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Spirit of Struggle from the "Land of Rencong"

An epigraph was once placed on the north side of Baiturrahman Grand Mosque in the heart of downtown Banda Aceh. The epigraph, located under a geulumpang tree (Sterculiafoetida) was put there to commemorate the death of Maj. Gen. JHR Kohler, a commander in the Dutch forces, at the hands of Aceh soldiers on April 14, 1873.

However, the epigraph that had been placed there by then-Aceh governor Ibrahim Hasan in 1998 was no longer found there in mid-January. The geulumpang tree had allegedly been cut down. The tree had been planted there as a marker for Kohler's grave.

With the epigraph and geulumpang tree on the north side of Baiturrahman Grand Mosque missing, the only trace of Kohler left in Aceh is in Kerkhof Peutjut. Apart from Kohler's ashes, Kerkhof Peutjut also houses the tombs of three Dutch generals and around 2,200 Dutch soldiers of various ranks.

The lines of tombs in Kerkhof Peutjut remind one of the Aceh people's fierce resistance against the onslaught of the colonial forces. The resistance was triggered by the 1871 Sumatra Treaty between the English and Dutch forces that gave the Dutch freedom to expand their territories in Sumatra.

Based on the treaty, Dutch forces led by JHR Kohler arrived in Aceh in 1873. Battle after battle occurred in the region between 1873 and 1942.


After the failure of their first military aggression in early 1873, the Dutch forces attacked again from November 1873 to January 1874. In this second aggression, the Dutch captured the palace of the Aceh sultanate. Aceh warriors, including Tuanku Hasyim, TeukuImum Lueng Bata, Teuku Nanta Setia and Panglima Polem, decided to retreat and regroup.

The Aceh people planned their retaliation. A number of local uleebalang (village commanders) like Teuku Umar, Teuku Nyak Hasan and Cut Nyak Dien led the people in the fight against the Dutch. They implemented guerilla tactics that startled the Dutch forces. In HT Damste's Atjeh Historie it states that Governor General van Lansberge admitted that the battles in Aceh had created chaos within the Dutch armed forces.

In the report titled Beknopte Beschrijving van de Onder-afdeling Lhokseumawe written by JHB Jaspers, the Aceh forces overran Aceh Besar and attacked the local Dutch fort.

In desperation, the Dutch launched endless military operations to conquer Aceh. They once blockaded Aceh by controlling the Krueng Raba region on the northern shore in 1874, cutting off Aceh's communication with the outside world. However, this failed.

To draw the sympathy of the Aceh people, the Dutch forces rebuilt the burned-down grand mosque in Kutaraja. According to Teuku Ibrahim Alfian's records in the book Perang di Jalan Allah (War in the Name of Allah), the groundbreaking ceremony for the mosque was attended by Teungku Kali Malikul Adil in 1879.

As this was deemed unsuccessful, the Dutch then intensified their military patrols. One move, for instance, was conducted in Aceh Besar during the leadership of Gen. Karel van der Heijden in 1880. The operation was cut short after a civilian government under Pruys van der Hoeven repealed the military patrol policy in 1881.

Dutch scholar Snouck Hurgronje was asked to research the Aceh people's military power in 1891. Hurgronje found that the locals were driven by religion-based fanaticism in their resistance against the Dutch.

Acehnese historian Husaini Ibrahim of Syiah Kuala University's School of Teaching and Education said that the Aceh people's fighting spirit had remained high for decades influenced by the Islamic principle of jihad fisabilillah, or war on the path of Allah. For them, defending their land of birth was a form of jihad.

This jihadi spirit resulted in the Aceh people's undying struggle. "A term then emerged: Aceh pungo, or crazy Aceh, as the locals were so stubborn that the Dutch were overwhelmed," Husaini said.

J Kreemer in his book Atjeh wrote that the financial losses suffered by the Dutch during the Aceh war between 1873 and 1884 reached 150 million florins, equal to Rp 1.1 trillion (US$82.46 million) today.

From GDEJ Hotz's records in the Beknopt Geschiedkundig Overzicht van den Atjeh-Oorlog, the financial losses reached 200 million florins, or Rp 1.4 trillion in 1891. The war itself did not end until 1942.

The bravery and persistence of the Aceh people had already been tested back when Portugal tried to acquire the Malacca Strait trade routes in the 1500s. Admiral Keumalahayati and the Inong Balee forces from the Aceh sultanate drove away the Portuguese forces being led by Cornelis de Houtman.

Heroism like that in the face of the colonial forces in Aceh also occurred in other regions. Pattimura in Maluku and the Battle of Java led by Prince Diponegoro are two examples. Despite the fact that their struggles were more about defending their local regions, they were all about fighting colonial powers.

"What our ancestors once had has never faded. Whenever a threat occurs to our unity and motherland, our people will help one another selflessly. However, such a spirit does not last long these days as it used to in the olden times," Syiah Kuala University school of law sociologist Saleh Syafei said.

Hopefully, such a spirit will be maintained in times when exemplars of nationhood values are lacking.



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