Inquiry of a Chinese trader about the Batak People in North Sumatra, 1 March 1701

Introduced Daniel Perret

Download the full article in PDF

The report about the present-day province of North Sumatra in Indonesia, submitted to VOC headquarters in Batavia by a Chinese in 1701, is one of the earliest accounts of a person who had actually lived in the interior of the area.

For more than a millennium, since the second century AD, under the influence of the  writings of Ptolemy, the northern part of Sumatra had been viewed as a perilous area because it was thought to be inhabited by cannibals. However, it was also known to be rich in camphor which had been exported since the fifth of sixth century through a port called Barus. At the beginning of the thirteenth century, Zhao Rugua wrote about a state known as Pa-t’a which was controlled by Sriwijaya. The connection between Pa-t’a and Bata is generally accepted. Moreover, the official history of the Yuan Dynasty (Yuanshi) recorded the arrival of envoys from Ma-da at the palace of the Chinese Emperor in 1285. Since the syllable ma was actually pronounced as ba in the local dialect of the people of Fukien (now Fujian) in South China, it is possible that this area was linked to Bata. However, neither Chinese source refers to Bata lands populated by cannibalistic inhabitants. 

Clearer information about the people of the area emerged following Marco Polo’s visit to the northern part of Sumatra in 1291. He was the first person to record the presence of Islam in the area as well as the conflict between the Muslim minority in the coastal area with the still pagan majority in the mountains,  the latter still virtually untouched by the outside world and some of whom were cannibals. In the following century, more records penned by westerners and Chinese containing the same information about the inhabitants emerged with a number of sources adding information about a tattooed people among them.

Nicolo de’ Conti, who lived in the town of Sciamuthera (Samudra) for a year in 1439, was the first person to call the area “Batech”, referring to a settlement inhabited by a cannibalisticand warlike people. The name was used again in the sixteenth century by Tomé Pires who wrote about “a king from Bata” in his famous Suma Oriental (1512-1515) It is noteworthy that the contemporary Chinese sources do not mention any cannibalistic people but merely remark on the difference between, civilized, communities following the same tradition adhered to by the people living in Java and Malacca with their, uncivilized, counterparts, who did not in fact always live in the mountains. Pires writes about three places in the northeastern area which were centres of trade involving foreigners: Bata (south of Pasai), where rattan was the primary trade commodity, Aru where camphor and incense were found in abundance, and Arcat.  

‘Bata’ as the name of a tribe emerged thanks to Fernão Mendes Pinto (1509-1583), possibly the first European ever to travel into the interior of Sumatra and produce written records. In his work entitled Peregrinação, this Portuguese explorer writes about the visit by the envoy of the “Bata king” to the new captain of Malacca, Pedro de Faria, in 1539. Among other topics, Mendes Pinto writes that the king was an adherent of paganism and the capital of his realm was called Panaju. However, parts of his records about the northern area of Sumatra are rather unconvincing. Mendes Pinto was also the first to record the presence of the people of “Aaru” on the northeast coast of Sumatra where he also visited the local Muslim king. Approximately two decades earlier, Duarte Barbosa (1480-1521) had already written about the kingdom of Aru which was then ruled by cannibal adherents of paganism. The name of the “Batang” people emerges in Arabic sources fifteen years after Pinto’s records. In 1554 the Turkish poet and man of letters Sidi ‘Ali Celebi wrote about eaters of human flesh living in the western part of Sumatra.

In 1563, João de Barros again used the ethnic group name “Batas” mentioning that the said “most savage and belligerent people in the world” inhabited the part of the island facing Malacca. His geographical perspective of the inhabitants merely reiterated the almost three-century-old view of which distinguished between the “Moro” people (Muslims), the foreigners who came to trade and eventually settled in the coastal area from the “Gentios”, indigenous (followers of paganism) people sheltering in the hinterlands.

Among the several important events which affected the area, it is known that in 1612 Aceh conquered the trading place of Deli and captured Aru the following year. Deli, which is called Dillij in this document, is none other than the place which was to become the centre of the Deli sultanate in northeast Sumatra. The name is still used today in Medan: Deli Tua (Old Deli) and Labuhan Deli.  

Only after the Dutch conquered Malacca in 1641 did any more information emerge about the trade relations between the eastern coastal area of Sumatra with the outside world. These dwelt especially  on its strong ties with a number of ports on the west coast of the Malay Peninsula, in particular Malacca.         

Sources in the Daghregister mention that in June 1642, Arent Pater travelled to Deli and when he returned brought with him eight slaves and 270 gantang of rice. At the time, Deli was considered a highly dangerous and treacherous area because of its narrow rivers and rapacious “Batak people” (roofgierige Battaers). We also know that in 1644 a number of praus sailing from Aceh to Perak and carrying textiles (cleden) made a call at Deli. Jooris Vermeeren, who  put in to Deli in May 1644, reported that the place was fertile and could supply 300 to 400 lasts of rice, eight to ten bahars (weight measure) of beeswax, slaves, horses and one bahar of aloe wood annually. He also confirmed that the bulk of the cloth came from Aceh. At the end of 1645, relations between Deli and Malacca improved when the commander of Deli offered a horse to the governor as a gift. Dutch sources in 1648 report that a number of praus had departed from Batavia, bound for Deli carrying textiles and salt. In 1653, Dutch sources also record the arrival of a prau from Deli carrying 40 lasts of rice. In the 1660s Schouten wrote that the role of Dely Aru town in trade activities had become less significant. Nevertheless, textiles continued to arrive from Aceh and Batavia. In the 1670s, Deli exported salted fish (or salted fish roe/gesoute vischkuyten), beeswax and nuts, while Batavia sent salt and ceramics. In 1682, a prau sailed from Batavia to Deli via Malacca carrying among other wares scrap iron (oud ijser), copper, Chinese gold-thread (chinees goutdraat) and tobacco (tubacq) from mainland China. Deli was therefore a name not unfamiliar in VOC circles when it received the report from the Chinese in 1701.  

The report’s author also mentions a place named Pande (or Panda) in the region of Deli. To our ears, Pande sounds like Panai which is still the name of the confluence of Barumun and Bilah Rivers today located around 200 kilometres southeast of Medan, on the Straits of Malacca. It is obvious that in this report, Pande was located on the east coast or on the banks of a big river which flowed onto the east coast. At the time, Pande might well have been the main port of Aru since on an 1686  map Aru was drawn as being located in the estuary of the Barumun River and seemed to play a more important role than Deli. This location is also plausible as the Chinese trader reports how he moved between Pande and the mountains of Angkola, which  are located in the upstream region of the earlier mentioned Bilah and Barumun Rivers. Furthermore, it is also reported that the Chinese man lived in Angkola which was ten days’ journey from Barus on the west coast. The information matches with the location of a certain place in the mountains of Angkola.

Although quite short, what the Chinese trader has to say about the economy and culture, including cannibalism, in the interior area is most interesting in that it is the earliest such account. It should also be noted that according to this report there were no Chinese people living in Barus on the west coast at this time. Whereas there was already a Chinese community living in Padang, also on the west coast.

Only seventy years after the report of the Chinese trader, another travel report of a journey into the interior appeared; a certain Charles Miller travelled into the interior of Tapanuli in 1772. Miller was impressed by the diversity of languages spoken by the inhabitants, each using the same alphabet.  He also noted reports of a community of cannibals called “Battas” who differed from all the other people in Sumatra in their language, customs and traditions . A decade later the first synthesis about Sumatra was published: an article by Radermacher (1781) and the famous book of William Marsden, History of Sumatra (1783).


Further reading:

  • Guillot, Claude (ed.), Lobu Tua. Sejarah Awal Barus. Daniel Perret (penerjemah), Naniek H. Wibisono and Ade Pristie Wahyo (peny. terj.).- Jakarta : EFEO/Association Archipel/Pusat Penelitian Arkeologi/Yayasan Obor Indonesia, 2002.
  • Guillot, Claude; Perret D., Surachman H. et al., Histoire de Barus. Le site de Lobu Tua. II: Etude archéologique et Documents. Paris: Archipel, Cahier d'Archipel 30, 2003. Translated into Indonesian: Barus Seribu Tahun Yang Lalu. Jakarta: EFEO/Forum Jakarta-Paris/KPG/Puslitbang Arkenas, 2008.
  • Perret, Daniel, La formation d'un paysage ethnique. Batak et Malais de Sumatra nord-est. Paris: EFEO, Monographies, no 179, 1995. Translated into Indonesian: Kolonialisme dan Etnisitas. Batak dan Melayu di Sumatra Timur Laut,Saraswati Wardhany, penerjemah. Jakarta: EFEO/KPG/Forum Jakarta-Paris/Puslitbang Arkenas, 2010.
  • Perret, Daniel and Surachman, Heddy (eds.), Histoire de Barus-Sumatra. III: Regards sur une place marchande de l'océan Indien (XIIe-milieu du XVIIe s.). Paris: EFEO/Archipel (cahier d'Archipel 38).
  • Perret, Daniel, Heddy Surachman, Lucas P. Koestoro, Sukawati Susetyo, “Le programme archéologique franco-indonésien sur Padang Lawas (Sumatra Nord). Réflexions préliminaires”, Archipel, 74, 2007: 45-82.


Daniel Perret, “Inquiry of a Chinese trader about the Batak People in North Sumatra, 1 March 1701”. In: Harta Karun: Hidden Treasures on Indonesian and Asian-European History from the VOC Archives in Jakarta, document 9. Jakarta: Arsip Nasional Republik Indonesia, 2013.