Paper Abstract

Melaka in the Long 15th Century Conference

2-4 AUG 19

Peter Borschberg

National University of Singapore


Dr Peter Borschberg teaches history at the National University of Singapore and is presently a visiting associate professor at the Asia-Europe Institute, University of Malaya.

Teaching and Research Interests

Dr Borschberg specializes in Europe-Southeast Asia relations and globalization during the period 1400-1900 and has authored several works touching on trade, war and diplomacy in the Singapore and Melaka Straits region.

Recent Research Projects

Dr Borschberg  significant publications include the co-authored volume, Seven Hundred Years: A History of Singapore (2019), as well as the Memoirs and Memorials of Jacques de Coutre (2013) and The Singapore and Melaka Straits: Violence, Security and Diplomacy in the Seventeenth Century (2010).

Melaka in the 15th Century Conference


When was Melaka founded and was it known earlier by another name? Exploring the Debate between Gabriel Ferrand and Gerret Pieter Rouffaer, 1918-1921, and its Long Echo in Historiography

A century ago, at the end of World War I, research on the Malay world was experiencing major breakthroughs on several fronts, but the greatest achievement at the time was without doubt George Coedès’ “rediscovery”, based on Asian sources, of a forgotten kingdom named Srivijaya.  His book, published in 1918, saw a wave of publications follow in its wake. Sources were read and reread in the hope of finding answers to unresolved issues and unidentified place names. Attention invariably also fell on Melaka. In a long article published by the French academic and diplomat Gabriel Ferrand in the very same year 1918, the question of Melaka’s founding date came under the spotlight.  What do the sources tell us?  What about Gaspar Correia’s claim that Melaka was a thriving port city for seven centuries before the arrival of the Portuguese?  Was the city—just like Temasek and Singapore—known perhaps by a different name in earlier times?

Ferrand’s publication provoked a detailed response from the Dutch academic Gerret Pietersz Rouffaer, who at one time served as director of the KITLV, the Royal Netherlands Institute for Language, Literature and Anthropology of the East Indies.  What was planned to be a response to Ferrand in a 20-odd page article quickly swelled into a detailed exposé running into the hundreds of pages.  The debate between Ferrand and Rouffaer over the exact dating of Melaka’s founding probably would have eluded some of the academic contemporaries who were not proficient in Dutch and French, especially in the English-speaking world.  Details of the showdown between the two illustrious academics transpire from the obituary of Rouffaer published by the Dutch historian of Java, N.J. Krom, in 1928.  The present paper reconstructs certain facets of this debate and makes a contribution to the ongoing discussions in Malaysia surrounding Melaka’s founding.