Malay-speaking parrot on a diplomatic mission
Envoys of the sultan of Aceh (Atjeh) set foot on the soil of Zeeland on 20 July 1602. This was the first Southeast Asian diplomatic mission to Europe. Even before the foundation of the Dutch East India company in 1602, trading companies from the Republic were forging contacts in Southeast Asia, writes historian Ingrid Mitrasing in her PhD dissertation.
No expenditure or effort was spared for the reception of the Aceh mission. The States General of the Republic, however, also lost no time in passing on the bill for the 15-month stay to the VOC, once it was founded in March 1602. Mitrasing examined the archives of the forerunners of the VOC in the National Archives. Three envoys from Aceh came with their entourage, including interpreters, to the Republic. They visited Prince Maurits in Fort Grave, bearing such gifts as a Malay-speaking parrot and a gold sword.
As a direct effect of the visit, a number of European courts sent delegations to the Republic to make the acquaintance of the envoys from the powerful Asian state of Aceh. In so doing, the European delegations were indirectly recognising the Republic during the time of the Eighty Years War with Spain.
In 1598 Cornelis de Houtman sailed with the first Zeeland fleet, looking for contracts for pepper on Sumatra. The expedition became embroiled in a power struggle for the Strait of Malacca between the Portuguese, the Sultanate of Johor on Malaysia and the Sultanate of Aceh on Sumatra. De Houtman was well received in Aceh. Arrangements had already been made for a joint tour of Johor. Incited by the Portuguese, Aceh attacked the Zeeland flotilla, killing Cornelis de Houtman and imprisoning his brother Frederick. Prince Maurits wrote to Sultan Alau’d-din Ri’ayat Shah urging him to release Frederik de Houtman. In a letter from Maurits dating from 1600, Mitrasing reads that he offered the Sultan friendship and support in resisting the Portuguese in Malacca.
Aceh saw the Republic as a possible ally. It was vitally important for both parties to drive the Portuguese out of the Strait of Malacca. Moreover, the Sultan was interested in the role of the aristocracy in the Republic at a time when absolute kingship was the norm. He wanted to know how the Republic had resisted Spain. The Sultan of Aceh signed a strategic alliance (also known as a fraternal bond) with the Republic. Mitrasing considers it likely that Aceh used this to send a political signal to Portugal and Spain, that were still united under one monarch. The situation did not escalate as far as military aid. The Republlic demanded trading monopolies in exchange for assistance; the Sultan demanded assistance with no conditions attached.
The unique 'fraternal bond' between the Republic and four successive sultans of Aceh lasted at least until 1641. It has never previously been studied by historians. The bloody wars of the 19th and 20th century that were designed to subjugate Aceh put their mark on the way history was written. But the fact that that fraternal bond did exist is clearly visible in the Aceh mission.
(17 July 2012)
Dr Ingrid Mitrasing, The age of Aceh and the evolution of kingship 1599-1641
The Asian Challenge is one of the six themes for research at Leiden University.