Beneath the modern skyscrapers of Singapore lie the remains of a much older trading port, prosperous and cosmopolitan and a key node in the maritime Silk Road. This seminal book synthesizes 25 years of archaeological research to construct the fourteenth-century port of Singapore in greater detail than is possible for any other Southeast Asian city. Within its defensive wall, the city was well-organized and prosperous, with a cosmopolitan population that included residents from China, other parts of Southeast Asia, and the Indian Ocean. Fully illustrated with more than 300 maps and color photos, Singapore and the Silk Road of the Sea presents Singapore’s history in the context of Asia’s long-distance maritime trade in the years between 1300 and 1800: it amounts to a dramatic new understanding of Singapore’s precolonial past.
The archaeology of Singapore: forgotten hints
If the Indian Ocean, the South China Sea, and the Java Sea are the arteries of Asian sea trade, the Straits of Melaka is its heart. Commerce has ﬂowed steadily through these arteries for more than 2,000 years. This introduction will show how an ancient maritime trade network evolved in Southeast Asia and gradually spread westward to India and eastward to China, forming an immense network linking millions of people spread along a coastline measuring more than 10,000 kilometres. This sea route is over 2,000 years old.
Several names have been suggested for this seaborne network. In this book, the name “Silk Road of the Sea” has been chosen. The term “Silk Road” has long been used to refer to the overland trade route from the Mediterranean across central Asia to China. Most who hear the term easily conjure up images of strings of heavily-laden camels, empty deserts, isolated caravanserais, constant threats of banditry, and doughty merchants willing to undergo immense hardships in order to reach the great civilization of China and return with precious luxuries to make themselves rich for life. The commodity that symbolizes this trade is silk: light, delicate, durable, and worth its weight in gold in western lands.
Historical sources tell us that silk was also shipped to the West by sea by the ﬁrst century AD. Few pieces of ancient silk have survived on land; none in the ocean. It was not one of the original commodities traded in south coastal Asia; nevertheless, desire for silk was one of the main forces that led to the great expansion of the network beginning in the seventh century. The combination of the familiar term “silk road” with “the sea” underlines the notion that, despite the fact that the overland route was much better known, in ancient times much of the-trade and communication between East and West occurred over water.
This book enables readers to appreciate the importance of another route that was much more important from both commercial and cultural points of view than the overland road, fabled though it was. Replace the camel with the ship, change the dusty dry deserts to an immensity of water; instead of the caravanserai, imagine a chain of seaports on the edge of the great Asian landmass; instead of nomadic robbers, think of pirates. Most of all, instead of small stocks of lightweight items like cloth, envision shipping 50,000 ceramic bowls, glass bottles of perfume, and hundreds of passengers all in one vessel, and you will begin to understand why the Silk Road of the Sea deserves more attention than it has received.
The famous Silk Road that ran across central Asia has received a great deal of attention. The Silk Road of the Sea, by contrast, has been almost completely ignored. This illustrates the ignorance that until recently characterized the ﬁeld of early seaborne commerce in Asia. As part of a long process of evolution, ancient Singapore played a role in the overall development of maritime trade in Asia. Only when readers are equipped with an understanding of the development of shipping and ports in early Southeast Asia will they be able to appreciate the complexity of the network that stimulated Singapore’s foundation in around 1300.
“New perspectives emerge in this publication, foremost among which is an understanding of Singapore’s historic position and role in the aptly-named “Silk Road of the Sea” …John Miksic also demonstrates that the archaeological encounter with Singapore’s precolonial past can indeed be a stimulating and thought-provoking venture into the texture of the island’s palimpsest.” —Iskander Mydin, Deputy Director, National Museum of Singapore
“… a lucid overview by the leading expert on Singapore’s role in world trade for more than half a millennium. After decades of ﬁeldwork, the results demonstrate the crucial role of archaeology in revealing the pattern of the past on the Maritime Silk Road, along which passed much of Asia’s trade.”—Roland Fletcher, Professor of Theoretical and World Archaeology, University of Sydney