ACEH WAR (Western Colonialism)

The sultanate of Aceh developed as an independent state in the fifteenth century. In the beginning of the seventeenth century, the sultanate of Aceh reached the summit of its political and economic power, and was one of the largest states in the region. At this time, it had control over large parts of both the island of Sumatra in present-day Indonesia and the peninsula of Malacca in Malaysia.

In the eighteenth century, Aceh sided repeatedly with the British colonial powers in the region against the Dutch. With the Treaty of London of 1824— between the United Kingdom and the Netherlands— Aceh’s independence was guaranteed against further Dutch expansion in the archipelago. However, with the growth of colonial intervention in the region, and the growing intensity of shipping through the Strait of Malacca, incidents of Acehnese piracy became more and more of a nuisance for both Dutch and British colonial authorities. This led to a change in Dutch colonial policy, in which the annexation of Aceh became an option.

The Sumatra Treaty of 1871 between the United Kingdom and the Netherlands facilitated this shift in policy. With the treaty, the Netherlands got a free hand in northern Sumatra, while the British retained economic access to Aceh. This treaty was part of a package deal— although never acknowledged officially as such—that also involved the transfer of the Dutch possessions on the Gold Coast (West Africa) and a treaty for the recruitment of coolie labor in India for the Dutch colony of Surinam in the West Indies. With a free hand in Aceh, a prestigious colonial prize as well as a rich agricultural area and a repository of mineral oil, the annexation of Aceh became a priority for the Netherlands. The military struggles that took place in Aceh for forty years, from 1873 to 1913, were to be of central importance in shaping the Netherlands Indies colonial state and, eventually, the Republic of Indonesia.

The Aceh War can be divided into three phases: 1873 to 1893, 1894 to 1903, and 1904 to 1913. The first phase heralded several Dutch efforts at conquering and pacifying Aceh. In March 1873 the Netherlands Indies Army under the command of Major-General J. H. R. Kohler attacked the capital of Aceh, Banda Aceh or Kutaraja. The idea behind the attack was to seize the sultan’s fortified palace, the Kraton, perceived by the Dutch as the administrative center of the sultanate. The expedition, comprising a force of three thousand well-equipped infantrymen and artillery, was beaten back from the Kraton. Sultan Mahmud Syah (r. 1870-1874) had organized such a well-armed and determined resistance to the Dutch that the conquest of a mosque turned sour when Major General Kohler was killed there. The expeditionary force had to retreat with 56 dead and 438 wounded.

Late in 1873 a second expedition was organized with the same objectives, but also to save face. The Dutch army was even better armed this time and was put under the command of the highly experienced Lieutenant General Jan van Swieten. The force consisted of more than 8,500 men, and an additional 1,500 troops in reserve, as well as several thousand servants and bearers. Banda Aceh was captured, and the sultan was chased from the town. Sultan Mahmud Syah did not give up resistance, but rather retreated into the hills. After his death from cholera, he was succeeded by Sultan Ibrahim Mansur Syah (r. 1875-1907), who, although a figurehead, was instrumental in unifying the opposition against the Dutch.

In the early phase of the war, the Dutch grossly overestimated the power of the sultan. Aceh was not a unified state ruled by the sultan’s court. Therefore, the Dutch efforts at subduing Aceh were not only militarily problematic, but also politically unsuccessful. This meant that even when the local representatives of the Acehnese state and gentry, the uleebelang, gave up after the death of the sultan in 1874, military resistance continued. Armed bands of peasants, connected through a common Islamic identity as well as kinship and village ties, fought a series of very successful guerrilla battles against the Dutch occupation.

Despite a precarious military situation, the Dutch government declared the war in Aceh ended in 1880. The Dutch army set up a system of sixteen forts (benteng) to encircle the remaining guerrilla fighters, and developed a road and tramway system to connect the forts and establish controlled zones. Within this so-called concentrated front, a specially established elite force (the Korps Marechaussee) executed counterinsurgency operations, making use of guerrilla tactics themselves. After 1893 the Dutch abandoned the strategy of a concentrated front as an unsuccessful tactic, but the elite troops continued their operations, now patrolling hotspot areas on a smaller scale with mobile columns.

Dutch efforts to establish alliances with local leaders through supplies of weapons and opium, as well as payments in money, characterized the first half of the second phase of the Aceh War (1894-1903). The best-known ally of the Dutch was the local leader Teuku Umar (1854-1899), who established an army of his own with the assistance and approval of the Dutch in 1894. However, two years later, he switched sides and turned on the Netherlands Indies Army with his force, which was armed with modern weaponry supplied by the Dutch. After a protracted campaign to neutralize Teuku Umar and his force, the Dutch army eventually chased him down and killed him in 1899.

The military officer J. B. van Heutsz (1851-1924) and government advisor and scholar of Islam Christiaan Snouck Hurgronje (1857-1936) dominated government policy in Aceh in the late 1890s. On the basis of field research in Aceh from 1891 to 1893, Snouck Hurgronje advised strongly that the Dutch depart from a wait-and-see policy and break Acehnese resistance with force. Snouck Hurgronje promoted the view that resistance in Aceh was religious in character, led by fanatic Islamic leaders (ulema) who were intent on waging a holy war or jihad against the infidel Dutch. The government was hesitant, however, and only adopted Snouck Hurgronje’s proposal in 1896 after several incidents.

The implementation of the new policy was in the hands of Major (later General) van Heutsz. Snouck Hurgronje pushed for van Heutsz’s appointment as civil and military governor of Aceh, which appointment came about in 1898. Snouck Hurgronje was appointed as advisor for indigenous and Arabic affairs in the same year, and in this position he served as van Heutsz’s second in command from 1898 to 1903.

The pacification of Aceh became a show of brute force. Exemplary in this respect is the Gayo Expedition of 1900 to 1903 under Lieutenant-Colonel G. C. E. van Daalen (1863-1930), which resulted in the deaths of about three thousand people, more than a third of whom were women and children. These terror tactics were an advanced form of the antiguerrilla tactics developed by special Dutch troops more than a decade earlier.

After 1900 the ideas of Snouck Hurgronje and van Heutsz about pacification started to diverge, with the result that the former left Aceh in 1901, although he formally kept his position until 1903. Despite their disagreements about policy, Snouck remained loyal to van Heutsz in the sense that he recommended his appointment as governor-general of the Netherlands Indies in 1904 and refused to head a commission of inquiry into the Gayo massacre.

On February 10, 1903, the sultan of Aceh surrendered to the Dutch government. Hostilities between the Dutch and the Acehnese forces had turned into a war of attrition. Van Heutsz’s commandos hunted the sultan down for years, making life impossible. The arrests of other political leaders of noble background along with their families broke the back of the official and organized opposition. Besides, van Heutsz saw a role for the sultan in a colonial Aceh.

Nevertheless, the war was not over. The last phase of the war, between 1904 and 1913, involved the continuation of guerrilla tactics against local leaders, but these were rearguard actions by the remainder of the once broad military resistance. Due to years of Dutch military presence, terror, oppression, destruction of villages and communities, and repeated forced relocation of village populations, the country was destroyed and the population psychologically broken. What Snouck Hurgronje had overlooked in his original analysis of the early 1890s was that Aceh had come under the influence of nationalism and the resistance against the Dutch was as much a social movement of ordinary people fighting for emancipation from their feudal bonds as it was a religious movement. Destroying the resistance through brute force also meant mental decay, apathy, and eventually the destruction of society. These circumstances would plague Dutch efforts to develop the area into a viable colonial province until the Japanese forced them out in 1942, as did the Indonesian authorities after independence.

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