Memorandum of the chiefs of the civilian yacht Den Arent (The Eagle) about the city of Aceh in 1689

A Prince of Aceh welcomes a Dutch delegation, 1603

Introduced Dr. Sher Banu a.l. Khan

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In the year 1689, the kingdom of Aceh Dar al-Salam was ruled by Sultanah Kamalat Syah (r. 1688-1699). She ruled until 1699 when she was deposed by a claimant of Arab descent, Sultan Badr al-Alam Syariff Hashim Jamal al-Din (r. 1699-1702). She was the fourth and last female ruler out of a succession of female rulers who ruled Aceh for fifty-nine years from 1641-1699. The first female ruler was Sultanah Taj al-Alam Safiatuddin Syah (r.1641-1675). Her husband and predecessor Sultan Iskandar Thani (r. 1637-1641) died from unknown causes in 1641 at the early age of thirty-one, childless.. With no apparent male heir, his widow, the daughter of Sultan Iskandar Muda (r. 1607-1636), succeeded him and became the first female ruler of Aceh. She enjoyed a long reign of thirty-five years until her death in 1675. She was succeeded by another woman who took the title Sultanah Nur al-Alam Naqiyyat al-Din Syah. She ruled for three years until her death in 1678. A third woman, Sultanah Inayat Syah Zakiyyat al-Din Syah, ascended throne of Aceh and she ruled from 1678 until her death in 1688. After the reign of her successor, the aforementioned Kamalat Syah, Aceh was never again ruled by a woman, and this unique episode in Acehnese history was closed.[1]

By the 1660s the VOC began to reduce its dealings with the Acehnese court and commenced reaching out unilaterally to vassal states of Aceh on Sumatra’s West Coast. This was partly in response to the failure of the VOC to seize control of and monopolize the tin, pepper and gold trade despite the numerous trade and diplomatic treaties signed between the two since the time of Iskandar Muda (1583?-1636). The Treaty of Painan of March 1663, and another Treaty signed in April 1668 between the VOC and the states of Sumatra’s West Coast states marked the attempt by the VOC to side-step Aceh and place a number of these states under Dutch protection.[2] Indeed by 1661, the VOC had closed its factory in Banda Aceh and kept only a minimal presence in the kingdom. In the 1680s, most dealings between the Dutch and Aceh were on a private rather than official basis. There were fewer reports written to Batavia by VOC official representatives stationed in Aceh. Instead, descriptions about Aceh were written by non-VOC officials such as this memorandum written by the  chiefs (opperhoofden) of the civilian ship The Eagle.

This memorandum indeed refers to this official absence since it mentions that the Dutch “do not come here more frequently to trade”. This report also hints at the rivalry between the English and the Dutch and the efforts of the English to woo the Acehnese and to warn them about the aggressive tendencies of the Dutch – “the English tried to convince him that as soon as the Honourable Company has set foot on land, it will make itself the master”. By the 1680s, after losing its base in Bantam in 1682, it was the English East India Company rather than the VOC which tried to make its presence felt and increase its trading relations with Aceh. However, even the EIC delegation sent to Aceh in 1684 failed to realize any official residence in Aceh.[3] Consequently, reports about Aceh in the 1680s and afterwards tend to be written by free traders and travellers such as Thomas Bowrey[4], William Dampier[5] and Jacob de Roy.[6]

This memorandum testifies to the buoyancy of trade in Aceh in the 1680s and more importantly to the resilience of the Asian trading networks, even after decades of European commercial interference. Since the time of Sultanah Safiatuddin Syah, the Muslim traders from the region, India and the Middle East had been favoured and this policy continued during the reign of the last queen, as mentioned  in the present document  – “above all they [privilege] the Moors who come there to trade”. In the 1680s Aceh remained the main entreport for Indian textile trade to the rest of the region. Besides textiles, trade in slaves between Madras and Aceh thrived and this continued in the 1690s.  Besides the Indians and the English, the Danes were also involved. John Pitt, who was in Aceh in 1685, mentioned “a great fleet of ships that lay in the road with bales of cloth and laden with rice.” In the 1690s De Roy wrote about the thriving port city of Aceh where some one hundred European vessels came each year as well as a great number of native vessels.  De Roy rated Aceh as the best place in the East Indies to make one’s fortune.[7]  By the second half of the seventeenth century, gold had become an important trade commodity even surpassing pepper especially after more gold was discovered during the time of Sultanah Safiatuddin Syah and more goldmines were opened. Of course, these were strictly forbidden to foreigners.

In the latter half of the seventeenth century, especially during the reigns of the four female rulers,  in contrast to the policy of warfare pursued by their male predecessors, the policy of accommodation and diplomacy with other powers was favoured.  As a consequence the army and armoury of Aceh were not strengthened. Internally, the female rulers ruled peacefully (the first three ruled till death), sharing power with the orangkaya. In the 1670s, Thomas Bowrey observed that Aceh had for a considerable amount of time been governed by a queen that the very title of king proved to be nauseous to them.[8]  In the 1680s, William Dampier noted that the English residents there were of the opinion, based on the antiquity of the present constitution, that a Queen had ruled Aceh since the beginning.. They believed that the Queen of Sheba was the queen of this country.[9]  Bowrey explained that the men who served under her  rule were all very submissive and respectful to the queen, not daring to do anything until they had thoroughly acquainted her regarding the matter.    If she agreed, she sent her chap as a signal of her permission to their request.[10]  Apart from an occasional upsurge of protest against female rule by the inland faction, one example of which was in 1688, which was settled in favour of choosing yet another female ruler, Kamalat Syah, Aceh was spared external and internal wars. This was a formula for commerce to thrive.   By the end of the seventeenth century, Aceh, unlike most other Malay states, remained an independent kingdom.



  • Amirul Hadi,  Islam and state in Sumatra: a study of seventeenth-century Aceh. Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2004.
  • Brakel, L.F., “State and Statecraft in 17th century Aceh”, Journal of Malayan Branch of Royal Asiatic Society, 66 (1993), Part 1.
  • Dasgupta, Arun Kumar, “Acheh in the Seventeenth Century Asian Trade”, Bengal Past and Present, 81 (Jan-June 1962), no. 151, 37-49.
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  • Hurgronje, C. Snouck, The Achenese, trans.  A.W.S. O’Sullivan with an index by R.J. Wilkinson. Leyden: Brill, 1906.
  • Ito, Takeshi, “The World of the Adat Aceh: A Historical study of the Sultanate of Aceh”. Unpublished Doctoral Thesis, Australian National University, 1984.
  • Lombard, Denys, Le Sultanate dAtjeh Au Temps d'Iskandar Muda, 1607-1636. Paris: École Française d’Extrême-Orient, 1967.
  • Mulaika Hijjas, “The Woman Raja: Female Rule in Seventeenth Century Aceh”. Unpublished M. Phil Thesis, University of Oxford, 2001.
  • Reid, Anthony, “Elephants and Water in the Feasting of 17th century Aceh”, Journal of Malaysian Branch of Royal Asiatic Society, 62 no. 2 (Dec 1989), 25-44. 
  • Reid, Anthony and Takeshi Ito, “A Precious Dutch map of Aceh, c. 1645”, archipel, 57 no. 2 (1999), 191-208.

[1] Sher Banu Khan, “Rule Behind the Silk Curtain: The Sultanahs of Aceh 1641-1699,” Unpublished Ph.D thesis, Queen Mary, University of London, 2009.

[2] Kathirithamby-Wells, ‘‘Acehnese Control over West Sumatra up to the Treaty of Painan, 1663”, Journal of Southeast Asian History, 10 no. 3  (1969),  473, 478.

[3] For full details of this delegation, see A. Farrington, “Negotiations at Aceh in 1684: An Unpublished English document”, Indonesia and the Malay World,27 no. 77 (1999), 19-33.

[4] Thomas Bowrey,  A Geographical account of Countries Around the Bay of Bengal, 1669-1679; ed. by Sir Richard Carnac Temple.London: Hakluyt Society, 1905.

[5] William Dampier, Voyages and Discoveries Vol. 2. ed. by N. M. Penzer. London: Argonaut Press, 1931.

[6] Voyage made by Jacob Janssen de Roy to Borneo and Atcheen, 1691. Completed in 1698 in Batavia at the order of Willem van Outhoorn, Governor General of Netherlands East Indies (1691-1704). Translated from the Dutch into English in 1816 BL, India Office MSS Eur/Mack (1822)/5.

[7] Voyage made by Jacob Janssen de Roy to Borneo and Atcheen, 1691,  356, 363.

[8] Bowrey, A Geographical Account of the Countries around the Bay of Bengal, 295-96.

[9] Dampier, Voyages and Discoveries,  99.

[10] Bowrey, A Geographical Account,  299-300.

Sher Banu A.L. Khan, “Memorandum of the chiefs of the civilian yacht Den Arent (The Eagle) about the city of Aceh in 1689”. In: Harta Karun. Hidden Treasures on Indonesian and Asian-European History from the VOC Archives in Jakarta, document `5. Jakarta: Arsip Nasional Republik Indonesia, 2013.