Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Malaccan piracy – some context

Dutch gravestone, St. Paul’s Church, Melaka

The attacks that have occurred in the Strait of Malacca in the last fifteen years have garnered the most attention, which is understandable when you consider that hundreds of commercial ships, tugboats and fishing vessels have been assaulted in these waters during that time. The concerted efforts of Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia, along with several other nations and international groups, have managed to reduce piracy in recent years, mainly through the use of force.

One shouldn’t assume that piracy is a recent phenomenon in this part of Southeast Asia; it goes back hundreds of years, if not longer, and was a normal part of the lives of those who inhabited the coastal villages and those who sailed the adjacent seas. While at the Singapore National Library, I saw a print from the 1840s showing an Iranun pirate holding a kampilan sword. The Iranun plied the Sulu archipelago off eastern Malaysia and there is a well-preserved example of a kampilan in the National Museum of Singapore. This metre-long weapon has a steel blade and wood handle and is decorated with human hair. Swung down onto the skull or shoulder, it was designed to kill a victim with a single blow.

Also at the National Library, I came across a book written by Owen Rutter in 1930 about Malay pirates, in which he said, “Compared with [Malay pirates] the buccaneers of the Spanish Main were gentle and amiable creatures.” One of the biggest differences between pirates of the Caribbean and those in Southeast Asia was that the latter were able to roam relatively unbothered by any naval ships from great powers. While the likes of Captain Kidd and Blackbeard were being hunted by the navies of Britain, Spain and France, their Asian compatriots had a much easier life.

This began to change in the early sixteenth century, with the arrival of Portuguese explorers sailing large, heavily armed vessels. The Portuguese had heard of the wealth of Melaka, which was the most important and powerful trading centre in the area. It had been so for a hundred years, a place where vessels arrived from China, India and Arabia to trade and barter. Though the city-state had officially adopted Islam in the middle of the fifteenth century, it was a multi-ethnic, multi-religious port.

Replica of Flora de la Mar in Melaka town

The arrival of Portuguese vessels in 1509 may have surprised the Melakans, but, on the other hand, they had been used to foreign ships coming and going for years so the initial thinking was that perhaps this was just another potential trading partner. Within two years, though, Alfonso de Albuquerque had besieged the city, forced the sultan to flee and finally established European control over Melaka, control that would remain for four and a half centuries. They built first a fortress, called A’Famosa, and then an entire walled city that rivaled those in Medieval Europe.
Remains of Porta de Santiago

The Portuguese also soon set about consolidating their power over the Strait of Malacca (which, by the way, is the European spelling of the name; the locals call it the Selat Melaka). And one of the things they did was to work to stamp out the piracy that was commonplace, while also attacking any local settlements that did not accept their rule. This set a pattern that would be carried on by successive European powers, including the Dutch and the British, in which the domination of the seas was done at the point of a gun and a cutlass. Which leads one to remember that one man’s navy is another man’s pirate.

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