by Asienreisender, 2005, 2010, 2015
For more images, click the chapters to open the photocompositions. All images and photocompositions by Asienreisender, 2005, 2010, 2015
The Legend of Hang Tuah
Hang Tuah is a mystical hero in Malay history. According to Malay sources he allegedly lived in the 15th century in Malacca. He is described as a trustworthy subject of the sultan of Malacca. In contemporary Malaysia he is considered as a national hero. It's not sure if Hang Tuah really existed.
Hang Tuah is described as an admiral of the fleet of Malacca, and as an successful hero in wars against other sultanates as that of Majapahit.
Hang Tuah, in the Historical Museum in Kuala Lumpur.
Opponents at the court envied him for his success and popularity and made a plot up, accusing him of having an affair with one of the sultan's harem's wifes. The angry sultan sentenced Hang Tuah to death, without even verifying the accusations. Though, the death penalty was only pretended but not accomplished by a high ranked official who hid Hang Tuah in a secret place.
Hang Jebat, Hang Tuah's best friend, believing his friend was dead, called for revenge and unveilled a revolt against the unjust sultan. The sultan commanded his followers to kill Hang Jebat, but nobody was able to fulfill the command, for Hang Jebat was a too strong and skilled warrior. In this situation Hang Tuah reappeared from his hideout to fulfill the sultan's command. He was the only man in the sultanate who was strong enough to kill Hang Jebat. Hang Jebat, who was happy to see his friend alive, got nevertheless killed by Hang Tuah.
Now law-and-order was reestablished, Hang Tuah had proved his loyalty and could go back to the sultan's palace. In the classic interpretation the absolute loyality to a Malay ruler is the highest virtue, and Hang Tuah's acting the highest 'role model'. The sultan was the highest religious and political leader, his rule legitimated by god.
As mentioned, Hang Tuah is still considered a national hero and idol. Many streets in Malaysia are named after him as well as a Malaysian battle ship. Also in neighbouring Indonesia Hang Tuah is highly referred and also an Indonesian battle ship is called after him. The story also appears in a number of popular variations as cartoons, movie clips etc.
The 'Legend of Hang Tuah' is a classical example for distorted values. A primary virtue, friendship, is subdued under an abstract principle, the blind obedience under an authority, without thinking or considering the circumstances. Tyrants tend to promote lackeys and sycophancy around them.
The real 'hero', to use this term, might rather be Hang Jebat.
The Strait of Malacca
The 'Strait of Malacca' is actually named after the medieval sultanate of Malacca (see above). It is the narrow stretch of water between Sumatra and the Malay Peninsula.
A great deal of world's goods and raw materials are transported through the Strait of Malacca. Here between Butterworth and Penang Island. Image by Asienreisender, 2012
About 2,000 big container freighters pass through the Strait of Malacca every day. That's about 25% of the world's trade volume and makes it one of the most important waterways of the world. It's linking Europe, the Middle East and India with Southeast Asia and further on to China, Taiwan, Korea and Japan. Since the strait is not more than 25 meters deep, not all kinds of vessels can pass through. The largest ships (particularly oil tankers) are not able to use it. The limit which the Strait of Malacca sets to vessels is called the 'Malaccamax'.
Piracy and Smuggling
Due to the amount of valuable goods transported through, the strait is still attracting pirates. Piracy happened here all over the history. Though, it seems that the rate of piracy fell in the years since 2004 (the year of the great tsunami).
A great deal of smuggling is also going on here between the three countries of Malaysia, Thailand and Sumatra/Indonesia. Oil, diesel, cigarettes, alcohol etc. are very profitable to smuggle, because of the big price differences between the countries.
Another problem for the navigation of ships is caused by the annual bush fires on Sumatra. Burning down the tropical rainforest in a huge amount to give space for plantation economies, the haze limits the sight in the strait over times considerably. The risk of ship collisions is high then.
Since long there are plans existing to shortcut the long transport route around the whole Malay Peninsula by digging a canal at the Kra Isthmus. That would cut off the transport distance for 960 kilometers. Rumours are around that big money from Singapore is opposing these plans, bribing high Thai decision makers not to carry out such plans.
Bridging the Strait
There are also plans to bridge the Strait of Malacca, from Malacca to Sumatra. That would be the world's longest bridge then - 48 kilometers.