The Straits of Malacca (Melaka) area was since at least the seventh century c.e. a crucial place of transshipment and trade on the routes between the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea. The annual change of monsoon wind patterns made it an appropriate place to transship through goods, and the preference of Chinese dynasties to allow trade only in association with tribute missions had the effect of focusing trade on those centers accepted as legitimate tributaries by the Middle Kingdom. Sriwijaya was the key such tributary center and entrepôt. From the fourteenth century there was competition to inherit this mantle between various Sino-Thai and Malay-speaking ports.
A prominent lineage from Melaka with claims on the Sriwijaya heritage established the port of Melaka around 1400. It effectively cultivated its larger rivals by sending tribute and trade missions to Java and Siam, while focusing particular attention on China. The three first rulers of Melaka all traveled personally to the Ming capital at Nanjing, and rode very successfully the unprecedented expansionism of the Yongle emperor (1403–1424). The Chinese admiral Zheng made Melaka one of his two major Southeast Asian bases in this period, and Melaka became established as a favored tributary of the Ming. The court had adopted Islam in the 1420s, boosting its popularity with the Arab, Persian, and Indian Muslim traders who previously favored Pasai. At least by the reign of Sultan Mansur (1459–1477), seen as exemplary in the Malay chronicles, Melaka had positioned itself as the dominant entrepôt of the straits region. As Ming China lost interest in maritime adventure in the middle of the fifteenth century, much of the tributary trade that had flowed to China directly from Luzon (Philippines), Borneo, and even Java was redirected to Melaka. The city-state no longer deferred to Java and Siam, but instead became a major base for Javanese trading to China and India.
The Portuguese bookkeeper Tomé Pires provided an excellent description of a sophisticated commercial system operated from the port at the beginning of the sixteenth century. He noted, "the trade and commerce between the different nations for a thousand leagues on every hand must come to Melaka" (Pires 1944, p. 287). Gujaratis were then the largest shippers from the West, followed by Muslim South Indians, all bringing Indian cloths for the Southeast Asian market in exchange for pepper, spices, gold, and aromatics for India and the Mediterranean. Hindu commercial castes, the Chettiars and Baniars, were represented by a small number of very wealthy financiers who backed voyages as far as India and China. Local Malay, Javanese, and "Luzon" Muslims, often with hybrid Chinese backgrounds, were the main shippers onward to China, alongside a reduced number of China-based traders able to defy the strict Ming bans on private trade. Melaka sent pepper, sandalwood, cloves, ivory, camphor, and tin to China and Ryukyu (for Japan) in exchange for metal manufactures, ceramics, and silks. Javanese were the principal shippers of clove and nutmeg from Maluku in the eastern archipelago, as well as rice and other foodstuffs from Java itself.
The Portuguese discovered the importance of Melaka only after entering the Indian Ocean in search of the spices that had previously reached the Mediterranean and Venice through the Arab world. After an initial commercial mission to the city in 1509, Afonso de Albuquerque (1453–1515) returned with a fleet in 1511, conquered the city, and succeeded in holding it by constructing a powerful stone citadel, A Famosa. But Melaka would never be for the Portuguese what it had been during the previous half-century. Their crusading mentality totally alienated the Muslim merchants, who were much the most important element in Indian Ocean trade. They quickly rallied behind alternative port-states strong enough to counter the Portuguese threat, notably Aceh (northern Sumatra), Banten (western Java), and Patani (east coast of the peninsula). Heavy-handed attempts to monopolize trade drove out even the Hindu and Javanese merchants, who could have been natural allies.
In the years of Portuguese control (1511–1640), therefore, Melaka was a smaller city and port, with a role in the Southeast Asian trade more modest than Aceh, Ayutthaya, or Banten. By the 1550s, however, Portuguese aggressiveness had given way to stability, and they passed on a significant share of Malukan cloves and nutmeg, Sumatran pepper, and Chinese silks to the European market around southern Africa, in competition with the revived Muslim route from Aceh to the Red Sea. The arrival in 1596 of the Dutch, who were willing to ally with Muslims and whoever else opposed the Portuguese, further diminished Melaka's role. By the time the Dutch East India Company conquered the port in 1640, it was no longer the most important entrepôt between the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea.
SEE ALSO Albuquerque, Afonso de; Bengal; China; Coen, Jan Pieterszoon; East India Company, Dutch; Empire, Dutch; Empire, Portuguese; EntrepÔt System; Gold and Silver; India; Indian Ocean; Indonesia;Port Cities;Protection Costs;Shipping Lanes;Singapore;South China Sea;Spices and the Spice Trade;Textiles;Venice;Women Traders of Southeast Asia.
Pires, Tomé. The Suma Oriental of Tomé Pires , tr. Armando Cortesão. London: Hakluyt Society, 1944.