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Before the arrival of the first Sultan, Melaka was a simple fishing village inhabited by local Malays. Melaka was founded by Parameswara, also called Iskandar Shah or Sri Majara, the last Raja of Singapura (now known as Singapore) following a Majapahit attack in 1377. Parameswara found his way to Melaka in 1400 where he found a port, accessible in all seasons and on the strategically located narrowest point of the Melaka Strait. This later became Melaka.

There are some interesting legends surrounding the foundation and naming of Melaka. According to the 16th century Malay Annals, the city was founded by Parameswara. Some believe it more likely that he was a Hindu prince and political fugitive from nearby Java. The legend goes that Parameswara was out on a hunt in the region and had stopped to refresh himself near what is now the Melaka River. Standing near a melaka (Indian gooseberry) tree he was surprised to witness one of his hunting dogs so startled by a mouse deer that it fell into the river. Parameswara took this as a propitious sign of the weak overcoming the powerful and decided to build the capital of his new kingdom where he stood, naming it for the tree under which he had been resting. Another account says Melaka is derived from the Arabic word Malakat, meaning market. Melaka had a navigable harbor sheltered by nearby Sumatra across the narrow straits. The location was supplied with an ample quantity of fresh water, enjoyed a prime location relative to the shifting monsoon winds, and had a central location in regional trade patterns, all of which soon made it a prosperous trading town. Its fortunes increased with its official adoption of Islam in the 14th century. The Sultans of Melaka were soon attracting Arab traders from far afield. However, Melaka continued to trade with merchants of all races and religions.

After the visit of the Chinese Muslim Admiral Cheng Ho in the mid-15th century, contact between China and Melaka intensified. In exchange for protection against Siam, Melaka became a vassal state to Ming China. To ensure Melaka’s safety, a new and powerful kingdom was founded by the Sultan of Samudra-Pasai.

The power of the Malays began to rise through the 15th century. In the Malay Annals,the sultan Mansur Shah was mentioned as having 6 wives and the fifth was stated to be a daughter of the Ming Emperor. However, in the Chinese chronicles, no such event was recorded.

Things started to change with the arrival of the Portuguese in 1509. They were at first welcomed, but Indian traders soon turned the sultan against the Portuguese and they had to flee. In 1511 the Portuguese returned, and at their second attempt seized the city. This marked the start of the formation of a large Eurasian community. The Portuguese turned the city into a massive walled fortress complete with a tower bristling with cannon. It was believed that such fortifications could withstand the encroachments of other European powers eager for a slice of the Asian luxury goods trade.

An alliance between the Dutch and the Sultanate of Johor Bahru saw the loss much of Melaka’s power. In 1641 the Dutch navy put a blockade on Melaka and they seized the city after six months. During the siege much of the Portuguese city was destroyed.

Only after 150 years did the Dutch lose their hold on Melaka. In 1795 The Netherlands was conquered by the French, and the British were keen to take over the Dutch holdings in Melaka. By that time, Melaka had lost most of its former importance although it remained an important part of Asian trade routes.

The A Famosa gate is all that remains of the old Portuguese and Dutch forts. As the Napoleonic Wars wound down the British knew Melaka would be returned to Dutch control. In order to make the city indefensible the city walls were blown down. A last minute intervention by a British officer, the young Sir Stamford Raffles (founder of British Singapore) saved the gate. Shortly after its return to Dutch rule, the Dutch and British governments swapped colonies – British Bencoolen in Sumatra for Dutch Melaka.

Melaka is a center of Peranakan culture. When Chinese settlers originally came to Melaka as miners, traders and coolies, they took local brides (of Javanese, Batak, Achenese, etc descent) and adopted many local customs. The result of this is an interesting fusion of local and Chinese cultures. The men are addressed as Babas and the women Nyonyas by their servants meaning Master and Mistress.

A small group of Eurasians of Portuguese descent continue to speak their unique creole, known as Cristão or Kristang.

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