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Friday, March 11th 2011

12:58 PM

Ceramics finds in Singapore from Pre-colonial Period

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Ceramics finds in Singapore from the Pre- Colonial (before 1819 A.D) period 


In Feb 1822, Dr. John Crawfurd, who subsequently became the second Resident of Singapore, climbed Fort Canning Hill and discovered foundations of wooden buidings, Chinese coins and fragments of ancient ceramics.  He also noted remains of an earthen rampart about 3.6m wide and 2.7 m in height.  This rampart was located along what is present day's Stamford canal.  Sir Stamford Raffles apparently believed that Fort Canning hill was the site which ancient Malay kings resided.  In a letter written on 21 Jan 1823 to William Marsden from his residence at the top of  Fort Canning Hill,  he wrote about the house  and that  : "....the tombs of the Malay kings are close at hand and I have settled that if it is my fate to die here I shall take my place amongst them ..".  



Raffles gathered large amount of  information related to the Southeast Asian region in his search for an ideal  location to establish a free port for the British  East India Company.  He decided on Singapore as his choice.  In this search, he must have come across the Malay literary work,  Serjarah Melayu, also called the Malay Annals.  It  contained semi historical and mythical narrations on the descents of the Malay kings of Melaka, the geat Malay maritime port of the 15th century.  It also dealt with events which were probably both a mixture of myths and facts of the period and information on the unique system of government, administration and politics. The kings were said to be the descendants of Alexander the Great.  One of them, Sang Nila Utama married the daughter of the Queen of Bintan.  One day in the year 1299,  he visited an Island where he sighted a lion-like animal.  He named the Island Singapura, ie the Lion city.   He established a state there which according to the Malay annals lasted for about a 100 years and ruled by a total of 5 kings.  According the Malay Annals, the 5th king Sultan Iskandar Shah humiliated his mistress due to some rumours.  She was the daughter of the the treasury officer.  Out of anger, he assisted the Majapahit  empire to invade Singapore.  The sultan fled with his followers and eventually founded Melaka.  A conflicting account by  the son of Alfonso D'Albuquerque, the Portuguese viceroy who conquered Melaka in 1511, stated that the 5th ruler of Singapura was Parameswara.  He was a prince from Palembang who failed in an attempt to set up a state there.   The army from Majapahit chased him and he fled to Singapura .  He murdered the local ruler and ruled for 5 years.  He was forced to abandon Singapura after the  ruler of Patani, who was the brother of the murdered local ruler, led an army to seek revenge.   Another version said that the murdered Singapura ruler was the son-in-low of the King of Siam and it was the army of the latter which drove him out of Singapura. Despite all the contradictions, one thing was certain.  A thriving community existed in Singapore during the 14th century and there was a ruler.  The Malay Annals depicted it as a prosperous state and a golden phase in the Malay history.  

The only extant writing which throws some light on the nature of the community, the custom  and the economic activities of ancient Singapore during the 14th century is the Daoyi Zhilue.  It was written by Yuan traveller, Wang Dayuan.   He made two overseas  trips in 1330 and 1339 which covered regions in Southeast Asia , India and the Middle East.   In the section on Temasek, an ancient reference to Singapore, he mentioned two places.  One is Longyyamen ie Dragon's Tooth Gate.  This has been identified as an  area in Keppel habour.  In the 19th century, there existed  a stone protrusion at Labrador point whch looks like the tooth of a dragon.  It was blown up in the 19th century.  He mentioned that Chinese resided among the natives.  Local products such as lakawood and tin were traded for chinese goods such gold, satin, cotton prints, Chu porcelain ( ie longquan celadon as chu referred to ancient Longquan) and iron cauldrons.   He also noted that the natives engaged in piracy.  When junks loaded with goods from the  western ocean reached the Ji-limen (Karimun),  the natives from Longyamen would ambush,  rob and kill all the crew and passengers on the junks.    The other place associated with ancient Singapore is Ban-zu.   The word is believed to be a transliteration of the Malay word pancur, ie spring of water.  It is generally believed to be reference to the area bounded by Fort Canning Hill, the Singapore river and Stamford Road.  Coincidentally, there was a spring at Fort Canning in the past.  The natives were described as honest and wore their hair short  with gold brocaded satin turbans and dressed in  red oiled cloths.   They boiled sea water to obtain salt and made spirit from rice called ming-jia.  They were ruled by a chieftain..  Goods that were traded included green cottons, iron, cotton prints made locally, porcelains, iron pots and etc.

Unforturnately all the surface remnants of building structures, artefacts and the rampart were destroyed by subsequent developments on Fort Canning.  The brick platforms Crawfurd saw was demolished when the fortress was built in 1859.  Other artefacts on the top of the hill were removed during the process of building a covered reservoir in 1926 and the underground command centre for the Bristish Far East Command in the 1930s.  A split sandstone boulder with ancient inscription standing at the mouth of the Singapore river was destroyed in 1843 to make way for development.  It is also termed the Singapore stone.  Fragments of the inscriptons were kept in Singapore National museum and the Calcutta Museum.  The inscripton was written in a form of kawi script which dated to Majapahit or earlier.  It could have shed some light on the past history of Singapore. 

To learn more about the past, archaeological excavations were carried out on a site near the Keremat at Fort Canning in 1984, a site at the New Parliament house in 1994 and a site at Empress place in 1998.  The excavatons uncovered large amount of pottery and porcelain fragments.  Analysis of the  fragments found at the Fort Canning site showed that they dated to the 14th century ie equivalent to the Yuan period.  The other fragments were from the 19th century and later.  It appears that there is no fragment from the 15th to 18th century.   Numerous number of glass beads and fragments of glass artefacts were found at the site.  There could be a glass workshop in the past.  The ceramics finds are comparatively finer then those from the other two excavated site.  It appears to corroborate its past stated history.  The place was abandoned when the ruler fled to Melaka.   The Malays called Fort Canning Hill by the name  "Bukit Larangan" ie the Forbidden Hill.  Their ancestors  had told them tales of the past glory of Singapore and that the ghosts of the past kings haunted the place.  Hence it is sort of a sacred place and taboo for common folks to set foot on the hill.



On the other two sites, majority of the ceramics fragments recovered were similar to those on Fort Canning .  However, there were also small amount that could be dated to the 15th century.  The rest were from 19th century onward.   When the local ruler fled for Melaka, some of the natives continued to stay at the area  below the Hill near the Singapore river.  During the 15th century, Melaka became the great dominant trading port in  the Southeast Asia region and controlled the flow of goods between the East and West.  Singapura apparently was much neglected and engaged in little trading activities.

Besides the fragments on display at the Fort Canning excavated site, some of the fragments from the site at Paliament House and the Empress place are displayed at the Asian Civilisation Museum.  I have also taken some photos of the fragments found at Fort Canning when they were on display at an Exhibition of Southeast Asian Ceramics at the NUS Museum in 2010. 

The types of Chinese ceramics fragments basically were similar to those trade ceramics found in other sites in Southeast Asia.  During the 14th Century Yuan period, the main types of ceramics exported were Qingbai, shufu, underglaze copper red and blue and white from Jiangxi Jingdezhen, Celadon from Longquan in Zhejiang and smaller number from Fujian, and white wares from Fujian, especially  Dehua kiln.  Some of the blue and white, Qingbai and longquan celadon fragments recovered were of high quality.  Interesting pieces recovered from Fort Canning site included a bowl decorated with design of the compass with characters representing the directions.  There were also fragments including small figurines from a Qingbai pillow. 


 To give an idea of how some of the complete pieces would look like, I have attached below photos of some pieces in my collection which were acquired in Indonesia.

Among the ceramics fragments, there were also some Vietnamese blue and white wares, Thai Sawankhalok celadon wares and iron-black painted covered boxes.  The Vietnamese blue and white and Thai iron-black painted cover boxes fragments are dated to 2nd half of the 15th century.  The 15th century was a phase which was important for Thai and Vietnamese trade ceramics.  During the Hongwu period (late 14th century), the emperor imposed a ban on contact with foreigners and foreign  trade.   Hence, little amount of Chinese ceramics found their way to Southeast Asia during this period.  The need of the Southeast Asian consumers for ceramics was filled by the potters from Vietnam and Thailand.  During this period, Vietnamese blue and white, Thai celadon and iron-painted wares were popular in the region.  During the late 15th century period, Chinese blue and white wares were again exported in rather substantial amount to the region.  They were similar to those from the wreck termed the Lena cargo.  It was found near the Philipinnes Palawan strait.  Recently, similar shipwreck Hongzhi blue and whites  started to appear in the Jakarta antique market.  They were said to be from a wreck in the Java sea.  Chinese ceramics regained their dominant market position in the overseas market during the 16th century.



To learn more about the Chinese and Vietnamese ceramics mentioned, you may want to read the following articles I have written:

1)  Yuan blue and white

2)  Longquan Celadon

3)  Vietnamese Blue and white


During the 16th century to 18th century, the fortune of Singapura declined further.  The Portuguese conquered Melaka in 1511 and the Melaka loyalty fled and subsequently founded the Johore Sultanate.  For most of the time, it held dominion over Singapura.  Singapura was caught in the power tussles of various regional powers such as the Johore Sultanate, Aceh, Jambi, Siak, Bugis,  Portuguese and Dutch at different point of time.  It was even the site of some ancient battles.  So far, the only ceramics finds were some MIng Wanli period blue and white  (dated late 16th to early 17th century) fragments of some plates and a bowl.  They were recovered from the Kallang estuary when the Kallang river was dredged up to clean the river in the late 1960/70.  No substantive evidence is available to show that Singapore played a significant role in the trade which the Johore Sultanate continued to enjoy.  The goods were shipped up the Johore river.  Large amount of 16th Chinese blue and white were also found at Johore Lama, at one point the capital of the Johore Sultanate. 


Singapore regained its place as an important entrepot after it was chosen as the location to establish a free port in 1819 by Sir Stamford Raffles.

8 Comment(s).

Posted by memek:

thanks for your information
Wednesday, May 21st 2014 @ 1:11 PM

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Monday, May 5th 2014 @ 10:54 AM

Posted by FoobarAgain:

Tuesday, February 18th 2014 @ 11:21 AM

Posted by Foobar:

Sorry, wrecked the layout a little bit.
Just cleaning up the mess, it shouldn't break anything.
Tuesday, February 18th 2014 @ 10:19 AM

Posted by Foobar:

Tuesday, February 18th 2014 @ 9:16 AM

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Tuesday, February 18th 2014 @ 9:08 AM

Posted by Foobar:

Tuesday, February 18th 2014 @ 8:49 AM

Posted by Lily:

Great photos of these amazing porcelain vessels. Chinese porcelain is greatly cherished as it inspired the creation of the European porcelain.
Tuesday, March 29th 2011 @ 12:09 PM

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