Urban Impermanence on the Southern Malay Peninsula: The Case of Batu Sawar Johor (1587-c.1615)

  • Received : 2021.01.10
  • Accepted : 2021.04.02
  • Published : 2021.06.30


This article examines the urban example of Batu Sawar which served as the capital of the Johor kingdom between 1587 and circa 1615. Around the middle of the eighteenth-century European reference works continued to describe Batu Sawar as the capital of Johor, even though the city had long ceased to serve as a trading center, let alone as Johor's capital, and probably no longer existed. Such observations raise the question of urban impermanence-the transience of sizeable settlements with reference to the Malay Archipelago. Two overarching questions form the backbone of the investigation: First, why did Batu Sawar rise as a regional trading center, and second, what are the reasons that contributed to its decline? Batu Sawar's fate was sealed by a combination of factors that included poor defenses, multiple external shocks, destruction by fire, court politics and rivalry between the early colonial powers.



  1. Aduarte, D. (1640). Historia de la Provincia del Sancto Rosario de la Orden de Predicadores en Philippinas, Iapon, y China. En el Colegio de Sancto Thomas, por Luis Beltran impressor de libros.
  2. Anon. (1602-1795). Pieces concerning Patani, Calicut (Malabar, Siam, Japan and Johor). The Hague, National Archives of the Netherlands, VOC. Ms. 1054.
  3. Borschberg, P. (Ed.). (2015). Journal, memorials and letters of Cornelis Matelieff de Jonge: Security, diplomacy and commerce in 17th-century Southeast Asia. NUS Press.
  4. Borschberg, P. (2016). Batu Sawar Johor: a regional centre of trade in the early seventeenth century. In Early Modern Southeast Asia, 1350-1800 (pp. 164-181). London: Routledge.
  5. Borschberg, P. (2017). The Value of Admiral Matelieff's Writings for Studying the History of Southeast Asia, c.1600-20, Journal of Southeast Asian Studies, 48(3), 414-35.
  6. Borschberg, P. (2019). Three early-17th century maps by Manuel Godinho de Eredia, Journal of the Malaysian Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society (hereafter JMBRAS), 92(2), 1-28.
  7. Borschberg, P. & Khoo, B. J. Q. (2018). Singapore as a Port City, c.1290-1819: Evidence, Frameworks and Challenges, JMBRAS, 91(1), 1-27.
  8. Brito Rebello, J. I. de, (Ed.). (1903). Livro de Marinharia. Tratado da Agulha de Marear de Joao de Lisboa. Roteiros, sondos, e outros conhecimentos relativos a navegacao, Codice do seculo XVI, etc. Imprensa Lipanio da Silva.
  9. Broeck, A. van den. (1609). Invoices and expenses made at Batu Sawar in Johor, 1 Jan. 1608 to 2 Feb. 1609. The Hague, National Archives of the Netherlands, VOC Ms. 626.
  10. Colenbrander, H. T., & Coolhaas, W.Ph. (Eds.). (1919-1953). Jan Pieterszoon Coen: Bescheiden Omtrent Zijn Bedrijf in Indie, 9 vols. Martinus Nijhoff.
  11. Cortesao, A., & Teixeira da Mota, A. (1987). Portugaliae Monumenta Cartographica, 9 vols. Imprensa Nacional-Casa da Moeda.
  12. Costa Veiga, A. Botelho da, (Ed.). (1936). Relacao das Plantas & Descripcoes de todas as Fortalezas, Cidades & Povoacoes que os Portuguezes tem no Estado da India Oriental. Biblioteca Nacional.
  13. Coutre, J. de. (2014). The Memoirs and Memorials of Jacques de Coutre. Security, Trade and Society in 17th-Century Southeast Asia (P. Borschberg Ed. & R. Roy Trans.). NUS Press.
  14. Dam, P. van, Beschryvinge van de Oostindische Compagnie (F. W. Stapel & C. T. V. B. van Asperen Eds.). Martinus Nijhoff
  15. Drakard, J. (2008). Inscribing Sumatra: Perceptions of place and space in Acehnese and Minangkabau Royal letters, Bulletin de l'Ecole francaise d'Extreme-Orient (BEFEO) 95-96, 135-189.
  16. Dunn, F. L. (1975). Rain-forest collectors and traders; a study of resource utilization in modern and ancient Malaya. Malaysian Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society.
  17. Dussen, A. van der. (1615). Short report on the utility and profit that the Dutch East India Company can expect from closing the Straits of Singapore, etc. VOC Ms. 1058.
  18. Eredia, M.G. de. (1930). Eredia's Description of Malacca, Meridional India and Cathay, JMBRAS 8(1), 1-288.
  19. Eredia, M. G. de. (2001). Suma de Arvores e Plantas da India Intra Ganges (J. G. Everaert, J. E. Mendes Ferrao, & M, Candida Liberato Eds). Commissao Nacional para as Comemoracoes dos Descobrimentos Portugueses
  20. Foster, W., (Ed.). (1934). The Voyage of Thomas Best to the East Indies 1612-1614. Hakluyt Society.
  21. Gibson-Hill, C. A. (1955). Johor Lama and other ancient sites on the Johor River, JMBRAS, 28(2), 127-197.
  22. Grotius, H. (2006). De Jure Praedae Commentarius: Commentary on the Law of Prize and Booty (Ittersum, M. J. van, Ed.). Liberty Fund.
  23. Hack, K., Margolin, J.-L., & Delaye, K. (Eds). (2010). Singapore from Temasek to the 21st century: Reinventing the global city. NUS Press.
  24. Hassel, J. G. H. (1817). Geographisch-Statistisches Handworterbuch: nach den neuesten Quellen und Hulfsmitteln, 2 vols. Im Verlage des geographischen Instituts.
  25. Hervey, D. F. A. (Trans.). (1885). Francois Valentyn's Account of Malacca, Journal of the Straits Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, 16(1), 289-301.
  26. Hoffman, J. E. (1972). Early Policies in the Malacca Jurisdiction of the United East India Company. The Malay Peninsula and the Netherlands East Indies Attachment. Journal of Southeast Asian Studies, 3(1), 1-38.
  27. Jonge, J. K. J. de., Deventer, M. L. van., Roo, L. W. G. de, Tiele, P. A., Heeres, J. E., Meinsma, J. J., & Haarst, J. W. G. van. (1878). De opkomst van het Nederlandsch gezag in Oost-Indie: verzameling van onuitgegeven stukken uit het Oud-koloniaal archief (Vol. 16). Martinus. Nijhoff.
  28. Kwa, C. G. (2017). Pre-colonial Singapore. Institute of Policy Studies & Straits Times Press.
  29. Kwa, C. G., Heng, D., Borschberg, P. & Tan, T. Y. (2019). Seven Hundred Years: A History of Singapore. Marshall Cavendish.
  30. Linschoten, J. H. van. (1939). Itinerario. Voyage ofte Schipvaert van Jan Huygen van Linschoten naer Oost ofte Portugaels Indien, 1579-1592, and Reys-geschrift vande navigatien der Portugaloysers (H. Kern, & J. C. M. Warnsinck, Eds. 2nd edn.). Martinus Nijhoff.
  31. MacGregor, I. A. (1955). Johore Lama in the Sixteenth Century, JMBRAS, 28(2), 48-125.
  32. Martiniere, A. A. B. de la. (1726-1739). Le Grand Dictionnaire Geographique et Critique. Chez Gosse, Alberts & de Hondt.
  33. Meilink-Roelofsz, M. A. P. (1962). Asian Trade and European Influence in the Indonesian Archipelago between 1500 and about 1630. Martinus Nijhoff.
  34. Miksic, J. M. (2012). Singapore and the Silk Road of the Sea. NUS Press.
  35. Rouffaer, G. P. (1921). Was Malaka Emporium voor 1400 A.D. genaamd Malajoer? En waar lag Woerawari, Ma-Hasin, Langka, Batoesawar?, Bijdragen en Mededelingen van het Koninklijk Instituut voor Taal-, Land- und Volkenkunde, 77, 1-174 & 359-604.
  36. Rouffaer, G. P. (2018). Was Melaka an Emporium named Malayur before 1400?, In C. G. Kwa, & P. Borschberg (Eds.), Studying Singapore before 1800. (pp. 81-117 ). NUS Press.
  37. Satow, E. M. (Ed). (1900). The Voyage of Captain John Saris to Japan, 1613. Hakluyt Society.
  38. Savary des Brulons J., & Ludovici, C. G. (1741-1743). Allgemeine Schatz-Kammer Der Kauffmannschafft Oder Vollstandiges Lexicon Aller Handlungen und Gewerbe So wohl in Deutschland als auswartigen Konigreichen und Landern, 5 vols. Leipzig: Verlag Johann Samuel Heinsius.
  39. Sieveking, G. de, Wheatley, P. , & Gibson-Hill, C. A. (1954). The investigations at Johore Lama. JMBRAS, 27(1), 224-233.
  40. Sopher, D. (1977). The Sea Nomads. A Study of Maritime Boat People in Southeast Asia. National Museum.
  41. Tiele, P. A. & Heeres, J. E. (Eds.). (1886-1895). Bouwstoffen voor de Geschiedenis der Nederlanders in den Maleischen Archipel, 3 vols. Martinus Nijhoff.
  42. Valentijn, F. (1724-1726), Oud en Nieuw Oost-Indien. Joannes van Braam, boekverkooper.
  43. Winstedt, R. O. (1932). A History of Johore, JMBRAS, 10(3), 1-167.
  44. Zedler, J. H. (1731-1754). Grosses vollstandiges Universal-Lexikon Aller Wissenschafften und Kunste. 64 vols. Verlegts Johann Heinrich Zedler.