Old Malacca - Melaka Malaysia

Munshi Abdullah and Sir Stamford Raffles

At age 15, Abdullah bin Abdul Kadir watched as the British Forces marched into Melaka. The year was 1811.British troops were waiting for instructions to be sent off to Java. Stamford Raffles was appointed to be the Lieutenant Governor of Java(1811-1816). Before embarking on a sea voyage to Java, Raffles stationed his army in Malacca where he planned the initial operations for advancement into Java.

Munshi (a title meaning 'tutor') Abdullah's encounter with Stamford Raffles was to have a very large impact on the boy's future. Employed as a scribe in his moderate but significant team of employees, Munshi Abdullah was given the opportunity to learn from a man who had an insatiable appetite for learning. Raffles wanted to know everything about the locals…their culture, their history, their myths and legends, their language, their arts and their creativity. He also was a budding naturalist and had a team of hunters and gatherers who collected animals and plant specimens, which were later preserved in jars or pressed into pages (respectively). Illustrations were collated into huge volumes of books.

Raffles collections grew to include rare manuscripts, books, written verses, sha-er and pantun. The people of Melaka then did not understand the value of such books and manuscripts. They readily sold them to the collector for cash. Such manuscripts were written in longhand and were originals - no copies were ever recorded. Other books that could not be bought, were borrowed and copyists had the task of duplicating them. Several copyists were employed for this task, and Munshi Abdullah was one of them. The exposure led him to write his autobiography in later years, called Hikayat Abdullah (The Story of Abdullah). For an excerpt of his views as a journalist and an observer, check out his writings on at http://www.sabrizain.org/malaya/melaka.htm

The Story of Malacca

(Malacca's story, we feel, is best told through the eyes of a historian and a tutor. In this article, we think it most apt to tell it as how Munshi Abdullah would have seen, heard and recorded which was later added in his autobiography, Hikayat Abdullah (The Story of Abdullah). We shall 'borrow' his voice and eyes in painting the picture of a once most important Asian port called Malacca.)

Melaka or Malacca or Malaqua (as it was known to the Europeans in the 1500's) began its humble existence as a fishing village and grew into the region's most important entrepot. For years, Malacca flourished under the watchful eyes of the Malay Sultans and the Chinese, until the struggle of power among the Europeans finally led to its slow and painful demise.

Its initial success under the governance of a Sumatran prince and his descendants was based on the model of an old entrepot called Srivijaya that ruled the straits for centuries before the 'discovery' of Malacca. There is still much debate amongst historians as to the exact period of this once great maritime empire which ruled the trading routes in the straits. The agreement lies somewhere between the 7th to the 13th century. But many believe that the nucleus of the kingdom may have been in Palembang. (Palembang, Sumatra - across the straits of Melaka in Indonesia)

I listen to the stories from the old men. They sit by the sea…as the sun sets and when the day's work is done, they recant stories told to them by their forefathers - of how great Malacca once was.

That, was centuries before I was born, back in the days of pirates, sea merchants from distant lands, rowdy Portuguese soldiers, sombre Dutch officers, inquisitive English administrators and before them, a renegade Prince called Parameswara. Here begins the story…

Parameswara

Parameswara - a young, hot blooded Palembang Prince had a reputation of being a bit of a rebel in the eyes of the Javanese 'overlords'. His wayward and antagonistic behaviour found him a number of admirers in the neighbouring islands who felt the same way as he did. They felt that their subservience to the Javanese should not be tolerated. The Javans, weary of this troublesome Prince moved quickly to quell his popularity. They invaded Palembang.

Parameswara fled to the island of Temasik with his loyal company of 30 orang laut (sea people). After eight days in Temasik, Parameswara killed the local chief and usurped as lord over the simple fisher folk of Temasik. Parameswara later renamed the old city, ' Singapore' after an incident where he spotted a strange beast which he took to be a lion (Singa).

During the early days of maritime trading, a great number of the orang laut (sea people) earned their living through piracy. Parameswara and his followers spent 5 years at Temasik where they eked out a living growing rice, fishing and attacking passing ships. All was peaceful, until one day when the new, dynamic and powerful kingdom of Ayudhya in Thailand sent a force down to extricate Parameswara from his self proclaimed throne.

Once again, Parameswara and his followers fled and this time they headed up into Malaya eventually settling down in Bertam. Life was tranquil and the company of men resumed their business of hunting and growing rice. One day, as he was off hunting with his men not too far from the village, he encountered a strange scene. While resting under a Melaka tree not too far away form the river, he watched as his pack of dogs cornered a mousedeer. Instead of throwing itself into the river, to his amazement - the terrified chevrotain turned around and attacked the dogs. The befuddled dogs lost their footing and they, in turn… ended up in the river!

He was astounded by the will of the mousedeer to fight for its life and immediately knew that the hill of which he was standing on at the time would be his future. The area was named Malacca after a tree that shaded Parameswara during the incident of the mousedeer and the dogs.

When Malacca was established in the 1400's, there were already 2 entrepots of importance in the Straits - both guarding the sea route along the Sumatran coasts. Parameswara consciously selected his site with great care. After a time of searching, he finally found an ideal harbour. He chose a sheltered harbour, free from mangrove swamps close to the Melaka Hill. He knew that this harbour was positioned at the convergence of the sea lanes from India and China and was sufficiently deep to allow the large vessels to anchor in the bay to wait out the monsoons. Moreover, the Melaka river had a pleasant climate and ample supply of fresh water. However, the deciding factor was that the area had a vantage point. It had a naturally defensible position.

Parameswara was a smart man. He watched as traders from India, Arab and China came and went. He realised that he would have to convince the fishermen and village people to clear trees and plant crops like sago, banana, jackfruit and sugarcane; and trade in jungle products. He knew that these produce could be more profitable than piracy and with that, he could abolish piracy and make safe the passageway for trading ships. With a guarantee of pirate safe passageways, and a supply of jungle products and gold from the interior, merchants began to take notice of the new deep sea port

Soon, news went round the shipping industry that Malacca was fast becoming a preferred choice amongst the foreign traders because of its ruler's amicable economic and political strategies. Parameswara ensured that all their needs could be provided at Malacca market. However, there was only one problem. After the fall of the great Srivijaya entrepot, other powerful neighbours began to flex their muscles in the wake of a boundary expansion struggle. The Siamese Kings of Sukhotai and later, the Siamese Kingdom of Ayudhya asserted their powers and extended their control over most of Peninsular Malaysia including Malacca. Parameswara was unhappy with this situation as it was hindering his progress in making his city a major trading centre and himself as the ruler of the straits. The overlords had great control of its Malay vassals and were intolerant to ambitious and defiant Malay rulers. As Parameswara was lamenting over this situation, he came about a brilliant foreign policy. This policy, capped with the help of a more powerful overlord sealed Malacca's colourful history.

The Emperor of China

National Museum of Taipei

Across the vast oceans… Hung Wu, the 1st Emperor of the Ming Dynasty passed away. The Emperor's 16year old grandson, initially chosen to ascend the throne mysteriously disappeared and the palace in Nanking was burnt down. His uncle(Yung-lo) usurped the throne. Yung-lo yearned to be the next Emperor of China and it was he who rebelled and marched his army to capture the royal city of Nanking and to incarcerate his nephew. However, usurpation was not acceptable in those days and to subdue his people's growing unease, he put it out that the boy was hiding amongst the Chinese community overseas. Yung-lo then made a great show of concern for his nephew by sending large fleets to far distant lands in search of the boy. In fact, Yung-lo used this excuse to carry out his and his deceased father's policies of outlawing any private overseas trade amongst the Chinese traders.

Emperor Hung Wu (Yung-lo's father) blamed wealthy businessmen living on the coast for provoking unrest in South China. Hung Wu was a Northerner who grew up in extreme poverty. He despised merchants and the way they manipulated their wealth. The emperor believed that the wealthy merchants turned to piracy and pillaging whenever opportunities arose causing much tension in the south. He made it a crime to travel overseas. This extreme policy caused many wealthy private Chinese traders to flee China and those who were already overseas, were afraid to return. The fleeing traders took their families and great amount of riches with them. This enraged the Emperor.

Yung-lo adhered to his father's policies diligently. A proposal of putting all foreign import and export trade as a strictly controlled government monopoly called a 'tribute system' was enforced. The Emperor sent his great fleets on voyages as far as Africa, bringing gifts to foreign rulers and in return, envoys were sent to China bearing tribute to the Emperor. At the same time, his imperial officers enforced the 'tribute system' on all the overseas Chinese communities. Yung-lo's most trusted command-in-chief was the giant Muslim Eunuch, Ma Sanbao. For 26 years, Admiral Ma Sanbao sailed to as far as Africa to carry out his duties and is known as one of the

greatest Admirals in Chinese history.

Ma Sanbao (Admiral Cheng Ho)

Ma Ho was born to a poor ethnic Hui family in Yunnan, south western China - near Laos, in 1371. The Hui were Chinese Muslims of Mongol-Turkic mix. When Ma Ho was a young boy, the Chinese Army was sent to expel the Mongols from the south west regions. To terrorise people into submission, the army would capture every male adult and child and dismember them. In 1381, the army marched into Ma Ho's village. He was captured and mutilated. The 10year old did not bleed to death nor die from infection like many others. He also proved to have exceptional intelligence. Seeing his determination and will to live, he was recruited to be trained for the imperial household. 2 years later he was assigned to Duke Yan's army, who was to later usurp the throne as Yung-lo.

Zheng He Institute

In old China, the Eunuchs most precious treasures are their mutilated organs in which they keep with them for the rest of their lives, wrapped in silk and preserved in jars and containers. They would call them 'their little precious'. In keeping their little precious with them, in death they will be rejoined and made whole again. Ma Sanbao was a name given by the Emperor. Sanbao means 'three jewels' or 'thrice precious' - this indicating that even though he was not physically whole, he was still an astounding warrior and all respect was endowed upon him. The name figuratively made Ma Ho whole again..

After the duke proclaimed himself as Emperor, he gave Ma the post of command over the thousands of eunuchs in the Imperial household. These eunuchs served the throne as its secret service. With this new post, Ma Ho was given the grand surname Cheng, officially known as Cheng Ho. Not long after, he was given command of the naval expedition, which was to bring him to Malacca and beyond. Cheng Ho's first expedition included 27,870 men on 317 ships. The word junk comes from the Malay word djong meaning any large vessel. The Chinese fleet of junks were impressive. These were not the type of junks that we would normally associate with as rickety, creaking, wooden crafts with flimsy sails. Many of the junks were built specially to house treasures reclaimed from the overseas Chinese communities and were so big; they were each crewed by 500men!

Cheng Ho's flagship was called the Star Raft.

The New Protector and the Overlords

Admiral Cheng Ho left Nanking for his 3rd voyage in autumn and headed down to Malacca to put in place, the last piece of the missing puzzle in the Ming southern strategy.

China had been warring with the Siamese over the control of the Straits for a number of years and sought to hold the position in Melaka to control the trading route. The emperor sent Cheng Ho to bestow upon Parameswara - two silver robes, a mandarin's hat, a girdle of office, and an embroidered silk robe.

Parameswara in return,presented the Emperor with a pair of spectacles.That was the introduction of spectacles to the Chinese. The Emperor proclaimed Parameswara as the ruler of Malacca and declared that it was a city-state under the protection of the Emperor of China and paid homage to the Ming throne. With the Chinese securing the trading routes and its special interest in developing Malacca as its regional warehouse for trading of goods, Malacca claimed its position as an entrepot.

Parameswara was not about to alienate his former overlords either. Malacca still acknowledged its two powerful neighbours, the Thai Ayudhya and Majapahit of Java as overlords. This was not so much for protection but he requested that these overlords helped him build Malacca by providing food and people and in return, they presented these overlords with gifts and tributes. With the foreign policies well in place, Malacca flourished for the next 100years.

Malacca, the Entrepot

Soon, traders began arriving from all regions. Malacca's warehousing infrastructure was built underground to house goods arriving from the east and the west. Since the monsoon seasons dictated the sea traffic, goods coming in from the east or west or even south had to be stored awaiting the arrival of other traders. Between December and March, ships would arrive from the Western lands and the Far East whereas ships from Java and the eastern Indonesia archipelagos came in from May until September. The warehouses were well protected from theft, fire and other damages. Guards were constantly patrolling the warehouses.

courtesy of Arkib Negara. Malacca in the 1400s

Malacca, as of most entrepots, ensured safety for their traders who plied along the Melaka Straits. This was done by commanding allegiance with the Orang Laut (piracy was their main profession). These Orang Laut protected Malacca's clients and taunted those that were of its rivals. This guaranteed safety was of utmost importance to the merchants for pillaged ships could mean bankruptcy and loss of lives.

The next matter of importance was its administrative arrangement. A syahbandar or harbour master was assigned to groups of nations. There were 4 syahbandars in total. One looked after the large numbers of Gujarati merchants, another was appointed for Indians from Southern India and Bengal together with traders from Pegu in Burma and Pasai; the other was in charge of managing traders from Java, Moluccus, Banda, Palembang, Borneo and the Phillipines; and the fourth one was appointed for the traders from Champa, China, and the Ryuku Islands.

Whenever, a ship arrived at the port, its captain would report to the syahbandar, who later referred him to the Bendahara (the Prime Minister). Custom tax was levied based on the value of the merchandise and its origins. Once this has been confirmed and gifts had been presented to the Ruler, the Bendahara and the Temenggung (the official involved in the collection of import and export duties) and the appropriate syahbandar, then trading can begin. The syahbandar would then allocate elephants to the trader to carry his goods to warehouses for storage.

Old Map of Malacca circa 1604. Courtesy of Arkib Negara

Malacca was successful because its own Malay traders travelled and traded with the rest of the archipelago bartering with Indian textiles from Gujarati in return for spices, aromatic woods, sea produce and other tropical exotic items highly prized by traders from the East and West.

Eventually, it made its name as the collection centre for priceless spices from the rest of the Archipelago. Cloves from Moluccas, nutmeg and mace from the Banda Islands, aromatic woods, exotic bird feathers, sea cucumbers, tortoiseshells etc came pouring in and was traded just as swiftly.

In 1511, Tome Pires, a Portuguese who wrote an account of Malacca's administrative and trading history estimated that 2.4million cruzados worth of trade passed through the port. In contrast - Seville, one of the wealthiest ports in Europe, only reported trading value worth 4million cruzados. Malacca was on its way to being the most profitable entrepot in the Orient. By the beginning of the 16th century, the population had swelled to as many as 100,000.

The Sultans and their people

Sultans of Malacca were hereditary rulers. The Sultan had absolute power over his subjects. This position was owing to the claim that his lineage was linked directly to Alexander the Great, and that the Sultan was the Shadow of God on earth. He was regarded with the highest respect and his actions were never questioned. Treason was regarded as the worst crime and was punishable by death. Religion was also another source of power for the Sultans. Islam was introduced to Malacca by Arab traders and missionaries in the 13th century. As many rulers embraced the religion for spiritual benefits, others saw it as an opportunity to entice more Indian Muslim traders who would be more inclined to stay where they could worship at a mosque.

As more prosperous Indian Muslim traders came and stayed on in Malacca, they gradually gained power and influence in the tiny community and soon after, the royal family converted to Islam.

Our golden era is said to have commenced when Raja Kasim, taking the title of Sultan Muzzafar Shah, ascended the throne. Under his reign the city went on to become a Sultanate and an Empire. Military campaigns expanded the Empire by swallowing neighbouring states; and many a political marriage served to swell the boundaries and coffers of the Empire.

Written accounts by the Chinese recorded that the city was surrounded by a palisade with 4 gates and watch towers. Inside the city wall was a 2nd fortress where money, godowns and provisions were housed. The hill on the south side was where the sultan and his court lived. The main mosque was also situated on the hill. A bridge connected the north and south side with a marketplace contained in a structure of 20 pavilions where commodities of all sorts were sold. North of the river, lived the merchants who were grouped into separate ethnic communities according to their countries of origin. Rich merchants had offices in the city but maintained residence outside the town walls which were staffed with slaves and servants. Beautifully manicured gardens and orchards separated these merchants from the man-on -the- street and to further enhance their position, they wore 'robes of honour'.

A dutch house believed to be once owned by the Westerhouts and later was the old museum of Malacca. Courtesy of Arkib Negara. information on pic provided by Jo Chua

Another Chinese observer, Hwang Chung, wrote that the people of Malacca were well-mannered. They enjoyed

music, ballads and poetry and the men were generally astute in the arts of war. They prided themselves in the knowledge and use of the keris.

Even a boy of two was allowed to carry a small dagger. Malacca's position provided a symbol of Malay power.

Malay, as a language was disseminated to other parts of the archipelago by the Malay traders. The entrepot's standing as a commercial and religious centre was to have profound influence on other Muslim kingdoms in other regions. The language, the malay custom(adat) and the worship of Allah was to be the foundations of a successful and powerful sultanate. Other Muslim kingdoms emulated its style of government, literature, dance, music, dress, games and titles. Under the rule of Sultan Mansur Shah, (the son of Sultan Muzzafar Shah) during the 2nd half of the 15th century, the Malacca Sultanate expanded to include southern Peninsular, much of Eastern Sumatra and the Riau and Lingga Islands. It is widely believed that Malacca reached the peak of its glorious ascent during his reign.

The Spice trade and the Europeans

As time went by, trading went beyond familiar shores. Merchandise and commodities were taken to the foreign lands of Europe. In medieval Europe, spices were considered more precious than gold. Curries and peppers were used to preserve and flavour meats. These spices were of economical importance as it was too expensive to feed animals through long winters and was more cost effective to slaughter and preserve the meat over the winter months.

The most lucrative trade in the straits was the 'Blue Water Trade' - collecting and distributing spices, porcelain, tea and silk to be sent to Europe through the Middle East and Venice. Pires, a Portuguese apothecary and diplomat who came to Malacca in 1512 wrote, 'whoever is Lord of Malacca has his hand on the throat of Venice.'

Spices, porcelain, tea and silk. The Europeans soon learnt that if they could control trading in the Straits, it would bring them riches beyond their dreams and hold power over their rivals. Being seafarers of origin, the Portuguese were the first Europeans to arrive at the scene.

The Portuguese

Portugal in the early 16th century was a maritime nation with economic and demographic constraints. When the Diogo Lopes de Sequira and his men arrived in Malacca in 1509, they were the first Europeans to have set foot on Malay land. It was said that when the landed, ' crowds of Malay clustered round, twisted their beards, removed their hats and grasped their hands.' (Old Malacca, Sarina Hayes Hoyt). In Sejarah Malayu (the Malay Annals), it was said that the Malays thought them to be white Bengalis!

Arrival of the Portuguese, 1511. Courtesy of Arkib Negara

The King of Portuguese knew that they had to control strategic ports like Goa in India and Malacca in the Straits to break the Muslim traders' monopoly over the spice trade.

Alfonso de Albuquerque, the Portuguese Viceroy of India, waschosen to carry out the king's plan. By the turn of the century, the Malacca Sultanate was already crumbling. Without strong leadership, the sultanate was wrought with political struggles. When Albuquerque sailed into the straits in 1511, with the entire army and navy of Portuguese India made up of 19 ships, 800 European men and 600 natives. According to 'Sejarah Melayu', the Malays had never heard of gunpowder and canons.

'What sound is this like thunder?', the Malays asked. 'What may be this round weapon that….is sharp enough to kill us?'

Within a few days, the Portuguese had taken Malacca and the Sultan and his son fled into the jungles. The sultan and his descendants continued to fight the Portuguese by land and sea for 100years after.

Alfonso de Albuquerque. Courtesy of Arkib Negara

Although the main reason for such an invasion was to gain a stronghold over the spice trade in the region, the ulterior motive was to spread the religion across the area even if they had to enslave, destroy and kill.

Giovanni da Empoli was a young Italian whoaccompanied Albuquerque on his voyage who wrote of the man, ' one of those men desirous of earning fame by cruelty.'

Having secured Portugal's position in the straits, Albuquerque sailed for Goa with his ships laden with gold, silver, precious stones and other treasures looted from Malacca. I was told that the heavily laden ship didn't make it back to India. A storm blew the ship into the sharp edges of the reef and now the ship lies 37m of water, buried under hardened mud of 15m deep. The looted treasures of old Malacca lies sealed in its grave together with these overzealous officers, forever.

Porta de Santiago, the only gate left standing. Courtesy of Arkib Negara.

The Portuguese felt that they had to defend Malacca with a fort. A temporary fort was built while waiting for the construction of the main fortress to be completed. This took another 5 months to complete. Meanwhile men were falling ill and dying in the harsh tropical weather working on the fort. Life was harsh for the Europeans. Each had to do a multitude of jobs. Stones were taken from dismantled Malay graves, mosques and other buildings and mixed with laterite blocks to construct the fortress around St.Paul's Hill. There were 4 towers and its walls were 2.4m thick.

Only the Porta de Santiago, one of the entrances to into the fortress, remains standing. At the top of the arch is a Dutch coat of arms, added after the Dutch conquest.

Despite its stay of 350years in Malacca, flourishing from the wealth and position, Portugal's stand began to erode…caused by the mounting cost of maintaining a large fleet far from the administrative centre in Lisbon, widespread corruption in the higher levels of authority and manpower shortage.

The Arrival of the Dutch

Holland had an advantage over the other Europeans - a cargo ship that could carry more goods at lower costs. When the Dutch were denied entry into the Portuguese and Spanish ports after 1580 (the year of Spain and Portugal's union, for Holland was Spain's arched rival), they decided to venture to the source of the commodity…The Straits of Malacca and beyond.

The Stadhuys. The Headquarters for Dutch VOC. Courtesy of Arkib Negara

As the Dutch arrived in Malaya, they were received with much enthusiasm by the locals in hope that the hated Portuguese would be ousted by the new Europeans.

The Dutch, with their headquarters in Batavia made exclusive trading arrangements with South-East Asian rulers and formed alliances with the enemies of Portuguese Melaka, including Acheh and Johor. With the aid of the Dutch, the Portuguese threat was removed and Johor managed to become a busy entrepot and pre-eminent power in the Straits. They concentrated on obtaining control of the Straits and cutting off trade from Malacca in the sea-routes. In 1640, with aid from Johor, the Dutch captured the city after a bloody 5 month battle. The siege damaged much of the Portuguese architecture and even the suburbs. Finally, the Dutch entered A'Famosa through the Santo Domingo gate. When all was over, over 7000 people had died of famine, disease and all the consequences of war. By this time, most of Malacca's inhabitants had left with their riches and population dropped from 20,000 to only 2150.

St.Pauls Hill. Courtesy of Arkib Negara.

Unlike the Portuguese who ruled under the royal crown Malacca was owned by a national trading company - the VOC during the Dutch rule. Life for the senior Dutch officials were good but the lower-ranking employees of the VOC suffered through their tenure in Malacca. There was shortage in basic supplies caused by shipwrecks, piracy and few people were willing to work outside of the fortress for fear of wild animals and the fierce Minangkabau people who had settled just north of Malacca.

By 1780's, VOC began losing its grasp on Malacca, exacerbated by several factors. One was Sir Francis Light, a 'country trader' who had set up a bustling settlement at Penang - taking away the trading activity from Malacca. Fending off attacks from the Buginese was taking its toll on the Dutch …..causing trade to suffer. Finally, due to the volatile situation in Europe and the rise of Napolean Bonaparte who overran Holland in 1795, the Dutch retreated from their stronghold in Malaya and the ousted Prince William of Orange (ruler of Holland), fled to London. From there, he informed his Dutch subjects in the settlements to admit the British troops as protector against the French until hostilities were resolved in Europe. The British entered the gates of Malacca soon after.

The British Administrators

This comes the time when I can elaborate history through my own eyes. The British stepped in to manage Malacca in August 1795. This happened 10years before I was born. It seems that when the British entered our gates, there were only 200men guarding the fortress. The British had already set up a trade settlement in Penang but they did not want the French to occupy the forts and settlements built by the Dutch. They knew that if Malacca fell into the hands of the French, it would seriously jeopardise their trade with China. No longer was Malacca occupied for reasons of a strategic trading entrepot but rather to position garrisons in expectations of war.

Sir Stamford Raffles, Courtesy of Arkib Negara

The importance of Malacca dwindled. The British had set up the East India Company, just as the Dutch did with VOC. The British had learned about the region from their 'country traders' like Sir Francis Light, who operated independently of the East India Company. The country traders spoke Malay and cultivated an amicable friendship with local rulers and traders. With such advantages, they were able buy and sell spices and tin at more attractive prices than the Dutch. Unlike VOC, British East India Company also traded weapons, gunpowder and opium.

Their China market was a motivation to set up a trading and housing port in Malaya. They needed a protected harbour and found one in Penang. Here, they planted a naval station to protect and service their trading ships who were actively involved in the China opium and tea trade.

As the British troops sailed in on the misty August morning, they found Malacca peaceful. 'The town spread out on both sides of a narrow river spanned by a wooden bridge near its mouth. Waves lapped against the dark walls of the ancient fortress and its bastions on the right, a church crowned the top of the hill, and on the left a row of tile-roofed houses hugged the shoreline.' (Old Malacca, sarnia hayes hoyt. oxford university press). This is how I remember Malacca. The fortress stood proudly. It was 'the pride of Malacca'. Malaccans like me and even my father who have lived in this town all our lives, thought that it would never be demolished, 'because it was so strong and because so many ghosts inhabited it.' (Hikayat Abdullah).

The Governor of Malacca by the name of Governor William Farquhar watched Malacca disintegrate into ruins as the Company continued to debate our future. The long anticipation for a solution prompted the governor of Penang to propose the complete destruction of our town. He wanted to wipe us off the map and resettle the townspeople in Penang. With this move, he believed that this would reduce the cost of placing a garrison in Malacca and they could concentrate fully on Penang.

Melaka with the fortress removed. Courtesy of Arkib Negara

Fortunately, the higher authorities of the EIC at Calcutta considered this proposal too much of a responsibility on them and further consultation was needed with London. However, our fortress was in an advanced state of deterioration by this time. The Dutch had added a moat along the eastern and southern walls and despite further repairs, the city walls were in poor condition. Governor Farquhar ordered convicts from the nearby gaol to manually dismantle the walls. The walls were 4.5m thick and 18m high. This made it almost impossible to manually dismantle them. 'The next morning, Mr Farquhar appeared on horseback holding a slow match in his hand. He sent his men to clear out everyone on the Fort side, and they ran away in all directions. Then he touched off the fuse and at once spurred his horse away. After about ten minutes the gunpowder exploded with a noise like thunder, and pieces of the Fort as large as elephants and even some as large as houses, were blown into the air and cascaded into the sea.' (Hikayat Abdullah; Abdullah bin Abdul Kadir)

In one move, the Fortress walls were no longer. Malacca changed from then on: its grandeur, its importance, its fame and its history were erased in one move. Lord Minto, a British who led the 1811 expedition to Java remarked, 'A most useless piece of gratuitous mischief.' Many were unhappy with the decision, and one of them was Mr. Stamford Raffles. Mr. Raffles was intent on retaining Malacca. He argued that Malacca's roots could be traced back several centuries while the Penang settlement was, 'still an island of transitory adventurers.' He pointed out that we could grow most our own food like chocolate, pepper, indigo, coffee and cotton whilst surplus rice could be imported from Java. To uphold their promise, Mr. Raffles further elaborated that 'Britain was honour bound to protect the people attached to the soil.' There was no need to give up what the British already had in their hands, knowing that it was extremely difficult to clear lands in tropical soils. The report was submitted and the EIC eventually decide to keep Malacca.

When I had the opportunity to observe these English at close proximity, for I was under Mr. Raffles employment, I noticed that the British officers wore different types of uniforms. They wore hats with cock feathers dyed pink and black, trousers made of animal skin, tiger skins or tunics made of cloth striped like tiger skin. The troops were rowdy and aggressive and when they have had to many a glass - they follow women around, damage gardens and smash house doors.

Despite such misconduct, for a time, we were in the 'safe hands' of the British. From 1818 till 1825, however, Malacca was reverted to the Dutch. Mr. Raffles recommended that Singapore be made into a trading centre to protect British commerce, since Malacca was no longer under their rule. Mr. Farquhar was relieved of his duties in Malacca and was sent to head this new settlement in the south. With such uncertainties still hovering over Malacca, many of the Chinese from Malacca immigrated to Singapore to make their fortunes. Our population began to shrink again. Little did we know at the time but once again London was to take an active role in the future of Malacca. At the negotiation table, it was finally agreed that the land in the straits be divided among the British and the Dutch. Singapore, Malacca and Penang were to be under the British and java and Sumatra was to be taken by the Dutch.

In 1825, the British returned to Malaccan soil as colonial masters. We were grouped together with Singapore and Penang to form the Straits Settlements with headquarters in Penang. In 1826, the British Law was imposed and Malacca became the official penal colony where convicts provided cheap labour for Public Works Projects.

When the East India Company(EIC) lost their monopoly of the china trade, Malacca began to pose problems for the British. Foreigners referred to our town as a 'backwater' and those of us who remained in Malacca had little work to do. The British encouraged us to plant crops so that we could sustain ourselves. Things are not much brighter than before. Residents like I, hope for better and more prosperous days and perhaps a ray of hope may one day shine through with the British involvement.

Malacca after the death of Munshi Abdullah

Through years of perseverance, Malacca finally regained a small fraction of its old days of fortune when a tapioca planter, Tan Chay Yan converted his tapioca plantation into rubber plots. Today, Malacca is swarming with visitors from all over the world, looking for a historical city that tells a tale of merchant traders and European conquerors. The remnant of that city lies in little pockets around the old city centre and if you look closely in the back alleys, you may just catch a glimpse of the spirits who built our history.

What we have here is just the tip of a massive iceberg of the History of Malacca and its residents. For more on the Sultans and even about a Malay slave who some historians are claiming to be the first person to have sailed around the world - click to http://www.sabrizain.org/malaya/melaka.htm. You won't regret it!