Thomas Dias’ journey to Central Sumatra in 1684

Pagaruyung Palace. © 1984 George Schnee. The Aga Khan Visual Archive, The MIT Libraries' collections.

Introduced Timothy P. Barnard

Download the full article in PDF

How does one describe a society which is vastly different from our own, and one which is contained in a blank space on a map? In the seventeenth century, when the United East India Company (VOC) first ventured into the vast Indonesian archipelago, this was a common problem. While the VOC was first and foremost a trading company, a business, its employees needed to understand the societies with which they interacted. When Thomas Dias travelled to the kingdom of Minangkabau in 1684 he reflected the possibilities for exploration and understanding of new societies, and his tale reflects the richness of the VOC archival materials.

The VOC gained control over Malacca in 1641. Malacca was one of the key ports in the region, as it oversaw shipping between the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean, linking vast empires of trade, peoples and cultures. Malacca had been the centre of a Malay polity until 1511, when the Portuguese captured the port and ruled it until the arrival of the VOC. The polity of Johar was assisting the VOC in the takeover of Malacca, where many of the Malay-Malaccan elite had fled following 1511. Johor and the VOC remained allies after 1641, although tensions often arose as Johor began to exert control over the vast forested resources of eastern Sumatra over the next few decades.

Central Sumatra became a place of interest to and rivalry for both Johor and the VOC following the discovery of tin-mines at the headwaters of the Siak and Kampar Rivers in the 1670s. The region included a vast network of communities which traded goods between the interior and the Malacca Straits. Their leaders would pledge their allegiance to whichever state provided the most benefits. Beyond these riverine communities were the Minangkabau highlands, where a vibrant matrilineal society oversaw the production of rice and the panning of gold. Trade from these highlands, an almost mystical place in the early modern mind, flowed down the rivers to the Malacca Straits, making its origin a goal of any local merchant. Into this mixture of trade rivalries, cultural differences and misunderstandings stepped Tomas Dias, a ‘black Portuguese’ trader, who made a remarkable journey into the Minangkabau highlands and helped develop some of the early contacts between the VOC and states in the interior of Sumatra.

Very little is known about Tomas Dias. Beyond this account of his journey to Minangkabau in 1684, he appears occasionally in VOC records, which portray him as a trusted employee, often acting as a liaison with local rulers and traders. For example, in 1682 Dias delivered letters to the rulers of Indragiri and the 1680 census of Malacca records that Dias was married and had eight children and two slaves. Under the category of race, Dias is described as dark (zwarte).

Despite these glimpses into Tomas Dias’ life in Malacca, almost everything we know about him comes from a report he wrote on the 25 September 1684 describing his journey to Minangkabau. The origins of this journey lay in the failed attempts of VOC officials to communicate with the leaders of the tin-mining areas in central Sumatra in 1683. Dias had been a member of an expedition to Patapahan in May 1683 under the leadership of Hendrik Temmer. The expedition accomplished little, but Dias remained in Patapahan after the others left, setting up a small trade post as a representative (morador) of the Company. While in this position, Dias fell foul of a Dutch representative, Hendrik van Roonhuyzen, who visited Patapahan later in the year. Van Roonhuyzen believed that many of the continuing trade problems in the region were due to Dias’ incompetence. Dias was eventually able to defend himself before the Malacca authorities, but his position and trustworthiness as a middleman had been compromised. To re-establish his position with VOC officials, Dias made a bold proposal which would mark him in both the archives and Sumatran history. Since the Minangkabau ruler could possibly provide some order to this volatile region, Dias would travel to the Minangkabau capital and secure support for VOC trade interests in the region. VOC officials approved the idea. In May 1684, Tomas Dias sent a letter to the Minangkabau ruler in Pagar Ruyung (‘Paggar Oejom’ in the document) requesting approval for a visit, which received a positive response shortly thereafter. Dias quickly assembled all the necessary equipment and, along with thirty-seven other people, began the journey into the Minangkabau highlands which he describes in this document.

In the report which Dias describes the various villages and the difficulties, he encountered between eastern Sumatra and the Minangkabau highlands. Dias left from the main staple post of Patapahan, but the VOC party continually encountered unco-operative leaders, eventually forcing them to travel into the highlands via the Kampar Kiri and the spiderweb of paths which connected the various rivers. While Dias emphasizes the difficulties in his journey in the report, it is also clear that he was constantly negotiating with various parties with regard to trade and diplomatic alliances. After several weeks of travel, the party reached a village near the Minangkabau capital of Pagar Ruyung. This location is most likely not where the modern village of Pagar Ruyung is currently situated, as it shifted in subsequent centuries under pressure of internal rivalries.

The Minangkabau ruler sent a Raja Malyo (“Raja Melayu”), who might have been an official who dealt with trade to the east or the Malay lands with 500 men to accompany Dias into the capital in the late afternoon. The next morning Dias entered the capital and an audience took place. According to Dias, the king’s two sons met him at the edge of the royal district with 4,000 men and royal umbrellas unfurled. They were to escort the outsiders to meet the ruler. After a formal presentation of gifts and a letter from the Malacca Governor Cornelis van Qualbergen, Dias was invited inside the palace, where the ruler presented Dias in a traditional way with the betel quids. After chewing betel Dias took part in a polite diplomatic discussion concerning his journey. Among the topics discussed were the perils he had encountered and the fact that he was probably the first Christian to enter Minangkabau.

A few days later, the Minangkabau ruler invited Dias, to whom he gave the honorary title “Orang Kaya Saudagar Raja” (His Excellency the Royal Trade Representative), to open a Dutch post in Patapahan and to help him gain control of the trade on the Siak and Indragiri Rivers. When Dias mentioned that Johor controlled Siak, the Minangkabau ruler simply replied that the area, “from Pulau Gontong [an island in the mouth of the Siak River] up to Patapahan is mine.”

After receiving these various honours, Dias began to prepare for his return journey. When he was about to leave, he was presented with various letters and seals to prove that he had indeed made the journey and now possessed the authority bestowed upon him. He was also given  a box full of “improper pictures”, which had apparently come as a present from a Dutch official who had sent them to the Minangkabau ruler. Dias then left Pagar Ruyung and proceeded to travel along the usual trade routes. Raja Malyo with 3,000 men accompanied the group as far as the staple post of Siluka, from whence Dias floated down the Kampar Kiri and then moved overland, reaching Patapahan in July 1684.

Very little was accomplished with the journey, however. A representative of the Johor sultan wrote to Malacca in 1684 warning that the Siak River was Johor territory and off limits to Dutch traders. Although Patapahan had remained loyal to the authority of Minangkabau, Johor made great efforts to bring other upstream villages into its sphere of influence. By the time Dias returned from his trip in August 1684, Johor had already gained some control over the Kampar Kanan through agreements with leaders of the various trading posts. Although the VOC quickly opened a lodge in Patapahan, it eventually had to be abandoned. This was because of repeated attacks and the decision of local traders to funnel their tin and gold through villages on the Kampar River.

Dias’ report of his journey to Minangkabau gained a small measure of fame in the late nineteenth century when the former Batavian archivist, Frederik de Haan, drew attention to its existence in a published account which appeared in the Tijdschrift voor Indische Taal-, Land- en Volkenkunde in 1897. Since then, Dias has appeared in at least four other major accounts of the region, including F. M. Schnitger’s Forgotten Kingdoms of Sumatra, as well as works by Christine Dobbin (Islamic Revivalism in a Changing Peasant Economy), Leonard Andaya (The Kingdom of Johor) and Jane Drakard (A Kingdom of Words). Historians have often used this account as a rare opportunity to glance at the functioning of the Minangkabau court in the early modern period as well as the vibrant trade and diplomacy of upstream Sumatra in the late seventeenth century. Therefore, while it is an account which depicts an epic journey which brought little benefit to the VOC, it does allow later scholars an opportunity to gain a better understanding of the complex relationships between various communities in central Sumatra in the late seventeenth century.


Further reading

  • Barnard, Timothy P., Multiple Centres of Authority. Society and environment in Siak and eastern Sumatra, 1674-1827 (Leiden: KITLV Press, 2003).
  • Barnard, Timothy P., “Mestizos as Middlemen: Tomas Dias and his Travels in Eastern Sumatra”, in: Peter Borschberg (ed.), Iberians in the Singapore-Melaka Area (16th to 18th century). (Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz Verlag, 2004), pp. 147-60.
  • Drakard, Jane, A Kingdom of Words: Language and Power in Sumatra (Selangor Darul Ehsan: Oxford University Press, 1999).
  • Reid, A. (Ed.), Witnesses to Sumatra: A Travellers’ Anthology (Selangor Darul Ehsan: Oxford University Press, 1995).

Timothy P. Barnard, “Thomas Dias’ journey to Central Sumatra in 1684”. In: Harta Karun: Hidden Treasures on Indonesian and Asian-European History from the VOC Archives in Jakarta, document 1. Jakarta: Arsip Nasional Republik Indonesia, 2013.