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  • The Singapore and Melaka Straits: Violence, Security and Diplomacy in the 17th Century
  • Cheah Boon Kheng
The Singapore and Melaka Straits: Violence, Security and Diplomacy in the 17th Century Peter Borschberg Singapore: NUS Press, 2010. 394 pp. Bibliography, index. ISBN: 978-9971-69-464-7 Paperback S$42.00

Dr Peter Borschberg has made a major contribution to Southeast Asian historiography with this pioneering study on pre-Raffles Singapore and on the Singapore and Melaka straits in the 17th century, a product of more than two decades of research. This has largely been achieved as a result of extending his initial research interests in European history, in particular his study of the writings, published between 1604 and 1609, of Hugo Grotius, the Dutch lawyer and humanist who is regarded as 'the father of modern international law'. Grotius briefly examined the history and legal aspects relating to the activities of European powers in trade, politics, war, 'piracy' and diplomacy in the Singapore and Melaka straits. His reputation rests largely on his legal defence of Dutch aggression against Portuguese shipping, trade and ports in the early 17th century, the Dutch taking of plunder from the enemy, access to ports and emporia, and international alliances and treaty making with local Asian polities. The Dutch had projected their war of liberation with the united crown of Spain and Portugal into the Asian theatre at large. After the VOC was formed in 1602 through an amalgamation of six trading companies, it acted overseas as an arm of the Dutch government to 'make war' with the Iberian powers. Prize and booty were shared between the Dutch Republic and the companies, and fleets were dispatched to attack key Iberian positions around the Indian Ocean, Southeast and East Asia, including Melaka, the Moluccas, Manila, and Macao.

Borschberg probes further into the involvement and roles in the conflicts of the Asian polities such as Aceh, Johor, Siam, and Patani—and other states in Sumatra and the Malay Peninsula. Factionalism occurred within these polities, as the Dutch and Portuguese used them to outwit each other, so that they frequently oscillated between supporting the Dutch and supporting the Portuguese. His book presents new information on early modern European expansion in the strategic location of Singapore Island and its adjacent straits through an extensive use of manuscript charts and maps together with published and unpublished document materials in Asian and other non-English languages such as Dutch, French, German and Portuguese. He has succeeded in unravelling the diplomatic and geo-strategic significance of pre-Raffles Singapore, the Singapore and Melaka straits, and the wider historical and geo-political significance of Sumatra and the Malay Peninsula. [End Page 119]

Borschberg's research fills a serious lacuna in Singapore's historical narrative and undermines the official view that nothing of importance occurred in or around the island of Singapore before Thomas Stamford Raffles founded it in 1819. The island republic's school history textbooks project this view, and he has publicly urged Singaporean historians that it is time to change this perspective. His period of study is surprisingly an under-researched period of Southeast Asian history—i.e., the first four decades, almost the first half of the 17th century, between c.1590 and 1640. Most scholarly research has touched only briefly on events and developments in Southeast Asia in the 17th century, largely due to the inability of scholars to read historical documents in Portuguese, French and German. Although the book comprises only five chapters, they are rather compact, tightly written and packed with much detail and many facts. Half the book comprises notes and appendices, mostly transcripts and translations of relevant documents used in the text.

Borschberg begins with an interesting examination of how European navigators and cartographers visualized Singapore, its straits and the Melaka Strait in a range of early charts, maps and publications across a period of approximately 100 years between the mid-16th and mid-17th centuries. A variety of toponyms was used for Singapura in the early European documents and publications—such as Cingapura, Cingaporla, Cimquapura, Singhapura, and so on. Between 1650 and the 1750s the island is named Singapura only in seven instances, but in...


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