Saturday, December 6, 2008

Singapore remained a functioning port: After fall of Temasek in 14th century

Dec 6, 2008

IN HIS letter on Monday, 'Sleepy fishing village? Singapore a sizeable port of regional significance in 14th century', Mr Gilles Massot, replying to Mr Tan Yip Meng ('Back to the future, a sleepy fishing village', Nov 25), invoked my name and expertise. Mr Massot referred to a short paper I prepared for the colloquium The Makers And Keepers Of Singapore History at the Asia Research Institute on Nov 10. As the letter to the Forum touches on the history of pre-Raffles Singapore and is of considerable interest to the public, I would like to clarify my position on a few points.

The first concerns Stamford Raffles. Mr Massot accuses Raffles of spreading lies. While I fully concur that there are a number of problematic and historically challenging aspects relating to the Van Braam treaty of 1784, its impact on the Johor-Riau-Lingga Empire, and implicitly the legal status of Singapore island, I veer to the side of caution and surmise that Raffles simply did not know any better. For sure, he was insanely hostile to the Dutch cause, but he was also completely ignorant of Singapura's fate and history between the late 15th and early 18th century.

This leads us to the issue of Singapura's protracted decline. Mr Massot is absolutely correct to highlight that there are non-English language sources of European provenance worth consulting. These lend support to the view that Singapura had a sizeable and functioning port well beyond the 'fall' of Temasek. Over the past decade, I have published a series of papers to advance precisely this point. The public should know that the Florentine merchant-traveller Giovanni da Empoli wrote his last will and testament while anchored in the 'port of Singapura'. That was in the year 1517. Several officers' logs of the early Dutch voyages to the East Indies mention the Singapore Strait, and describe in considerable detail their passage through the narrow channel that separates present-day Sentosa and HarbourFront. Vice-Admiral Pietersz van Enkhuysen mentions in his log the 'town' of Singapore in an entry dating from 1603. The most comprehensive and detailed testimony, however, derives from the Spanish-language materials of Jacques de Coutre. In several memorials addressed to the King of Spain, de Coutre recommends the construction of one fortification each on Singapore and Sentosa, and a third on what appears to be the north shore of Pulau Tekong Besar. De Coutre also makes reference to the town he calls Shabandaria, because this was the site of the shabandar or harbour master. This can be additionally corroborated on the basis of Portuguese cartography dating from the early 17th century. De Coutre's ship anchored in the port of Singapura in 1594 and he also told the King of Spain it was 'one of the best that serves all of the Indies'. All this hardly squares with the image of a sleepy seafront kampung.

There are, of course, other sources as well, but it must be immediately added that European authors are not always clear what they are talking about. About a decade ago, I consulted some letters by Francis Xavier, the famed 16th-century Jesuit and missionary. He makes references to Singapura as well, but the Jesuit refers to the narrow strait between present-day HarbourFront and Sentosa, and not the town. Now, as was evidently the case with Xavier's vessel, ships often had to anchor off the waters near Fort Siloso or in the Old Harbour of Singapore (which was located to the south of Beach Road, now under reclaimed land) to await the change of the tides and winds. Surviving reports and testimonies tell us this waiting could take days, even a week or more. There are reports mentioning scores of vessels anchored off present-day Fort Siloso waiting to pass through the Old Strait. When the wind and tide was finally favourable, ships had to pass through the strait, whether it was broad daylight or the wee hours of the morning. That is why ships often relied on local pilots to guide them though dangerous waters that were littered with submerged rocks and reefs.

Singapore's local population, we are told by many Dutch and Portuguese sources dating from the 16th and 17th centuries, and notably also by de Coutre, lived in and around the Old Strait, as well as in the town located at the mouth of the Singapore River. Few sources from this period describe the local population as 'pirates' - that label appears to date from a later period in the 18th and early 19th century. Now the local population were nothing short of clever business people, acting as pilots to guide ships though the Old Strait, or as flying vendors who pulled up in their boats alongside the passing ships to sell fresh fruit, fish, live chickens and fresh water. Some of the local residents, we are told, spoke Portuguese fluently, and after the dawn of the 17th century, also Dutch. In other words, in the 16th and early 17th century, Singapore was a pretty happening place.

Dr John Miksic, whose name Mr Massot also invokes, has published extensively on his archaeological findings in Singapore. I refer to his excellent publications and add only this observation from my own research in archives in Portugal and the Netherlands: Something seems to have happened around Singapore in the first decade of the 17th century. Dr Miksic - perhaps relying on the testimony of the 18th-century Dutch cleric Francois Valentyn - claims the Portuguese had 'destroyed' or burnt down Singapura sometime around the first decade of the 17th century. Indeed, there were Portuguese attacks on settlements up the Johor River, such as in 1587 when Paulo Lima de Pereira sacked Johor Lama, and again in 1604 or early 1605 when the Portuguese attacked the rebuilt city and other towns further upstream. Valentyn mentions a Portuguese attack in 1608. Singapura may have been burnt down by another party at another date, namely by the Acehnese in 1613, in the course of their second attack on the royal residence of Batu Sawar in 1615, or even as late as 1617 to 1618 when the Acehnese attacked positions in Pahang, Bintan and Lingga.

The Spanish armada arriving from Manila anchored off Singapore in late 1615 and early 1616, raising alarm among the Johor nobles and particularly the sultan who pressed the proverbial 'panic button' with the Dutch by requesting their prompt military assistance. An attack on Singapura made sense in any case, because we know from the log of Admiral Cornelis Matelieff de Jonge (1605 to 1608) that Singapura was the residence of the shahbandar, and this shahbandar also commanded over a sizeable 'fleet' of the Johor sultan. All this evidence hardly reflects the image of a sleepy seafront kampung.

My own extensive research on the Singapore and Malacca straits has revealed that references to the town of Singapura or the Shahbandaria diminish after about 1620. This could be linked to the periodic Acehnese attacks (Johor was at peace with Portugal at the time) and the sultan who fled to Bintan, Lingga and finally died on one of the Tambelan Islands in the early 1620s.

What is clear from all of the above is that Singapura was not in a forgotten backwater or a sleepy seafront kampung. It would be simply self-deluding to repeat the error and false conclusions of Raffles and assume that the sleepy kampung of Singapura had always been that way, at least since the fall of Temasek in the 15th century.

In conclusion, I fully concur with Mr Massot that pre-Raffles Singapore history has been quantitatively and qualitatively enriched over the past 20 years, notably also as a result of the archaeological excavations of Dr Miksic in the 1980s. The research findings from archaeological diggings and archival research are all out there, published, in the libraries, sometimes on the Internet, and in any case freely accessible to the public. But the debate over the value, meaning and significance of these published findings for the modern Singapore citizen continues.

This contribution is submitted as a private individual.

Peter Borschberg

[We could always use some enlightening on our history.]

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