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The Malaysian National History Museum


Starting in the paleolithic era, Malaya's early history reveals human remains going back 40,000 years. Kota Tampan in Perak state boasts a 30,000 year old "workshop" which produced quartzite tools, the only such one found in South East Asia. With the neolithic age dawning around 3 to 4000 years ago, there becomes evidence of more developed tools and also the rise of belief systems. The people here were farmers who lived by riversides in caves. The made cave burials and adorned them with wall paintings. Synonymous with this was the Hoabhinian Culture, who were hunter gatherers from between 12 to 4000 years ago, they used primitive pebble sized tools and animal bones and buried their dead in the foetus position. It is theorised that early man had to have been pushed down here from the north by the last ice age, and would have continued down into Indonesia due to lower sea levels, along what is now termed the Pleistocene Bridge. The generalised term of referring to these people is Java Man.

The Metal Age started around the 5th century BC with bronze eventually taking over from iron, allowing crop cultivation for the first time, especially of rice. The oldest tools found are known as Tulang Mawas and resemble small hand axes. There was a display of bronze bells and drums with fine artistry, revealing elements of the influential northerly Dong Son civilisation. The modern era began around the first century AD with Greek and Indian sources revealing evidence of Malay centres of trade. Chinese, Arab and Tamil records allows us to conclude the existence of states by the 5th century AD and surprisingly to me, the penetration of Indian culture. Certainly the Sri Vijaya state controlled the Malay peninsula, Eastern Sumatra and Sunda in Java from the 7th to the 13th centuries, having close links with buddhism from and architectural influences, ruled from Kuala Bujang. The "Terengganu Stone" in black basalt shows the earliest known Malay writing, actually using Arab script, a twinning known as Jawi, citing edicts from the year 1303. Islam had just arrived via Malacca and predictably it reads for example "whoever ignores its contents shall be damned by the supreme god". It relates to recognition of Islam as the state religion and the establishment of Islamic law. Strangely, it arrived via China. In the 2 or 3 centuries preceding the Malacca Sultanate, a megalithic culture had flourished, described as the "alignement type". They erected weird engraved stone markers in rows, though no funerary remnants have been found. 3 famous stones, dubbed the Sword, the Spoon and the Rudder due to their unlikely shapes are believed to represent a belief system in symbols with Kawi writing (old Javanese) from around the year 1500. The word "Allah" is predictably prominent!


Founded by Parameswara, a Malay prince from Sumatra, this was a defining moment in Malay history. Their most famous legend is of upon his arrival, his hunting dogs were scared off by a diminutive Mousedeer, somehow deemed to be a good omen. The Melaka tree he sat under at the time was adopted as a name for the new settlement, enduring from its inception in 1403 until the arrival of the Portugese in 1511. Indeed some 16th century maps on display from that episode referred to the whole Malay peninsula simply as Melaka. The dynasty ran through 9 generations, also holding power over Eastern Sumatra and it became a strong naval force, creating the first Malay Empire with global trade connections. It also served as an important centre for the spread of Islam. Lesser dignitaries were given control of smaller vassal territories though all trade had to go through Melaka. After an earlier defeat in 1509 purportedly in defence of arrested countrymen and aided by court infighting, Portugal attacked again in 1511 and seized control of the trade, burning the port and royal palace in the attempt. Having fled Malacca, the dynasty survived as the Johor Sultanate founded in 1528, enduring many attacks from the Portugese and Achenese Empires, but with help from the Johor Sultanate, the Portugese were finally pushed out in 1641 by the Dutch. This had been preceded by an unsuccessful attempt by the Dutch who fought the Portugese in a sea battle off here in 1606. The Achenese went into decline at this time, securing the Johor Sultanates power over southern Malaya south of Terengganu and central Eastern Sumatra.

Under Captain Francis Light, the Brits had meanwhile established Penang in 1786, exploiting the Sultan of Kedah's fear of Siamese attack. This was also in mutual fear of French influence from Indochina, fuelled further by the desire to seal the important trade route between England and China. This led to the establishment of the Straits Settlements in 1826, comprising the chain of ports of Penang, Melaka, Singapore and eventually Dinding in Perak, founded in 1935. In an aforementioned legacy, the signing of the Anglo-Dutch treaty of 1824 agreed a carve up of trade rights in this region. Malacca and the Malay peninsula were agreed to come soully under British influence, also recognising Singapore as British. The Brits in turn withdrew from Bencoolen (Bangkahulu) and promised to leave Sumatra as Dutch territory. Crucially, the Dutch retained a monopoly in the Spice Islands but not in Malaya, and had to terminate their monopoly on the important tin market. The Brits had bagged a deal which ended 200 years of Dutch domination and crucially gave them control over East-West trade traffic, the Calcutta to Canton run.

This influence finally led to British governorship of all Malaya in 1874 with the Treaty of Pangkor, ostensibly to assist in maintaining order. The Brits were reminded to be sensitive to Malay culture the following year however when the British "Resident" J.W.W. Birch was assassinated in Perak. Under them a treaty of federation in 1895 brought the states of Perak, Selangor, Pahang and Negri Sembilan together as the Protected Malay States. This hotchpotch was strengthened in 1909 with a British-Siamese treaty ceding full British power over the states of Kedah, Perlis, Kelantan, Terengganu and Johor as the Unfederated Malay States.

In 1876 the Brits had also secured 31,000 square miles of territory as British North Borneo (present day Sabah more or less), for an annual stipend of 5000 dollars to the Sultan of Sulu. The British North Borneo Company was formed and even minted its own banknotes, some of which were on display. Sarawak had been similarly secured by a certain James Brook in 1841, with a bizarre family dynasty of "white rajas" enduring incredibly until 1946.

Nationalism found new strength in the 1930's with the development of education, helped by the Islamic Revivalist Movement and the Japanese interference campaign of "Asia for Asia". WWII propagated a British intervention policy and demonstrated Japan as an Asian power, indirectly spawning Malay nationalist sentiments. In 1948 the Brits proposed a Malay Union which led to independence on 31/8/1957, the Japanese occupation having helped to prompt its emergence. Malaya was invaded immediately after Pearl Harbour, with the Japs also taking Sabah and Sarawak over the next month. The Malayan Union brought together all Malaya including the British enclaves of Penang and Malacca under one central administration. Singapore was kept separate however. Its dilutory effect over the power of local Malay rulers led to its opposition though, and it was replaced by the Federation of Malaya in 1948 under a new constitution. This led to Malaya's first general election in 1955 which was a landslide for the Alliance Party. Their manifesto was to gain independence within 4 years which was quickly negotiated to agreement the following year under soon to be Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman. The run up to independence had been complicated by a state of emergency provoked by the assassination of English estate managers by communist insurgents. Their aim was to establish a communist republic in Malaya under leader Chin Peng, continuing with attacks against colonial and economic targets. Sir Henry Gurney the British High Commisssioner, a suitably pith helmeted tosser was assassinated in 1951. Measures such as curfew, rationing and ID cards had to be introduced. In 1952 the Briggs Programme succeeded in stopping the rebels food supply but the emergency endured from across the Thai border until 1960, claiming 11,000 lives. The formation of Malaysia finally took place on 16/9/1963, uniting Sabah, Sarawak, Singapore and the Federated Malay States into a single united country.

Posted by andyhay 00:00 Archived in Malaysia

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