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Malacca Dutch Heritage Trail (Part I)

Three great European powers occupied Malacca for almost 500 years form 1511 to 1957.

The Dutch through the Verenigde Oostindische Compagnie (VOC) captured Malacca from the Portuguese in the year 1641 ending 130 years of Portuguese occupation of Malacca and renamed it ‘Malakka’ and were the colonial masters for the next 183 years until it was ceded to the British in 1824.

While the Portuguese built fortresses, forts and churches, the Dutch repaired and rebuilt the damaged walls of the fortresses and bastions, built new administrative offices and residential quarters and business premises. Most of these Dutch legacies are concentrated around St Paul’s Hill and near the mouth of the Melaka River. Tourist from all over come to Melaka to visit this Dutch-built city centre listed as a UNESCO World Heritage sites. A must-see for history buffs to learn about early Dutch history.

Each significant Dutch heritage site along the Trail is depicted herein to help you to enjoy your tour.

1. PORTA DE SANTIAGO – THE OLD GATEWAY
Porta De Santiago was built by the Portuguese in 1512 and was one of 4 main gates to the Portuguese fortress. Restored by the Dutch who overthrew and ended the 130 years occupation of the Portuguese in ‘Malaqa’ in 1641, the Dutch VOC crest and the inscription ANNO 1670 were carved over the arch portals of the gate. Built using forced slave labour to counter attacks by native invaders and to protect the harbour, ‘Malakka’ under Dutch rule was a fortified city protected by cannons and bastions.

Many of these labourers died building the fort due to intense heat and hunger. This ancient gateway stands 20 ft high with 8 ft thick walls. Located at the foot of the St Paul’s hill it is the only remaining part of a mighty fortress built 500 years ago – a gate without the walls that lead to the fort. Under the British, the fort was demolished using gunpowder and were it not for the timely intervention by Sir Stamford Raffles this tiny gate of the Porta De Santiago would also have faced total demolition.

According to Dutch records there was an underground tunnel, much like the catabombs, linking this bastion to the lookout fort on St John’s Hill. However the tunnel has never been uncovered to this day.

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2. DUTCH GRAVEYARD
Climbing up the steps on the slopes of the St Paul’s Hill and located to the right in an enclosure at the foot of the hill and within the core zone of the Malacca Unesco World Heritage site is the Dutch Graveyard for VOC officials and their families. The cemetery was used by the Dutch between 1670-1682. However, of the 38 graves only 5 graves are Dutch, the remaining being British. One gravestone belongs to a young Dutch lady, Anna Reynierse Van Schoonhoven. ‘Here is buried Anna Reynierse Van Schoonhoven, housewife of Jan Van Beeck, independent trader. Born August 24 1643 and passed away November 28 1670, aged 27 years 3 months 4 days old.

Many other Dutch thombstones are located at St Paul’s church. The Dutch Governor Jan Van Riebeeck is also buried in this church. At the height of its occupation, the Dutch had a garrison of 550 Dutchmen and a population of 50,000. The Dutch converted St Paul’s Church into a burial ground upon the completion of The Dutch Reformed Church now known as The Christ Church. Old thombstones inside the ruins of the church bears silent testimony to the final resting place of these Europeans. The Netherlands Embassy in Malaysia supports the conservation efforts of the Melaka State to preserve Dutch burial grounds and thombstones.

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3. ST PAUL’S CHURCH
To accommodate the royal visit by H.R.H Queen Elizabeth II, and the Duke of Edinburgh in 1972, St Paul’s Hill was given a big clean-up and transformation. Many of the huge shady trees were chopped. Where the well developed thick protruding roots of the huge Angsanas and Flame of the forest gripping the hill slopes were once used as steps to scale up the hilltop, cemented tiled steps with attached hand-rail bars were constructed.

The ruins of the St Paul’s Church on the summit of St Paul’s Hill was originally a chapel called Nossa Senhorada Annunciada (Our Lady of Annuciation) built by a Portuguese sea Captain Duarte Coelho in gratitude to the Virgin Mary for saving his life at sea. The Dutch renamed it St Paul’s Church and was their house of worship for 112 years. Huge granite tomb stones with Portuguese and Dutch inscriptions stand around the wall interior. Buskers break the tranquility of the church serenading the hordes of tourists with music and songs on their guitars, tambourines and harmonicas. Right here at the top of the hill with its strong sea breeze, you get a panoramic view of the Straits of Malacca.

The Jesuit missionary St. Francis Xavier preached in this church from 1545-1552. When he died in one of his voyages at sea, his body was interred here for 9 months before being exhumed and taken to his final resting place in Goa, India. In 1614, St. Francis Xavier’s right forearm which he used to bless and baptise people was detached (with blood dripping from the wound) by priest Gen Claude Acquaviva and sent to the Pope in Rome for his canonization. A pearl white statue of the Saint built to commemorate his passing and internment still stands in front of the church. It is said that the morning after the consecration ceremony in 1953, a large casuarina tree fell on the statue and broke the right arm. To this day, this statue of the Saint has a missing right arm.

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4. THE DUTCH SQUARE
Walking down the steps from the statue of St Francis Xavier on St Paul’s hill, pass the democratic Government Museum and access the path at the rear of Admiral Cheng Ho Gallery to walk down the steps of the Stadthuys and you’re at the centre of the Dutch Square.

Drawing from pictures kept in the archives, the hub of the town in those days was at the site of the Square due to its proximity to the river mouth. the composition of buildings with a town hall, church, market, square and a school reflects the character of the townscape much like the ancient European towns. The entire Dutch Square is picturesque and lively, crowded with hordes of tourists on weekends and holidays. Take a fun ride on one of the many colorful trishaws here for a quick tour of the narrow streets the Dutch Square.

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5. THE STADTHUYS
The Stadthuys is an old Dutch spelling meaning ‘town hall’ and is a duplication of the former Stadthuys (town hall) of the Frisian town of Hoorn in the Netherlands which existed from 1420 to 1796. Built on the terrace of the St. Paul’s Hill between 1641 and 1656, covering more than an acre land area, the Stadthuys served as the residency for the new Governor as well as administrative centre and town hall. The 1st Dutch Governor was Jan Van Twist. A massive 3 storey building spanning 30 metres wide having 2 floors in the building interior, it had a guest house, a pool, courtyards, servants quarters, a detached bakery, warehouses, stable and even in prison, Ceilings are high with thick masonry walls and big floor tiles, heavy hardwood doors and louvered windows with wrought iron hinges. On the outside, a dual stairway with stone balustradw leads to a balcony overlooking the square and is accessible through a door on the 1st floor. The Governors must have stood here at the balcony to address his uniformed garrison on parades.

Unfortunately information on the architectural layout, historical function and past activities of the Stadthuys is left wanting and only one room, the Governor’s Room recreates the history and the atmosphere of the Dutch era. It is acclaimed there was a tunnel that ran through St Paul’s Hill into the Stadthuys. The building also supposedly had a door that gave direct access to the river located 200 metres away. The river exit provided an escape route out of the fortified town. Rumours of the secret tunnels have perpetuated through the centuries.

Apparently an innovative proposal was submitted by Micheal Weber, a curator of Dutch colonial history and research worker with the University of Amsterdam, to the local government to convert the Stadthuys into a Dutch colonial history museum. Presently the History and Ethnography Museum occupies the Stadthuys.

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6. THE CHRIST CHURCH
Located adjacent to the Stadthuys is Christ Church, built in 1741 to commemorate a century of Dutch rule in Malacca. Originally named the Dutch Reformed Church, the building bears all the hallmarks of 18th century Dutch architecture – a rectangular shaped 82 ft x 42ft, massive walls with ceiling rising 40 ft high, spanned by long wooden roof beams, red granite plinths and Dutch roof tiles. Each of the 15 metre long roof beams are carved pews and windows are original though reduced in size by the British. There are no aisles or chancel but there is an exquisite replica of the Last Supper in glazed tiles. Like most European churches in those days, the floors are paved and embedded with thombstones. Dutch, Armenian, Portuguese memorial plaques adorned the church interior to indicate people who died of various epidermics.

The church took 12 years to complete till 1753 and is the oldest Protestant Church in Malaysia. There is a 1773 Bible stand made of brass inscribed with the first verse of St. John in Dutch. The fine collection of rare and priceless silver vessels dating back to the early Dutch period are kept in storage by the church and are only displayed on special ocassions.

When the British took over Malacca they converted the church for Anglican worship and added the weather cock and bell tower. H.R.H Queen Elizabeth II visited Malacca on 16.3.1972 and prayed in this church with the duke of Edinburgh and Princess Anne.

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7. DUTCH SHOP HOUSES & ADMINISTRATION BUILDINGS
Behind the Christ Church is a narrow road parallel with the river and leading to the town square. The narrow street creates a sense of enclosure with many buildings consisting of traditional shop houses. Most imposing is the Administration building built in 1784 which later became a school in 1826 (Malacca Free School). Later it was used as the state General Post Office before converting to a museum housing the Youth Museum and Art Gallery.

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8. DUTCH RESIDENTIAL QUARTERS OF HEERENSTRAAT & JONKERSTRAAT
Cut across the Dutch Square to cross the bridge across the Melaka River and proceed to the residential quarters of Heeren Street and Jonker Street built during the Dutch era dating back more than 300 years. Walk down these narrow streets to get a feeling of going back in time. See earliest type of Dutch style townhouses and shops built in the 17th century with high doors, small windows and rooms with lofty ceiling. The early shop houses served also as homes, stable and animal yard.

The Dutch imported their unusual method of taxing homes. The laws in VOC times was that real estate taxes were paid according to the width of the houses. Very narrow houses were built that were many metres long, some 100 metres in length, the front at 4 metres in width with 3 or 4 open interior air-wells let the sunlight and rain fall on to the indoor gardens.

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