Saturday, August 23, 2014

Dutch Square

The Straits of Malacca are the narrow channel the separates the Malaysian peninsula and the large Indonesian island of Sumatra, and are the quickest way to travel between India, Burma, Thailand, Europe, and Africa on the west and China, Indonesia, and the rest of  Asia to the east.  What became the city of Malacca (Melaka in Malaysian) began as a fishing village inhabited by local Malay people in the 1300s.  According to wikipedia, there is a legend behind its rise to importance: the last Raja of Singapura (guess what that became) looked north after an attack on Singapura in 1377.  Around 1400, he came upon Malacca, which he realized was a good port, accessible in all seasons and in a strategic location at the narrowest oint of the straits.  In local legend, the Raja, Parameswara, was resting under a tree near the river while hunting.  One of his hunting dogs cornered a mouse deer (look it up, they're adorable), which in an unusally courageous move for a deer, defended itself by knocking the interfering dog into the river.  After observing this parable of the weak overcoming the powerful, the Raja decided to build a new empire at that spot, and called it Melaka after the Melaka tree he had been sitting under for the event.

Over the next hundred years, the Malays built the area into a prosperous international port, building warehouses and trading businesses to service the passing merchant ships.  According to local lore, the Sultan of Melacca even married Hang Li Po, the daughter of one of the Ming dynasty Chinese emperors, to build relations with China.

The 1500s, however, brought in merchants from even farther away as Europeans developed a taste for the spices and other new delights from Asia.  In 1511, Alfonso de Albuquerque of Portugal sailed in with seventeen ships and twelve hundred men and seized the city.  Unfortunately for them, the city did not prosper as well under their management; they didn't have the clout with other states necessary in Asia, among other things.  In 1641, the Dutch defeated the Portuguese and took over the city.  However, they already had their center of commerce in Asia, Batavia (now Jakarta) on the Indonesian island of Java, and never treated Malacca as a major interest.  They did build several churches and buildings which are now the core of the historic district, though.  The port city traded hands yet again in 1824, when the Dutch traded it for Bencoolen on Sumatra from the British.  The British then ruled the area until 1946 as part of the Straits Settlements, along with Singapore and Penang.  And now, of course, the city and the surrounding area are one of the states of independent Malaysia.

As an international port, Malacca has always had merchant settlers from many different places as part of its population, the largest being Chinese.  The architecture and culture of the city is a mix of local Malay, Chinese, the colonizers from Portugal, the Netherlands, and Britain, and various others.  The central square of the historic center is Dutch in flavor.  The bright red buildings are in all the postcards--Christchurch, the Studhuys, and the clock tower.

Christ Church was started in 1741, as the Dutch commemorated one hundred years in Melacca, although it took twelve years to build and wasn't finished until 1753.  It took so long to build because it contains handcarved pews, a frieze of the Last Supper, bricks shipped in from Zeeland in the Netherlands, and wooden ceiling beams each carved from a single tree.  It is the oldest Protestant church in all of Malaysia; it began as a Dutch Reformed church, although during the British years it became Anglican.  Next to the church is the equally bright red Stadthuys ('"town hall" in Dutch), built years earlier in 1660, making it one of the oldest Dutch buildings in the east, and modeled after the town hall of Hoorn in the Netherlands.  Nowadays it houses a museum, but it was closed for restoration while I was there.  Also in the square is the yet again bright red Tang Beng Swee Clock Tower, which was built to look Dutch to match the surroundings, but was built by the British in 1886.


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