portuguese connection to melaka a'famosa fort porta de santiago

Portuguese Connection to Melaka (Malacca)

The Portuguese connection to Melaka that most Malaysians know is the small fishing village called the Portuguese Settlement which has been popular among tourists for its seafood restaurants and during Christmas when residents decorate their houses with Christmas trees, decorations, lights and Nativity displays.

However, the present generation of Malaysians and tourists in general are not aware that the Portuguese Settlement is a thriving community of residents who were descendants of inter-marriage between the Portuguese colonisers and the local Malay population in the 16th and 17th centuries. The descendants are called Portuguese-Eurasians or “Kristang” in Malaysia; majority of them are Catholics maintaining family names such as Fernandes, Pereira, De Silva, De Souza, Pinto, Carvalho and so on.

portuguese connection to melaka portuguese settlement chapel easter
Just after Easter mass in Portuguese Settlement

Perhaps one must go back to history to recall what we used to learn in school that Melaka – or Malacca – was ruled by the Portuguese for 130 years from 1511 to 1641.

Portuguese Conquest

Malacca was a strategic trading port in the 14th century. News spread far and wide so much so foreign traders especially the Arabs, Indians and Persians came to establish their trading bases and settled in Malacca. In the 15th century, upon invitation from the Malacca Sultanate, the Chinese envoy from the Ming Dynasty came to Malacca resulting in friendly relations between Malacca and China. A few years later, the legendary Admiral Zheng He (Cheng Ho) made his visits to Malacca and that opened ways for Chinese merchants to come and settle in Malacca too.

By the time Malacca was at the zenith of wealth and prosperity, the King of Portugal, Manuel I became intrigued. Excited at the prospect of having a Portuguese trade representative for ports located east of India, the King sent Admiral Diego Lopes de Sequeira to find Malacca and to establish relations with the ruler of Malacca. The Portuguese believed that Malacca would be an important port linking Portugal to their Spice Route outposts in Goa and Macau with China.

Although de Sequeira’s visit was initially well received by the Sultan, advisers in the Sultan’s court who were also traders from Goa were skeptical of the Portuguese contingent because the Portuguese had captured Goa. The advisers later convinced the Sultan that the Portuguese posed a serious threat to Malacca, and soon after there were skirmishes among the Sultan’s forces and the Portuguese. de Sequeira and his men escaped, and realized that the only way for them to establish themselves in Malacca is through conquest.

In 1511, Alfonso de Albuquerque sailed from Goa to conquer Malacca, and after a month of fighting, Malacca fell to the Portuguese which effectively ended the Malacca Sultanate rule.

A’Famosa Fort

Under the command of de Albuquerque, a fortress was built on the former site of the Sultan’s palace, on a hill near the sea. The fortress called Famosa was erected in anticipation of counterattacks by the Malacca Sultan.

A’Famosa Fort is still standing tall in the city centre of Melaka but what you see now is just the surviving gate of the fort. The gate is called Porta de Santiago and is one of the oldest European architectural remains in South East Asia.

portuguese connection to melaka a'famosa fort porta de santiago
A’Famosa Fort – Porta de Santiago gate.

portuguese connection to melaka famosa fort stone

Now you must be wondering, what happened to the rest of the fort and why only the gate remains?

Here’s a historical fun fact – A’Famosa Fort was not solely occupied by the Portuguese but was taken over by the Dutch in 1641 and subsequently handed over to the British in the 18th century. To prevent the fort from potential occupation by France due to Napoleon’s expansionist policies at that time, the British ordered for the fort to be completely destroyed. The fort was almost razed to the ground until Sir Stamford Raffles intervened to save the gate of Porta de Santiago. And the reason was that Raffles had a passion for history, the gate was preserved to remind Malaccans of their historical links with the Portuguese.

St. Paul’s Hill and St Francis Xavier’s Missing Arm

At the rear of A’Famosa Fort is St. Paul’s Hill where there is a flight of stairs leading up the hill. On top of the hill is the remains of St. Paul’s Church originally built in 1521. The church was initially built as a simple chapel dedicated to the Virgin Mary and was known as the Our Lady of the Hill. Over a period of time, the chapel was enlarged and the title deeds of the chapel was handed to St. Francis Xavier who used the chapel as his base for his missionary works in the Far East.

portuguese connection to melaka st paul's church
St. Paul’s Church

portuguese connection to melaka tombstones st paul's church

When St Francis Xavier died in China in 1552, he was initially buried on Shangchuan Island, Guangdong but was taken from the island and temporarily buried in this chapel in Malacca in 1553. Shortly after, St Francis Xavier’s incorrupt body was removed, brought to Goa, and is now in the Basilica of Bom Jesus in Old Goa ever since.

The chapel was later renamed St Paul’s Church by the Dutch when they colonised Malacca after Portuguese rule.

Tourists who visit St Paul’s Hill would have noticed a statue of St. Francis Xavier with a missing right arm. When I was growing up, I was told that the arm was cut off in an air raid during Japanese Occupation in the mid-1940s. But it was sometime last year that while researching for information on Melaka history, I found the story behind this missing arm.

portuguese connection to melaka st francis xavier statue missing right arm
Statue of St Francis Xavier and his missing right arm

In 1614, 60 years after the death of St. Francis Xavier, the Vatican demanded to have evidence that the body of St Francis Xavier was as fresh as it was buried and that it did not decompose. Among the physical samples gathered was the Jesuit priest’s right arm. Apparently when the arm was cut off, blood appeared to drip. In 1952, a marble statue of St Francis Xavier was erected on St. Paul’s Hill to commemorate his 400 years of missionary work. The morning after the statue was placed on the hill, a large casuarina tree fell on the statue, severing the right arm.

Whichever story is true or false, I will never know but I can’t help but think, is that a coincidence or what?? 🙂

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Melaka is a popular tourist destination now, and A’Famosa Fort (do not confuse the fort with A’Famosa Resort) and St. Paul’s Hill are one of the must-see places in the city.

Do climb St Paul’s Hill in the late afternoon as that’s the best time to have a view of Melaka city and its coastline. Much of the buildings that you see now are actually constructed on reclaimed land as the sea is pushed further away.

portuguese connection to melaka view of melaka city
View of Melaka city from St Paul’s Hill

portuguese connection to melaka view from st paul's hill

By the way, Melaka is my hometown – I was born in Melaka and grew up in this city that was previously a sleepy town. I still come back to Melaka once a month to visit my parents.

Although I have been living in Kuala Lumpur since 1999 mainly for work, I still call Melaka home 🙂

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Are you planning a trip to Melaka soon? How about booking your accommodation here?

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