Singapore Table of Contents

Precolonial Era

Located astride the sea routes between China and India, from ancient times the Malay Archipelago served as an entrepôt, supply point, and rendezvous for the sea traders of the kingdoms and empires of the Asian mainland and the Indian subcontinent. The trade winds of the South China Sea brought Chinese junks laden with silks, damasks, porcelain, pottery, and iron to seaports that flourished on the Malay Peninsula and the islands of Sumatra and Java. There they met with Indian and Arab ships, brought by the monsoons of the Indian Ocean, carrying cotton textiles, Venetian glass, incense, and metalware. Fleets of swift prahu (interisland craft) supplied fish, fruit, and rice from Java and pepper and spices from the Moluccas in the eastern part of the archipelago. All who came brought not only their trade goods but also their cultures, languages, religions, and technologies for exchange in the bazaars of this great crossroads.

In time, the ports of the peninsula and archipelago formed the nucleus of a succession of seabased kingdoms, empires, and sultanates. By the late seventh century, the great maritime Srivijaya Empire, with its capital at Palembang in eastern Sumatra, had extended its rule over much of the peninsula and archipelago. Historians believe that the island of Singapore was probably the site of a minor port of Srivijaya.

Temasek and Singapura

Although legendary accounts shroud Singapore's earliest history, chroniclers as far back as the second century alluded to towns or cities that may have been situated at that favored location. Some of the earliest records of this region are the reports of Chinese officials who served as envoys to the seaports and empires of the Nanyang (southern ocean), the Chinese term for Southeast Asia. The earliest first-hand account of Singapore appears in a geographical handbook written by the Chinese traveler Wang Dayuan in 1349. Wang noted that Singapore Island, which he called Tan-ma-hsi (Danmaxi), was a haven for several hundred boatloads of pirates who preyed on passing ships. He also described a settlement of Malay and Chinese living on a terraced hill known in Malay legend as Bukit Larangan (Forbidden Hill), the reported burial place of ancient kings. The fourteenth-century Javanese chronicle, the Nagarakertagama, also noted a settlement on Singapore Island, calling it Temasek.

A Malay seventeenth-century chronicle, the Sejarah Melayu (Malay Annals), recounts the founding of a great trading city on the island in 1299 by a ruler from Palembang, Sri Tri Buana, who named the city Singapura ("lion city") after sighting a strange beast that he took to be a lion. The prosperous Singapura, according to the Annals, in the mid-fourteenth century suffered raids by the expanding Javanese Majapahit Empire to the south and the emerging Thai kingdom of Ayutthaya to the north, both at various times claiming the island as a vassal state.

The Annals, as well as contemporaneous Portuguese accounts, note the arrival around 1388 of King Paramesvara from Palembang, who was fleeing Majapahit control. Although granted asylum by the ruler of Singapura, the king murdered his host and seized power. Within a few years, however, Majapahit or Thai forces again drove out Paramesvara, who fled northward to found eventually the great seaport and kingdom of Malacca. In 1414 Paramesvara converted to Islam and established the Malacca Sultanate, which in time controlled most of the Malay Peninsula, eastern Sumatra, and the islands between, including Singapura. Fighting ships for the sultanate were supplied by a senior Malaccan official based at Singapura. The city of Malacca served not only as the major seaport of the region in the fifteenth century, but also as the focal point for the dissemination of Islam throughout insular Southeast Asia.

Johore Sultanate

When the Portuguese captured Malacca in 1511, the reigning Malaccan sultan fled to Johore in the southern part of the Malay Peninsula, where he established a new sultanate. Singapura became part of the new Johore Sultanate and was the base for one of its senior officials in the latter sixteenth century. In 1613, however, the Portuguese reported burning down a trading outpost at the mouth of the Temasek (Singapore) River, and Singapura passed into history.

In the following two centuries, the island of Temasek was largely abandoned and forgotten as the fortunes of the Johore Sultanate rose and fell. By 1722 a vigorous seafaring people from the island of Celebes (modern Sulawesi, Indonesia) had become the power behind the throne of the Johore Sultanate. Under Bugis influence, the sultanate built up a lucrative entrepôt trade, centered at Riau, south of Singapore, in present-day Sumatra. Riau also was the site of major plantations of pepper and gambier, a medicinal plant used in tanning. The Bugis used waste material from the gambier refining process to fertilize pepper plants, a valuable crop, but one that quickly depletes soil nutrients. By 1784 an estimated 10,000 Chinese laborers had been brought from southern China to work the gambier plantations on Bintan Island in the Riau archipelago (now part of Indonesia). In the early nineteenth century, gambier was in great demand in Java, Siam, and elsewhere, and cultivation of the crop had spread from Riau to the island of Singapore.

The territory controlled by the Johore Sultanate in the late eighteenth century was somewhat reduced from that under its precursor, the Malacca Sultanate, but still included the southern part of the Malay Peninsula, the adjacent area of Sumatra, and the islands between, including Singapore. The sultanate had become increasingly weakened by division into a Malay faction, which controlled the peninsula and Singapore, and a Bugis faction, which controlled the Riau Archipelago and Sumatra. When the ruling sultan died without a royal heir, the Bugis had proclaimed as sultan the younger of his two sons by a commoner wife. The sultan's elder son, Hussein (or Tengku Long) resigned himself to living in obscurity in Riau.

Although the sultan was the nominal ruler of his domain, senior officials actually governed the sultanate. In control of Singapore and the neighboring islands was Temenggong Abdu'r Rahman, Hussein's father-in-law. In 1818 the temenggong (a high Malay official) and some of his followers left Riau for Singapore shortly after the Dutch signed a treaty with the Bugis-controlled sultan, allowing them to station a garrison at Riau. The temenggong's settlement on the Singapore River included several hundred orang laut (sea gypsies in Malay) under Malay overlords who owed allegiance to the temenggong. For their livelihood the inhabitants depended on fishing, fruit growing, trading, and occasional piracy. Large pirate fleets also used the strait between Singapore and the Riau Archipelago as a favorite rendezvous. Also living on the island in settlements along the rivers and creeks were several hundred indigenous tribespeople, who lived by fishing and gathering jungle produce. Some thirty Chinese, probably brought from Riau by the temenggong, had begun gambier and pepper production on the island. In all, perhaps a thousand people inhabited the island of Singapore at the dawn of the colonial era.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress