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Johor Empire

The River Forts of Johor

Melaka was very much a maritime power, her fleets having absolute control of the Straits along its entire length - from the coast of northern Sumatra to the southernmost tip of the Malay Peninsula. This maritime supremacy also enabled her Laksmanas or admirals - Melaka's highest military rank - to dispatch troops rapidly to any part of its far flung territories - either to repel invaders, as it did the Siamese, or to mount conquests of its own on the Peninsula and across the Straits in Sumatra.

However, the military prowess of the Malay was also formidable on land. This is evident from not only the vast array (and quantity) of artillery that Melaka employed but also from the importance in Malay history and culture of the Malay fort. The Malay word for fort is 'kota' and it is no accident that the word also means 'large town' or 'city'. In fact, dozens of modern-day towns and cities in Malaysia still have 'Kota' as the prefix in their names. These were not just military stockades but were also administrative centres, seats of royal government and hubs of commerce.

There is very early evidence of Malay forts in Kedah and Perak, and Melaka itself was a heavily fortified city under the Sultans. However, this fort-building tradition probably began in earnest during the period of the Johor Empire. Pursued by the Portuguese and facing relentless attacks by other powers such as Acheh, the Johor Sultans built no less than eight forts along the whole length of the Johor river. These were located from Sayong Pinang on the river's watershed right down to Johor Lama and Kota Batu, more than 50 miles kilometres downstream, at the river's estuary.

Source: Kota-Kota Melayu, Abdul Halim Nasir, 1990, Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka

After the fall of Melaka 1511, Sultan Mahmud set up administrative centres at various parts of the remnants of his empire - Muar, Pagoh, Bentan and, finally, Kampar in Sumatra. When he died there in 1528, his successor Sultan Alauddin returned to Johor and set up his administrative centre at Pekan Tua, about 11km upriver from modern Kota Tinggi. Further downstream, he established a fort known as Kota Kara.

In June 1535, two large galleons and a fleet of smaller vessels, under Estavao da Gama, with 400 soldiers invaded Johor. He bombarded and attacked Kota Kara but the Malays repulsed the assault. Portuguese troops landed a few days later and shelled the fort from a neighbouring hill, but even they had to retreat. Spurred by their initial success, the Malays left their fortified ramparts and attacked the retreating Portuguese. However, caught in a murderous crossfire out in the open, the Malays were scattered and the Portuguese captured the abandoned fort, burning it to the ground.

Sultan Alauddin fled Pekan Tua and set up a fort further upriver in Sayong Pinang He returned shortly to Kota Kara and re-built it. However, Estavao da Gama attacked it again with 400 hundred Portuguese soldiers and a force of Malay mercenaries. Sultan Alauddin moved his capital to Johor Lama, nearer the Johor river estuary, and built a fort at Kota Batu nearby, to guard the river approach to the new capital.

Johor was threatened from another quarter in 1539, when Acheh attacked Johor's vassal, Aru, with a fleet of 160 vessels, manned by 12,000 Achinese, Melaka Malays, Malabaris, Gujeratis, and even Turkish soldiers. Sultan Alauddin mustered a fleet, with help from his allies in Siak and Perak, and invaded Aru the next year. He recaptured it, leaving only 14 of the invading Achinese vessels still afloat, and thousands of Achinese troops dead on the field of battle. Called the battle of Sungai Paneh, it was a glorious Malay victory, the most significant and crushing since they were ousted from Melaka.

In 1564, Johor was again at war with Acheh, who attacked Kota Batu and Johor Lama. The fort and town were captured and destroyed completely, with hundreds of cannon and artillery pieces seized as booty. The Johor Sultan himself was captured and brought in chains to Acheh, where he died shortly. The Achinese installed his son as Sultan Muzaffah Shah and he rebuilt Kota Batu, ringing its walls with cannon. However, in a move to assert his independence from his conquerors and probably to erase all memory of the sack of Johor Lama, Sultan Muzaffah moved his capital to Seluyut, 15km upstream near Kota Tinggi.
View of Bukit Seluyut, from the Johor River. The fort at
Seluyut was located on the summit of the hill. Tun Sri
Lanang, the writer of the Sejarah Melayu, is reputed to
have been born here in 1565. Source: Kota-Kota
Melayu, Abdul Halim Nasir, 1990, Dewan Bahasa
dan Pustaka

He died in 1571 and was succeeded by Sultan Ali Jalla Abdul Jalil Shah II. Sultan Ali rebuilt Johor Lama and enlarged Kota Batu, with a hill in the centre overlooking the ramparts and thick swamps and impenetrable forests surrounding its perimeter, providing a natural line of defence. He also introduced fortified citadels at strategic points on the fort and equipped it with hundreds of cannon. With such stout defences, Johor Lama quickly became a thriving centre of trade, rivaling even Melaka. This worried the Portuguese and, in 1576, their fleet attacked the fort but were beaten back. Another Portuguese fleet attacked again in 1578 but a murderous bombardment from the fort's ramparts set fires to and sank a number of their ships , and the Portuguese again retreated in disarray.

Plan of Kota Batu, on the Johor River.
Source: Kota-Kota Melayu, Abdul Halim
Nasir, 1990, Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka

However, Johor's growing strength and independence over the years began to annoy the Achinese, who still regarded themselves as Johor's overlords. In 1582, they attacked Kota Batu and Johor Lama but were beaten back. Ironically, the Johor Malays received help in the form ships and troops from the Portuguese, who saw Acheh as a far greater threat than Johor.

This dubious alliance was, however, predictably shattered when in 1586 the Sultan, with a fleet of 100 vessels, including 16 large galleys, besieged Melaka, the blockade causing great famine in the town. The Johor Malays were later joined by Minangkabaus from Naning and Rembau. A sortie by 100 Portuguese and 600 Malay mercenaries, all equipped with firearams, encountered the 2000-strong Minangkabau force and defeated them. Later, a Johor fleet of 120 ships, led personally by the Sultan, sailed into the harbour and launched a final assault. Sultan Abdul Jalil landed on one-side of the city , while his general Singaraja attacked the other, but both were beaten back by 'A Famosa's' impregnable walls.

Antonio de Noronha pursued the retreating Malays to the Johor river with a fleet of galleons but his large, slow moving ships could do nothing against the swift Malay galleys. The fleet pursuing was bombarded by the cannons at Kota Batu. But the Portuguese were later reinforced with fast, small galley and fustas, which repulsed an attack by 20 Malay boats. After bombarding Kota Batu, the Portuguese landed a force of about 300 men and assaulted it. The fort was bristling with cannons and defended by about ten to twelve thousand Johor Malays, Minangkabaus, Javanese, Terengganu Malays and allies from the vassal Sumatran states of Indragiri and Kampar. The Portuguese attack was very easily thrown back. A large landing party under the personal command of de Noronha proceeded overland, by-passing the fort, and attempted to storm Johor Lama. However, the Portuguese were yet again beaten back and they fled to their ships, back to Melaka.

Later that year, the Portuguese dispatched a much larger fleet from Goa, India, and beseiged Kota Batu and Johor Lama. On August 15th, they stormed the fort and town, capturing over 1000 bronze cannons, 1,500 muskets, 2,000 galleys and boats, and large amounts of gold and silver. Determined to crush all resistance, the Portuguese ships raided the entire length of the Johor River, destroying over 1200 Malay boats. Sultan Ali retreated upstream and built yet another fort at Batu Sawar, near Kota Tinggi. But the fort was quickly attacked by the Portuguese, who captured it and seized 20 cannon.

Source: Kota-Kota Melayu, Abdul Halim
Nasir, 1990, Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka
Johor seemingly vanquished forever, the Portuguese returned to Melaka. However, Sultan Ali rebuilt the fort at Batu Sawar. When he died in 1597, his son Sultan Alauddin Riayat Shah II assumed the Johor throne. His cousin, Raja Abdullah was appointed Regent and he constructed his own stout defences in a fort across the river from the fort at Batu Sawar, called Kota Seberang ('Fort on the Other Side').

In September 1606, the Dutch admiral Matelief visited Kota Batu Sawar and Kota Seberang. He recorded that the Batu Sawar fort was protected by sharpened wooden stakes; about 12m high, around its perimeter, and manned by about 3,000 to 4,000 armed soldiers.

Batu Sawar town itself had grown to become an important trading centre, with Matelief recording a vibrant export of tin, ivory, agarwood, pepper and other commodities. Imports from Portuguese, English, Chinese, Indian and Arab merchants included rich silks, porcelain, tea, tobacco and other goods.

However, Acheh was still at war with Johor and in 1613, the Achinese took the opportunity of capturing this rich prize by sending an invasion fleet led personally by its renowned Sultan, Iskandar Muda Mahkota Alam. The seige lasted three months but the fierce resistance of the Johor Malays was no match for the warlike Achinese. Both Sultan Alauddin and Raja Abdullah were captured, and brought to Acheh together with most of the Johor nobility, including the venerable Tun Seri Lanang, creator of the 'Sejarah Melayu'. Sultan Alauddin was restored to his throne in 1614, but was later again attacked by the Achinese, who suspected him of plotting alliances with their Dutch enemies. He was brought back to Acheh and executed.

Successive Sultans continued, at various times, to occupy Batu Sawar as the seat of their governments up to the reign of Sultan Abdul Jalil Shah III. During his reign, in 1673, an invasion fleet of 75 war boats from the Sumatran kingdom of Jambi attacked and captured the fort and capital. They carried off with them over 100,000 Dutch guilders and over a hundred cannons, capturing 2,500 Malay soliders. The Sultan managed to escape to Pahang, where he died, but Batu Sawar never again became the Empire's capital - abandoned and forgotten up to today.

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