The Significance of the Portuguese Conquest of Melaka: Rebutting a Reviewer’s Argument

As I mentioned in my last post, I have at long last received feedback from the committee on my doctoral thesis, which I submitted in autumn last year (2020). The thesis is an edition and study of Bujangga Manik, an Old Sundanese narrative poem written in the late fifteenth century. My commentary on the text and contextualisation of it drew on many of the ideas I have written about on this blog, particularly the idea of a Hemispheric Middle Ages in Afro-Eurasia. Even the most critical reports were positive on the whole, but one reviewer saw my use of the term ‘medieval’ in a Southeast Asian context as unjustified and inaccurate, particularly for the fifteenth century — which in Southeast Asian studies is often considered to come under the remit of ‘early modernity’ (an idea going back to the work of Anthony Reid in the late 1980s, and perhaps earlier than that).

I’m going to look at one of the arguments the reviewer made here. I found it rather disappointing and I think it illustrates the weaknesses of this standard position. I’m quite sure I won’t be able to flesh out my argument within the timeframe of the defence, which is rather brief and ritualised, and I’d quite like to stop thinking about it, so I’m setting it down in writing here.

Conversion vs Conquest

The argument concerns the extraordinary multicultural city of Melaka (or Malacca), which was probably the largest trading city in maritime Southeast Asia for much of the fifteenth century and up to 1511, when it was conquered by a Portuguese expedition under the command of Afonso de Albuquerque. (I looked at a Malay account of this conquest on the blog last year, incidentally.) Melaka had been established by an ostensibly Hindu king, known in modern Malay as Parameswara, around the turn of the fifteenth century, but at some point early in the same century one of its kings converted to Islam. (Perhaps even Parameswara himself; the precise nature of this conversion is controversial and not particularly relevant here.)

The reviewer’s claim is that the conversion of the Malaccan king to Islam was a more important event than the conquest of the city by the Portuguese, or at least that the two events were equally weighty, and that it makes less sense to base one’s periodisation on the latter than on the former:

The Portuguese capture of Malacca in 1511 was certainly an important moment in Southeast Asian history, especially in a very long term perspective and with the benefit of hindsight. But it was not self-evidently a more important turning point than, say, Malacca’s conversion a century earlier to Islam, which pioneered a set of cultural and political changes that would transform the whole Malay world, and shape the societies of Indonesia and Malaysia as we know them today.

The idea is that ‘the now more conventional practice of including part or all of the fifteenth century in an “early modern” period lasting up to around 1650 [in Southeast Asia]’ (to quote again from the report) is more defensible than the idea of early modernity as commencing in Southeast Asia with the coming of the Portuguese (as I would have it, sort of).

I think the reviewer’s position is completely wrong, and I’ll do my best to justify that claim here. First I’ll say why I don’t think the conversion of the rulers of Melaka to Islam on its own was as important as all that, and then I’ll say why the Portuguese conquest of the city was much more important than this reviewer was willing to accept.

The fundamental issue is the Columbian Exchange: I view it as the most important process or event to have occurred in the last few thousand years. It seems to me that the Portuguese were the ones who brought the Columbian Exchange to Southeast Asia, and thus that the impact of the conquest was far greater in real terms — not just with the benefit of hindsight — than any royal religious conversion could possibly have been. But there’s a little more to it than that, and that’s why I’m writing this lengthy post rather than simply addressing this in the defence (which is, as I say, much too short to do the issue justice).

Conversion to Islam

The conversion of the Malay rulers of Melaka to Islam in the fifteenth century was a catalyst in the development of a Muslim Malay culture that is still vital to this day. Modern Malays tend to see the period of the Melaka Sultanate as a Golden Age. The reviewer is certainly right that the conversion of the city’s rulers is considered a turning-point in the development of Malay civilisation. But we should be clear that this conversion was far from unprecedented.

Rulers in a couple of Sumatran kingdoms, notably Pasai on the north coast, appear to have converted to Islam as far back as the thirteenth century. At the time these were the pre-eminent trading polities in the Malay-speaking world, and there’s no reason not to see these conversions as just as consequential as events in Melaka. Some Classical Malay texts, including the Sulalat as-salāṭīn (aka Sejarah Melayu or ‘Malay Annals’), tell us that Melaka saw itself as a successor to Samudra-Pasai. (I quote a section of the text to this effect in my thesis.) Melaka probably wasn’t even the first Muslim polity on the Malay Peninsula, as evidenced by the Terengganu Inscription Stone, the oldest surviving text in Jawi (i.e. Malay in Arabic script — Figure 1). The Stone is a legal text from the eastern side of the Malay Peninsula, and it bears a date in the Islamic calendar probably equivalent to 1303 CE — well over a century before Melaka’s kings became Muslims. This date is sometimes considered doubtful, but no interpretation places the Stone later than the fourteenth century.

Fig. 1 — Side A of the Terengganu Inscription Stone (Malay: Batu Bersurat Terengganu). Sourced from the Malay Concordance Project (MCP); see there for the text.

So: the transformation of the city’s Hindu kings into Islamic sultans was part of a long-term trend in the region and not in itself a revolutionary event. If Malay-speaking rulers converting to Islam is the hallmark of early modernity then we’re forced to date early modernity to the late thirteenth century. I’m afraid I see that as ludicrous. If one zooms out from Southeast Asia then the idea that early modernity began with a ruler’s conversion to Islam seems even more peculiar: Islam was still expanding across Africa, Asia, and southeastern Europe in the fifteenth century. The Indian Ocean was becoming something of a Muslim lake at the time. The conversion of the king of a major Indo-Pacific port-city to Islam seems par-for-the-course.

I would argue, moreover, that it is the conversion rather than the conquest that is more important in hindsight than it ever was at the time. The conversion of Melaka’s rulers did not involve the conversion of the entire city, and non-Muslims of different stripes — Hindus, Buddhists, Christians, and probably Jews as well — were living and working in Melaka when the Portuguese got there. The nature of trade didn’t really change; commodities were still transshipped at various points in multicultural relays around the Indian Ocean and South China Sea before reaching their final consumers, just as they had been throughout the Middle Ages. Melaka wasn’t colonised outright by Arab or Indian Muslims; the rulers were Malays, and there seems to have been considerable cultural continuity. Chinese texts suggest that Malay continued to be written in scripts other than Jawi there in the fifteenth century, and, remarkably, food culture doesn’t seem to have changed all that much: the Arab navigator Aḥmad ibn Mājid, writing in the late fifteenth century, was outraged that Muslim dietary laws were barely followed in the city.

The Portuguese Conquest

The Portuguese conquest of Melaka in 1511 was far more consequential — not just in hindsight but in terms of its immediate effects. There are five points I wish to make here:

  1. The Portuguese invaders served as the chief conduit for the Columbian Exchange in island Southeast Asia. The importance of this literally cannot be overstated. I will go into more detail on this point below.
  2. Post-conquest expeditions to other islands led to radical changes in the nature of the spice trade (broadly conceived); for the first time, nutmeg (e.g.) could be transported from Banda to Europe, or almost anywhere else on the planet, in one go. The model of goods being transshipped at multiple ports around the Ocean en route to India, Arabia, Africa, or Europe began to be superseded.
  3. The Portuguese conquest of Melaka was the longest-distance imperial conquest in human history up to that point: never before had an army taken territory so far from home (Figure 2, below). The capture of Melaka showed that European-led armies could theoretically capture coastal cities almost anywhere on Earth. The distance alone was unprecedented.
  4. The conquest also seems to have led to a new militancy among Muslims in the archipelago. Before 1511 Islam seems to have been propagated peacefully, for the most part. Afterwards there were a number of rapid military conquests by Muslim-led polities, particularly in Java. In some cases these were preemptive assaults intended to prevent alliances between the Portuguese and local rulers (as in Sunda in the 1520s).
  5. The nature of the sources on the archipelago changes after the conquest. We are suddenly confronted by an abundance of texts discussing court cases or describing regions undocumented in detailed writing before that point (in eastern Indonesia, for instance). The nature of sixteenth-century historiography is wholly different to that of earlier eras, just as it is in the Americas and parts of tropical Africa.
Fig. 2 — A little map showing the distance between Melaka and Belém in Portugal: 11,670 kilometres as the crow flies.

I’d like to focus on the first two points below, but I would say, simply, that the Portuguese conquest of Melaka was militarily, culturally, historiographically, and commercially revolutionary. I am baffled by the idea that a king’s entirely precedented religious conversion could be considered as important as all this. When one bears in mind just how much of a change the Columbian Exchange alone was and is, it seems a little like comparing a molehill with a mountain. And the mountain is Everest.

In my view ‘the Middle Ages’ can be defined simply as ‘the millennium (or so) before the Columbian Exchange in Afro-Eurasia’. I have described this position in detail elsewhere — here, here, and here — but it bears repeating, particularly as this reviewer’s eyes seem to have glazed over while reading my description of the process in the thesis. (The pandemic took a toll on all of us. I can’t entirely blame them.)

Before 1492 there were enormous differences in what could be found in the Americas and in Afro-Eurasia. People in the Americas grew and traded maize, potatoes, quinoa, manioc, tomatoes, peppers, chilis, common beans (Phaseolus spp.), squash, peanuts, chocolate, and tobacco, among other things. None of these were known anywhere in Afro-Eurasia before 1492 at the very earliest. American communities outside the Andes had few-to-no draught animals and wheeled transport was effectively unknown (although wheels themselves can be found on some pre-Columbian American toys). Obsidian was worked into points and artworks, but artificial glass was not manufactured (nor otherwise present, with the remarkable exception of a small number of Venetian glass beads recently discovered at a site in Alaska C14-dated to the middle of the fifteenth century, probably brought across from Siberia some decades before Columbus’ first voyage). Steel was not forged, nor were alcohol or rosewater distilled. Gunpowder was unknown. Because few large animals were raised for their meat or milk or for pulling ploughs or carts, zoonotic diseases that afflicted Afro-Eurasian populations — plague, smallpox, measles, influenza, and others — were largely absent.

In Afro-Eurasia by the fifteenth century, by contrast, glass and steel were commonplace between Indonesia and Ireland and beyond. Some foods were more or less ubiquitous, including rice, which could be found in Europe as well as Asia and Africa from an early period and which was, of course, completely unknown in the Americas. Rosewater, sesame, and dates seem to have been popular all over the place and can be found as readily in English cookbooks of the period as in Chinese or Arabic ones. (They’re mentioned in fifteenth-century Southeast Asian texts as well, and both rosewater and sesame are mentioned in Bujangga Manik.) Indo-Malaysian commodities like cloves, cubebs, and camphor were consumed from Japan to Denmark and the Sahel. Horses were raised almost throughout the supercontinent, including in Java. Gunpowder appears to have been quite normal in Southeast Asia by this point, just as it was in Europe, India, China, North Africa, and so on. Playing cards started to be made in Flanders and Egypt as well as Central Asia and China. (There is one reference to playing cards in Melaka in a Chinese text written — coincidentally — in 1492.) I also noted in my thesis that the Arabic language was extremely widespread across the hemisphere before the Columbian Exchange, and one might have been able to find speakers of Arabic anywhere from eastern Indonesia to China, Russia, Mali, and England. There were no Arabic speakers in the Americas until Columbus’ first voyage. (At least one accompanied the expedition.)

When the fleet of historical arch-villain Christopher Columbus sailed to the Caribbean in 1492, it brought these two largely non-interacting hemispheres into constant contact for the first time — and that inaugurated a new era in human history. This new era can rightly be called ‘modernity’. It involved the mingling of each hemisphere’s products in a sustained way for the first time, and it led to the still-ongoing genocide of indigenous Americans and the attempted destruction of their societies and civilizations by incoming Europeans. (This genocide is practically the hallmark of modernity itself.) This process was as consequential for Southeast Asia as it was for anywhere else in Afro-Eurasia. And it was the Portuguese who inflicted the Columbian Exchange on the region.

The route Portuguese ships took to the Indian Ocean — the route pioneered by Bartolomeu Dias and Vasco da Gama — veered close to the coast of Brazil, and it is notable that the oldest surviving description of any place in South America, the letter of Pêro Vaz de Caminha, was written in 1500 after a Portuguese expedition to Asia was blown off-course (Figure 3). It is even more notable when you bear in mind that its author was killed in India later the same year.

Fig. 3 — The first page of the letter sent by Pêro Vaz de Caminha to Manuel I of Portugal (here addressed ‘Senhor’ at the top of the page) in 1500. The letter is the oldest surviving written account of a society in mainland South America in any language.

The first people to have visited both the Americas and Asia east of the Levant were Portuguese. The first ships to come to the Indo-Malaysian archipelago from the east, across the Pacific from South America, were piloted by Spanish and Portuguese navigators. The people who first planted manioc in Africa were probably Portuguese, or enslaved by them, as were, in all probability, the first people to bring maize to Maluku (attested by the 1540s), among other such similar events.

Before the Portuguese conquered Melaka in 1511, the effects of the Columbian Exchange were likely barely felt in island Southeast Asia. Afterwards, these effects are integral to the region’s history (and culture and cuisine, etc.) and — importantly, from my philological perspective — must be taken into account when interpreting texts written either side of the divide. This is why I felt it necessary to explain this issue so thoroughly in the introduction to my text of Bujangga Manik, a work written in Java in the late fifteenth century, and thus before the Portuguese conquest of Melaka and the inchoate impact of the Columbian Exchange in the Indo-Malaysian archipelago. It is this context that makes the text important.

In sum: Any periodisation that does not take account of the Columbian Exchange is weak and outdated. To my mind it is as simple as that.

But that’s not all. Look at the routes taken by travellers to the archipelago in the fifteenth century or earlier: Marco Polo, Ibn Baṭṭūṭa, and Niccolò de’ Conti all got to and from the area by stopping at various ports around the Indian Ocean, whether in Arabia, India, or mainland Southeast Asia. By all accounts this was how commodities were traded as well. Cloves purchased in Europe before the 1510s, and certainly before Vasco da Gama’s voyage in 1498, would have been grown and harvested on one of the five clove-producing islands in North Maluku. Most would have been brought to Java (probably) in local Moluccan ships, perhaps by way of Banda, and then transshipped in one of Java’s ports. From there they could be shipped up the Strait of Malacca, perhaps being sold in Melaka itself, and then taken in the hold of an ocean-going ship to any number of ports between Melaka and Cairo (Pasai, Kochi, Calicut, Khambhat, Aden, Jiddah, Mecca, etc.), before being transported overland to Alexandria, whence they could be taken to Venice or another city in southern Europe.

Look at later routes, though, and you’ll see something very different. The routes taken by the first and second successful circumnavigations of the world are good examples of the possibilities opened up by the events of 1498 and 1511 — the first the Magellan-Elcano expedition (1519–1522) financed by Spain and the second an English expedition under the command of Francis Drake (1577–1580). Both expeditions involved crossing the Pacific from east to west, and both involved stops in eastern Indonesia to buy cloves and other commodities. After these expeditions left the archipelago (departing from Timor in Elcano’s case, Java in Drake’s), they didn’t go to Sri Lanka, India, or Arabia. They didn’t transship their cargo or stop to sell it before reaching Europe. Instead, both expeditions went straight across the Indian Ocean to the Cape of Good Hope. After Java, the next significant stop on the Drake voyage was Sierra Leone, and that was the last stop before England.

This route wasn’t even conceivable before the very end of the fifteenth century. After the Portuguese took Melaka it became a normal route for vessels from Southeast Asia bound for Europe. Europeans were able to bypass middlemen in the Indian Ocean and sell their goods at high prices in Antwerp (etc.). This represented a radical change in the nature of the trade in luxury goods from Africa and Asia. Until the nineteenth the quantities of these goods were really rather small, and probably didn’t change much between the Middle Ages and early modernity, but the way these products came onto markets worldwide changed radically as a result of the Portuguese (and later European) conquests in the Indo-Malaysian archipelago. I don’t think the same can be said of the effects of the Islamisation of Melaka in the fifteenth century.

I would encourage specialists in Southeast Asia to look outside the region a little more and consider the implications of their periodisations on other places. If you claim that early modernity began in Southeast Asia shortly after 1400, what does that mean for the rest of the world? Was it early modernity in Southeast Asia but the Middle Ages in Europe? Or was Henry V of England an early modern king? How is that supposed to work? Do different but demonstrably connected regions really have separate chronologies? Why?

I understand the desire to emphasise non-European activities in recounting the history of a region like Southeast Asia. This is in part why I am interested in looking at life and times before the sixteenth century, and why I find Bujangga Manik such a fascinating and essential text. But I don’t think neglecting the changes wrought by Europeans at this pivotal juncture in world history is going to do much good. It causes you to miss what’s really going on, to emphasise the wrong events and the wrong processes. I think Southeast Asianists tend to overestimate the importance of political history and ignore far more consequential changes in cuisine, material culture, and other aspects of daily life. They tend to exaggerate continuity at the local level because of this. And they don’t look outside the region they study enough. Local periodisations formed without an understanding of global context will, in my view, never be sufficient.

Alex West — Leiden, 2021.

Posting about ancient and medieval Indonesia, up to ~1500 CE. Mainly into 14th & 15th century stuff, but earlier is fine too.