The Aceh

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Sumatra Atjeh-Aceh with Rentjong 1899
Aceh Region














The Aceh (Acehnese, Atjeh, Atjin, Acheen, Achin; Dutch: Atchin or Acheh, English: Achin, French: Achen or Acheh, Arabic: Asyi, Portuguese: Achen or Achem, Chinese: A-tsi or Ache) is the dominant ethnic group of northern Sumatra, Indonesia, occupying a region that also bears their name. Modern day Indonesia, like many other areas of the world, was once dominated by kingdoms. The Aceh kingdom is believed to be one of the oldest in Indonesia. There are 10 subethnic groups of Acehnese (such as Gayo, Alas, Aneuk Jamee, Melayu Tamiang, Kluet, Devayan, Sigulai, Haloban and Julu).

Situated along main trade routes passing through what is known today as the Strait of Malacca, the coastal towns of Aceh were visited by traders from many other parts of the world.  In 1292, Marco Polo, on his epic voyage from China visited Sumatra on his way to Persia and reported that in the northern part of the island there were at least six busy trading ports including Perlak, Samudera and Lambri. Hindu and Buddhist influence may have reached Aceh as early as the first century C.E. A kingdom called “Po-Li” in northern Sumatra is referred to in 6th C. Chinese chronicles. Sometime between the 8th and 12th C. Islam reached Aceh. This rich history of interaction with the world has influenced the Aceh through time and has been reflected in their traditions, culture, religion and many other aspects of society, including war and weaponary. The Sultan of Aceh sent a letter to Queen Elizabeth 1 of England in 1585 and from that point on the region captured a role in world trade and in the imaginations of Europeans. 

The Aceh region has an extensive history of martial conflict, both with neighboring tribes and colonial invaders. From the 16th Century onward the region was in perpetual struggle. Many have tried to conquer the Aceh without success. Conflict and commerce often go together, and Aceh was no exception. Portugal attacked several times. In 1873, The Netherlands declared war and invaded. The Aceh resistance was strong and what is now known as the Aceh war became the longest colonial/expeditionary ware fought by the Dutch. The last Sultan was removed in 1903 and a decade later an uneasy peace arrive in 1912. However, resistence continued until 1942 when the Japanese arrived.

Over the centuries of trading contact with far away peoples, immigrants arrived fom nearby Malaysia as well as distant Hindu southern India, and various Eurasian East Asian and Arab ethnic groups. Along with the cultures they brought to Aceh, the history of warfare deeply Aceh culture and gave rise to a multitude of unique edged weapons that are inseparable from the spiritual beliefs, structure of Acehnese society, and every day behavior.

"Tatob ngon reuncong jeuet Ion peu-ubat, nyang saket that tapansie haba."


To be stabbed with a rencong can be treated; much more hurtful is criticism with words.

This well known Acehnese saying conveys the opposite meaning of the English ditty: "Sticks and stones will break my bones, but names will never hurt me." In Aceh, name calling is more hurtful than physical harm. The Acehnese saying, above, gives an indication of the importance placed on external form and appearance in which the correct use of words plays a significant role. Correct gestures and clothing are also valued. Traditional formal costume is the correct form of dress. At one time the Acehnese practice Hinduism but they have been Muslims for several centuries and are generally regarded as one of the most conservative Muslim ethnic groups in Indonesia. 

Unlike the nearby Batak ethnic group, the Aceh were not know for cannablism. This may account for European preference to do commerce with the Aceh rather than the Batak.