Monday, 9 April 2012

“Here be Moors and Gentiles”: The first Englishman in Malaya

Ralph Fitch (ca. 1550 - 1611) was a gentleman merchant of London and was possibly the first English traveller to have visited the Malay Archipelago. Embarking on the ship 'Tiger' in 1583, he reached Malacca in 1588 and below is an extract from his chronicles with a brief description of the region.

The 10 of January I went from Pegu to Malacca, passing by many of the ports of Pegu, as Martavan, the island of Tavi [Tavoy], from whence cometh great store of tinne which serveth all India, the islands of Tanaseri [Tenasserim], Junsalaon [Junkceylon], and many others ; and so came to Malacca the 8 of February, where the Portugals have a castle which standeth near the sea. And the country fast without the towne belongeth to the Malayos, which is a kinde of proud people. They go naked with a cloth about their middle, and a little roll of cloth about their heads. 

Hither come many ships from China and from the Malucos, Banda, Timor, and from many other islands of the Javas, which bring great store of spices and drugs, and diamonds and other jewels. The voyages into many of these islands belong unto the Captain of Malacca, so that none may go thither without his licence, which yield him great sums of money every year. The Portugals here have often times wars with the king of Acheh, which standeth in the island of Sumatra, from whence commeth great store of pepper and other spices every year to Pegu and Mecca within the Red Sea, and other places.

Laban [Labuan] is an island among the Javas from whence come the diamonds of the new water. And they find them in the rivers, for the king will not suffer them to dig the rock. 

Jambi [Jambi] is an island among the Javas also, from whence come diamonds. And the king hath a mass of earth which is gold; it grows in the middle of a river, and when the king doth lack gold, they cut part of the earth and melt it, whereof cometh gold. This mas of earth doth appear but once in a year; which is when the water is low, and this is in the month of April. Binia is another island among the Javas, where the women travel and labour as our men do in England, and the men keep house and go where they will.

Interestingly, Fitch's journey is referred to indirectly by William Shakespeare in Act 1, Scene 3 of Macbeth, where the first witch cackles about a sailor's wife: "Her husband's to Aleppo gone, master of the Tyger."

Fitch's chronicles were crucial to the early successes of the English East India Company, which was formed 12 years after his journey to Malay waters and for which he became a valued consultant.

"Ralph Fitch : England's pioneer to India and Burma : his companions and contemporaries, with his remarkable narrative told in his own words" (John Horton Ryley, 1899) is available at my Sejarah Melayu Library. Click here to download a copy.