World History 2 22 - 2.2.1 The Rise of the Malacca Sultanate

When the remnants of the Srivijaya Empire on the island of Sumatra were destroyed by the Majapahit Empire in the thirteenth century, a refugee named Sang Nila Utama, who claimed to be a descendant of Alexander the Great, founded the Kingdom of Singapura on the island of Singapore. Singapura developed into a prosperous center of trade. However, its wealth led to attacks by both the Majapahit and the Ayutthaya Kingdom in Siam (now Thailand). In 1398, Singapura too was destroyed, and Parameswara, its last king and a prince of the Srivijaya Empire, fled with his followers. He made his way to a fishing village at the mouth of the Malacca River on the Malay Peninsula that belonged to a tribe called the Orang Laut (“sea people”). The Orang Laut had already given refuge to others fleeing from Majapahit, and a mixed population of Hindus, Buddhists, and Muslims had taken up residence there. Parameswara, supposedly inspired by the courage of a small deer that did not fear his hunting dogs, decided this was the spot on which to build a new kingdom.

The city Parameswara and his followers founded in around 1400, called Malacca (Melaka), became a thriving trading port that grew to occupy both the northern coast of Sumatra and the Malay Peninsula, on either side of the Malaccan Straits (Figure 2.14). The Orang Laut kept the seas in the area free of pirates, and Arab, Persian, Indian, and Chinese merchants came to do business. Many decided to stay. Parameswara married the daughter of an Indonesian Muslim ruler and converted to Islam, changing his name to Iskander (Persian for Alexander) and taking the title of sultan. This enabled Malacca to form close relationships with other Muslim states on Sumatra that traded with Gujarat. Through the Malaccan Straits flowed silks, spices, and porcelain, as well as Malaccan products such as tin that was mined to the north of the city. The Malaccans also planted orchards of sago palms, which provided an important foodstuff, a starchy ingredient of bread and noodles that was traded throughout the region.

This map of Southeast Asia highlights the Malacca Sultanate, which includes the Malay Peninsula and part of Sumatra. The city of Malacca is labeled and lies on the southwestern coast of the Malay Peninsula.
Figure 2.14 The heart of the Malacca Sultanate was Malacca, a port city located on the narrow Straits of Malacca, the most direct route between India, the islands of Indonesia, and the Pacific Ocean. (credit: modification of work “Banda Sea” by Demis/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

Malacca also established relations with China’s Ming dynasty, whose Admiral Zheng He visited Malacca six times during the voyages he undertook in the service of the Yongle emperor. When the growing power of Siam’s Ayutthaya Kingdom threatened Malacca, Ming envoys let the Siamese know that Malacca was a vassal state of China and thus not to be interfered with. By the time the Ming dynasty had turned inward in the mid-fifteenth century and ceased to trouble itself with matters involving foreign states, Malacca had grown strong enough to fend off Ayutthaya and repulsed two attacks made by that kingdom in 1446 and 1456. With Ayutthaya no longer a threat, the Sultanate of Malacca was free to spread its influence, and the religion of Islam, throughout Southeast Asia.

From Malacca, religious teachers, many of them Sufis, brought Islam across the Malay Peninsula, and people on nearby islands also became converts. The sultans of Malacca and other Muslim rulers paid generously for the construction of mosques and religious schools (Figure 2.15). By the early 1600s, Islam had become the dominant religion in the Indian Ocean, and only on the island of Bali was Hindu influence still substantial. On Java, the home of the Hindu-Buddhist Majapahit Empire, the adoption of Islam was marked by warfare between Muslims living on the coast and Hindus and animists (people who worship the supernatural power they believe exists in all things in the universe) in the interior. For the most part, however, conversion was peaceful. Merchants were especially eager to convert in order to connect themselves with the established network of merchants in India, Persia, Arabia, and Africa who followed the same faith. They could then also count on the protections of Islamic law. Sufi religious teachers were amenable to adapting Islam to local religious traditions, allowing people in some regions to continue worshipping nature spirits and permitting women to retain an active role in local commerce, as was common in Southeast Asia.

This photograph shows the Menara Kudus Mosque complex. To the left is a brown tower with a clock at the top. To the right is a building topped with a large silver dome and two smaller sliver domes.
Figure 2.15 The Menara Kudus Mosque on the island of Java was built in 1549. One of the oldest mosques in Indonesia, it was among many erected by pious Muslim rulers. (credit: “Masjid Menara Kudus” by “PL09Puryono”/Wikimedia Commons, CC0 1.0)

Malacca reached the height of its power in the late fifteenth century under the reigns of Sultan Mansur Shah and his son Sultan Alauddin Riayat Shah. During this period, often thought of as “the golden age” of Malacca, Mansur Shah pursued an expansionist policy, adding the gold-rich state of Pahang on the east coast of the Malay Peninsula to his kingdom. The ruler of Majapahit, fearing Malacca’s strength, sought peace by marrying his daughter to Mansur Shah and conceding to him a number of Majapahit territories. States throughout the Malaysian archipelago acknowledged the ruler of Malacca as their overlord.

Link to Learning

Read about the Malay legend of Puteri Gunung Ledang or the Fairy Princess of Mount Ophir. Note how different features of the story are related to historical incidents and real people. What does this legend indicate about the wealth and power of the Malaccan sultans?

Assisting the sultans of Malacca to maintain control over the city were nine elite knights. Preeminent among them was Hang Tuah, who spoke multiple languages including Arabic, Persian, and Mandarin and was adept in the use of numerous weapons. It was his responsibility to guard the seas surrounding the Straits of Malacca and keep them free of pirates. Order was also maintained by the establishment of the office of shahbandar. Foreign traders were divided among four separate districts in the city, and each district was assigned an official known as the shahbandar to supervise them and collect taxes.

A legal code called the Undang-Undang Melaka (“law of Melaka”) governed conduct in the port. Influenced by Islamic law, it punished behavior such as robbery, adultery, and drunkenness. One of the most important parts of the legal code for merchants was the section on maritime law called the Undang-Undang Laut Melaka. This code governed everything from the behavior of sailors and traveling merchants toward the captain of the merchant vessel, to the order in which trade was to take place when the ship put into port (the captain was allowed to trade his goods first), to rules specifying how those who quarreled or stole other passengers’ property should be treated.

The Malaccan rulers’ ability to regulate the conduct of sailors and merchants both in their city and aboard their ships made the port a more desirable place in which to do business. Merchants need not fear that Malacca was a lawless place, as many ports were. The city quickly became the main port for trading Indian cloth and Chinese porcelain as well as goods such as spices from the Malay Archipelago. This growth in the wealth and prominence of Malacca helped make the fifteenth century a golden age.

The dominance of Malacca in the Indian Ocean trade spread the Undang-Undang Melaka throughout the islands of Indonesia. It also made the Malay language the premier language of trade throughout the coastal regions of Southeast Asia. In the fourteenth century, a special script for writing it was developed, based on Arabic script. In the fifteenth century, Malaysian literature, which had been transmitted only orally before, flourished, another characteristic of this golden age in the Malaccan Sultanate.

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The content of this course has been taken from the free World History, Volume 2: from 1400 textbook by Openstax