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Malacca is an old place and has a long and colourful history. One cannot truly appreciate all that it is and all that it stands for until one gets a glimpse into its annals.

Malacca is the birthplace of the Malaysian heritage, which dates back to the 15th century. The Malacca Sultanate marks the beginning of the modern monarchy. When the once-proud port fell into European hands, beginning with the Portuguese, then the Dutch and finally the British, each of these foreign cultures left an indelible mark on Malacca and its inhabitants. The immigrant Chinese also had a hand in determining the fortunes of Malacca.

Every Malaysian grows up with Malacca and its history. Fuelled by what they have read and by their imaginations, most will make it a point to visit Malacca. They will only get a sense of fulfilment after they have finally seen the A' Famosa fort with their very own eyes, right in front of them, never mind that there is nothing left except its gateway. They might be a little disappointed with what they see, but certainly not with what they have found - the awe-inspiring experience of being a part of history.

The Portuguese Era

The Portuguese had heard about the Venice of the East and its importance; they wanted to gain control of the port as whoever controlled Malacca would also control the Straits of Malacca, the most important sea route between East and West, and controlling it would be tantamount to untold riches and power.

So it was that Lopez de Sequeira sailed to Malacca where he and his crew were given a warm welcome. However, they were soon thrown into prison on charges of spying, giving Admiral Alfonso d'Albuquerque the perfect excuse to sail from India to attack Malacca in 1511. The Malaccan army fought valiantly but was no match for the mighty cannons on d'Albuquerque's ship. Moreover, the unity of the people had been sadly undermined by weak leadership and charges of nepotism.

Malacca was virtually reduced to the ground as the conquerors destroyed everything that would serve to remind and rally the people of Malacca. The sultan retreated to Johor and from there, the new kingdom launched many, many attacks on the Portuguese. The only reason the Portuguese were able to hold out for the next 130 years was the A' Famosa. Built by Alfonso d'Albuquerque, who correctly anticipated the revenge of the Malays, the fort was reinforced by three-metre thick walls and a towering keep.

Under the Portuguese, the locals were introduced to Catholicism. The churches constructed by the Portuguese still exist but in ruins. With the spread of Christianity in Malacca, more and more Muslim traders now took their vessels to the Muslim port of Aceh, at the northern tip of Sumatra. Malacca had started on the road to its decline as a port and as a centre of knowledge in the Asian region.

The Malacca Sultanate

Parameswara, a 14th century prince from the Srivijaya Empire fled to Temasik (now Singapore) after a failed coup in the kingdom of Majapahit. Although given a warm welcome, he was said to have killed his host, resulting in his having to run to Bertam.

While hunting one day, he and his party supposedly saw a deer kick a hound into the river. Taking this as a good omen, Parameswara started a settlement there, and named it after the tree he was sitting under when the incident happened. A natural harbour, the small fishing village of Malacca soon grew into a thriving port.

When the Chinese Admiral Cheng Ho arrived in Malacca in 1407, Parameswara sought to strengthen Malacca's position by establishing ties with China. With support from China, Malacca was able to fend off several attacks from Siam. Another important point in Malacca's history was when Parameswara decided to embrace Islam in order to gain special concessions from other Muslim ports and traders, who were drawn by the ideal of a religious brotherhood and preferred to take their business to their Muslim brothers.

By the middle of the 15th century, Malacca had become one of the most successful and wealthiest ports in the region, dealing in spices. Having carried out its own expansion policies to become an empire in its own right, Malacca had territories throughout the peninsular as well as in Indonesia and the Malay Archipelago. One of its greatest achievements was to establish a court structure that has been used by rulers of the Malay states right up to the 21st century. Its prominent figures are used to name streets in most towns in the country.

By 1511, the winds of exploration were blowing in the west, and it was to spell the end of Malacca as a sovereign state.

Right at the top sits the Sultan, the ruler to whom his subjects swear undivided loyalty in return for just and prosperous rule. The Bendahara can be likened to the role of a Prime Minister in a modern-day government. The most powerful person after the Sultan, the Bendahara was the advisor to the state and was also indispensable in settling disputes among traders. In fact, he was the force behind the throne and was so powerful that it was said the Bendaharas were the greatest threats the Sultan could face.

Next in the hierarchy is the Penghulu Bendahari, the official in charge of treasury. He supervised the four syahbandar, or harbour officials, and the Sultan's domestic staff. The Temenggung, or the equivalent of the police chief, is responsible for upholding law and order. Candidates with the potential of becoming Bendahara usually had to undergo training as a Temenggung.

Malacca had a formidable navy and it was mainly through the efforts of the Laksamana, or navy commander, that Malacca succeeded in its expansion exercises across the seas. Finally, after the four ministers, come the council of nobles who were consulted about new policies.

At the very lowest strata are the common people and they had no say in the decision-making process. But then again, they were the reason for the stability of the sultan's throne. They were ingrained from an early age that a subject should not question his ruler and that the ruler should be given undivided loyalty. No commoner was permitted to use or wear yellow or gold unless it was a gift from the royals.