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Johor Empire

Sixteenth Century Malay military arms and tactics
Extracts from Godinho de Eredia's 'Description of Malaca' (1613)

The civilized Malayo natives are honey-coloured and of pleasant appearance, with oval face, rather small eyes, and medium nose: the head is covered with an abundance of black, bushy hair: round the forehead they tie a silk band or red cloth in place of a turban.

Their bodies are well-built: they wear a thin " baju " or short shirt made of muslin, and round the waist a skirt of Choromandel cloth: this is rolled round so as to leave the right leg uncovered: in the waist they carry a knife 2 palms long: this is a dagger-blade called a " Crys " ('keris'). They walk with a confident gait: they go bare-footed without sandals. ....

The armed forces of the Malayos do not follow the ordered military tactics of Europe: they only make use of attacks and sallies in mass formation: their sole plan is to construct an ambush in the narrow paths and woods and thickets, and then make an attack with a body of armed men: whenever they draw themselves up for battle, they acquit themselves badly and usually suffer heavy losses.

The arms which they ordinarily use in warfare are the sword, shield, lance, bows and arrows, and blow-pipes with poisoned darts. At the present day, in consequence of intercourse with us, they use muskets and ordnance.

The sword, a blade measuring 5 palms in length, is called Padan ('pedang') among them: like the Turkish sword, it has a single edge. The dagger, called Cris ('keris') a blade measuring 2 palms in length, is made of fine steel; it bears a deadly poison; the sheath is of wood., the hilt is of animals' horn, or of rare stone, or of gold and precious gems.

The steel is treated in such a way that every injury is followed by immediate death when the wound draws blood. Iron, being constituted of earthy material, and of a substance which is more malleable than other metals (as Aristotle notes Aleteorologica ch. 6. in 4 Meteorelogica, chapter 6) yields a large quantity of rust and dross. So the natives soak the iron in water and in muddy pools for some time: they then treat it in the fire, refining it till the iron is clean and pure - a method mentioned by Pliny in Book 34 chapter 14.

Then, after polishing the blade of steel, they smear it with a poison so deadly that death soon ensues after any injury which draws blood, wherever inflicted.

So these Malayos use much poison on all their weapons, especially the points of arrows, whether made of iron or wood, or the teeth of animals or fish, or of "nyboes " ('nibong').

Their bows are larger than the bows of Persia.

The lance called "azagaya " is 10 palms in length: these lances are much used as missiles.

There are other lances, as much as 25 palms long: besides a great number of " soligues " made of " nyboes and used as missiles.

Their artillery, as a rule, is not heavy: formerly they used mortars and swivel-guns made of various metals: to-day they employ larger pieces, and battery-cannon, besides many kinds of fire-arms, including small arms and arquebuses. Regarding the employment of artillery amongst the, Malayos, we know that on the conquest of Malaca in the year 1511, Affonco de Alboquerque captured much small artillery, esmerils, falconets, and medium-sized sakers: these could not have come from Meca in Arabia where they use larger pieces of the second order, such as battery-cannon: probably these came from Pegu and Syam, where they had an establishment for casting smaller artillery, of the first order, and a foundry for every other kind of metal-work; this thev had learnt from the Attayos and the Chinas, who first introduced artillery, which was invented after the rebellions against the Empire of Attay or Cattay.

Thence the invention spread to Germany, and to Europe, and throughout the world, in the year 1378. ....

The fortresses and fortifications of the Malayos were usually structures composed of earth placed between plarrk uprights: many houses, too, were built in this style, besides stores or " godoens ", subterranean buildings in which the merchants stored the cloths from Choromandel to ensure against fire, for the houses were covered with thatch.

But we do find some buildings made of shaped stones joined together without mortar or pitch: this is the style of work adopted by the people who inhabit the mouth of the River Ganges: Pliny speaks of their buildings as the most ancient in the Indias Extra-Ganges.

In this simple style were built the principal fortresses and royal palaces; differing from the new style of architecture of which Vitruvius treats in Book 2 chapter 7 of his work on architecture dedicated to Caesar Augustus.

Usually, however, the natives of Ujontana ('Hujung Tanah' - the Malay Peninsula) use fortifications and enclosures and palisades made of big timber, of which there is a large quantity along the River Panagim on the same coast, where one also finds another kind of timber, namely "nyboes" ('nibong') palms, very hard and strong, for constructing defences: they are almost the same shape as the date-palms of Arabia.

This tree measures 8 fathoms from the ground to the top of the trunk, where there is a cluster of leaves resembling palm-leaves; it is quite round; massive, with a firm heart; rough, hard, and rat r prickly: the outside bark is as tough as iron.

These " nyboes" ('nibong') palms are used for fortifying the centres and towns of the civilized peoples, for as a rule the majority of the wooden houses in Ujontana are built on piles of this timber, especially at the ports in the inhabited areas of Malaca, Batusavar (Batu Sawar), Oulor(?), Pam (Pahang), Patane (Pattani), Perat (Perak), and Queda (Kedah).

In addition to their fortifications, they dig deep pits in front of wooden fences; these pits contain traps and pointed sticks treated with poison; they also make use of holes covered with branches, and of traps set in ambush, with which they inflict much damage.

So in olden times their fortresses, besides being made merely of earth, were built in a simple form, without the proper military points: nowadays, in consequence of intercourse with us. they have built their fortresses with the proper defences required by the art of gunnery. ....

The native boats of Ujontana are of no great size.

The " balos " ('balok') used for cargo, are propelled by means of breast-oars: they also have sails which are almost the same shape as the sails of " alfragattas ".

They use no hard wood except for the hull, all the upperworks being covered with leaves of " Nypeiras " ('nipah') palms interlaced with cane rods, for preventing the entrance of the sea-water.

They have 2 masts or poles fitted with rigging made of rottas " ('rotan') rope, and sails of matting made from another kind of palm, the " Pongo " (?).

They have 2 rudders running through the poop of the " balos one on each side, to guide the ship.

These " rotas " are long, thin plants: the thicker varieties in this country are as thick as sugar-canes'. and Tjite solid, with knots. it is of these that they make the ropes and hawsers of the boats which sail with cargoes of spices and metals along the coast of Ujontana and the Chersonese, and to the neighbouring islands as well: the natives do not, however, venture to navigate the ocean in these boats because they are made of fragile timber.

In naval warfare they use different boats, smaller ones, about the size of " lancharas" ('lancar') and of "bantis " ('banting') propelled by breast-oars: they have 2 rudders and 2 masts. For service in fishing and for river-traffic they use " balloes ('balang') and " nambangues ", with small hand-paddles worked by mere arm power: they travel swiftly, singing harmoniously in chorus.

(Eredia's 'Desciption of Malaca' is available as Malaysian Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, Reprint 14, 1997, RM55).

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