Flor De la Mar’s Colourful History


In Melaka, on the quayside near the mouth of the Malacca River, stands a replica of a Portuguese galleon, or carrack, called the Flor de la Mar which sailed in these waters in the early 1500s.

Afonso de Albuquerque

This vessel, which is often (mis?)spelt Frol de la Mar, was the flagship for the Portuguese fleet in the Indian Ocean under command of the famous conqueror Afonso de Albuquerque.


Flor de la Mar was built in 1502 in Lisbon. Weighing in at 400 tons, with a length of 120 feet and a height of 110 feet she was the largest vessel of its kind at the time. She was armed with 40 cannons distributed over three decks with a high stern and forecastle from which the crew could rain down fire on her enemies but this top-heavy design also made for poor stability when fully laden.

Her maiden voyage to the Indian Ocean departed Lisbon in 1502 under command of Esterão da Gama, a cousin of the explorer Vasco da Gama, returning to Portugal in 1503. The next voyage left Lisbon in 1505 under the captaincy of João da Nova. On her way back she sprang a leak and had to spend the winter in Mozambique before being commandeered by Afonso de Albuquerque for further missions in the Indian Ocean. She never saw Portugal again.

Al Jalali Fort, Muscat

Flor de la Mar plundered her way around the Indian Ocean taking part in various bloody sieges and brutal raids against unsuspecting towns and ports in Arabia and India. She took part in the conquest of Socatra (now part of Yemen), Kuryat (Quriyat), Muscat, Corfacão (Khorfakkan), Quelba (Kalba), Sohar (all in modern day Oman and UAE), Ormuz (Hormuz, Iran) and Diu, Calicut and Goa (India).

Hormuz Fort 

By 1505 King Manuel of Portugal’s attention had turned towards Malacca. When Vasco da Gama returned from his first voyage round the Cape of Good Hope as far as Calicut he brought back tales of a fantastically wealthy distant city called Malacca where all the goods of Asia were traded – pearls from Arabia, porcelain from China, cloth from India and nutmeg, cloves and pepper from the Spice Islands. It was the most cosmopolitan city in the world where over eighty languages were heard, according to the account of Portuguese apothecary and traveller Tomé Pires. With over 100,000 inhabitants, Malacca was larger than Lisbon at the time and almost as big as Venice, and it was ruled over by a Muslim Sultan.

Plan of the Portuguese Fortress in 1512

Pires wrote in his book Suma Oriental in 1515  ‘whoever is Lord of Malacca has his hand on the throat of Venice’ meaning that Malacca was the source of Venice’s spice monopoly wealth.

Tomé Pires

Albuquerque was determined to throttle Venice by seizing or at least gaining access to Malacca’s lucrative spice trade. Although he only had a small force of 700 Portuguese and 300 Indian soldiers he set about defeating the Sultan’s army with his usual ruthless efficiency and Malacca was conquered in 1511.

Battle of Diu

The city was plundered and Albuquerque, leaving a small force behind, set off with his loot for India aboard the Flor de la Mar accompanied by two other vessels the Trinidade and the Emxobregas. Some accounts, possibly exaggerated, say he had 60 tons of gold and 200 chests of precious gems with him intended as gifts for the Portuguese king and queen as well as a jewel encrusted table, a pair of bronze lions and a rare map drawn by a Javanese showing the routes to China and other lands.

Replica of the old Sultan’s Palace in Malacca.


His crew were reluctant to sail on the Flor de la Mar which by now was nine years old and barely seaworthy. Normally the ships on the India run could only survive four years or so before shipworms, nicknamed termites of the sea, caused irreparable damage to their unprotected wooden hulls. Also the vibrations caused by continual cannon fire had caused the Flor’s timbers to shake apart and the ship leaked badly and required constant pumping. 

When  stormy weather struck off the coast of north Sumatra, Flor de la Mar anchored in four fathoms of water to ride out the storm. Heavy seas pushed her onto a reef where she ran aground and broke into two with only the superstructure visible above the waves. Albuquerque and a few other survivors managed to escape the wreck and they were taken aboard the Trinidade. Many of his crew and a number of slaves were not so lucky and were lost along with the treasure.

The Malacca Museums Corporation seems in no doubt that Flor de la Mar’s sinking was an act of divine retribution for the misdeeds of the Portuguese conquerors.

The Trinidade was overcrowded and they were desperately short of food and water.  Some captives were thrown overboard in their sleep to reduce the number of mouths to feed but the ship eventually made it back to Goa.

Numerous wreck divers and salvage companies have tried to find the location of the Flor de la Mar wreck in the hope of recovering some of the lost treasures but seemingly so far without success. With the ship sinking in shallow waters close to the shore you would have thought something would have been found by now.

Had this happened in our modern age of conspiracy theories and fake news people might have speculated that Albuquerque deliberately sank the ship and kept the loot concealed for himself rather than handing it over to the king. He wouldn’t be the last Portuguese colonial governor to enrich himself corruptly before proceeding on retirement. But that would be a terrible slur to make against a Portuguese national hero! Even if he did succeed in keeping some of the plunder for himself he would not have lived long to enjoy it as he died in Goa in 1515.

Palembang Attractions

Palembang does not rank highly on most lists of ‘things to do in Sumatra’. It’s a bit off the tourist trail being far from any beaches, waterfalls, scenic lakes or spectacular volcanos. But for those who make the effort to reach the city there are a few attractions worth seeing. Here are the highlights of my recent trip.

Dutch Influence


Although they are not promoted as tourist attractions there are a few buildings left over from Dutch East Indies days, mostly clustered around a small lakeside park called Kambang Iwak, one of the few green spaces in town.

Textile Museum


This once-grand building is said to have been built in 1883, I would imagine as a home or office for senior Dutch officials. Its most recent use was as the Province of South Sumatra Textile Museum which explains the sign over the entrance and these statues but it now appears to be empty and in need of some restoration.

Kantor Walikota


This strikingly unusual building is the Mayor’s Office or Kantor Walikota Palembang. You might think the tower section is a recent addition but the building was designed this way in the 1920s by the Dutch administration who wanted a 1200 cubic metre water tank above the office to provide sufficient clean water to the surrounding colonial district. It is now nicknamed the Office of Plumbing.


This photo from the 1930s shows it hasn’t changed much. By the way, the Indonesian word kantor originates from the Dutch word for office, kantoor. Although Bahasa Indonesia and Bahasa Malaysia stem from the same Malay language there is quite a variation in vocabulary between the two countries and Indonesia has borrowed a number of words of Dutch origin.

Masjid Agung


The Great Mosque of Palembang, with its Chinese-influenced roof and pagoda style minaret, is one of the city’s more historic landmarks. The older parts of the complex were completed in 1812 but it has been expanded and remodelled a number of times since then.


This vintage postcard shows how it looked before all the recent additions. Better then, but it was too small to accommodate the growing number of worshippers.

Monpera Monument


This monument and surrounding square commemorates the independence struggle against the Dutch and the suffering of the Indonesian people during the Japanese occupation.

Sultan Mahmud Badaruddin II Museum


This museum is named after the 8th Sultan of the Palembang Sultanate who ruled from 1803 to 1821 and is now regarded as a national hero. The contents of the museum are nothing special but the building itself is attractive, completed in 1842 by the Dutch on the site of a former palace.

Benteng Kuto Besak


Down by the riverside is a fort whose origins date from 1780. It was largely destroyed by the Dutch in 1821 who later rebuilt most of the walls we see today. It still serves as a military camp so entry is not permitted.

Ampera Bridge


Palembang’s most famous landmark is probably the Ampera Bridge which was constructed in 1962 and paid for by the Japanese as part of their war reparations to Indonesia. The name Ampera is an acronym for Amanat Pendiritaan Rakyat meaning Mandate of People’s Suffering – not the most catchy name for a bridge.


As this old photo shows, the central span was designed to lift up using giant counterweights to allow tall vessels to pass underneath.  However it is no longer raised for safety reasons.

The Musi River


Palembang is a major inland port and the busy waterfront is an interesting place to watch boats being loaded and unloaded.

The above video shows the little boat I hired (with driver) to take me to Kemaro Island. Somehow I managed to pick the boat with the slowest and noisiest engine on the river.  At first the rickety wooden boat rocked precariously in the choppy river and I was slightly concerned that we might be tipped into the stinking brown water but the driver regained control and once I got used to the mild deafness from the engine noise I enjoyed the trip.

Kemaro Island


The boat trip passes a large industrial plant (urea) before arriving at Kemaro Island where there is a Chinese pagoda and temple and not much else.


There are a few more attractions in Palembang and I have plotted all their locations, as well as the above spots, on a map in case you ever want to visit Palembang in the future.

In Search Of Wallace – Part 4: Palembang, Sumatra


Alfred Russel Wallace visited Sumatra only once and stayed a relatively short time, from November 1861 to January 1862, which is perhaps surprising given that the island is massive (more than double the area of Great Britain) with, at that time, vast swathes of barely explored rain forest.

Wallace's Route from Batavia to Palembang

This is how he described his journey to Palembang:

“The mail steamer from Batavia to Singapore took me to Muntok (or as on English maps, “Minto”), the chief town and port of Banca. Here I stayed a day or two, until I could obtain a boat to take me across the straits, and all the river to Palembang.”

The tin mining island of Bangka was for a time annexed by the British and it was Stamford Raffles, in a blatant act of sycophancy, who renamed Muntok after his East India Company boss Lord Minto, Governor General of India. When the Dutch resumed control of Bangka the name Minto was quietly dropped.

On his voyage, Wallace would have passed by the island of Billiton (now Belitung), another former tin mining centre whose name lives on in the giant mining company BHP Billiton.

The Musi River at Palembang.

“A good-sized open sailing-boat took me across to the mouth of the Palembang river where, at a fishing village, a rowing-boat was hired to take me up to Palembang–a distance of nearly a hundred miles by water.”

That’s a long way in a rowing boat!

Map of Palembang in 1885.

“The city is a large one, extending for three or four miles along a fine curve of the river, which is as wide as the Thames at Greenwich. The stream is, however, much narrowed by the houses which project into it upon piles.”

Palembang is a much bigger city now with an area of 142 square miles and a population of over 1.7 million. The Musi River is still the life blood of the city and its banks are lined with houses, mosques and shops on stilts.

“Palembang is built on a patch of elevated ground, a few miles in extent, on the north bank of the river. At a spot about three miles from the town this turns into a little hill, the top of which is held sacred by the natives, shaded by some fine trees,and inhabited by a colony of squirrels which have become half-tame.”

Wallace may have been referring to Bukit Siguntang, an archaeological site and the highest point in the city (just 37 metres above sea level). Didn’t see any squirrels though.

Wallace found little to collect in the vicinity of Palembang and went further inland for 50 miles or more to the south west on the road towards Bencoolen. He spent time near the villages of Lorok, Moera-dua (Muara Dua), Lobo Raman (Lubuk Raman) in search of specimens.

I decided not to try to replicate Wallace’s journey to these villages since I thought it would be irksome for little reward. Instead I flew on to Bencoolen (Bengkulu) which I’ll write about in a later blog.  However you can read the account of someone who did make the journey to Lobo Raman in 2012 here:


While staying in the interior Wallace found time to write a letter to Charles Darwin expressing his frustration with the poor collecting conditions:

Sumatra, 100 miles E. of Bencoolen

Here I have had to come 100 miles inland (by Palembang) and even here in the very centre of E. Sumatra the forest is only in patches and it is the height of the rains so I get nothing – a longicorn is a rarity and I suppose I shall not get as many species in 2 months as I have in 4 days in a good place. I am however getting some sweet little Lycaenidae (gossamer winged butterflies) which is the only thing that keeps my spirits up.

long- tailed parroquet
Long Tailed Parroquet. Source: Gould, John, 1804-1881

While in Lorok he obtained a parroquet:

“The only bird new to me which I obtained at Lorok was the fine long- tailed parroquet (Palaeornis longicauda)”

These dried mounted Papilio Memnon butterflies at Putrajaya Natural History Museum appear to have lost their ashy blue markings.

“During a month’s collecting, I added only three or four new species to my list of birds.In butterflies I was rather more successful, obtaining several fine species quite new to me, and a considerable number of very rare and beautiful insects. The first is the handsome Papilio memnon, a splendid butterfly of a deep black colour, dotted over with lines and groups of scales of a clear ashy blue.”

Leaf Butterfly
Leaf Butterfly Kallima Paralekta. Photo: D. Gordon E Robertson

He was amazed by the leaf butterfly:

“In its position of repose it so closely resembled a dead leaf attached to a twig as almost certainly to deceive the eye even when gazing full upon it. I captured several specimens on the wing, and was able fully to understand the way in which this wonderful resemblance is produced.”

CHIEF’S HOUSE AND RICE SHED IN A SUMATRAN VILLAGE. Illustration from The Malay Archipelago

Wallace described the decorative Sumatran village houses.

“The houses are raised about six feet on posts, the best being entirely built of planks, others of bamboo. The former are always more or less ornamented with carving and have high-pitched roofs and overhanging eaves. The gable ends and all the chief posts and beams are sometimes covered with exceedingly tasteful carved work, and this is still more the case in the district of Menangkabo, further west.”

Minangkabau Style architecture at Bukit Tinggi, West Sumatra

I didn’t see any of this type of building in Palembang but here is one I photographed in Bukit Tinggi near Padang in 2013.

“In all these Sumatran villages I found considerable difficulty in getting anything to eat…. fruit was reduced to one of the poorest kinds of banana. The natives (during the wet season at least) live exclusively on rice. A pot of rice cooked very dry and eaten with salt and red peppers, twice a day, forms their entire food during a large part of the year.”

Happily things have improved and there is a wide variety of fruits on sale nowadays, at least in Palembang. And there’s always Pizza Hut.
The Siamang. Engraving from J G Wood's Illustrated Natural History (c 1850).
The Siamang. Engraving from J G Wood’s Illustrated Natural History (c 1850).

“A very curious ape, the Siamang, was also rather abundant. I purchased a small one, which had been caught by the natives and tied up so tightly as to hurt it. It was rather savage at first, and tried to bite; but when we had released it and given it two poles under the verandah to hang upon, securing it by a short cord, running along the pole with a ring so that it could move easily, it became more contented, and would swing itself about with great rapidity. It ate almost any kind of fruit and rice, and I was in hopes to have brought it to England, but it died just before I started. It took a dislike to me at first, which I tried to get over by feeding it constantly myself. One day, however, it bit me so sharply while giving it food, that I lost patience and gave it rather a severe beating, which I regretted afterwards, as from that time it disliked me more than ever.”

In recent years here have been sightings of Siamangs on sale at Palembang’s main market Pasar 16 (sold illegally for meat/brains) but thankfully I did not see any.

“Another curious animal, which I had met with in Singapore and in Borneo, but which was more abundant here, is the Galeopithecus, or flying lemur. This creature has a broad membrane extending all around its body to the extremities of the toes, and to the point of the rather long tail. This enables it to pass obliquely through the air from one tree to another.”

This stuffed Flying Lemur specimen is on display at Putrajaya Natural History Museum.

I would have to conclude that Palembang is not the best place to go in search of Wallace. There is little sense of him in this built-up city with few green spaces but there are a few tourist attractions in Palembang and I will write about these in my next post.

Malaysia’s Earthquake Risk


Mt. Kinabalu’s Clipped Ear

I purchased this postcard in 2009 after completing my hike up Gunung Kinabalu, Malaysia’s highest mountain. It shows part of the route used by most climbers and the various peaks at the summit.

The profile of the mountain has altered slightly since this photo was taken. The magnitude 6.0 earthquake which occurred on 5th June last year caused one of the Donkey’s Ears to partially break off (the one on the left, I think).

You might recall that this quake, which caused 18 fatalities, was blamed, by followers of local beliefs, on a group of western tourists who unwisely stripped off at the summit, thereby angering the mountain spirits.

A more scientific cause of the earthquake would be Sabah’s proximity to seismically active plate boundaries.

Malaysia’s Earthquake Risk

Malaysia is not normally associated with earthquakes. West Malaysia is seismically stable although vulnerable to the affects of large earthquakes in Sumatra.

Screen Shot 2016-02-04 at 5.29.14 PM

The Indian Ocean plate is pushing under Sumatra, in the direction of Malaysia, at the rate of about 7cm per year. Large earthquakes occur periodically in Sumatra and have been known to cause buildings to shake in KL and Johor Bahru. Meanwhile the Philippine plate is moving westwards, towards Malaysia, at a velocity of around 8cm per year.


Sabah is classified as a moderately active area, seismically. The map above shows the location of earthquakes around Sabah in recent years. There have been 16 incidents in the past 20 years, mostly in the 4-5 magnitude range..  The biggest one ever recorded was a 6.2 magnitude quake in Lahad Datu in 1976.

Mt. Kinabalu’s 6.0 magnitude was not huge in earthquake terms but the energy released was still the TNT equivalent of 15 kilotons, similar to the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima. Very frightening for the people who were stuck on the mountain at the time.

Screen Shot 2016-02-04 at 6.08.30 PM

This graphic helps put these events in perspective.

Mt. Kinabalu was closed to climbers for six months following the earthquake due to damage to the trails and facilities. It was reopened in December 2015 although the number of permitted climbers has been restricted to 120 per day. That will probably improve the experience – it was a little too crowded at the top when we went.



Malaysia’s Haze Problem

Photo: borneoaseanreports.com
Haze in Kuala Lumpur. Photo: borneoaseanreports.com

For the past couple of weeks Malaysia has been wheezing under a blanket of haze.

The haze is actually smoke from forest and peat fires in neighbouring Sumatra and the seasonal south west monsoon is causing the smoke to waft over much of Peninsular Malaysia and Singapore.

Some of these fires are set deliberately by plantation companies to clear rainforest for the planting of palm oil.

Despite efforts by the Indonesian Government to extinguish the fires (and prosecute those responsible), the air quality in much of Malaysia has continued to deteriorate.

An Air Pollution Index reading of over 150 means unhealthy for everyone.
An Air Pollution Index reading of over 150 means unhealthy for everyone.

The air in the KL area is now fairly unpleasant and people are starting to get sore throats and itchy eyes. Children are hoping the reading will reach 200 at which level schools have to close.

API Reading as at 4pm today. Kuala Lumpur is 155 (unhealthy).
API Reading as at 4pm today. Kuala Lumpur is 155 (unhealthy).

As you can see from this map, the air quality in Singapore is even worse (181 – close to very unhealthy). Meanwhile over in Pekanbaru, Sumatra where the fires originate, the API is a whopping 685.

Air Quality in Asia

Compare this to nearby countries. Over in Bangkok, not renowned for its crisp air, the air pollution index is a fresh and healthy 31, and even in Manila, with its gas-belching buses and jeepneys, the reading is lower than KL at 149.

Spare a thought for those poor folk in Dandong, on the border between North Korea and China where the reading is an asphyxiating 974!

Malaysia’s weather forecasters say conditions should improve within the next week or so as the transitional monsoon brings more rain. But this choking haze problem has become an annual event. The only light at the end of the tunnel is that in ten year’s time there will probably be no rainforest left in Sumatra and nothing to burn!

Bukittinggi Zoo, Sumatra

There is a rather grim zoo at Bukittinggi, located next to Fort De Kock.

Rumah Adat Baanjuang, Bukittinggi Zoo

Its centrepiece is a fine example of West Sumatran architecture which houses displays of local customs.

Accommodation for the animals is less salubrious.

Orangutan cage at Bukittinggi Zoo 

The cage for the pair of orangutans is very prison cell-like and these intelligent creatures must get very bored and frustrated with the moronic behaviour of most of the human visitors.

Sumatran tiger at Bukittinggi Zoo

The zoo’s collection of Sumatran tigers at least have a patch of greenery but with an island as large as Sumatra (the size of California) you would think they could be a bit more generous with the tigers’ space.

Sweet deer at Bukittinggi Zoo

The zoo’s other inmates include a couple of deer species, a camel, a pair of elephants and some crocodiles.

I saw some ducks wandering around inside the crocodile enclosure and was concerned that they might get eaten by the crocs. Then I realised that that was the point. Every crocodile pen had one or more live ducks placed inside, with clipped wings, as food and entertainment for the reptiles. The crocs did not take long to catch their lunch.

Crocodile Feeding Time at Bukittinggi Zoo 

I wondered how they feed the tigers. With a live goat perhaps? I didn’t hang around to find out.

Bukittinggi – Sumatra

Bukittinggi skyline

Bukittinggi is a hill station town about 90km from Padang (two and a half hours drive). It lies just south of the equator at an altitude of less than 4,000 feet making the day time temperature comfortable and the nights cool. I hired a car and driver to take me there.

Observation tower at Fort de Kock, BukittinggiOld Dutch cannon at Fort de Kock, Bukittinggi

The town was established by the Dutch around a fortress, Fort de Kock, built in 1825 to withstand attacks from local rebels. A modern concrete observation tower occupies the hilltop where the fort once stood. The earthen ramparts and a few old cannons are still in evidence.

Fort de Kock in 1826
Fort de Kock in 1826 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There are nice views of the surrounding area from the hill top and on a clear day two nearby volcanoes, Mt. Marapi and Mt. Singgalang can be seen (unfortunately obscured by clouds during my quick trip).

View of Bukittinggi from Fort de Kock

An unusually designed bridge (Jambatan Limpapen) takes pedestrians from Fort de Kock to the Bukittinggi Zoo, which I’ll write about in a future post.

Jambatan Limpapen, Bukittinggi

The town’s most famous landmark is Jam Gadang, a rather attractive clock tower which was built by the Dutch in 1926 but remodelled after Independence by the addition of a Minangkabau style roof.

Jam Gadang, Bukittinggi

Just a few minutes walk from here is an impressive natural feature, the Sianok Canyon, which is part of a rift valley running the entire length of Sumatra, marking the fault line which is the cause of much of the seismic activity on the island.

Sianok Canyon, Bukittinggi

The path on the right of the photo is bordered by a crenelated wall known as the Great Wall of Bukittinggi and visitors can trek down to the floor of the canyon.

Japanese Caves at Taman Panorama, BukittinggiJapanese Caves at Taman Panorama, Bukittinggi

During WWII Bukittinggi was the headquarters of the Japanese 25th Army. They built an extensive network of tunnels and underground stores which are now open to the public and known as Lobang Jepang.

Creepy Japanese Caves at Taman Panorama, BukittinggiMap Showing Network of Tunnels at Japanese Caves at Taman Panorama, Bukittinggi

Bukittinggi is an interesting town and it was a worthwhile trip with pleasant scenery along the way.