Flor De la Mar’s Colourful History

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In Melaka, on the quayside near the mouth of the Malacca River, stands a replica of a Portuguese galleon, or carrack, called the Flor de la Mar which sailed in these waters in the early 1500s.

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Afonso de Albuquerque

This vessel, which is often (mis?)spelt Frol de la Mar, was the flagship for the Portuguese fleet in the Indian Ocean under command of the famous conqueror Afonso de Albuquerque.

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Flor de la Mar was built in 1502 in Lisbon. Weighing in at 400 tons, with a length of 120 feet and a height of 110 feet she was the largest vessel of its kind at the time. She was armed with 40 cannons distributed over three decks with a high stern and forecastle from which the crew could rain down fire on her enemies but this top-heavy design also made for poor stability when fully laden.

Her maiden voyage to the Indian Ocean departed Lisbon in 1502 under command of Esterão da Gama, a cousin of the explorer Vasco da Gama, returning to Portugal in 1503. The next voyage left Lisbon in 1505 under the captaincy of João da Nova. On her way back she sprang a leak and had to spend the winter in Mozambique before being commandeered by Afonso de Albuquerque for further missions in the Indian Ocean. She never saw Portugal again.

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Al Jalali Fort, Muscat

Flor de la Mar plundered her way around the Indian Ocean taking part in various bloody sieges and brutal raids against unsuspecting towns and ports in Arabia and India. She took part in the conquest of Socatra (now part of Yemen), Kuryat (Quriyat), Muscat, Corfacão (Khorfakkan), Quelba (Kalba), Sohar (all in modern day Oman and UAE), Ormuz (Hormuz, Iran) and Diu, Calicut and Goa (India).

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Hormuz Fort 

By 1505 King Manuel of Portugal’s attention had turned towards Malacca. When Vasco da Gama returned from his first voyage round the Cape of Good Hope as far as Calicut he brought back tales of a fantastically wealthy distant city called Malacca where all the goods of Asia were traded – pearls from Arabia, porcelain from China, cloth from India and nutmeg, cloves and pepper from the Spice Islands. It was the most cosmopolitan city in the world where over eighty languages were heard, according to the account of Portuguese apothecary and traveller Tomé Pires. With over 100,000 inhabitants, Malacca was larger than Lisbon at the time and almost as big as Venice, and it was ruled over by a Muslim Sultan.

Plan of the Portuguese Fortress in 1512

Pires wrote in his book Suma Oriental in 1515  ‘whoever is Lord of Malacca has his hand on the throat of Venice’ meaning that Malacca was the source of Venice’s spice monopoly wealth.

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Tomé Pires

Albuquerque was determined to throttle Venice by seizing or at least gaining access to Malacca’s lucrative spice trade. Although he only had a small force of 700 Portuguese and 300 Indian soldiers he set about defeating the Sultan’s army with his usual ruthless efficiency and Malacca was conquered in 1511.

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Battle of Diu

The city was plundered and Albuquerque, leaving a small force behind, set off with his loot for India aboard the Flor de la Mar accompanied by two other vessels the Trinidade and the Emxobregas. Some accounts, possibly exaggerated, say he had 60 tons of gold and 200 chests of precious gems with him intended as gifts for the Portuguese king and queen as well as a jewel encrusted table, a pair of bronze lions and a rare map drawn by a Javanese showing the routes to China and other lands.

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Replica of the old Sultan’s Palace in Malacca.

 

His crew were reluctant to sail on the Flor de la Mar which by now was nine years old and barely seaworthy. Normally the ships on the India run could only survive four years or so before shipworms, nicknamed termites of the sea, caused irreparable damage to their unprotected wooden hulls. Also the vibrations caused by continual cannon fire had caused the Flor’s timbers to shake apart and the ship leaked badly and required constant pumping. 

When  stormy weather struck off the coast of north Sumatra, Flor de la Mar anchored in four fathoms of water to ride out the storm. Heavy seas pushed her onto a reef where she ran aground and broke into two with only the superstructure visible above the waves. Albuquerque and a few other survivors managed to escape the wreck and they were taken aboard the Trinidade. Many of his crew and a number of slaves were not so lucky and were lost along with the treasure.

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The Malacca Museums Corporation seems in no doubt that Flor de la Mar’s sinking was an act of divine retribution for the misdeeds of the Portuguese conquerors.

The Trinidade was overcrowded and they were desperately short of food and water.  Some captives were thrown overboard in their sleep to reduce the number of mouths to feed but the ship eventually made it back to Goa.

Numerous wreck divers and salvage companies have tried to find the location of the Flor de la Mar wreck in the hope of recovering some of the lost treasures but seemingly so far without success. With the ship sinking in shallow waters close to the shore you would have thought something would have been found by now.

Had this happened in our modern age of conspiracy theories and fake news people might have speculated that Albuquerque deliberately sank the ship and kept the loot concealed for himself rather than handing it over to the king. He wouldn’t be the last Portuguese colonial governor to enrich himself corruptly before proceeding on retirement. But that would be a terrible slur to make against a Portuguese national hero! Even if he did succeed in keeping some of the plunder for himself he would not have lived long to enjoy it as he died in Goa in 1515.

Malaysian Road Traffic Signs

Road traffic signs in Malaysia generally follow the international standards used in Europe, but there are a few which have been tailored for local conditions. This one is my favourite:

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It informs users of this busy urban dual carriageway that bullock carts, trishaws, pedal-powered food carts and bicycles are not permitted.

The chances of seeing a bullock cart these days are rare. I recall seeing some in Malacca about 25 years ago. They were used to ferry tourists around the padang. They’ve gone now. This may be the only bullock cart left in Malacca:

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Trishaws have all but disappeared too as a means of transport. There are a few in the main tourist area of Melaka for selfie purposes. This working trishaw was spotted in Penang a few years back:

Trishaw-Penang Food carts are still around but they too are under threat as urban councils tighten up on hygiene laws and parking spaces. I snapped this photo in Muar some time ago (probably would cost a lot more than RM 3 today):

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It’s a shame to see these icons of traditional culture disappearing from modern Malaysia, to be replaced by sanitised shopping malls, food trucks and Uber cars. All that’s left is the road sign as a reminder of what has been lost.

Enrique, Magellan & Lapu Lapu

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While in Cebu recently I took the opportunity to visit the Mactan Shrine, the spot where the explorer Ferdinand Magellan was killed in 1521 during a skirmish with the local chieftain, Lapu Lapu.

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There are two monuments at this site.  The oldest is the Magellan Monument which was erected by the Spaniards in 1866 to commemorate their hero.

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The newer one, erected after the Philippines achieved independence, is a bronze statue of Lapu Lapu, who is regarded as a national hero for resisting Spanish aggression.

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Lapu Lapu may have won the battle but he lost the war because the Spanish were soon back in force heralding over 300 years of Spanish colonisation and spreading Christianity to much of the archipelago.

Ferdinand-Magellan

Ferdinand Magellan (or Fernao de Magalhaes in his native Portuguese) is often thought of as the first person to sail around the world and he was leading that circumnavigation expedition at the time of  his death. He had earlier made another journey eastwards as far as Sabah, Borneo so it could be argued that he had been around the world, apart from the relatively small gap between Cebu and Borneo.

However another person can be credited with being the first to achieve a full circumnavigation and that was Magellan’s servant/slave and interpreter, known as Enrique.

According to Antonio Pigafetta, who chronicled Magellan’s voyage, Enrique was a Malay slave, originally from Sumatra, who was acquired by Magellan during the conquest of Malacca in 1511. Perhaps he was one of the slaves from the Sultan of Melaka’s household. Magellan had him baptised with the name Enrique and he was taken back to Portugal and accompanied Magellan on all his subsequent trips and took part in the Mactan battle where Magellan met his fate.

Three days after Magellan’s death, Enrique went ashore as interpreter with a party of Spaniards to meet another chieftain but they were attacked and only one survivor made it back to ship, witnessing that all were killed except the interpreter. Some have claimed that Enrique helped plan this attack as he was bitter that the Spaniards were not going to grant him his liberty as Magellan had intended and specified in his will. It is not known what happened to Enrique after the attack but, if he did survive, it is quite possible that he made it back to Malacca, or even Sumatra, thus completing his circumnavigation, and that this took place long before Magellan’s surviving crew made it back to Spain.

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I have a light-hearted children’s book at home called First Around the Globe – The Story of Enrique, which claims that Enrique was in fact a Filipino from Cebu and that the reason he was found by Magellan in Malacca was because he was kidnapped by a band of pirates while out fishing. They took him to Jolo where he was sold to the slave trade in Malacca. The authors argue that Enrique could speak Cebuano which is how he was able to interpret for Magellan when he reached Cebu. Filipinos add that it is appropriate that the first person to have been around the world should have been Filipino because modern day balikbayan are such great travellers. 

Malaysians and Indonesians however would argue that Enrique was a Malay from Sumatra as evidenced by Pigafetta and he was able to communicate with the Cebu chiefs because Malay was the lingua franca among the ruling classes in the Visayas at that time. And Malays are famed for their seamanship skills.

Well, I don’t think I want to take sides in that argument but the possibility that this former Malaccan slave might have been the first person ever to sail around the world is certainly intriguing but I guess we will never know for sure.

In Search of Wallace – Gading & Ayer Panas

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A few months ago I was reading The Malay Archipelago by famous British naturalist, Alfred Russel Wallace. This work chronicles his eight years spent criss-crossing modern day Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia and Papua New Guinea from 1852 – 1862 while collecting some 125,000 specimens of natural history, mainly birds, butterflies, moths, beetles and other insects but also mammals and reptiles. He financed his trip by selling specimens to museums and private collectors in an age when there was a strong demand for dried bugs and skinned birds and primates.

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His book not only records his scientific research and collecting work but is also a descriptive travelogue through one of the world’s most attractive regions, including a number of spectacular and remote islands and beaches.

Malay-Archipelago-Map

To give a theme to some of my travels this year I thought it would be fun to journey to a few of the more accessible places mentioned in his book, particularly as some of them, such as Sulawesi, have long been on my ‘must visit’ list.

Gading

To start off, I tried to retrace Wallace’s steps in Malacca, the only place on the Malay Peninsular that gets a mention in his book. This is how he described his first foray into the interior of Malacca State in 1854:

“ I engaged two Portuguese to accompany me into the interior; one as a cook, the other to shoot and skin birds, which is quite a trade in Malacca. I stayed a fortnight at a village called Gading, where I was accommodated in the house of some Christian converts, to whom I was recommended by the Jesuit missionaries. The house was a mere shed, but it was kept clean, and I made myself sufficiently comfortable. My hosts were forming a pepper and gambir plantation, and in the immediate neighbourhood were extensive tin-washings, employing over a thousand Chinese.”

My search ran into an immediate snag as there no longer appears to be a village called Gading though a Google search threw up a St. Martin De Porres Chapel, Gading with an address on Jalan Simpang Gading near Durian Tinggal. This may in the right vicinity as there are a number of former tin mining lakes nearby.

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I visited the small chapel where a friendly volunteer called Gregory was putting up decorations for Chinese New Year. He described himself as ‘Straits born,’ meaning mixed Peranakan race.

Of course it is impossible to find a ‘mere shed’ from 162 years ago  but it might have looked something like this place, located at Kesang Pajak, a few kilometres from the chapel:

Wallace describes how he was at once introduced to the rich ornithological treasures of Gading:

“ The very first time I fired my gun I brought down one of the most curious and beautiful of the Malacca birds, the blue-billed gaper (Cymbirhynchus macrorhynchus), called by the Malays the Rainbird.”

Rainbird
Source: Malayan Paradise Blogspot

A shame to kill such a lovely bird but, as already mentioned, that was how he made his living and it would have been the only way to study the bird up close. During his fortnight at Gading his hunter also shot a green gaper, woodpeckers, kingfishers, green and brown cuckoos, red-breasted doves and metallic honeysuckers.

Unfortunately I did not spot any exciting birdlife during my brief visit to Gading.

Ayer Panas

After recovering from a bout of malaria Wallace next went to stay at the Government bungalow at Ayer Panas as described in this excerpt:

“At Ayer-panas we had a comfortable house to stay in and plenty of room to dry and preserve our specimens. I was one afternoon walking along a favourite road through the forest when I saw a butterfly on the ground. It was large, handsome and quite new to me and I got close to it before it flew away. I then observed that it had been settling on the dung of some carnivorous animal. Thinking that it might return to the same spot, I next day took my net, and as I approached the place was delighted to see the same butterfly sitting on the same piece of dung, and succeeded in capturing it. It was an entirely new species of great beauty, and has been named by Mr. Hewitson – Nymphalis calydona. I never saw another specimen of it, and it was only after twelve years had elapsed that a second individual reached this country from the north-western part of Borneo.”

nymphalis calydonia

Kampung Ayer Panas still exists and is where Jasin Hot Spring is located. I could find no trace or record of the Government resthouse bungalow. In 1854 it would likely have been a rudimentary wooden construction and was probably eaten by termites long ago.

Most of the ‘forest’ mentioned by Wallace has now been turned over to oil palm plantations so the chances of finding his rare butterfly there today are, I would imagine, slim. I did see a beautiful blue kingfisher amidst the oil palms.

Next Instalment: Mt. Ophir.

Museu do Oriente, Lisbon

While in Lisbon recently I wanted to visit the Museu do Oriente, a museum dedicated to the Portuguese presence in Asia. Portugal’s principal possessions in Asia comprised Goa, Malacca, East Timor and Macau together with a trading post in Nagasaki, all places which are relevant to the theme of this blog.

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The museum, together with its parent organisation the Fundação Oriente, is housed in a former dock-side warehouse which used to belong to the Comissão Reguladora do Comércio de Bacalhau (commission for regulating the trade of cod).

The museum’s permanent exhibitions cover two floors, the lower floor containing the items relating to the Portuguese colonial period in Asia and the upper floor housing the Kwok On Collection of over 13,000 pieces connected with performing arts in Asia.

The Macau section covers the most floorspace which is not surprising since Portugal controlled the territory for nearly 450 years.

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This handsome lacquer screen portrays some of the major landmarks of Macau including St. Paul’s Church (of which only the facade still remains), Mount Fortress and A-Ma Temple.

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Some works by the English painter George Chinnery (1774 – 1852), who lived in Macau from 1825 until his death, are featured in the museum.

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Another lacquer screen from the 17th Century shows a Portuguese trading carrack in the process of disembarking its cargo in China to trade with the Chinese.

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One of the world’s thinnest books must be this atlas of Portuguese possessions in southern China by Albino Ribas da Silva (1868-1934). It consists of just 8 pages, all of Macau.

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This European style bureau or writing desk has been decorated with a black and gold lacquer illustration of the Praia Grande, Macau’s seafront promenade.

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Over in the Japanese section is a fine collection of inro, beautifully crafted wooden boxes used for carrying small items (since Japanese men did not have pockets in their traditional robes).

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Portuguese traders and missionaries were tolerated in Nagasaki for 50 years or so until Tokugawa Ieyasu took power and expelled the foreigners in 1614. Portugal is credited with introducing tempura, firearms and Christianity to Japan among other things.

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This Japanese screen shows a Portuguese delegation with its leader sheltered by the yellow umbrella.

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East Timor was a Portuguese colony until 1975 when it became part of Indonesia. It broke away from Indonesia and gained independence in 2002. Timur is Malay for east so the country’s name means east-east which is a bit odd, like Gili Islands in Lombok which means island-islands. According to the museum, Timur was so-named because it was the most easterly island in the Sunda archipelago searched by Malays, Indians, Arabs and Chinese in their search for white sandalwood which grew in abundance in the area.

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The Indian section contains some attractive pieces such as this inlaid cabinet and desk.

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This is a scale model of the Church of Santana in Talaulim, Goa. The church, which still stands, was built between 1681 and 1695 and marks a turning point in Luso-Indian architecture.

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The town of Malacca hardly gets a mention in the museum which is disappointing. However Malaysia does feature in the performing arts section with Wayang Siam shadow theatre puppets on display. Wayang Siam exists in Kelantan and is heavily influenced by Thai and Javanese shadow theatre traditions.

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This lovely MG car is not part of the museum but was parked outside. If you want to find out more about the museum you can visit their official website. 

Sniffing Glue and Cow Dung

There was a strange item in the news today.

It was reported in The Star that an increasing number of youths in Malacca are becoming addicted to sniffing glue and cow dung.

Malacca Deputy CID Chief Supt P.R. ­Gunarajan said the addicts would pour glue onto a piece of cloth which they would then roll up and sniff, or pour the substance into a bag. The smell of glue, he said, distorted his senses and led to hallucination. He added that glue was easily available in Malacca for less than RM2, and that a can could be shared among several addicts.

As for the cow dung, he said the addicts would collect the faeces in plastic bags and inhale the contents until the effect kicked in.

Of course I have heard of sniffing glue before but cow dung is a new one on me. Perhaps it’s the methane content?

No wonder farmers in England always look so happy. I assumed it was the cider when in fact they have just been inhaling the ripe country air.

Malaysia Traveller

Here are recent new additions to my website Malaysia Traveller which you might have missed:

PulauBesarTile202 Pulau Besar – Mystical Island Near Melaka

Pulau Besar is part beach resort and part Islamic pilgrimage site. There are also legends of elves, goblins and strange rocks. Worth a visit.

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Chitty Village

The Chitty Village is home to a unique hybrid community of Hindu Peranakans, descendants from Tamil traders who settled in Melaka over 500 years ago.

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Melaka Zoo & Night Safari

Melaka Zoo is one of the better zoos in Malaysia. Read my review here and see entrance fee, opening hours and directions.

AFamosaWaterWorldLazyRiver

A’Famosa Water Park

A’Famosa Water World probably has the most thrilling water theme park slides in Malaysia. Read my review here.

PuteriHarbourThemeParkHelloKitty

Puteri Harbour Family Theme Park

Younger kids will enjoy Sanrio Hello Kitty Town and The Little Big Club located at Puteri Harbour Theme Park in Johor. Read details here.

LegolandMalaysiaApprenticeLegoland Malaysia

Legoland Malaysia is a new, world-class family theme park in Johor. Read my review of the attractions here.

My recent blog about the smoking orangutans at Melaka Zoo attracted the attention of the Friends of the Orangutans, a Malaysian organization trying to end cruelty to orangutans. You can read about their work here: