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29 maret 2011 02:38

Malay Sea Civilization

Malay Sea Civilization

By Hudjolly, M.Phil.


The term “Malays” does not strictly refer to an ethnic group that inhabits an island, Malacca Peninsula, or the north end of Sumatra. Over the course of time in which Southeast Asian societies were formed, the Malays dispersed and developed throughout the archipelago. Their migration and diaspora required the existence of a transportation vehicle that could take them across the sea in weeks or months-long voyages. The sea transportation means had to be big enough to contain a large number of people in order to allow them set up an independent community in the new place.

The conveyance had to have sufficient spaces to hold supplies for both the voyage and life in the destination. Solitary or small-group journeys were mostly to areas within the same island, albeit possible that few people sailed across the ocean. Small communities need a relatively long time to build an advanced civilization. But then given that Malays managed to disperse to many islands, it can be then said that they must have achieved a good mastery of nautical techniques.

Cultural Enrichment

The kinds of journeys that Malays did in Old Malay and Young Malay Periods require a separate, profound study. Such investigation can reveal the origin of Malay culture, the development of tools to support life, and provide an illustration of how Malays made a contact with others. Culture is by definition not only about arts as it could also refer to the ability to devise a method to fulfill society’s needs. A culture is the whole thoughts and objects created by man throughout their history. Ruth Benedict, as quoted by Sajidiman (in Sarjono Agus R., 1999), maintains that culture is the way of thinking and behavior of a group of people that differs themselves from other people. Learning process and adaptation are involved in the moulding of a culture.

When inter-islands and inter-kingdoms sea traffic was established, the routes became the main courses to transport commodities from one place to another. Sea culture advancement resulted in expertise in making conveyance, which allowed Malays to build big ships for specific purposes. Belungkang (Sumatra), cunia (Madura), tambangan (Banjar) are some types of ships for containing commodities (spices, clothes, ceramics). While ships for fishing are, among others, pencalang (Central Java), belang and orembai (Maluku), sandeq and tadi-tadi (Mandar), londei (North Sulawesi), roh talor boat (Nusa Tenggara) (Andrian B. Lapian, 2008:40).

The fact that the epic of sea conquering admiral Hang Tuah and the story of Sawerigading in the classic Buginese epic La Galigo both mention some sea voyages on big ships to faraway places shows that their naval technology already reached a high level at the time. Malay people, who had dispersed around the archipelago, went on to develop a sea culture based on different purposes.

Seafaring mastery in the sea culture did not only focus on handicrafts, but also on knowledge of natural signs such as compass point and star constellations. We can know about this sea culture from, for instance, the classic Malay book Tuhfat al Nafis which tells the heroic story of King Haji Fisabilillah who won a naval war against European armada in the 18th century.

Sea transportation, which did not recognize territorial borders, made it possible for Malays to establish contacts with “Negeri di Atas Angin” (“the kingdoms above the wind”) such as China, Campa, and Ayodhya. One example is Fa Hsien’s voyage in 414 CE that took 50 days from Canton to Malacca. Another renowned voyage is that of Chia Tan in the 8th century CE by the same route but took only 19 days (O.W. Wolters, 1967:188-189). These journeys, although not done by Malays, show the advance of naval technology at the time. Malays themselves later on proved that they could do the same thing as merchants from Srivijaya Kingdom managed to make their way to India and Persia by the sea.

Application and Effects of Sea Culture

Malay people mobility by sea was based on exploitation of season and wind in certain months. Their detailed understanding of the nature and characteristic of winds leaves its trace today, especially if we observe how Malay people call winds by names, such as angin angkisan (circling wind), angin puting beliung (cyclone), angin gila (wind from all directions), angin gunung-gunung, angin taufan, or angin ribut (big storm)

In some traditions, there are other terms to call a wind that are usually based on the characteristic of the wind itself. Some examples are angin sendalu (medium-strength wind), angin salah (ill wind), angin pengarak pagi (dawn wind), angin buritan (tail wind), angin sorong (wind that pushes a boat), angin sakal (head wind), angin paksa (winds that force the sailors to anchor), angin ekor duyung (winds that come from many directions), angin tambang ruang (strong winds that blow from both flanks of a boat), angin pasat (trade wind), angin pasat tenggara (swift wind from southeast) and so on (Andrian B. Lapian, 2008:2).

Climate and geographical characteristic of Malay Archipelago gave yet another advantage to navigation system. The mountain ranges and islands were used as signs by the sailors to cruise on shallow sea along shorelines, while voyages that took far-off route used star constellations to find directions.

Star constellations have specific names in Malay culture, which are mostly related to terms in nautical life, such as “mayang" (“traditional sailboat”) and “biduk” (“small ship”). The astronomical knowledge of Biak people, for instance, maintains that the wind was influenced by two constellations: Sawaka (Orion) and Romangwandi (Scorpio). Romangwandi appearance gives a sign that the storm at sea has gone. When Romangwandi is below the horizon, they are in the west wind season that means big waves are rolling at sea thus making it not good for sailing (Andrian Lapian, 2008: 13-14).

By harnessing winds that blow in a certain time, travels by sea from one island to another could go on easily. In a report written by Andrian B. Lapian, some kinds of winds recognized in Malay navigation are explained. From December to February blows the west wind; from September to December blows the east wind. In east wind season, ships from Maluku would cruise across the sea to Makassar, Java, Banten, Malacca, Indragiri, Singapore, and other areas in the west.

In June to August, the winds in South China Sea blow northwards, making travels to Campa, Ayodhya, and China possible. The return from Asia mainland to Malay Archipelago could be made from September to December every year. This is the gift of nature for Malay people, especially those in the west part of the archipelago (Sumatra, Aceh, Banten, Malacca, Indragiri), which helped the people and areas develop to finally become big ports and transits for world trade.

It is understandable that in the areas, big ports flourished and served as trade centers since the time of Sriwijaya, Malacca, Banten, until the golden era of Riau-Indragiri. The ports were also where many different cultures met (thus, diffusion, assimilation, and acculturation happened) involving Malays, Persians, Arabs, and Indians (kurmandel). Such cultural exchanges continued as the Europeans came. According to van Linschoten’s record as quoted by Lapian, in the end of the 16th century Portuguese sailors passed on their nautical skills to local rulers around Malacca Strait. The Portuguese taught them how to build European style big ships, fort, and so on. From here, some European terms were absorbed into local languages, such as the term gelai or gale. Although Malaccans’ ships were smaller, their nautical knowledge did influence the Europeans to a certain extent, in particular in the matter of wind usage, route, and map.

Malay navigators’ knowledge harnessed by European sailors quickened their pace of exploration in the archipelago. Some nautical skills of the Portuguese were taken from Malay knowledge. A sailing manual called Roteiros by Rodriguez—a Portuguese naval officer—uses many Malay toponyms to point out places along the sailing routes by Vietnam and Campa.

“The Lost Map of Java[1]” carried by Alburquerque showed that at the time, transatlantic voyages had already been made by Malay people. Brazilian coastline is drawn in the map. Meilink Roelofsz (1962:354) has proposed a hypothesis that “the Lost Map of Java” had been made long before Portuguese arrival. Based on this assumption, it can be said that Malay people had long dispersed from Malay archipelago up to Madagascar (near the Cape of Hope, South Africa) preceding Sheikh Yusuf. The voyage to Madagascar was through a vast ocean and obviously needed an excellent nautical skill. The map shows that the people had it. It is also believed that Portuguese cartographic knowledge about Southeast Asia is also influenced by “the Lost Map of Java”.

Boat production developed very fast, combining the engineering mastery that came from Persia, Arab, and China. These Asians had established relationships with Malay kingdoms since the 5th century. Further on, nautical engineering developed further with Portuguese and Europeans influences by the 15th century. However, some local cultures were preserved, such as the choosing of wood, the shape of the ship, the type of the boat, and the carving and ornament on the body, which are unique and different in each island.

Another interesting thing is the inter-islands trading of ships, such as Malacca that often ordered ships from Rembang (Java) and Kei Island. A ship, therefore, was not only a means of transportation but also a commodity.

A ship as a commodity was not only traded in Malay Archipelago. Old Malay people from South Burma, especially in Pegu area, also grew to be big ship producers in Southeast Asia. Every February, about 15-16 large ships of the three or four masts type, plus about 20-30 ships with long keels and lesser load were sent from Pegu to Malacca. They would usually arrive by March or April (Meilink Roelofsz, 1962:67-69).

Change of Cultural System

The development of inter-island trade entailed, generally, commercial and cultural systems. The amount of commodities and the scope of commerce, which grew bigger and wider, accelerated the cultural assimilation-diffusion as a consequence of contacts between the old cultures and the new ones. Cultural products such as kurmandel clothes (from India) and ceramics (from China) drove the change in clothes, consumption, and even household tools in some Malay communities.

The new commerce also motivated Malay people to leave their old commercial system. About cloves and nutmegs, for instance, Maluku people formerly sold them along with the stems. But when dealing with the Portuguese, they had to separate the cloves from their stems and put them in a unit of container (sack) (Leonard Andaya, 1999:30). That was a new practice in Maluku and is preserved until today. Before, the people never used any unit of weight measurement when selling fruits and spices.

Commodities from other places let Malay merchants sell them again for higher prices. The consumers of those imported goods did not come from the lower class. Only those who had enough financial capability could enjoy them. Imported goods became a mark for luxury and identity of the elites. Somehow, consumption is not only about needs. It can be about the identity of a person in a community. Those with imported goods would feel they were economically superior compared to their neighbors. This explains why the major consumers of the imported goods were dignitaries, kings, and wealthy people.

Meanwhile, big scale inter-islands trades required a good finance. Only big merchants had a huge amount of money to support it. But then, it was not rare that some royal dignitaries and even kings joined in the business as the main investors. Kings in Pahang, Kampar, and Indragiri were active merchants and owned some offices in Malacca. When a sultan or king took part in a trade, he would hire somebody to take care of their business. Every jung (ship) that departed from Malacca carried the kings’ goods (Meilink Roelofsz, 1962: 51). Among the Malay kings involved in trading are Sultan Muzaffar Syah (1446-1459), Sultan Alauddin Syah, and Sultan Masyur Syah. When Sultan Agung started an expansion to build Mataram Imperium, he “let” Sultan Banten live because the king was a wealthy trader (Andrian B. Lapian, 2003:103).

This condition stimulated the emergence of a new social structure, which is, based on possession of wealth and power. The cooperation and allotment systems in commerce were also according to such pattern. Class distinction based on social status also existed upon ships whose crews included rowers, workers, merchants, and captains (called, mualim). Every role signified a social class. A change of task and role could mean a change of social status, followed by changes of dressing, habit, and so on.

The allocation of plots upon a ship had to consider the social stratification as there were so many goods owned by many merchants. Kings and noblemen, of course, came first in the priority list above rich people, whose social power was weaker.

In many things, there are differences between Malay people who earned livelihood from this trading system and those who lived from selling services (ship-engineers, craftsmen) or those farmers. Malay farmers in the hinterland and merchant-workers in coastlines, similarly, had a different form of culture. In general, the formation of complex cultural characters was inevitable.


Every cultural interaction results in a new culture. Such is also the case for Malay culture, which continuously received visits from various peoples. Since Srivijaya age, there have already been interactions with Burma, Ayodhya, Campa (Thailand), China, Persia, Arab as well as Portugal, Britain, and Holland, and others in post-colonial time. This chain of interactions has forged the current Malay culture.

Malay culture has absorbed some elements of foreign cultures while imported some of its elements at the same time. As a culture’s products get advanced, its identity slowly weakens into a state that one cannot say which is indigenous or original. Even in a closed society, cultural assimilation is inevitable. Since a long time ago, Malays has realized that they live in a global village (desa buana) in which cultures interact with each other intensively, so that self-identity becomes an important value—identity as the distinction in a shared habitus.

It is therefore important that current Malay generation be aware of their cultural identity to determine which elements of culture should be preserved and which ones should be developed to advance the culture itself. Throughout the Middle Age, mercantilism affected Malay civilization and today, globalization of commerce and culture is threatening all its foundations. The definition of Malay culture needs to be firmly established with a scope that is not restricted only on Malay arts. Malay culture includes sea culture: mastery of navigation, commodity, and knowledge on trade route as well as social system that prioritizes the appreciation of human identity and not merely works for material profits. They have to, like a Malay saying, “menjaga tuah menegakkan marwah” (“keep their fortune, uphold their dignity”).


Hudjolly, M.Phil., Traditional Studies Enthusiast


Personal contact: 081911523956

Source of Photo:


Andrian B. Lapian, 2008, Pelayaran dan Perniagaan Nusantara Abad ke-16 dan ke-17. Jakarta: Komunitas Bambu.

______________, 2003, “Kenangan Berbeda Mengenai Masa Lampau yang Sama: VOC (Kompeni) di Kepulauan Nusantara” in R. Hutagalung, Forum Dialog Indonesia-Belanda. Jakarta: Yayasan Pancur Siwah.

Leonard Andaya, 1999, “The Lure of Spices”, in Early Modern History, Indonesian Heritage, Seried No. 3. Singapore: Archipelago Press.

Meilink Roelofsz, 1962, Asian Trade and European Influence in Indonesia Archipelago Between 1500 and About 1630. Den Haag: Martinus Nijhoff.

Sajidiman, 1999 in Agus R. Sarjono, Ed. Pembebasan Budaya-Budaya Kita. Jakarta: Gramedia Pustaka Utama.

Wolters O.W., 1967, Early Indonesians Commerce: A Study of the Origin of Sriwijaya. New York: Ithaca.


[1] A map was to be brought to the Portuguese ruler, but the ship that took it sank that the physical appearance of the map has never been found. However, Albuquerque could still tell some things of the map that showed the width of voyage Nusantara Malay people had gone (Meilink Roelofsz, 1962).

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