The report of the Chinese ambassador to Cambodia in 260, Kang Tai, referred to ‘great junks’ with seven sails, belonging to a Malayan or Indonesian state, which voyaged from the Far East to the Roman empire.... Faxian, the Buddhist pilgrim who went to India by land via the silk road in 399, returned to China by sea. He had no difficulty in finding ‘a large merchant-vessel on which there were over two hundred souls’ to take him from Ceylon to Java, and a similar ship to carry him on to Canton. From both east and west, the picture is of a regular, well-established traffic, in particular areas on some scale, using the best shipping of the day
Periplus of the Erythraean Sea mention large ships called Colandia sailing from India to Chryse (Malay Peninsula) in the first century CE.
Seven masted ancient ships were usually around 2,300 tons with a crew of 650.
An early 16th century Potuguese artist's rendering of Malay ships (Lopo Homen Atlas 1518)
Through the entire first millenium, Malay ships called jongs reigned supreme in the Pacific and Indian oceans.No other race have dominated the oceans for so long.By the 13th century the Chinese managed to catch up in terms of size but their ships were still of the junk type.The construction of magnificent Malay ships gradually ceased with the arrival of revolutionary designs from Europe in the 16th century.Malay ships up to that point were not designed to carry heavy guns on the sides since it was never a good idea for other Asians to attack tall Malay ships carrying hundreds of tough crew members and marines.
A naval engagement between a jong from Aceh and 19 Portuguese ships on their way to attack Malacca in 1511 underscored the difficulties facing any attackers.
Her sides were so high that no one dared board her from any of the Portuguese ships;naos,caravellas and gales and she remained unscathed by the Portuguese fire because she had four layers of sheathing and the largest Portuguese artillery could only penetrate two.At length the governor sent out his own nao the Flor de la Mar.Inspite of this the jong managed to fend of the Portuguese attacks for two days and two nights and only succumbed when the Portuguese succeeded in removing her rudders which she carried outside as on the barges of Ribatejo
Gaspar Correia 1511
Gaspar Correia 1511
Asian ships were long accustomed to utilizing the entire space on board for cargo and passengers and were caught unprepared to deal with heavily armed Portuguese naos.This is the reason for Portuguese initial successes in SE Asia but once a Malay power, Aceh, copied their ship design, they lost their advantage at sea and were forced into the defensive.
This early 17th century drawing by Godinho de Eredia depicts the siege of Malacca by Aceh.
We can see five small Aceh galleons lining up to trade broadsides with a large Portuguese galleon while another two are firing their stern chasers (rear guns) at the same Portuguese ship.
The Aceh navy was indoctrinated in the Ottoman's style of naval warfare which emphasized the role of large galleys. Galleons were kept small and given secondary roles. Galleons built by Aceh never seemed to exceed 200 tons.The biggest galley therefore has always been the flagship of the Aceh navy.
Since Malay jongs were defenseless against Portuguese naos,they ceased to be built in early 16th century. Malays were forced to build smaller and faster ships. Only Aceh managed to copy European designs due to their close ties with the Ottoman Empire.
By the 17th century, more Malay powers acquired the knowledge to build European style ships.The top tier Malay trading powers were Aceh,Banten,Palembang and Makassar.These kingdoms became extremely wealthy by pepper and spice trading that they were befriended by European powers such as England,France,Denmark,the Ottoman Empire and even Portugal(in Makassar).These European powers may have shared some technical knowledge with their Malay allies in order to counter the strength of the Dutch East Indies Company (VOC).
Middle tier Malay powers like Johor and Jambi only had frigate type ships called grabs (ghorabs) as their biggest warships.According to the book History of Johor by RO Winstedt, 17th century Johor had between 100-200 units of two and three masted grabs.
Since I can't find pictures of Malay grabs, these pics of Indian ones give us some idea of what they looked like.It is worth noting that Indians only began building grabs in the 18th century.