Malacca's History Influences the Present

Chinese, Dutch, British, and Malay Influences

••• Mike Aquino

Present-day Malacca in the nation of Malaysia reflects its tumultuous history - a multi-racial population of Malays, Indians, and Chinese call this historic city home. Most notably, Peranakan and Portuguese communities still thrive in Malacca, a reminder of the state's long experience with trading and colonization.

Malacca's founder, the ex-pirate Prince Parameswara, was said to be a descendant of Alexander the Great, but it's more likely that he was a Hindu political refugee from Sumatra.

According to legend, the Prince was resting one day under an Indian gooseberry tree (also known as a melaka). As he watched one of his hunting dogs trying to bring down a mouse deer, it occurred to him that the deer shared a similar plight to his own: alone, exiled in a foreign land and surrounded by enemies. The mouse deer then achieved the improbable and fought off the dog.

Parameswara decided that the place where he was sitting was a propitious one for the disadvantaged to triumph, so decided to build a house on the spot.

Malacca did indeed turn out to be a favorable place to found a town, due to its sheltered harbor, its abundant water supply and its prime location relative to the regional trade and monsoon wind patterns.

Melaka and the Chinese

In 1405 an ambassador of the Chinese Ming Empire, the eunuch admiral Cheng Ho (or Zheng He), sailed into harbour with a huge armada of giant trading ships.

Ho started a mutually beneficial trade partnership, which eventually culminated in Malacca agreeing to become a client kingdom of the Chinese in exchange for protection against the Siamese.

After its adoption of Islam in the 15th century and conversion into a sultanate, the town started to attract traders from the Middle East, swelling the ranks of those already arriving from every seafaring nation in Asia.

Malacca and the Europeans

Soon after, the covetous eyes of the emerging European naval powers fell on the wealthy little nation. The Portuguese, who arrived in 1509, were at first welcomed as trading partners, but then expelled when their designs on the country became apparent.

Miffed at being rebuffed, the Portuguese returned two years later, seized the city and then attempted to turn it into an impregnable fortress, bristling with seventy cannon and equipped with all the latest anti-siege war technologies. These, however, proved insufficient to keep out the Dutch, who starved the city into submission in 1641 after a six month siege, during which the residents were reduced to eating cats, then rats and then finally each other.

When Holland was overrun by the French in the Napoleonic wars, the Dutch Prince of Orange ordered all his overseas possessions to surrender to the British.

After the wars ended the British handed Malacca back to the Dutch, then shortly afterwards managed to regain the city by swapping one of their Sumatran colonies for it. Apart from a brief tenure by the Japanese during WW2, the city stayed in British hands until Malaysia declared independence, here in Malacca, in 1957.

Malacca Today

All these disparate traders and invaders intermarried, resulting in the ethnic and cultural diversity which now make Malacca a UNESCO World Heritage site, such a fascinating place to visit and also, for the non-culturally-curious partners of the many culture vultures who flock to the city, also a delicious one in which to eat.

You get a sense of a quainter age as you meander round the old streets, an age where gentlemen wore white suits and pith helmets and briskly swung rattan walking sticks as they walked to their clubs for a snifter of gin. The rattan canes often swung a little less steadily on the way home, their owners having enjoyed a measure or two more than sobriety allowed – these were, however, easily justified as being essential for the health, due to the gin’s supposedly prophylactic properties.