The Malay Peninsula was, and still is, a global centre of trade. Trade brought people from all over the world. They traded, made friends, and even married and settled down, producing new hybrid cultures unique to Malaya’s soil. The long Portuguese involvement in Southeast Asia—from 1511 until 1975—is perhaps best-known today for producing the only Lusophone state in the region, Timor-Leste. However, it was their conquest of Malacca that first gave them a foothold in Southeast Asia. Today, the Straits of Malacca is dominated by Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism, and the English and Malay languages. But a small yet hardy Portuguese Settlement continues to survive, deeply Catholic and speaking their own unique variety of Portuguese: Papia Kristang, or Kristang for short. This article explains the unique history of Kristang, its cultural context within Malaysia, and breaks down how the language works.

The Portuguese conquest of Malacca

Straddling the Indian and Pacific Oceans, the Straits of Malacca is a choke point for all ships travelling between South and East Asia. Owing to this strategic location, the city of Malacca emerged as an important port, facilitating trade and attracting sailors from China, India, Arabia, across Southeast Asia, and further afield. The 15th Century saw the height of local power, with the Sultanate of Malacca taking advantage of its strategic location to become a wealthy and powerful kingdom.

Portuguese Malacca by Ferdinand Magellan, ca. 1509-1512

By the 16th century Portugal had begun exploration that would lead to the wider Portuguese Empire. After having sailed around Africa in 1497 and captured Goa in 1510, the Portuguese arrived in Malacca in April 1511.

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Robert Laub

Robert Laub is a PhD candidate in Linguistics at SOAS University of London. His research interests include language documentation, endangered languages, and Luso-Asian Creoles.