Brothers? I had no idea GZ you had a brother.
Starfire is my bro, not GZ's
Here's an essay I wrote earlier this year about the Malacca Straits that might be of some relevance. It's a short one, and far from comprehensive or as well-researched as I would have liked. But it does give an unconventional perspective.
A Second “Isthmian Age” in Southeast Asia?
[The title of this essay is based upon that of Part VI of Paul Wheatley’s The Golden Khersonese: Studies in the Historical Geography of the Malay Peninsula before 1500 (Kuala Lumpur: University of Malaya Press, 1961). Wheatley used the term “Isthmian Age” to refer to the history of the Malay Peninsula up to 1400 (i.e. before the rise of Malacca).]
Since the 1950s and 1960s, historians have concluded, based on Chinese records, that the Straits of Malacca played a minor part, if any at all, in the earliest maritime trade between ports on the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea. Instead, “[t]ravellers on their way to China [from India] ended their voyage around the Bay of Bengal at the Isthmus of Kra, the peninsula’s narrowest point, and moved their goods overland to the Gulf of Thailand where their maritime journey resumed.” The reason for avoiding the straits, besides the perennial danger of pirates along the waterway, seems to have been that ships at that time “hugged the coast” and would have had to make a circuitous voyage around the Malay Peninsula, rather than sailing to or from the straits across the middle of the South China Sea.
The importance of this isthmus route led to the emergence of the first known Southeast Asian polity, Funan – a state with a seaport on the opposite shore of the Gulf of Thailand. By the beginning of the third century, Funan had extended its control to the Isthmus of Kra, where a “small but prosperous entrepot” called Dunsun became one of its tributaries. Dunsun was probably ruled by Malays, as were at least two other isthmus port cities, Panpan and Langyaxiu (Langkasuka), that emerged in the fifth and sixth centuries respectively. With their location astride the isthmus, these polities could both service the ships and handle the overland portage of goods.
However, by the end of the fourth century, ships had begun to bypass the isthmus and sail directly through the Straits of Malacca. Until recently, the general consensus was that the growing popularity of this all-sea route caused the port cities of the isthmus to slowly ‘wither on the vine’, while Srivijaya (based in Palembang, Sumatra) became the new emporium for maritime trade in Southeast Asia, its rulers suppressing or co-opting the pirates who had plagued the straits. [The earliest record of such a route being used, with a stopover in either Sumatra or Java, dates from 413/414 AD. Hall estimates the opening of the route at around 350 AD. Wang and Wheatley have interpreted a passage from the Later Han dynastic history as indicating the use of the all-sea route by 5 AD, but Wolters is very sceptical of this interpretation.]
But 20 years of archaeological work at Satingpra, at the southern end of the isthmus, have now shown that a port city flourished there until the end of the 13th century. Janice Stargardt proposes that it did so by constructing canals linking large lakes on the east coast (where the port was situated) to navigable rivers running down the west coast, and thus providing “almost continuous water transport across the Isthmus”. This trans-isthmian entrepot apparently continued to dominate the China trade, probably under Srivijaya’s control, until the decline of Srivijaya and the fall of the Southern Song dynasty ruined Satingpra’s trade network. Majapahit (in east Java) took over the hegemony of the region, but lost interest in maritime affairs by the early fifteenth century, allowing piracy to return and a power vacuum to develop. [Janice Stargardt “Behind the Shadows: Archaeological Data on Two-way Trade between Quanzhou and Satingpra, South Thailand, 10th-14th Century”, in Angela Schottenhammer (Ed.) The Emporium of the World: Maritime Quanzhou, 1000-1400 (Leiden: Brill, 2001), p. 358. Stargardt first published her findings in “The Isthmus of the Malay Peninsula in Long-distance Navigation: New Archaeological Findings”, in Archipel 18 (1979), pp. 1-25.]
The early Ming emperors then stepped in and fostered the rise of a new straits port, Malacca, ensuring the safety of the straits with naval patrols for a few decades. But Ming China’s presence on the seas faded as well, and control of Malacca eventually passed to a series of European powers, until the British gained mastery of the straits with possession of both Malacca and Singapore. Thereafter, the decline of Malacca’s harbour from silting ensured that its former preeminence would be taken over by Singapore. [Note: Wheatley, among other scholars, has suggested (based on accounts in the Sejarah Melayu) that Singapore had previously enjoyed some prominence in the fourteenth century, until its last ruler fled to Malacca. Since I wrote this essay I have also learned that until 1784, there was another important entrepot near Singapore - the island of Bintan, just south of Singapore, which was the capital of the properous Johore-Riau sultanate. The ruler of this sultanate was killed in an attack on Dutch-ruled Malacca in 1784, upon which the Dutch launched an attack on the sultanate and sacked its capital, leaving an economic vaccum that allowed the British to found Singapore in 1819.]
Today, Thailand’s keen interest in opening a canal across the Isthmus of Kra, as well as China’s reported interest in financing (and presumably controlling) it, threaten to not so much transform the trade route between two oceans as return it to what it was seven centuries ago. The rivalry between the bustling ports in Singapore and Johore may well be rendered as redundant as the ancient competition between trans-isthmian port cities. In modern accounts of the rise of Singapore, emphasis on the supreme advantage of its location at one end of the Straits of Malacca may lead one to question how trade prospered for more than a millennium without a port on the straits. My essay has tried to address that problem by pointing out that in history, trade routes have shifted significantly in response to developments in maritime technology and geopolitics, and are likely to shift again - whether we like it or not. [Note: In a remarkable irony, it emerges that Satingpra may also have been known in Sanskrit as Singhapura. This conclusion, made by Stargardt on the basis of “field data”, appears in Stargardt “Behind the Shadows”, p. 321. There is, however, reason to suspect the credibility of this revelation as Professor Geoff Wade of the Asia Research Institute informs me that Stargardt’s academic reputation is “very patchy”.]
For further reading about the Kra Canal on the internet, see: http://www.2bangkok..../kracanal.shtml
and http://www.gnasegara...gi?entry_id=410 (a fascinating forum exchange between gloating Malaysians and annoyed Singaporeans over the canal issue)