Aceh, at the northwestern end of Sumatra, came into contact with
the outside world as early as the sixth century AD. Chinese chronicles
of that time speak of a kingdom on the northern tip of Sumatra named
Po-Li. Several Arabic writings of the early ninth century, and later
inscriptions found in India mention the area. In 1292, Marco Polo,
on his voyage from China to Persia visited Sumatra and reported
that on the northern part of Sumatra there were as many as six trading
ports including Ferlec, Samudera and Lambri. It is ironic that this
area is presently one of the least known of Indonesia.
Islam is reported to have reached Aceh between
the seventh and eighth centuries AD and the first Islamic kingdom,
Perlak was established in 804 AD. Then followed Samudera Pasai in
1042, Tamiah in 1184, Aceh in 1205 and Darussalam in 1511. In this
year the Portuguese captured Malacca and many Asian and Arabic traders
sought to avoid the Malacca Strait and called instead on Aceh's
port, bringing wealth and prosperity. Aceh's dominance in trade
and politics in northern parts of Sumatra began, reaching a climax
between 1610 and 1640.
With the death of Sultan Iskandar Thani in 1641,
Aceh's decline began. The British and Dutch both started to vie
for influence. In 1824 the London Treaty was signed, giving the
Dutch control over all British possessions in Sumatra in return
for a Dutch surrender of their establishments in India and an abrogation
of all claims on Singapore. The Dutch fought a long drawn out struggle
in their attempt to subdue the Acehnese. The Aceh War, which lasted
intermittently from 1873 to 1942, was the longest ever fought by
Holland and cost the Dutch more than 10,000 lives. This struggle
has stamped a deep imprint on the Acehnese outlook and mentality.
The era of industrialization arrived, and with it has come a more
open attitude towards things alien. Visitors should keep in mind,
though, that the Acehnese take their religion, their manners and
their morals seriously.