Melaka Falls to the Portuguese Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Melaka, a thriving trade center on the Malay Peninsula, was captured by the Portuguese, marking the first incursion of a European power into the profitable spice trade of southeast Asia. European powers controlled the area for the next four hundred fifty years.

Summary of Event

When explorer Afonso de Albuquerque claimed Melaka for the Portuguese in August, 1511, the strategically placed city was slightly more than one century old. Paramesvara, a Hindu prince from Sumatra, founded the city on the southwestern tip of the Malay Peninsula in about 1400. Situated on the Strait of Melaka, the new city grew quickly into an important trading center that enriched itself dramatically with the tolls it charged vessels to pass through the strait on their way to and from the Spice Islands. Melaka Exploration and colonization;Portugal of Asia Albuquerque, Afonso de Maḥmūd Shah Albuquerque, Afonso de Maḥmūd Shah (Melaka sultan) Patih Unus

Afonso de Albuquerque explored southeast Asia extensively for the Portuguese government, charged with establishing fruitful commercial ties with Asian outposts. The king of Portugal hoped to wrest the highly profitable spice trade from the Muslims, who had a monopoly on it, and to open a new route around the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa for transporting valuable cloves, mace, and nutmeg, along with precious jewels and gold, to markets in Europe. In the king’s eyes, a collateral benefit in doing so would be the conversion of Muslims to Christianity. Trade;spices

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As part of the king’s scheme, Afonso had captured Goa on India’s west coast in 1510, an initial step in dominating the Muslim spice network. The next objective, to capture Melaka, was achieved the following year when Afonso, in 1511, using Goa as a base, launched an assault on the city with a force of only nine hundred Portuguese and two hundred Indian mercenaries.

Even though Afonso’s troops were outnumbered significantly, they were able to take advantage of the political chaos in Melaka at the time and use it to their advantage. Maḥmūd Shah’s despotic rule was crumbling rapidly. In 1509, Melaka’s prime minister had plotted to assassinate Maḥmūd, who in turn had the prime minister and his immediate family executed. This caused so much political instability that Maḥmūd had to flee, leaving his son to succeed him temporarily.

Melaka at this time was Asia’s major trading city. Afonso did not have the weaponry the Melakans possessed. Nevertheless, Melaka’s sultan waited so long to address the threat from Afonso’s paltry band that by the time he took action, it was too late. Afonso used sheer showmanship to establish his superiority, which was, in all practical terms, nonexistent. He sailed his vessels into Melaka’s harbor, flags flying, artillery blasting noisily, to the consternation of Melaka’s inhabitants. He set afire some ships in the harbor and four buildings on the waterfront. The sultan, possibly to buy time, released about twenty Portuguese prisoners the Melakans had captured during another Portuguese assault on the city in 1509. This gesture convinced Afonso that the sultan was vulnerable, so he plotted ways to take advantage of the situation.

Melaka was divided geographically into approximately equal halves by the Melaka River, with cramped dwellings and warehouses on both sides. Afonso realized that his best chance for success lay in gaining control of the bridge that connected the two parts of the city and in attacking its crowded parts to assess what resistance he would encounter there. The bridge was easily accessible to landing craft and also provided easy egress should a retreat be required. On July 25, Afonso’s forces landed on each side of the river and charged the bridge.

A violent battle ensued, with the Melakans using both artillery and poisoned arrows against the invaders. Nevertheless, shortly past midday, the Portuguese prevailed and the bridge was taken. Afonso waited, expecting some message from the sultan. When such a message had not come by sunset, however, Afonso withdrew. The sultan, not eager for further confrontation, nevertheless was assessing his resources for repelling the Portuguese.

Meanwhile, Afonso filled a Chinese junk with his men and with guns and barrels of sand, and floated it up the river to the bridge at high tide. The next day, the Portuguese landed. Before day’s end, they attacked the hastily constructed barricades designed to protect the city. Pushing these barricades aside, the Portuguese unloaded their firearms and invaded the city, capturing a mosque after a pitched battle. The Portuguese pursued fleeing defenders through the open streets.

At that point, the sultan played his trump card: He released a large herd of elephants that raged through the streets to the astonishment of the Portuguese. One of Afonso’s men jabbed with his lance the lead elephant’s eye. As the wounded animal retreated, howling in pain, its attacker plunged his lance into other tender parts of its body. Seeing the effectiveness of this defense, Afonso’s men all began to use similar tactics on the other elephants. The result was that the animals went wild and retreated into the ranks of elephants behind them and into hordes of Melakan defenders. The sultan himself was knocked to the ground.

There came a weeklong lull in the battle, in which twenty-eight Portuguese lost their lives immediately and many more faced lingering deaths from the poisoned arrows. Afonso waited in vain to receive some word from the sultan. Finally, he acceded to requests for protection from many Melakan merchants. Such merchants were issued flags to display outside their establishments with the understanding that no establishment so marked would be looted.

Hearing nothing from the sultan, Afonso again attacked the city, only to learn that the sultan had fled. The Portuguese were now given permission to loot the city but with the stern admonition that any establishment flying the flag against looting would be spared. Melaka’s riches were substantial, but Afonso’s restraint assured that most of the city’s wealth would remain the property of its original owners.

After Afonso returned to Goa in January, 1513, the Javanese warrior Patih Unus attacked Melaka with five thousand troops and more than one hundred vessels. The Portuguese, however, remained in control. Sultan Maḥmūd made two more attacks on Melaka (1518 and 1523), but neither was successful. In 1523, after the second coup, Maḥmūd escaped to Buitang, south of Singapore. The Portuguese remained in control of Melaka for the next 130 years.

Significance

At the time of its early explorations into southeast Asia, Portugal was not among Europe’s most flourishing nations. Certainly it was not the equal of Italy, France, Germany, or the Netherlands. With its conquests of Goa and Melaka, however, it emerged as one of Europe’s mighty global powers.

Of special significance is the question of how a thriving city such as Melaka, so advantageously placed, could fall to forces that it outnumbered substantially. The Portuguese did not have the war-waging equipment the Melakans possessed, but the once-proud, well-run government that had brought Melaka to its enviable position in the fifteenth century had given way to the perfidious rule of a despotic sultan.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Albuquerque, Afonso de. The Commentaries of the Great Afonso Dalboquerque, Second Viceroy of India. Translated and edited by Walter de Gray Birch. 4 vols. New Delhi: Asian Educational Services, 2000. This work includes Albuquerque’s reports and letters compiled originally by his son Brás. It was first published by the Lisbon Academy of Sciences in 1576.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Andaya, Barbara Watson, and Leonard Y. A History of Malaysia. 2d ed. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2001. The chapter entitled “Melaka and Its Heirs” is particularly relevant. It is clearly written and makes a worthwhile starting point for those unfamiliar with the history of southeast Asia.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Diffie, Bailey W., and George D. Winius. Foundations of the Portuguese Empire, 1415-1580. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1977. The most relevant chapter in this study is Chapter 16, “The Shape of Empire: The Nucleus, 1509-1515,” which presents details about Afonso de Albuquerque as governor of the Indian holdings of the Portuguese and, to some degree, about the conquest of Melaka.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hoyt, Sarnia Hayes. Old Malacca. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993. This compact, well-written, and richly illustrated volume discusses the Portuguese conquest of Melaka in Chapter 4, “The Portuguese Prize.”
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Winius, George D. Studies on Portuguese Asia, 1495-1689. Burlington, Vt.: Ashgate, 2001. This excellent study outlines the beginnings of the Portuguese presence in southeast Asia. Contains useful maps.

1490’s: Decline of the Silk Road

1565: Spain Seizes the Philippines

Dec. 31, 1600: Elizabeth I Charters the East India Company

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