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5 - A Seventeenth-Century Port Settlement in the Kallang Estuary

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  01 March 2024

Chong Guan Kwa
Affiliation:
ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute and National University of Singapore
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Summary

Former Raffles Professor of History Wong Lin Ken commented that none of his colleagues has been able to explain the absence of any port on Singapore before Raffles arrived to establish one. The implicit assumption underlying Wong's comment is that there should have been a settlement or port on Singapore because of its strategic location on the sailing and trading routes connecting the South China Sea and the Bay of Bengal. This essay attempts to connect the fragmentary evidence not available to the late Prof Wong and his colleagues to reconstruct a port settlement in the Kallang Estuary from the late sixteenth through much of the seventeenth century.

D’Erédia's 1604 Map

One of the maps drawn by the Portuguese-Malayan explorer (or descobridor, as he is described in contemporary accounts), cartographer and mathematician Manoel Godinho de Erédia in his Declaram de Malaca e India Meridional com o Cathay (Description of Melaka, Meridional India and Cathay) about his travels in the region at the beginning of the seventeenth century is of the Straits of Singapore. It is unlikely de Eredia visited Singapore, but his map was based on information available to him.

The map, entitled “Chorographic description of the Straits of Sincapura and Sabban, 1604 a.d.”, is oriented with Johor at the bottom of the map and Sumatra at the top. The map identifies several features on the east coast of “Sincapura”. The northernmost feature identified is Tanjong Rusa, south of which are Tanah Merah, Sungei Bedok, Tanjong Rhu and a “Xabandaria”, respectively. Tanjong Rusa refers to Changi Point today and may take its name from the shoals off its coast that were once known as Běting Kusah or Tanion Rusa, as Erédia marked it in his map. Tanah Merah refers to the red-orange weathered lateritic cliffs along the coast (which have been levelled today). They were a prominent landmark for navigators and pilots up to the nineteenth century.

It is similarly marked as “Red cliffs” in James Horsburg's 1806 chart of “Singapore and Malacca”. Later sea charts distinguish between the “Red Cliffs” of Tanah Merah and Bedok. Other early maps of Singapore transcribed this old Malay place name as “Badok”—in the vicinity of the “small red cliff ”.

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Publisher: ISEAS–Yusof Ishak Institute
Print publication year: 2023

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