American troops attacking Kota Batu, Aceh

America Bombs Indonesia over Drug Deal Gone Bad … in 1832

American troops bombed and invaded Aceh in 1832, becoming the USA’s first military intervention in Asia.  The affair began with the Friendship, a trading vessel flying American colors, coming to port in Kuala Batu, Aceh on the 7th of February 1831.  This was not unusual as American merchant ships had been trading regularly on the western shore of Sumatra since the beginning of the 19th century.  For the crew of the Friendship, however, what should have been a routine transaction ended in disaster.

The Friendship had set voyage from Salem, Massachusetts, a major port of trade for the USA in those days.  The Friendship was led by Captain Charles M. Endicott on a mission to buy pepper, opium and sundry other goods from the Far East.  When the Friendship dropped anchor at Kuala Batu, Endicott and a number of his crew went ashore to conduct negotiations on the price and quantity of goods to be bought.  Things took a sudden turn when three wooden boats – perahus – pulled alongside the Friendship.  They were full of locals armed to the teeth who proceeded to board.

In the struggle that followed, the crew of the Friendship was defeated, with three American lives lost.  The Friendship was captured.  Seeing the attack unfold from the shore, Endicott and his small delegation fled in their dinghy to the neighbouring town of Muki to seek aid from captains of three Salem ships there in recovering the Friendship.  

The Friendship was recovered, absent its cargo of pepper and opium valued at US$50,000.  Strong protests were lodged with the local rulers, the uleebalang, but to no avail.  The plunder of the Friendship became a sensation in America.  Andrew Jackson, the American president at the time, responded by sending a punitive military expedition against the people of Kuala Batu, or “Quallah Battoo” as it was spelled in the American press. On the 28th of August 1831, Commodore John Downes set off in the frigate Potomac with more than 300 soldiers, in what became the first military intervention in Asia in American history.

Kuala Batu, in the Southwest Aceh Regency

Kuala Batu, in the Southwest Aceh Regency

The Potomac arrived in Kuala Batu on the 5th of February 1832 disguised as a Danish merchant ship.  The people of Kuala Batu were unaware of the deception.  Downes and 282 of his soldiers attacked without warning.  After sinking the boats at anchor in the bay and destroying the seaside forts with cannon fire, the shore was taken in fierce fighting that included hand to hand combat.  Despite stiff resistance from the people of Kuala Batu, their matchlock rifles were no match against superior American military technology.  The remaining Acehnese soldiers fell back to a fort further inland.

Rather than take the inland fort, Downes instructed his men to loot and pillage the town instead.  Only after the town was thoroughly plundered did Downes shell the town and inland fort with heavier cannonades from the Potomac.   By the time the uleebalang surrendered, more than 450 residents of Kuala Batu had perished, including women and children, and Kuala Batu was in flames. The Americans suffered two dead and eleven wounded.

The Potomac returned home after delivering a stern warning to the leadership of Kuala Batu never to attack American vessels again.  In the end, although there was some degree of criticism from the general public of the harsh measures taken, President Jackson himself [heartless genocidal murderer that he was] felt Downes took appropriate action.

The Salem Seal

The Salem Seal

Why did the people of Kuala Batu attack the Friendship?

One reason for the attack was that the locals were fed up with American traders, who were felt to cheat and tamper with the scales.  Endicott spoke at length with Po Adam, a friendly uleebalang who had enabled Endicott’s escape from Kuala Batu.  According to Po Adam, the local royalty were upset with the drop in the price of pepper and the arrogance of the American merchant captains who often did not pay in full.

Following the incident, trade between Salem and Aceh intensified.  In 1839, the rulers of Salem resolved to fashion a city seal bearing an image of an Acehnese in formal attire with the Latin motto,  “Divitis Indiae usque ad ultimum sinum“, or “To the rich East Indies until the last lap.”

The article above is a more or less a direct translation of an article in Bahasa Indonesia written by Rahadian Rundjan for the magazine Historia.  Rahadian Rundjan’s article includes direct quotes from Gold Braid and Foreign Relations: Diplomatic Activities of U.S. Naval Officers 1798-1883 by David Foster Long, Death of an Empire: The Rise and Murderous Fall of Salem, America’s Richest City by Robert Booth, and Global Trade and Visual Arts in Federal New England edited by Patricia Johnston and Caroline Rank, which are unmarked here.  A small amount of supporting material has been added from the Wikipedia entries on the First Sumatran Expedition and the town of Salem.

The original article by Rahadian Rundjan: Ketika Amerika Menginvasi Aceh