Indonesia And The Spice Islands



The Melaka Sultanate






The Melaka Sultanate was founded by Parameswara in 1401. He was a fugitive prince from Palembang in Sumatra, and had arrived in Melaka via Temasik, the Singapore of old. According to legend, he was so impressed by a fleeing mouse-deer that had turned to kick at his hunting dogs, he decided to build a settlement on the spot where he was leaning against a Melaka tree.



In 1414, Parameswara embraced Islam, changed his name to Megat Iskandar Shah, and married a Muslim princess from Pasai, Sumatra. The move attracted Muslim traders to the port, bringing it instant international fame. Maintaining good relations with Ming China, he sent mission after mission to Peking in 1415, 1416 and 1418. Upon his death in 1424, Megat Iskandar Shah was succeeded by his son Sri Maharaja (1424-1444) whose first mission was to visit Emperor Yung Lo of Ming China to inform of his father's death, and also to pay his respects as the new ruler of Melaka.



Sultan Muzaffar Shah (1446-1456) the son of Sri Maharaja and grandson of Megat Iskandar Shah alias Parameswara, ascended the Melaka throne in 1446 succeeding his elder brother, Raja Ibrahim. He was the first Malay ruler to use the Arabian title of "Sultan", and to formulate the Melaka Laws known as Risalah Hukum Kanun in Arabic. During his reign, he forged stronger relations with Ming China in order to protect the sovereignty and prosperity of Melaka.



At its peak, Melaka became the most important port in the East, between the Mediterranean Sea and China. Over 80 languages were spoken there, and at times there were more than 4,000 traders housed in special quarters. There was the Indian quarter, the Chinese quarter, the Javanese quarter, and others. They were treated well and warehouses were made available to store their goods. The Syahbandar or the Port Authority took care of their needs, while the Melaka fleet, comprising 40 to 100 ships, guaranteed the safety of the merchants and their goods.



The source of food for Melaka was in Indonesia, which also had an abundant supply of spices to offer the international market at that time. Ships from Melaka regularly sailed to Demak, Grisek and Japara in Eastern Java to transport these necessary items home for use and re-sale.



The Straits of Melaka provided excellent shelter from the prevailing storms raging in the open ocean. In those days, prior to silting problems, the port could handle ocean-going vessels from all over the world. The Melaka Sultanate enjoyed a good relationship with the Ming Emperors of China, namely Emperor Yung Lo. The Chinese provided Melaka protection from the Siamese and other enemies. In this way, the area was safe and full of promise and prosperity.



The government structure of the Melaka Sultanate was like a pyramid with the Sultan at the apex as the all- powerful Head of State. Under him, there was a council of 4 Ministers, namely the Bendahara, who controlled the military, defence, and royal customs and traditions. The Temenggong, as Chief of Police, controlled internal affairs relating to peace and order. The third key post was held by the Penghulu Bendahari who was the Sultan's Treasurer cum Secretary. The Laksamana was the Admiral who controlled the fleet.



Under the four Ministers, there were 8 senior directors, all bearing the title Sri. Under them were 16 junior directors with the title Raja. At the bottom of the hierarchy were 32 government officers whose job was to aid the Ministers in carrying out their duties. Some of them were district or regional chiefs.



This administrative system was implemented by all the states in the Malay Peninsula, which at that time were united under the Melaka Sultanate. This system came to be known as the traditional political system of the Malay states.



The Portuguese Conquest

This is an extremely abridged version of the Portuguese conquest. The Portuguese arrived in Malacca in 1509, under Diego Lopes de Sequeira. Afraid that the Portuguese would be a threat to their trade monopoly, the Indian Muslim merchants had persuaded the Sultan to attack Diego Lopes de Sequeira's fleet. That stupid act, for it provided the Portuguese an excuse to attack Malacca. And they did, two years later, with a vengence, in the form of Alfonso de Albuquerque.



When the Portuguest fled Malacca in 1509, they left behind twenty men who were taken prisoners. So when Albuquerque returned, he demanded, in addition to their release, full reimbursement for the cost of the second Portuguese voyage to Malacca, and the construction of the fortress. When the Sultan appeared to play for time, Albuquerque went on the offensive and attacked without further delay.

Central in disarming the Sultan's forces was to cut his supplies across the Malacca River. To do this, the Portuguese had to capture the bridge across the river. The first attack was launched on 25 July 1511, with limited success. Although they managed to capture the bridge, they were unable to hold on to it. In the second attack, on 10 August, he employed a new strategy by sending a tall junk towards the bridge, to act as a ladder from which his army can climb on board the bridge. After much fierce battle, the city of Malacca was finally in Portuguese hands on 24 August 1511.

The Sultan and his son fled inland, first to Pahang and then to Johor. They would not live to set foot on Malacca as its rulers again. The rest of the citizens of Malacca offered no resistence.



The Spice Islands


The island region where Tim Severin and his crew will sail is known as the Spice Islands. Another name for this group is the Moluccas or Maluku. Although romantically named, the Spice Islands have a long and bloody history.

Today the importance of the Spice Islands is as one of the few surviving areas of primary tropical rainforest with a rich natural history. In previous centuries the islands' importance lay with their name. As the source of cloves and nutmeg they were the focus of attention from traders since 300 B.C. or possibly earlier. Chinese, Indian and Arab merchants sought out these riches long before the European powers came to Maluku. The Arab connection, in particular, meant that the Muslim Influence was very strong. Individual sultans amassed great wealth and came to control the precious spice trade. Indeed, by the early 1500s, Maluku was known as Jazirat-al-Muluk or "Land of Many Kings."

It was at this time that Europeans first came to the Moluccas in search of cloves and nutmeg. They were highly valued as food preservatives. Wealthy ladies used to keep spices in lockets around their necks so they could freshen their breaths easily. Gentlemen added nutmeg to food and drink. Spices were also used for medicinal purposes, especially in the relief of colic, gout and rheumatism. Such great demand meant that the prices of nutmeg and cloves soared. To offset this crisis expeditions were launched to find the source of these spices and bring them directly back to Europe.

Christopher Columbus was searching for the fabled route to the Indies when he arrived at the Americas in 1492. Not long after this the Portuguese enforced their rule on parts of the Moluccan Islands. Along with the spice traders came military forces and missionaries keen on converting the natives of the islands. Conflict soon broke out and the Portuguese brutally crushed the islanders. The natives continued to disrupt Portuguese trade and everyday life in the islands and within a century they were replaced by the Spanish. They did not last long either and lost out to the Dutch who governed the islands between 1605 and 1945.

The period of Dutch rule is marked by the usage of vast plantations as a means of producing vast quantities of spices for the European markets. All the land was under the control of the Dutch East Indies Company and anyone caught selling land, however small, was executed. By the early 1800s new plantations of spices in Africa and India meant that there was a greater choice of supply available to the traders. As a consequence, prices fell and the Dutch were in trouble. It was around this time that Alfred Russel Wallace arrived in the Malay Archipelago.

Today, the Spice Islands make up Maluku Propinsi (or Maluku Province) of the Republic of Indonesia.



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