Monday, 7 December 2015

The Arrival of the Portuguese - Malay Annals

       You may remember that I've been working on my Jawi script - the Perso-Arabic-based writing system used by Malay speakers to write their language from the fourteenth century up to the twentieth. The main book I'm using is A Handbook of Malay Script by M. B. Lewis (London: Macmillan, 1954), which was written when Malaysia was still part of the British empire and when the script was still in use. It isn't an easy script to learn because the structure of Malay is nothing like that of Arabic and the writing system is, for that reason, not terribly good at recording the sounds of Malay. The best way to learn it is to read a lot of it and get used to the peculiarities 
of the spelling.
           The texts Lewis uses to that end are pretty eclectic: some are taken from modern magazines and newspapers, some are labels scribbled onto LP covers, and some are from old tales and historical narratives, including Hikayat Pelanduk Jenaka ('the tale of the wily mousedeer') and Sulalat al-Salatin (or Sulalatus Salatin, or Sejarah Melayu, or the Malay Annals). The latter is an important historical text of considerable length detailing the history of the Malay people from ancient times to the coming of the Portuguese, with an emphasis on the origins and eventual capture of Melaka. It was probably finished at some point in the sixteenth century and re-written in the early seventeenth century under the direction of the Sultan of Johor.
Some of the remains of the Portuguese fort at Melaka. Construction of the fort, intended to permanently wrest control of the spice trade in the eastern Indian Ocean from the Muslims, was one of the stated aims of Albuquerque's conquest of Melaka in 1511. h/t Chongkian.
       The selection from Sulalat al-Salatin in Lewis (1954) concerns the initial arrival of the Portuguese in Melaka, which fits nicely with the pieces I've written recently on the same subject. The narrative of the Portuguese conquest as it appears in the Malay text is confused, if we assume that the Portuguese story is at all accurate, but in any case the description of the first Portuguese visit is reasonably interesting and probably true to life.

      The only translation of the Sulalat al-Salatin that I've got was written by the Scottish orientalist John Leyden in the early nineteenth century. Leyden died of fever in Java on the British expedition there in 1811, but his translation of the text was published with an introduction by Raffles in 1821. Since this is the text I'm used to, and the one you can find for free online, this is the translation I'll use. Go to page 324 at the link to read along.
I familiarised myself with the text by copying it from the book as exactly as I could. This isn't my Jawi handwriting - it's how the letters appeared (sort of) in the Leiden manuscript used in Lewis (1954:132-3).
         Here's the Malay text (according to the transcription in Lewis (1954), albeit in updated Rumi orthography):
Kalakian maka datang sebuah kapal Feringgi dari Goha maka ia berniaga di Melaka. Maka dilihat oleh Feringgi itu negeri Melaka terlalu baiknya dan bandarnya pun terlalu ramai. Maka segala orang Melaka pun berkampung melihat rupa Feringgi itu. Maka sekaliannya hairan melihat dia, maka kata orang Melaka ia-ini Benggali putih. Maka pada seorang-orang Feringgi itu berpuluh-puluh orang Melaka mengerumuni dia, ada yang memutar janggutnya, ada yang menepok kepala, ada yang mengambil cepiaunya, ada yang memegang tangannya. Maka kapitan kapal itu pun naik mengadap Bendahara Seri Maharaja rantai emas bepermata seutas ia sendirinya memasukkan kepada leher Bendahara Seri Maharaja, maka segala orang hendak gusar akan kapitan Feringgi itu tiada diberi oleh Bendahara katanya jangan dituruti karena ia orang yang tiada tahu bahasa.
    This event in Leyden's translation:
 'After some time there arrived a Frangi [= a Frank = a European] vessel from Goa, to trade at Malaca, and observed that Malaca was a very fine and beautiful country, and well-regulated. All the people of Malaca came crowding to see the appearance of the Frangis, and they were greatly surprised as they had not been accustomed to see the Frangi figure; and they said, "why these are white Bengalis", and about every one of the Frangis the Malaca men were crowding by tens to view them, twisting their beards, and slapping their heads, and taking off their hats, and laying hold of their hands. The captain then went to the bendahara Sri Maha raja and the bendahara adopted him as his son; and the capitan presented the bendahara with two hundred chains of gold set with gems of extreme beauty, and Manilla workmanship, and he threw it over the neck of the bendahara. The people present were going to be in a passion with that Frangi, but the bendahara would not let them, saying "Do not maltreat people who are ignorant of the language".
         This gives a fairly good idea of the text, although there are some flaws and embellishments here as far as I can tell, and it could certainly do with a modern update. There's no mention, for example, of 'Manilla workmanship' in the texts I've seen, only rantai emas bepermata, 'a bejewelled gold chain'.
This is approximately how we should picture the Portuguese caravels that sailed into Melaka in the early sixteenth century. This is actually a depiction of the caravel of João Serrão, who accompanied Magellan on the first circumnavigation of the world and died in Mactan with him in 1521. He appears in Pigafetta's book on the circumnavigation as Juan Serrano.
        Anyway, the gist is that the Malays see the Portuguese and think they look like weird pale Indians and the Portuguese look at Melaka and see a lot of people and money. The Portuguese captain commits a faux-pas, but the wonderful bendahara - a kind of Malay vizier, and normally a close relative of the king - decides he shouldn't be punished because he can't speak the language.

       How close is this to the historical truth? I expect the first pale-skinned Portuguese people to visit Melaka were greeted in that way, and doubtless prior Portuguese experience of the city was instrumental in convincing Albuquerque that it was a wealthy enough prize as well. Certainly Portuguese people had visited Melaka before the conquest, although according to Afonso de Albuquerque (the younger) they were imprisoned. Rui de Araújo, one of the Portuguese captives, became a key figure in the conquest of Melaka through his knowledge of the city and language (acquired while in prison).
A page from the Sulalat al-Salatin or Sejarah Melayu telling the tale of Malays eating kangkung so they can get a glimpse of the Chinese emperor - clearly fictional or fanciful. British Library, Or.14734, f.84r. See BL curator Annabel Teh Gallop's blogpost about the text here.
British Library, Or.14734, f.84r.
British Library, Or.14734, f.84r.
British Library, Or.14734, f.84r.
      So this is a believable piece, although I wouldn't want to give the impression that everything in the Sulalat al-Salatin is accurate or even intended to be. Some of the stories in it are humorous and clearly fictional, and the account of the Portuguese conquest doesn't jive with what we know from other accounts. In the Malay version, the people of Melaka are frightened by the Portuguese guns and apparently unaware of what cannons are, which doesn't seem to be at all accurate. They also say that Albuquerque attacked once and was repelled - and sent all the way back to Goa. This could be a garbled version of the Portuguese retreat into a junk in the harbour during a lull in the fighting, but either way it's not accurate.

       In any case, the Malay and Portuguese texts overlap in large part and don't totally contradict one another overall. The details and emphasis are different, but the narrative is fundamentally based on the same events; the Malay text can't be dismissed as fiction and the Portuguese one can't be assumed to be a necessarily more accurate piece. We are lucky to have both sources to rely on.


  1. Hi there...

    Im helme from malaysia...
    I agree with you on lots off contradiction on both writing..the portugese and malay...
    It will be great if we could share and enhance the information together

  2. My translation as follows.

    “Then one day a Feringgi ship arrived from Goa to trade in Melaka. The Feringgi saw that Melaka was a good city with so many people. The inhabitants of Melaka came out in flocks to see the Feringgi visitors. The locals had never seen a Feringgi before and started describing them as white Benggali. Tens and tens of people crowded around every Feringgi person curiously; some pulled the beard, some tapped the head, some interested at the helmet and some sized the hands. Later the captain of the ship came to visit Bendahara Seri Maharaja and presented him with a gift of bejewelled gold chain (necklace) that he himself fitted it around the Bendahara’s neck, which the Bendahara staved off his anxious guard from any hostile action stating that the visitors were unaware of the local custom.”

    Bendahara= the chief minister of Melaka. The Bendahara was Tun Mutahir when the Portugese first arrived in Y1509.


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