The geography of Malaysia has been fundamental in the development of the rich and varied history of this resource-abundant country. At a strategic crossroads between the Eastern and Western worlds, the Malay Peninsula separates the Indian Ocean from the South China Sea. Since ancient times merchants and foreign cultures have been attracted to this land to conduct business and trade.
Indians had a lasting influence on art and culture while the Arabs who passed through Malaysia as early as the tenth century brought Islam which first became established on the Malay Peninsula in the 14th and 15th centuries. The Portuguese and the Dutch introduced European economic practices and methods while the British instilled the foundation of Malaysia’s political structure. This cosmopolitan influence profoundly effected Malaysia’s history and culture, and the cartography of this region in past centuries reflected the need and development of accurate maps.
The earliest settlers of the Malay Peninsula may have come overland from southern China thousands of years ago. These were the ancestors of the Orang Asli (“original people”). The ancestors of the Malays and the Orang Laut (sea farers and nomads) traveled by sea from south China to Taiwan, and eventually from Borneo and the Philippines. There is archaeological evidence of humans inhabitating the Niah Caves in Sarawak (on the island of Borneo) dating back 40,000 years ago.
About 1400 a group of Malay-speaking migrants came to the Malay Peninsula from Sumatra (now part of Indonesia) and established a trading kingdom called Malacca. The Europeans arrived in Malaysia during the 1500’s and in 1511 Malacca was captured by the Portuguese lured by the very lucrative spice trade. During the 15th and the early 16th centuries Malacca was as a major player in the spice trade, serving as a gateway between the Spice Islands and the high-paying Eurasian markets. The Dutch eventually defeated the Portuguese in 1641 and when they captured Malacca it was no longer an important trading center. Malacca was traded to the British by the Dutch for Bencoolen, Sumatra and in 1824 the Dutch signed a treaty which surrendered their possessions on the Malay Peninsula to the British.
The British acquired Penang Island in 1786 and established a settlement called George Town. In 1819 Britain established a trading post on Singapore Island. To protect its shipping lanes between China and India, Britain eventually acquired more control over the region. It would take until the early 1900’s until Britain established total control over Malaysia.
On the island of Borneo the sultan of Brunei ceded the southern part of his territory in 1841 to James Brooke, a wealthy English adventurer who had aided the sultan in repressing a local rebellion. This territory eventually became present-day Sarawak. Brooke and his descendants (called “white rajahs”) ruled Sarawak until the 1940’s. In 1881, North Borneo (present-day Sabah) came under the control of the British North Borneo Company, a privately held trading company. The British declared North Borneo and Sarawak to be British protectorates in 1888 and by 1914 Britain had either direct or indirect colonial control over all the lands that now make up Malaysia, this they called British Malaya.
The Japanese invasion in 1941 and subsequent occupation of Malaysia from 1942 to 1945 ended British domination in Malaysia.
In 1957 an independent, multi-racial Federation of Malaya was established. On August 31st 1963, the British territories in North Borneo and Singapore were granted independence. Malaysia formally came into being on September 16th 1963, consisting of Malaya, Sabah, Sarawak and Singapore.
Singapore withdrew from Malaysia and officially became the Republic of Singapore on August 9th 1965. Singapore is one of three Sovereign island city-states in the world today; the other two are Monaco and Vatican City.