When the Portuguese arrived in Asia, they had already gained almost a century's experience of expansion in the Atlantic region. This expansion had been very diverse in nature, right from the outset. One can easily distinguish three main trends in this movement. Firstly, there was the medieval occupation of Morocco in 1415 starting with the conquest of Ceuta. This was an aggressive enterprise inspired by the same ideology as the Crusade and involving, in particular, the military class, in other words the lower nobility. Secondly, we have the exploration and exploitation of the West coast of Africa commencing a few years later in around 1422 with the first attempts to round Cape Bojador. This was in general a peaceful, commercial expansion based on pure barter without any endeavour to control production or to establish territorial dominance. Trade was carried out partly by the Crown, partly by private individuals, members of either the bourgeoisie or the nobility who engaged in commerce. The basic structure was that of a network of navigation routes supported on land by permanent or temporary factories. Thirdly we have the colonization of the islands in the Atlantic beginning with Madeira in 1419. This involved territorial occupation, the establishment of settlers and development of an agricultural economy and was the model for the colonisation of Brazil. It was not followed, however, in the East.
When they reached the Indian Ocean, the Portuguese first tried to set up a trading system similar to that which had been successfully tried on the Guinea coast. The political and economic conditions were very different, however: the Indian Ocean, unlike the Atlantic, was not an unknown quantity. Many different commercial interests were already firmly established and the Portuguese were not able to set up their own networks without competition and conflict. Consequently, the Portuguese expansion soon took the form of a military enterprise, reproducing the model of the Moroccan conquests although both the economic structure and the commercial organization remained similar to those of the West coast of Africa. Under Afonso de Albuquerque (1509-1515), the Portuguese began to occupy places on the coastline of the Indian Ocean. As their main commercial rivals here were the Arabs, their traditional enemies in the Iberian Peninsula and North Africa, the struggle quickly took on the same crusading overtones. Because of the continuing need for skills in warfare, the military aristocracy was able to maintain its dominant position.
This military character was less pronounced in South East Asia than it was in India. In fact, due to the geographical and historical conditions, Portugal was able to control the main navigational and trading routes in this region with a minimum of military and political influence. South East Asia was indeed further from the centres of Islamic power in the Middle East -- Egypt and later on the Ottoman Empire. Thus they could dominate the maritime routes from a position overlooking the Straits of Malacca, a kind of funnel leading from the Indian Ocean into the seas of the Far East and the Archipelago. On the other hand, the cultural and political fragmentation of the area combined with the rivalry between different powers and influences facilitated economic penetration through diplomatic and often peaceful means. By seizing Malacca, the Portuguese were able to promote their interests throughout the region and control its main seaways, as the Sultanate had done in the previous century.
So, with the exception of Malacca, the Portuguese political hub, the rest of South East Asia reproduced quite faithfully the informal and mercantile model of their West African expansion. To understand the role played by Malacca and the characteristics of the town and its society, we must consider it not only as the centre of a small space occupied by the Portuguese around a stronghold, but also as the main base of a maritime network which embraced all the Asian coasts from Ceylon (Sri Lanka) to Japan and the Moluccas. This role had likewise been played by Malacca under the Sultanate. In this respect, as in many others, the Portuguese made few innovations, preferring to take advantage of the existing situation and adapt themselves accordingly to their own benefit. Perhaps their success was due to their ability and willingness to adapt.
While they brought their experience from the Atlantic to matters of organization, in affairs concerning markets, routes and merchandise they practised pure imitation, molding themselves on existing customs which they learned quickly from the native merchants they used as commercial advisers. For these reasons, Portuguese expansion in South East Asia did not represent a break in the continuity of the history of the region. Rather it served as a link between the medieval, purely Asiatic thalassocracies and the modern European colonizations.
Portuguese history was still exclusively seaborne, urban and mercantile, concerned more with the circulation of goods than with production. Therefore, no attempt was made to control the means of production, nor to dominate rural areas. It is significant that the Portuguese seized Malacca but did not endeavour to conquer the rest of the Sultanate which remained under the rule of the Sultan, as before. As rivalry between the two powers continued throughout the sixteenth century, the Portuguese organized several expeditions against the successive capitals of the Sultan: Bintan, Pagoh, Johor and Lama. Sometimes, they destroyed them as a punitive measure but there was never any attempt at settling there permanently. The reason is clear: Malacca was enough to allow them to rule over the Straits and to keep control of the seafaring network.
The chief role of Malacca was that of a commercial centre. The first Portuguese expedition to South East Asia, that of Diogo Lopes de Sequeira in 1509, was a diplomatic attempt to gain use of its harbour. Failure to achieve this led to a second expedition of a military nature, that of Afonso de Albuquerque in 1511. He siezed the town and made it not only a centre for mercantile activities but also a naval base and a military, political and administrative capital for Portuguese power in South East Asia. The composition of the population and even the structure of the town itself provided a good support for the various functions involved.
In its capacity as an emporium, Malacca was a base for the trade conducted directly by the Crown or granted to noblemen, as well as for the activities of Portuguese private merchants and adventurers. It also remained an important centre for Asian trade since the native merchants, and particularly the Hindu community, maintained a noteworthy position in the town and the mercantile network centred there, often functioning as partners of the Portuguese Crown.
As the sixteenth century progressed, Malacca gradually became a religious centre as well. During roughly the first half of the century, there does not seem to have been too much interest in missionary activity, but this situation was reversed with the Council of Trent and the arrival of the Jesuits in Asia in the middle of the century. Several religious orders settled in Malacca and the city became the seat of a bishopric and a base for evangelization in many south-eastern countries. This led to changes in the social and cultural panorama of the town as well as alterations in its physical layout.
Malacca's population had been, from the time of the Sultanate, of very mixed origin. This was to be expected, since, as we have already seen, the role of Malacca was to serve as a focal point in a network embracing practically all of the Asian coastline. Long distance trade, in particular, was dominated by the foreign merchants who had settled in the town. One reason for this situation may have been that the limited investment capacity of the native population, largely composed of descendants of poor sailors and fishermen, prevented them from keeping up with the rate of commercial expansion.
Although the ethnic composition of the population and the balance of power among the different communities shifted after the conquest, the mixture continued during Portuguese rule. Malacca's cosmopolitan nature was praised, even by the Pope, in the bull designating it as an episcopal see.
Under the Sultanate, foreign communities had separate jurisdictions with their own shahbandars who acted as intermediaries between the community and the government. The Portuguese maintained both the shahbandar system and the principle of separate jurisdictions, a principle which had already been applied in the Middle Ages in the Iberian Peninsula for Muslim and Jewish communities. This may have been a transposition mutatis mutandis of the dhimmi regime of Koranic Law.
The leaders of the two principal communities received the titles of the two main dignitaries of the Sultan's court. A keling or Tamul merchant was appointed head of the Hindu community with the hereditary title of bendahara while a Muslim from Luzon, the temengong, was given supreme jurisdiction over the Muslim communities. Their role was mainly judicial but in times of war they also served a military function, mustering their subjects and commanding them during the sieges. Usually, the merchants fought together with their retinues of servants and slaves. Sometimes, when there was a shortage of sailors, they would even lend them to man the Portuguese war vessels.
Under the Sultanate, the two most prosperous and important foreign communities were the kelings, Hindus from the South of India, and the Gujaratis who were Muslims. Before the Portuguese arrived, the Gujaratis, who were linked to the Malays by a common religion and who enjoyed the protection of the bendaharas, had attained positions of major influence. Perhaps this was why, when most of the Hindus preferred to negotiate with the Portuguese and even support them, the Gujaratis led the Sultan to take a stand against the peaceful establishment of the Portuguese.
Consequently, while the Gujaratis, who maintained close links with the main rivals of the Portuguese, the Arabs and the Turks, quickly disappeared from Malacca, the keling became the most influential community. They frequently fitted out ships for various ports in partnership with the Crown and also acted as commercial advisers to the Portuguese Captains. In the records of the Malacca Arsenal, we often find references to loans of artillery to Hindu merchants, the reason being given as "because on board there are goods belonging to His Highness". In particular, they seemed to maintain a large share of the trade with the Archipelago, chiefly with the Moluccas. As a rule, they did not go on board, preferring to remain in the town and to send Muslim agents with their merchandise.
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