Daily Archives: 6 September 2017

Melaka, Asia’s “Gullet”

From Singapore: Unlikely Power, by John Curtis Perry (Oxford U. Press, 2017), Kindle Loc. 552-76, 592-600:

The fleeing rulers of Temasek found a new home in Melaka, almost exactly as far from today’s Singapore as Albany is from Manhattan (127 miles). The name Melaka proved highly appropriate, deriving as it does from the Arabic meaning “meeting place” or “rendezvous.” Its origins are hazy like those of its predecessors Temasek or Singapura being the stuff of legend, but early in the fifteenth century a Hindu kingdom emerged there, soon to become a Muslim sultanate, the faith brought in by itinerant merchants traveling from the west.

Melaka was not a new kind of settlement but was in the pattern of other Southeast Asian cosmopolitan maritime entrepôts, a place for trading. Here on the straits a tiny fishing community evolved into a hangout for those wanting a center to conduct commerce or to exploit a strategic position to exact fees from passing ships, and, more crudely, we might say a place to fence stolen goods.

Unlike most Southeast Asian trading towns, which placed themselves defensively upriver to discourage maritime marauders, Melaka sat boldly at the mouth of a muddy stream where moored vessels rolled gently in the current or rode offshore in a sheltered spot on an easily navigable approach where ships could find safe anchorage.

The city that arose there depended almost totally on trade even, with the exception of fish, needing to import its basic foods to fill the rice bowl as well as to provide most other sustenance. Its land, hacked out of dense jungle, was ill-suited to growing grain although fruit orchards flourished at hand. Fruit does not travel well, especially in a hot climate. If you wanted to eat it, you had to grow it. Melaka, with its back to untamed jungle, lacked continental hinterland and we have no indication that anyone was interested in clearing and farming land beyond the outskirts of town.

Without an easily accessible hinterland, trade furnished Melaka’s life stream. Although not situated at the straits’ narrowest point, the city could control a navigable passage through which much oceanic traffic passed. It lay on the direct route between the Maluku islands (the Moluccas), the heart of Indonesian spice growing, and Alexandria, the Egyptian feeder port for Venice, the European distributor. Melaka would become the metropolis of the straits for more than a century, a flourishing maritime state presumably never as populous as Venice, but comparable to London at the time. Like other trading cities in the region, it was largely independent of any bigger territorial authority. Saltwater space formed its true sphere, “the axis of the realm.”

At the peak of its power in the fifteenth century, Melaka made itself master of both sides of the straits and the islands within, but its empire was less a matter of territory than situation, its purpose being to protect trade streams and sources of manpower and foodstuffs.

The cast of characters in Melaka at its peak illustrates the multiethnic, multicultural character of maritime life. Giving it color and pulse were Chinese, Javanese, Tagalogs, Persians, Tamils from South India, Gulf Arabs, Gujerati Indians from the far northwest of the subcontinent, and even a few of the great cosmopolitan traders, Armenians and Jews. In short, people from the whole of the Asian maritime littoral and beyond crowded the streets and bazaars of the city, all intent on doing business.

An early European visitor would call the straits, a place of cultural and commercial convergence, Asia’s “gullet,” and, mindful of its wide-ranging significance in the spice trade, declared “Whoever is lord of Malacca has his hand on the throat of Venice,” the center for distributing spices to consumers throughout Europe. If Venice were the “hinge of Europe,” so Melaka might have been described as the hinge of Eurasia.

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