Singapore
Asia's cosmopolitan city
Ancient map of Southeast Asia and Singapore

Singapore's early history

When a castaway prince meets an auspicious lion...

Ancient Singapore

The first written records of Singapore came from a 3rd century Chinese report,

describing an Island by the name of Pu Luo chung at the tip of the Malay peninsula. This name is probably a mispronunciation of the Malay name "Pulau Ujong" which means "island at the end" (of the Malay Peninsula)

 

An even earlier report, dating to the 2nd century, is the one of Greek geographer, Ptolemy, who located a place called Sabana in the area where Singapore lies today and identified it as part of a chain of foreign trading centres that linked Southeast Asia with India and the Mediterranean.

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Early civilization

From the seventh to the thirteenth centuries, the island of Singapore was controlled by the Srivijaya Empire, an ancient Malay kingdom which was based in the island of Sumatra and influenced much of the Malay Archipelago. 

They built a relatively important fortified city and trading post on Singapore Island and named it Temasek (Sea-town in Javanese).

 

The island's current name, Singapore, relates to a thirteenth century tale that appears in the Sejarah Melayu (or The Malay Annals), a historical Malay literary work that chronicles the establishment of the Malacca Sultanate and spans over 600 years of the Malay Peninsula's history. 

According to the famous story, a Sumatran prince, Sri Tri Buana (better known as Sang Nila Utama), landed on the island after surviving a shipwreck, sometime during the 13th century. 

 

On the island, the prince saw an animal which he mistakenly thought was a lion.  Believing this to be an auspicious sign, he decided to build a settlement called Singa Pura, which means "Lion City" in Sanskrit (Singa = Lion , Pura = City). The thing is that lions never set their paws on Singaporean soil, so the animal that the prince saw (if this story had ever happened) must have been a tiger...

 

A small insight from 'Metropolasia-Man': 

Did you know ? The name 'Singa Pura' translates to "City of the lion" and was coined by a legendary 13th century prince who landed on the island after surviving a storm, and saw an animal he thought was a lion...

 

The surprising thing about this story, however, is that lions had probably never set a paw on the Island of Singapore...

 

The Srivijaya Empire started to decline in the late 14th century.

In the 1390s, Srivijayan prince Parameswara fled to Temasek after being deposed by the Majapahit Empire.

He ruled the island for several years, before being forced to Melaka where he founded the Sultanate of Malacca.

 

Singapore became a relatively important trading port of the Malacca Sultanate and, later, the Sultanate of Johor.  In 1613, Portuguese raiders burnt down the settlement at the mouth of Singapore River and the island sank into obscurity.

A few relics and artefacts from the ancient settlement of Temasek were unearthed by archaeologists in Singapore.

 

Those of you who wish to visit the relics of ancient Temasek, should refer to the Bras Basah to Fort Canning Park tour, on our Singapore Tours, Attractions and Sightseeing section. 

 

Between the 16th and 19th centuries, the Malay Archipelago was gradually taken over by European colonial powers, beginning with the arrival of the Portuguese at Malacca in 1509.  The early dominance of the Portuguese was challenged during the 17th century by the Dutch, who came to control most of the ports in the region. The Dutch established a monopoly over trade within the archipelago, particularly in spices (the region's then most important product).  Other colonial powers, including the British, were limited to a relatively minor presence.

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Next in line...

Sir Raffles and the founding of modern Singapore