Islamic Spirit in Aceh: Resisting Dutch Colonialism

In Indonesian history lessons at school, it is mentioned that Indonesia was colonized by the Netherlands for 350 years.

However, the accuracy of this statement cannot be confirmed because no region in Indonesia was truly colonized for 350 years. Some argue that colonialism in the archipelago began with the establishment of the Dutch East India Company (VOC) in 1602, while others claim it started in 1596 when the De Houtman brothers arrived in Banten.

The second viewpoint is difficult to be called colonization, as when Cornelis de Houtman arrived, it was primarily for trade. From the early arrival of the Dutch until Indonesia's independence, there was one region that proved challenging for the Dutch to conquer, and that region was Aceh. 

Due to the fierce resistance put up by the Acehnese against the Dutch, the war between Aceh and the Netherlands is considered one of the longest wars in history. The conflict began when Cornelis de Houtman and his fleet arrived on June 27, 1596, in the waters of Banten.

The second viewpoint is difficult to be considered as colonization because, during Cornelis de Houtman's arrival, it was solely for trade. From the beginning of the Dutch arrival until Indonesia's independence, one region proved extremely challenging for the Dutch to conquer, and that region was Aceh. 

Due to the formidable resistance put up by the Acehnese against the Dutch, the war between Aceh and the Netherlands is considered one of the longest wars in the world. The conflict began when Cornelis de Houtman and his fleet arrived on June 27, 1596, in the waters of Banten.

Initially, the local reception was friendly, but after some crude behavior exhibited by the Dutch crew, Sultan Banten, along with the Portuguese, expelled the Dutch ships. De Houtman's expedition continued north along the Java coast, but his ship was captured by pirates. Some misbehavior also led to misunderstandings and violence in Madura, resulting in the death of a prince in Madura and the capture of some Dutch crew members. De Houtman had to pay a fine to release the remaining ships before sailing back and meeting the king of Bali, where they eventually obtained some pepper on February 26, 1597. 

On his second journey to Indonesia, Cornelis de Houtman anchored in Aceh. Like in other regions, initially, the relationship between the Dutch traders and the people and Sultanate of Aceh Darussalam was good until the behavior of the Dutch and provocations from the Portuguese, trusted by Sultan Alauddin, sparked the seeds of conflict.

Their leader, Cornelis de Houtman, also behaved badly, leading the Acehnese people to finally resist. The leader of the resistance against the Dutch was Admiral Malahayati, also known as Keumala Hayati. Her father and grandfather served in the Aceh Sultanate's navy, and she followed in their footsteps by enrolling in the Military Academy of the Sultanate called Mahad Baitul Maqdis. 

Admiral Malahayati and her troops were tasked with protecting the trade ports in Aceh. On July 21, 1599, Admiral Malahayati faced two Dutch ships that attempted to impose their monopoly in the Malacca Strait. According to Ibrahim Alfian's book "Wajah Aceh dalam Lintasan Sejarah" (Aceh's Face in Historical Path) published in 1999 on page 67, the two ships were named Deliu and Deliu Win, and they were captained by Frederick and Cornelis de Houtman, respectively. They realized the situation was getting tense, so Frederick and Cornelis coordinated on their ships, preparing themselves for the upcoming attack. 

Sultan Alauddin then ordered Admiral Malahayati to attack the two Dutch ships that were still lingering in the Malacca Strait. Malahayati not only led a force dominated by male soldiers but also mobilized the strength of women, especially widows whose husbands had died in the Battle of Teluk Haru, just like herself.

The battle at sea eventually took place, and the Dutch Armada struggled to withstand the resilient Malahayati's forces, which included thousands of brave women, including the ranks of fearless widows. Eventually, Admiral Malahayati managed to reach Cornelis de Houtman's ship, and they faced each other. Malahayati firmly held a "rencong" (traditional Acehnese dagger) in her hand, while Cornelis de Houtman wielded a sword as his weapon. A one-on-one duel occurred, and during one crucial moment in the fight, Malahayati successfully stabbed Cornelis in the neck, causing his demise on September 11, 1599. 

The Dutch Armada eventually lost the battle, suffering significant losses, and those who remained were captured and imprisoned, including Frederick de Houtman, the brother of Cornelis de Houtman. Malahayati then engaged in peace negotiations, representing the Sultanate of Aceh with the Dutch. The negotiations aimed to secure the release of Frederick de Houtman, who had been captured by Admiral Malahayati. 

The peace agreement was eventually achieved with the release of Frederick de Houtman. However, in return, the Netherlands had to pay reparations to the Aceh Sultanate due to the Treaty of London between England and the Netherlands. 

During the time when Indonesia was under British rule, it was to be returned to the Netherlands according to the Convention. The Convention stated that England had to return some Indonesian territories to the Netherlands, while South Africa, Sri Lanka, and India would remain under British control. Additionally, the sovereignty of Aceh should not be disturbed by the Netherlands. 

This period in history reflects the complex dynamics and power struggles between the European colonial powers and the local regions, including Aceh, during the colonial era. The peace negotiations led by Malahayati exemplify her diplomatic skills and her role in safeguarding Aceh's interests. 

Aceh was also not allowed to disturb security in the seas, and the Netherlands frequently instructed Aceh in this regard. The Dutch had a strong desire to control the Aceh region, but their movements were restricted by the Treaty of London. Despite these limitations, the Dutch began implementing their plans, including political manipulation to create division and discord among the Acehnese. The Dutch also expanded their presence in the waters of Aceh and the Malacca Strait in their attempt to conquer the region. This continuous effort to seize Aceh's territory by the Dutch persisted, as seen in their agreement with Sultan Siak and Sultan Ismail on February 1, 1858. In this agreement, Sultan Ismail surrendered the regions of Deli, Langkat, Asahan, and Serang to the Dutch, even though these areas had been under Aceh's control since the time of Sultan Iskandar Muda.

The opening of the Suez Canal by Ferdinand de Lesseps made the waters of Aceh significantly important for trade routes. Subsequently, the signing of the Treaty of London in 1871 between England and the Netherlands officially recognized the sovereignty of Aceh. On November 2, 1871, the Sumatra Treaty was signed by the Netherlands and England as a replacement for the Treaty of London in 1824, which had already acknowledged Aceh's independence. As a result of the Sumatra Treaty in 1871, Aceh established diplomatic relations with the United States consul, the Kingdom of Italy, and the Ottoman Empire in Singapore. Aceh even sent envoys to the Ottoman Empire in 1871. The Dutch used Aceh's diplomatic efforts as a reason to attack Aceh, intensifying the tensions and conflicts between the two parties. 

Aceh accused the Dutch of not fulfilling their promises, leading to Acehnese forces sinking Dutch ships passing through Aceh's waters. The Aceh-Dutch War broke out in 1873 and lasted until 1904, though the conflict continued until 1910. After 1904, the war saw actions taken by various groups and individuals without direct orders from the central government of the Aceh Sultanate.

On March 26, 1873, the Netherlands declared war on Aceh and began firing cannons. Then, on April 5, 1873, the Dutch forces, led by Djohar Man Rudolf Kohler, landed in Aceh. They swiftly took control of the Grand Mosque of Baiturrahman. Kohler's force comprised 3000 soldiers, including 168 officers. This marked the beginning of the first Aceh-Dutch War, which occurred between 1873 and 1874. It was led by Panglima Polim and Sultan Mahmudsyah, and their 3000-strong army successfully defeated the Dutch. However, Kohler himself died on April 14, 1873, during the conflict.

The Aceh-Dutch War was a protracted and intense struggle, and the Acehnese displayed remarkable determination and resistance against Dutch attempts to control the region. This long-lasting conflict was rooted in the aspirations of the Acehnese for independence and sovereignty against the Dutch colonial rule. The war continued to shape the history and identity of Aceh and its people for years to come.

Ten days later, the war broke out everywhere, with the most significant conflict being the battle to recapture the Grand Mosque of Baiturrahman, supported by several groups of forces. The Second Aceh War erupted in 1874 and lasted until 1780. The Dutch forces, led by General Jan Van Swieten from the Netherlands, successfully occupied the Sultan's Palace on January 26, 1874, and later established it as the Dutch defense center on January 31, 1874. General Van Swieten declared that the entire Aceh would become part of the Dutch kingdom.

Upon Sultan Mahmud Syah's death on January 26, 1874, he was succeeded by Tuanku Muhammad Dawud, who was crowned as the Sultan in Indrapuri Mosque. Both the first and second Aceh Wars were total and frontal wars, during which the government continued to function normally despite relocating the capital and other places.

The third war occurred from 1881 until 1896. It was conducted through guerrilla warfare and large-scale battles, lasting until 1938. Under the leadership of Tengku Umar, Panglima Polem, and Sultan, the Aceh forces fought back. In 1899, during a sudden attack by Van Der Dussen in Meulaboh, Teuku Umar fell in battle, but his wife, Cut Nyak Dien, later took his place as the guerrilla commander.

The fourth war took place from 1896 to 1910 and involved guerrilla groups and individuals engaging in offensive attacks, ambushes, and assassinations without central command from the Sultanate government. The Dutch utilized experts like Dr. Christian Snouck Hurgronye, who went undercover in the Aceh hinterlands in 1891.

This is because the Dutch were overwhelmed by the tactics and fighting spirit of the Acehnese people. Christiaan Snouck Hurgronje, an expert in Arabic and Islamic studies, came to Aceh as someone knowledgeable about Islam. He approached the religious scholars precisely when the Acehnese people were mourning deeply due to the death of Tengku Cik Ditiro. His work was documented in a book titled "The People of Aceh," where he mentioned strategies on how to conquer Aceh after spending two years undercover. Snow Hurgronje proposed strategies to defeat the Acehnese resistance, suggesting to the Dutch military governor Johannes Benediktus Van Heutsz that they should initially focus on attacking and countering the religious scholars before dealing with the Kemala faction, represented by the Sultan and his followers in Keumala. Furthermore, Snouck Hurgronje advised the Dutch to demonstrate goodwill to the Acehnese people by building mosques, repairing irrigation canals, and engaging in social work to win their hearts.

Dr. Snouck Hurgronje's strategy was accepted by Van Heutsz, who became the military and civilian governor of Aceh from 1898 until 1943. During this time, the Acehnese guerrilla warfare was also copied by Van Heels, who formed the Marsose Force led by Hans Christoffel. The Dutch colonial forces resorted to kidnapping the family members of Acehnese guerrilla fighters as part of their tactics.

As a result, the Sultan surrendered on January 5, 1925, and laid down his arms, while Lhokseumawe region was handed over in December 1938. Many village leaders followed suit and surrendered after Panglima Polim's surrender, and some of their families were kidnapped in the process.

Not only did the Dutch conduct kidnappings, but they also carried out massacres under the leadership of Gottfrid Kontra Ernest Van Daalen. These killings resulted in the deaths of approximately 75,000 Acehnese people, which accounted for around fifteen percent of the population in that region. The Dutch forces later captured Cut Nyak Dien, the wife of Teuku Umar, who was still leading guerrilla resistance. Cut Nyak Dien was eventually captured and exiled to Sumedang during the war, which lasted from 1871 to 1910. It is estimated that around 125,000 people were killed during this period.

Even though Aceh was divided at that time, the people still continued their guerrilla resistance in groups because they were fueled by the spirit of jihad fisabilillah (holy war in the path of Allah). Even when the Japanese arrived, the Acehnese community continued to fight against them.

This incident began with the Japanese's tyranny in imposing forced labor, which was rejected by the local people due to its conflict with Islamic teachings. After Indonesia gained independence, the Netherlands attempted to re-colonize Indonesia, but Aceh was the only region in Indonesia that dared to resist the Dutch invasion. In both the first and second Military Aggressions, Aceh even aided North Sumatra in fighting against the Dutch during their second invasion. Until today, Aceh remains a region that upholds the teachings of Islam and enjoys special autonomy as a special region. This is just a glimpse of the remarkable story of the Acehnese people's resistance against Dutch colonization. Hopefully, this historical information can be beneficial for all of us.

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