Governor General Juan de Silva’s mission to go after the Dutch outside Spanish Philippine territory, deep into the Malay peninsula, was not without its critics.
“Silva set sail from Manila late in the season, ill-staffed, ill-equipped, under a barrage of criticism from the church, the orders, the bishops, the cabildos and the Audiencia Real. Worst of all he left the city of Manila behind heavily taxed, the exchequer steeped in debt, and a fort-city with no defences to speak of… (P. Borschberg)”
But he was unswayed and determined. “Silva’s inexhaustible energy… his greatest virtue… he press his advantage home to the Dutch in the Moluccas, for he reasoned that as long as they had a base anywhere in the Far East, they would have the power to put Manila in the same peril as that from which he had freed it. (H. de la Costa)”
Silva arrived in Singapore confronted by the geopolitical realities of the Malay peninsula. Aside from the Dutch attacking the Portuguese where it can, Johor had been discreetly extending its assistance to the VOC. The Sultan of Johor did so because of political convenience. The Acehnese, under Sultan Iskandar Muda, was breathing down his throat. He needed protection and a strong deterrent which the Dutch provided.
Understanding that success of the luso-hispano effort partly relies in controlling the Johor king, Silva went straight to him. Malacca , which was an important port under the Portuguese, had been besieged by the Dutch.
“The main portion of the fleet (Silva’s Armada) appears to have remained off Singapore at anchor, two galleys of the Spanish armada proceeded to Malacca where they arrived toward the end of March, 1616… the city was understandably engulfed in a sense crisis and deep pessimism (after the Dutch attacks). It is against the backdrop of this gloom that one is to understand the excitement and new-found hope that accompanied the arrival of the Spanish governor in Malacca…(P. Borschberg)”
The presence of Spanish forces in Malacca was welcomed because they were Catholics intending to restore order. To many the Dutch were a “plague of heretics” while Silva and his Armada, saviors from an invading force.
“It was a most fortunate event, and was worthily celebrated by the public acclamation of the inhabitants of Malacca, who called Governor Don Juan de Silva their redeemer. They received him in their city under the pall, which demonstrations of joy and honors as if he were a viceroy, for as such did they regard him; and they assured themselves that with his valor and powerful fleet they were to deliver India from the inopportune war and the continuous pillaging of the Dutch.(P. Borschberg)”
But in Malacca, Silva’s promising campaign took an unforeseen and tragic twist.
“The fleet entered the straits of Malacca on 25 February. Unfortunately, the Dutch squadron that had worsted Miranda (Portuguese) got wind of its approach and fled. On March 22, Silva slipped anchor before Malacca and was given a royal reception. The loss of the Portuguese galleons failed to disheartened him (Silva), and he was about to proceed to the Moluccas to deliver his knockout blow when he was seized by a sudden illness which proved fatal. He died on April 19, and his great enterprise, which might have changed the course of history in Southeast Asia died with him. (H. de la Costa)”
Rumor has it that Silva was poisoned. It is said that before dying, he completely lost fate in the campaign. Perhaps sensing that no one but him was capable of launching such an ambitious undertaking.
What happened to the Armada’s men?
“After lying in state at the residence of the Society of Jesus at Malacca, the embalmed corpse of the governor was brought to the fleet and received with a salute on May 2. Two days later, the ships set course for Manila…(P. Borschberg)”
Silva’s captain decided to hurriedly sail back to Manila after getting word that a Dutch attack, led by Spielbergen (who made allies out of Maguindanaoans and Sulus) was on its way. The Dutch had Iloilo on their radar, then Manila.
The question historians ask today is that if Silva did not perished in Malacca, would the campaign had succeeded?
It was a sad ending for Silva, but if it was any consolation, he left Singapore a maritime legacy that to this day remains a useful discovery.
“…the “discovery” of the so-called “Governor’s Strait” (or Strait of John de Silva), the present-day Philip’s Channel, which serves as the principal maritime artery for international shipping today. Intra-Asian trade at that time used to pass either to the north of present-day Sentosa (Old Strait of Singapore) or to its south (New Strait or Strait of Sta. Barbara). The “discovery” of this third and historically most significant passage…(P. Borschberg)”
History is full of “what if’s” but also of consequences from actions the boldest men had bequeathed it.
Sources & Recommended reading:
The Jesuits in the Philippines 1581-1768, H. de la Costa
Juan de Silva in the Straits of Singapore, 1615-1616, Prof. Peter Borschberg (NUS)
The Singapore and Melaka Straits : violence, security and diplomacy in the 17th century, Prof. Peter Borschberg (NUS)
The Philippine Islands, 1493-1898, edited by Emma H. Blair and James A. Robertson
First part of this blog, here: https://withonespast.wordpress.com/2018/09/09/spanish-philippine-armada-in-singapore-part-1/