Melaka could have become part of the Ottoman Turkish empire. The Arabs may have thought that the town was “not Islamic” enough.
And a (possibly) Jewish official who once worked for the Portuguese in Melaka revealed – while writing in Persian – how badly they governed the place.
When Melaka fell to the Portuguese in 1511, it reverberated around the Muslim world, finding echoes in a geography written in the Deccan plateau of central India, an Ottoman intelligence report composed in Jeddah, and a verse chronicle in distant Istanbul.
These are some of the interesting things that writings in Turkish, Arabic and Persian reveal about the Melaka sultanate of the 15th century. They offer a fresh perspective from the more well known historical sources on Melaka, namely the Sejarah Melayu (the Malay Annals) plus Chinese and Portuguese records.
The person digging up all this information is Andrew Peacock, Professor of Middle Eastern and Islamic History at the University of St Andrews, Britain.
He studied Arabic and Persian at Oxford, also knows Turkish, and has spent years trawling through documents in all three languages at archives and libraries in different countries.
Peacock delivered a paper on his findings at a history conference organised by the advocacy group Melaka In Fact (on Aug 2-4, at the historic city itself) and will be speaking at greater length on the same topic on Aug 24 in Kuala Lumpur.
It’s well known that Melaka had a long association with the Arabs. The Sejarah Melayu recounts how Sultan Muhammad Syah was converted by an Arab scholar who came by boat from Jeddah, Saiyid Abdul Aziz, while Sufism was brought to Melaka by a Meccan scholar, Maulana Abu Bakar.
And, according to the Sejarah Melayu, the town “was named Malakat by all the Arabs, meaning the meeting place of all merchants”.
How Islamic was Melaka?
But what did the Arabs say about 15th century Melaka? The prime Arabic sources on this are navigational manuals by two South Arabian sailors.
Sulayman al-Mahri’s work al-‘Umda al-Mahriyya lists the precise dates when weather conditions allow for voyages to Melaka from Arabian ports. The Arabs called the Malay peninsula barr al-Siyam or the “Siamese coast” and Penang was an important stop for ships to be resupplied with water.
It also describes how Pulau Sembilan, now a sleepy group of islands off the mouth of the Perak river, were once a crucial marker for ships sailing straight back to Arabia. Sulayman’s work advises ships to follow the coast northwards from Melaka to these islands, and then cut across the open sea to the Nicobar islands and the Maldives (bypassing India), before reaching Somalia and thence, Aden (Yemen).
Another Arab source is Ahmad b Majid’s poem al-Ma‘laqiyya, which gives sailing directions to Melaka – the verse form probably enabled the works to be readily memorised by ship captains.
However, Ibn Majid describes a rather less Islamic scene awaiting ships in Melaka: “They have no culture at all. The infidel marries Muslim women while the Muslim takes pagans to wife … They are thieves … They appear liars and deceivers in trade and labour.”
This description is sharply at odds with how traditional Malay sources depict 15th century Melaka as a bastion of Muslim culture.
But this did not mean that Ibn Majid’s description should be taken at face value, says Peacock, for it clearly reflected the “alienation of the Middle Easterner” to the complex social and ethnic relations in Melaka, where the intermarriage of Chinese and local Malays was common.
As for allegations of cheating, this could have sprung from the intensely competitive multi-racial trading environment where one could easily end up with a raw deal.
Could Melaka have become Turkish?
Peacock spent some 10 years looking through old documents at the Ottoman Turkish archives in Istanbul.
One gem he unearthed was that back in 1525, the commander of the Ottoman Red Sea Fleet, Selman Reis, had advocated that the Turks should attack “the accursed Portuguese”, including at Melaka.
The Ottoman empire had become the major Muslim power in the Indian Ocean, especially after it occupied the Hijaz and Yemen in 1517. Reis was concerned about how the Portuguese had taken control of ports across Asia – Hormuz, Diu, Goa, Calicut, Cochin, Ceylon and Melaka – and he tried to lobby his masters in Istanbul to undertake an aggressive expansionist policy.
He said the Turks could easily win as he believed the Portuguese held all the ports with only 2,000 men and “one fortress is unable to support another and they are not able to put up a united opposition.”
Some Ottoman ships did support the attack by Aceh on Melaka in 1547. Aceh also sent embassies to Istanbul in 1562 and 1565, asking for Ottoman help to support more attacks.
However, the overall proposal to capture all the ports was never realised.
The Portuguese made a mess of Melaka
As for Persian sources, those written in India, Iran and Central Asia are rather limited when it comes to Melaka. However, one rich Persian source comes from, of all places, Melaka itself!
It was written in 1519 by a senior financial official (possibly the Jew Khoja ‘Izz al-Din), who had accompanied Alfonso d’Albuquerque to Melaka. He wrote a petition after falling foul of well-connected rivals and was seeking exoneration from Portuguese authorities.
But why did he write it in Persian?
“Persian and Arabic were used by the Portuguese in the early days of their empire to communicate with the local peoples they encountered,” explains Peacock.
The petition recalls the immediate aftermath of the conquest of Melaka in 1511: the inhabitants had fled, but Albuquerque rebuilt and repopulated the town by offering tax exemptions to merchants.
But after Albuquerque left for India however, the situation deteriorated and the author refers to constant fighting with the Malays. Mahmud Syah, the last Sultan of Melaka, set up court on the island of Bintan (south of Johor), and then sent expensive gifts as tribute to the Portuguese in return for a peace treaty.
With the arrival of Jorge de Brito as governor of Melaka in 1515, the situation deteriorated. The author criticises the Portuguese administrators as they knew no Malay and were not conversant with local laws and customs; they confiscated ships, causing merchants to flee the town. They also interfered with Melaka’s food supplies by confiscating boats carrying rice from Java. It was during this period that the author fell foul of the local authorities, and was imprisoned.
Peacock says the document is important not just for what it says about Portuguese governance but for what it reveals about Melaka – clearly commerce and pre-conquest merchants were still vital, and the town was dependent on rice imports.
The letter also generally suggests that Persian was used as a language of diplomatic communication in South-East Asia.
Professor who’s a whiz with languages
What motivated Peacock to delve into Arabic, Persian and Turkish manuscripts?
“Compared to other areas of history, so much remains to be discovered about medieval and early modern Islamic history. Every year new materials come to light in the form of manuscripts and archival documents, and whole aspects of even well known empires such as the Ottomans and Mughals have not been sufficiently studied by researchers,” he explained.
“So there is much to be done, compared to say, the history of the medieval west where almost everything has been published in some form,” he added.
It’s not a straightforward task to get to the original documents, as they are scattered all over the place. For example, the petition in Persian is kept in the national archives of Lisbon.
Other documents are kept at different libraries in the Middle East and Europe. And the writings of Ibn Majid that include his poem al-Ma‘laqiyya are kept in St Petersburg, Russia!
It was also “a lot of hard work to learn” Turkish and Arabic, recounts Peacock. Apart from the classical written versions of these languages, he can also speak the everyday street versions, as he had lived in Cairo and Ankara before.
However, he notes that due to a language reform in the 1920s, modern Turkish is quite different from the language used in Ottoman documents, which can only be read with specialist training.
“A further difficulty is that spoken Arabic is quite different from the written language, so that needs to be learned separately too.”
All in all, Peacock can read about 10 languages, including Malay, and was once Visiting Professor in the Department of History, Universiti Malaya (2017-2018). He also studied Malay and Jawi script and manuscripts at Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia.
His publications relevant to South-East Asia include (co-edited with Annabel Gallop), From Anatolia To Aceh: Ottomans, Turks And South-East Asia (2015) and most recently Arabic Manuscripts From Buton, Southeast Sulawesi (2019).
He is currently conducting a research project funded by the British Academy on Arabic language and literature in early modern South-East Asia and also coming up with another book (with other co-authors) about documents in the Ottoman archives about South-East Asia from the 16th to early 20th centuries.
“These documents are in different languages. Some of them were sent from South-East Asia asking for Ottoman help, and written in Malay, Arabic and even Tausug.” he said. (Tausug is spoken in the Sulu islands, southern Philippines, and entered global media as the language of the Abu Sayyaf terror group).
What about the belief by some Malaysian scholars that there is a treasure trove of documents about the Melaka sultanate (and perhaps even Hang Tuah) lying forgotten inside archives in Istanbul, the Middle East or perhaps India, just waiting to be discovered?
For the Ottoman archives, Peacock says that “frankly this is unlikely” as he had already done a “very comprehensive search” over 10 years for documents on the Melaka sultanate.
Furthermore, the sultanate was not exactly their focus of interest. Most of the documents are records of bureaucrats, not historians, who were interested in practical issues, such as relations with Aceh. But even then, this dwelt on diplomatic relations between the two, and did not shed light on the internal situation of Aceh.
However, he adds that as the archives are very large and not very well catalogued, it is always possible that future scholars may find some new documents, though he suspects these will more likely be about countries closer to Turkey rather than Melaka.