Monday, February 19, 2018
Text Size

Search our archive

The Johor Sultanate

National History - Johor Sultanate

Fall of Malacca and the Beginnings of the Old Sultanate

As the collecting point for valuable spices of Maluku in eastern Indonesia, Melaka was a prime target for the Portuguese. Melaka fell after little more than a month’s siege as a consequence not only of Portuguese superior firearms and military tactics, but also due to weakened government preceding the invasion. According to the Sejarah Melayu, Sultan Mahmud Syah abdicated after ordering the execution of his bendahara, leaving his son, Sultan Ahmad Shah to face the onslaught of the Portuguese. With Melaka’s fall, both fled into the interior and went their separate ways to Muar and then to Pahang, finally settling on the island of Bintan in the Riau-Lingga archipelago, where the Sultan Ahmad Shah murdered his son and resumed the throne.

Many attempts to re-conquer Melaka were made from this new base, but the 1517, 1520 and 1521 attacks were ultimately unsuccessful. Consequently, a Portuguese expedition to Bintan in 1526 destroyed the new court and Sultan Mahmud Syah was forced to retreat to Kampar in east coast Sumatra, where he died. His successor, Sultan Alauddin Riayat Syah established a new royal residence at Pekan Tua in the upper reaches of the Johor River between 1530-36 and became the first of the Melaka dynasty to rule in what became known as the kingdom of Johor.

Meanwhile, the Portuguese, who aimed to control maritime trade not only in the Straits but throughout the region, were determined to annihilate their rivals. In Melaka, they proclaimed their triumph by evicting all Muslim leaders and building an impressive fort, which they aptly named ‘A Formosa’ (the Famous).

The Triangular War

The new sultan established a new capital by the Johor River and, from there, continued to harass the Portuguese in the north. He consistently worked together with his brother, Sultan Muzaffar Shah in Perak and the Sultan of Pahang to retake Malacca, which by this time was protected by the fort  A Formosa.

On the northern part of Sumatra around the same period, Aceh was beginning to gain substantial influence over the Straits following the fall of Melaka. Muslim traders and scholars flocked to the Aceh port as Malacca was now in the hand of foreign Christians, making it an important rival commercial competitor.

With the Portuguese and Johor frequently locking horns, Aceh launched multiple raids against both sides in order to tighten its grip on the straits. The rise of Aceh encouraged the Portuguese and Johor to sign a truce and join forces against Aceh. The truce, however, was short-lived and with Aceh severely weakened, Johor and the Portuguese had each other in their sights again.

Dutch Malacca

In the early 17th century, the presence of the Dutch commercial trade organization, the VOC (Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie), in the Straits of Melaka served to redirect historical events. Johor saw the Dutch as a potential ally against its enemies, the Aceh and the Portuguese, which had frequently conducted raids against Johor in their bid to dominate economic and poltical affairs in the Straits. As early as 1606, the Dutch VOC and Johor negotiated an alliance whereby the Dutch would control Melaka while Johor would control the Riau-Lingga archipelagos and surrounding islands in the event of Melaka’s takeover. Following several attempts made to take over Melaka in 1606, 1608 and 1615, the combination of Dutch and Johor forces headed by Bendahara Skudai, defeated the Portuguese in January 1641. For Johor, the defeat of the Portuguese meant that honor was restored. As per the agreement with Johor in 1606, the enterprising Dutch took control of Malacca and agreed not to seek territories or wage war with Johor[1]. In acknowledgement of Johor’s assistance, the Dutch granted Johor exclusive trading privileges at Melaka and guaranteed protection against Aceh. Hostilities between Johor and Aceh were temporarily staunched by the 1641 peace treaty. Malacca then became a Dutch territory and remained so until the  Anglo-Dutch Treaty of 1824 was signed.

Johor-Jambi war

Across the Straits, Jambi thrived as a regional economic and political power owing to the success of its pepper trade and soon began to demand emancipation from Johor’s empire. Soon in 1666, it tried to break free of Johor and between 1666 and 1673, a civil war erupted between Johor and the Sumatran state. The wars with Jambi temporarily weakened Johor’s control over its dependencies, especially after the 1673 sacking of the capital in Batu Sawar. For example, in 1677, the Minangkabau migrant communities residing in Sungai Ujong, Naning and Rembau rebelled against the Dutch demands for taxes and the impostion of trading restrictions. Under the leadership of Raja Ibrahim (a representative from their native Pagarruyung), they conducted an abortive attack on Melaka in an attempt to create a separate state for themselves. Lack of support and co-ordination from other Minangkabau settlements on the Peninsula, however, resulted in their failure to gain independence from Malay/Dutch overlordship.

The war with Jambi was ultimately settled in Johor’s favour due to the services of Laksamana Tun Abdul Jamil. Following the destruction of the capital in 1673, Sultan Abdul Jalil took refuge in Pahang, but instructed the laksamana to re-establish the kingdom. Working from a secure base among Johor’s Orang Laut in Riau, Tun Abdul Jamil succeeded in re-capturing Johor and restroing its trade and prestige in the Malay world. During the reign of Sultan Abdul Jalil Shah III in the late seventeenth century. Johor emerged as the most powerful authority along the Straits of Malacca. Soon afterward, Jambi declined.

Bugis and Minangkabau influence in the kingdom

In 1699, the last sultan from the Malaccan dynasty, Sultan Mahmud Shah II, was assassinated by a group of nobles. Malay histories name the individual responsible for the fatal blow, a man called Megat Seri Rama whose pregnant wife had been disemboweled at the orders of the sultan as she had taken a slice of the royal jackfruit. The regicide had grave consequences on the state; apart from being treason (derhaka) which merited the most terrible of punishments, the assassinated king had not left any heirs to inherit the royal throne. In September 1699, the bendahara was chosen as ruler of Johor with the title Sultan Abdul Jalil IV. However, the changed order was met with consternation by a large portion of the Malay society, which had been indoctrinated for many centuries with the divine status of the Palembang royalty. The enormity of derhaka created deep tensions within the kingdom which was quickly detected and exploited by two migrant groups in the area: the Bugis of south Sulawesi and the Minangkabau of Sumatra.

In 1717, Raja Kecil appeared in Siak, one of Johor’s outlying terrirotires in east coast Sumatra, claiming to be the posthumous son of Sultan Mahmud. Due to his claims of royal legitimacy, he was largely supported by the Orang Laut and native Malays and won their allegiance in the 1718 war on the Riau River. The Johor navy and nobility deserted ranks in favour of the invading king and Raja Kecil was thus able to capture the Johor capital on Riau and install himself as the new ruler of Johor (Sultan Abdul Jalil Rahmat Shah). However, at the instigation of the Bugis peoples, his conquest was short-lived.

In the late seventeenth century, the Bugis peoples of Sulawesi had left their native lands and ventured westwards to form settlements in the Johor dependencies of Selangor, Linggi and Kelang. Since Mahmud’s death in 1699, they refused to bow to authority and the murder of Sultan Abdul Jalil by Raja Siak prompted them to re-establish a measure of royal authority in Johor as a focus for Malay loyalty. In 1721, they deposed Raja Kecil and installed as ruler the 20-year-old prince Sulaiman, son of the assassinated king. However, his position was little more than a figurehead, for the Bugis had all assumed exalted honorifics and one, Daeng Marewa, had been named yang dipertuan muda, a title meaning ‘junior ruler’, a title which was traditionally assigned to the heir of the throne. The Bugis dominance in Johor’s affairs were aptly summed up in an eighteenth century Bugis chronicle from Johor – ‘The Yang Dipertuan Besar (Sultan Sulaiman) is to be like a woman… and the Yang Dipertuan Muda is like her husband. Should any question arise, it is he who is to decide it’.

Johor administration

The Johor Sultanate inherited the system of administration previously practised in Malacca. The highest authority was vested in the hands of the  Yang di-Pertuan, who was assisted by a body known as the Majlis Orang Kaya (Council of Rich Men) tasked with advising the Sultan. Among them were the Bendahara, TemenggongLaksamanaSyahbandar and  Seri Bija Diraja. During the 18th century, the Bendahara lived in Pahang and the Temenggong Johor in Teluk Belanga, Singapore. Each one managed the administration of their individual areas based on the level of authority bestowed upon them by the Sultan of Johor.

The compostion of decentralized Johor Empire consisted of four main fiefs and the Sultan's territory. The fiefs were Muar and its territories under the Raja Temenggung of Muar[7]; Pahang under the stewardship of the Bendahara [8]; Riau under the control of Yang di-Pertuan Muda and mainland Johor and Singapore under the Temenggung. The remaining Empire belonged to the Sultan, who resided in Lingga. All the Orang Kayas reported directly to the Sultan with the exception of Raja Temenggung Muar, whose sovereignty was recognized by the Sultan

Extent of the Empire

As the Sultanate replaced the Malacca Sultanate, it followed that the extent of its territorial area covered the southern Malay peninsular, parts of south-eastern Sumatra and the Riau Islands and its dependencies. This territory included the vassal states of PahangMuarJohor mainland and  Riau Islands. The empire’s administrative centre shifted multiple times. Different locations included Sayong Pinang, Kota Kara, Seluyut, Johor Lama, Batu Sawar and  Kota Tinggi; all on mainland Johor and later at Riau and Lingga. It then shifted with the birth of Modern Johore Sultanate to Tanjung Puteri, known today as Johor Bahru.

The fall of the Old Johor Sultanate

Singapore and the British

The Riau-Johor kingdom harboured unresolved Bugis-Malay conflicts that came to the fore in 1812, when Sultan Mahmud died leaving two sons. The Bugis faction, led by the yamtuan muda, favoured the younger, Raja Abdul Rahman while the Malays, under the Bendahara of Pahang and the Temenggung, supported the elder, Raja Husain. According to Malay tradition, the heir to the throne had to be physically present by the dying sultan's side in order to be appointed the new ruler. As Tengku Hussein had been away in Pahang during the death of the sultan, the Bugis seized the chance to instate him as the new ruler. Furthermore, in 1818, the Dutch signed a treaty with Abdul Rahman recognizing him as sultan in return for the re-establishment of the Dutch post on Riau.

The British did not respond well to these developments as they feared it would threaten their trading interests in the East. In particular, Sir Stamford Raffles, Lieutenant-governor of Sumatra, was convinced of the need to establish a new base in the region to compete with the Dutch trading monopoly in the archipelago. Though many in the British East India Company  opposed such an idea, Raffles managed to convince  Lord Hastings of the Company, then Governor General of British India, to side with him. With the governor general's consent, he and his expedition set out to search for a new site and arrived in Singapore on 29 January 1819. He discovered a small Malay settlement at the mouth of theSingapore River headed by the  Temenggung of the Johor sultanate and signed a treaty which gave the British the right to establish a factory on the land.

In order to consolidate the rights he had acquired, Raffles entered the succession dispute on the side of the elder prince by recognizing Hussein as the legitimate successor in Riau-Johor. On 6 February 1819, a financial settlement was made and a formal treaty signed with the new sultan. Their agreement stated that the British would acknowledge Tengku Hussein as the "legitimate ruler" of Johor (and consequently Singapore); both he and the Temenggung would receive a yearly stipend from the British. In return, Tengku Hussein would allow Raffles to establish a trading post in Singapore. However, the sultan was treated merely as a ‘legal necessity’ and with the passing of time, faded into the background. A new European power had now been established in the area.

Anglo-Dutch Treaty 1824 and the emergence of independent states Johor and Pahang

Tensions between the Dutch and British over Singapore persisted until 1824, when they signed the  Anglo-Dutch Treaty. Under the terms of that treaty, the Dutch officially withdrew their opposition to the British presence in Singapore. According to its terms, the Malay world was divided down the Melaka Straits. Islands south of Singapore, including Java and Sumatra, were to remain under Dutch possession while the Peninsula would be a British ‘sphere of influence’. Thus, the old Sultanate of Johor was divided into the Sultanate of Johor with Sultan Hussein as its sovereign and the Sultanate of Riau-Lingga with Sultan Abdul Rahman as its sovereign, who ruled under the auspices of the Dutch.

Meanwhile, the Orang Kaya of Riau-Johor were quick to seize the potential advantages opened up by the signing of the 1824 treaty. During the latter part of the eighteenth century, the independence of the bendahara family and its hold over Pahang had increased markedly. The division of territories meant that the Riau-Johor court could no longer intervene in Pahang affairs without incurring European displeasure. Bendahara Ali (1806-41) declared his autonomy in 1853 and in 1881, his son assumed the title of sultan. The nineteenth-century Hikayat Pahang demonstrated the birth of a new royal house and a Pahang’s status as a distinct political unit.

Moreover, Riau-Johor’s temenggung family grew increasingly powerful as they had gained the favour of the British overlords by helping in the acquisition of Singapore. Sultan Husein’s death in 1835 resulted in the ceding of all administrative powers in Johor proper to Temenggung Ibrahim (1841-61). Although British officials were wary of his reputation as a pirate, he was still the best candidate for paramount chief, and he governed mainland Johor until his death. The links with Riau gradually dissipated, and by 1885 the position of the temenggung family was sufficiently secure to declare Ibrahim’s son, Abu Bakar, sultan. As in the case of Pahang, formal independence from Riau was instated.



Add comment

Security code


English Chinese (Simplified) Chinese (Traditional) French Japanese Malay