|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.
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.
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.
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.
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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