The modern city-state of Melaka bloomed from a simple 14th-century fishing village founded by Parameswara, a Hindu prince or pirate (take your pick) from Sumatra. According to legend, Parameswara was inspired to build Melaka after seeing a plucky mouse deer fend off a dog attack.
Melaka's location halfway between China and India, with easy access to the spice islands of Indonesia, soon attracted merchants from all over the East and it became a favoured port. In 1405, the Chinese Muslim Admiral Cheng Ho (Zheng He; 鄭和) arrived in Melaka bearing gifts from the Ming emperor and the promise of protection from Siamese enemies. Chinese settlers followed. They mixed with the local Malays and became known as Baba-Nonya, Peranakan or Straits Chinese. 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 spice wealth and in 1511 Alfonso de Albuquerque forcibly took the city. Under the Portuguese, the fortress of A’Famosa was constructed. While Portuguese cannons could easily conquer Melaka, they could not force Muslim merchants from Arabia and India to continue trading there. Other ports in the area, such as Islamic Demak on Java, grew to overshadow Melaka and its prominence ebbed.
Suffering attacks from neighbouring Johor and Negeri Sembilan, as well as from the Islamic power of Aceh in Sumatra, Melaka declined further. The city passed into Dutch hands after an eight-month siege in 1641, leading to about 150 years of Dutch rule. Melaka again became the centre for peninsular trade, but the Dutch directed more energy into their possessions in Indonesia.
When the French occupied Holland in 1795, the British (as allies of the Dutch) temporarily assumed administration of the Dutch colonies. In 1824 Melaka was permanently ceded to the British.
Melaka, together with Penang and Singapore, formed the Straits Settlements, the three British territories that were the bases for later expansion into the peninsula. However, under British rule Melaka was eclipsed by other Straits Settlements and then superseded by the rapidly growing commercial importance of Singapore.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, patiently awaiting its renaissance as a tourist drawcard, which duly arrived when Melaka City gained its Unesco World Heritage listing in 2008.