The first evidence of human habitation in Aceh is from a site near the Tamiang River where shell middens are present. Stone tools and faunal remains were also found on the site. Archeologists believe the site was first occupied around 10,000 BC.
The beginnings of Islam in Southeast Asia
Evidence concerning the initial coming and subsequent establishment of Islam in Southeast Asia is thin and inconclusive, however, it is thought that it was through the Aceh region. When Venetian traveller Marco Polo passed by Sumatra on his way home from China in 1292 he found that Perlak was a Muslim town while nearby ‘Basma(n)’ and ‘Samara’ were not. ‘Basma(n)’ and ‘Samara’ are often said to be Pasai and Samudra (present-day Syamtalira) but evidence is inconclusive. The gravestone of Sultan Malik as-Salih, the first Muslim ruler of Samudra, has been found and is dated AH 696 (AD 1297). This is the earliest clear evidence of a Muslim dynasty in the Indonesia-Malay area and more gravestones from the thirteenth century show that this region continued under Muslim rule. Ibn Batutah, a Moroccan traveller, passing through on his way to China in 1345 and 1346, found that the ruler of Samudra was a follower of the Shafi’i school of Islam.
The Portuguese apothecary Tome Pires reported in his early sixteenth century book Suma Oriental that most of the kings of Sumatra from Aceh through to Palembang were Muslim. At Pasai, in what is now the North Aceh Regency, there was a thriving international port. Pires attributed the establishment of Islam in Pasai to the ‘cunning’ of the Muslim merchants. The ruler of Pasai, however, had not been able to convert the people of the interior. The first evidence of human habitation in Aceh is from a site near the Tamiang River
Sultanate of Aceh
The Sultanate of Aceh was established initially as a small Islamic kingdom (in what is now the city of Banda Aceh) during the 15th century AD. During its golden era, its territory and political influence expanded as far as Satun in southern Thailand, Johor in Malay Peninsula, and Siak in what is today the province of Riau. As was the case with most non-Javan pre-colonial states, Acehnese power expanded outward by sea rather than inland. As it expanded down the Sumatran coast, its main competitors were Johor and Portuguese Malacca on the other side of the Straits of Malacca. It was this seaborne trade focus that saw Aceh rely on rice imports from north Java rather than develop self sufficiency in rice production.
In the tomb of Ratu Acheh, there is a tombstone dated 1380, engraved with the wording, “Gusta barubasa empu Kedah Pasai Ma”, meaning “the families who embraced Islam govern Kedah and Pasai”. Acheh was then part of the Main Kingdom of Raja Siam (Müsli) Beruas Melayu Tua Gangga, Negara Kedah Pasai Ma Empire. This ruler appointed his brothers as Sultans of Acheh. Rulers of this Empire were known as Shyah Alam Yang Maha Mulia, descendants from the Persians and the Siamese Muslim Empire.
After the Portuguese occupation of Malacca in 1511, many Islamic traders passing the Malacca Straits shifted their trade to Banda Aceh and increased Acehnese rulers’ wealth. During the reign of Sultan Iskandar Muda in 17th century, Aceh’s influence extended to most of Sumatra and the Malay Peninsula. Aceh allied itself with the Ottoman Empire and the Dutch East India Company in their struggle against the Portuguese and the Johor Sultanate. Acehnese military power waned gradually thereafter, and Aceh ceded its territory of Kedah and Penang on the Malay Peninsula to Britain, and Pariaman in Sumatra to the Dutch in 18th century.
By the early nineteenth century, however, Aceh had become an increasingly influential power due to its strategic location for controlling regional trade. In the 1820s it was the producer of over half the world’s supply of black pepper. The pepper trade produced new wealth for the Sultanate and for the rulers of many smaller nearby ports that had been under Aceh’s control, but were now able to assert more independence. These changes initially threatened Aceh’s integrity, but a new sultan Tuanku Ibrahim, who controlled the kingdom from 1838 to 1870, reasserted power over nearby ports.
Under the Anglo-Dutch Treaty of 1824 the British ceded their colonial possessions on Sumatra to the Dutch. In the treaty, the British described Aceh as one of their possessions, although they had no actual control over the Sultanate. Initially, under the agreement the Dutch agreed to respect Aceh’s independence. In 1871, however, the British dropped previous opposition to a Dutch invasion of Aceh, possibly to prevent France or the United States from gaining a foothold in the region. Although neither the Dutch nor the British knew the specifics, there had been rumors since the 1850s that Aceh had been in communication with rulers of France and of the Ottoman Empire.