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Three Questions about Maritime Singapore, 16th-17th Centuries

Três questões a propósito da história de Singapura, séculos XVI e XVII
Trois questions sur l’histoire de Singapour aux XVIe et XVIIe siecles
Peter Borschberg
p. 31-54


Este estudo explora três questões relacionadas com a história de Singapura e dos estreitos, focando-se especialmente no período de 1520 a 1650. A narrativa colonial britânica afirma que não aconteceu nada com especial relevo histórico na ilha ao longo dos séculos que medeiam entre a destruição de Singapura no final do século XIV e a fundação do entreposto comercial britânico em 1819. Baseando-se em fontes de origem europeia, este estudo procura desvendar o valor geo-estratégico da ilha antes de 1800, e investiga os planos concebidos pelas primeiras potências coloniais, nos séculos XVI e XVII, para construir fortificações na e ao redor da ilha e para ali fundar um estabelecimento colonial. O artigo também examina os ciclos de destruição e reconstrução de Singapura durante os séculos XVI e XVII.

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Notas do autor

A special thanks to Kwa Chong Guan and Professor Anthony Milner with whom I have discussed certain points raised in this article. An earlier draft was presented on 15 May 2015 to members of the Marine Offshore Oil & Gas Association (MOOGAS) of Singapore.

Texto integral

1This article addresses the history of Singapore before its refounding as a commercial entrepôt in 1819 and focusses on the period c.1500-1650. Three overarching questions stand at the heart of its line of enquiry: Was Singapore recognized for its potential by the European colonial powers before 1800? What was known about the settlement and were there any plans to colonize and build fortifications on and around the island? And finally what do we know about the cycles of destruction and reconstruction of the settlement in this period?

  • 1 For the role of archaeological evidence in reconstructing the history of Singapore before 1800, s (...)

2Before turning to address these questions, it is important to dig into the context and background and specifically examine Singapore’s pre-1819 past in broad brush strokes by asking: Why is there a problem in conceptualizing Singapore’s earlier past and why is this even an issue among historians? Historicizing and contextualizing this question will not only introduce the issues at the heart of this article, but it will help readers to better appreciate some of the formidable challenges to reconstructing and writing a history of Singapore before 1800 based primarily on textual rather than material (archaeological) evidence.1 In the era of British colonial rule up until the 1950s and 1960s, the history of Singapore was seen to have begun with the founding of Tumasik (sometimes Temasek, an earlier name for Singapore) in the late 13th century. This marked the beginning of Tumasik-Singapore’s “Golden Century”, a period of prosperity based on trade that lasted until around 1400 (Wheatley 1964; Munoz 2006). What supposedly followed was a long pause, or fallow period, until 1819 when the British trading post on Singapore was founded by Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles, an agent of the East India Company (EIC). In the words of John Crawfurd, the second British resident of Singapore: “… [T]here is no record of Singapore having been occupied, and it was only the occasional resort of pirates” (Crawfurd 1856, 401).

3In a collection of articles published in the early 1990s, researchers in Singapore still accepted the main assumptions underpinning the British colonial narrative, except that the words “no record of Singapore having been occupied” were simply replaced with “nothing significant happened” for centuries between the destruction of Temasek by the Siamese (or Majapahit) around the year 1390-1400 and the founding of the British trading post in 1819. Arthur Lim, who penned a chapter on the geographical setting in A History of Singapore (1991), observed:

  • 2 For additional background see Turnbull (2009, 24-25).

This does not mean that Singapore had no history worth mentioning before that date [1819], but while the history of Singapore from 1819 onwards is well documented, records of old Singapore are extremely scarce, and those that do exist are often incomplete, vague or contradictory, imprecise in dating and in description of events or locations and presented in such a way as to make it difficult to separate historical event from legend. What evidence there is, however, points to a long, chequered, colorful and sometimes bloody history. (Lim 1991, 3)2

  • 3 For an authoritative review retracing the study of pre-1819 Singapore with a focus on the 1930s-1 (...)
  • 4 See Turnbull (2009). For a masterly synopsis of the developments which have taken place since aro (...)
  • 5 For authoritative editions of these works of Malay literature, see Brown and Roolvink (1970) and (...)
  • 6 See Miksic (1984, 2013), Kwa (2017), Kwa and Borschberg (2018), Murfett et al. (1999), and Miksic (...)

4Lim was writing at a time when the first results of Singapore’s archaeological diggings were just coming to light and yielding material evidence to show that something indeed had been going on in and around Singapore before the early 19th century. He lamented the dearth of documentation and blamed the Malay hikayat (stories, epics) for making it difficult, if not impossible, to distinguish historical events and legend. Within a few decades of publishing this chapter in 1991, and also with the retrieval of some textual sources in Portuguese, Spanish, Latin, Dutch and German, the British colonial narrative championed (among others) by Crawfurd is now deemed flawed and unacceptable.3 The fallow period in Singapore’s history has sometimes been dubbed the “Black Hole of Singapore History”. It might be better called the “Dark Space of Singapore History”, because the location Singapore was certainly there, things were going on indeed, it is just that until about three decades ago historians did not find themselves in a position to reconstruct Singapore’s pre-1819 history in meaningful detail.4 Against the backdrop of advances in archaeology and also textual research, the space that remains untouched by the torchlight of historical enquiry has been steadily diminishing. Archaeological diggings have confirmed some things that are long known from Malay literary sources such as the Sejarah Melayu (“Malay Annals” or “Sulalat-us Salatin”, c. 1612 or before) or the Hikayat Hang Tuah (“Story of Hang Tuah”, c. 1690).5 The growing body of material evidence is enabling researchers to draw conclusions about the approximate size and expanse of the Singapore settlement and also of its historic trading connections.6

5In addition to the archaeological materials we also have evidence in the form of texts. The availability of texts is admittedly patchy and also uneven across the period 1400-1800 with more documentary evidence available for some periods than for others. One need bear in mind that the range of materials is variegated, and the amount of information touching directly on Singapore, its settlement or features in the adjacent straits in any given document ranges from several pages down to a couple of sentences or even just a few words. At a first glance such written testimonies may not even look like anything important, for more often than not the information imparted is neither clear nor straightforward. Moreover, the documents are written in different languages adding to the complexity of evaluating them. Technology and the internet have of course helped to facilitate retrieval and access, but sources continue to be identified in remote, unusual, or also unexpected locations.

6Reconstructing the history of Singapore of the pre-1819 period is like working on a gigantic puzzle with literally thousands of little pieces of information that need to be pieced together and made sense of. But unlike a puzzle from a box, it is not known what the final product will –or even should– look like. After all, today’s historians are also pioneers in reconstructing and writing this period of Singapore history. One has not even fully established the landmark events that could guide researchers toward a seamless historical narrative of Singapore without having that “Dark Space” (or at least what remains of it) loom large. In this sense, historians of pre-1819 Singapore are confronted with a twin challenge: on the one hand they need to retrieve materials that are (or may be) relevant, and on the other they still have to identify and stake out even some of the most basic events. The view of Singapore history now taking shape is that the city prospered and declined several times across the centuries, its fate tied to the rising and ebbing fortunes of international trade and political developments. Heng, Kwa and Tan (2009), Kwa (2016, 2017), Barr (2018) and Borschberg (2017) have examined Singapore’s history against the longue durée, while Hack, Margolin and Delaye have examined Singapore’s history through the prism of reinventions: “Singapore as a location has hosted diverse and partly discontinuous experiments on how to achieve centrality in the Straits: how to become a, or preferably be the, pre-eminent entrepôt for central Southeast Asia and the Malacca Straits” (Hack, Margolin and Delaye 2010, 21).

7Compared to other nation-states that grew over the course of centuries, independent Singapore is a relative newcomer among the sovereign nations: while the main line of its colonial history since 1819 has been established in a primordial but evolving narrative, the history of the island for the period before 1819 is still in its infancy. It is an open field that may yet become one of the most hotly contested areas of history writing, especially when researchers grapple more intensively with a growing body of material and textual evidence.

8In the following section, this article turns to address the question: Was Singapore’s locational and strategic potential not recognized before 1819? To answer this, attention is drawn to two sets of texts, namely the writings of Jacques de Coutre and Admiral Cornelis Matelieff (sometimes Cornelis Corneliszoon Matelief) who both visited Singapore in the period around 1600. De Coutre was based in Melaka (Malacca) and Manila for about a decade between 1593 and 1603 and his testimonies concerning Singapore and the adjacent straits rank collectively among the most substantive to survive in any language from the pre-1819 period. The second set of texts derives from the working papers and correspondence of Cornelis Matelieff, one of the early Dutch fleet commanders of the Dutch East India Company (VOC) who also served on its central board of directors, the so-called Gentlemen Seventeen. He sailed to Asia between 1605 and 1608, and on his return to Europe penned a series of memoranda, letters and petitions that were addressed to his fellow directors and leading members of government, urging them to take action and transform the way the company was doing business in Asia. Matelieff is today acknowledged to have been one of the early pathbreakers of the first Dutch empire (1603-1795) in Asia. Other texts from the period 1500-1650 that have been consulted and contain noteworthy information on Singapore include but are not restricted to the writings of Tomé Pires, John of Lisbon, André Pires, Jan Huyghen van Linschoten as well as the letters of John of Empoli and Francis Xavier.

Figure 1: Map of Southeast Asia  

Figure 1: Map of Southeast Asia  

Source: Map drawn by Ms. Lee Li Kheng, GIS and Map Resource Unit, Department of Geography, National University of Singapore. © Peter Borschberg

9Summarizing the main points of the introduction, this article addresses the history of Singapore in the period before 1819 and the period under review is circa 1500-1650. The questions addressed arise from the inadequacies of the British colonial narrative which holds that ancient Tumasik-Singapore was destroyed around 1390-1400 and remained depopulated for centuries before the founding of the British trading post in 1819. The inadequacies of this narrative have spawned three overarching questions addressed in this article: Is it true that the early colonial powers did not recognize the locational and strategic potential of Singapore before 1819? What is known about the port and settlement in this period? And far from being wiped out in a massive, single blow around 1400, what is known about the cycles of destruction and reconstruction of the settlement in the period up until around 1650?

1. Did the Colonial Powers Fail to Recognize Singapore’s Locational and Strategic Potential Before 1819?

10Here is a key puzzle regarding Singapore’s early history and the founding of the British trading post in 1819. If Singapore had a locational advantage along the main shipping routes in the age of sail, why did it take so long to discover –or against the backdrop of medieval Singapore’s prospering should one rather say rediscover– this advantage and potential? Wong Lin Ken, Raffles Professor of History at the University of Singapore, asserted that “Singapore had no strategic naval significance until Britain, as the growing dominant naval power in the early 19th century, thought it necessary to have a place that could simultaneously command the Archipelago approaches to the Indian and Pacific Oceans” (Wong 1991, 31). Even Raffles acknowledged that Singapore (in an earlier age) had been the seat of a Malay kingdom (Bastin 2012, 43). How could such significance and locational advantage just disappear, reappear, or even be forgotten?

11Singapore’s locational advantage and potential were most certainly recognized for much of the early modern period, and therefore well before Raffles set foot on the island. It was not just the locals who had recognized its locational advantage, but also the early European colonial powers. In fact, the Dutch came to recognize it at an early stage of their presence in the East Indies, for Singapore. Singapore showed up on the VOC’s proverbial radar screen in late 1602 or early 1603. The waters between the eastern coast of Singapore and Pedra Branca (a stone outcropping that marks the eastern entrance to the Singapore Straits) became a regular cruising ground for naval squadrons of the company. The Dutch were not so much interested in harassing local trade as they were in disrupting and damaging the commercial networks of their enemies and competitors from Europe: initially the Iberian powers and later also the English, the Danes and the French. At the time when the Dutch first arrived in the waters of the Singapore and Melaka Straits after 1595, the Portuguese still held Melaka as one of their principal bases in insular and peninsular Southeast Asia.

12The Portuguese, too, were well aware of Singapore’s locational and strategic significance. During the north-eastern monsoon trading season they would habitually station patrols off the eastern coast of Singapore and were on the lookout for ships arriving with rich cargos from China, Japan, Borneo, Siam and the regions of present-day coastal Vietnam. Off Singapore these Portuguese naval squadrons would greet them and lend them armed naval escort to Melaka. After all, Singapore and its adjcent straits were notorious hotspots for attacks from pirates, nomadic sea tribes, or the armed galleys of the Johor ruler. Sometimes, the Europeans behaved like pirates and despoiled ships under the laws of war. One of the best documented examples is the attack on the Portuguese merchantman Santa Catarina on 25 February, 1603 (Kwa 2017, 59-60). The ship was arriving with a rich cargo from Macao when it was attacked off the eastern coast of Singapore by three Dutch vessels under Jacob van Heemskerk and their Johorean allies. The Dutch captured the vessel and took its cargo back to Europe as booty of war. There it was sold off for a very substantial sum of over 3 million guilders. This was equivalent to about half the paid-in capital of the VOC at the time. The captured cargo fired the imagination of the northern European business community in a number of ways. Until that point in time the Dutch had focused on the trade in spices but, with the Santa Catarina incident, the Dutch began to think about Asian commerce in more general terms and became especially interested in opening direct trading relations with China. The incident also raised eyebrows in the legal fraternity. The case was famously discussed by Hugo Grotius in a work that was to become his first treatise proper on the laws of war and peace (Grotius 1950).

13The follow-on questions are these: If Singapore’s locational advantage was indeed recognized by the early colonial powers –not least by the Portuguese and the Dutch– why did they not think about exploiting its potential more ambitiously? Why did they not develop plans for colonization like Raffles did? After all, he wanted to turn Singapore into the “pride” of the Orient and the “Malta of the East” (Turnbull 2009, 32). The short answer is that they did –very much so. Several schemes were hatched toward the close of the 16th and the beginning of the 17th centuries, and one such scheme from the late 16th century is mentioned in the chronicles Da Ásia by João de Barros and Diogo do Couto (1777-1778, déc. 10, pt. 10). The most detailed of these is without doubt the one by Jacques de Coutre which he put to paper in or around 1625. In one of his petitions addressed to his sovereign overlord, the king of Spain and Portugal, De Coutre proposed the construction of a fortification at the north-western tip of present-day Sentosa, roughly where the British later built Fort Siloso (Kwa 2016, 94-95). This location was at the confluence of the Old and New Straits of Singapore. At this location one could establish a choke point for sea-borne traffic passing through the straits. Keeping local “pirates” and rapacious maritime tribes at bay was of course one of the objectives of this project, but the main reason for proposing the fortification was to strategically contain the Dutch. De Coutre suggested a second fortification for the east coast of Singapore in the region between Bedok and Changi Point, and a third, smaller structure at Pulau Tekong Besar. None of these fortifications were ever built for reasons unknown.

  • 7 Arquivo Nacional da Torre do Tombo (Lisbon), Colecção São Vicente, livro XXVI, fol. 130-130v.

14Proposals have been retrieved for a very similar project drawn up by the Dutch. The fort was to be built on exactly the same spot: the north-western tip of Sentosa. This might not seem like very sensational piece of information until one learns more about where this information was found and why one has even come to know about it. The VOC fleet commander Pieter Willemsz. Verhoeff arrived in the Johor River in the opening weeks of 1609. He had been tasked by the Gentlemen Seventeen to seek permission from the Johor ruler to build a fortress at a location yet to be selected. The ruler angrily rejected this request, and relations between the Dutch and the Johoreans soured for years to come. Still, a three-man team from among Verhoeff’s crew was stationed in the Johor capital Batu Sawar to attend to the company’s business interests after March 1609. The leading member of this team was one Jacques Obelaer who is said to have been a Roman Catholic and a native of Bruges in the Spanish Netherlands, now Belgium. Obelaer clearly was –or became– an informant of the Portuguese. He absconded from the Dutch factory in Johor around 1611-1612, and via Melaka made his way to Goa where he divulged to the Portuguese the secrets he knew. These are captured in a report surviving in Lisbon’s Torre do Tombo Archives filed in Goa on 4 April, 1612.7 In this, Obelaer revealed that the Dutch were planning to construct a fort on the north-western tip of Sentosa with or without the consent of the Johor ruler (Borschberg 2016, 38-40).

  • 8 See de Jonge (1866-1909, III, 7-9). According to a letter from Jan Pieterszoon Coen, the Johor ru (...)

15One may conclude that there were ambitious security plans being hatched by both the Dutch and the Portuguese. The English, who only had a significant presence in these waters during the first two decades of the 17th century, were also thinking about forts around the Singapore Straits. Their choice, however, fell on a location to the west of Singapore Island, namely on the island of Karimun, but their plan never came to fruition.8 This leads us to the next question: Granted that the early colonial powers had indeed recognized the strategic advantage and potential of Singapore, why had they not devised more ambitious plans over and beyond securing the island as a military base? After all, Raffles wanted Singapore also to thrive as a newly (re-)founded commercial emporium, as he knew it had once been during the latter Middle Ages.

16The English can be dealt with briefly here. Although they may have initially cast an eye on the Singapore and Melaka Straits region, their ambitions were dashed when the VOC tightened its stranglehold on the spice trade and after the mid-1620s evicted the English by military force from the Spice Islands. Hereafter the English became confined initially to Makassar and Banten (Bantam). Following their eviction from Banten in 1682-1684, the activities of the English company were substantially confined to Bengkulu (Bencoolen), a settlement on the western coast of Sumatra (Bassett 1955). After their eviction from the Spice Islands, the English refocused their energies and resources on subcontinental India until the era of the French Revolutionary Wars –in other words, until about 1800 or just slightly before Raffles founded the British trading post on Singapore.

17The Iberians had Jacques de Coutre as one of their men on the spot. In addition to proposing the construction of three fortifications on Sentosa, along the east coast of Singapore and around Pulau Tekong Besar, he also advised his king to acquire sovereignty over Singapore Island –which he calls Isla de la Sabandaria Vieja or “Island of the Old Shahbandar’s Compound”– and to develop it into a colonial emporium. In fact, De Coutre was explicit about this proposal. He wrote: “Your Majesty should become lord of this port [of Singapore] which is one of the best that serves the East Indies. Your Majesty can build a city there and become lord of this kingdom” (Borschberg 2015, 82; Kwa 2016, 96; Kwa 2017, 64). He even suggested encouraging settlers from China to populate the new colony. Does this scheme ring familiar? One must bear in mind, however, that this is De Coutre writing around two full centuries before Raffles. So why was the plan never executed? The lack of funds, economic challenges and political problems point toward an explanation (Zakir Hussain 2014, D17).

18The Dutch, too, were at one stage hatching plans for Singapore –or at least for the region nearby that would have invariably encompassed Singapore. Their initial priority was to dislodge the Portuguese from Melaka and to seize the port and colony as booty of war. But as has been intimated earlier, Admiral Matelieff’s campaign of 1606 did not succeed; nor in fact would successive military campaigns of the Dutch before 1641. Matelieff was among the leading officers of the VOC to insist that a central base in Asia must be established where goods could be stored and supplies and skilled workmen would be at hand. This central location, dubbed a “rendezvous” by Matelieff and other officials, would act as an administrative base for the company in Asia, and also offer support services from carpenters and rope makers to blacksmiths. When the 1606 maritime siege of Melaka had not achieved its objective of wresting the city from Portuguese control, Dutch attention began to shift southward, namely from Melaka to the tip of the Malay Peninsula.

19The VOC directors mulled over a number of potential sites including Aceh, Melaka, the Johor River estuary with Singapore and Karimun, Palembang, Banten and two locations around Jayakerta (Jakarta). Further afield there were Maluku (the Moluccas) and Pulau Condor. In the end, Aceh was not deemed sufficiently central and convenient; Melaka could not be easily plucked from the Portuguese; and Palembang could not be reached all year round. Maluku and Pulau Condor were not at the centre of commercial activity. That left weighing the merits of locations at the southern tip of the Malay Peninsula and around the Sunda Strait. When the directors drafted their commission for the first VOC governor-general during the final weeks of 1609, they listed the area around the Johor River estuary and Singapore as a potential site for this proposed Asian base (Rietbergen, 1987). What if they would have chosen this location rather than what is now Jakarta? History would have certainly unfolded very differently.

20But the Dutch did not choose the Singapore-Johor region, and that begs the question: Why not? An answer can be gleaned from Matelieff’s writings: during the age of sail, the Melaka and Singapore Straits could not be accessed all year round. By contrast, the Sunda Strait could. A location around the Sunda Strait therefore was deemed superior because ships could arrive and depart at any time of the year. This expedited their turn-around –and time, after all, is money. The ships’ mates and officers had to be paid whether or not they were working or idling. Waiting a few months for the monsoon winds to change could make or break the profitability of a given voyage. Then there was the issue of food supplies –Java had ample supplies of food, but towns on the Malay Peninsula had to import many victuals. That rendered cities like Melaka vulnerable to famines, a facet the Portuguese colony shared with Melaka during the time of the sultanate (Thomaz 1993, 71-72; Thomaz 2000).

21The question now arises: If Singapore’s advantage and potential were indeed recognized by the early colonial powers, why did it appear to slip their attention as the 17th century progressed? One reason already mentioned is of course their refocusing of attention away from the Melaka to the Sunda Strait and the establishment of Batavia as the VOC’s Asian rendezvous before 1620. The other development links to another plan already intimated by Matelieff in his memorials to the VOC directors and members of the government: the monopolization of the spice trade. Matelieff had advised to start with securing a stranglehold in the trade of nutmeg and mace from the Bandas before proceeding to embark on the monopolization of the clove trade, which, as he rightly surmised, would prove more challenging. It would involve excluding the Iberian powers from Maluku through war and also severing Iberian supply lines to Manila, Melaka and Goa.

22Sumatra and the Malay Peninsula, including Johor and Singapore, remained significant to the pepper trade for a few more decades. Batu Sawar –and the Johor River region at large– eventually yielded to the dominance of other regional pepper ports, such as notably Banten (Bantam). This shift eventually induced the VOC to close its outposts in places like Johor, Patani, as well as other locations around the Straits and the peninsula as part of its efforts to contain costs and overheads. Irrespective of developments in the pepper trade during the first half of the 17th century, Singapore and the straits served the Dutch in weakening the military, commercial and diplomatic power of the Portuguese. VOC squadrons would patrol the Singapore and the southern Melaka Straits, mainly to impose a stranglehold on maritime traffic to and from Melaka. By the time the Dutch seized it in early 1641, the port city had been reduced to a ghost of its former self. Dutch Melaka remained in the shadow of Batavia’s primacy, and once the Portuguese had been evicted from Melaka, attention and resources were concentrated elsewhere. What main conclusions can be drawn thus far? The Europeans did recognize the potential of Singapore and the Straits region. They devised concrete plans and weighed their options. But as a company designed to generate profits, the VOC had to watch its bottom line. Time was money, and Singapore was passed over not because its locational advantage was unrecognized, but rather because there were better alternatives at the time.

2. What Is Known About the Settlement and Port of Singapore at the Turn of the 16th and 17th Centuries?

23Readers will have noticed that, until now, investigations have focused on the colonial powers active in the early 17th century. But what about pre-existing settlements and port facilities on Singapore? Here is the difficulty and also the challenge: While the early colonial plans to acquire, settle and transform Singapore and the region are fairly comprehensive, information about pre-existing settlements or facilities on the island are unfortunately sketchy. It is known that there was a main settlement, and it had a port. This port also had a shahbandar, a port master. In fact, according to De Coutre, the main settlement on Singapore was known as Sabandaría –after the shahbandar– and in the writings of De Coutre the island of Singapore also carried this Spanish name: Isla de la Sabandaría Vieja (Island of the Old Shahbandaria). What is known? One returns to the proposal drawn up by De Coutre to acquire sovereignty over Singapore and establish a colonial settlement: “Your Majesty should become lord of this port [of Singapore] which is one of the best that serves the East Indies. Your Majesty can build a city there and become lord of this kingdom”. The reader should note the wording: “… which is one of the best that serves the East Indies” (Borschberg 2016, 17-22, 83). This can be read to mean that there was in fact a pre-existing port on Singapore. We do not know how big or busy it was, but De Coutre qualified his observation by adding that “it is one of the best that serves the East Indies”. Was the term “best” a statement about actual conditions? Or was it employed with an eye on future potential? In other words, was De Coutre claiming: “This is already the best place in all of the East Indies”? Or was he saying: “There is already an excellent port here, but its full potential has not been exploited and more could be done with it”? Whichever the case may be, De Coutre endorsed Singapore’s port in the early 17th century.

  • 9 These have been prepared by the Portuguese adventurer Manoel Godinho de Erédia. Photographs of th (...)

24Now activity in the port must have been sizeable enough to warrant the presence of a shahbandar, and we know he existed because Matelieff claims to have met him in May 1606 (Borschberg 2016, 17-18). What do we know about this shahbandar of Singapore? In the tradition of the Undang-undang Melaka (Laws of Melaka) that trace their origins to the period of the Melaka Sultanate, the shahbandar acted as an intermediary between the foreign traders and royalty. In fact, he had such a dominant position over foreign merchants that the Laws of Melaka call him “the father and mother of foreign merchants” (Liaw 1976, 123). The shahbandar supervised imports and managed the assets of the ruler and members of the royal family (Kathirithamby-Wells and Villiers 1990). The Shahbandaria would seem to point toward the existence of a compound, the infrastructure facilities of the shahbandar, such as warehouses and other storage facilities. There are maps from the 17th century that feature this name on Singapore Island, such as notably the entry Xabandaria.9

Figure 2: Map of Singapore Island with the adjacent New and Old Straits

Figure 2: Map of Singapore Island with the adjacent New and Old Straits

Source: Map based on fol. 61 of Manuel Godinho de Erédia’s “Description of Melaka” (c.1615), redrawn by Ms. Lee Li Kheng, GIS and Map Resource Unit, Department of Geography, National University of Singapore. © Peter Borschberg

  • 10 According to Pires (1990, II, 264) the selates, saletes or people of the selat (straits) did so o (...)
  • 11 See Muhammad (1992), Kwa (2004, 86), Pintado (1993), and Turnbull (2009, 22).

25There is more: Admiral Matelieff informs that the shahbandar of Singapore also held the title of Sri Raja Negara. What do we know about this functionary? The Sri Raja Negara was also known as the Raja Negara Selat, Ketua Orang Laut or Orang Laut Batin (Kwa 1985, 124; Muhammad Y. H. 1992). He was, according to the Sejarah Melayu, the leader of the orang laut sea nomads in and around the Straits. These people served as rowers in the “navy” of the Melaka sultan and later of the Johor rulers.10 Not surprisingly, the Sri Raja Negara was also a hulubalang besar, a type of local military commander. What do we know about this functionary? In the time of the Melaka Sultanate, the hulubalang besar of Singapore evolved into the office of the laksamana, the admiral of the fleet. He also wielded authority over foreign merchants and was responsible for receiving foreign embassies. After the fall of Melaka to the Portuguese (and probably even before) the laksamana reportedly lived on the island of Singapore.11 This is generally accepted and also confirmed by the VOC historian Pieter van Dam who wrote around the turn of the 17th and 18th centuries (Van Dam 1931-1939). The laksamana’s descendants would have been among those whom Matelieff met about a century later. What does this all add up to? Singapore had a settlement, a port and a shahbandar. It was the home base of the Johor fleet, and served as a place of residence to one or even several merchant-officials of Johor. Nobody would conclude from the evidence presented thus far that Singapore was a backwater at this point in time.

26Where was this settlement on the island? If maps and charts of the 17th century –mainly drawn by the Portuguese– are sufficiently reliable, then the settlement was located on the south side of the island just as the main city is today. The exact location, however, is a bit more challenging. The port or place of anchorage would have almost certainly been identical to the one later used by the British and known as the Old Harbour. This was located under what is now reclaimed land off of Beach Road. This harbour was flanked by two settlements: the main colonial city of Singapore to the west, and Kampong Glam to the east. It would appear that these are also the two locations we need to examine more carefully with reference to the 17th century –one location at the end of the Singapore River, the other around the Kallang River estuary (Turnbull 2009, 22). In terms of providing a convenient reach into the inland regions of Singapore Island, however, the Kallang River estuary is clearly superior, for it represents an area of confluence of three riverine systems: the Kallang, Rochor and Geylang Rivers. If the settlement was indeed here rather than further to the west at the Singapore River estuary, then the old seat of the shahbandar could have been located around where Kampong Glam now stands –a predecessor settlement of Kampong Glam so to speak. This view squares with the view of Christopher Wake who had argued that the founding of Singapore in 1819 “did not mark an abrupt break in the continuity of Malay history...” (Wake 1975, 71).

  • 12 See Linschoten (1939), Rebello (1903, 269), and Albuquerque (1963). See also Matos (2007, 72), wh (...)

27The seat of the shahbandar and his compound were almost certainly located on the southern side of Singapore. But what about the rest of the island? Are there reports from the period under review about other ports or settlements around the island? There is nothing unambiguous that has been retrieved thus so far. If there were any other settlements, they probably would have been located on the eastern and northern side of the island. This is because Johor had a strong riverine economy, and the eastern shores of Singapore were then still considered (even by European visitors) as facing the Johor River estuary. It is known that boat and shipping traffic on the Johor River was busy at the turn of the 16th and 17th centuries. The Tebrau (sometimes Johor) Strait bordering the north side of Singapore was often thought to be an arm of the Johor River –not least by the Europeans. This is most explicitly the case in the documents compiled and published in 1595-1596 by the Dutchman Jan Huyghen van Linschoten in his Reysgeschrift and Itinerario, but before him also in the Portuguese roteiros (rutters, navigational instructions) starting with John of Lisbon (João de Lisboa) and after him André Pires in 1552.12 Seen this way: Singapore Island was seen or imagined to be located within a larger Johor River estuary, and surrounded by the river on all sides except the south. To have a port located at the end of a sprawling riverine network facing the sea not only made sense, but was also a very typical pattern across the Malay world if one thinks, for example, of Bennet Bronson’s upstream-downstream economy or John Gullick’s definition of the classic Malay negeri (polity, “state”) (Bronson 1977, 39-52; Gullick 1958).

3. What is Known About the Cycles of Destruction and Reconstruction of the Singapore Settlement in the Period c.1500-1650?

28The historical narrative inherited from the former British colonial overlords –a narrative partially shaped and endorsed by Raffles himself– posited that there was nothing worth mentioning on Singapore between the fall of ancient Tumasik-Singapore and the founding of the British trading post in 1819. There has been a long-standing assumption that a single (perhaps massive) blow extinguished what remained of the settlement of ancient Tumasik-Singapore. The island then supposedly entered into a period of prolonged slumber that lasted until a few decades before the arrival of the British in 1819 when the temenggong, a leading Johor official, established his permanent base on Singapore. This position fundamentally remained intact until recently, but what has changed is the estimated date of the fatal blow to the Singapore settlement. Suffice it in present context to note that in the British colonial era, the blow that extinguished ancient Singapore was seen to have taken place during the late 14th century.

  • 13 Concerning Aceh’s prowess in the Straits region at this time, see generally Lombard (1967), Alves (...)

29Based on Malay textual evidence and certain early colonial documents, including Tomé Pires, the culprits of the 14th century destruction(s) have been variously identified as the Siamese or the Majapahit in their contest for supremacy in the region. As more archaeological evidence has been uncovered in Singapore, the year of this decisive blow to the Singapore settlement has been nudged forward by several centuries. Frost and Balasingamchow have pinpointed the year 1611, while Miksic has placed this event more broadly at the beginning of the 17th century (Frost and Balasingamchow 2009; Miksic 2013). For this latter date, blame for Singapore’s destruction has been pinned on the Portuguese whose relations with the Johor rulers at the turn of the 16th and 17th centuries were in a state of flux, ranging from outright war to peaceful, if tense, co-existence. But the dawn of the 17th century in and around the Straits region saw not just the arrival of the Dutch in the waters of the Straits, but also the rise of one of Johor’s most feared regional rivals: Aceh.13 The final blow could have also been given to Singapore’s settlement as a result of Sultan Iskandar Muda’s seaborne attack on Johor and its upriver towns in 1613. As the Dutch archivist and historian Meilink-Roelofsz already observed, Singapore had served as the home base of the Johor navy, and Aceh’s seaborne attack on Johor would have invariably involved an armed engagement in waters around the island (Meilink-Roelofsz 1962, 29).

30The old colonial narrative is getting a new twist, and this affects the history of the Singapore’s settlement between the early 16th and the early 17th centuries. There are two short references found in the aforementioned rutters of John of Lisbon and André Pires. Since the latter seems to have substantially followed or even copied the texts compiled by John of Lisbon, it can be surmised that the event or incident mentioned by André Pires in 1552 is identical to the one found in the navigational instructions of John of Lisbon. After providing instructions for sailing the Old Strait of Singapore (between present-day Sentosa and Harbourfront) arriving from the west, John of Lisbon noted: “… right after passing these sandbanks lies one small bay to the north where it was the settlement Singapura which was destroyed by us” (Rebello 1903, 269). The words employed by André Pires in his Livro de Marinharia some decades later are almost identical to those found in John of Lisbon: instead of reading “destroyed by us” the relevant passage reads “destroyed by the Portuguese”. A third Portuguese rutter, the Livro de Marinharia by Bernardo Fernandes also follows the text of John of Lisbon and dates from around the year 1548. Curiously, however, Fernandes omits the instructions for sailing the Singapore Strait, and consequently, he also does not mention a settlement on Singapore (Castro 1940; Matos 2007, 72).

  • 14 These episodes are mentioned among others in the Portuguese chronicles by Castanheda (1924-1933), (...)

31The Portuguese navigational instructions at hand raise two important issues with regard to the history of Singapore and its historic settlement: the first concerns the exact dating of this act of destruction. Neither the navigational texts of John of Lisbon nor André Pires provide a precise date or even a year. They only single out that the act of destruction had been committed by the Portuguese. The dates of the text, and particularly the date of John of Lisbon’s text, however, do help to narrow down the window in which the destruction of Singapore by the Portuguese had taken place. It falls within the period between the Portuguese attack on Melaka in 1511 and the compilation of John of Lisbon’s texts. The manuscript of the surviving text which was published in 1903, derives from the library of the Duke of Palmela and is currently deposited in the Torre do Tombo Archives in Lisbon. It has been dated to 1514, or in any case to the first half of the 16th century. It must be remembered, however, that John did not himself author the texts which bear his name, he only put together a collection of existing navigational instructions that had been used by early Portuguese mariners for sailing Asian waters (Matos 2007, 48). Given that the laksamana of Melaka is known to have returned permanently to his base on Singapore after 1511, and given that Singapore also briefly hosted the peregrinant Sultan Mahmud some time thereafter, it is possible that the Portuguese decided to take out the settlement and port of Singapore that was experiencing a resurgence or revival. Alternatively, the settlement might have also been taken out during the campaigns of the Portuguese against Bintan and Sayong Pinang in the Johor River in the 1520s and early 1530s.14 Unfortunately, the evidence at hand does not suffice for a more definite dating based on available textual evidence alone.

32The second issue concerns the size of the settlement destroyed. The original term used in both the texts of John of Lisbon and André Pires is the Portuguese povoação. It is the identical term employed by Tomé Pires when he described the settlements of the orang laut past the Rio Fremoso (present-day Batu Pahat River) and around Singapore (Pires 1990, II, 49-51). Armando Cortesão translated the word povoação with “village”, but the choice of this English term may also have been influenced by Tomé Pires’s subsequent observation that the nearby settlements did not amount to much measured in terms of their economic and commercial significance. Singapore was most certainly not a large, sprawling or populous city –it never had been, not even at its early apex in 14th century– but the town was significant enough to have a port. This was a port that was arguably resurging after the traumatic events in Melaka of 1511. Singapore was in other words a settlement of some, but not great significance that was “larger than a village but smaller than a city [and was situated] on a cove or bay on the north side of the Singapore Straits” (Kwa 2017, 53). A few more conclusions can be made based on other snippets of information that are known and readily accessible to researchers. The town must have been standing in –or alternatively had been rebuilt by– 14 July, 1517, when John of Empoli (alias Iohannis Impole) penned his last will and testament while at anchor in the “port of Singapura” (Spallanzani 1999, 235).

  • 15 See Arthus (1606, 84).

33Saint Francis Xavier, too, wrote letters from Singapore, though he did so while waiting at anchor off the northwestern tip of present-day Sentosa for the tides to change in the Old Straits of Singapore. For this reason he dated his letters from Singapore in July 1552 with the Latin words “ex freto Syncapurano” (from the Strait of Singapore). Most unfortunately, the contents of his letters are strictly church affairs and he does not lose a single word on Singapore, his location of anchorage, or in fact any nearby settlement (Schürhammer III.3, 641-649). After its destruction by the Portuguese in the early 16th century the Singapore settlement was rebuilt. There are two written references to it dating from the turn of the 16th and 17th centuries. The first is the reference to the settlement by Jacques de Coutre mentioned in book I, chapter III, of his autobiography when he describes a voyage undertaken by sea and the Singapore Straits to Pahang in the year 1594. The second is a brief mention in the diary of the early Dutch VOC commander Wybrandt van Warwyk. It is found in a section describing a passage through the Old Strait of Singapore by Vice-Admiral Jacob Pietersz van Enkhuysen. Here the settlement is explicitly named “Singapura”, but admittedly its more precise location and also its size remain undetermined.15

34In closing this section, a few main insights are worth repeating. First, over the centuries, Singapore was destroyed and rebuilt several times. The earlier view that Singapore had been destroyed in one strike, then abandoned and never rebuilt or resettled, can no longer be sustained in the light of written evidence at hand (Borschberg 2017; Kwa 2018). There are at least two acts of destruction after the arrival of the Portuguese and their takeover of Melaka in 1511, one in the first half of the sixteenth and the other at the beginning of the 17th century. The Portuguese have claimed responsibility for the former, but the perpetrators of the destruction a century later remain uncertain. It might very well have been the Acehnese when they launched a seaborne attack on Johor’s upstream river towns in 1613. Between the two key dates, 1511 and 1613, testimonies were given of a town and a functioning port that was located on the southern side of Singapore Island.

4. Some Conclusions: Rethinking Singapore at the Eve of the Bicentennial (1819-2019)

35This article on the history of pre-1819 Singapore addressed three overarching questions: Was Singapore not recognized before 1800 by the European colonial powers? Were there any concrete plans to colonize and build fortifications on and around the island? And what do we know about the cycles of destruction and reconstruction of the settlement in this period? To appreciate why these are even questions worth raising and answering, one must bear the British colonial narrative in mind: Singapore had once been a prosperous trading city during the 14th century. But due to the contestation for dominance of the Straits and for trade revenues, it was destroyed by the Siamese and/or the Majapahit. After this destruction, Singapore was allegedly abandoned and forgotten for centuries until the arrival of the British in 1819. It supposedly took the genius of Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles to rediscover Singapore’s strategic and locational potentials along the trading arteries connecting India and China.

36Archaeological evidence and the retrieval of textual source materials have induced a thorough reappraisal of this perspective after the middle of the 1980s. While not completely dismissing the British colonial legacy, the picture now emerging is that Singapore was most certainly not a depopulated, abandoned and forgotten place. Its fortunes rose and fell with the greater geopolitical and economic activities across maritime Asia, and destructions were followed by reconstructions of the settlement. Texts and documents retrieved in Europe reveal that Singapore was recognized for its locational potential, for its strategic position along the main maritime arteries, and also for its excellent port. Plans were drawn up to acquire and colonize the island at least two centuries before Raffles entered the scene, but they remained just that: plans on paper. After the eviction of the Melaka sultan from his capital in 1511, the laksamana resided on the island. His permanent presence stimulated a revival of the port, and this revival may have prompted the Portuguese to take action, and destroy the settlement together with its port facilities. The town was subsequently reconstructed, its port prospered under a shahbandar and was destroyed again sometime in the early 17th century by forces unknown. The Portuguese or alternatively the Acehnese are seen to have been the likely perpetrators in this instance. But one thing has become very clear: at this point in time, Singapore was most certainly not the sleepy seaside backwater described by the British in the early 19th century.

37The reader may now be asking: So what? Could these findings in any way impact the so-called “Singapore Story” and the way Singapore’s history of this is being conceptualized today? It may be too early to say. It is one thing for the historical fraternity to explore and write about new evidence or lines of enquiry, it is quite another thing to reconcile their findings with a national school curriculum, the ostensible goal of which is to promote nation-building. One suspects a lot more will be written and publicly debated about Singapore’s pre-1819 history as the nation transitions from SG50 (Singapore’s 50 Years of Independence) to the Bicentennial commemorations in 2019. Looking forward to the Bicentennial of Singapore’s founding as a British colonial trading post, a few things are likely to seep in: With the benefit of improved historical hindsight, there was really nothing spectacular about Raffles’ vision for Singapore. That is really beyond doubt today. More controversial might be the issue of continuity: What is the role of the Kallang River estuary generally, and particularly the area around present-day Kampong Glam for reassessing Singapore’s pre-colonial history as well as its continuity from the British colonial era into present times (Imran Tajudeen 2005)? That is an important question to ask and to find answers for.

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1 For the role of archaeological evidence in reconstructing the history of Singapore before 1800, see Heng (1999), Kwa (2017, 30-36) and Miksic (1984, 2013). For the historiographical issues underlying the reconstruction of Singapore history, see also the introduction to Kwa and Borschberg (2018).

2 For additional background see Turnbull (2009, 24-25).

3 For an authoritative review retracing the study of pre-1819 Singapore with a focus on the 1930s-1990s, see the introduction by C. G. Kwa in Kwa and Borschberg (2018).

4 See Turnbull (2009). For a masterly synopsis of the developments which have taken place since around the end of World War II, see the separate chapters by Hack and Blackburn (2012, 17-87).

5 For authoritative editions of these works of Malay literature, see Brown and Roolvink (1970) and Kassim (1994).

6 See Miksic (1984, 2013), Kwa (2017), Kwa and Borschberg (2018), Murfett et al. (1999), and Miksic and Low (2004).

7 Arquivo Nacional da Torre do Tombo (Lisbon), Colecção São Vicente, livro XXVI, fol. 130-130v.

8 See de Jonge (1866-1909, III, 7-9). According to a letter from Jan Pieterszoon Coen, the Johor ruler had offered the Dutch a location of their choice. For the Portuguese response to this plan, see the letters by Philip III/II dat. 6 February 1616, and 23 January 1618, in Bulhão Pato and Silva Rego (1880-1982, III, 380-1, and IV, 77-9); reply of 7 February 1619 (ibid., IV, 279-80).

9 These have been prepared by the Portuguese adventurer Manoel Godinho de Erédia. Photographs of the specimens are available in vol. 4 of Cortesão and Teixeira da Mota (1987). See also Kwa (2017, 50-52).

10 According to Pires (1990, II, 264) the selates, saletes or people of the selat (straits) did so only for food and without remuneration. See also Andaya (1975, 48-50), Chuleeporn (2002), Lobato (2012, 230), and Wolters (1970, 124-26). On the selates (or orang laut) in general and their history, see also the authoritative study by Sopher (1965).

11 See Muhammad (1992), Kwa (2004, 86), Pintado (1993), and Turnbull (2009, 22).

12 See Linschoten (1939), Rebello (1903, 269), and Albuquerque (1963). See also Matos (2007, 72), where the two rivers, or river branches, are described as “one small and one large”, a reference to the western entrance of the Tebrau Straits and of the Johor River.

13 Concerning Aceh’s prowess in the Straits region at this time, see generally Lombard (1967), Alves (1999), and Pinto (2012).

14 These episodes are mentioned among others in the Portuguese chronicles by Castanheda (1924-1933), liv. III, cap. LXXXVI; liv. VIII, cap. LXXXV.

15 See Arthus (1606, 84).

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Título Figure 1: Map of Southeast Asia  
Créditos Source: Map drawn by Ms. Lee Li Kheng, GIS and Map Resource Unit, Department of Geography, National University of Singapore. © Peter Borschberg
Ficheiros image/jpeg, 116k
Título Figure 2: Map of Singapore Island with the adjacent New and Old Straits
Créditos Source: Map based on fol. 61 of Manuel Godinho de Erédia’s “Description of Melaka” (c.1615), redrawn by Ms. Lee Li Kheng, GIS and Map Resource Unit, Department of Geography, National University of Singapore. © Peter Borschberg
Ficheiros image/jpeg, 148k
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Para citar este artigo

Referência do documento impresso

Peter Borschberg, « Three Questions about Maritime Singapore, 16th-17th Centuries », Ler História, 72 | 2018, 31-54.

Referência eletrónica

Peter Borschberg, « Three Questions about Maritime Singapore, 16th-17th Centuries », Ler História [Online], 72 | 2018, posto online no dia 26 junho 2018, consultado no dia 23 julho 2018. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/lerhistoria.3234

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Peter Borschberg

Department of History, National University of Singapore, Singapore

Asia-Europe Institute, University of Malaya, Malaysia

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Direitos de autor

Licence Creative Commons
Ler História está licenciado com uma Licença Creative Commons - Atribuição-NãoComercial 4.0 Internacional.

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