Did you know?: Ancient Trading Centres in the Malay Peninsula

© UNESCO / Toby Molenar

Archaeological research has identified a nuanced trade system forming in the Malay Peninsula around the 6th and 7th centuries. The earliest of these sites, situated both on the east and west coast of the Malay Peninsula, were predominantly collection centres to which local products were transported before being sold elsewhere. Over time entrepôts, large trading centres on the Maritime Silk Roads between east and west, appeared in the peninsula as these maritime routes came to dominate global trade. These were mainly located on the West coast at the Northern entrance of the Straits of Malacca, which became an increasingly important route for global trade.

Collecting centres in the Malay Peninsula, such as Kampung Sungai Lang in the Kuala Langat district and Batu Buruk in Kuala Terengganu, emerged on both the west and east coasts of the Peninsula. However, the volume of trade handled by these collecting centres was comparatively much smaller than that which occurred at the entrepôts, or trade hubs, which emerged from the first millennium AD onwards alongside the Maritime Silk Roads.

In contrast, entrepôts were true super centres for trade where goods from the Near East, the Indian subcontinent, and China were landed, sold and reshipped to their final destinations. In the case of Malaysian entrepôts these included forest products and minerals from which tin was extracted. These sites were identified by archaeologists based on the evidence they left behind, including the remains of Middle Eastern glassware, stone beads, and trade wares from China.

With the rise of entrepôts, and the feeder points which supplied them with regional goods, in the 6th and 7th century AD the pattern of trade across the region became more structured and occurred at various scales , with auxiliary points facilitating major centres. During this time the Straits of Malacca where particularly important to Silk Roads trade, linking regions west of the Bay of Bengal with those bordering on the South China Sea and further north.  

However, archaeological evidence from Thailand suggests that regular trade links between this region and the Indian subcontinent were established long before the mid-first millennium AD. For example, a few Roman "carnelian intaglios" (an engraved brownish-red semi-precious gemstone) have been found in the Krabi province in Thailand. Whilst these may have reached the region via land routes, archaeological evidence recently found in Bali in Indonesia, including sherds of Indian rouletted ware (pottery fragments of a distinctive type of ceramic) and Indian glass beads, suggests a long distance maritime trade route may have existed from as early as the first century AD.

Located at the junction between the Indian Ocean and the China Seas, the Malay Peninsula played a vital role in the trade between east and west, leaving a rich history of contacts and exchange between the peninsula and mainland South East Asia. As was the case across the length of the Maritime Silk Roads, these trade links were accompanied by a wider exchange of ideas, cultures and languages. From at least 200 BCE, Chinese merchants sailed as far south as the straits of Malacca and met and traded with both Indonesian people and merchants from across the Indian subcontinent. Feeder points and trading centres grew up on coasts along these trading routes and over time the interactions facilitated by the emergence of entrepôts left a considerable mark on the cultural heritage of the region.


See also:

Sri Lankan Harbour Cities and the Maritime Silk Roads

The Use of the Malay Language in Coastal Javanese Literature

The Evolution of the Arabic language in the Silk Roads

Iraq, a Centre of Exchanges along the Silk Roads

The Spread of Islam in Southeast Asia through the Trade Routes

Gyeongju and the Silk Roads

Nara at the end of the Silk Roads

Ancient Monastic Hospital System in Sri Lanka

Brunei in the Maritime Silk Roads

Khwarazm Region and the Silk Roads

Quanzhou – The Heart of the Maritime Silk Roads

Mongolian Nomadism along the Silk Roads

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