The Portuguese Come to Melaka — Sulalat al-salāṭīn (‘The Malay Annals’)

Most of this post is taken up by a long-ish transliteration and translation of a Malay text with notes. There is no real conclusion.

In 1511 a small Portuguese and Indian force under Afonso de Albuquerque attacked and conquered Melaka, a city and Sultanate on the Malay Peninsula (Figure 1), then one of the largest cities in Southeast Asia and probably one of the most cosmopolitan societies on the planet. For around a century Melaka had dominated trade up and down the Strait of Malacca and further afield as well, and in conquering the city Albuquerque hoped (ultimately in vain) to be able to monopolise Southeast Asian trade for Portugal. This was a hugely important event: Melaka wouldn’t be out of European hands for more than four and a half centuries. The conquest gave Portugal a foothold from which to expand further into the archipelago; within a year Portuguese ships were in Banda and Maluku, home of nutmeg and cloves respectively. The region’s trade and politics were radically transformed by this new Portuguese presence and European contact created a conduit by which American products could enter, leading to revolutionary changes in Indo-Malaysian agriculture, diet, and ecology.

Fig. 1 — The location of Melaka (or Malacca) in what is now Malaysia.

As you might expect, though, I’m more interested in what happened before these changes took place. The pre-conquest history of the Melaka Sultanate is known from a combination of local texts and foreign accounts — mostly Chinese for the early fifteenth century and Portuguese post-conquest retrospectives for the later parts. There is also a small amount of numismatic evidence, for which see Shaw and Ali (1970). The most important of the local texts is the Sulalat al-salāṭīn, popularly known as the Sejarah Melayu or ‘Malay Annals’, a Malay historical text dating to some point in the sixteenth century and extensively emended in 1612 CE.

This text survives in a large number of manuscripts, the oldest of which is now in the St Petersburg Institute of Oriental Manuscripts of the Russian Academy of Sciences, brought there by a Baltic-German sailor, Adam Johann von Krusenstern (Russian: Иван Фёдорович Крузенштерн), who had commissioned it in Melaka in 1799 while serving on a British ship. ‘Oldest’ doesn’t mean ‘best’ when dealing with manuscripts, of course, and the St Petersburg manuscript (‘K’) dates in any case to several centuries after the events the text purports to describe. The precise history of the Sejarah Melayu text is tricky to say the least, as Henri Chambert-Loir makes clear in his 2017a discussion of the St Petersburg manuscript (see also Chambert-Loir 2017b), and there are several different versions with lots of variation between them. We don’t know what the/any Ur-form of the text looked like and there is as far as I’m aware no complete critical edition of the work in any language. The ‘standard’ published text — that is to say, the one used as the source text on the Malay Concordance Project site — is Samad Ahmad (1979), based on a couple of nineteenth-century manuscripts.

The Sejarah Melayu is nonetheless the most famous and arguably most important work of Classical Malay literature, and it’s now more accessible than ever thanks to digitisation programmes at several libraries housing manuscripts of it. The second oldest surviving manuscript, London, Royal Asiatic Society, Raffles Malay 18, has been digitised, as have a couple of the manuscripts in the Universiteitsbibliotheek here in Leiden and two in the extensive collection of Malay manuscripts in the British Library.

In this post I want to take a look at a long passage recounting the first Portuguese visit to Melaka taken from one of these manuscripts of the Sejarah Melayu. The passage demonstrates some of the difficulties of using the work as a primary source on the history of the Melaka Sultanate, but it’s also a rather lively story — and it’s been great practice for my Jawi (and yours too if you’re into that sort of thing). I’ve taken the text below from London, British Library, Or 14734, a manuscript on English paper of the long version of the text (i.e. one that ends considerably after the Portuguese conquest) which was copied in Melaka by Muhammad Tajuddin Tambi Hitam bin Zainal Abidin on Monday the 19th of Zulhijah, 1289 (i.e. Monday the 17th of February, 1873, according to the notes on the British Library site). I chose this manuscript because it’s easy to read, the images are of particularly high quality, and I found the relevant section quickly. It was also copied in Melaka itself, which is nice. Reason enough for me, anyway.

Below I have included photos of the manuscript’s pages (Figures 2–4), a Roman transliteration, and an original English translation (any errors in which are mine alone, of course — there are probably plenty). The transliteration is my own — again, errors mine — but it’s adapted from the Samad Ahmad (1979) text, and deviations from that text are noted using brackets: square brackets […] indicate things in Or 14734 that aren’t in Samad Ahmad’s text and round ones (…) indicates things that are in Samad Ahmad’s text but not in Or 14734. Most of these differences are minor — the addition or subtraction of an itu or a -nya — but it’s nice to know where this manuscript stands in relation to others. I’m not an expert in Malay literature so this shouldn’t be taken as an essential new piece of philological investigation. It’s just for fun.

Anyway: Here is the section describing the arrival of the Portuguese (Peringgi) in Melaka and the first assault on the city. The text gives no dates for these events, but the first Portuguese ship came to Melaka in 1509 and the first attack took place in July 1511. It should be noted that the Portuguese accounts of these events are rather different, to put it mildly, and the first attack described below seems to have been part of Albuquerque’s weeks-long attempt to conquer the city, accomplished in August 1511, rather than a wholly separate event. It shouldn’t be assumed that the European accounts are ‘true’ and the Malay ones ‘false’; naturally, they portray essentially the same events from different perspectives and after lapses of different amounts of time.

Fig. 2 — London, British Library, Or 14734, f.160v.

TEXT — f.160v:


‘… In that period the country of Melaka was extremely busy, and the arrivals increasingly settled in the villages. It was packed with houses from the Keling (1) village side over to Kuala Penajuh. People coming and going between Melaka and Jugra carried no fire with them (2); wherever one stopped there were villages of people. And from this side over to Batu Pahat it was the same, because the people of Melaka numbered 190,000. Well, a Peringgi (3) ship came from Goa; it did some trading in Melaka. So it was seen by these Peringgis that Melaka was exceedingly good, its port extremely busy. All the Melaka people in the villages saw the appearance of these Peringgis and they were all surprised to see them. The Melaka people said, “these are white Bengalis!” So dozens of Melaka people crowded around each of those Peringgis; some twisted their beards, some clapped them on their heads, some took their hats, some grasped at their hands. Well, the captain of that ship went up to have an audience with the Bendahara Seri Maharaja, and he was adopted as his child and was presented with a complete set of clothes (4). The captain paid homage to the Bendahara Seri Maharaja with a gold jewelled chain — he personally put it around the Bendahara’s neck. Well, all the people looking on wanted…’

Fig. 3 — London, British Library, Or 14734, f.161r.

TEXT — f.161r:


‘…to take offense at those Peringgis but the Bendahara wouldn’t let them. He said: “You’re angry because they are people who don’t know our customs.” (5) After the coming of the monsoon they were to go, so the ship’s captain returned to Goa. The Viceroy (6) was told of the size of Melaka and of its prosperity, and of the busyness of its port. At that time the Viceroy in Goa was named Apangsu Dhubirki (7); he was eager to hear news of that country of Melaka. So he ordered seven ships to be fitted out — galleys ten (fathoms?) long, fustas thirteen (8). After everything was ready, they were ordered to attack Melaka. Gangsalu Perira was the name of the main captain (9). After they came to Melaka, they fired on it with their cannons. All the Melaka people were shocked to hear the sound of the cannons, saying “What sound is that like thunder?” The gun’s bullets struck all the Melaka people, because at that time the people of Melaka had never seen guns (10). Well, there were some whose necks were severed, some whose heads were split, some cut in two at the waist, (and some (shot) in their hands and thighs). The Melaka people’s astonishment grew and grew on seeing these bullets, and they said, “What’s the name of these round weapons that are sharp enough to kill?” The next day all the Portuguese came up with their guns (11), two thousand in number, with countless other black men as their soldiers (12). They were pushed back by the Melaka people with Tun Hassan Temenggung as their commander. All the Melakans and all the Peringgis came together and they fought in an extremely confused melee, their weapons (hitting) like heavy rain. Tun Hassan Temenggung together with the warlord of Melaka pushed through and so the Peringgis broke off the fight. The fact is, …’

Fig. 4 — London, British Library, Or 14734, f.161v.

TEXT — f.161v:


‘… they killed a lot of them and then retreated. The Melaka people rolled up altogether and broke the Peringgis, who scattered and dived into the water pursued by the Melakans. Well, all the Peringgis got into their ships and then sailed back to Goa. Having got to Goa they related all the events to the Viceroy, whereupon the Viceroy became extremely angry. So he ordered to equip again to attack Melaka. The capitão-mor said, “In our view, if the Bendahara Seri Maharaja is still there, no matter how large the Goan fleet that attacks, Melaka will not be defeated.” So Albuquerque said: “Why do you talk like that? What options do I have, since I’m unable to leave Goa? But when I’ve stepped down as Viceroy I’ll go to attack Melaka myself, and you’ll see if it isn’t defeated.” (But) he made no preparations to attack Melaka (at that time).’ (13)


(1) Keling is now a slur for people of Indian descent in Malaysia, but in earlier times it seems to have been a more neutral designation for India and Indians in general, particularly (but not exclusively) South India(ns). There were lots of these ethno-national kampungs, anyway — little barrios for communities of foreigners. The Portuguese tell us they included Armenians and people from Luzon in the Philippines, as well as Chinese, Thais/Siamese, and Indians, and many others.

(2) The MS says that they ‘didn’t carry anything’ (tiada membawa apa) or ‘any goods’ rather than the usual claim that they carried no fire (tiada membawa api).

(3) Peringgi (ڤرڠݢي) is ultimately from the name of the Franks, in this case entering Malay via Persian. Variations of this term served as the generic names for people from Western Europe around the Indian Ocean at this time, as European reports make clear; the mid-fifteenth-century Italian traveller Niccolò de’ Conti says so explicitly.

(4) The word salin means ‘change clothes/food/outward form’; in cases like these it refers to a gift of a complete outfit to a newly appointed chief (as noted in Wilkinson’s 1932 Malay dictionary).

(5) Usually the manuscripts have the Bendahara saying that the Peringgis don’t know our language (bahasa); in this manuscript the word adat ‘custom, tradition’ is used instead.

(6) The Malay says wizurai, a transcription of the Portuguese word Vice-Rei ‘Viceroy’. This is one of several European words to appear in the passage.

(7) = Afonso de Albuquerque. In spite of having written in all the vowel diacritics the reading still isn’t quite right in the Jawi.

(8) Ghali or ʿali ‘galley’ is another Portuguese loanword, ultimately from Greek γαλέα. The manuscript then has ⟨p-t⟩ (peta), a copying error for pusta or fusta, the name of another kind of vessel with oars. The numbers presumably refer to dimensions, and evidence from other texts suggests that they may refer to fathoms (depa). That’s mostly conjecture on my part, though, and a fusta was (as I understand it) normally smaller than a galley. I don’t have immediate access to a better translation right now (because: corona) but if you know what’s happening here let me know.

(9) Gangsalu Perira seems to be the Portuguese name Gonçalo Pereira. He is said to be the kapitan mor, a Malay version of the Portuguese title capitão-mor ‘main captain, Captain-Major’. I’m not aware of any conquistadores of that name at Melaka in c.1511 but my knowledge of such things isn’t complete by any means. It could be a reference to Gonçalo Pereira Marramaque, a later sixteenth-century arrival. I’ll have a look for the name in Brás de Albuquerque’s Comentários when I have a minute…

(10) In fact Melaka was full of guns at the time of the conquest. Plenty of cannons have been recovered from fifteenth-century shipwrecks in island Southeast Asian waters and the Portuguese accounts tell us that thousands of cannons — most made locally — were captured by Albuquerque in the battle for the city. The Portuguese considered these guns to be exceptionally well-made. It is completely untrue to suggest that pre-conquest Malays were naive about firearms.

(11) The most common word for ‘gun’ in the text, and in older Indo-Malaysian texts more generally, is bedil, a word of Tamil origin (from வெடில் veṭil ‘explosion of gunpowder, a shock’). We have every reason to believe that this word was actually used in the archipelago by the end of the fifteenth century. Meriam is a more specific term for ‘cannon’; it is the Arabic name Maryam (‘Mary’), apparently used as the name of a particularly large cannon in fifteenth-century Bengal.

In this line, however, we find the word senapang, an anachronism: It comes from the Dutch snaphaan ‘pecking rooster’, cf. English snaphaunce, the name for a kind of gun lock similar to a flintlock action that was popular in Europe for about a century after c.1550. No such guns existed anywhere in the world at the time of the Portuguese conquest of Melaka.

(12) When the Portuguese attacked Melaka they made use of Hindu auxiliaries recruited in South India — hardly unprecedented in these early colonial ventures (cf. the Tlaxcalans and Cortés). These are presumably the ‘black people’ (orang hitam) being referred to in the Malay account.

(13) Certainly there was a delay between the capture of several Portuguese traders/conquistadores at Melaka in 1509 and the actual conquest in August 1511, but there seems to have been some misremembering here: In July 1511 Albuquerque attacked the city with cannons, an act that does seem to have shocked the Malays. But the next month he conquered the city after protracted negotiations and a battle. The delay wasn’t as long as the Sejarah Melayu account seems to suggest, and Albuquerque was the commander throughout the attack.


Chambert-Loir, Henri. 2017a. One more version of the Sejarah Melayu. Archipel. 94:211–221.

___________________. 2017b. The history of a history. Variant versions of the Sulalat al-Salatin. Indonesia. 104:121–77.

Samad Ahmad, Abdul. 1979. Sulalatus salatin. Kuala Lumpur: Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka.

Shaw, W. and Ali, M. K. H. 1970. Malacca coins. Kuala Lumpur: Department of Museums Malaysia.

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