Friday, 4 December 2015

Ralph Fitch on Malays

      Ralph Fitch was one of the first English people to visit Melaka in the late sixteenth century. His plan had been to voyage further east by sea, to China and eastern Indonesia, but his account (which you can find in Hakluyt's The Principal Navigations, Voiages, Traffiques and Discoueries of the English Nation (1589-1600)) tells us that the Portuguese officials in Melaka stopped him from proceeding (it's notable that other English adventurers got to eastern Indonesia by going the other way, across the Pacific). In any case, Fitch was one of the more methodical and cautious adventurers of the sixteenth century, taking notes on the prices of goods in different ports and not getting into too many scrapes with the locals.
A depiction of the fortress of Melaka ('Malaca') in 1604 CE.

         Fitch arrived in the city in 1588, several decades after the Portuguese conquest. At the time, Portugal was the major European imperial power in the region, although it was soon to be challenged by the Dutch (although not directly by the English, due to the Anglo-Portuguese treaty of 1373). Here's what Fitch says about the city and the people who lived in and around it:

The 10 of January [1588] I went from Pegu [in southern Myanmar] and so came to Malacca the 8 of February, where the Portuguese have a castle which standeth near the sea. And the country fast without the town belongeth to the Malays, which is a kind of proud people. They go naked with a cloth about their middle, and a little roll of cloth about their heads. Hither come many ships from China and from the Malaccas [Moluccas], Banda, Timor, and from many other islands of the Javas, which bring great store of spices and drugs, and diamonds and other jewels. The voyages into many of these islands belong unto the captain of Malacca: so that none may go thither without his license: which yield him great sums of money every year.
        The implication that the Portuguese have little effective control of the surrounding countryside is clear in this account. The Portuguese have the town; they control the land around it indirectly. This is a pattern found elsewhere in the periphery of the Portuguese empire at the time, and seems to have been characteristic of European settlement in Indo-Malaysia in general.

      Several of the locations Fitch mentioned had been visited or in some cases colonised by the Portuguese over the preceding decades, beginning with Antonio de Abreu's visit to Maluku in 1511/2. Timor, whose main export was sandalwood (Santalum album), had been visited by Portuguese ships in 1515, and permanent settlements were established on the north coast in the mid-1550s, eventually developing into a poorly-managed and impoverished colony. The first permanent buildings were erected in Macau at around the same time, allowing direct trade between Portuguese and Chinese merchants.
The fragrant Santalum album, a tree native to Timor and transplanted (apparently with difficulty) to other parts of the world, including especially India. A lovely image by Franz Eugen Köhler (1897).
       Precisely what Fitch means by 'proud' is difficult to tell; other European travellers tended to think of Malay people as unusually polite but also cruel and full of hidden grievances, as you may remember from Niccolo de' Conti's description of the Malay character. Fitch's descriptions of Malay dress are accurate either way - we're clearly dealing with a sarong (the 'cloth about the middle') and a turban/serban (the 'little roll of cloth about their heads'). Going otherwise naked isn't considered typical Malay dress today, but a bare-chest/sarong/turban combo survived until fairly recently as male formal wear in parts of Indonesia.
A man in the nineteenth century wearing a sarong and serban, likely resembling the clothing Fitch described for the denizens of the Melakan hinterland. The shirt is a big difference, however. h/t Tropenmuseum, part of the National Museum of World Cultures.
       At the end of the account as it appears in Hakluyt Fitch lists a number of products and their origins. He doesn't discuss Timorese sandalwood, presumably because sandalwood wasn't a particularly important product in Elizabethan England. He does mention other eastern Indonesian products, however:
The cloves do come from the Isles of the Moluccas: their tree is like to our bay tree.

The nutmegs and maces grow together, and come from the Isle of Banda: the tree is like to our walnut tree, but somewhat lesser.
      I'm not sure how Fitch could possibly have seen these trees, given that he didn't make it to where they grow, but presumably they were described to him. He also mentions camphor, the best of which he says comes from Borneo, a place he also didn't visit.

       You can read a little about Fitch and his fellow travellers in Giles Milton's Nathaniel's Nutmeg (John Murray, 2000), a popular account of the exploration and warfare involved in the (mostly Indonesian) spice trade in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. It's probably the most popular recent-ish book about Indonesian history, and as such it's certainly worth a look.

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