Capture of Malacca (1511)
|Capture of Malacca|
|Part of Malayan-Portuguese War|
Portuguese drawing of Malacca in 1511, shortly after its conquest.
|Portuguese Empire||Sultanate of Malacca|
|Commanders and leaders|
|Afonso de Albuquerque||Mahmud Shah|
2,000 or 3,000 artillery pieces
|Casualties and losses|
The port city of Malacca controlled the narrow strategic strait of Malacca, through which all seagoing trade between China and India was concentrated. The capture of Malacca was the result of a plan by King Manuel I of Portugal, who since 1505 intended to beat the Castillians to the Far-East, and Albuquerque's own project of establishing firm foundations for Portuguese India, alongside Hormuz, Goa and Aden, to ultimately control trade and thwart Muslim shipping in the Indian Ocean.
Having set sail from Cochin in April 1511, the expedition would not have been able to turn around due to contrary monsoon winds. Had the enterprise failed, the Portuguese could not hope for reinforcements and would have been unable to return to their bases in India. It was the farthest territorial conquest in the history of mankind until then.
The first Portuguese references to Malacca appear after Vasco da Gama's return from his expedition to Calicut that opened a direct route to India around the Cape of Good Hope. It was described as a city that was 40 days' journey from India, where clove, nutmeg, porcelains and silks where transactioned, and was supposedly ruled by a sovereign who could gather 10,000 men for war and was Christian. Since then, King Manuel showed an interest in making contact with Malacca, believing it to be at, or at least close to, the antimeridian of Tordesillas. In 1505 Dom Francisco de Almeida was dispatched as the first Viceroy of Portuguese India, tasked to, among other things, discover its precise location.
De Almeida, however, unable to dedicate resources to the enterprise, sent only two undercover Portuguese envoys in August 1506, Francisco Pereira and Estevão de Vilhena, aboard a ship of a Muslim merchant, a mission that aborted once the they were detected and nearly lynched in the Coromandel Coast, narrowly making it back to Cochin by November.
Founded in the beginning of the 15th century, through Malacca passed all trade between China and India. As a result of its ideal position, the city harboured many communities of merchants which included Arabians, Persians, Turks, Armenians, Birmanese, Bengali, Siamese, Peguans and Lusong, the four most influential being the Muslim Gujaratis and Javanese, Hindus from the Coromandel Coast, and Chinese. According to the Portuguese apothecary Tomé Pires, who lived in Malacca between 1512 and 1514, as many as 84 dialects were spoken in Malacca. The city however was built on swampy grounds and surrounded by inhospitable tropical forest, and needed to import everything for its sustenance, like vital rice, supplied by the Javanese. Malacca kept a group of captured cannibals from New Guinea to whom were fed the perpetrators of serious crimes.
First contact with the Portuguese
Unimpressed with Almeida's lack of results, in April 1508, King Manuel decided to dispatch a fleet directly to Malacca, composed of four ships under the command of Diogo Lopes de Sequeira, who was also tasked with charting Madagascar and gathering information on the Chinese. By April 1509 the fleet was in Cochin and the Viceroy, Dom Francisco de Almeida, incorporated another carrack in the fleet to strengthen it. The decision was not entirely innocent, as aboard traveled several supporters of Almeida's political rival, Afonso de Albuquerque. Among its crewmen was also Ferdinand Magellan.
The expedition arrived in Malacca in September 1509 and immediately De Sequeira sought to contact the Chinese merchants in the harbor, who then invited him aboard one of their trade junks and received him very well for for dinner and arranged him a meeting with Sultan Mahmud. The Sultan promptly granted the Portuguese authorization to establish a feitoria and provided a vacant building for that purpose. Wary of the threat that the Portuguese posed to their interests, however, the powerful merchant communities of Muslim Gujaratis and Javanese convinced Sultan Mahmud and the Bendahara to betray and capture the Portuguese.
De Sequeira in the meantime was so convinced of the Sultan's amiability that he disregarded the information that Duarte Fernandes, a New Christian who spoke Parsi, obtained from a Persian innkeeper woman of the ongoing preparations to destroy the fleet, confirmed even by the Chinese merchants. He was playing chess aboard his flagship when the Malayan fleet, disguised as merchants, ambushed the Portuguese ships. The Portuguese repelled every boarding attempt, but faced with the sheer number of Malayan ships and unable to land any forces to rescue the remaining Portuguese that had stayed in the feitoria, de Sequeira made the decision to sail back to India before the monsoon started and left them completely stranded in Southeast Asia, but not without first sending a message to the Sultan and the bendahara in the form of two captives each with an arrow through their skulls as a testimony to what would happen to them, should any harm come to the 20 Portuguese left behind who surrendered.
Preparations for the conquest
Back in India, Sequeira heard in Travancore that Afonso de Albuquerque had succeeded Dom Francisco de Almeida as Governor of Portuguese India. Fearful of reprisals from Albuquerque for previously supporting Almeida, Sequeira promptly set sail back to Portugal in April.
At that same time in Lisbon, King Manuel dispatched another smaller fleet under the command of Diogo de Vasconcelos to trade directly with Malacca, based on the assumption that de Sequeira had been successful in establishing commercial ties with the city. Vasconcelos arrived in Angediva Island in August 1510 where he found Governor Afonso de Albuquerque, resting his troops after failing to capture Goa some months before, and revealed his intentions of sailing to Malacca straight away. Albuquerque had in the meantime received messages from the captives at Malacca, written by the factor Rui de Araújo, and sent through envoys of the most powerful merchant of Malacca, a Hindu named Nina Chatu that interceded for the Portuguese. Araújo detailed the Sultan's military force, the strategic importance of Malacca as well as their atrocious captivity. Hence, Albuquerque was fully aware that for Vasconcelos to proceed to Malacca with such a meagre force was suicide, and managed to convince him to, reluctantly, aid him in capturing Goa later that year instead.
With the city firmly in Portuguese hands by December, Vasconcelos insisted that he be allowed to proceed to Malacca, which was denied. Vasconcelos mutinied and attempted to set sail against the Governor's orders, for which he was imprisoned and his pilots hanged. Albuquerque assumed direct command of the expedition and in April departed from Cochin along with 1000 men and 18 ships.
Crossing of the Indian Ocean
During the voyage, the armada lost an old carrack and a galley, but also captured several tradeships of the Sultanate of Gujarat, an enemy of the Portuguese. Along the way, the fleet rescued nine Portuguese at Pedir, who had managed to escape their captivity to Sumatra. They informed Albuquerque that the city was internally divided, and the Bendahara had been recently assassinated.
Passing by Pacem, the Portuguese came across a very large junk, larger in fact than even their flagship, the Flor do Mar. The Portuguese ordered it to halt but it promptly opened fire on the fleet, for which the Portuguese quickly followed suit. They realized however that their bombards were mostly ineffective: their cannonballs bounced off the hull of the junk. After two days of continuous bombardment though, the junk had its rudder destroyed, its masts felled, and most of its crew killed, and it surrendered. Once aboard, the Portuguese found a member of the royal family of Pacem, whom Albuquerque hoped he could exchange for the Portuguese prisoners.
By July 1, the armada arrived at Malacca, salvoing their guns and displaying battle arrangements. Immediately Albuquerque tried to negotiate the safe return of the remaining prisoners still trapped in Malacca, but the Sultan replied with vague and evasive answers and insisted that Albuquerque sign a peace treaty beforehand. In reality, the Sultan was trying to buy time to fortify the city and call back the fleet, whose admiral the Portuguese indentified as Lassemane.
Albuquerque in the meantime kept receiving messages from the prisioner Rui de Araújo, who informed Albuquerque of the Sultan's military strength, through Nina Chatu. The Sultan could muster 20,000 men, which included Turkish and Persian bowmen, thousands of artillery pieces and 20 war elephants, but he noted that the artillery was crude and lacking enough gunners. Albuquerque himself would later report to the King that only 4,000 of those were battle-ready.
After weeks of stalled negotiations, by the middle of July the Portuguese bombarded the city. Startled, the Sultan promptly released the prisoners and Albuquerque then took the chance to further demand a heavy compensation: 300.000 cruzados and authorization to build a fortress wherever he wished. The Sultan refused. Presumably, Albuquerque already anticipated the Sultan's response at that point. The Governor gathered his Captains and revealed that the assault would take place the following morning, July 25, Day of Santiago.
During the negotiations, Albuquerque was visited by representatives of several merchant communities, such as the Hindus, who expressed their support for the Portuguese. The Chinese offered to help in any away they could. Albuquerque requested no more than several barges to help land the troops, saying that he did not wish the Chinese to suffer reprisals should the attack fail and invited them over to a galley to watch the fighting safely from afar, and authorized any who wished to set sail, which left the Chinese with a very good impression of the Portuguese.
Albuquerque divided his forces in two groups, a smaller one under the command of Dom João de Lima and a larger one which he commanded personally. The landing commenced at 2 am in the morning. While the Portuguese fleet bombarded enemy positions on shore, the infantry rowed the crafts onto the beaches on either side of the city's bridge, immediately coming under artillery fire from the Malayan stockades, though it was largely ineffective.
Albuquerque landed his forces west of the bridge, known as Upeh, whereas Dom João de Lima landed on the east side, Ilher, where the Sultan's palace and a mosque were located. Once ashore, the Portuguese threw the barges' protective pavises on the sand to walk over the caltrops and gunpowder mines scattered all around.
Protected by steel helmets and breastplates, and the Fidalgos clad in full plate armour in the lead, the Portuguese charged the Malayan defensive positions, shattering any resistance almost immediately. With the stockades overcome, the squadron of Albuquerque pushed the defenders back to the main street and proceeded towards the bridge, where they faced stiff resistance and an attack from the rear.
On the east side, the squadron of Dom João faced an attack by the royal corps of war elephants, commanded by the Sultan himself, his son Alauddin and his son-in-law, the Sultan of Pahang. Briefly shaken, the Portuguese Fidalgos raised their pikes and attacked the royal elephant, causing it to turn away in panic, scattering the other elephants and throwing the troops that followed into disarray. The Sultan fell from his elephant and was wounded, but managed to escape amidst the confusion. By the middle of the day, the two groups met at the bridge, surrounding the last defenders who jumped to the river where they were intercepted by Portuguese landing barge crews. With the bridge secure, the Portuguese raised a canvas to protect the exhausted infantry from the intense sun. The assault was called off however when Albuquerque came to realize how short on provisions they were, and ordered the troops to embark again, setting the royal palace and the mosque on fire along the way.
To prevent the Malays from retaking positions on the bridge, the following day the Portuguese seized a junk, armed it with artillery, which included fast firing breech-loading guns and very long pikes to prevent it from being rammed by incendiary rafts, and towed it towards the bridge. At the rivermouth, it ran aground and immediately came under heavy fire; its Captain, António de Abreu, was shot in the face but was unrelenting of his post, declaring he would command the ship from the bed if necessary.
In August 8, the Governor gathered council with his Captains in which he invoked the necessity to secure the city in order to sever the flow of spices towards Cairo and Mecca through Calicut and to prevent Islam from taking hold. This time, Albuquerque landed the entirety of his force, divided in three groups, on the western side of Malacca—Upeh—supported by a small caravel, a galley and landing barges armed as gunboats. As the junk was dislodged by the rising morning tide and drew the defenders fire as it sailed towards the bridge, the landing began, while the armada bombarded the city. Once ashore, the Portuguese again quickly overcame Malayan defenses and recaptured the bridge, by then devoid of defenders. On either side the Portuguese set up barricades with barrels full of dirt, where they placed artillery. From the east side a squadron proceeded to assault the mosque, which again shattered the defenders after a drawn out struggle.
With the bridge fortified and secured with enough provisions, Albuquerque ordered a few squadrons and several 'Fidalgos' to run through the streets and neutralize Malayan gun emplacements on the rooftops, cutting down any who resisted them, with the loss of many civilians.
On August 24, as the Sultan's resistance waned, Albuquerque decided take full control of the city, commanding 400 men in ranks of 6 men wide through the streets, at the sound of drums and trumpets, eliminating any remaining pockets of resistance. According to Correia, the Malayans were greatly frightened by the Portuguese heavy pikes "which they had never seen before". The cleanup operation took 8 days. Unable to oppose the Portuguese any further, the Sultan gathered his royal treasure and what remained of the his forces and finally retreated into the jungle.
With the city secured, Albuquerque ordered the sack of Malacca, in the most orderly manner possible. For three days, from morning to nightfall, groups were given a limited time to run in turns to the city and return to the beach with whatever they could carry back. They were strictly forbidden from sacking the property of Chinese, Hindus, Javanese and Peguans, who had supported the Portuguese and were given flags to mark their households. Nevertheless, the plunder was immense: Over 200.000 cruzados reverted to the Crown along with 3.000 bronze and iron bombards and several slaves. According to Correia, regular soldiers received over 4.000 cruzados each, Captains received up to 30.000; At the time, 1000 cruzados was roughly the equivalent of the annual income of a Count in Portugal. Albuquerque recovered a throne incrusted with jewels, four golden lions and the golden bracelet of Noadabegea, which was said to have the magical property of preventing the wearer from bleeding. He estimated that two thirds of the wealth of the city remained.
The operation cost the Portuguese 28 dead, plus many more wounded. Despite the Sultan's impressive number of artillery pieces and firearms, they were largely ineffective. Most of the Portuguese casualties were caused by poisoned arrows.
The Sultan was evicted, but not out of the fight. He retreated a few kilometers to the south of Malacca, to the mouth of the Muar River where he met up with the armada and set up camp, waiting for the Portuguese to abandon the city once they were done sacking it. Unlike what the Sultan had hoped, Albuquerque did not wish to just sack the city, but hold it entirely. To that effect he ordered the construction of a fortress, which became known as A Famosa, due to its unusually tall keep. It was garrisoned with 500 men. As hostilities ceased, the inhabitants of Malacca began returning to the city and Albuquerque assured they'd be able to proceed with their affairs as normally. Nina Chatu was nominated the new Bendahara of Malacca and representative of the Hindu community. The Javanese, Lusong and Malay communities also got their own magistrates, although the Javanese representative, Utimuta Raja, would be executed shortly after for conspiring with the exhiled Sultan.
New currency was minted and a parade was organized through the city streets, in which the new coins were thrown from silver bowls down to the populace from atop eleven elephants, while two heralds proclaimed the new laws, one in Portuguese and another in Malay, followed by the Portuguese troops marching behind, playing trumpets and drums, "to great astonishment of the locals", as Correia puts it.
While he remained in the city, Albuquerque received envoys and ambassadors from many Malayan and Indonesian Kingdoms, who sent gifts dedicated to the King of Portugal. The most remarkable being a chart offered by the King of Java which according to Albuquerque it displayed:
"...the Cape of Good Hope, Portugal, the lands of Brasil, the Purple Sea and the Sea of Persia, the Spice Islands and the navigation of the Chinese... It seemed to me, my Lord, the most astonishing thing I had ever seen and would please your Highness greatly; all the placenames were written in Javanese language..."— Letter of Albuquerque to King Manuel I of Portugal, April 1512.
In November, Albuquerque organized an expedition of three naus and 120 men to discover the Spice Islands, under the command of António de Abreu, who had previously been at the command of the junk. He was the first European to sail into the Pacific Ocean. Albuquerque dispatched diplomatical missions to Pegu and Siam, the latter of which despised the Sultan of Malacca and estabilished very friendly relations with the Portuguese and gifted the white elephant that King Manuel would eventually send to the Pope in 1514. In 1513, Jorge Álvares would set sail from Malacca and arrive in Canton, finally making contact with China.
When Albuquerque left Malacca in January 1512, the inhabitants mourned his departure. Shortly after, the city suffered a harassment by the forces of the Sultan, but by then the Portuguese had gathered the support of the population, who provided over 500 men to assist them in repelling the attack. In May, the Portuguese along with over 2000 allies under the command of Gaspar de Paiva, forced the Sultan out of his encampment by the Muar River. The Sultan then retreated to the Sultanate of Pahang, where he narrowly avoided an assassination attempt. Afterwards, he moved to Bintan, an island-kingdom south-east of Singapore that he usurped to wage war on the Portuguese in Malacca, harassing the city, its trade and sabotaging their diplomatical relations with China, until the Portuguese eventually devastated Bintan in 1526. His son, Alauddin, would go on to found the Sultanate of Johor, and develop more or less pragmatical relations with the Portuguese.
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- This article incorporates text from A descriptive dictionary of the Indian islands & adjacent countries, by John Crawfurd, a publication from 1856 now in the public domain in the United States.