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Melaka revisited

Reviewed item: 

This review was also published in issue 66 of The Newsletter

Reviewed publication:
Paulo Jorge de Sousa Pinto. 2012. The Portuguese and the Straits of Melaka 1575-1619; Power, Trade and Diplomacy. Singapore: NUS Press. xxx + 375 pages. ISBN: 9789971695705 (paperback)

Based on a wide range of unexplored contemporary Portuguese sources, this ambitious study aims to reconsider and to expound the Portuguese expansion at the heart of political, social and economic structures in Asia. In doing so, it expects to open new paths in the study of contact between civilisations that began at the end of the 15th century. This is all the more promising as the fog of ideologies and of the nagging aftermath of colonialism has, according to Pinto, been dispelled (xxii).

In view of the works of historians of Southeast Asia, we are in dire need of integrating the scattered studies and source materials, as up to now, Portuguese historiography appears to be ignorant of Malay, Dutch and other regional sources (Chinese, Japanese, Acehnese, Gujarati, Thai, etc.), at the same time that most historians are equally ignorant of Portuguese sources. Consequently, the history of the area prior to the arrival of northern Europeans is lacunary at best and basically remains terra incognita. As a researcher and lecturer of Oriental Studies at the Catholic University of Portugal, the author hopes that his effort at integrating important historiography as well as a wide range of published and unpublished Portuguese sources will result in a more cosmopolitan historical view of the area; the current translation of his work is expected to be a major step in that direction.

The author approaches his subject through the analysis of the geopolitics of Melaka since it fell into the orbit of the Portuguese Estado da Índia and the local structures, especially Johor and Aceh, with which it interacted. The period in focus spans the half century from the lifting of the siege by Aceh and the loss of Ternate as the centre of the spice trade in 1575, and the founding of Dutch Batavia that spelled the rupture of Portuguese influence in the Straits. The analysis concentrates upon the political and geopolitical aspect to the detriment of an economic approach, even as trade, monopoly and profit were the driving force behind Portuguese and competing explorations, conquests and subsequent exploits.

The historical survey proper is divided into five substantive chapters that deal with (1) the economy of Melaka in its global context as part of the Estado da Índia, and its gradual decline, or exhaustion of the Portuguese imperial ambitions. (2) Then, in the same context, the political and military frameworks, their tensions, changes and erosion, are described. (3) Follows the relation of the regional context of the western part of the Archipelago, which is subsequently (4) deepened by the dynamics of the precarious equilibrium between the rival powers Aceh, Johor and Portuguese Melaka. (5) The last substantive chapter expands upon the city of Melaka itself, tracing its population and society, its centres of power in the persons of its captains, bishops and resident Portuguese (casados), and its fortifications and resources. It is also the sad story of Melaka's metamorphosis from a cosmopolitan city to a ghetto-city during the period in question.

The substantive chapters are rounded off with Annexes that dwell on the genealogical questions and problems raised by the historical sources—local and Portuguese—on Johor and Aceh. To me, the interest of this query lies in the conflict between the occidental and the local (Malay) ideas of the writing of history to which I was introduced by my mentor, the javanist C. C. Berg, who liked to talk about 'projective' or 'predictive history'. The purpose of the local histories (babad, silsilah, sejarah, hikayat) are not to provide the reader-reciter with 'objective' facts, but such works were commissioned to legitimate rulers with respectable genealogies, with prosperous realms, while seeking to praise them with noble character and great deeds. Whereas verifiable data occur in the stories, it will take the skill of a seasoned historian to skim the narratives of 'facts'.

Following addenda list the Captains of Melaka (1567-1620), the Viceroys and Governors of India (1564-1622), present relevant maps, an appendix of documents and a glossary, of which the 60 pages of translated letters to the king, reports, opinions, advices and suchlike give us fascinating insights in the mentality and preoccupations of the age and the writers concerned.

The read
Even as this is a translation of an original text, the narrative would have been enhanced through competent, professional editing. The text as it stands is jumpy—painlessly going up and down historical sequences; we are presented with trees and more trees, but the integration of the forest often remains nebulous. This may have to do with what the author calls his analysis in concentric circles—an idea that I failed to grasp. Things would have been much clearer had an extensive synchronical table visualised and summarised the data on the main players, i.e., Johor, Melaka, Aceh, and some peripheral others who at least traded with these three. Because of the meticulous method of the author, the latter are often in separate foci, and so the same data are endlessly rehashed.

Whereas the reading is vexing, it is well worth doing it as we are presented with a treasure trove of documentary evidence. It opens the perspective on further explorations, and will hopefully stimulate the integration of Southeast Asian studies that has so far been missing.

Niels Mulder retired to the southern slope of the mystically potent Mt. Banáhaw, Philippines, where he concluded his swan song, Situating Filipino Civilisation in Southeast Asia: Reflections and observations. Saarbruecken: LAP LAMBERT Academic Publishing, 2012 (print-to-order ed., ISBN 9783659130830) (


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