Malacca, also known as Melaka, is a major port city on the Malay Peninsula, facing the Straits of Malacca. For many years the capital of the Sultanate of Malacca, which controlled a significant amount of territory on both sides of the Strait, the city fell to the Portuguese in 1511, and then to the Dutch in 1641. Today, it is the capital of a province of Malaysia.
Though today overshadowed by other nearby cities, such as Kuala Lumpur and Singapore, the port was of immense significance in the early modern period, as the Straits of Malacca, running between the Malay Peninsula and the island of Sumatra, connect the Indian Ocean to the South China Sea (and beyond that, the Pacific), and are one of the busiest waterways in the world.
Melaka was the largest city in Southeast Asia in the late 1400s, with some 50-100,000 residents, including 15,000 foreign merchants, speaking over eighty different languages, in either temporary or relatively permanent residence. The sultanate was a major trading partner in the region; many formal communications between Malacca and the Kingdom of Ryûkyû survive in the kingdom's compilation of diplomatic records, the Rekidai Hôan.
Some kind of conflict emerged, however, between the sultanate and the local Chinese community, and in 1511, the Chinese helped Portuguese admiral Afonso de Albuquerque to take the city. Though the Portuguese quickly established active trading routes connecting Malacca to Macao and Nagasaki, and the overall volume of trade may not have declined, the end of the sultanate also brought the end of certain trading partnerships. Ryukyuan trade, for example, now shifted away from Malacca to the nearby sultanate of Pattani instead. Japanese "red seal ships" (shuinsen), however, did begin to travel to Malacca for trade in the late 16th and early 17th centuries.
The population of the city declined dramatically after that, or had already been declining, and had fallen to a mere 3,000 people by 1641, when the Dutch took the city from the Portuguese. Of those 3,000, roughly 850 were Chinese at that time, but the Chinese proportion of the population grew steadily, and eventually became the dominant ethnic group in the city. By 1750, there were over 2,000 Chinese in Melaka.
Melaka was eclipsed by Singapore as the chief port on the Straits in 1819, and fell to the British five years later. By this time, the Chinese in the city numbered around 4,000. In 1970, roughly 3/4 of the residents of Melaka were of Chinese descent.
- Craig Lockard, “‘The Sea Common to All’: Maritime Frontiers, Port Cities, and Chinese Traders in the Southeast Asian Age of Commerce, Ca. 1400–1750.” Journal of World History 21, no. 2 (2010): 230.
- Lockard, 232.
- Geoffrey Gunn, History Without Borders: The Making of an Asian World Region, 1000-1800, Hong Kong University Press (2011), 220-221.
- Gunn, 215-216.
- Lockard, 233.