by Eriko Shima-Tsuno
Flor de la Mar, laden with treasures stolen from the Melaka kingdom, sank in 1512 in the Aru Strait in the region of North Eastern Sumatera. Although marine archaeologists and treasure hunters have made numerous attempts to recover the ship, its location remains a mystery.
Flor de la Mar is entwined in the history of the Portuguese endeavor to control the maritime trade in the East and as such, is also part of the history of Melaka.
Melaka was founded around the year 1400 and its strategic location between the maritime trade routes of East and West enabled it to grow into an internationally known port city. The economic power of Melaka depended on trade and the most important commodity traded was spices. At that time spices were very much needed, not only to add flavors in cooking, but also for preserving raw food such as meat, especially for winter. As such, spices fetched a very high price in Europe; for example, 1kg of pepper had the same value as 1kg of gold, and 1 ounce of nutmeg was equivalent to 7 oxen.
In those days, the Portuguese bought spices from the Venetians, who bought spices from Muslim traders in Egypt and Syria. The tight control that the Venetians had over the flow of spices into Europe was the reason for the high prices making the Portuguese determined to find a direct route to the source of the spices. Thus in the 15th century, Portuguese rulers initiated voyages of discovery.
In 1498 Vasco da Gama reached the Malabar Coast of India – the source of pepper. Here, he heard about Melaka and of the spice islands further east. In 1511, Portugal attacked Melaka with 18 ships; one of which was the Flor de la Mar. The Portuguese made their first attack on the port of Melaka on 25 July 1511 but failed. On 10 August 1511, they tried again and on 24 August 1511, the Portuguese finally captured Melaka. At this time, the armada was led by Alfonso de Albuquerque.
After looting Melaka, Albuquerque wanted to send the looted treasure to the court of the Portuguese king, King Manuel 1. The Flor de la Mar, at 400 tons, was the largest ship in the fleet and hence it was chosen to transport the treasure back to Portugal. The treasure included bronze lions, jewelry, gold-plated palanquins, precious stones, Melakan embroidery as well as young slaves. The Flor de la Mar, along with 3 other ships, namely the Enxobregas, Trinidade and Jong Jawa sailed for Goa, India on 20 January 1512 with Albuquerque at the helm. It never made it to Goa. After 6 days at sea, it was caught in a storm and sank just off Sumatra, taking down with it the riches of the Melaka kingdom.
Till today the location of the ship remains a mystery. Some maritime archaeologists say that their team’s ultimate challenge would be to embark on the recovery of the Flor de la Mar. I really hope that this shipwreck would be found and the treasures restored to the Malaysian people someday.