17th century Singapore Straits

The Singapore Straits is among the most geographically strategic sites in the maritime world. Ships sailing between the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean had to, and still have to, sail around the southern coast of Singapore.1 Over the centuries, control over the Singapore Straits was thus viewed as essential for the continued prosperity of the various maritime trading powers.2 In the early 17th century, the Singapore Straits was the setting for numerous confrontations between the established Portuguese power and the rising Dutch power. The Portuguese had been in the region since the beginning of the 16th century, having taken control of the sultanate of Melaka in 1511 as well as acquiring Macao, a small foothold off mainland China, in 1557.3 In the 17th century, the Dutch were a rising maritime trading power out to displace the Portuguese in the region.4

The Dutch East India Company (VOC)
In 1602, the Dutch formed the Dutch East India Company, also known as Verenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie (VOC), by merging six regional Dutch trading firms.5 The aim was to strengthen the Dutch so that they could better wage war against the Portuguese and Spanish and weaken the hold of the two countries in the region.6

In 1603, one pivotal event that increased Dutch efforts to wrest power from the Portuguese was the Santa Catarina incident. The Santa Catarina was a Portuguese merchant ship that was sailing from Macao towards Melaka and Goa, another Portuguese enclave, when the Dutch attacked it in the waters of the Singapore Straits on 25 February 1603. The ship was laden with riches which amounted to half the paid-in capital of the VOC.7 The Santa Catarina incident made the Dutch see how profitable looting was. It also created an awareness that the Singapore Straits was a weak point in maritime security.8

Admiral Cornelis Matelieff de Jonge and Syahbandar Seri Raja Negara
In 1606, a year after setting sail from the Netherlands, Admiral Cornelis Matelieff de Jonge arrived in the Melaka Straits.9 His aim was to seize Melaka from the Portuguese.10 On 5 May 1606, Seri Raja Negara, the syahbandar (also spelled as shabandar) of Singapore “arrived in Malacca [variant spelling of Melaka] Harbour”11 in two prahus (a type of sailing boat) to meet Matelieff de Jonge.12

In the 16th and 17th centuries, a syahbandar was a crucial official in a Malay court. Derived from Persian, syahbandar is translated to mean “lord of the harbour”. His role was to collect duties from foreign merchants entering the port. He had authority over most issues pertaining to foreign trade in the harbour such as warehousing.13

The syahbandar also played an important role as a mediator in negotiations between foreign merchants and the raja or sultan.14 Seri Raja Negara had been sent as a representative of Raja Bongsu, the king of Johor, to see if there were Dutch vessels in Portuguese-controlled Melaka. At the meeting with Matelieff de Jonge, Seri Raja Negara informed him that they would convey the news of the Dutch arrival to Raja Bongsu who would meet with the Dutch delegation immediately.15 Seri Raja Negara had also apparently discussed the co-ordination of an attack on Portuguese-controlled Melaka16 before leaving with his delegation that very night.17

Dutch-Johor agreement of 1606
On 17 May 1606, Raja Bongsu, accompanied by 3,000 men and 50 galleys met Matelieff de Jonge.18 A treaty, known as the Dutch-Johor agreement of 1606, was signed. Matelieff de Jonge promised the king to take Melaka and free it from the Portuguese. The treaty was unplanned and focused mainly on how to distribute the spoils of Melaka if the Portuguese were defeated.19 A subsequent treaty was signed in September of the same year to turn the earlier agreement into a more binding one.20

The course of events in 1606 is relevant to understanding Singapore’s significance in the early 17th century. First, the numerous confrontations that occurred and that were planned in the waters around Singapore, leads to suggestions that Singapore has always been important, not because of its land, but because its waterways are positioned so strategically.21 That there was a syahbandar in Singapore in 1603 indicates that foreign trade took place in Singapore during the early 17th century.22

1. Kwa Chong Guan, Derek Heng and Tan Tai Yong, Singapore, a 700-Year History: From Early Emporium to World City (Singapore: National Archives of Singapore, 2009), 64–65. (Call no. RSING 959.5703 KWA-[HIS])
2. Kwa, Heng and Tan, Singapore, a 700-Year History, 64–65.
3. Michael Parks, “Macao: The Forgotten Encave Awakes,” Singapore Monitor, 21 May 1984, 13; “The Seige and Capture of Malacca,” Straits Times, 10 March 1936, 10. (From NewspaperSG)
4. Peter Borschberg, “Portuguese, Spanish and Dutch Plans to Construct a Fort in the Straits of Singapore, ca 1584–1625,” Archipel no. 65 (2003), 57–61. (Call no. RSING 959.005 A)
5. Peter Borschberg, Singapore and the Melaka Straits: Violence, Security and Diplomacy in the 17th Century (Singapore: NUS Press, 2010), 1. (Call no. RSING 911.16472 BOR)
6. Borschberg, Singapore and the Melaka Straits, 65.
7. Borschberg, Singapore and the Melaka Straits, 68.
8. Borschberg, Singapore and the Melaka Straits, 70.
9. Peter Borschberg, Hugo Grotius, the Portuguese and Free Trade in the East Indies (Singapore: NUS Press, 2011), 207. (Call no. RSEA 341 BOR)
10. Dennis De Witt, History of the Dutch in Malaysia (Selangor: Nutmeg Publishing, 2007), 46. (Call no. RSEA 959.5004393 DEW)
11. R. O. Winstedt, A History of Johore, 1365–1895 (Kuala Lumpur: Printed for the Malaysian Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society by Academe Art & Printing Services Sdn. Bhd, 1992), 31. (Call no. RSING 959.511903 WIN)
12. C. A. Gibson-Hill, “Singapore Old Strait & New Harbour, 1300–1870,” Memoirs of the Raffles Museum no. 3 (December 1956), 20. (Call no. RCLOS 959.51 BOG)
13. Malcolm H. Murfett et al., Between Two Oceans: A Military History of Singapore from 1275–1971 (Singapore: Marshall Cavendish Editions, 2011), 32. (Call no. RSING 355. 0095957 BET)
14. Murfett, Between Two Oceans, 32.
15. D. F. A. Hervey, “Valentyn’s Account of Malacca,” Journal of the Straits Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society no. 15 (June 1885): 134 (From JSTOR via NLB’s eResources website) 
16. Kwa Chong Guan, “Records and Notices of Early Singapore,” in J. N. Miksic, Archaeological Research on the “Forbidden Hill” of Singapore: Excavations at Fort Canning (Singapore: National Museum, 1985), 121. (Call no. RSING 959.57 MIK-[HIS])
17. Hervey, “Valentyn’s Account of Malacca,” 134.
18. Winstedt, History of Johore, 31.
19. Peter Borschberg, “The Johor-VOC Alliance and the Twelve Years’ Truce: Factionalism, Intrigue and International Diplomacy” (IILJ Working Paper Series no. 8, New York University School of Law, 2009), 17.
20. Borschberg, “Johor-VOC Alliance and the Twelve Years’ Truce,” 19.
21. Kwa Chong Guan, (2004). “Sailing Past Singapore,” in Early Singapore, 1300s–1819: Evidence in Maps, Text and Artefacts, ed. J. N. Miksic and Cheryl-Ann Low Mei Gek (Singapore: Singapore History Museum, 2004), 104. (Call no. RSING 959.5703 EAR-[HIS])
22. Murfett, Between Two Oceans, 32.

The information in this article is valid as of 11 July 2014 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.

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