The history is full of women who have been doing great work the past decades. From science to fine art to extreme sport, nowadays every discipline has its female heroes. As a matter of fact there has always been ‘the first female’ in everything. Aceh was one of them.
Keumalahayati, also known as Malahayati, was the first female admiral in the world. Her story and achievements are more than just impressive; they are brave, honorable, successful and admirable.
Just over 400 years ago, Malahayati became the first female Admiral to lead a navy in the modern world. Being a student of an islamic boarding school, military graduate and a widow, she led an army of other widows to become one of the most feared and formidable fighting forces to roam the seas around Sumatra. Yes, you read it right, all-women army.
She was so feared that when the Dutch decided to attack Sumatra in 1600, she only went and kidnapped their senior Admiral Van Neck, sunk most of their fleet and killed their Senior Commander De Houtman. The Dutch came pleading for a peace treaty, which she only signed when the Dutch apologised and agreed never to return.
Malahayati was a daughter of Admiral Machmud Syah of the Aceh Empire. After graduating from Pesantren, an Islamic school, she continued her studies at the Aceh Royal Military Academy, known as Ma’had Baitul Maqdis.
Following the fall of Malacca (now part of Malaysia) to Portuguese invaders, Aceh (now the westernmost province of Indonesia) became a stronger faction and ensured that merchant shipping routes in the Malacca Strait remained exclusively for Asian traders. The kingdom's leader, Sultan Alauddin Mansur Syah strengthened his military power by building a powerful navy to which he decided to appoint Malahayati, a widowed Aceh warrior, as his First Admiral. Aceh soldiers and the other generals had always respected Malahayati. She had also proved herself a legendary commander during several battles with the Portuguese and Dutch.
In 1599, Dutch expedition commander Cornelis de Houtman arrived at the port of Aceh. The Sultan accepted him peacefully until de Houtman insulted him. The Dutchman, who had already clashed with the Banten Sultanate in northwest Java before his arrival in Aceh, decided to attack. Malahayati led her Inong Balee Army (widows of soldiers who have died) in response to the Dutch challenge and after several violent battles, finally killed de Houtman on September 11, 1599.
In 1600, the Dutch Navy, led by Paulus van Caerden, robbed an Aceh merchant ship of its pepper off the Aceh coast. After this incident, In June 1601, Malahayati ordered the arrest of Dutch Admiral Jacob van Neck. After many incidents which blocked Dutch Navy expeditions and the threat from the Spanish fleet, Maurits van Oranje sent emissaries with diplomatic letter of apology to the Empire of Aceh.
The emissaries were Admiral Laurens Bicker and Gerard de Roy. In August 1601, Malahayati met Maurits's emissaries for a treaty agreement. A ceasefire was agreed and the Dutch paid 50 thousand gulden as compensation for Paulus van Caerden actions, while Malahayati released Dutch prisoners. After the agreement, the Sultan sent three emissaries to the Netherlands.
In June 1602, Malahayati's reputation as the guardian of the Aceh Kingdom led England to choose a peaceful, diplomatic method by which to enter the Malacca Strait. A letter from Queen Elizabeth I was brought by James Lancaster to the Sultan, and it was Malahayati who led the negotiation with Lancaster. The agreement opened the English route to Java, and they were soon afterwards able to build merchant offices in Banten. Elizabeth I rewarded Lancaster with a knighthood for his successful diplomacy in Aceh and Banten.
Malahayati was killed in combat while attacking the Portuguese fleet at Teuluk Krueng Raya. She was buried at lereng Bukit Kota Dalam, a small fishing village 34 km from Banda Aceh.
Today, Malahayati has had naval ships, universities, hospitals and roads in several Sumatran cities named after her.
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