A Brief History of Melaka

The history of the state of Melaka (originally spelled Malacca)  is largely the story of the city for which it is named. It begins with the fascinating and partly legendary tale of the Hindu prince Parameswara.

The Malay Annals relate that Parameswara was a fourteenth-century Palembang (Sumatra) prince who, fleeing from a Javanese enemy, escaped to the island of Temasik (present-day Singapore) where he quickly established himself as its king. Shortly afterward, however, Parameswara was driven out of Temasik by a Siamese invasion,  and with a small band of followers, he set out along the west coast of the Malay peninsula in search of a new refuge.

The refugees settled first at Muar, Johor, but  were quickly driven away by a huge number of monitor lizards which refused to move. The second spot chosen seemed equally unfavourable, as the fortress that the refugees began to build, collapsed  immediately.

Parameswara and his followers moved on. Soon afterward, during a hunt near the mouth of a river called Bertam, he saw a white mouse-deer or pelanduk,  kick one of his hunting dogs. So impressed was he by the mouse-deer's brave gesture that he decided immediately to build a city on the spot. He asked one of his servants the name of the tree under which he was resting and, being informed that the tree was called a Malaka, gave that name to the city. The year was 1400.

Although its origin is as much romance as history, the fact is that Parameswara's new city was situated at a point of tremendous strategic importance. Midway along the straits that linked China to India and the Near East, Melaka was perfectly positioned as a centre for maritime trade. The city grew rapidly, and within fifty years it had become a wealthy and powerful hub of international commerce, with a population of over 50,000.

It was during this period of Melaka's history that Islam was introduced to the Malay world, arriving along with Gujarati traders from western India. By the first decade of the sixteenth century Melaka was a bustling, cosmopolitan port, attracting hundreds of ships each year. The city was known worldwide as a centre for the trade of silk and porcelain from China; textiles from Gujarat and Coromandel in India; camphor from Borneo; sandalwood from Timor; nutmeg, mace, and cloves from the Moluccas, gold and pepper from Sumatra; and tin from western Malaya.

Unfortunately, this fame arrived at just the moment when Europe began to extend its power into the East, and Melaka was one of the very first cities to attract its covetous eye. The Portuguese under the command of Alfonso de Albuquerque arrived first, taking the city after a sustained bombardment in 1511.

The Sultan Mahmud, who was then the ruler of Melaka,  fled to Johor, from where  the Malays counter-attacked the Portuguese repeatedly though without success. One reason for the strength of the Portuguese defence was the construction of the massive fortification of A Famosa or Porta De Santiago, only a small portion of which survives today.

A Famosa ensured Portuguese control of the city for the next one hundred and fifty years, until, in 1641, the Dutch after an eight-month siege and a fierce battle in 1641, captured Melaka.The city was  almost completely  ruined but over the next century and a half, the Dutch rebuilt it and occupied it largely as a military base, using its strategic location to control the Straits of Malacca.

In 1795, when the Netherlands was captured by French Revolutionary armies, Melaka was handed over to the British by the Dutch to avoid its capture by the French. Although the British returned the city to the Dutch in 1808, it was soon given back to the British once again in a trade for Bencoleen in Sumatra.

From 1826, the English East India Company in Calcutta ruled the city until 1867, when the Straits Settlements ( Melaka, Penang and Singapore ) became a British Crown colony. The British continued their control until the Second World War and  the Japanese occupation from 1942 to 1945.
Following the defeat of the Japanese, the British resumed their control until 31st. August 1957,
when anti-colonial sentiment culminated in a proclamation of independence by His Highness Tunku Abdul Rahman Putra Al-Haj, Malaysia's first Prime Minister.

By Robert Leo, 2002
Edited by Salim Maldern, 2004.