The History of Melaka

The History of Melaka
Photo by chuttersnap on Unsplash

The city of Melaka has a long and fascinating history dating back hundreds of years. Long before Kuala Lumpur became the great capital city it now is, there was Melaka. With Malay, Chinese, Indian, European and other influences over the centuries, the city of Melaka has developed a rich culture and history, making it a fascinating place to visit. This historic colonial city was made a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2008 and tourists now flock to the city to take in its diverse architecture and cultural traditions.

If you’re looking for tips on where to stay or the best sites to see, there’s plenty more information about Melaka available online.

Melaka’s Beginnings

Melaka was founded in 1396 by a Hindu prince from Sumatra called Parameswara. Having fled from his own country to Temasek (modern-day Singapore) to escape the attacking Majapahit Empire, Parameswara was driven out a few years later by the Siamese and ended up in Melaka, which at the time was little more than a fishing village.

In 1414 Parameswara became the Sultan of Melaka after converting to Islam, and under his rule the city soon became an important trading point for merchants from all over Asia, particularly India, China and Arabia. Following a visit from Chinese Muslim Admiral Cheng Ho, who brought gifts on behalf of the Ming emperor, many Chinese began to settle in the area, often marrying local Malays. The Chinese population of Melaka is in fact the longest settled in Malaysia.

Colonial History

In 1509 the Portuguese came to Melaka looking for opportunities to expand their empire, and by 1511 had conquered the city under the command of Afonso de Albuquerque, forcing the Sultan to flee to Johor. Albuquerque hoped that Melaka would be a key trading outpost for Portugal, linking them to China. It was under the rule of the Portuguese that the fortress of A Famosa was built. A Famosa was an imposing military fortress, with long ramparts for defense and four large towers, but today only the front gate remains after the rest was demolished by the British when they took over the city.

With the help of the Sultan of Johor, the Dutch captured the city in 1641. Trade from the port had begun to decline under the Portuguese but was revived under Dutch rule. While there the Dutch built several churches and other public buildings, including Christ Church in 1752. This distinctive, terracotta red church remains the oldest protestant church in Malaysia. Dutch rule in Melaka continued until 1795 when the British took over temporary control of the city. The British secured permanent rule of Melaka as part of an exchange deal with the Dutch for the Sumatran port of Bencoolen – known as Bengkulu today.

During World War II the area was occupied by the Japanese between 1942 and 1945, with many of the city’s residents taken and forced to construct the Death Railway in Burma (Myanmar). Malaysia won its independence from the British in 1957, by which time Melaka had been eclipsed by Singapore as the significant commercial centre in the region.

Melaka Today

Following the end of British rule, Melaka began to reinvent itself as a tourist destination and today is hugely popular, with the marks left by its eventful history now a huge draw for tourists from all over the world. If you’re planning a trip to Melaka, here are a few key sightseeing recommendations.

A Famosa – What remains of the Portuguese fortress isn’t much, but it’s still worth a visit if you want to better understand the long history of the city.

Baba Nyonya Heritage Museum – The Baba Nyonya Heritage Museum tells the history of the ethnic Chinese-Malays of Melaka, known as Baba Nyonya. This beautifully restored townhouse has been arranged to look like a typical 19th-cenutry Baba-Nyonya home.

Christ Church – This Protestant church, built by the Dutch in 1752, really stands out thanks to the dramatic burnt-red colour of the building and the large white cross placed on its front.

Jonker Street – In the centre of Melaka’s China Town is Jonker Street, famous for its Jonker Walk Night Market. The street is lined on both sides by beautiful heritage houses that date back to the 17th century.

Maritime Museum & Naval Museum – This museum is a re-creation of the Flora de Lamar, a Portuguese ship that sank off Melaka’s coast while on its way back to Portugal. The museum is home to a variety of nautical-related items from Melaka’s history.

Cheng Hoon Teng Temple – The oldest traditional Chinese temple in Malaysia, the Cheng Hoon Teng Temple is a testament to the Chinese immigrants who have made Melaka their home for centuries.

Melaka Sultanate Palace – Actually a wooden replica of the original 15th century palace built by the Sultan of Melaka, the building is home to the Cultural Museum which celebrates the long and varied history of the city of Melaka.

Stadthuys – This red building, built by the Dutch in 1650, was once the town hall and governor’s residence and is thought to be the oldest Dutch building in the East. It now houses the History and Ethnography Museums.