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Portuguese conquerors VS Dutch East India Company: Singapore in the Sultanate of Johor

Between the end of the Fifteenth and the dawn of Sixteenth centuries, Portuguese conquerors, strengthened by a series of considerable achievements in the field of navigation put into effect by the illustrious leading explorers Vasco da Gama (1469-1524) and Bartolomeu Dias (1450-1500), started considering the idea of establishing a colonial outpost on the strategic port of Melaka.

The Portuguese were quite enticed by the alluring opportunity to impose their dominion on the spice market, which had been dominated by Indian and Arab traders up to that time.

In order to establish their first commercial relations with Malaysian authorities, on September the 1st, 1509, a small fleet composed by five portuguese ships was sent to the port of Melaka. The Indian merchants, in turn, with the purpose of avoiding the loss of their monopoly on the spice trade, stirred up the Malaysian authorities against the Portuguese. In this way they obtained the destruction of two vessels and the capture of about twenty Portuguese prisoners1.

In 1511 a second Portuguese naval exspedition, under the leadership of viceroy Alfonso de Albuquerque (1453-1515), composed by eighteen sheeps on a war footing, after having besieged the Harbour city, managed to win over the Sultan’s army, which was composed in turn by about 20.000 soldiers and many war elephants. Therefore, Sultan Raja Mahmud, once forced to fleet along with the rest of his court, decided to move toward the south of the peninsula, where he then established the new-born Sultanate of Johor, of which the small Island of Temasek (now Singapore) was a part2.

The Portuguese conquerors and the siege of Singapore

In 1613, at the end of the conflicts that saw the Portuguese forces fighting against those of the Sultanate of Johor, Singapore was almost totally destroyed by the flames of a fire started by the Portuguese conquerors3. With the intent to protect the new acquired territories on the Strait of Melaka, the Portuguese viceroy Alfonso de Albuquerque ordered the construction of a fortress better known with the name A Famosa, testifying to the existence of which remains today only one of the four main entrances called Porta de Santiago. These ruins are considered by many historians, art critics and lovers in general one of the oldest and most popular examples of Europian colonial architecture of the entire South-east Asia.

Porta de Santiago

Front perspective view of Porta de Santiago, one of the four main entrances of the fortress A Famosa built by the Prtuguese conquerors in 1512 after the conquest of Melaka4.

The portuguese conquerors also brought with them the Christian Catholic Religion together with a strong feeling of intolerance both towards Islam and all the other religions in the area. As a consequence, many muslim merchants, victims of ongoing violent reprisals and charged with unsustainable duties, gradually began to abandon the straits of Melaka causing a slow economic decline of those territories5.

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By the first half of the Sixteenth century the supremacy over the Strait was contested, besides by the portuguese conquerors and the Sultanate of Johor, also by a new emerging power coming from the North of the Island of Sumatra. It was the dreadful Kingdom of Acheh. Fequent were the raids accomplished by this new military power against the portuguese fortress A Famosa together with those coming from the Sultanate of Johor.

The portoguese and the Dutch threat

At the beginning of the Seventeenth century, another european naval power began to show a considerable interest in the huge profits coming from the spice trade. So also the Dutch of VOC (shortening of Vereenigte Geoctoyeerde Oostindische Compagnie, whose meaning in Dutch is Dutch east India Company) progressively landed along the shores of Indonesian Archipelago. Therefore, for the Sultanate of Johor arrived an unespected and valuable ally with which it could join it’s power in order to oust the portuguese presence from the Strait and at the same time regain the strategic port of Melaka. After three successless attempts, in 1641 the Dutch, supported by the Sultan’s army, finally succeded in driving away the Portuguese from Melaka. The valuable port city consequently fell under the Dutch domination6.

The Dutch domination and the arrival of Bugis

During the period of the Dutch domination all relations with local populations were characterized by a climate of harmony and religious tolerance, because  the core of almost all Dutch business continued to remain, however, the old headquarter of Batavia (now Jakarta).

Towards the second half of the Seventeenth century, the Bugis, coming from the central-eastern Indonesian Archipelago, gradually began to show their interest in the territories belonging to the Sultanate of Johor. In 1721, by taking advantage of a growing influence in the area, supported by their numerous community and helped by the continuous internal strifes that tore the Sultanate, the Bugis themselves threw out the old sultan and replaced him with their Malaysian puppet sultan Sulaiman. 

The Whole zone passed then under the direct control of Riau (central-eastern province of Sumatra). While the port of Riau began to cross a glorious period of prosperity, becoming the reference point for the maritime trade throughout the entire Southeast Asia, in 1757 also Melaka was about to fall under the control of Bugis rulers. In 1784, after a further raid put into effect by Bugis, the Dutch seized the opportunity to bring under their own control all territories belonging to the Bugis7.

Further readings and most recommended books

1Wood J. Andrew in Barr Michael, Bean Rachel, Berger T. Mark, Yi Chiou Chang, Chong Terence, Dent Christopher, Douglas Lawrence, Felton Michelle, Igloria Luisa, McNab Chris, Martin James, Mbobi K. Emmanuel, Miller E. Terry, Neuberg Jűrgen, Proudfoot Lan, Roces Mina, Romano-Young Karen, Russell Henry, Malaysia, Singapore, Brunei, and the Philippines, World and its Peoples, Eastern and Southern Asia, volume 9, Marshall Cavendish Corporation, Tarrytown, New York, 2008, United States of America.

2D’Cruz Alan in Richmond Simon, Cambon Marie, Harper Damian, Malaysia, Singapore & Brunei, 2004, op. cit.

3West A. Barbara, Encyclopedia of the peoples of Asia and Oceania, Facts on File Library of World History, Facts On File, Inc., an imprint of Infobase Publishing, New York NY, 2009, United States of America.

4 Chan Christhopher, 2007, http://www.flikriver.com/photos/tags/malacca/interesting/.

5Wood J. Andrew, Malaysia, Singapore, Brunei, and the Philippines, World and its people, Eastern and Southern Asia, volume 9, Marshall Cavendish Corporation, 2008 op. cit.

6Lee Edwin, Singapore: the unespected nation, History of Nation-Building Series, Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, Seng Lee Press Pte Ltd., Singapore, 2008, Republic of Singapore.

7Savage Pauline, Lewis Mark, DE Ledesma Charles, The Rough Guide to Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei, fourth edition, Rough Guides Ltd., Penguin Books Ltd., London, 2003, United Kingdom.

Dr. Biagio Faraci, traduttore tecnico, interprete di trattativa ed international web business consultant

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