‘Vasco da Gama’s” Sailed into Indonesian waters in 1509 – Arrival Of Portuguese in Indonesia

oleh
This post focuses on the arrival of the Portuguese

When Portuguese vessels sailed into Indonesian waters in 1509 just 12 years after Vasco da Gama’s pioneering voyage to India, Europeans were not wholly unknown in the archipelago. In fact a stream of European monks, adventures and merchants had passed through Southeast Asian ports from 13th Century onward.

The first Portuguese mission, four ships under the command of Diogo Lopes de Sequeira, ended in failure. Muslim merchants convinced the Sultan of Malacca that the newcomers posed a grave threat and de Sequeira was driven off. The Portuguese returned two years later, however, with more ships and men, and managed to pull off the greatest coup in Southeast Asian history – the capture of Malacca.

In the past, colonial historians have tended to view the arrival Portuguese in Indonesia as a major turning point in Indonesian history – as the beginning of a “modern” period. In fact, the Portuguese brought with them relatively little that was new. This is not to belittle their achievements – they conquered three major Asian entrepots (Goa, Malacca and Hormuz) and established a chain of forty trading settlements within as many years, and then went on to dominate maritime commerce in the Indian Ocean for much of the 16th Century. This was accomplished with fewer than 3,000 fighting men and despite debilitating epidemics, official corruption and a chronic shortage of ships! In Indonesia, however, after their initial successes, the Portuguese simply became one of several competing regional powers.

The conquest of Malacca in 1511 by Portuguese forces of Malacca in 1511 by Portuguese forces under Alfonso de Albuquerque was part of a carefully orchestrated plan to monopolize the trade and undermine Islamic influence in the East. To this End, the Portuguese relied heavily on the sword – partly because they had been charged by the Pope to wage holy war against the infidels, but also because there the tightly knit Muslim trading network. Not that the Portuguese possessed over whelming military or technological superiority – in fact, Portugal was one of the smallest and most backward and Asia were on roughly equal footing at this time. Their only material advantage was a number of large oceangoing carracks fitted with many noisy but inaccurate cannon – the first floating artillery. The Malaccans, though, had firearms too, and vastly superior numbers. So it was Portuguese determination that decided the contest for Malacca; with only 1,200 men and 17 and 18 ships, de Albuquerque successfully stormed the largest and most prosperous trading port in Asia.

Though the Portuguese in Indonesia remained in control of Malacca until 1641, and also established numerous trading settlements in the Spice Islands of Maluku and in the lesser Sunda islands, they came under almost continual attack and were never able to obtain the desired monopoly in spices. Much of the spice trade passed through rival Muslim ports: Aceh, Johor, Banten, Demak, Jepara, Surabaya and Makassar. Malacca continued to prosper after 1511, but as a fortified waysstation for Portuguese shipping rather than a gathering point for international traders. And with time, the Portuguese themselves slowly became more settled and less aggressive, until finally all their possessions except for one were overtaken by the Dutch and the English in the 17th Century. The single exception was Portuguese Timor, which like Macao remained a colony of Portugal into this century.

The Portuguese legacy in Indonesia is therefore largely cultural rather than political or economic. Mixed Portuguese Indonesian and Portuguese-Indian descendants of the original settlers formed separated communities in many coastal towns of Indonesia, and for two centuries or more, a creole form of Portuguese was lingua franca of the archipelago. Many words of Portuguese origin found their way into Malay/Indonesian, such as sepatu (shoe), pesta (party), sabun (soap), meja (table) and Minggu (Sunday).

Of even greater import was the conversion of roughly 20,000 Indonesians to Catholicism during the 16th Century. Though these converts at first lived only in the shadow of Portuguese garrisons and many later switched to Protestantism under Dutch rule, the existence today of large Christian communities in Ambon, Flores and Timor may be traced to the efforts of a handful of early Portuguese missionaries. Foremost among them was Saint Francis Xavier (1506-52), a co-founderwith Saint Ignatius Loyola of the Jesuit order. He visited Ambon in 1546-7, and though disgusted by rapaciousness of Portuguese officials there, helped lay the fondations for what is today the largest Christian community in Indonesia.

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