Malay Annals


Sometime around the year 1400, a prince from Sumatra named Parameswara founded a settlement at the mouth of the Melaka River on the west coast of the Malay Peninsula. One of his successors embraced Islam, and Melaka soon grew to become the greatest Islamic kingdom in Southeast Asia. A center of the spice trade that was known as the “Venice of the East,” it attracted merchants from as far away as Arabia, India, China, and Japan. The wealth of Melaka proved irresistible to the Portuguese, who were the first Europeans to navigate around the Cape of Good Hope into the Indian Ocean. Not content simply to join in the bustling trade, the Portuguese attacked Melaka and captured it in 1511. The Malay sultan, Mahmud Shah, fled southwards to Johor. As the exiled court began to face up to the realization that their enforced sojourn in Johor would not be temporary, it became ever more urgent for them to record for posterity the still-vivid memories of Melaka’s magnificence. A chronicle was envisaged that would testify that the sultan and his kin, now settled on the upper reaches of the Johor River, were descended from a glorious line of Malay kings, originating in south Sumatra from the ancient empire of Srivijaya, and who had gone on to found at Melaka the richest entrepot in Southeast Asia. It so happened that the court official charged with the task, Tun Seri Lanang, was the greatest Malay writer of perhaps any period, and he produced in the early 17th century what is now regarded as a masterpiece of Malay literature. Entitled in Arabic Sulalat al-Salatin (Genealogy of kings), but popularly known as Sejarah Melayu (Malay annals), this work is not only a literary triumph but also a handbook of Malay statecraft. It outlines the solemn covenant between the ruler, who promises never to shame his subjects, and his people, who undertake never to commit durhaka (treason). More than 30 manuscripts of Sejarah Melayu are known, with numerous different versions of the text, some designed to bolster the credentials of other Malay kingdoms by claiming links with the illustrious royal line of Melaka. The enduring popularity of the Sejarah Melayu also derives from the skill of its author in addressing key historical episodes and refashioning them, invariably to the greater glory of Melaka. In one celebrated anecdote, when a delegation from Melaka visited China, all had to bow low and were not allowed to look at the emperor’s face. When the emperor enquired as to what food they liked, the crafty Malays specified kangkung (spinach), not chopped up, but left long. They then ate the kangkung by lifting each strand up high and lowering it into their upturned mouths−thus enabling them to lift their heads and gaze upon the Chinese emperor!

Last updated: September 15, 2014