Monday, March 17, 2014

"Kwai Lo" and Alfonso de Albuquerque

A 12-year-old village boy in Malaysia, transfixed by his history teacher's lesson, sat motionless on his rickety wooden chair. Elbows on the desk, chin on both upturned palms, he was transported back to the European Age of Expansion where control of the world was divided between Spain and Portugal. Spain took the Americas and Portugal had Asia.

The lesson was about Alfonso de Albuquerque, the great Portuguese conqueror in the sixteenth century who singlehandedly annexed India and Malaya into the Portuguese Empire. With a formidable squadron of ships he brought India under control in 1507, devastated and conquered Sultan Mahmud Shah's Malacca Sultanate in 1511 and opened the sea route to Southern China allowing the Jesuits to establish a Christian outpost in Macau. In short this swashbuckling naval commander controlled the entire sea trade route from India to China many years before the Dutch more than hundred years before the English and Americans. Commerce, Colonisation and Christianity were the three 'Cs" of King Manuel I of Portugal.

By the end of his adventures, Albuquerque amassed a treasure trove of 60 tonnes of gold; two hundred chests of precious gems stones, pearl jewellery; an assortment of antiques; trunks filled with exotic spices, sandalwood, silk and enough silver dollars to feed the entire nation of Portugal for hundreds of years.

"In today's value the treasures would be close to 3 billion US dollars!......" with this last statement the school bell rang.

History was the last lesson for the day and as his teacher packed to leave, Patrick de Cruz stared out into the bright afternoon sun, making a mental note to ask his parents to bring him to the town of Malacca in his next school holidays. He wanted to see the fort built by Albuquerque and the remnants of the colonial town situated south west of Malaysia.

This was the type of history lesson that would capture the imagination of any inquisitive 12-year-old boy.

Unfortunately the history teacher had left out one small fact, Albuquerque The Great had another name. Albuquerque was also known as Albuquerque The Terrible or the Tyrant.

In the sixteenth century Malacca was a rich bustling, cosmopolitan port, attracting hundreds of ships each year. The city was the region's center for trade in silk and porcelain from China; textiles from Gujarat and Coromandel in India; nutmeg, mace, and cloves from the Moluccas, gold and pepper from Sumatra; camphor from Borneo; sandalwood from Timor; and tin from western Malaya. Conquering the port gave the Portuguese absolute control of trade in the region, access to its great wealth and the Straits of Malacca, the only sea trade route linking the east and the west.

Immediately following the fall of Malacca, Albuquerque ordered a fort to be built - the current A Formosa, in anticipation of revolt by the deposed Sultan. He encouraged miscegenation especially with local women with or without their consent.

The current Cristang people in Malaysia are a direct result of inter-marriages between local Malays and Portuguese. Patrick is a Cristang.

To further consolidate control Albuquerque introduced a new currency and as far as gaining a foothold on all trade; Albuquerque used the fastest method - military takeover. Resenting traders were simply executed.

Social order was maintained through fear and total intimidation with harsh punishments exacted on locals, sometimes unfairly. Alfonso De Albuquerque was the devil himself re-incarnated. Local Chinese called him 'Kwai Lo" the devil fellow.

By 1511 Alfonso de Albuquerque's looted treasure trove filled an entire carrack. The Flor de La Mar, a 400-ton carrack was the largest treasure ship ever assembled in the history of Portugal. Together with 4 accompanying war ships, the Flor de La Mar sailed for Portugal leaving the Malaccan economy and its treasury destitute.

As fate would have it, the armada was caught in a violent storm North East of Sumatra, in the Malacca Straits. The 9-year old Flor de La Mar broke in half and together with its treasures sank into the depths of the ocean, never to be discovered ever again. Albuquerque himself narrowly escaped with his life and made his way back to Malacca in a small one-man tub.

If victims wrote the annals of history, the story about Albuquerque might have been different. He would have been called Alfonso de Albuquerque the Kwai Lo.

"I wish my teacher had known all these" Patrick, now a teacher himself thought, as he finishes his potato & chicken curry rice typical of the Cristang cuisine.

The Flor de La Mar, now lies at the bottom of the Malacca Strait and remains a keen subject for treasure hunters from all over the world.

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