Review Essay Of “Jacques de Coutre’s And Matelieff’s Singapore and Johor”: Exploring Sources On Pre-Modern History of Singapore, pp. 6 of 11

The most direct information from the Iberian perspective comes from the Jacques de Coutre’s memorial on “building some fortresses in the Straits of Singapore and other region of the south.” Borschberg points out that the document “delves into the issues of geopolitics and security” as well as “lists a number of ports connected by the network centred at Melaka: [from Japan, China, ports along the Malay Coast, to the Bay of Bengal and beyond.” Jacques de Coutre’s advised to “step up security at a crucial nodal point in the eastern section of the trade network [can start with the construction of] three [fortifications] on and around Singapore Island” (Borschberg, 2015a, p. 76). It appeared that the Javanese traders had been going to Bintan and Johor instead of Melaka with the spices and other merchandise. The Portuguese were ‘forced’ to go from Melaka to Johor to buy spices and sell their cloth. Specifically, en route, the ships and goods passed through the old and new straits of Singapore between Singapore and the island of Surgidera as well as this island and “Blakang Mati” (Map).  There were some description on the geographical and natural environ of Surgidera (availability of limestone and firewood. There were many saletes (orang laut) in the area; Borschberg presents a description from a chapter in book 1 to illuminate on the once powerful people; whose arms were lethal and could still kill in a blink of the eye. The advice for the fortifications was that 1. the one built on Surgidera should be strong and stationed with galleys so that it could deter enemy (especially Aceh) armadas coming through the straits as well as patrol the Straits of Kundur (between Sumatra and Karimun); 2. one should be built on the island of Sabandaria Vieja (Singapore) the forts should be able to support each other, (Borschberg, 2015a, p. 84); 3. a third could be built later at Muar River. Given the fact that Singapore and its vicinity was a strategic place in the 17th century and that Jacques de Coutre was able to come up with such a concrete plan of far-reaching implications, the belief about Singapore importance should not be associated only with the British coming or Raffles’ vision.

Matelieff’s journal of his voyage and observations presents some information from the Dutch perspective on the shahbandaria in Singapore: the Shahbandar from Singapore commanded the fleet gathering representing the King of Johor. Borschberg launches a detailed discussion on the post and jurisdiction of the Shahbandaria and attempted to link it to other posts of the Johor Kingdom. 1. Although little or no information was available on Singapore’s trade, it must “have been significant enough to warrant the presence of a Shahbandar” (Borschberg, 2015c, p. 18). The Shahbandar was also “known as Sri Raja Negara”, who according to the Tuhfat-al-Nafis (The Precious Gift) and contemporary scholar Muhammad Yusof Hashim on the Melaka Sultanate, was deemed as the “head of the Orang Laut communities [or tribes] in the Straits region” (Borschberg, 2015c, p. 21). If the Orang Laut traditionally supplied the naval forces of major empires in the region, Borschberg, corroborating the Commentaries of Alfonso de Albuquerque, wonders aloud whether the Shahbandar was also the Laksamana or even holding the post of the Temenggong that Raffles came into contact with when he landed in Singapore. In this direction, Singapore was not just a port of some size but a “principal base of Johor’s armada [or navy]” (Borschberg, 2015c, p. 25). If these posts did coincide in one or two persons, corroborating M. Godinho de Eredia’s Description of Malaca, Meridional India and Cathay and Chongguan Kwa’s examination of the Kallang Estuary shards (Eredia, 1997; Kwa, 2004), there is certainly preliminary reason to believe that a possible harbor might have been located at the estuary of Kallang River and trade passing through the region had its goods unloaded there.

Other categories of sources

The shift of the Melakan Kingdom toward the southern end of the Malay Peninsula after Melaka’s conquest by the Portuguese destined that Singapore would become an intimate part of the history of the Melakan sultanate and tradition; “from which all the other sultanates derived their ceremonial protocols and customs” (Hashim, 1992). Singapore was of course linked to this royal heritage from the beginning when Parameswara or Iskandar Shah (as the last of Sang Utama’s line of rulers) was driven away by the Javanese and founded Melaka up north. The lineage and events of the Melaka rulers could be traced from the Sejarah Melayu (Malay Annals) (Brown, 1970). We can turn to another ‘legitimising’ source (The Precious Gift) which traces the lineage of the Melaka (Johor) rulers after 1511 (Portuguese conquest). We can take a closer look at the The Precious Gift on two reigns which involved Singapore in some ways: 1. Sultan Jalla bin Abdul Jalil Shah II (1571-97) and his sons; 2. Sultan Abdul Jalil Shah IV, 1699-1720. The Precious Gift has a brief write-up on Sultan Abdul Jalil II and his sons (Matheson, 1994, pp. 18-19):

When Sultan Muzaffar died, he was succeeded by his son who was entitled Sultan Abd al-Jalil Syah. During his reign the Portuguese attacked Seluyut, but they were defeated and returned to Melaka. His Majesty moved from Seluyut and built a settlement on the upper reaches of the Damar River, a tributary of Batu Sawar River. He entitled the settlement Makam Tawhid, and there he remained. According to the story, his Majesty had three sons by secondary wives. The first was Raja Hasan, the second Raja Husain, and the third Raja Mahmud. His Majesty made [the first] King of Siak, [the second] King of Kelantan, and [the third] King of Kampar, because during the Johor period all Malay kings were ranked below Johor. His sons of fully royal birth Raja Mansur and Raja Abdullah] both remained in Johor. When Sultan Abd al-Jalil died, he was succeeded by Raja Mansur, who was entitled Sultan Ala al-Din Riayat Syah. However, his Majesty did not concern himself with government but occupied himself purely with amusements. Raja Abdullah, together with the Bendahara, was Regent in his Majesty’s kingdom, as if he ruled Johor. [Sultan Ala al-Din Riayat Syah later moved and] built a settlement on the Rayun River and [there he remained till the end of the reign]. Not long afterwards, Sultan Ala al-Din Riayat Syah died, and Raja Abdullah ruled Johor, with the title Sultan Hemat Syah [or Sultan Ma‘ayat Shah].

The background information links up to Borschberg’s mention of the three persons (Sultan Abd al-Jalil Syah, Sultan Ala al-Din Riayat Syah, Raja Bongsu or Raja Abdullah) in Jacques de Coutre and Matelieff’s Singapore and Johor where the incidents involved Singapore and its overlord. Here, we may go back and refer to Borschberg’s glossary entry in Jacques de Coutre’s Singapore and Johor on Raja Bongsu where the title is explained and further leads are given pertaining to the possible controversies surrounding the figure (Borschberg, 2015a, p. 105). In this context, part of the reason why many matters of the state were relegated to Raja Bongsu at least becomes clearer from The Precious Gift.

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