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The Dutch fight for Melaka

The Portuguese had been harassing Malay kingdoms, notably Johor and Aceh, ever since they entrenched themselves in Malacca (Melaka) in 1511. The fall of the Malacca Sultanate marked the end of the golden age of Malay power based on flourishing commerce between China and Europe. The Portuguese had built a fortified city or famosa there.

The Dutch East Indies Company, which had been scurrying across the Indonesian archipelago looking for a base for its operation since the establishment of the company in 1602 found an ally with Sultan Alauddin Riayat Syah of Johor. The Dutch were sworn enemies of the Portuguese and there was common ground for an alliance between the Malay rulers and the Dutch to oust the Portuguese and win back Malacca.

The third fleet of the VOC - Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie (Dutch East Indies Company) to visit the archipelago, commanded by Cornelis Matelief de Jonge, set sail from Holland on May 12, 1605 and arrived in Malacca in April 1606. The sailors had been told they were on a trading mission as Admiral Cornelis Matelief had been ordered to keep secret of the fleet's true purpose. The fleet consisted of 11 ships: Oranje, Nassau, Middelburg, Witte Leeuw, Zwarte Leeuw, Mauritus, Grote Zon, Amsterdam, Kleine Zon, Erasmus and Geuniveerde Provincien.

Matelief de Jonge immediately set about making a formal pact with the ruler of Johor, which was concluded in May 1606. Copies of this treaty have not survived but its contents are known. The Dutch undertook to expel the Portuguese from Malacca; in return, Sultan Alauddin would allow the Dutch to keep Malacca and conduct trade in Johor. Interestingly enough, both parties agreed to respect each other's religions, a condition seemingly very important for the Malays who had endured the Portuguese intolerance of Islam and Muslim traders.

Malacca's fame as a fabulous centre of Asian wares was a great lure for the Dutch, who at once began making plans to attack the city. So the scene was set for one of the great sea battles in the archipelago, which ended with defeat for the new ally of Johor following the spectacular explosion on the Dutch ship Nassau.

 The Portuguese had turned Malacca into a formidable fort, thus making a land attack difficult; they had also set up heavy guns on the hilltop overlooking the harbour to attack approaching enemy ships. As he came near Malacca harbour, Matelief de Jonge captured some ships to procure badly-needed provisions for his men, then settled down to a long siege of the city to starve it into surrender. The siege indeed made life rather difficult for people in the city and surrender seemed only a matter of time.

It was at this stage that a Portuguese fleet led by Don Martin d'Alphonso de Castro, the Viceroy of Goa, appeared on the scene with a contigent of almost 20 Portuguese ships with over 200 men on Aug 14, 1606. The two fleets exchanged cannon fire and the Portuguese fleet moved towards Cape Rachado (now Tanjung Tuan, Negri Sembilan) on Aug 16.

The battle began in earnest the following day and ships engaged each other in a bloody fight; they began with heavy cannon fire to weaken the enemy and then boarded the ship for hand-to-hand fighting. Unfortunately for the Dutch, the Nassau was caught at anchor slightly away from the main fleet and was boarded by men from the Portuguese ship Santa Cruz; Matelief de Jonge's ship, the Oranje, went to the rescue of the Nassau only to collide with another Dutch ship, the Middelburg. The Portuguese attacked these two ships, using the Sao Salvador and one identified only as Don Duarte de Guerra's galleon. The Oranje eventually broke free, but the other three vessels caught fire and sank.

Matelief de Jonge managed to disentangle his ship and engaged an enemy ship, almost catching it but losing it in the end, thanks in part to the disorderly conduct of his sailors.

Then the Portuguese on board the ships Santa Cruz and Conceicao attacked the Nassau and set her on fire. The Dutch ships Mauritus and Zwarte Leeluw could not dislodge Conceicao and there was an explosion in Nassau's stern; the ship burnt fiercely before sinking.

It probably was a spectacular and frightening experience for the Malays who were observing the battle from shore. Even a relatively crude contemporary illustration of the battle sends shivers down the spine. Form the evidence unearthed, the event points to a fiece battle to the bitter end. Some cannons had obviously fied so many rounds that their heads had been blown off or had simply melted away. Most cannons then had lives of about 5,000 rounds.

There was a lull in the battle over the next few days and, realising his great losses and insufficient manpower, Matelief de Jonge decided to abandon the fight. The sea battle had caused heavy losses to both parties. The Dutch lost 150 men and had many more wounded while the Portuguese lost as many as 500 men. On August 19, 1606, the Dutch Admiral Matelief had requested had requested permission from the Johor Sultan for the fleet to retreat into the Johot River to make more ammunition. The Nassau was virtually depleted of its supply of ammunition, again pointing to the fieceness and exhaustiveness of its final battle.

The sea battle lifted the Dutch siege of Malacca, to the great relief of its people. Little did they realise, though, that this had merely been a foretaste of what was to come in a little over three decades after the innitial skirmish.

The first Dutch attack on Malacca failed for several reasons. The wind was against the Dutch ships, making it difficult to attack the enemy without getting entangled in close fighting for which the sailors were not well trained. The Dutch also failed to gain a firm footing on land outside Malacca and had insufficient manpower to mount a frontal attack on a city weakened by starvation. Had the Sultan of Johor helped the Dutch with his men and other resources, the outcome of this attack would have been different.

 The ruler of Johor was perhaps unsure of his new allies and of their ability to remove his nemesis. The cost of his hesitation was great, for Johor had to endure great hardship not only at the hands of the enraged Portuguese but also from the formidable ruler of Aceh, Iskandar Muda, for the next three decades.

Johor realised its mistake, fortunately, and was ready to re-build the friendship of the Dutch when they came back and committed greater resources to end Portuguese rule in the Straits. The ruler of Johor joined forces with the Dutch as well as Aceh to remove their common enemy. This enterprise brought a happy outcome and ended Portuguese control of the Straits in 1641.

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