Near the beginning of the sixteenth century, European powers became interested in Malacca’s trade and the opportunity to spread Christianity in Asia. The closing of the overland route from Asia to Europe by the Ottoman Empire and the claim towards trade monopoly with India and south-east Asia by Arab traders, led European powers to look for a maritime route. Malacca’s wealth and prosperity attracted European interest and it was taken over by the Portuguese in 1511, then the Dutch in 1641 and the British in 1795.

In 1511 Portugal conquered Malacca, but Portuguese efforts to establish a trade monopoly were thwarted by military raids conducted by Malacca’s ruler Mahmud Shah and by his sons’ kingdoms, particularly Johor. Throughout the sixteenth century, Portugal, Johor, and Aceh (in Indonesia) variously fought and allied with one another in order to establish a trade monopoly in the region. By 1641, the Dutch had entered the fray, and an alliance with Johor helped the Dutch defeat the Portuguese and assume control of Malacca. [Source: Library of Congress, 2006]

In 1511 Afonso de Albuquerque led an expedition to Malaya which seized Malacca with the intent of using it as a base for activities in southeast Asia. This was the first colonial claim on what is now Malaysia. The son of the last Sultan of Malacca fled to the southern tip of the peninsula, where he founded a state that which became the Sultanate of Johor. Another son created the Perak Sultanate to the north. By the late 16th century the tin mines of northern Malaya had been discovered by European traders, and Perak grew wealthy on the proceeds of tin exports. Portuguese influence was strong, as they aggressively tried to convert the population of Malacca to Catholicism. In 1571 the Spanish captured Manila and established a colony in the Philippines, sharply reducing the Sultanate of Brunei's power. Stained ruin of a stone building, showing a central arch, flanked by two columns, with a stone relief above the arch, also flanked by two columns, and a second free-standing arch perched on the very top of the ruin.

Portuguese in Malaysia

In 1511, about 50 years after the Portuguese seaman Vasco de Gama rounded Cape of Good Hope and reached India, the Portuguese grabbed Malacca away from the Malays after a bloody six week battle in 1511. Even though the Malay sultan occupied a well-protected fortified place, their bows, arrows, lances, spears and battle elephants were no match for the Portuguese canons and primitive muskets.

The Portuguese set up a trading post in Malacca, providing a key supply station and trading center for spices coming the East Indies and porcelain, silk and treasures from China. Portugal grew rich on Asian trade and fulfilled the saying: "Whoever is lord of Malacca has his hand on the throat of Venice."

Magellan stopped in Malacca before his historical trip around the world. The Spanish missionary St. Francis Xavier confounded the Jesuit order and traveled 38,000 miles spreading the word of the Gospel. St Paul's church in the Portuguese quarter of Malacca, Malaysia is where Francis Xavier was displayed in an open coffin for ten months before he was buried in Goa.

St. Paul's Church on a hill in Malacca, according to Smithsonian magazine, is “where St. Francis Xavier is said to have denounced dissolute parishioners in the loth century for turning Portugal's most important colony into "the Babylon of the East." At the hill's bottom was evidence of the Portuguese population's comeuppance-the 18th-century Christ Church, whose floor the Dutch paved with the tombstones of their rivals. The most evocative symbol of the city's storied past could be found at the river's mouth: a replica of the Fiordo Mar, the Portuguese carrack that set sail for Goa with tons of gold and jewels looted from the Malacca sultanate- only to founder off Sumatra in 1511.”

Australia marine archaeologist Michael Flecker heads a marine archaeology consulting firm called Maritime Explorations. He has worked with Malaysia's Department of Museums to explore a Portuguese shipwreck in the Malacca Straits.

Malaysia and the Sultanates of Johor and Aceh

After the fall of Malacca to Portugal, the Johor Sultanate and the Sultanate of Aceh on northern Sumatra moved to fill in the power vacuum left behind. The three powers struggled to dominate the Malay peninsula and the surrounding islands. Johor founded in the wake of Malacca's conquest grew powerful enough to rival the Portuguese, although it was never able to recapture the city. Instead it expanded in other directions, building in 130 years one of the largest Malay states. In this time the numerous attempts to recapture Malacca led to a strong backlash from the Portuguese, whose raids even reached Johor's capital of Johor Lama in 1587.

In 1607, the Sultanate of Aceh rose as the powerful and wealthiest state in Malay archipelago. Under Iskandar Muda reign, he extended the sultanate's control over a number of Malay states. A notable conquest was Perak, a tin-producing state on the Peninsula. The strength of his formidable fleet was brought to an end with a disastrous campaign against Malacca in 1629, when the combined Portuguese and Johor forces managed to destroy all his ships and 19,000 troops according to Portuguese account. Aceh forces was not destroyed, however, as Aceh was able to conquer Kedah within the same year and taking many of its citizens to Aceh. The Sultan's son in law, Iskandar Thani, former prince of Pahang later became his successor. The conflict over control of the straits went on until 1641, when the Dutch (allied to Johor) gained control of Malacca.

Dutch in Malaysia

The Dutch overpowered the Portuguese in Malacca in 1641 and controlled the port and the spice trade the Spice Islands (Mollucas) for 150 years. "Melayu" was also greatly prized for its natural resources.

In the early 17th century the Dutch East India Company (Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie, or VOC ) was established. During this time the Dutch were at war with Spain, who obtained the Portuguese Empire due to the Iberian Union. From there they expanded across the archipelago, forming an alliance with Johor and using this to push the Portuguese out of Malacca in 1641. Backed by the Dutch, Johore established a loose hegemony over the Malay states, except Perak, which was able to play off Johore against the Siamese to the north and retain its independence. The Dutch did not interfere in local matters in Malacca, but at the same time diverted most trade to its colonies on Java. [Source: Wikipedia]

The weakness of the small coastal Malay states led to the immigration of the Bugis, escaping from Dutch colonisation of Sulawesi, who established numerous settlements on the peninsula which they used to interfere with Dutch trade. They seized control of Johor following the assassination of the last Sultan of the old Malacca royal line in 1699. Bugis expanded their power in the states of Johor, Kedah, Perak, and Selangor. The Minangkabau from center Sumatra migrated into Malaya, and eventually established their own state in Negeri Sembilan. The fall of Johore left a power vacuum on the Malay Peninsula which was partly filled by the Siamese kings of Ayutthaya kingdom, who made the five northern Malay states – Kedah, Kelantan, Patani, Perlis and Terengganu – their vassals. Johore’s eclipse also left Perak as the unrivalled leader of the Malay states.

The economic importance of Malaya to Europe grew rapidly during the 18th century. The fast-growing tea trade between China and United Kingdom increased the demand for high-quality Malayan tin, which was used to line tea-chests. Malayan pepper also had a high reputation in Europe, while Kelantan and Pahang had gold mines. The growth of tin and gold mining and associated service industries led to the first influx of foreign settlers into the Malay world – initially Arabs and Indians, later Chinese – who colonised the towns and soon dominated economic activities. This established a pattern which characterised Malayan society for the next 200 years – a rural Malay population increasingly under the domination of wealthy urban immigrant communities, whose power the Sultans were unable to resist.

In the eighteenth century, various struggles for political and economic influence fragmented authority in the Malay world, so that conflict and instability were the norm. In the peninsula’s western areas, two groups that had migrated to the peninsula for centuries, the Buginese and the Minangkabau, often fought each other. By 1740 the victorious Buginese ruled many peninsular states and continued to do so until they were defeated by an alliance of Johor and the Dutch in 1784. In eastern areas of the peninsula, Thai kingdoms often fought with and ruled Malay kingdoms from the sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries. Furthermore, Malay waters become some of the most dangerous in the world. Dutch monopolistic trade practices encouraged substantial black-market trade, and idle “anak raja”(sons of rulers) supported piracy as a means of income and recreation suitable to their elite status. Similarly, in Borneo piracy and slave raids supported by foreign powers were common. Piracy even forced the British East India Company to abandon two island settlements (in 1775 and 1776) off the coast of Borneo.


British in Malaysia

The British attempted to colonize Borneo as early as 1771 but did not gain a foothold in Malaysia until 1786 when the British East India Company procured the island if Penang. The British gained control of what is now Malaysia when they threw out the Dutch in 1795, and over time through conquest and deals made with sultans. In 1819 Singapore was founded. It quickly became an important port.

Sarawak, Sabah and Brunei were all once part of he powerful kingdom of Brunei. In 1841, the Englishman James Brook was granted part of Sarawak by the Sultan of Brunei. after he helped the sultan by putting down a tribal rebellion. In 1888, Sarawak, Brunei and North Borneo (Sabah) became British protectorates and were separated from the rest of Borneo by British-Dutch agreement.

In 1826, Penang, Malacca and Singapore were combined as the Straits Settlement. These territories became quite valuable after the Suez Canal opened in 1869, providing a easy transportation route for Malayan tin and rubber to Europe.

The British formally made Malaysia a colony in 1867. The Federated Malay States, in southern Malaya, was formed in 1895 after the British intervened in the fratricidal wars of the sultans. The British gained control over northern Malaya through an agreement made with Thailand in 1909 and merged all the territory under their control to form Malaya.

By 1910 the pattern of British rule in the Malay lands was established. The Straits Settlements were a Crown Colony, ruled by a governor under the supervision of the Colonial Office in London. Their population was about half Chinese, but all residents, regardless of race, were British subjects. The first four states to accept British residents, Perak, Selangor, Negeri Sembilan and Pahang, were termed the Federated Malay States: while technically independent, they were placed under a Resident-General in 1895, making them British colonies in all but name. The Unfederated Malay States (Johore, Kedah, Kelantan, Perlis and Terengganu) had a slightly larger degree of independence, although they were unable to resist the wishes of their British Residents for long. Johore, as Britain’s closest ally in Malay affairs, had the privilege of a written constitution, which gave the Sultan the right to appoint his own Cabinet, but he was generally careful to consult the British first.

How the British Entered in Malaysia

English traders had been present in Malay waters since the 17th century. Until the arrival of the British European power became fully apparent in Malaysia. Before the mid-19th-century British interests in the region were predominantly economic, with little interest in territorial control. Already the most powerful coloniser in India, they were looking towards southeast Asia for new resources. The growth of the China trade in British ships increased the Company’s desire for bases in the region. Various islands were used for this purpose, but the first permanent acquisition was Penang, leased from the Sultan of Kedah in 1786. This was followed soon after by the leasing of a block of territory on the mainland opposite Penang (known as Province Wellesley). In 1795, during the Napoleonic Wars, the British with the consent of the Netherlands occupied Dutch Malacca to forestall possible French interest in the area.

When Malacca was handed back to the Dutch in 1815, the British governor, Stamford Raffles, looked for an alternative base, and in 1819 he acquired Singapore from the Sultan of Johor. The exchange of the British colony of Bencoolen for Malacca with the Dutch left the British as the sole colonial power on the peninsula. The territories of the British were set up as free ports, attempting to break the monopoly held by other colonial powers as the time, and making them large bases of trade. They allowed Britain to control all trade through the straits of Malacca. British influence was increased by Malayan fears of Siamese expansionism, to which Britain made a useful counterweight. During the 19th century the Malay Sultans aligned themselves the British Empire, due to the benefits of associations with the British and the belief in superior British civilisation.

In 1824 British hegemony in Malaya (before the name Malaysia) was formalised by the Anglo-Dutch Treaty, which divided the Malay archipelago between Britain and the Netherlands. The Dutch evacuated Malacca and renounced all interest in Malaya, while the British recognised Dutch rule over the rest of the East Indies. By 1826 the British controlled Penang, Malacca, Singapore and the island of Labuan, which they established as the crown colony of the Straits Settlements, administered first under the East India Company until 1867, when they were transferred to the Colonial Office in London.

Premodern Economy of Malaysia

John H. Drabble of the University of Sydney wrote: “Malaysia has a long history of internationally valued exports, being known from the early centuries A.D. as a source of gold, tin and exotics such as birds' feathers, edible birds' nests, aromatic woods, tree resins etc. The commercial importance of the area was enhanced by its strategic position athwart the seaborne trade routes from the Indian Ocean to East Asia. Merchants from both these regions, Arabs, Indians and Chinese regularly visited. Some became domiciled in ports such as Malacca [formerly Malacca], the location of one of the earliest local sultanates (c.1402 A.D.) and a focal point for both local and international trade. [Source: John H. Drabble, University of Sydney, Australia +]

From the early sixteenth century the area was increasingly penetrated by European trading interests, first the Portuguese (from 1511), then the Dutch East India Company VOC in competition with the English East India Company [EIC] (1600) for the trade in pepper and various spices. By the late eighteenth century the VOC was dominant in the Indonesian region while the EIC acquired bases in Malaysia, beginning with Penang (1786), Singapore (1819) and Malacca (1824). These were major staging posts in the growing trade with China and also served as footholds from which to expand British control into the Malay Peninsula (from 1870), and northwest Borneo (Sarawak from 1841 and North Borneo from 1882). Over these centuries there was an increasing inflow of migrants from China attracted by the opportunities in trade and as a wage labor force for the burgeoning production of export commodities such as gold and tin. The indigenous people also engaged in commercial production (rice, tin), but remained basically within a subsistence economy and were reluctant to offer themselves as permanent wage labor. Overall, production in the premodern economy was relatively small in volume and technologically undeveloped. The capitalist sector, already foreign dominated, was still in its infancy (Drabble, 2000).

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Malaysia Tourism Promotion Board, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated June 2015

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