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  • The Portuguese and the Straits of Melaka, 1575-1619: Power, Trade and Diplomacy by Paulo Jorge de Sousa Pinto
  • Anthony Reid
The Portuguese and the Straits of Melaka, 1575-1619: Power, Trade and Diplomacy Paulo Jorge de Sousa Pinto Transl.: Roopanjali Roy MBRAS Monograph 45. Singapore: NUS Press & Malaysian Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, 2012. xxx + 375 pp. Maps, illustrations, index. ISBN 978-967-9948-51-6

As the author notes in his Introduction (p. xxiii), there is still a considerable gap between Portuguese scholarship, often 'ignorant of Malay and Dutch sources', and the bulk of Southeast Asian historians, 'equally ignorant of Portuguese sources'. The latter will be grateful for the translation of this important addition to the very small number of English translations of the new wave of Portuguese scholarship.

The study arose from a Master's thesis under the guidance of the doyen of post-colonial Portuguese scholarship on Southeast Asia, Luis Filipe Thomaz, published in Portuguese in 1997. Thomaz himself had ended his own path-breaking study of Portuguese Melaka in 1580, and it was logical for Pinto to focus on the [End Page 100] next major period. He characterizes it as one of crucial setbacks, book ended by the expulsion of the Portuguese from Ternate in the 1570s, and the Dutch establishment at Batavia (Jakarta) in 1619, when he asserts (p. xxvi), perhaps prematurely, that 'the fate of Melaka was sealed'.

Pinto has consulted a great range of Portuguese primary sources, both manuscript and printed, as well as reading in the English- and French-language literature more comprehensively than many Portuguese scholars. Confident and critical in his handling of the Portuguese sources, Pinto may take too literally the Malay ones accessed through French or English mediation—notably in the case of the Hikayat Aceh. He provides an unrivalled account of the military and diplomatic relations of the Portuguese with Aceh and Johor, and from 1598 of their even more difficult military engagements with the Dutch. There will be many new insights for even the specialist reader on the way the drama played out in this critical period.

It began with many appeals from Melaka for sufficient resources for the Portuguese finally to get the better of their inveterate enemies in Aceh, repeatedly a threat to the survival of Portuguese Melaka. After much lobbying, the Portuguese King appears finally to have committed himself to the conquest of Aceh in 1586, providing funds to send 4,000 men out to Southeast Asia to realize it. Fortunately nothing of the sort was in fact attempted. Instead a period of diplomatic opportunity opened for Melaka through the bitter hostility of Johor and Aceh after Sultan Alauddin Riayat Shah al-Mukammil came to Aceh's throne in 1589. Locked in a struggle for hegemony with Johor, he sought an unprecedented peace with Portuguese Melaka. When a Portuguese ship was wrecked on Aceh's shores in 1592 carrying the bishop of Macao and other clergy, they were surprised to find the sultan ready to use them in a diplomatic game. He sent a Malay-speaking Augustinian friar to Melaka with the message that he would release the captives in return for agreement to allow the Aceh fleet to pass freely through the Malacca Straits to attack Johor. Agreement was reached with a return mission of some Portuguese priests to Aceh, the Aceh fleet sailed to attack Johor in 1593, and the captives were eventually released. The friendly Aceh policy continued, with two embassies sent to the Portuguese Viceroy in Goa in 1596 and 1599. This last was accompanied back to Aceh by a Portuguese envoy, who claimed (Document 22, p. 333) to have so denounced the de Houtman brothers as 'mutineers' and 'pirates', that this first Dutch expedition to reach Aceh ended in failure.

The Dutch arrival gave the Portuguese amore urgentmotive for finding local allies against them. The situation now favoured Aceh, being courted by rival Portuguese, Dutch and English, each bitterly denouncing the others to their Asian listeners. With the accession of Sultan Iskandar Muda to the throne, in 1607, the Portuguese again lost this contest, and Aceh returned to its traditional policy of hostility to Melaka...


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