Review Essay Of “Jacques de Coutre’s And Matelieff’s Singapore and Johor”: Exploring Sources On Pre-Modern History of Singapore, pp. 7 of 11

The reign involving Sultan Abdul Jalil Shah IV marks a significant milestone in the history and lineage of the Melakan Sultanate. The narrative of the events is too extensive to quote directly but a couple of points merit a preliminary appreciation: 1. it was the change in the line of succession from Sultan Abdul Jalil Shah IV onwards which led to the two contending prince successors (Tenggu Hussein and Abdul Rahman) that Raffles and the Dutch had each hoped to set up in the tussle over Singapore in 1819. 2. The change in the line of succession invoked a series of interventions from outside Johor by Siak and the Bugis and was fought over an extensive area from Johor, Singapore (Matheson, 1994, p. 48), Riau-Lingga, to Kedah (p. 67). To briefly introduce the story, Sultan Mahmud (1685-99) inflicted a disproportionate punishment on the Bendahara’s wife that caused the latter to usurp the throne (and ascended as Sultan Abdul Jalil Shah IV). There are many stories pertaining to the origins of Raja Kecik that link him as an ‘unrecognised’ son of Sultan Mahmud Shah II. Traveling as a young man, Tuan Bujang (later Raja Kecik) followed Sultan Lambayang (of Palembang) and later struck it out on his own and ruled the Minangkabau of Pasisir Laut. In the bid to regain the rulership of Johor, Raja Kecik arrived for a short time in Singapore after the Bugis had rejected supporting him to persuade the sea-people (Orang Laut) that he was “the true son of the Ruler.” This showed that the Orang Laut still had some clout and indeed when Raja Kecik “came with several ships to attack Johor, the Johor (and Singapore) sea-people did not warn the capital or Sultan Abdul Jalil Shah IV” (Matheson, 1994, p. 49). 3. In a further saga of this episode, T. Barnard in tracing the disputes between the offspring of Raja Kecik (Raja Mahmud / Raja Ismail versus Raja Alam) brings attention to the different ‘legitimising’ sources of Malay sultanate tradition; in this case, The Precious Gift as the Malay-Bugis version versus Hikayat Siak representing the Siak-Minangkabau version. Barnard highlights that Raja Ismail (son of Raja Mahmud) did “come to Singapore to assist the Malay nobility whose power was being usurped by Bugis mercenaries” and while raiding did take place from Singapore, “[the island] played a more prominent role in the collective memory of the Malay heritage” (Barnard, 2004, pp. 122-123). Beyond the flowery prose of the source, one can discount the exaggerations in the writing and use the Malay Annals or The Precious Gift in collaboration with other sources to arrive at some picture of pre-19th century Malay Archipelago and its connections with Singapore. 

The context required for students to understand life and trade of Singapore and the commercial activities passing through the region, especially when the investigation and study involve archaeological sources and reports, is for them to be familiar with the dynamics and intricacies of the commodities or goods in transaction. This applies to the immediate post-Classical kingdom period or the early modern period under study. For the 17-18th centuries and focusing on ceramics of the period, one needs to indulge in a bit of background information before attempting to analyse archaeological findings and reports of the commodity / period in question: 1. who were the dominant traders and who were the ‘minor’ players? 2. what types of ceramics were exported and from where did it originate? 3. what were the characteristics of major types of ceramics? Once the prerequisite information has been explored, one can then proceed to look at a couple of archaeological or museum write-ups pertaining to ceramics of the period to make sense of these. The examination of 17-18th centuries archaeological sources also augers well collaboratively for Borschberg’s sources. If one is able to discover something archaeological on the Shahbandar’s dwelling or involving a vessel which sank in the early 1600s, the picture would be more complete and intricate.

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