by Charles Kimball

The first Moslem State in Southeast Asia with real power was Malacca, founded in 1401 by a fugitive Sumatran prince named Parameswara. Malacca had a superb location for commerce, right at the narrowest point of the strait by the same name, but otherwise was not very promising. The port was poor, and so was the surrounding land, which could not grow enough food to feed a large population. Finally, the kingdoms of Siam and Majapahit both claimed the whole Malay peninsula for themselves. For Malacca to survive it needed a powerful ally, and it was found in China, which at the time was sending huge naval expeditions into the Pacific and Indian Oceans every year. These fleets, numbering hundreds of ships and thousands of men, were led by an admiral named Zheng He (pronounced "Jung Huh"), who happened to be a Chinese Moslem. When China warned "Hands off Malacca!" the Thais and Javanese listened and obeyed.

At the same time Parameswara invited Moslem merchants to visit his state by charging them less for port duties and expenses than they were paying in Sumatra. Sometime before his death in 1424, Parameswara became a Moslem, changing his name to Megat Iskander (Mohammed Alexander) Shah. Most of his people followed his example, but not right away--the next two kings had both Moslem and non-Moslem names.

By the time the Chinese naval expeditions stopped coming (1433), Majapahit was no longer a threat, and Malacca had grown rich enough to hire the mercenaries needed to keep Siam at a safe distance. Malacca was now Southeast Asia's busiest port, receiving ships from the Middle East, India, China and Indonesia. The Indonesian ships were the most important in the long run, because they brought spices from the Moluccas islands, near New Guinea. These islands, soon to be called "the Spice Islands" by Europeans, are the world's largest source of black pepper, cinnamon, ginger, cloves, nutmeg, mace and camphor. The demand for spices in the West was at an all-time high, because European and Middle Eastern diets at this time were terribly bland without them; moreover, they helped make spoiled meat tolerable, which made a difference in the era before refrigeration was invented. Spices were also widely used as medicines, and merchants considered them to be the ideal cargo: a nonperishable commodity that can be worth a lot of money without taking up a lot of cargo space. Unfortunately for Western Europe, the spices were brought west by a relay of merchants (Indonesians, Chinese, Indians, Persians, Arabs and finally Italians) and every time the cargo changed hands the price went up. A bag of cloves selling for three ducats (almost $150) in India could cost almost fifty times as much by the time it reached Venice. Obviously, whoever could get the spices without dealing with middlemen would make a huge profit, and the high price of spices prompted one of the countries farthest away, Portugal, to regard them in much the same way modern nations regard oil; the nation that controlled pepper could control the world! In the early fifteenth century Portuguese sea captains started sailing far into the Atlantic, looking for a way to reach the Orient by sailing around Africa. Thus the Age of Exploration got started, culminating when a sailor named Christopher Columbus tried an alternative route to Asia and discovered America.

  ©Copyright 2000 - 2003 Charles Kimball