Silk Road by the Sea

Well, since I am finishing off layover in Singapore I felt that it might be appropriate to write a post that is somewhat uniquely Asian in flavour (though at this stage I am unsure if I am actually going to get around to completing it, let alone posting it, before I return to Australia – as it turned out, I didn’t). Anyway, we decided to visit the aquarium on the island of Sentosa, and as some museums are apt to do (though I’m not really sure if you can call it a museum, it is probably more like a zoo for fish, though we don’t call them zoos for fish, we call them aquariums – but I digress) they had a display at the entrance to the aquarium, looking at the various ports of call a ship would visit on its way back from China back in the days of the sailing ships.


The curators referred to this as the Maritime Silk Road, though apparently that also refers to modern trade route between China and Europe, and scholars refer to it as the Silk Road by the sea. Honestly, whatever you call it, in the end, it is basically a maritime trade route that allowed merchants to ship goods to and from China, and it was a route that eventually became dominated by the British (who effectively ruled the oceans from around the late 1700s to the mid-twentieth century – one thing that I have realised on my travels to Singapore is how World War II was effectively the catalyst that removed Britain from her position as ruler of the world).


What was the better route? Well, both have their pros and cons – it does tend to be slower by land, but ignoring the problems of bandits (because merchants would face them both on land and sea), the weather tend to cause much greater problems for sea-going vessels. However, the benefits of taking goods by sea tend far outweigh the risks, especially since you can also carry a lot more in the cargo hold of a ship than you can on the back of a bunch of camels (though if the ship is wrecked then you end up losing the lot – but that is why you have insurance).


Anyway, here is a map of the Route:


One of the interesting things about the exhibition is that there was no mention of Shanghai, Hong Kong, or Singapore, but I suspect the reason for that is that Shanghai was the beginning of the journey, and Hong Kong and Singapore were not only exclusively British colonies (and trading ports) but they only came to prominence in the 19th Century, while the other ports had been around for a lot longer. Anyway, since the exhibition didn’t include those three ports (even though Shanghai is actually a pretty important port, all things considering) I won’t look at them either.


I actually thought that Quanzhou was the ancient name for Guangzhou, but it turns out that they are two completely different cities. In fact, Quanzhou is located halfway between Hong Kong and Shanghai and is the administrative seat of the Fujian province (well, according to Google Maps it is closer to Hong Kong than Shanghai, but that is beside the point). Anyway, it was basically the beginning of the long trek back to Europe and during its peak in the 13th Century it’s harbour was so full of boats that Marco Polo described it as being a forest of masts (annoyingly, ever since a particular Simpsons episode, whenever I think of Marco Polo I think of some game that is played in the pool).
While there is a mistaken belief that Marco Polo took the idea of noodles (which became pasta, even though the Germans still use the proper term – Nudlen) and gunpower (and pizza) back with him, there were a number of things that he did pick up: paper currency, astronomy, and coal. Coal is interesting because even though we were using coal prior to Polo’s expedition to China (and he wasn’t the first to actually get there, it was just that the trade routes were disrupted when the Mongols stormed across central Asia), it was the way the Chinese used it that revolutionised our usage, and moved us closer to the industrial revolution.

There were a couple of other trade goods, such as silk (which was why it was referred to as The Silk Road) and porcelain. The thing with porcelain (and silk) was that they were revolutionary products. Silk is not only strong, but really soft, which is why people love the idea of silk sheets (though I personally don’t like them). As for porcelain, it is much, much stronger than clay, meaning that it could more easily survive a sea journey. However, while it was strong, it was also pretty expensive, which is why it is still valued even today (but then again the decorative pots were also highly sort after).

Qui Nhon

Qui Nhon is located halfway along the Vietnamese coast and is currently a very popular resort city (and also played host to the Americans during the Vietnam War). While the city itself is rather new, it was a Portuguese colony as far back as the 16th Century, and also played host to a Jesuit colony (and Catholicism is still a major religion in Vietnam even to this day). The colony was also a major trading port for the Champa kingdom, and it was through this port that Buddhism, Hinduism, and later Islam, entered Vietnam.

One of the main focuses of the exhibition was the Vietnamese Water Puppets. This form of theatre (or puppetry) originated in the Red River Delta and reflects the climate of Vietnam, when major rainfalls would flood the rice paddies and the puppets would appear to be dancing on the water. Like most (if not all) forms of puppetry, the puppeteer would be hidden from sight.



The city of Palembang is located upriver in central south Sumatra, and was the capital of an ancient kingdom. In fact colonisation in the area dates back to around 682 where the story of a king with magical powers (which apparently all mythological kings have, or if not, they happen to be favoured by some deity) lead an army over land and sea (which would have been necessary if one wanted to invade an island) and established his capital here. Palembang became a major trading city, despite the fact that it was located upriver (but then again a number of important cities are actually located upriver – it wasn’t until more recent times that cities were built on the coast), and it was through here that numerous religions came onto the island.

Palembang was the source of Camphor, an incredibly valuable commodity that was literally worth its weight in gold, as well as Benzoin resin. Camphor was used for religious purposes as well as simply making your room smell nice, while both Benzoin and Camphor also were used medicinally. This was one of the major reasons that the Dutch had a huge interest in the islands, but then again they were also a source of many other spices.


Malacca is one of those incredibly ancient, and very important, port cities. On 24th April, 1511, the Portuguese invaded and took control of this incredibly strategic city, and thus secured trade through these straights. In fact today a bulk of the world’s shipping goes through these straights (though I am still a little baffled as to why they don’t go around the other side of Sumatra, but that may have a lot to do with there being a volcano – namely Krakatoa – sitting in the straights between Sumatra and Java, and the other route is just a little too long).

Malacca has always been a highly sort after prize by many nations, and prior to the arrival of the Portuguese, the straights were controlled by the Malaccans. However other powers, including the Chinese and Vietnamese, had also attempted to seize control of the port with no success. Even though the Portuguese did succeed (so as to control all of shipping through this incredibly strategic stretch of water), it didn’t mean that they ended up having a monopoly over the sea routes. The other problem that traders faced as they moved through this stretch of water where the presence of pirates – even having a fortress didn’t protect the shipping coming through here. In fact with the increase in shipping came the increase in piracy.

The Saribas were one of the more famous groups of pirates (even though there isn’t a Wikipedia entry for them). They comprised of the Dayaks and of the Malay Mohammedans. They obtained their name from inhabiting the river of Saribas and would not only raid the ships that passed through the straights, but would also raid the fishing villages along the coast. The Dayak people originally inhabited the island of Borneo however the ferocious Sea Dayak would reign terror on the South China Sea. In 1838, James Brookes, a British adventurer, took the battle to the Dayaks and subjugated them, though didn’t necessarily bring an end to the piracy on the Malaccan straights (this continues even to this day).

As for trade goods, Malacca was the source of both Nutmeg and pepper.


Galle is located on the south-western tip of Sri-Lanka and its ancient history is shrouded in mystery. In fact, some have suggested that it may have been the mythical Tarshish to which Jonah attempted to flee, that is before jumping ship and being swallowed by a fish. While it’s modern history began in the 16th Century when the Portuguese set up shop, it has long been a seaport, having been frequented by Arabs, Persians, and the Chinese. In a way, like many of the ports, it was not only a stop-off point for ships travelling the route (since time in port was necessary for ships in those days), but also a source of trade. It is even suggested that not only did King Solomon source Ivory and Peacocks from here, but also cinnamon.

One of the themes that seem to regularly pop up across the exhibition is that the trade route did more than just ship commodities from port to port: it also allowed for the free flow of ideas, both religious and technological. As the myth goes, it was Marco Polo who brought the concept of gunpowder and noodles back to Europe which resulted in what is well known in Australia as Spag Bowl (which, for those not familiar with Aussie slang, it is basically spaghetti bolognese).

It was at this point that the exhibition looked at some of the famous explorers who travelled this route, namely Faxian, Marco Polo, Ibn Battuta, and Admiral Zheng. Faxian was a Chinese explorer who travelled the route on a religious pilgrimage, namely so he could gain access to some Buddhist texts that weren’t available in China at the time (though Chinese legend has it that it was actually Monkey, of Monkey Magic fame, who actually brought Buddhism to China). Faxian recorded his travels in ‘The Record of the Buddhist Kingdom’.

I’m sure we all know who Marco Polo is, but for those who don’t you can always go and check out the Wikipedia article. However his journey to the east took him something like 24 years, and he went over by land, but returned by sea. He recorded his adventure in a book that has come down to us as ‘The Travels of Marco Polo‘.

Ibn Battuta was a scholar from Morocco who basically travelled all around Africa, Asia, and India because, well, curious people like to travel (and you can find a record of my travels on my travel blog, however since this is not my travel blog, I’ll move on from there), and he also left a record of his travels in a book called Rihla, or The Journey.

Zheng He became famous because some guy came up with this bizarre idea that he actually discovered America, and wrote a book about it that made him a lot of money (which didn’t particularly bother him, despite the fact that the evidence that he used was tenuous). However, Zheng, who was born a Muslim, captured by the Chinese at a young age, made a eunuch, and then put in charge of a huge fleet (after distinguishing himself as a commander mind you – people don’t simply make you a general because they feel like it – well, they do, but that’s another story), did actually make some impressive voyages, and even went as far as Kenya. While he may not have discovered America, he did travel as far as Africa, bringing back lots of goodies (which included a giraffe) for the Emperor.



In all honesty I was actually about to write a huge spiel on Calcutta, believing that Calicut and Calcutta where one and the same – it turns out that this is not actually the case – in actuality it is the city that is now known as Kozhikode, which is basically on the other side of India from Calcutta (which is now known as Kolcutta). Now that I think about it, it does make a little more sense for one of the ports of the maritime sea route to be located near the tip of the Indian subcontinent, namely because the route is a lot more direct, particularly since the point was to get from Europe to China and back again a lot quicker than one would travel overland.

Like a lot of the other ports that we have visited, it seems that the first Europeans to land up here were the Portuguese, but then again that isn’t at all surprising since they were one of the first European kingdoms to ply the oceans. Sure, the Venetians had a pretty impressive navy, as did the Genoese, however, their ships generally travelled the Mediterranean and the Black Sea, whereas the Portuguese went much further afield. In fact up until the arrival of the Portuguese, the Indian ocean was basically an Arab lake, however when the Portuguese finally made their way around the southern tip of Africa, it was a whole new ball game, and one in which the Portuguese prevailed.

Calicut had been around since the second and third centuries BC, and had existed as a trading port for most of that time. However when the Portuguese arrived the city suddenly changed. Unlike the previous merchants, who would simply trade with the locals, when the Portuguese arrived they made sure that everybody knew who was in control, which involved establishing a fort. Mind you, setting up forts and turning these cities into colonies wasn’t a Portuguese development since the Venetians had been doing similar things across the Mediterranean. In fact if you travel around the Eastern stretches of the sea you will eventually encounter a Venetian fort (I found one on Crete in the city of Heracleum).

Calicut was famous for textiles, and calico, in fact, derives its name from the city. Actually, the one thing the Indians seem to be really good at is producing some amazing textiles, and it was because of this that Calicut became an incredibly wealthy city, with exports exceeding its imports. Of interest, the merchants are also said to have this ability to be able to perform rapid calculations using their fingers and toes, and also used secret handshakes to close deals (though one would probably have to know the handshake if one wanted to deal with them).




This city on the Arabian Peninsula was hotly contested over the centuries. The city is said to date back to the 6th century BC, and is referenced by both Ptolemy and Pliny the Elder. Being on the Arabian Peninsula meant that it pretty quickly fell to the Muslim invaders in the 7th century, however, come 1507 the Portuguese decided that it would make a pretty good port. The problem was that the occupants weren’t particularly keen on letting the Portuguese set up shop, for when they approached they were fired upon. Mind you, that was probably a mistake because the Portuguese then decided to take Muscat by force.

The problem was that while the Portuguese managed to hold Muscat for about 100 years, they were always facing rebellions from inside the city and without. In fact, they faced opposition from both the Persians and the Ottoman Turks, who managed to capture the city twice from the Portuguese, once in 1552 and once from 1581 to 1588. The Portuguese were then forced to surrender the city to the local inhabitants in January 1650 after a small, but determined, force pretty much drove them out.

As for trade goods, it appears that Muscat is famous for things like coffee, porcelain (though I was under the impression porcelain came from China), and of course rugs. The other thing about the city is the camels, and no doubt it was a place where numerous trade routes would converge, particularly since it did offer quite a sheltered harbour. Actually, camels tended to be used quite regularly on the silk road, namely because there happened to be an awful lot of desert between Europe and China, and camels tended to fair much better than horses.


Apparently, Malindi is nothing like it was back in the 14th, 15th, and 16th centuries. In fact when the place was visited in the 19th century it was basically uninhabited and choked full of weeds. The main reason for this is because the Portuguese moved their base to Mombassa, and after the Portuguese left there was nothing to keep the city going – it is sort of like when the major factory closes down – it results in the population moving out and the town pretty much becoming a ghost town.

Anyway, Malindi has traditionally been a city that was dominated by foreign powers, and usually as a place for ships and merchants to conduct business. In the 14th century, it was visited by Admiral Zheng and his fleet where he got his hands on a giraffe that he took back to China as a present for the emperor. The Portuguese then arrived and set up shop. However, when they moved their base to Mombassa the town pretty much declined until it basically vanished. It did make a come back during the 19th century, but when the British abolished the slave trade, the town, which relied heavily on slaves for agriculture, the town once again lost importance.

Anyway, that was a brief overview of the Silk Road or at least the seaborne version of it. Now that I am looking over the photos that I took of the exhibition some eight weeks after being there I am sort of kicking myself that I didn’t take more photos of the plaques and the commentaries of the various displays, but then again it seems that I have written a decent amount as it is. Still, it was quite interesting, though somewhat amusing that you have to walk through this exhibition to actually get to the aquarium.

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Silk Road by the Sea by David Alfred Sarkies is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. This license only applies to the text and any image that is within the public domain. Any images or videos that are the subject of copyright are not covered by this license. Use of these images are for illustrative purposes only are are not intended to assert ownership.” rel=”nofollow” target=”_blank”>contact me

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