In the 14th century, Melaka was just another fishing village – until it attracted the attention of Parameswara, a Hindu prince from Sumatra. Parameswara had thrown off allegiance to the Majapahit empire and fled to Temasek (modern-day Singapore), where his piracy and other exploits provoked a Siamese attack in 1398, forcing him to flee once more to Melaka, where he established his new headquarters.
Under Parameswara, Melaka soon became a favoured port for waiting out monsoons and resupplying trading ships plying the strategic Selat Melaka. Halfway between China and India, and with easy access to the spice islands of Indonesia, Melaka attracted merchants from all over the East.
In 1405 the Chinese Muslim Admiral Cheng Ho, the ‘three-jewelled eunuch prince’, arrived in Melaka bearing gifts from the Ming emperor and the promise of protection from Siamese enemies. Chinese settlers followed, who intermarried with local Malays and came to be known as the Baba-Nonya (also called Straits Chinese or Peranakan). The longest-settled Chinese people in Malaysia, they grafted many Malay customs to their own heritage. Despite internal squabbles and intrigues, by the time of Parameswara’s death in 1414, Melaka was a powerful trading state. Its position was consolidated by the state’s adoption of Islam in the mid-15th century.
In 1509 the Portuguese came seeking the wealth of the spice and China trades, but after an initially friendly reception, the Malaccans attacked the Portuguese fleet and took a number of prisoners. This prompted an outright assault by the Portuguese, and in 1511 Alfonso de Albuquerque took the city, forcing the sultan to flee to Johor, where he re-established his kingdom. Under the Portuguese, the fortress of A’Famosa was constructed, and missionaries like St Francis Xavier strove to implant Catholicism. While Portuguese cannons could easily conquer Melaka, they could not force Muslim merchants from Arabia and India to continue trading there, and other ports in the area, such as Islamic Demak on Java, grew to overshadow Melaka.
The period of Portuguese strength in the East was shortlived, as Melaka suffered harrying attacks from the rulers of neighbouring Johor and Negeri Sembilan, as well as from the Islamic power of Aceh in Sumatra. Melaka declined further as Dutch influence in Indonesia grew and Batavia (modern-day Jakarta) developed as the key European port of the region. Melaka passed into Dutch hands after an eight-month siege in 1641. The Dutch ruled Melaka for only about 150 years. Melaka again became the centre for peninsular trade, but the Dutch directed more energy into their possessions in Indonesia. In Melaka they built fine public buildings and churches, which remain the most solid suggestions of European presence, while Medan Portugis is still home to Portuguese Eurasians, many of whom are practising Catholics and speak Kristang (Cristao), a creole littered with archaic Portuguese.
When the French occupied Holland in 1795, the British – Dutch allies – temporarilyassumed administration of the Dutch colonies. The British administrators, essentially traders, were opposed to the Dutch policy of trade monopoly and saw the potential for fierce rivalry in Malaysia between themselves and the Dutch. Accordingly, in 1807 they began demolishing A’Famosa fortress and forcibly removing Melaka’s Dutch population to Penang to prevent Melaka rivalling British Malayan centres in the event of Dutch control being restored. Fortunately Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles, the far-sighted founder of Singapore, stepped in before these destructive policies went too far, and in 1824 Melaka was permanently ceded to the British in exchange for the Sumatran port of Bencoolen (Bengkulu today).
Melaka, together with Penang and Singapore, formed the Straits settlements, the three British territories that were the centres for later expansion into the peninsula. However, under British rule Melaka was eclipsed by other Straits settlements and quickly superseded by the rapidly growing commercial importance of Singapore. Apart from a brief upturn in the early 20th century when rubber was an important crop, Melaka returned again to being a quiet backwater, quietly awaiting its renaissance as a tourist drawcard.