America Bombs Indonesia over Drug Deal Gone Bad … in 1832

American troops attacking Kota Batu, Aceh

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.”

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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

Three Pipers: Lada, Sirih, Kaduk

Black pepper is the quintessential spice of the Spice Route, the ancient trade routes across the Indian Ocean that have brought merchants and travelers to the Nusantara since antiquity. Pepper was once as valuable as gold, and even now, it is the world’s most traded spice. Piper nigrum is well suited to cultivation in Sarawak: pepper represents roughly 5% of total agricultural exports, and virtually all of it comes from Sarawak. Sarawak produces more than 90% of the world’s supply of white pepper. White pepper, like red and green peppercorns, comes from the same plant as the common black corns. The difference is in the processing: with white pepper the peppercorns are submerged in running water for a period of time. That bleaches the color and gives white pepper it’s milder flavor.

Young peppercorns a-dangling

Anak rekan pergi ka pantay
Masak ikan berkua lada
Chukop makan chukop pakay
Mau di simpan tidak kan ada

Down at the beach, a band of youths
In black pepper sauce they fry their fish.
From hand to mouth, enough to get by.
Enough to save?  A distant wish!

Black pepper is used in Malaysian cooking, as the pantun suggests, but it isn’t a particularly distinctive ingredient. (I’ve often wondered how KFC could win over Malaysians so thoroughly with their 11 herbs and spices, when any Malay woman would need 11 herbs and spices before they even considered what to cook.) The fresh green peppercorns are a lot more exciting. At our house, we like to grind them up for sambal with fermented durian paste and anchovies.

green black pepper
Turmeric root, green peppercorns, terung pipit

Black pepper isn’t the most important Piper around either. A close relative of black pepper is Sirih, the betel-leaf, Piper betel. Chewing the leaf together with lime and the nut of the Areca palm yields a mild buzz while quelling the appetite and staining the teeth red. It is among the oldest shared cultural practices across South and Southeast Asia, with evidence of it’s use going back thousands of years.  Chewing betel is still very popular in Sri Lanka and India, where it is called paan. Paanwallas sell chews by the side of the road, with extras like honey, tobacco and spices. Like hot dog vendors! Ask for one with everything.

Sirih, the betel leaf
Sirih, the betel leaf

Burung jentayu terbang beriring
Mati dipanah gugur ke lumpur
Sirihku layu pinangku kering
Sudikah dimamah barang sekapur?

Together take flight a flock of Jentayu
Felled by an arrow one drops from the sky
Would you care to sit for a chew
Though my sirih has wilted, my betelnut dried?

In Malaysia, the habit is waning. It’s considered country, unsophisticated. Old grandmothers will still chew surreptitiously, but men have turned to cigarettes instead – a very bad trade, constant spitting and tooth decay notwithstanding.  Still, even now, the betel leaf has some cultural cachet. Sirih appears in pantuns, proverbs, and in the classic phrase “sekapur sirih”, used as a literary preface or for opening remarks. Exchanges of wedding gifts may be sent on platters of betel-leaf, or for the very old fashioned, a quantity of leaves may be stipulated in the gift exchange. I’ll know the habit is gone for good in Kuching when my neighborhood grocery store stops stocking them. Folded bundles tied with vines: 50 sen a packet!

Sirih folded and tied for sale

Sirih and pepper are climbing vines, but there is another Piper that just sits around: Kadok, or Sirih Duduk, Piper sarmentosum. It makes a lovely groundcover, a tasty raw vegetable, and the name of the archetypal village idiot, Pak Kaduk.

Sirih duduk, just sitting around.

Hinggap merpati di dahan senduduk
Gugur pinang ditiup badai
Jangan seperti malang Pak kaduk
Ayam menang kampung tergadai

A pigeon rests on a bough of senduduk[1]
Down fall areca-nuts blown by the wind
Don’t be a fool like old Uncle Kaduk
Losing the village a hen for to win

Kaduk is eaten as ulam, the Malay answer to the vegetable platter. Instead of ranch dressing, the kaduk – already hot and bitter – is dipped in sambal and eaten with rice. Since it is a perennial shrub, there are always leaves ready to eat. If the kitchen is empty, you can step outside and graze.

Kijang menghantuk di rumpun buluh
Makan kaduk di dalam padi
Tuntut ilmu bersungguh-sungguh
Kerana hidup tunangnya mati

Upon grazing the kaduk from fields of paddy
The drowsy deer stands amidst the bamboo
Surely the bride of this life is death
So seek ye knowledge in all that you do

Makan berulam si daun kaduk
Sambal belacan asam kelubi
Dulu nyaring bunyi beduk
Kini azan lantang di TV

Eating a dish of raw leaves of kaduk
with shrimp paste chili sauce doused with kelubi
Where once rang out the sound of the beduk [1,2]
Now the azan is played on the TV

flowers of the kadok

All pantuns are sourced from the Malay Civilization project of the National University of Malaysia.
Translations mine.