The Strait of Malacca – a historical shipping metropolis

For centuries, ports along the coasts have been more than transshipment sites for goods; they are also places of interaction between people from foreign cultures. The chequered history of the Strait of Malacca and the city-state of Singapore illustrate how maritime transportation has influenced the development of a coastal region in the course of history. The Strait of Malacca is the shortest shipping route between the Far East and the Indian Ocean. Ships have passed through it for centuries, and trad- ing posts grew up from an early stage, which simultaneously became centres of education, science and art. People with different religious backgrounds – Hindu monks, Christian priests, Muslim scholars – from many regions of the world met here. There was lively exchange about navigation techniques and the art of shipbuilding.

fig. 2.19: Over the centuries there have been several different major transshipment ports along the Strait of Malacca. Although the city that gave the Strait its name has little influence nowadays, before and during the colonial period it was a significant power base. © after Hornidge et al.

fig. 2.19 > Over the centuries there have been several different major transshipment ports along the Strait of Malacca. Although the city that gave the Strait its name has little influence nowadays, before and during the colonial period it was a significant power base.
© nach Hornidge et al.

An important trading and knowledge centre from the seventh into the thirteenth century was the Buddhist maritime and trading empire ­Srivijaya, which encompassed parts of the island of Sumatra and the Malayan peninsula as well as the western part of the island of Java. At that time Srivijaya controlled commercial shipping through the Strait of Malacca. The state disintegrated in wars from the end of the thirteenth century, and two important power centres emerged: first Malacca in the fifteenth century, and later Aceh (in northern Sumatra) and Johor (in present-day Malaysia) at the beginning of the sixteenth century. Whereas Aceh was primarily an important Muslim centre of commerce, Johor grew in importance because of the tin mines located in its hinterland and the valuable pepper that was cultivated. The seaport town of Malacca was used mainly by Muslim merchants as a major transshipment port on the route between India and China. In 1511 it was conquered by the Portuguese, not least to weaken the Muslim dominance of shipping in the re­gion. But despite the conquest, the Muslim merchants remained influential in the region, for ultimately they brought fresh impetus to Aceh which remained Muslim-dominated. The seaport of Malacca then deve­loped into an important centre for European mariners. Various European nations attempted to bring Malacca under their own control by means of blockades and attacks. For instance, the Dutch initially blockaded the seaport of Malacca in 1640 with the aim of cutting off the town’s cargo flows and weakening the influence of the Portuguese. In 1641 they finally captured the town and expanded their territorial power from there. In the following years they took over other seaports in the region, including Aceh, and sporadically diminished the influence of Muslim merchants.

fig. 2.20: Today goods from Southeast Asia and China are delivered to Europe via the Suez Canal. As the ice masses in the Arctic increasingly melt, during the summer months the shorter route via the Northeast Passage could become more attractive in future. © maribus

fig. 2.20 > Today goods from Southeast Asia and China are delivered to Europe via the Suez Canal. As the ice masses in the Arctic increasingly melt, during the summer months the shorter route via the Northeast Passage could become more attractive in future.
© maribus

The new major rivals were now British merchants. In 1786 they es­tablished the port of George Town in Penang on the northwest coast of the Malaysian peninsula. It was later expanded to become a main transshipment port for the British East India Company. To avert conflicts, in 1824 the two powers agreed to divide up the South East Asian region between them. The Netherlands ceded to Great Britain all property rights northward along the Strait of Malacca, and in return received the areas south of the Strait, including some British territory.
Great Britain developed into the dominant power on the Strait of Malacca, with Malacca, Penang (George Town) and Singapore as its most important trading posts. Unlike Malacca, Singapore – an island at the southern tip of the Strait of Malacca – was still rather insignificant in economic terms at the beginning of the nineteenth century. It was predominantly inhabited by Malayan fishing families. In 1819, just a few years before the Anglo-Dutch Treaty of 1824, the British East India Company had founded its first trading outpost there. Its massive expansion into a major trading port finally began in 1867, when Singapore was declared a British Crown colony.
Today Singapore is the most important location on the Strait of Malacca. Measured in terms of container transshipments, Singapore is the second-largest port in the world. In addition, Singapore has invested heavily in research since the 1980s to establish itself as a modern centre of excellence for high-tech and science. Back in 1987 it had just one research institute; today it boasts more than twenty. And under its ­Biopolis programme, the city-state even established an entire campus for biotechnology research between 2003 and 2006.
Other important locations along the Strait of Malacca today are the Medan agglomeration on Sumatra and the Special Economic Zone in the Malaysian state of Penang at the Strait’s northern extremity. Today Malacca itself is a relatively insignificant port, not least because the ­coastal waters are too shallow for modern ocean-going vessels. Recently, however, there have been signs that the maritime trading situation in the region might be subject to renewed changes in future. Climate change and the large-scale melting of sea ice in the Arctic may mean that in the next few decades, the sea route north of Siberia – the Northeast Passage – will become navigable during the summer months. This would be a shorter and quicker route for cargo transport between Europe and East Asia than the route via the Suez Canal and the Strait of Malacca. Plans for a future northern route are now taking shape in China, where the 250,000-strong city of Hunchun in the northeast, on the border with Russia and North Korea, is already being promoted as a future hub. According to Chinese thinking, this city on the Tumen River could become as significant as Singapore and supply China with goods via the northeastern route. In July 2016 the large Chinese shipping company Cosco sent five merchant ships from the eastern Chinese port of Tianjin via the northern route, carrying components for wind energy plants to Europe. In August and early September 2016 the ships reached their destination ports in Belgium, Germany and England. For now the point of these voyages is to continue testing the feasibility of a regular shipping link. Nevertheless, Cosco is already planning to send far more ships via the north in future.
Another sign that the Northeast Passage could become established as a sea route in the near future came in September 2016, when a major Chinese mineral corporation acquired a 12.5 per cent shareholding in the mining corporation Greenland Minerals and Energy, which extracts such resources as rare-earth metals, uranium and zinc in Greenland. Experts believe that far more of these resources will be transported to China in future via the Northeast Passage.
Currently it is still impossible to foresee what impact the development of this northern sea route will have on trade in Singapore in the next few decades. Whatever the case, Singapore is endeavouring to diversify by introducing measures such as research promotion to avoid being too heavily dependent upon trade in future.

fig. 2.21: Heavy traffic in the Strait of Malacca, the main artery of global intercontinental shipping. Almost a quarter of international maritime trade flows are moved through this seaway, which is around 800 kilometres in length and 50 kilometres in breadth at the narrowest point. © Olaf Schülke/Süddeutsche Zeitung Photo

fig. 2.21 > Heavy traffic in the Strait of Malacca, the main artery of global intercontinental shipping. Almost a quarter of international maritime trade flows are moved through this seaway, which is around 800 kilometres in length and 50 kilometres in breadth at the narrowest point. © Olaf Schülke/Süddeutsche Zeitung Photo