34: Malacca’s Roots, Glory and Demise


From Bodhisattva to Sultan

Malacca: “I’ll take over the narrative from here. During Majapahit’s power struggles in the late 1300s, I was just a small unknown backwater port. Nobody could have predicted that I would become an international star in the next few decades.

Paramesvara was the ruler of Palembang, the legendary entrepôt of Srivijaya on the neighboring island of Sumatra. He decided to take advantage of Majapahit’s turbulence. He claimed a direct connection with the ancient empire of Srivijaya. He broke from his vassal relationship and attempted to reinstate the glory of the Sumatran port of Palembang. To achieve this end, he seized control of the straits between the Malay Peninsula and Sumatra. He even claimed to be heir to the maharajahs of Srivijaya and a Bodhisattva/ devaraja presumably to rally the citizenry of the empire behind him.

As an opportunist, he attempted to secure the China trade. The Mongol wave crashed upon the beach of China, fragmented and then receded. The Chinese based Ming dynasty was the next big wave to replace the Mongols. The maharajah of our trading empire, wherever it might be located, just had to pledge vassal status in exchange for trading privileges. The Chinese Emperor even considered these maharajas his emissaries in the region. Whoever established this connection got rich; the others lost out. This was no problem for Paramesvara, who hoped to restore Palembang to its former glory.

Unfortunately for him, the Majapahit Empire still had quite a bit of life left. In the late 1300s they attacked Palembang, the capital of his upstart kingdom based in Sumatra. Expelled from the center of his mandala, Paramesvara fled to Singapore to establish a new power base on the Malay Peninsula. The Javanese followed him and sacked Singapore. This ended Singapore’s status as a significant trading center between East and West and her potential as a entrepôt for another 400 years. Singapore didn't become a global trading center again until Raffles convinced the British to invest in the port in the early 1800s.

Undaunted, Paramesvara traveled northwards on the Malay Peninsula until he reached me - the small port of Malacca. This was about 1400. Still fearing the Javanese, he aligned with the Chinese businessmen on the peninsula for protection. To appease the traders, he made me a free port, i.e. no taxes on trade or commerce. By 1414 he even established a tributary relationship with the Chinese Ming Empire with all the trade advantages this entailed.

To further secure his position, he also converted to Islam to appeal to the Arab traders. He even established a sultanate with himself as the Sultan of Malacca, changing his name to Iskander Shah. A sultan is only second to the caliph in the Muslim political hierarchy. The caliph, who claims direct succession from Mohammed, is the head of the Muslim caliphate or empire. The sultan with his sultanate is part of the caliphate, just as a king and his kingdom might be part of an empire. Shah had just established the first Islamic kingdom in Southeast Asia.

From Buddhist Bodhisattva/devaraja to Muslim Sultan in less than a decade. If nothing else, this man was an incredible opportunist. However, he was much more than that. He was a visionary as well. These seemingly innocuous events led to momentous consequences for the peninsula and the archipelago. This historical nexus laid the foundations for Malaysia’s present political organization as well as catalyzing the Islamization of the entire region. But let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves.

The Golden Age of Malacca

My port of Malacca was located strategically in the middle of the straits between Sumatra and the Malay Peninsula – the route between East and West. Further, it was now a Muslim free port with Chinese connections. With Singapore destroyed and the favorable trading arrangements that were offered, I, Malacca, quickly became the new entrepôt. I attracted both the Arab traders of the West and the Chinese traders of the East. By 1430 I was the preeminent commercial emporium - with Indian, Arab, Persian, Chinese and local traders  meeting to exchange goods.

During my century, the 15th, over 15,000 merchants from multiple countries visited me. Even Cheng Ho of the Chinese Ming dynasty dropped in to say ‘Hi’ on his famous voyage. With our international connections and strategic location - as the Eastern terminus of the thriving Indian Ocean trade, I was soon reputed to be the busiest port in the world. Traders of all nationalities met there to exchange goods and services. Because of the international prestige associated with my port, the international community honored me by naming the crucial channel between the Malay Peninsula and Sumatra after me - the famous Straits of Malacca.

Because of the wealth that flowed through my port a new empire kingdom emerged with its own vassal states. The empire was also named after me, Malacca. This name was appropriate as I was the center of its mandala. Here is my picture. Notice that my boundaries include the entire Malay Peninsula and much of Sumatra. Neither Java nor Borneo were under my jurisdiction. As such, my empire was a truncation of the territories controlled by the traditional Southeast Asian Maritime Empires.

While this process might have been inevitable, I did have a series of great Muslim rulers after my founder died. First there was Sultan Muzaftar Shah, who ruled from 1445-1459. It was he, more than anyone else, who turned me into a political center as well as a trading port.

Almost more importantly, the Shah appointed Tun Perak as prime minister in 1456. The bendahara or prime minister is a very important position in the Islamic political system. He is second only to the sultan. He is even more powerful than a regent. He appoints the new sultan, then supplies him with a palace and a bride from his own family. This office has existed in all Malay sultanates after Malacca. Tun Perak, who administered my people in this position from 1456->1498, was instrumental in appointing the next 3 sultans, all of whom were related to him. Under his tutelage, the sultans instituted an aggressive foreign policy, which established me, Malacca, as a tributary state.

As our wealth accumulated, our political power increased. Accordingly, we refused to pay tribute to the Thai kingdom of Ayutthaya, which considered us their vassal state. My people repulsed a Thai punitive expedition and then established control over parts of Sumatra. I couldn’t believe it. In a few short decades, I had become the center of a loose mandala empire, including the southern Malay Peninsula and the east coast of Sumatra. My rise to power was funded by the lucrative spice trade.

Paramesvara/Iskander Shah, my Bodhisattva Sumatran prince fled from the Javanese army. But he had the last laugh. Not only did I, the port he established, become the entrepôt of the day, but I also became the center of an important kingdom, which turned into a permanent sultanate. Even the Straits are named after me.

Further, the peak of my kingdom/empire is still invoked as the Golden Age of Malaysia by historians, writers and poets. This image is reinforced by a novel written in 1536 called Sejarah Melayu. The book chronicles the court intrigues of the kingdom of Malacca, including the multitude of cultures and international personalities that passed through. It is considered by many to be the finest Malay novel ever written.

For cultural perspective, it came out nearly 70 years before Don Quixote by Cervantes, which is purported to be one of the first Spanish novels, if not the first European novel. It was published in 1604. This is only mentioned to dispel the prevalent illusion of European cultural superiority. My part of the world achieved a level of cultural sophistication in terms of architecture and literature that rivaled any place in the world. As contrasted with popular beliefs, my area of Southeast Asia near the East Indies was not a primitive cultural backwater dominated by foreign civilizations, but was a unique flowering of humanity in its own right.

The end of Hinduism & Maharajahs - the beginning of Islam & Sultans

My story does not end there. My Muslim port attracted all the Arab trade, draining it away from the Hindu/Buddhist Majapahit Empire. As a result of their declining wealth, they were unable to maintain their mandala empire, as they had less largesse to distribute. Further their vassal states easily saw the pattern - embracing Islam brings wealth. In the 1400s, many of the Sumatran kingdoms, who had previously been vassal states to the Javanese, converted to Islam and broke their ties. The Majapahit Empire went into a decline from which they never recovered.

With little me, Malacca, as a spreading center, Islam eventually spread to Java as well. The opportunistic moves of my fleeing prince had an enormous impact upon the region. His strategy created me as a new entrepôt and kingdom. My existance as a free port was also  instrumental in undermining the empire he retreated from. Plus, he brought the new religion of Islam into the area.

One last achievement of the last Srivijayan Prince, our former Bodhisattva of Sumatra and now my Sultan of Malacca: Because of my prestige, I was also the main center for the propagation of Islam. These conversions were in no way temporary, but instead have lasted until the present day and show no signs of weakening. During my brief century on top, the Islamic religion became entrenched in the subsidiary sultanates/kingdoms that surrounded me. My Sultanate became the model for the creation of many other Sultanates in the area. Eventually these Sultanates covered the entire Malay Peninsula.

The Sultanates were based on a mandala political organization - emanating from a trading center - with constantly shifting spheres of influence and no distinct boundaries. Our sultanates were considered unstable by the Europeans because our Sultanates didn’t have any distinct territories. Because of intense rivalries, our boundaries weren’t fixed, instead were very flexible.

In the 19th century when the British arrived and attempted to seize control, they were dismayed by the apparent political chaos - at least from their perspective. They organized our Sultanates according to Western standards. The British offered military support to those who would cooperate in the exploitation and suppression of the indigenous population. This was in the late 1800s. After World War II, when the Japanese exposed the British as paper tigers, the Malay sultanates organized and joined together to throw off British rule.

When they formed their new country, they established states based upon the sultanates. Further, the king of Malaysia is rotated among and elected by these same sultanates. My fleeing Sumatran prince established forms that have survived for over 600 years and are still going strong. And it all started with his relationship with me.

Malacca's Last Sultan

Everything was going so well. I can’t believe how quickly circumstances changed to bring about my decline as a global trading center.

My last sultan, sigh, was Mahmud Shah. He reigned from 1488->1511. He was appointed by Perak and was also his heir. He was in the unfortunate position of loosing control of me to the Portuguese. However, in typical Austronesian fashion, he just moved south after his military defeat. He then founded the Sultanate of Johor with its port on the southern tip of the Malay Peninsula, just above Singapore.

This port was never a major international port like me. However, Johor became a new spreading center for Islam. Mahmud Shah continued to resist the Portuguese by forming a Muslim and Malay Confederacy. This political organization eventually coalesced into the country of Malaysia. These descendants of the Srivijaya dynasty were certainly resilient, if nothing else.

You might wonder why the Portuguese conquered me. I certainly posed no threat. I was just a friendly free trade port with no hostile intentions.  We certainly didn’t have any weapons of mass destruction.

I guess European aggression was inevitable. As Europe received my ever more expensive goods, interest grew to avoid the hostile Arab middleman. Attracted by the wealth of my port, the Portuguese attacked and conquered me without provocation on my part. I languished because of their intolerance to Muslim traders and high taxes. Aceh, a kingdom/sultanate of North Sumatra, took over the vacuum left by my defeat. I never recovered my former glory. My time was brief, but what a time I had.”


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