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Indonesia History - Aceh Sultanate [Acheen / Atcheen]

Indonesia is a country of many ethnic groups and religions and languages and the people of Aceh have a culture and history as distinctive as any in that very diverse country. Their language is related not to the Malay languages of the immediate neighborhood but rather to the language of the Cham minority in Cambodia and southern Vietnam.

For many centuries before the Dutch conquest, Aceh was an independent sultanate, one of the petty kingdoms into which the island of Sumatra is divided. It occupies the north-western extremity of the island, and borders generally on the country of the Battas. The kingdom does not extend inland farther than about fifty miles. It stretches along the coast to the south-westward as far as the town of Barus, in 2" N. lat. and 98° 3C E. long. On the northern coast the territory of Atcheen reaches as far eastward as Karti, in 5° 10' N. lat. and 97° 40' E. long.

When the Portuguese, early in the sixteenth century, were prosecuting their discoveries and conquests in the Indian Seas, a fleet of five ships, under the command of Diego Lopes de Sequeira, first reached the island of Sumatra, and anchored at Pedir, then a principal port on the north-west coast, within the kingdom of Atcheen. Here the Portuguese found trading vessels from Pegu, from Bengal, and from other eastern countries: this was in September, 1509.

It was nearly a century later (June, 1602) when the first English ships visited that country. These were the fleet under the command of Sir James Lancaster, who bore a letter from the queen of England, and was received by the sovereign of Atcheen with every mark of respect. On this occasion a regular commercial treaty between the two governments was drawn up and executed. The chief object of contemplated traffic was pepper, for which article Europe was princip'ally dependent at that time upon the Dutch.

Very little advantaire was taken of the treaty here mentioned until the year 1659, when the reigning queen of Atcheen, having granted some additional privileges to the English East India Company, a factory was established by that body in the capital of her dominions. The trade, however, was never very flourishing in this quarter, and may be said to have ceased upon the establishment of the Company's settlement at Bencoolen, on the south coast of Sumatra, from the neighbourhood of which place the pepper was principally collected.

A 'treaty of friendship and alliance' was concluded with the Sultan of Atcheen, in April, 1819, by Sir Stamford Raffles, acting on behalf of the government of the East India Company, whereby the right of trading freely to all the ports of that kingdom was assured to the British upon the payment of' fixed and declared rates of duty.' By this treaty His Highness likewise engaged ' not to grant to any person whatever a monopoly of the produr« of his states, and to exclude the subjects of every other European power, and likewise all Americans, from a fixed habitation or residence in his dominions.'

On the occasion of concluding this treaty, the East India Company advanced to the Sultan of Atcheen a loan of 50,000 dollars, and presented to him as a gift six pair of brass field-pieces, and a considerable quantity of ammunition and military stores.

The government of Atcheen was an hereditary monarchy, and the king or sultan was limited in his authority only by the power of the greater vassals, so that the bulk of the people were not in the enjoyment of much political liberty. The whole kingdom is divided into about 190 small districts or communities, equivalent to parishes. These districts are grouped together in various numbers, varying from 20 to 26, under the management of a provincial governor. The Btate revenues were made up of offerings in grain, cattle, and money, sent from each district, and delivered at the king's store; but the principal income of the crown consists in customs-duties imposed upon the import and export of merchandise.

The climate of this part of the island is comparatively healthy. The country is more free than most of the other parts from stagnant waters and from woods, for which reason the inhabitants are likewise less liable to fevers and dysenteries.

A chain of mountains, in some parts double and in others treble, runs from near the north-western point through the whole extent of Sumatra, including, of course, the territory of Atcheen. These mountains, as well as the rivers and other principal geographical features of the country, will be described in our general account of the island.

The Atchinese are in general taller and stouter, and their complexions darker, than those of the other inhabitants of Sumatra. They were likewise considered to be of more active and industrious habits, as well as more sagacious. They were fond of commercial adventure, and their degree of know ledge, more particularly as regards other countries, is greater than that possessed by other races of Sumatrans who do not engage so largely in commerce. This superiority of character and intelligence had been attributed as much to a considerable admixture of Malay blood, as to the great intercourse which has for ages existed between their ports and the western parts of India.

The language in use among the Atchinese was one of the general dialects of the Eastern Islands: in writing they make use of the Malayan character. In religion they are followers of Mohammed, and maintain the forms and ceremonies of the Moslem faith with much strictness.

When the Dutch attempted to colonize the Sultanate in 1875, they found themselves in a war that went on for twenty-five years and never fully ended. One of the heroes of that war was a woman, Cut Nya' Dhien, who took over the leadership of the Acehnese resistance against the Dutch after the death of her husband.

By the time of the Great War Sumatra was partly subject to native sovereigns and partly under the sway and influence of the Dutch. The independent states were Acheen, Siack, Indragiri, and Iambie on the coast, and that of the Battas in the interior. The independent states lay on the north-eastern coast, along the Straits of Durian and Malacca, from 2° S. lat. to the most northern extremity of the island, and extend along the south-western coast as far as 2° N. lat. The remainder of the southwestern coast, with a considerable part of the mountainregion, and the north-eastern coast as far north as 1° 30' S. lat., is either immediately subject to the Dutch or governed by princes dependent on them.

Acheen occupies the most northern part of the island. When its government was in full force, it extended as far as the town of Baroos on the south-west coast, and as far as the river Batu Bhara on the east coast. It terminated in the interior at the mountains, in which the Sinkel river rises, and where the Batta territories begin. In course of time the powerful vassals on the cast coast obtained their independence, but those on the north and west coast are still considered subjects of the king of Acheen, though they frequently refuse to pay their tribute. The area of the whole country is probably 20,000 square miles. A short description of it and of the capital is given under Atcheen. The capital is the principal seaport, but there are several other ports, which are annually visited by some foreign vessels, and also carry on a considerable commerce in their own ships.

The chief trade of Acheen is with the British settlements in the Strait of Malacca, and especially Penang ; but there has also long existed a direct commercial intercourse between it and Bengal, Madras, and Bombay. Besides this the ports are visited by American vessels, French ships, Arabian vessels from Mocha and Jidda, Parsee vessels from Surat and Bombay, vessels from the Maldive Islands, and Portuguese vessels from Macao and Goa. Some English ships bound directly for China take in parcels of areca-nut for that country.

The Acehnese developed a rich culture, one of whose distinctive features are texts and oral recitals called hikayat, many of which are in verse form. Their subject matter covers a range from the humorous to religious texts to epic recitals about Acehnese heroes. There are many of the latter, for the Acehnese are a fiercely independent people.

This fiercely independent character is also reflected in the Acehnese belief in their Muslim religion, which leads other Indonesians to sometimes call them “fanatik,” borrowing the term from English. However, I think they are better described as “fiercely” or “devoutly” Muslims. I still remember sitting on the floor of a one-room Muslim schoolhouse, built on stilts with a thatched roof, in the middle of the Acehnese jungle and hear the kyai, or imam, of the school tell us: “Other Indonesians may call us ‘fanatik,’ but we are not.” With evident deep feeling he added, “Here, you see, we welcome you with open arms and with open hearts.”

By the late 18th century the Dutch had been assembling pepper cargoes at Batavia (Jakarta) from various localities across what is now Indonesia for nearly two hundred years. It was evident that there was a market for pepper and possibly a supply to be exploited under the right circumstances.

The official seal of the City of Salem depicts a figure in oriental costume and bears, in Latin, the motto: “To the farthest port of the rich East.” The figure represents an Achinese man, a resident of the Sultanate of Acheh (Aceh), on the Indonesian island of Sumatra. The motto is a reminder of the great productivity of the region in the growing of pepper, a precious crop that dominated maritime trade for centuries.

In 1823 twenty-seven American vessels obtained cargoes on the western roast, chiefly pepper in exchange for Turkish opium and Spanish dollars, to the value of about a million of dollars. Various merchants soon got into the game, and helped to elevate Salem to what was considered, for a time, the pepper capital of the world. Trans-shipment of pepper worldwide was one of Salem’s major industries into the 1840s, with direct trade between Sumatra and Salem not ceasing until 1846.

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Page last modified: 18-04-2012 19:22:40 ZULU