An Overview of the Malay Archipelago

The Malay archipelago is defined by the islands and penisula where the various people of the malay language family live. For the purposes of this simulation, this includes contemporary peninsula Malaysia, Singapore, Sarawak and Sabah Malaysia, Brunei and nearly all the islands of contemporary Indonesia (Sumatra, Borneo, Java, Bali, Lombok, the lesser Sunda Islands, Sulawesi, the Maluku islands but excepting West Papua, which is inhabited by the Papuan people) and Timor-Leste. The term "Ten Thousand Islands" is merely a narrative abstraction. There's actually somewhere between thirteen and seventeen thousand islands in the Malay archipelago. No one to this day is really quite sure.

The archipelago is the largest in the world, spreading over thousands of kilometers and seperating the Asian and Australian landmasses. The largely volcanic geology and tropical climate is home to an enormous variety of flora, fauna and natural effects. In terms of natural effects, there is the multi-coloured crater lakes of Flores, the powerful and trembling volcanic power of Krakatua and Gunung Agung, the tropical rainforests of Borneo, the striking white sands of the Gili islands and the glistening wetlands of central Java. In terms of flora and fauna, the abundance is overwhelming, ranging from the multitudes of monkeys, swampland crocodiles, tigers, buffalos, the Javanese black rhino, the exotic greater bird of paradise and the feared Komodo dragon.

Hominids first arrived to the archipelago some 800,000 years ago. Homo Sapiens first made their appearance some 40,000 years ago from south-east Asia and travelled throughout using land bridges that connected the myriad islands due to the Ice Age. Around 3,000 years ago bronze working spread from southern China. The important bronze casting and bronze drum making centre in Annam and Tonkin in contemporary Vietnam was evidently introduced to the archipelago as drums and their stone casts have been found throughout.

The introduction of wet-field rice cultivation suited the volcanic soil of Java and Bali and the labour-intensity of the work required inter-village cooperation, which led to the development of the earliest kingdoms, around the first century AD. Trade, initially between the villages and neighbouring islands and later with China and India, also began around this time. It is widely believed that through these trade routes, Hinduism was introduced. Early Hindu inscriptions dated from the 3rd century AD have been found as far apart as Sumatra and Sulawesi and early rulers in the archipelago are often presented as earthly incarnations of Shiva or Vishnu.

By the 5th century there was a large number of small Hindu kingdoms throughout the archipelago of which the Tarumengara kingdom of west Java is worthy of note. In the 7th century AD, the Buddhist Sriwijaya kingdom was established in southern Sumatra, around the region of Palembang and survived for some four hundred years. Controlling the important Melaka Straits and the trade in spices, wood and precious stones, it extended north into Siam (contemporary Thailand) and into West Borneo. It walso was a renowned location for religious and scholarly thought, with up to one thousand monks.

Neverthless, the Sriwijaya was not large or powerful and only had control of the important coastal port towns and their hold over more distant was weak at best. In reality, it is best described as a federation of principalities rather than a Kingdom as such. When the Cholas of southern India attacked in the 12th century the kingdom broke up into its constituent parts. Meanwhile in central Java the rival Buddhist Saliendra and Hindu Sanjaya, or Mataram, kingdowms flourished. Unlike the Sriwijaya, both of this kingdoms had large populations and produced lasting monuments such as the Buddhist wonder of the world, Borobudur and the many Hindu temples of Prambanan. Like the Sriwijaya, both these kingdoms, through a combination of their rivalry and internecine warfare, gradually lost control in Java as a new empire, the Majapahit.

Founded in East Java in 1292 AD, the Hindu Majapahit ("bitter gourd") Empire is often referred to the archipelago's "golden age". Their high point was in the 14 century, when they had at least partial control over Java, Bali, Sumatra, Borneo, Sulawsi, Lombok and Timor and weilded considerable influence in the courts of China, Vietnam, Cambodia and Siam. During this period, the famed historical document, the Nagaraketagama was written. In just over one hundred years however, the empire was challenged by a massive revolt in north Java and was confronted by the arrival of Islam. Greatly weakened, the empire rebased itself in Bali, where it survived for another one hundred years.

Islam first arrived in the archipelago in the 5th century AD as Indian Gurjarat merchants arriving in Aceh brought the message of Mohammed. These were soon followed by traders from Arabia, who founded small settlements along the east coast of Sumatra and the religion spread along the coastline and then inland in Borneo and Java and the important port town of Melaka. Small sultanates appeared in Demak, Cirebon, Jepara and Banten who, at various times, controlled large sections of northern Java. The Banten sultanate was the one which stepped into the power vaccuum left by the fall of the Majapahit Empire. This was also the time of the famous Wali Songo, nine holy men, who spread the word of Islam throughout Java.

Following Vasco de Gama's journey around the south African cape in 1498, large numbers of Portuguese ships appeared in the early 1500s. The Portuguese weren't interested in establishing an empire for the sake of the own glory as such, but rather were interested in becoming rich as quickly as possible. The natural resources of the archipelago, and the Spice Islands (Moluccas) in particular (pepper, nutmeg, cloves, ginger, cinnamon), where highly prized and ideal cargo (light, long-lasting, and commanding a high price per weight and volume) . In 1511 the Portuguese, under the command of Alfonso d'Albuquerque took control of the supposedly invincible port of Melaka. The following year Alfonso's assistant, Magellan, would take control of the Spice Islands.

Magellan, however, had a significant dispute with the Portuguese king (he was refused a promotion) and defected to Spain. The Spanish established themselves in the Phillipines in 1521 and have initiated a bloody war over control of the Spice Islands. Despite this European and incursion and the arrival of Christianity, life in the rest of the archipelago continues as normal - with small kingdoms, principalties and sultnates competing over control of the temporal world and the Islam, Hindu, Buddhist and animist faiths competing over the spiritual world.

This is the world of the Malay archipelago of 1525 - European powers have made an arrival and are conducting a bloody war against each other for control of natural resources. Islamic sultanates strive to expand as the ancient Hindu kingdoms struggle to maintain their former glory. Small bands of tenacious Buddhist scholars and monks continue to exist. Traders from India, China, Thailand and the Arabic lands are abound - and so are many pirates. Indigenous animist tribes remain deeply embedded throughout the rugged landscape, ranging from the peaceful and accomodating to headhunters and cannibals (and sometimes both at the same time). And wherever one goes there are stories of magic, spirits, mythical beasts, and great treasures to be found. With ten thousand islands, there's plenty of opportunities to be experienced!