Our last few days in Malaysia have been spent here, in Melaka. After two weeks of continuous travel, we decided to just relax here for a few days. It’s a good place to unwind too- its small mellow town, but with enough history to keep it interesting. Our bus ride into town told us a lot right off the bat. We drove south into town, through Little India, then through Chinatown, and finally dropped off in front of The Stadthuys- a Dutch cathedral, surrounded by British colonial buildings and a fountain dedicated to Queen Victoria. Like much of Malaysia, it’s an incredibly diverse place with perhaps the richest history in all of Malaysia.
Although small today, Melaka was once the center of a large trade empire and its importance drove many historical events. It first came into the European consciousness when Vasco de Gama reached India, in 1498, and discovered that the spices Europe was after didn’t come from India at all, but from even farther east, from a place called Melaka. You see, prior to de Gama’s voyage, Europeans got their spices from Arab traders, who got them from Indians, who got them from ports in present-day Malaysia, with Melaka being the largest. De Gama’s voyage was necessitated by the fact that Arabs controlled the trade route between India and Europe. But once de Gama found a “direct” route to India, this all changed. Attempting to by-pass the Arabs and Indians, the Portuguese set out to trade directly with Melaka. In typical colonial style, they took Goa is 1510 and attacked Melaka in 1511 and held it (although under constant attack and rebellion) for 130 years. The Reformation changed all this, as the Dutch declared themselves Protestants. Besides all the excommunicating that the Pope must have done, he also banned the Dutch from anchoring at the important port of Lisbon. Well, the Dutch said “to hell with Lisbon, we’ll go all the way to Melaka ourselves.” So in 1640, the Dutch East India Company teamed up with the Johor ascendancy (the monarchy that had been thrown out by the Portuguese) and lay siege to Melaka. It took five months, but by 1641 they had Melaka. They ran the city and port for another 150 years, until political and military circumstances forced them to hand it over to the British East India Company (which was actually a trade for parts of British-held Indonesia). Dutch circumstances, of course, never improved and neither did Melaka’s. The British established Singapore as their major port in the region, followed by Penang, and lastly Melaka. It was a long, slow death for a prominent port that once drove the spice trade. Another interesting sidenote that I learned at the museum: I forgot the name of the fellow, but a Malay Melakan was taken prisoner by the Portuguese to be sold as a slave in Goa. Along the way, he befriended Magellan, who bought his freedom and took him back to Portugal and then west on his famous circumnavigation of the globe. The story comes full circle as the man met Malay-speaking peoples in the southern Philippines, who confirmed that Melaka was west and thus confirming that the earth was round. Magellan didn’t get to enjoy the discovery too long as he was soon executed because he slept (or raped) a chief’s daughter in the southern Philippines. Melaka still sees a lot of maritime action though, as it overlooks the famous Straits of Malacca, one of the most pirated regions of the world. Oil tankers are frequent targets of Indonesian pirates who after the captains’ safes, which usually only hold around 50,000 USD. I guess we’re getting a tour of modern piracy, as the South China Sea, especially the Sulu Sea off Sipadan, is the most heavily pirated region of the world. Luckily, the Malaysian side has a strong military presence. Anyways, back to Melaka…
The legacy of the British is evident everywhere in Melaka. The great British Empire brought people from all over the world to Melaka. Although there were already traders from everywhere between Arabia and China in Melaka, the stability that came with British rule encouraged many more pilgrims, notably Indians and Chinese. The Chinese took over the Dutch parts of town, converting the Dutch-style homes and mansions into shophouses. This is why Melaka’s Chinatown is one of the most distinct and unique I have ever seen. The Chinese, Indians, and Europeans married into Malaysian families to a large extent, which is why Melaka is the center of these distinct mixed-race communities and cultures. Chinese-Malay men are called Babas, women Nyonya, Malay-Indians are called Chetties, and I forgot what Euro-Malays were called. Each of these cultures has a distinct cuisine too, the most available in Melaka being baba-nyonya cuisine. Besides the people and food, the British architecture is still pretty prevalent. Several cathedrals can be found around town, while the ruins of St. Paul’s cathedral overlook the city and ocean from a hilltop. In front of the roofless walls is a statue of the Catholic Saint Francis Xavier. If you’re a long-time reader, you may recall that we saw his body in Goa. For new readers, here’s the story: He died somewhere in South East Asia and his body was sent to Melaka for burial. Apparently his body did not decay in the nine months that he was being transported to Melaka. Several years later, in order to canonize him, the Vatican demanded his body excavated and ordered his right arm severed and sent to Rome for verification. Apparently his arm dripped blood when it was cut off. The arm went to Rome and for some reason (that I cannot remember) the rest of the body was sent to Goa, where it rests now (and is put on full display once every 10 years). Back to modern day Melaka, the funny thing about the statue is that it only has one arm.
these guys didn’t hit the bulls-eye everytime, but they did hit the color on the target they wanted to almost every time…scary! (part of Melaka’s cultural week festivities or something)
You can probably tell by now that we did a fair amount of sightseeing. We checked out a few museums (but skipped even more, like the philatelic museum, baba-nonya heritage museum, and Museum of Ethnography to name a few). But we did accomplish our goal of slowing down our pace a bit and relaxing for a few days. We saw 27 Dresses, which even I thought had its funny moments. We strolled through Chinatown a few times, as Joylani combed the antique and curio stores for interesting things, along with a couple excursions into Little India for some food. Melaka has been a good place to soak up our last days in Malaysia.