“I cannot but consider the Malayu nation as one people, speaking one language, though spread over so wide a space, preserving their character and customs, in all the maritime states lying between Sulu Seas and the Southern Oceans.” – Stamford Raffles, ‘On the Malayu Nation’, Asiatic Researches, 12 (1816): 103.
The Malays are the race of people who inhabit the Malay Peninsula (what is today Peninsular Malaysia) and portions of adjacent islands of Southeast Asia, including the east coast of Sumatra, the coast of Borneo, and smaller islands that lie between these areas.
Anthropologists trace the home of the Malay race to the northwestern part of Yunnan, in China. These tribal proto-Malays, or Jakun, were a seafaring people. They were once probably a people of coastal Borneo who expanded into Sumatra and the Malay Peninsula as a result of their trading and seafaring way of life. These sea-tribes, refered to by the Portuguese historian Godinho de Eredia as Saletes (Orang Selat, or People of the Straits), played a major part in the making of the great Malay empires of Malacca and Johor. The present-day Malays of the Peninsula and coasts of the Malay Archipelago are described anthropologically as deutero-Malays and are the descendants of the tribal proto-Malays mixed with modern Indian, Thai, Arab and Chinese blood.
Malay culture itself has been strongly influenced by that of other peoples, including the Siamese, Javanese, Sumatran and, especially, Indians. The influence of Hindu India was historically very great, and the Malay were largely Hinduized before they were converted to Islam in the 15th century. For nearly two thousand years, the unremitting traffic of traders between the Archipelago and India resulted in frequent inter-marriages along the whole of the west coast of the peninsula, especially Tamils and Gujeratis. Some Hindu ritual survives in Malay culture, as in the second part of the marriage ceremony and in various ceremonies of state. Malays have also preserved some of their more ancient, animistic beliefs in spirits of the soil and jungle, often having recourse to medicine men or shamans (bomohs) for the treatment of ailments.
In the northern states of Perlis and Kedah, inter-marriages with Thais were commonplace. The east coast state of Kelantan still has traces of Javanese culture that date back to the era of the Majapahit Empire of the fourteenth century. The Sumatran kingdom of Acheh dominated Perak for over a century. The Bugis from Indonesia’s Celebes Islands colonised Selangor and fought for rulers in States along the length of the peninsula – from Kedah to Johor. The Minangkabaus from Sumatra had their own independent chiefdoms in what is today Negri Sembilan. This mix of different races to form what is the modern Malay can be clearly seen in the lineage of, for example, Malacca royalty. Sultan Muhammad Shah married a Tamil from south India. Sultan Mansur Shah married a Javanese, a Chinese and a Siamese – the Siamese wife bore two future Sultans of Pahang. It was this diversity of races, cultures and influences that has the given the modern Malay race the rich and unique historical heritage it has today.