Military Annexation and Ideology in Highland Aceh, 1904

Just as none of us is outside or beyond geography, none of us is completely free from the struggle over geography. That struggle is complex and interesting because it is not only about soldiers and cannons but also about ideas, about forms, about images and imaginings.[1] – Edward Said in Culture and Imperialism. 

Colonial expansion encroached into the interior of northern Sumatra from all directions in the first decade of the twentieth century, bringing with it social and political turmoil for the inhabitants. The peoples living in the highlands, comprised primarily of ethnic Gayo, Alas, Singkil, and Batak, but also Acehnese, Javanese, and Chinese, among others, were acutely aware of the colonial situation in Aceh and the war that had ravaged the region for three decades. Highlands residents had for centuries maintained social relations with the coastal regions via river systems and the long network of footpaths crisscrossing the Sumatran interior. The footpaths cut through the river valleys and tropical forests, and across the mountain passes and blangs (Gayonese for ‘fields’). The intertwined paths gave shape to spaces, as De Certeau argued for urban landscapes, and wove together places.[1] Oftentimes, travelers took advantage of migration trails cleared by elephants and rhinoceros, who along with other non-human species also shaped space and place in Aceh. [2] The footpaths were mobile social spaces where knowledge and information, forest products, foodstuffs, weapons, money, and other goods were exchanged and relationships forged. Traders transported water buffaloes (kerbau in Indonesian, karbouwen in Dutch), rice, coffee, potatoes, tobacco, rattan, clothes, rhinoceros horn and ivory, opium, and salt, for example, throughout the highlands and down to Singkel on the southwest coast of Aceh and Deli on Sumatra’s East Coast.[3] The paths were the communication networks of the interior. During times of conflict and war, the paths could be abandoned and new ones opened that made mobility more covert for the inhabitants. Alternative paths could be taken to avoid theft or encounters with other people or species.[4]

Many highland residents had for decades traveled the footpaths to Deli to work on the estates, or to “live off the estates.” Ann Stoler has pointed out that drifters from the interior, or those who were rejected from or fled the estates, were troublesome for plantation companies and the colonial government as they carried out night raids in search of food, weapons, clothing, and cash.[5] The goods supported everyday life as well as the resistance struggle in the Leuser region in the years to come. The weapons were of particular importance for the Gayo, Alas, and Batak in the highlands, as the Dutch were outnumbered in Aceh but held a technological advantage in firearms and ammunition. The most common weapons included revolvers, karabijnen (a type of rifle with a short barrel), rifles, bayonets, and blanke wapens, which were hand weapons that included swords (klewang in Indonesian), knives, and machetes called parang in Indonesian. The movement of weapons from the coasts to the interior was a problem for the colonial regime that was never completely resolved.[6]

The footpaths also connected the Gayo Lues in the southern interior with the northern reaches of the Gayo highlands and down to the historical center of the Sultanate of Aceh on the coast. It was those routes, connections, and geographies that brought the Dutch-Aceh war into the Gayo highlands in the first few years of the 1900s. The guerrilla struggle continued against the KNIL in the northern highlands, while many Gayo, Alas, and Batak left their villages in the interior to construct forts (bentengs) in preparation of the oncoming war. Some highlanders joined the resistance, hiding out, training in the forests, and attacking military bivouacs and passing brigades of Dutch and Indonesian soldiers, mostly from Java, Ambon, Madura, and Manado. Others found an advantage in cooperating with the Dutch, while some villagers fled south towards Gayo Lues and started new settlements in the less-populated areas to avoid conflict with both the resistance and the KNIL. All new settlements had to be approved by, and pay tribute to the regional kejurun, or indigenous territorial head.[7]

Villages in the south received early warnings of the coming Dutch invasion, as word passed down the footpaths. Some residents took measures to thwart the KNIL in anticipation of their arrival, including abandoning footpaths between the north and the south of the highlands. One of the main paths between Takengon and Gayo Lues had been severed for years, according to Lieutenant Colonel G.C.E van Daalen. The southern inhabitants, he claimed, wanted to cut off communication to and from the north. Indigenous heads in Gayo Lues might have been suspicious of leaders in the northern highlands and feared they would inform the Dutch military of their village locations, plans for resistance, and so on. They also might have had conflicts with kejurun in the north or with the Acehnese fighters. Their distrust may have proven correct if we are to believe Van Daalen, as he wrote in his journal that Pengulu Tjéq Dah, a native leader near Isaq, gave the military brigades advanced warning that the footpath from Djagòng to Kla, in between Takengon and Blangkejeren, had been abandoned years ago and to seek an alternative path.[8] It is also possible, however, that Tjéq Dah hoped to mislead Van Daalen. Perhaps highland inhabitants planned to send the KNIL off on the wrong path.

The KNIL invaded the Gayo highlands and Alas valley in February of 1904. Lieutenant-General J.B. van Heutsz authorized the mission on the advice of Snouck Hurgronje, who I will discuss in detail below. Van Daalen led the violent conquest. The goals of the KNIL offensive were threefold: 1) To scout for the construction of a road network from Peusangan on the coast to Takengon in the highlands, 2) To carry out “the heavy-handed task of suppressing rebellious indigenous populations,” and, 3) To produce knowledge about the people, geography, and ecology of the Gayo, Alas, and Batak lands.[9] The invasion lasted six months. The trek from Bireuën on the coast to Takengon, the capital of the northern highlands, was roughly sixty-five miles of steep incline rising nearly four-thousand feet in elevation along the sides of mountains and through dense tropical forests. Takengon sits at the edge of Lake (Danau) Tawar, a highland crater valley surrounded by mountains rising to more than nine-thousand feet in elevation. From Takengon to Litong, south of Danau Toba in the Bataklands where the expedition ended, it was roughly another three-hundred thirty miles.

The Dutch invasion of the Gayo highlands was no small affair, although Van Daalen lamented that he did not have more soldiers. It consisted of ten brigades of maréchaussée, or military guards, and included Van Daalen, Captain Scheepens, 1st Lieutenants of the maréchaussée G.F.B. Watrin, J.W. Ebbink, H.F. Aukes, and W.R. Winter, and 2nd Lieutenant of the maréchaussée H. Christoffel. H.M. Neeb was the doctor on the mission and he managed the traveling hospital and ambulance service using forced laborers. Neeb also served as the photographer, taking more than a hundred photographs of landscapes, native peoples, infrastructure, weapons, and staged shots of razed villages, massacred native peoples, and captured and tortured victims. Forced laborers carried and maintained his portable dark room on the mission. J.C.J. Kempees was the Lieutenant of the artillery, while Lieutenant G.E. Hoedt recruited and oversaw the treinpersonnel, consisting of around seventeen mandoers (foreman or superintendents, usually Javanese) and four-hundred forty dwangarbeiders who were generally forced laborers. A mining engineer, P.J. Jansen, explored for oil and minerals on the expedition, and Pringo Atmodjo, a Javanese botanist at the Buitenzorg Botanic Gardens, collected plants.[10] The lists of human laborers, weapons, and ammunition, consisting of hundreds of karabijnen and bayonets, speaks volumes to the strength of the indigenous resistance and the strategic importance of the region to the Dutch.

Much has been written about the cultural and military history of Van Daalen’s mission in which an estimated 2,900 indigenous peoples were killed over the course of six months. Conservative estimates suggest that in just a few days the KNIL massacred one-quarter to one-third of the indigenous men and countless women and children in Gayo Lues and the Alaslands.[11] But I call attention here to the ecologies and geographies of the invasion—to the “soldiers and the canons,” as well as the ideas, images, and imaginings.[12] The invasion and subsequent struggle over geography was characterized by incredible physical and psychological violence on indigenous bodies, or as KNIL officers called them, djahats (rebels), fanatieke (fanatics), kwaadwilligen (bad elements), and Mohamedanen (Muslims). The Dutch used these terms throughout Aceh to describe native peoples defending their homes or otherwise resisting colonialism. The Dutch created a discourse, a typical orientalist discourse, based on binaries separating good (colonizer) from evil (colonized), modern from backwards, civilized from savages, and West from the Rest. The discourse was a justification for colonial expansion, it was an acquittal for the extreme violence of Van Daalen’s orders.


The caption to this photo reads: “A dangerous madman in the block.” A man captured, not known if dead or alive, by the Dutch during the KNIL invasion at Likat in the Alaslands on 20 June 1904. Dead bodies surround him in the background. Museum Bronbeek Collection, 1994/11/04-2-2/90, photo by H.M. Neeb.

Families in Gayo Lues and the Alaslands were ultimately fighting for freedom and the ability to create their own geographies and futures set within the context of the structured inequalities of the “contact zone.”[14] These were not engagements of free and equal exchange, but instead spaces subsumed by a brutal military campaign. The Dutch, under the leadership of Van Heutsz, created the “Aceh Strategy,” which used mobile military police forces trained in guerrilla warfare, along with temporary forms of martial law in which both military and civil authority were placed in the hands of a single military officer—Van Daalen in the case of Gayo Lues and the Alaslands.[15] Agency for the local people rested in their ability to flee, or fight using guerrilla tactics, organized resistance in forts, or everyday forms of resistance, including feigned ignorance, misdirection, and false-compliance in the contact zone.[16] It might also be true that there were dwangarbeiders, or forced laborers, and other military personnel working for the KNIL who also protested in various ways their participation in the expedition. Other native inhabitants headed for the hills, building settlements deep in the forests to wait out the invasion. After the expedition, colonial power in the interior diminished once the human and technological resources of the KNIL were pulled back to the imperial centers on the coasts or distributed to other areas of civil unrest in the colony.The orientalist perspective not only shaped the colonial image of Leuser, but also the KNIL’s practices and activities in the region. The military collected human bodies in the same way that they stole personal property, or “ethnographic materials” for museum collections, photographed routes, landscapes, dead bodies and razed villages, and native inhabitants, and collected more than five hundred plant specimens for herbarium collections in Buitenzorg and The Netherlands. The KNIL could not carry six months of supplies on the expedition and they therefore had to acquire food along the way. Their main staples were salted, dried fish, dengdeng (dried beef with spices), rice, coffee, tea, and gin. On the expedition, military personnel sometimes bought rice and meat in markets or from households, and the dwangarbeiders, or forced laborers, caught fish in the rivers and hunted when possible. But they also raided villages after the inhabitants fled or were killed. They used vacated kampungs (villages) to house soldiers, slaughtered water buffaloes, pigs, and other livestock that had been left behind, raided agricultural fields and forest gardens for cassava and other vegetables and fruits, and seized supplies of rice.[13] The brigades followed footpaths and elephant paths in search of shelter, food, supplies, sources of water, villages and forts in the forests and hidden in the valleys.

Along the way, soldiers and military officers also collected material possessions and sacred objects, or “ethnographic materials” for personal and museum collections, many of which were inventoried and sent to the Museum van het Bataviaasch Genoot (Museum of the Batavia Society). In his journal, Van Daalen describes four hundred fifty-four ethnographic items taken from indigenous peoples during his military expeditions throughout the Gayo, Alas, and Batak lands. Items included gold and silver jewelry, coins, clothing, agricultural tools, weapons, and many others. There is a brief description of each item but the exact location of where the item was collected is not listed nor is the method for obtaining the item. Many of these materials are now held in the National Museum of Indonesia (Museum Nasional Indonesia) in Jakarta and can be viewed in the ethnographic materials section on the people of Sumatra.[17] The items in the National Museum are all labeled as collected in the Gayo highlands in Aceh, Sumatra, and as “gifts from Lieutenant Colonel G.C.E. van Daalen.”

While Van Daalen’s brigades engaged in battle and patrolled the Gayo and Alaslands, Pringo Atmodjo, a Javanese botanist at the Buitenzorg Botanic Gardens, was hiked through the forests and collected bodies of a different sort. Historians have overlooked Atmodjo’s botanical collections and role in the expedition. Atmodjo and his laborers trekked through the forests along with the expedition in search of plant species unique to science. The dates and locations marked on his herbarium specimens follow the chronological order of Van Daalen’s personal journal from the expedition.  On June 11, 1094, for example, Atmodjo collected a species of St. John’s wort in the Alaslands, only three days before the massacre at Kuta Reh. The KNIL killed an estimated 561 men, women, and children and decimated the benteng (fort) at Kuta Reh. Atmodjo compiled an extensive herbarium collection on the expedition, gathering 544 species in total.[18] Forced laborers carried and maintained his traveling herbarium, but they are, of course, forgotten for their contributions to science in Aceh. Each month, Atmodjo sent coolies with his specimens back to Koeta Radja, present day Banda Aceh, for storage. Researchers studied and catalogued the herbarium specimens at the Buitenzorg Botanical Gardens on the island of Java and today they reside at the National Herbarium of The Netherlands in Leiden.

Atmodjo’s accompaniment on such an important military mission offers insight into the relationships between colonial expansion and scientific knowledge production. Bioprospecting for economic plants was essential to the imperial project. At the same time, his participation also reveals another phenomenon that is central to this dissertation; the role of colonial control, violence, and the military in scientific practices and the production of scientific knowledge in northern Sumatra in the early to mid-twentieth century. The Dutch transformed the southern Gayo highlands and Alas valley into a militarized space, and therefore Leuser became categorically different from many other frontier spaces in the world. KNIL personnel, soldiers, and police were stationed in outposts throughout the Leuser region and they patrolled the forests and footpaths in search of kwaadwilligen, or Acehnese, Gayo, Alas, and other peoples accused of fighting for the resistance (verzetslieden). Some Dutch and Indonesian newspapers had daily columns devoted to updates on military arrests in Aceh. Reports for the Gayo Lues and Alaslands describe in brief the arrest of robbers, gangs, and refugees with weapons and ammunition. The accused were always described as “Gayo” even when their identity was unknown. On two separate night raids (August 22 and 23, 1905), for example, the KNIL reported that groups of Gayo attacked military patrol units in Pasir, north of Blangkejeren. According to the reports, the Gayo attackers killed two Dutch sergeants, five “native” soldiers, a forced laborer, and stole a rifle. In the raids, the KNIL killed forty-one of the attackers and confiscated one achterlader (rear-loading guns), twelve voorladers (front-loading guns), a revolver, and “many other weapons.”[19] In another raid in 1910, forty men under Raja Pasir in Aloeë Pisang, according to the report, attacked a military patrol. Three resistance fighters were killed, while three colonial soldiers were injured. The military confiscated a rifle, a karabijn, two bayonets, and other weapons and ammunition.[20]

Each of the collected items worked to create representations of the geographies and ecologies of Leuser. Social space in the highlands was not only rearranged and continuously produced through the mobility of local peoples, new social relations, the construction of new settlements and forts, and the closure or opening of footpaths and communication networks, but also through the everyday military practices on the expedition and the appropriation of place; of rivers, forests, agricultural lands, coffee shops, homes, and community spaces, along with personal and shared items and their meanings and histories that were left behind as the people fled their homes.[21] In Paul Carter’s words, “white invasion was a form of spatial writing that erased the earlier meaning.”[22] In stating this, Carter contends that the actions and practices of invasion, the representations and the discourses map a territory as a place appropriate to the activities of colonization. This process is tied to the production of an empty space and about indigenous erasure, which is central to colonial capital expansion and many other goals including environmental conservation. The process was about transforming the meanings of physical space and material items, and about spatial appropriation. It was a violent and contested process initiated by military invasion. For instance, J.C.J. Kempees, the Lieutenant of the artillery on the Gayo military invasion, wrote in his journal on March 23rd, 1904 from a military camp in the village of Kuta Lintang near Blangkejeren in the Gayo highlands as he looked over a field strewn with dead bodies:

Here too, the people were dressed up, many men wearing precious silk hadji clothes and the women were wearing jewelry. It was noted that the troop did not rob the bodies. The whole kompong (village) complex Doerèn-Rödjö Silö, Koetö Lintang and Koetö Blang were brought into our hands, and the enemy was struck down, which would have far-reaching consequences. The investigation of kampongs (villages) on these and following days gave evidence for the prosperity of the inhabitants. The houses were large and full of household goods, including a large amount of copper scales, which the Gajo (Gayo) use at festive meals and which have a lot of monetary value. Rain screens, sewing machines, even a new steel travel trunk, a lot of pottery and iron enameled cooking utensils were found. Finally, and this was of most importance to us, the stock of padi and the high number of chickens, ducks, sheep and goats was very large. After the successful battle yesterday, it now turned out that to break the resistance in Gajo Looös (Gayo Lues) a stay of longer duration would be necessary. It was decided that the Kampong (village) Koetö Lintang was the most suitable for the purpose of setting up a solid bivouac (camp). However, in order to make our camps somewhat inhabitable a lot of work was necessary. At the end, the bivouac had an appearance from which one would not recognize the original kampung, and it made for a truly enjoyable stay. With painful rigidity, until the last day, the aim was to achieve the greatest order and purity.[23]

The Dutch were attempting to empty space so they could consolidate the region into the East Indies and mold it into their vision of a productive, manageable colonial area. Similarly, Robert Sack observes that the ideology of white invasion considers territory as “emptiable and fillable.”[24]


KNIL officers’ quarters in the village of Kuta Lintang near Blangkejeren in Gayo Lues. Museum Bronbeek Collection, 1994/11/04-2-2/22. H.M. Neeb.

The beginnings of scientific practice and environmental conservation in the highlands of northern Sumatra were set within the context of militarization. Environmental conservation also required an empty, depopulated space. In the mid-1920s, for example, Dutch scientists and conservationists already spoke of the region as unpopulated, comprised of virgin forests and rare species. The local peoples were effectively erased over time in the official legislation that constructed the nature reserves, although on the ground implementation was a different story, as there were indeed people living there whose livelihoods depended on access to land and whose conceptions of place held sacred meaning. Science and conservation relied upon the psychological and physical violence of the KNIL for exploration, knowledge production, and the protection of flora and fauna throughout the colonial era. The concept of ‘protection’ is central to the military mission in the Gayo and Alaslands, as military posts were stationed throughout Leuser to assert Dutch territorial claims. Soldiers also accompanied colonial officials, scientists, explorers and their native porters and guides into the highlands to protect them from the resistance. Patrolmen were primary informants for the researchers. Military officials described the landscapes, assisted in surveying, and relayed valuable ecological data to researchers on the locations of species and how often they encountered animals on their patrols and travels. Once nature reserves were imposed in the 1920s and 30s, military patrolmen assumed the duties of game wardens.[25] They were asked to safeguard protected species from native and foreign hunters, trappers, collectors, and others. The ecologies of Leuser were in themselves militarized. The militarized ecologies of Leuser were produced through an imperial process joining together violence, science, conservation and colonial control.

[2] G. C. E. van Daalen, Verslag Van Den Commandant Der Marechaussee-Colonne Belast Met De Vestiging Van Ons Gezag In De Gajo En Alaslanden (Koeta Radja: s.n., 1904), 22-4 [Report of the Commander of the Marechaussee-Column Charged with the Establishment of Our Authority in the Gayo and Alaslands]; and, Snouck C. Hurgronje, Het Gajōland en Zijne Bewoners (Batavia: Landsdrukkerij, 1903) [Gayoland and its Inhabitants].

[3] K. Th. Beets, Memorie van Overgave Afdeeling Gajo- en Alaslanden, 14-10-1929 to 23-5-1933, Arsip Nasional Republik Indonesia, Jakarta, Memorie van Overgave Seri 1e (hereafter, ANRI, MVO), Film No.8.

[4] Hurgronje, Het Gajōland, 49.

[5] Ann Laura Stoler, Along the Archival Grain: Epistemic Anxieties and Colonial Common Sense (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009), 197.

[6] Daily press releases detailed the capture of highland inhabitants during raids in Gayo Lues and the Alaslands with guns, ammunition, knives and swords (parang), and other weapons well into the 1920s. See, Haagsche Courant (Den Haag), “Atjeh”, 22 July 1907; Dagblad De Telegraaf (Amsterdam), “Atjeh”, 15 August 1908; NV Maatschappij tot Exploitatie van het Limburgs Dagblad (Batavia), “Atjeh”, 7 May 1912; Algemeen Handelsblad (Amsterdam), “Atjeh”, 30 December 1912; NV Maatschappij tot Exploitatie van het Limburgs Dagblad (Batavia), “Atjeh”, 8 July 1913; NV Maatschappij tot Exploitatie van het Limburgs Dagblad (Batavia), “Atjeh”, 2 December 1913. See also, Tagliacozzo, Secret Trades, 276.

[7] J. Kreemer, Atjèh; Algemeen Samenvattend Overzicht Van Land en Volk Van Atjèh en Onderhoorigheden, Volume 2 (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1922), 240 [General Summary of the Land and People of Aceh and its Dependencies].

[8] Van Daalen, Verslag Van Den Commandant, 21.

[9] Harm Stevens, “G.C.E. van Daalen, Military Officer and Ethnological Field Agent: The Ethnological Exploration of Gayo and Alas, 1900-1905,” in Pieter ter Keurs, ed., Colonial Collections Revisited (Leiden: CNWS, 2007. 115-22), 115. See also, J.C. Kempees, De tocht van Overste van Daalen door de Gajo-, Alas- en Bataklanden, 8 Februari tot 23 Juli 1904 (Amsterdam: J.C. Dalmeijer, 1905) [The Journey of Commander Van Daalen to the Gayo, Alas and Batak Lands]; Van Daalen, Verslag Van Den Commandant, 1904.

[10] Van Daalen, Verslag Van Den Commandant, 3. See also, Kempees, De Tocht Van Overste Van Daalen, 1905; Paul van ‘t Veer, De Atjeh-Oorlog (Amsterdam: De Arbeiderspers, 1969) [The Aceh War]; Stevens, G. C. E. van Daalen, 2007.

[11] Nota betreffende het troepencommando ‘Takengon’, omvattende de onderafdeeling Takengon der afdeeling Gajoe- en Alaslanden, 5 Maart 1929 (Koetaraja, 1929), 28, Leiden University, KITLV Special Collections [Note concerning the troop command ‘Takengon’, comprising the divisions Gayo and Alaslanden, 5 March, 1929]. See also, John Richard Bowen, Sumatran Politics and Poetics: Gayo History, 1900-1989 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1991), 65; Kempees, De Tocht Van Overste Van Daalen, 1905; Van ‘t Veer, De Atjeh-Oorlog, 1969; Stevens, G. C. E. van Daalen, 2007; Anthony Reid, The Blood of the People: Revolution and the End of Traditional Rule in Northern Sumatra (Singapore: NUS Press, 2014); Paul Bijl, Emerging Memory: Photographs of Colonial Atrocity in Dutch Cultural Remembrance (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2015).

[12] Said, Culture and Imperialism, 7.

[13] Van Daalen, Verslag Van Den Commandant, 25, 28, 34, 112, 114, 116.

[14] Pratt, Imperial Eyes, 7.

[15] Locher-Scholten, “Dutch Expansion in the Indonesian Archipelago,” 98.

[16] See, James C. Scott, Weapons of the Weak: Everyday Forms of Peasant Resistance (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1985).

[17] GCE van Daalen, Inventaris van voorwerpen afkomstig van de Gajō-, Alas- en Bataklanden (Batavia: G. Kolff & Co, 1905) [Inventory of objects from the Gayo, Alas and Bataklands].

[18] Verslag omtrent den Staat van ‘S Lands Plantentuin te Buitenzorg over het Jaar 1904 (Batavia: Landsdrukkerij, 1905) [Report on the State of the Buitenzorg Botanic Gardens for the year 1904].

[19] Het Nieuws Van den Dag Voor Nederlandsch-Indië (Batavia), “Gevechten in De Gajoelanden” [Fighting in the Gayolands], 8 September 1905.

[20] Bataviaasch nieuwsblad (Batavia), “Westkust van Atjeh”, 26 April 1910.

[21] De Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life, 1984.

[22] Carter, The Road to Botany Bay, 165.

[23] Kempees, De Tocht Van Overste Van Daalen, 51.

[24] Robert David Sack, Human Territoriality: Its Theory and History (Cambridge [Cambridgeshire]: Cambridge University Press, 1986), 63.

[25] F.C. van Heurn to A. Ph. van Aken (Governor of Aceh), 11 June 1932, Nederlandse Commissie voor Internationale Natuurbescherming, de Stichting tot Internationale Natuurbescherming en het Office International pour la Protection de la Nature, 1283, 161, Stadsarchief Amsterdam, (hereafter, SA, MAA).


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