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The Eastward Journey of Muslim Kingship >
The Muslim Port State of Melaka

Because Melaka (also known as Malacca) was founded in about 1400, it has claims to be almost as early a Muslim port state as either Aceh or Pasai, yet this kernel of historical truth is elusive. In the case of Melaka, the historical account derives both from the Portuguese records of Tome Pires, written after the conquest of Melaka in 1511, and from an indigenous source, the Sejarah Melayu, which can only be corroborated as a written record in the early seventeenth century. Both accounts agree that an extraordinary entrepôt emerged on the northern side of the Strait of Malacca. It can be traced back to the pre-Muslim kingdom of Srivijaya, and it was no doubt the power and wealth of mercantile culture in the Malay peninsula that produced both Srivijaya and its successor state, the Melaka state. The Melaka state, like its archipelago rivals, boasted a Muslim royal lineage that began with its founder and ruler, the Malay prince Paramesvara (r. 1403–24), who converted to Islam in 1413, and extended to the sultan Mahmud Shah (r. 1488–1511). Though it never conquered either Pasai or Acheh, Melaka rivaled them for regional influence.

Because Melaka was also a conquering state and expanded territorially to include other regions to the north and vassal states to the south, it might even be said that Melaka provided the catalyst for a common cultural idiom that over time came to characterize much of the archipelago. In literature, governance, music, dance, dress, and food, Melaka set a standard that other port city sultanates emulated. Startling even to the Portuguese conquerors was the extent to which most of Sumatra's east coast had been influenced by its northern neighbor; almost all urban elites spoke Melakan Malay, and they also acknowledged not only correct speech but also good manners and appropriate behavior as Malay custom. Islam also came to be measured by its practice in Melaka. Although both Aceh and Samudera-Pasai had a major role in promoting Islamic identity among their own vassals, the Malay society of Melaka set its stamp on the newly emergent forms of Islamic loyalty and identity, so much so that to become Muslim was in effect to masuk Melayu, that is, “to enter the realm of the Melayu” or Malays.

In the late fifteenth century the Portuguese became committed to monopolizing the Asian spice trade, and they viewed Melaka as a crucial target of future conquest. Because of superior firepower, aided by internal dissent among Melaka's ruling elites, the Portuguese warrior extraordinaire, Afonsode Albuquerque, was able to capture the capital city in 1511 and to expand Portugese influence progressively further to the east. Eventually Portuguese commercial and military ambitions were thwarted, although not by indigenous resistance but rather by the arrival of a superior European naval force, the Dutch, in the early seventeenth century.

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