Sunday, 29 November 2015

Artillery in Melaka, 1511 CE

       In 1511, a Portuguese force under Afonso de Albuquerque successfully invaded the city-state of Melaka on the west coast of the Malay Peninsula. At the time, Melaka was one of the world's foremost emporia. Peoples from throughout Eurasia appear in the Portuguese accounts of the conquest, including various groups from India, Java, China, Myanmar, and the Muslim world (likely grouped together as mouros in the Portuguese accounts). The capture of the city, followed by the construction of a fortress on the Straits, was intended to take the Eurasian spice trade out of Muslim hands.

       Melaka was an incredibly rich and powerful city, and the fact that a small Portuguese force (~1200 men) was able to take it at all is remarkable and surprising. The accounts we have, including de Albuquerque's own letters to King Manuel of Portugal and the narrative of de Albuquerque's conquests written by his son (also named Afonso), tell us that perhaps the mercenary nature of the Melakan army and the lack of homogeneity and loyalty among the citizenry was more responsible for Melaka's downfall than the sheer superiority of Portuguese weapons or tactics. The bulk of the military appears to have consisted of Javanese mercenaries under the command of a Javanese man named Utimutaraja, and he was apparently willing to negotiate with the Portuguese from the moment they displayed their fighting strength on Saint James's day (25th July) 1511 at the battle for the city's mosque.
Afonso de Albuquerque (the elder), conqueror of Melaka, Goa, and Hormuz; religious zealot and Islamophobic bigot.
      There's a surprising note in chapter 28 of the younger Afonso's account about the weapons used by Melaka's soldiers. Alongside blowpipes, arquebuses, bows, lances, and javelins, Melaka also had cannons of apparently very high quality:
Não se espante quem ler esta escritura de dizer que em Malaca se tomaram três mil tiros de artilharia, porque diziam Rui de Araújo e Ninachatu a Afonso de Albuquerque que em Malaca havia oito mil, e pode-se crer isto por duas razões: a primeira, porque em Malaca havia muito cobre e muito estanho, e tão bons fundidores como em Alemanha; a outra, que a cidade era uma légua de comprido, e quando Afonso de Albuquerque desembarcou, lhe atiravam de todas as partes, por onde parece que ainda era pouca para a que havia mister para se defender.
      Earle and Villiers (1990) translate this as: 'The reader should not be surprised when I say that three thousand pieces of artillery were taken in Malacca, because both Rui de Araújo and Nina Chatu told Afonso de Albuquerque that there were eight thousand pieces in the city. There are two reasons for believing this to be true. The first is that in Malacca there was a great deal of copper and tin and that their gun-founders were as good as the Germans. The other is that the city stretched a league along the shore and, when Afonso de Albuquerque disembarked, they fired at him from all directions, from which it is clear that even what they had was hardly enough for its defence.'

       I first read this item in Walter de Gray Birch's 1880 translation of the Commentaries, the text by Afonso Jnr., but I only recently acquired the original Portuguese text in Earle and Villiers Albuquerque, so I wanted to check it before writing about it. It seems pretty clear, in any case, that Melaka was a reasonably technologically sophisticated place with excellent guns. It's notable that, while the Portuguese did use guns, the main weapons to appear on the Portuguese side in the Commentaries are javelins and crossbows, which were apparently effective enough.

        The younger Afonso also says:
Tomaram-se três mil tiros de artilharia, e destes seriam dois mil de metal, e um tiro grande que o rei de Calecute mandara ao rei de Malaca. Os outros eram de ferro da feição dos nossos berços, e toda esta artilharia com seus reparos, que lhe não fazia vantagem a de Portugal. Espingardões, zarabatanas de peçonha, arcos, frechas, laudéis de lâminas, lanças de Java, e outra diversidade de armas, foi coisa de espanto o que se tomou, afora muitas mercadorias de toda a sorte.
       Earle and Villiers: 'Three thousand pieces of artillery were taken, of which two thousand were of bronze, and one large piece which the king of Calicut had sent to the king of Malacca. The rest were of iron of the same calibre as our
berços. All these guns were equipped with carriages and were in no way inferior to weapons of Portuguese manufacture. There were muskets, poison blowpipes, bows and arrows, coats of mail, Javanese lances [?] and a great variety of other arms. The sheer quantity of weapons was amazing, quite apart from the great amount of merchandise of all kinds.' (A berço, apparently, was '[a] small bronze or wrought iron breech-loading gun, often mounted on a fork as a swivel gun, but also on trunnions for use as a carriage cannon, and capable of firing balls of three pounds' (Earle & Villiers 1990:287, note 40).)
A Bornean man with a blowgun, presumably similar to the blowguns shot at the Portuguese in late summer 1511. h/t Tropenmuseum.
       Clearly the city was equipped for war, even if trade was its reason for being. I should point out that this account of Malay and island Southeast Asian guns isn't an isolated instance; guns are reported in other sixteenth-century accounts, including Antonio Pigafetta's, and they have been found at archaeological sites of the pre-colonial period from Borneo and the Philippines as well as the Malay Peninsula. We shouldn't imagine that the weapons they used were necessarily more primitive than the ones the Europeans employed, even if they did also use the blowgun (and very effectively too, if the younger Afonso is to be believed).
Of course, Europeans also used blowguns, as in this depiction from 1480 CE (just thirty years before the conquest of Melaka).
       Incidentally, the sprawling nature of the city - more than a league (about five-and-a-half kilometres) across at the shore - won't surprise anyone who knows about ancient Southeast Asian cities. They tended to be much more spread out than contemporary European ones, with houses and public buildings (themselves little more than houses) interspersed with fields and orchards. Population density in Southeast Asia overall was fairly low until the nineteenth century, and the cities of the region mirrored the low overall density, as can be seen at Angkor. Angkor was, as I mentioned recently, the largest pre-industrial city in the world, but only by area; by the size of its population it would rank much lower. You can still find the odd city in Southeast Asia organised along similar lines to the ancient cities, including Kupang in West Timor, which feels more like a set of inter-connected sprawling villages than a city, despite having a population estimated at half-a-million.

         More from the Portuguese conquest of Melaka next time. I thought it would vary things a little if I threw in some Afonso de Albuquerque alongside Sanskrit inscriptions and Marco Polo, so I'll be returning to other topics as well over the next few weeks.

Earle, T.F & Villiers, J. 1990. Albuquerque: caesar of the east. Warminster: Aris & Phillips. 

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Antonio Pigafetta on the Cannons of 'Burne' (Brunei/Borneo)

The 'Monsoon Marketplace' vs. the 'Silk Roads'  


  1. The metallurgy involved in European armor and weaponry was greatly improving. There is a whole sub-discussion as to the reason why the firearms were supplanting the longbows and crossbows. The primary factor being the better quality plate available to the those who could pay for it (I am presuming the Portuguese could afford it) was becoming proof to these weapons but not the improving firearms.

    Given the terrifying nature of hand to hand, fighting against a confident, experienced opponent, whose armor you cannot get through without extreme luck, would be a rather daunting idea; certainly not one a mercenary would be excited about. Of course when Machiavelli went with training (he presumed more loyal) regularly trained militia, he didn't have lot success with them sticking around for the fight either.

    1. I'm sure the Portuguese would have favoured guns if they could have obtained them easily and ensured a steady supply of good quality powder. I definitely don't think they could have relied upon the latter. Afonso de Albuquerque the younger mentions that smiths from Goa had been taken along to Melaka in order to keep up production of good crossbows, and that's presumably because a crossbow was a powerful weapon with more easily obtained ammunition than lead and powder. You can make a fully-functioning crossbow at home or on a ship, along with plenty of bolts, and you can't really do that with a gun. As you say, too, the Europeans wore sophisticated armour, and there's little indication that sixteenth century Malay armour was up to the task of stopping crossbow bolts.

      So I suspect the choice of armaments had more to do with the nature of an expeditionary force like de Albuquerque's than anything else. They needed something they could use even if holed up in a ship for weeks while being harried by locals, as happened in the taking of Melaka. It wasn't accomplished in a day, but over several weeks.

      The one weapon I can't envisage is the javelin. It occurs very regularly in the accounts, even being used successfully against the Melakan king's elephants. It seems like an anachronism in the sixteenth century, but it also seems like a good choice for the kind of fighting Albuquerque encountered.

    2. The Spanish Jinete (light cavalry) were armed with darts/javelins and were used in the Italian Wars that are concurrent with what is going on in Melaka. I agree that it seems odd, but likely the javelin is another weapon (limited by quantity that could be carried) where the more effective lighter firearms eventually made them superfluous.

      In Europe, you are in the time period where mass artillery had its occasional successes; Ravenna is in 1512, but was not always a factor in open battle. Hand gunners would have been intermixed with crossbowmen, and (in modern terms) attached onto pike formations. But the proportion of missile to pike is something like 1 to 6, not the 50/50 or more that you start getting by the Thirty Years War. The European heavy cavalry will be in heavy plate, as the cavalry pistol had not advanced (as it is now generally conceded) to the point where the cavalry pistol had made the heavy armor obsolete.

      The switch from pole arm to pike, with the Swiss, is one of the few examples where period armies seem to have thought through abrupt tactical changes. And pole arms were still around in active use for some time even after the pike became the new fashion.

      My guess is that they simply used what they were already using in Europe, with the forces they could entice/afford to pay for. If it matched up well with whom they faced, it is likely that they just got lucky.

    3. Thank you for all that detail! Interesting stuff.

      I expect you're right - it's just that the javelin doesn't jive with my northern European view of medieval warfare, I suppose. I tend to think of crossbows and swords more than thrown spears, even if in southern Europe they were quite normal. Certainly Albuquerque gives every indications that they were effective.

  2. Isn't a laudis de laminas a coat/aketon/gambeson/doublet of plates (ie. small, irregular metal plates riveted inside cloth or leather? A coat of mail (ie. interlinked metal rings) would be something like a cota di maglia or a lorica in Portugese.

    You have probably read Gabor Agoston's "Guns for the Sultan."

    1. Actually I haven't read it, but it is on my Amazon wishlist. Gunpowder weapons are a peripheral interest of mine. I have more books on tropical forest ecology than artillery. But I'll be sure to check it out.

      As for the armour, I would tend to agree with you. I copied Earle & Villiers's translation exactly instead of producing my own, and that's one of the points where I don't really understand their translation choices. Walter de Gray Birch, who translated the Commentaries for the Hakluyt Society, went for 'armour-plated dresses', which sounds much better in my view.


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