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The Memoirs and Memorials of Jacques de Coutre: Security, Trade and Society in 16th- and 17th-century Southeast Asia

PETER BORSCHBERG is a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society and teaches history at the National University of Singapore.

Translated by ROOPANJALI ROY

NUS Press (First Published, 2014)
453 pages including Bibliography and Index


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The Memoirs and Memorials of Jacques de Coutre: Security, Trade and Society in 16th- and 17th-century Southeast Asia provides a valuable first-hand account of the issues confronting the early colonial powers in Southeast Asia, and deep insights into the societies De Coutre encountered in the territory that today makes up Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Cambodia and the Philippines. The book is lavishly illustrated with 62 maps and drawings of the period, including many examples not previously published.

Jacques de Coutre was a Flemish gem trader who spent nearly a decade in Southeast Asia at the turn of the 17th century. He left history a substantial autobiography written in Spanish and preserved in the National Library of Spain in Madrid. Written in the form of a picaresque tale, with an acute eye for the cultures he encountered, the memoirs tell the story of his adventures in the trading centres of the day: Melaka, Ayutthaya, Cambodia, Patani, Pahang, Johor, Brunei and Manila. Narrowly escaping death several times, De Coutre was inevitably drawn into dangerous intrigues between the representatives of European power, myriad fortune hunters and schemers, and the rulers and courtiers in the palaces of Pahang, Patani, Siam and Johor.

In addition to his autobiography, De Coutre wrote a series of memorials to the crowns of Spain and Portugal that contain recommendations designed to remedy the decline in the fortunes of the Iberian powers in Southeast Asia, particularly against the backdrop of early Dutch political and commercial penetration into the region.

This is another book written and edited by the prolific scholar Peter Borschberg which allows insight into new historical information and interpretations of the early modern period in the Malay world for scholars, historians, and students. The early modern period was a dynamic one in Malay history, where important events shaped Southeast Asia. With this volume, Peter Borschberg has opened a door for many young researchers and more established historians to understand this history through the eyes of a contemporary observer: Jacobus van de Koutere, alias Jacques de Coutre (and later also Jaques do Couto), a native of Bruges.

De Coutre was an independent trader, dealing chiefly in precious stones, bezoars, and Indian textiles. He lived and traded for more than three decades in the port towns of Asia and Southeast Asia, especially Melaka where he was based between 1594 and 1603. His autobiography and memoirs written for the Spanish crown and the Portuguese viceroy in Goa, translated by Roopanjali Roy, have been made available in English for the first time. These documents recount De Coutre’s personal life alongside reports and accounts of Southeast Asia and his experiences of living in the Malay world. They include accounts of contemporary Melaka, and other Malay kingdoms of the peninsula and Melaka Strait, and the vast web of trading relations maintained by Portugal and Spain from the east coast of Africa to Japan.

According to Borschberg, De Coutre was clearly interested in far more than trade and commerce, and his writings provide an astonishingly detailed overview of the peoples, cultures, and regions he came into personal contact with, thus yielding rare glimpses into a pre-colonial Asian world that has long been eclipsed by imperialism and industrialisation.

De Coutre’s accounts allow insight into an incredible period of transition which included the disintegration of the Melaka empire, the establishment of the Johor kingdom, and the rise of Portuguese power in the Straits. One of the most interesting pieces of information pertains to the Portuguese colonisation of the Straits before the Dutch East India Company. The period from the 1520s to the 1600s in the Straits is always considered an era of conflict, war, and plunder among the kingdoms of Aceh, Portuguese Melaka, and the Johor Malays.

Nevertheless, De Coutre’s memoirs show how trade still flourished, especially between Portuguese Melaka and the Johor kingdom. These documents also reveal valuable information on contemporary weapons, money, precious stones, local kingdoms, orang laut, and most importantly, an account of the port of Singapore, which is mentioned as one of the best in the East, a thriving port rather than the ‘backwater’ it was misleadingly described as later by Stamford Raffles.

List of Abbreviations
List of Illustrations


I How I left my parents’ house and my homeland, and what happened to me until I reached Spain

II My voyage to the East Indies in the company of my brother in the year 1592

III The journey I made to the kingdom of Pahang in the year 1594 and the events that I experienced

IV The reception extended to the embassy and other things that happened to us in the city of Pahang

V Other events that happened before we reached Melaka

VI The voyage I made from Melaka to the kingdom of Johor in 1594 and what happened to me

VII How I went to the kingdom of Siam, accompanying an embassy that the captain of Melaka sent in the name of Your Majesty. What happened to us before we reached the port of the said kingdom in the year 1595

VIII In which the story continues until the point when the embassy arrived; the reception the embassy received

IX The arrival of the embassy and the reception the embassy received, a continuation of the previous chapter

X The entourage that accompanied the king when he ventured out and how he wished to send an ambassador to the King, Our Lord, and how the embassy’s hoax was discovered, a continuation of the previous chapter

XI How we tried to escape from the kingdom of Siam and how we were again given permission to leave, with which we returned to Melaka

XII What befell me on the voyage from Siam to Melaka and how the ambassador ordered 14 men to treacherously injure me despite his words of friendship, in revenge for the stab wounds I had given him in Siam

XIII The barbarities and some things that I saw in the kingdom of Siam over the course of the eight months when I was a captive of that king

XIV The justice meted out by the king of Siam and his tyranny, and how they cremated an elephant that had died, and how they worshipped it, because the king said that it was his father

XV How I went from Melaka to Manila in the year 1597. The events that I experienced before I arrived

XVI What happened to me in Manila, and the events that took place with Doctor Antonio de Morga and the Dutch; and what happened to me on the voyage while returning from Manila to Melaka

XVII The journey that I made to the kingdom of Patani and what happened to me during (this journey] before the Dutch sank one of my junks laden with wares, an incident in which I lost all the fortune that I had in the year 1602

XVIII The story continues and how the natives of Patani tried to kill me on the orders of the [Dutch] general; and how they killed Antonio de Saldanha; the reason why and the manner in which they did so. How the Muslims on the junk also tried to kill me during the voyage when I was returning to Melaka

XIX Why the king of Johor gave orders to kill some 50 Portuguese and many other native Christians from Melaka, from amongst whom two of my slaves and I escaped. A description of the same journey until I reached Melaka

XX The vast commerce that used to exist in the city of Melaka at the time when I lived there, and how I returned to India from the South and married in the city of Goa in the year 1603


I How one can do great damage to the Dutch if Your Majesty will give Your vassals, who are merchants, permission to outfit carracks to go to the East Indies, where they can capture booty and trade their wares

II About the commerce that used to take place in India, especially in Melaka, before the Dutch went to that state

III Information about building some castles and fortresses in the Straits of Singapore and other regions of the South, etc.

IV Information for Your Majesty to remedy the Estado da India


I Affidavit of Admiral Jacob van Neck concerning his dealings in Patani in the year 1602

II Affidavit of Jacob van Heemskerck concerning the atrocities committed by the Portuguese in the East Indies and the execution of several mates of Jacob van Neck’s crew at Macao

III Affidavit of Simon Lambertsz. Mau confirming that the senior merchant Lambert Biesman of Nijmegen was garrotted in prison in Manila, etc.

IV Second letter by Fernão de Albuquerque, Governor of Melaka, to the Dutch Admiral Jacob van Heemskerck, dated 26 March 1603

Glossary of Non-geographic Names, Currencies, Measures and Commodities
List of Place Names and Geographic Terms

Weight0.904 kg
Dimensions25.3 × 17.7 × 2.7 cm





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