This Cape Malay Community Has Existed for Over 300 Years
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This Malay Community in South Africa’s Cape Town Has Existed for Over 300 Years

The Malay influence was so vast that Bahasa Melayu once became the lingua franca (universal language) especially during the Malacca Sultanate (1402-1511) when Malacca stood as one of the world’s most strategic trading centres thanks to its location. Even today, the Malay language is the sixth most-spoken language around the world (big props to our brother over in Indonesia for making up most of the population!)

It started when Muslim traders from India and West Asia shifted their attention to Melaka. It didn’t take long before merchants and ships from other countries like Japan, China, South Africa and Arab countries followed suit.

The Malay world then comprised countries known today as Brunei, Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines and East Timor.

As Melaka grew, it became a hot creme caramel cheesecake and every Western colonialist wanted a piece, namely the Dutch, Portuguese and the British, and that’s when the empire fell. Despite having to surrender to the three foreign power, it marked the beginning of Malay communities and settlements around the world.

The surviving gate of the A Famosa Portuguese fort in Melaka.

Once dubbed ‘Orang Laut’, Malays were also known for their seafaring skills. A living proof would be the Bajau Laut ‘sea nomads’ in Sabah who can freedive up to 79 metres underwater, and hold their breath for as long as 13 minutes. Sadly, most of us today can’t even hold 13 minutes of attention!

First Man in History to Sail Around the World

Although there is no substantial evidence to support this story, it is believed that a Malay by the name of Enrique de Malacca or Panglima Awang was the first man in the history of mankind to sail around the world.

Picked up as a slave by Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan for the Spanish’s world circumnavigation mission between 1519 and 1521, Panglima Awang accompanied the explorer throughout all his voyages serving as an interpreter for the Spaniards.

Traveller? Check. Multilingual? Check. We imagine that if he wanted to, Panglima Awang could easily be that free-spirited wanderer with a soulful gaze that could break the heart of hundreds of girls on every stop.

When they were in the Philippines, Magellan died during the Battle of Mactan. Magellan had in his will mentioned that Panglima Awang would be emancipated upon his death.

There were records saying Panglima Awang survived the war and that he intended to return home, but the story stopped there. If he really did sail home, then he would have been the first person to sail the world and return to the starting point.

Fun Fact: The final resting place of Portuguese vessel Flor de la Mar that sunk in the Straits of Malacca in 1512 is still yet to be found. Reportedly carrying gifts for Portuguese royals, treasure hunters today claimed her to be the richest vessel ever lost at sea. You can check out and board the replica in Melaka, treasures not included.

‘Flor de la Mar’ replica in Melaka. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 gordontour

How Did the Malays Settle in Cape Town, South Africa?

To avoid the whole #doneclaim saga, let’s be clear that the Malay Archipelago was massive back in the day as mentioned earlier in the story, so this is not exclusively about Malaysia.

While the general South African Cape Malay comprised slaves from the Dutch colony including those from Melaka between 1641 and 1824, the earliest community members were Javanese slaves brought in by Dutch East India Company as Cape Town functioned as a resupply station for ships travelling between Europe and Asia.

The beautiful Lions Head mountain is only a 20-minute drive away from Bo-Kaap. Image: Gregory Basil

The slaves were mainly skilled artisans like silversmiths, milliners, cobblers, singers, masons and tailors back home, subsequently political and religious leaders who opposed the Dutch ideologies were also sent to Cape Town in exile.

Palace of Good Hope. Anti-Dutch political and religious leaders were sent to exile at the Cape of Good Hope as slaves. Image: Gregory Basil
The jaw-dropping view of Table Mountain from the road in Cape Town. Image: Gregory Basil
The Camps Bay Beach is only empty during winter. Image: Gregory Basil
Mariner’s Wharf. Image: Gregory Basil

Although the bigger chunk of the community members were from Indonesia, the term Cape Malay is believed to have been used simply because Malay was the lingua franca then.

South African history dictates that the exiles and slaves settled on Gallows Hill (part of Green Point today). The Gallowsteen, or execution gallows, was built here and slaves who protested against the cruelty of the Dutch were executed.

Other slaves were scattered across the town, namely Bo-Kaap, before emancipation in 1838. By 1849, the population rose and many Malays settled here.

Houses painted in vibrant colours throughout the stretch of Long Street in Bo-Kaap. It is said that the locals would repaint their houses every year. Image: Gregory Basil

As Muslims, Cape Malays were regarded as respectable people who did not drink and were hardworking and reliable.

Through the years, Cape Malays considered the term as derogatory because it was given by the Dutch oppressors. During the people’s rise against South Africa’s apartheid era amid socio-political and economic crises of the 1970s and 1980s, where minorities were labelled as ‘Coloureds’ (the term, which associated with segregation, still stands to this day), the Malay community decided to change its name to South African Muslims. Today, they simply identify as Malay.

Mosque on Long Street. The Cape Malays were regarded as respectable and reliable as they did not consume alcohol. Image: Gregory Basil

The community today is reportedly to 200,000-strong but because of racial turmoil caused by apartheid, hardly anyone can speak fluent Malay. Although a few cultural values remain intact like dishes and fashion, the language is limited to basic phrases like apa khabar and terima kasih. They mostly converse in Afrikaans and English.

A cyclist tackles the sloping street of Bo-Kaap. Image: Gregory Basil

Effort to Keep the Malay Culture Alive in Cape Town

Melaka-based non-governmental organisation Dunia Melayu Dunia Islam president Tan Sri Mohd Ali Rustam visited the community in 2016 and raised his concern about the diminishing culture.

More beautiful scene in Bo Kaap. Just look at the sky. Image: Gregory Basil

Ali, who is also former Melaka chief minister, told a Malaysian news agency that out of the 2,000 Malays he met, only two who were well in their 80s, were able to speak Bahasa.

“Our organisation had deployed language teachers here but the offer didn’t capture their attention because they are used to speaking in English and the local language,” he said, adding an area called Kampung Melayu in Cape Town no longer reflected any character like its name suggests.

A place that was once called Bukit Semboyan had also been changed to Signal Hill. Anyone would admit that the new name is not as cool, and would be ironic if you can’t at least get 4G connection up there.

Signal Hill in the background was once called Bukit Semboyan. It is not known why the name was translated to English. Image: Gregory Basil

“The efforts to preserve the Malay heritage especially language doesn’t stop in Asia. If people lose interest in Bahasa, it could lead to the demise of an entire culture,” Ali said.

Regardless, the Malays in Cape Town still hold dear to the traditional cultural value where they remain a close-knit community, helping each other to host thanksgiving feasts and weddings, to name a few.

So, if you’re ever in Cape Town, a visit to Bo-Kaap is without a doubt, a must. Just say “Apa Khabar” and “Terima Kasih”, and you know the locals would welcome you with open arms.

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