Melaka got its start in 1396, when the Sumatran prince Parameswara was exiled by his father-in-law (yes, in-laws have been hell throughout history). Parameswara first went to Temesek (now Singapore) where he killed the king and took control of the island. Unfortunately, after just a few years there the Siamese attacked and forced Parameswara to move on. He then landed in a small fishing village on the coast of Malaya and founded the sultanate of Melaka. With its strategic position in what became known as the strait of Melaka, the city became a strategic trading center between the east and west. It was halfway between India and China, and so became a very convenient place to wait out the monsoons when traveling between the two.
The Santiago Gate to the A'Famosa Fort in Melaka
In 1509, the sultanate rebuffed Portuguese attempts to 'share' in the lucrative spice, china and silk trades. But in 1511 the Portuguese returned, armed, and took the city by force in a move that seems to typify the European colonial period. The Portuguese built the A'Famosa fortress around the base of St Paul Hill to guard their new treasure.
The Portuguese takeover of Melaka essentially backfired. While they could take the port, they couldn't force people to trade there. The Muslim traders from Arabia and India took their business to other ports still in Islamic hands. Attacked on all sides, Melaka eventually fell to the Dutch in 1641.
Trade increased somewhat under the Dutch, but never again attained the heights it achieved before the Portuguese. The British took over administration of the port when France occupied the Dutch homeland in 1795. The Dutch tried to get Melaka back once the French were expelled, but eventually traded Melaka for the Sumatran port of Bencoolen in 1824.
Although Melaka was obviously important enough for the British to keep, they already had Penang guarding the straits to the north and Singapore to the south. Melaka was definitely the least important of these three Straits Settlements.
Although it had became something of a sleepy backwater by the twentieth century, Melaka gained some measure of importance for modern Malaysia when independence was first proclaimed on the field below Bandar Hilir in 1956.