The Capture of Malacca, A.D. 1511

You can download the article in PDF here.
By R. J. Wilkinson
JSBRAS No 61 June 1912, pp.71-76

Executive Summary

The Capture of Malacca, A.D. 1511

The rise and fall of nations is a favourite subject among early historians and are featured prominently in older issues of the JSBRAS and the JMBRAS. Political change by due process itself is largely unremarkable but throughout history, such changes have not always been effected through peaceful means and many a mighty nation have been decimated by great upheavals, revolution and conquest. In recent times, regime changes have not always been satisfactorily managed, leading in many cases to civil war and protracted conflict, and invariably resulting in the emergence of failed states. Iraq, Afghanistan and Somalia are among the more notable contemporary examples. Wilkinson's article charts the rise and fall of a trading nation which once controlled the vital sea lane of the Straits of Malacca but brought down to its knees by complacency, indolence, intrigue, policy failure and colonial expansion. The following are some of the pertinent points highlighted by the article.

  1. Wilkinson’s article on the capture of Malacca represents an almost blow by blow account of events leading up to the conquest of Malacca by the Portuguese in late July 1511. Having dealt with the internal weaknesses of the Malacca Sultanate in the years leading to its decline in his previous article ‘The Malacca Sultanate’, Wilkinson now turns his attention to the role played by the Portuguese in precipitating the city state’s downfall.
  2. In his second article on the Malacca Sultanate, Wilkinson seems to interpret the events leading to Malacca’s fall as an inevitable episode, given the geopolitical, economic and technological changes that were to have a decisive outcome on global history. The rise of European maritime power and its appetite for expansion in the East, the search for new markets and sources of commodity, were all factors that were implicit in the arguments made by Wilkinson.
  3. Wilkinson begins his article by attempting to explain, in characteristically ornamental prose favoured at the time, the geopolitical considerations that compelled the Portuguese to embark on an empire-building quest soon after they successfully navigated their way to India and the Far East. The lengthy episode which resulted in the total decimation of Malacca was set in motion by the appointment of Diego Lopez de Sequeira, who was given an independent command of the navy and tasked to bring waters east of India into the Portuguese sphere of influence.
  4. The Indian Muslim community was instrumental in resisting Portuguese entry into the Malacca trade. The migrant Indian Muslim community had by that time had secured a foothold in the public and economic spheres of the state, marrying into the aristocracy and assimilating to the extent of holding sway over Malacca’s affairs. However, the anti-Portuguese faction stalled when the principal obstacle to Portuguese advancement, Bendahara Tun Mutahir – himself of Indian Muslim extraction – was removed in a classic example of Malay court intrigue fuelled by insatiable greed and debilitating envy.
  5. The Portuguese conquest of Malacca was a protracted and lengthy process which began in 1509 and was then systematically sustained for two years afterwards. The final siege, led by the Viceroy Alfonso d’Albuquerque, commenced in July 1511. At first, the Portuguese forces intimidated the Malacca Sultanate into giving up the prisoners of war captured in the earlier confrontation with de Sequiera in 1509. Then d’Albuquerque demanded a heavy indemnity from the Sultan and rights to trade in Malacca. As the sultanate refused to accept the Portuguese demands, both parties prepared for war.
  6. Wilkinson’s account describes a bold and determined attack by the Portuguese which succeeded in capturing the key landing place at the mouth of the Malacca River and at the foot of St. Paul’s Hill. This was the turning point in the Portuguese assault on the city. It was completed the next day by the climax of the battle on 24 July 1511 in which Malacca’s defences had been irreparably breached and its buildings razed, forcing the sultan and his party to retreat upriver at Pagoh.
  7. The technological superiority, discipline and military strategy of the Portuguese were also factors that worked in their favour. The Malaccan forces which still relied on traditional weapons such as the kris and poisoned arrows were no match for the Portuguese with their better-stocked arsenal. There appeared to have been no visible policy by the Malacca Sultanate to invest in superior arms or to develop a formidable indigenous fighting force. Instead, the sultanate relied on mercenaries whose loyalty was not absolute. D’Albuquerque’s formidable military leadership also secured victory for the Portuguese in spite of initial heavy losses.
  8. The foreign merchants such as the Javanese, Burmese and Indians immediately switched their allegiance to the new masters at Malacca and even aided the Portuguese to flush out the remainder of the Malacca forces at Pagoh. With the political vacuum filled by the Portuguese and the withdrawal of support by foreign merchants, the once-mighty sultanate had been vanquished. The descendants of the Malacca sultans, however, were to reappear throughout Sumatra and the Malay Peninsula to establish a number of smaller and less powerful kingdoms in its wake.

    Conclusion: Wilkinson’s article described a once-powerful Malay polity on the brink of decline, and highlights some of the dominant factors that led to its downfall after a brief period of existence of about a century. It identified some of the weaknesses of a socio-political system that thrived on feudalism and patronage to the extent of breeding complacency, indolence, corruption and political intrigue. Read in current times, Wilkinson’s century-old article resonates very deeply and offers some useful insights on governance for future generations.

    The Author

    Richard James Wilkinson was born on 29 May 1867 to parents Richard and Jane Wilkinson. Wilkinson senior had been the British consul in Malaga and Salonika, where the younger Wilkinson was born. He was educated at Felsted School in Essex before going up to Trinity College, Cambridge. Wilkinson distinguished himself academically, winning five prizes, but did not collect his B.A. until 1901. After failing to get into the Indian Civil Service, Wilkinson found himself drawn instead into the Malayan Civil Service in 1889. However he was initially unhappy over his assignments and sought a transfer to China. Sir William Maxwell, the Governor of the Straits Settlements, however spotted in Wilkinson a talented administrator and promptly made him secretary of the Straits Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society to keep him engaged.
    Wilkinson became Superintendent of Education in Penang in 1895 and as acting Schools Inspector for the Straits Settlements, impressed the Colonial Office with his annual report on Malayan education in 1899. It was Wilkinson who had been responsible for establishing the first Malay teacher’s training college at Durian Daun in Malacca. In 1903, he became Schools Inspector of the Federated Malay States.
    After a short tenure in Negri Sembilan as its Resident (1910-1911), Wilkinson became Colonial Secretary of the Straits Settlements. His administrative abilities came to the fore when he acted as governor twice, in 1911 and in 1914, on both occasions acquitting himself admirably. In 1916, Wilkinson accepted a promotion to become Governor of Sierra Leone, a decision he made with much regret since it meant having to leave Malaya. By 1922, Wilkinson had retired to Myteline in Lesbos but was forced to evacuate to Izmir (Smyrna) when Germany invaded Greece. Wilkinson died on 5 December 1941 in Izmir, where his people had settled.
    Wilkinson’s scholarship and expertise on Malay subjects made him one of the leading authorities on Malays in his lifetime. His Malay-English Dictionary, published in two volumes in 1901 and 1902 quickly became the definitive work on the subject, and was so comprehensive that it remains in use even today. Wilkinson was also remembered for his series of Papers on Malay Subjects, which he skilfully edited for the first series and which established itself as a quintessential work to be studied by fresh cadets in the Malayan Civil Service.
    John Gullick’s incomparable biographical article on Wilkinson can be found in JMBRAS, Vol. 74(1), June 2001 and is essential reading for anybody wishing to understand the life of this extraordinary man.

COPYRIGHT © 2010 Malaysian Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society