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The Fall Of Malacca Changed The Course Of History

December 12, 2019

Via Wikimedia Commons.

Exactly 508 years ago a thriving city on the western coast of the Malay Peninsula became the axis upon which history spun toward a new direction. Founded by a martial prince generations prior, Malacca flourished from the trade between China and the Middle East, its location was such that the single narrow body of water it commanded–a narrow strait buttressed by Sumatra–kept its name. Yet in the summer of 1511 a small fleet of Portuguese carracks blockaded its port and effected a siege. At the head of the invaders was Afonso de Albuquerque (b. 1453 – d. 1515), fresh from his conquests of Aden and Hormuz, who saw to it that the “Moors” who ruled Malacca and its lucrative spice exports would fall.

The events that led to the war between a faraway European kingdom and Malacca has its origins in a crusading spirit that animated the Portuguese monarchy in the years when its neighbor Spain finished its Reconquista against the Granadan Moors in 1492. Since Portugal also battled Muslim states in North Africa there was an incentive not just to defeat a historic enemy but use the conflict as a springboard for empire-building. An aristocrat and veteran of his country’s own Moorish wars, Albuquerque was ordered by the Portuguese monarch to launch an Asian expedition in 1506, with the desired outcome being multifaceted: Find viable sea routes, build a presence in India, and determine the source of the lucrative spices. (It turned out these commodities were grown in the Moluccas that are now part of Indonesia.)

Rather than a daring explorer with a cosmopolitan worldview the accounts of Albuquerque’s actions in the succeeding years paints a less than heroic figure. A fighting man in charge of a small army, once Albuquerque’s fleet rounded the Cape of Good Hope and reached the Indian Ocean they ascertained the main trade routes that enriched the Mamluks, Persians, and Ottomans. The Portuguese saw few distinctions between these Islamic empires and, years later, the inhabitants of Malacca were identified as Moors. Having attempted conquests of Aden, the scenic port guarding the Red Sea, and Hormuz, which commanded the entrance to the Persian Gulf, Albuquerque’s men were close to breaking the established trade routes connecting China and the Middle East.

The momentary weakness of the local Muslim rulers allowed the Portuguese, outnumbered on land and at sea, to wrest Goa in 1510 and establish a base where they could maraud the Arabian Sea. The scale of this belligerence can’t be dismissed; Albuquerque’s grand strategy was to dominate an entire ocean and monopolize its trade for the benefit of his king, the ambitious Manuel I. In 1511 Albuquerque launched his most daring campaign yet: traveling farther east to claim the Spice Islands!

With just 18 warships and less than 2,000 men, almost half were South Asian mercenaries, the battle for Malacca began in July and lasted the better part of the month. Of course, the city’s ruler gathered his fleet and put up a determined resistance. The Malays had ample weapons to defend themselves, including thousands of small cannon, and their ships were enormous. To claim the Portuguese enjoyed a technological advantage is dubious since an easy victory eluded them for weeks. But Albuquerque’s men were driven by the prospect of looting Malacca’s treasures and once the city was theirs the historical details are muddled. Did the Portuguese exact cruel vengeance on the Malays? Were the inhabitants massacred?

Having won himself a fortune and immeasurable prestige at home, Albuquerque passed away just four years later in 1515; it was his 58th year. But a tragic chain of consequences were now in motion. It was another veteran who served under Albuquerque, one Magalhaes or “Magellan” to the Spanish, who circumnavigated the globe seeking the elusive Spice Islands only to meet his end at the Battle of Mactan in 1521. Yet as the 16th century wore on the Europeans kept breaking off little Asian territories until full conquests were possible.

The Fall of Malacca stands as the first open conflict between a European state and a polity in “maritime Southeast Asia.” If Albuquerque had failed and was killed in battle, perhaps Portugal and later on Spain would never have bothered sending ships to Asia, reversing the inevitability of Europe’s rise. But what happened instead was the slow conquest of a unique geography, a great archipelago the Europeans named the “East Indies” that supplied the world with its most valued products.

The veteran journalist and author Philip Bowring coined the term “Nusantaria” to assert the importance of Southeast Asia in world history. In his masterful new book Empire of the Winds the region encompassing the ASEAN bloc is given a refreshing historical narrative dating to the last Ice Age, which created a vast archipelago connecting the Indian and Pacific oceans, until the present. The Nusantarians imagined by Bowring were masters of seaborne trade and their lasting contribution to the world is enabling its commerce, whether it’s cloves or semiconductors.

In Bowring’s assessment what happened after Malacca’s conquest was the steady encroachment of Spanish, Dutch, English, and French expeditions who were determined to subjugate Asia and hijack its economy. The reader should bear in mind this process went on until World War 2. Bowring makes it clear the past holds the key to the region’s future. Just as the Nusantarians struggled to resist the brunt of colonization, only succeeding in the 20th century, so must Nusantarians be prepared for a coming struggle between great powers over the Indo-Pacific.

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