Portugal in the Orient


Luís Filipe Thomaz*

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.

The Javanese were the largest community of foreigners in Malacca. Most of them were Muslims from the Eastern half of the Pasisir, some of them rich merchants with concerns in importing rice and other food supplies from Java. Others were more modest traders who owned small ships on which they lived with their families, travelling constantly between Malacca and the Javanese Pasisir and also trading in provisions. It seems, however, that most of the latter groups were poor people or even slaves. Many were also craftsmen, but the majority appear to have been engaged in seafaring activities as fishermen or sailors. Often they made up the crew of ships belonging either to the Portuguese Crown or to Hindu merchants. There was also a small community of people from Luzon, some of whom were Muslims. There were not many of them here, but a few leagues north in a small harbour described as Minjão in Portuguese texts, there were around five hundred. Some of these, such as the first temengong appointed by Albuquerque, were rich merchants. The Chinese community already existed in the days of the Sultanate. Since their relations with the authorities were not good prior to the arrival of the Portuguese, the Chinese, like the kelings, supported them. They also acted as middlemen in the first attempts by the Portuguese to establish contacts with the Chinese empire. The Chinese community grew from the middle of the sixteenth century, due to clandestine emigration from the mainland. Portuguese sources also refer to other small communities established in Malacca. There were some Bengalis -- fishermen, tailors and other workmen; Peguans -- white Jews from the Middle East and dark-skinned Jews from southern India. The main breach in continuity between the Sultanate and the Portuguese period in Malacca was the substitution of the Malay with the Portuguese ruling class. Curiously, this substitution did not represent a great change in the social structure or in economic practices. In fact, the Portuguese empire was similar to the Malay Sultanate: a maritime power based on trade. This trade was, in both cases, conducted partly by the Crown. In both cases too, the ruling class was concerned with business, partly as agents or officials of the trading state, partly on their own account. They were thus a kind of trading aristocracy, something between a conventional nobility and a true bourgeoisie. Most of the Portuguese in Malacca belonged to the official staff. There were practically no Portuguese women in Asia and almost all the men were registered as soldiers and paid by the Crown even though they had no fixed function as there was no permanent military organization. The noblemen, who often formed large clans, usually served in wars with a large retinue of relatives, squires, hangers-on and servants. The soldiers attached themselves to the noblemen and were provided with food in return. These groups then served as military units in war. The royal ordinances and budgets allowed for three hundred Portuguese soldiers in Malacca, but this was only theoretical as the actual numbers varied constantly with the arrival and departure of ships. For instance, during 1519, numbers oscillated every month between a minimum of one hundred and fifty and a maximum of three hundred and fifty. In the administrative system, still at a very rudimentary stage, the total number of civil servants was no more than two dozen. The merchants were not always clearly separated from the public officials. All the officials, soldiers and sailors were associated with the trade conducted by the State since all were entitled to carry a certain weight of commodities free of charge on the vessels of the Crown. Frequently, they also participated in commerce, entrusting sums of money to local merchants. Although it was forbidden by several laws and ordinances, it was also the norm for them to trade on their own account, fitting out ships, often in partnership. Besides the officials concerned with business, we also find traces of independent merchants and shipowners who frequently entered into competition with the royal trade. They were looked upon with suspicion by the Administration which constantly feared the possibility that soldiers, once they had become involved in trade, might be tempted to desert. Consequently, the Portuguese paid 10% customs duties while the Hindu and Muslim merchants paid 6%. As a rule, the merchants, as well as the officials and the soldiers, did not settle permanently in Malacca. Officials were appointed for three years and their tenure was not, in principle, renewable. Soldiers moved freely between the Portuguese positions while merchants were constantly on the move as they usually accompanied their merchandise. Thus for most of them Malacca was just a port of call in the vast Portuguese network. In addition to this unstable, 'floating', population, the sixteenth century saw an increase in a fixed group of Portuguese settlers: the casados. Casado means 'married' in Portuguese, but in Asia the term was used in a technical sense to denote a Portuguese man married to a native woman and living in the country. The policy of mixed marriages was initiated in Malaca, as in India, by Afonso de Albuquerque to encourage the Portuguese to put down roots and build a social bridge between the Portuguese and the native population. To this end, the Crown usually paid them a dowry and gave them rice paddies or orchards in the suburbs of the towns. In Malacca they were granted the dusuns abandoned by the Malay noblemen who had followed the Sultan into exile. They constituted a kind of reserve army which, although it could not be mobilized to fight outside the town, was still obliged to cooperate in defending it when it was under attack. Most of them lived on commerce or the cultivation of their dusuns. They only held a few minor posts in the administration but they were influential in local life as they dominated the Câmara or municipal council which was set up in 1552. They also controlled the Misericórdia, an important charitable brotherhood founded by Afonso de Albuquerque and which was in charge of the main hospital of Malacca. The number of casados increased gradually from seven or eight in 1514 to forty in 1532 (including knights and members of the gentry), and then to around one hundred in 1580 and two hundred and fifty to three hundred by the beginning of the seventeenth century. dusuns, the manning of ships, various handicrafts, domestic tasks and the loading and unloading of ships. When the Portuguese arrived, they numbered about five and a half thousand-roughly 3% of the population of the town. Some two thousand of these had previously been owned by the Sultanate while the remainder belonged to private owners. The slaves of the Crown were employed chiefly in ships, in the army and in the dockyards. When the State did not need their labour, they were allowed to work for themselves. They were divided into two classes: the balatis -- slaves bought with cash and employed in the hardest work; and hambarajas who resembled vassals or honorific servants of the Sultan. The third Portuguese captain of Malacca, misunderstanding their role, tried to allot them to the merchants but was forced to abandon his idea due to the upheaval caused by his decision. During the sixteenth century, the Portuguese state continued to take care of the slaves in the same way as before, granting them rice and two sets of clothes every year.

The slaves were imported chiefly from Java and Sumatra. The slave trade seems to have existed on a large scale. In the early years of Portuguese rule in Malacca, the royal factory imported an average of one hundred and fifty heads per annum.

Nevertheless, numbers seem to have increased during the sixteenth century since the casados of Malacca owned a total of two thousand by the beginning of the seventeenth century. They employed them mainly for military purposes, to serve with them in war. So the Portuguese also copied the model of the South East Asian town in which the armies consisted of retinues of the different orang kaya who constituted the ruling class.

The urban layout of Malacca was quite different from that of the medieval agrarian towns of South East Asia and traditional Portuguese towns. While the former were generally built in the middle of irrigated plains and had a geometric configuration, the latter, like most Mediterranean towns, developed irregularly around a fortified acropolis or citadel. Malacca, economically dependant on trade and not on agriculture, extended along its harbour, facing outwards towards the Straits and away from the hinterland. It was not much different from other towns built by the Portuguese overseas such as Funchal on Madeira Island, Bahia in Brazil or Luanda in Angola. These towns developed similarly as a result of maritime commerce but in Malacca, as elsewhere in South East Asia, the nucleus of the urban development was the mouth of a river rather than a bay. Here, coastal and fluvial navigation in small boats remained very important, unlike in the Atlantic.

Surrounded by the jungle, and not by fertile rice fields like Angkor, Pagan or Mojopahit, Malacca relied entirely on imports from far-off production centres for its food supplies. The most important sources were Java, Pegu and Siam (Thailand). This dependance constantly conditioned Portuguese foreign policy in South East Asia. It is true that around the town there were about one hundred and fifty orchards or farms, the dusuns, but these were merely a kind of suburban estate belonging, usually, to merchants and other wealthy town-dwellers. The economic importance of the dusuns was negligable. Most of them were probably kept for pleasure rather than for agricultural exploitation. Significantly, the Portuguese budget in Malacca did not include any land tax. The sole revenue of the State was from custom duties. This situation was inherited from the Sultanate since in Asia the Portuguese did not introduce their own taxation system, but considered themselves simply as successors of the former powers, maintaining the local tax structure.

The separation between the town and the hinterland which already existed in the days of the Sultanate was very likely accentuated by the Portuguese conquest which created a political frontier between the small suburban areas occupied by the newcomers and the remainder of the territory, ruled by the Sultan.

Malaca, in "Livro das Plantas de todas as Fortalezas, Cidades e Povoações do Estado da Índia Oriental (...)", António Bocarro, 1634.

Malacca did not have the compact structure of Mediterranean or Chinese towns. The predominantly wooden houses were scattered amidst plots of land and the town was not walled. The first Portuguese engraving of the town in Gaspar Correia's Lendas da Índia shows this straggled appearance, similar to what we can still see today in Dili, the capital of East Timor. Perhaps the abundance of cultivated plots was related to the difficulties in obtaining food supplies. In 1509, about five hundred houses had lath and plaster walls while the remainder were made of wood, the richest covered with tiles, the others with palm-leaves. Many were built on piles due to the swampy ground.

As far as dwelling houses were concerned, the Portuguese did not introduce many changes in building habits. Since the Portuguese population was, as we have seen, basically unstable, it is unlikely that there were Portuguese-style manor houses in Malacca of the kind that were built in places where noble families settled down, such as in the Atlantic islands, Brazil or Goa. In 1525, all the casados of Malacca lived in timber houses. In 1539, the new Captain of the Fortress, Pero de Faria, spent five months in a straw-thatched cottage awaiting the end of his predecessor's term of office. Even in 1562, the Jesuit Fathers dwelt in a plaster house roofed with palm-leaves. These light, natural materials were cheap and readily available in a tropical environment like that of the Malay peninsula. The lightness of the constructions facilitated their removal in times of war and during sieges. On the other hand, however, it increased the risk of fire and, to give an example, Malacca was partially destroyed by fire six or seven times in 1555 alone.

Under the Sultanate, the central district of the town, on the left bank of the mouth of the river, which had been the original nucleus of Malacca, continued as the city's political and religious centre. It remained so under Portuguese rule. The only change was a shift in the religious and political foci: owing to the heavy Portuguese dependance on naval strength, a fortress near the beach took the place of the great mosque and a chapel replaced the Sultan's palace on the hill. Gaspar Correia's engraving shows Malacca as it still was before the great transformations of the central district during the second half of the sixteenth century. The only indications of a Portuguese presence are the fortress, still a medieval construction with a five-storey dungeon, the parish church close by, the small chapel on the hill and, beyond the river, the stone pillar symbolising Portuguese justice.

Commercial activities were concentrated in the district of Upeh on the opposite bank of the river. Inhabited by the most important merchants, this was the richest quarter. Most of the houses were tiled and not roofed with palmleaves as elsewhere. At Upeh's south-western corner, at the end of the bridge connecting it to the central district, the food market was the busiest spot in the town. It was called the bazar dos jaus in Portuguese texts as food supplies were mainly brought by the Javanese.

As a rule, the different ethnic communities lived separately. In Upeh, the rich keling community lived by the seaside in an area which was thus called Kampong Keling. The Chinese, along with other foreign merchants and a few Malay fishermen, dwelt by the river in an area called Kampong Cina. In this district there were also some Sundanese and Javanese from Tuan, Japarah and the central portion of the Pasisir while those from Geresik and East Java preferred Malacca's other suburb, Ilher.

Ilher was situated on the opposite side, south-west of the central district. It had a different character with mostly Malay fishermen stretched along the whole length of the beach, along with some Javanese who were probably also engaged in seafaring activities. Separated from the central district by the Ayer-Lele stream, this district was poor in appearance, with houses made of timber and thatched roofs.

A third suburb, Sabak, was situated along the south bank of the river, upstream from the stronghold. Also inhabited by fishermen, the houses were built on piles since the ground was swampy. This quarter is very rarely mentioned in Portuguese texts and it appears to have been of lesser importance. Eastwards, at the foot of the hill called Buki Cina or Batu Cina (whose name suggests the presence of a Chinese settlement) a well of drinking water supplied a considerable part of the town and was thus of great strategic importance in times of war.

Similar to the case of the social structure of Malacca, the geographic distribution of its inhabitants did not undergo great changes after the Portuguese occupied the city. Thus, the description given by Godinho de Herédia at the beginning of the seventeenth century does not differ very much from that of Tomé Pires one century earlier. True, the central district gradually turned into a Christian quarter where a considerable part of the Catholic community gathered together. Nevertheless, many Christians remained in their districts of origin since, in the second half of the sixteenth century, four parish churches had been built in Kampong Keling, Ilher, Kampong Cina and Sabak.

As far as housing was concerned, the Portuguese preferred to adapt to local habits. In the area of public buildings they very soon introduced to Malacca their own techniques of building in stone. The buildings they erected were of various types and served several purposes. This was only to be expected given the different functions of the town, but there was a clear preponderance of military and religious constructions, a fact which reflects the character of the Portuguese presence in that region during the second half of the sixteenth century when most of them were built.

"Mallaque", in Lendas da Índia, by Gaspar Correia.

The public buildings were concentrated in the central district of Malacca, which in fact became its administrative and ecclesiatical seat. In the first quarter of the century, Malacca, like any other South East Asian town but in contrast to Portuguese and other Mediterranean towns, was not walled. By virtue of its strategic position, Malacca was constantly coveted by neighbouring powers, particularly the Sultanate of Aceh. Therefore, under the Portuguese, Malacca lived in an almost constant state of war. As the stronghold built by Albuquerque was not enough to shelter the whole population during raids and seiges, the whole district had been surrounded by a palisade. This palisade was reinforced with bastions in about 1520 and, by 1539, it had been replaced by a mud wall. Later, in about 1569, it was replaced by a stone bulwark. This was already a Renaissance-style fortress with bastions for the artillery. It was built according to the new techniques of fortifications introduced into Asia with the construction of the second wall of Diu which was added to the former stronghold in 1546. As in other Portuguese places, such as Daman and Bassein, the original medieval fortress, A Famosa, remained enclosed inside the new ramparts. So, the urban layout of Malacca became similar to many Portuguese towns where a fortified place called an alcáçova (from the Arabic alqasaba), the centre of power, existed inside the rest of the town or almedina which was likewise fortified by a second circle of walls.

The old fortress remained the residence of the captains and the seat of the administration. The new bulwark enclosed both it and the main religious buildings - the former parish church (elevated to the rank of cathedral in 1558), the bishop's palace, the Jesuit College and the Dominican and Augustinian convents. It also enclosed the principal local institutions: the Camara or municipal council and the Misericórdia with its chapel and two hospitals.

The main financial institution, the customs-house, was situated outside the walls but near the commercial centre in an area flanked by the river and the beach facing Upeh.

"Fortaleza de Malaca", in Asia Portuguesa, by Faria e Sousa, 1666, I.

Elsewhere, there was little evidence of the Portuguese presence: the four parish churches mentioned above, the Franciscan convent on the top of Bukit Cina, and the stone pillar in a square in Upeh near the market.While the poor quarters of Ilher and Sabak did not undergo noteworthy changes, the rich quarter of Upeh, owing to its economic importance, was fortified with a palisade, in Portuguese known as a tranqueira. This was later used as a name for the whole area. By 1539, the original palisade had been replaced by a mud wall with a bastion which was called the buluarte do bendara ('bendahara's bastion'), built at the expense of the keling merchants with a small allowance from the Royal Treasury.

So, at the beginning of the seventeenth century, as we can see from the engravings of Herédia and Faria e Sousa, Malacca had acquired the typical form of the Portuguese towns in Asia similar to what one can still observe in Daman, the best preserved of them all. This consisted of a central nucleus with a pronounced military and Christian appearance, acting as the centre of Portuguese power and surrounded by the native, purely Asian quarters. Amongst the latter group was the merchant's quarter which held a pre-eminent position parallel to that of the stronghold, as was the case in Daman.

This transformation, apparent when one compares the engravings with that produced by Gaspar Correia, reflects a greater consolidation of the Portuguese presence in the area. This presence evolved gradually from being almost purely commercial to becoming a true empire, founded on naval and military strength and reinforced by intermarriage, religious assimilation and acculturation.


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*Luís Filipe Thomaz works at the Universidade Nova de Lisboa where he is one of the lecturers responsible for running the M. A. course in the History of the Discoveries and Portuguese Expansion in the Orient. Author of several publications, he specializes in the History of the Portuguese Expansion in the Orient and the History of Southeast Asia (particularly Malacca).

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