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Last modified:
28 Dec 2002

Malaysia at the crossroads

The Malay peninsula separates two primary networks of sailing routes. To the west lies the Indian Ocean, with routes extending from the western coast of the Malay peninsula to the shores of Africa, and to the east lies the South China Sea, with a network of routes connecting East and Southeast Asia. Each network depends on the regularity of its monsoon winds. In the South China Sea these winds blow from the north-east beginning in late November or early December until early March, and then from the opposite direction, the south-west, from the beginning of July through to about mid September.

Marco Polo, who visited China in 1275-1292, describes the monsoon winds as follows:

It takes them [ships from South China] a whole year for the voyage [to Southeast Asia], going in winter and returning in summer. For in that sea there are but two winds that blow, the one that carries them outward and the other that brings them homeward; and the one of these winds blows all winter, and the other all the summer.(1)

Timing was important, as well as total voyage time. If a merchant from China wanted the first choice of goods from India, for instance, he had to wait in a port such as Melaka until the end of summer, having arrived himself in the spring. Passages from one network to the other required a stop of several months in Southeast Asia. The region reaped benefits from its geographical position in several ways. It sold its own products to both networks; its ports offered shipping services, warehousing and accommodation; it hosted markets; and its rulers found ways to tax both ships and merchants. Ships plying the major long-distance routes - 'the maritime Silk Road' - mingled with those involved in local and regional trade.

By the early fifth century, and probably earlier, sea travel between India and China was well established. The Chinese monk Fa Xian returned home from India by sea in AD 414. He travelled on three large merchant ships, all Indian. From Tamalipti (an old port at the mouth of the Hoogli River in Bengal),

…he embarked in a large merchant-vessel, and went floating over the sea to the south-west. It was the beginning of winter, and the wind was favourable; and, after fourteen days, sailing day and night, they came to the country of Singhala (Sri Lanka)(2).

Fa Xian was not so lucky on the next two legs of his journey home, and his account demonstrates exactly how hazardous sailing could be. After two years in Sri Lanka,

…he took passage in a large merchantman, on board of which there were more than 200 men, and to which was attached by a rope a smaller vessel, as a provision against damage or injury to the large one from the perils of the navigation.

After three days, the ship sprang a leak during a heavy storm. The merchants threw their bulky goods overboard and a frantic Fa Xian cast away his personal possessions, hoping to save his books and images. On the thirteenth day the ship came to an island where the leak was repaired, and after 90 days, the ship reached Java-dvipa (perhaps Sumatra, although the term indicates the Malay world in general). Fa Xian stayed in Java-dvipa for five months, then embarked in another 'large merchantman, which also had on board more than 200 men'. They carried provisions for fifty days, and were bound for Guangdong, but the ship was blown off course; it was eighty-two days before they landed, in northern China.

Map of China and SE AsiaThe Malay peninsula, known to Indians as the Golden Peninsula, offered a number of ports which became famous at various times over the centuries. Kedah is one of the earliest names to appear, followed by Pahang, Terengganu, Tioman, and of course Melaka. The coast of northern Borneo was also important, particularly in the 15th century.

Moslem emissaries visited the Chinese coastal cities of Quanzhou and Guangzhou during the 7th century, and both cities played host to large numbers of foreign merchants over the next few centuries. Arab or Persian ships are believed to have been sailing directly to China by the 8th century(3). Chinese ships are thought to have become more active only during the Song dynasty (960-1279). Mongol invaders swept to power after major naval battles in 1279, and the ensuing Yuan dynasty (1279-1368) remained active on the seas: they invaded Java, and dispatched marriageable princesses by ship to the Middle East. East-West trade flourished. However, the first emperor of the Ming dynasty (1368-1644) banned private overseas trade. This 'Ming ban' became effective in 1371 and lasted for about two centuries, although there were periods of lax enforcement - and always, it seems, there was smuggling.

The Ming ban undoubtedly affected trade networks in Southeast Asia. It is likely that the supply of Chinese goods decreased, and that producers and traders based in Southeast Asia became more active. The most acute shortages of Chinese goods were probably during the initial disruption in Hongwu's reign, when the three official maritime trade superintendencies at Wenzhou, Quanzhou and Guangzhou were closed. Foreign goods reached the Chinese court only through the tributary system, in which foreign sovereigns sent gifts from their own lands and were rewarded with gifts from the emperor. The maritime trade offices were reopened by the emperor Yongle (1403-24), who continued to forbid commercial travel overseas but pursued a vigorous foreign policy with the dispatch of great fleets under the famous admiral Zhenghe. The seven voyages of these 'treasure ships' continued to 1433, and reached as far as Africa. The cost of the voyages, and the lavish reception afforded to foreign gift-bearing embassies which arrived in response, proved a serious drain on the Chinese economy, which probably contributed to the renewal of isolationist policies.

The restrained Chinese intercourse with Southeast Asia during the rest of the 15th century was noted by the Portuguese writer Tome Pires, who mentions both the tributary system and the problems for Chinese wishing to travel overseas:

The king of Java, the king of Siam, the king of Pase, the king of Malacca. These send their ambassadors with the seal of China to the king of China every five years and every ten years, and each one sends him the best there is in his country of what he knows they like there…

No Chinese may set out in the direction of Siam, Java, Malacca, Pase and beyond, without permission from the governors of Canton [Guangzhou], and they charge so much for signing the licence to go and come back that they cannot afford it and do not go… And if any [foreign] junk or ship passes beyond the bounds allotted to it for anchorage, its goods are confiscated to the king; and the people are put to death for it.(4)

The restrictions on trade in China contrasted dramatically with the situation at Melaka. Pires names an international cast of merchants:

Moors from Cairo, Mecca, Aden, Abyssinians, men of Kilwa, Malindi, Ormuz, Parsees, Rumes, Turks, Turkomans, Christian Armenians, Gujaratees, men of Chaul, Dabhol, Goa, of the kingdom of Deccan, Malabars and Klings, merchants from Orissa, Ceylon, Bengal, Arakan, Pegu, Siamese, men of Kedah, Malays, men of Pahang, Patani, Cambodia, Champa, Cochin China, Chinese, Lequeos, men of Brunei, Lucoes, men of Tamjompura, Laue, Banka, Linga, Moluccas, Banda, Bima, Timor, Madura, Java, Sunda, Palembang, Jambi, Tongkal, Indragiri, Kappatta, Menangkabau, Siak, Arqua (Arcat?), Aru, Bata, country of the Tomjano, Pase, Pedir, Maldives… The above-mentioned peoples come to Malacca with junks, pangajavas and ships… Finally, in the port of Malacca very often eighty-four languages have been found spoken, every one distinct, as the inhabitants of Malacca affirm.

Shipwrecks from the 15th-16th centuries in Philippine and Indonesian waters, the Gulf of Thailand and all around the South China Sea provide evidence of vigorous regional trade and production. Manufacturers based in Southeast Asia broke a centuries-long Chinese monopoly in trade ceramics, perhaps with the help of disaffected businessmen from China's coastal provinces. It is believed that some Chinese entrepreneurs, instead of submitting to imperial orders against private overseas trade, moved to bases in Southeast Asia, and that some continued to supply smuggled goods from China.

In any event, Melaka came to the fore as a significant trading centre from about AD 1400, helped by its fortuitous geographical position 'between the winds'. Other ports around the peninsula benefited from related commerce, and Tioman Island was a popular stop for fresh water. The ensuing centuries were a golden age for Southeast Asian entrepreneurs, who dominated manufacturing and trade to an extent not seen before or since.

© Roxanna M. Brown & Sten Sjostrand

Adapted from the book 'Maritime Archaeology and Shipwreck Ceramics in Malaysia', by Roxanna M. Brown & Sten Sjostrand, which is being published by the Department of Museums & Antiquities, Kuala Lumpur, and should be available from the Department and/or Muzium Negara by late 2001.

  1. Yule and Cordier, The Travels of Marco Polo, The Complete Yule-Cordier Edition. New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1993, pp.264-265.
  2. James Legge, translator, A Record of Buddhist Kingdoms, Being an account by the Chinese Monk Fa-Hien of his travels in India and Ceylon (AD 399-414) in search of the Buddhist Books of Discipline. New York: Paragon Book Reprint Corp., 1965, p.100, following quotations pp.111-114.
  3. This has yet to be confirmed by archaeology, but both Chinese and Arabic texts allude to direct trade. A 9th century wreck in Indonesia has provided tantalising but inconclusive evidence. Michael Flecker, 'A 9th-century Arab or Indian shipwreck in Indonesian waters', The International Journal of Nautical Archaeology (2000) 29.2: pp.199-217.
  4. Armando Cortesao, translator and editor, The Suma Oriental of Tome Pires, An Account of the East from the Red Sea to Japan, Written in Malacca and India in 1512-1515. New Delhi and Madras: Asian Educational Services, 1990, pp.118-119 & 268.

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