Botanical collecting in Leuser, Part I

June 11 1904 Pringgo

Pringo Atmodjo, a Javanese botanist at the’s Lands Plantentuin te Buitenzorg, collected this species of St. John’s wort on 11 June 1904 in Alaslanden in northern Sumatra. He was surveying for plants as part of a Dutch military expedition through the Gajo, Alas, and Batak lands. Over the course of six months, the troop traveled across the highlands, from Lhokseumawe on the coast to tanah Batak, on a mission to pacify the interior of Aceh. The Hypericum above was collected just 3 days before the company’s violent raid on Koeto Reh. Luitenant-kolonel van Daalen’s massacre at Koeto Reh saw 313 men, 189 women and 59 children dead among those defending their homes. It was one of the worst massacres of indigenous people in the East Indies. The Dutch lost two men.

Atmodjo compiled an extensive herbarium collection on the expedition, gathering 544 species in total. Porters on the expedition, mostly Javanese and Ambonese, carried and maintained his traveling herbarium. Each month, Atmodjo sent coolies, most of whom were forced laborers, with his specimens back to Koeta Radja (Banda Aceh) for storage. The plants were studied and catalogued in Buitenzorg (Bogor) at the botanic gardens and research station.

This was the first colonial botanical exploration of the Leuser region. Atmodjo’s accompaniment on such an important mission for the Dutch offers insight into the place of bioprospecting in the imperial project.

04165 29730-Z

Koeto Reh massacre on 14 June 1904 in Tanah Alas, Sumatra

Early Faunal Circulations and the Opening of the Leuser Frontier

Early Faunal Circulations and the Opening of the Leuser Frontier

This undated map, probably from the early-1930s, outlines the boundaries of proposed nature reserves in relation to the range of orangutan populations in northern Sumatra. The map spans parts of present-day Aceh Province and North Sumatra Province. The region that I refer to as "Leuser" is roughly contained within the gray and red shaded areas that contain lines (not dots). Koetaradja (Banda Aceh) sits at the northern tip, while Deli and Medan are located near “Oostkust van Sumatra.” From the Stadsarchief Amsterdam collection, KLAB08888000186.

This map from 1935 outlines the boundaries of proposed nature reserves in relation to the range of orangutan populations in northern Sumatra. The map spans parts of Aceh and North Sumatra. The region that I refer to as “Leuser” is roughly set within the gray and red shaded areas that contain lines (not dots). From the Stadsarchief Amsterdam collection, KLAB08888000186.

The transnational circulation of Sumatran wildlife can be traced back centuries. In the earliest times, the trade mostly dealt with elephants that were valuable for labor. The chronicles of Arab traders who passed through Sumatra in the thirteenth century mention that the Kingdom of Aceh, which was based near present-day Banda Aceh on the northern tip of the island, had a wealth of elephants and rhinoceros and that these animals were important to the Sultan for trade and, with regards to elephants, labor.[1] Nicolaas de Graaf, a Dutch traveler in Aceh observed the first rhino recorded in captivity in 1641.[2] While less is known about rhinoceros in Aceh from this period, the prominence of the elephant in the Kingdom of Aceh has been documented. Together with agricultural products and textiles, elephants were a main staple of the export economy of the various sultans of Aceh.[3] They were commodified and sent to the Middle East, China, and other locations in Southeast Asia. Elephants were also gifted to build or maintain political ties with polities throughout the Indian Ocean world. Originally writing in 1783, Marsden reported a “considerable traffic” in live elephants from Aceh “to the coast of Coramanel or kling country, and vessels were built expressly for their transport.”[4] Sultan Taj al-Alam of Aceh sent eight elephants to an envoy from Gujarat and in 1678,[5] among regulations imposed by the Dutch East Indies Company, was the requirement to charge dues of 10% on elephants bought in Perak “for the purpose of exporting them to Bengale or Coramandel.”[6] The ritualistic, spiritual, and economic importance of the elephant in the Kingdom of Aceh continued up until the fall of the sultanate in 1873, when the Dutch captured the palace at the beginning of the Dutch-Aceh War.[7]

The products of wildlife were also traded, including rhinoceros horns and organs and elephant tusks and teeth. There are no indications that orangutans, tigers, tapirs, or other species that would dominate the trade in the 20th century were yet on the international market. This might be attributed to the habitats of those species being located in the southern highlands and valleys of Aceh that were only reachable by foot until the early twentieth century with the arrival of the Dutch. The preferred habitat of the elephants, on the other hand, were in the lowlands, and only with the growth of human populations, agricultural expansion, and seasonal weather events, such as floods, did they head for the hills.[8] Once the remote southern terminus of Aceh was assumed into the Dutch administrative system at the turn of the twentieth century, the rainforest frontier was opened to the world and character of the wildlife trade changed and expanded.

The Dutch first arrived in the Leuser region in March of 1904. The Dutch army (Koninklijk Nederlands Indisch Leger; KNIL) had been engaged in warfare with the Acehnese since 1873, culminating in a battle that would last more than forty years. In March, the Dutch sent the KNIL on a mission led by General G.C.E. van Daalen into the mountainous interior. There were numerous goals for this mission: 1) to scout for the construction of a road network from Peusangan on the coast up through the Gayo highlands, 2) to survey for the presence of minerals and oil, 3) to gather knowledge of the Gayo and Alas indigenous groups living in the region, and finally, 4) to carry out “the heavy-handed task of suppressing rebellious indigenous populations.”[9] After arriving in the northern and central highlands without encountering much resistance, the troops continued on through the southern highlands. From March to May of 1904, it is estimated from eyewitness reports that more than 1,500 local people were killed in the battle.[10] The Dutch “conquered” Gayo Lues and the Alas Valley, the heart of what would become Leuser, in June of 1904.

After more than thirty years of fighting, the Dutch regime had finally assumed administrative control over Aceh in 1904. By 1906, laws were set in place that created formal land ownership in the highlands, accumulating indigenous territories into state possession. The capture of land by the Dutch was premised on the Agrarian Law of 1870 (domeinverklaring), which proclaimed that land not used for “settled” agriculture belonged to the state (domein van den Staat).[11] Geographic space was demarcated based on zoning for different use functions, strictly regulating local land use practices. In the early twentieth century, however, the changes in land law did not immediately impact local practice due to the inaccessibility of the region and the incredible amount of available forest combined with a low population density of indigenous Gayo and Alas people. Management plans, at that time, were mostly confined to administrative records. In the Leuser region colonial control only went as far as the soldiers in the field. In many spaces, according to Netz, “topology was always based on power being present at isolated points.”[12] This will become evident with regards to the wildlife trade, as trappers and collectors moved protected species through the East Indies with relative ease only a few decades after the Dutch first arrived through Leuser. Before we get to the 1920s, however, it should be noted that the conservation and preservation of Leuser was anything but a teleological given before 1920. Efforts to conserve the region only started after the geology expert, F.C. van Heurn, had surveyed it in great depth. He explored Aceh for oil and mineral resources between 1910-1920, but was unsuccessful at finding the minerals he wanted in Leuser.[14] Instead of venturing into mineral extraction, the Dutch turned to species conservation, the expansion of nature preserves, and land accumulation.[15]

I will discuss the expansion of nature preserves and the colonial circulation of Sumatran wildlife in future posts.

[1] Arun Kumar Dasgupta, Acheh In Indonesian Trade and Politics: 1600-1641 (Unpublished Dissertation, Cornell University: Ithaca, NY, 1962), p. 4.

[2] L.C. Rookmaaker, Marvin L. Jones, Heinz-Georg Klös, and Richard J. Reynolds, The rhinoceros in captivity: a list of 2439 rhinoceroses kept from Roman times to 1994 (The Hague: SPB, 1998), p. 149. The appearance of this rhinoceros was noted in the journal of a Dutch traveler, who was De Graaf. He wrote that the funeral procession in 1641 for Sultan Iskandar Muda of Aceh included 260 elephants and ‘enige Rinoceros’ (some rhinoceros).

[3] John Harris and John Campbell, A Complete Collection of Voyages and Travels (London: T. Woodward, 1744), p. 729.

[4] W. Marsden, The history of Sumatra (3rd Edition. London: Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme & Brown, 1811), p. 176.

[5] Barbara Watson Andaya, Perak, the Abode of Grace: A Study of an Eighteenth-Century Malay State (Kuala Lumpur: Oxford University Press, 1979).

[6] R.O. Winstedt and R. J. Wilkinson, “A history of Perak” (Journal of the Malayan Branch Royal Asiatic Society 12 (1), 1934), p. 40.

[7] Poniran posits that there must have been a large enough population of elephants in Aceh in the seventeenth century to supply the sultans and their processions. According to Van Heurn, elephants were held in such high esteem in the Kingdom of Aceh that in the event of the animal’s death, its unfortunate mahout was ordered killed, stuffed inside the dead animal’s stomach, and thrown into the sea. See, S. Poniran, “Elephants in Aceh, Sumatra” (Oryx, 12, pp. 576-580, 1974); and, Frans Cornelis van Heurn, De Olifanten Van Sumatra (Den Haag: L. Gerretsen, 1929).

[8] Van Heurn, De Olifanten, 1929.

[9] 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). From Kempees journal, we learn that this expedition included van Daalen, Lieutenant Veltman, Lieutenant Tolhuys, Dr. Ahn, Lieutenant Schepens, two surveyors, a mining engineer, and a photographer (H.M. Neeb) who documented the journey. The troop was comprised of a large number of Javanese and Ambonese soldiers, but the numbers are not listed.

[10] John Richard Bowen, Sumatran politics and poetics: Gayo history, 1900-1989 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1991), p. 65.

[11] National Archives of Indonesia (ANRI), Algemeen Secretarie, TZG #6567.

[12] Reviel Netz, Barbed wire: An ecology of modernity (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2004), p. 63. While the colonial project may have had its insecurities and its powers limited in scope, it was indeed successful in at least one important way. Colonial demarcations did hold in many places and postcolonial states inherited those borders, along with the endemic political and security afflictions that came with colonial cartographies. For example, see See T. Mahmud, “Colonial Cartographies, Postcolonial Borders, and Enduring Failures of International Law: The Unending Wars Along the Afghanistan-Pakistan Frontier” (Brooklyn Journal of International Law, 36, 1, 2010).

[14] D.H.D. Rijksen and M. Griffiths, Leuser Development Programme Masterplan (Supported by the European Union, prepared by the Integrated Conservation and Development Project for Lowland Rainforest in Aceh, 1995).

[15] On the spatial production of the Leuser Ecosystem and Reserve in the early twentieth century, see Rijksen and Griffiths, Leuser Development Programme Masterplan; Paul Jepson and Robert J. Whittaker, “Histories of protected areas: internationalisation of conservationist values and their adoption in the Netherlands Indies (Indonesia).” (Environment and History 8, 2: 129-172, 2002); Peter Boomgaard, “Oriental nature, its friends and its enemies: conservation of nature in later-colonial Indonesia, 1889-1949.” (Environment and History 5, 3: 257-292, 1999); and chapter 9 from, R.B. Cribb, Helen Gilbert, and Helen Tiffin. Wild Man From Borneo: A Cultural History of the Orangutan (Honolulu: University of Hawaiʻi Press, 2014).


An Indonesian friend recently asked me to describe Indonesia for him in one word. I thought for a bit about the incredible landscapes I’ve seen here– from smoking volcanoes and primary rainforest to white sand beaches and mountains covered in rice terraces– and about the biodiversity, the diverse cultures, delicious foods, crazy traffic jams in the big cities and insanity of driving on rural roads, the humidity of the tropics, the monsoons, the dry lands of the eastern islands, and so on.

The one word that I came up with, however, unites the entire archipelago — KOSONG. That’s it, kosong. Kosong in this instance meaning “sold out” or “no more left.” Depending on where I am, I’ve also heard “habis,” but most often the person responds “kosong.” For the past six years I have split my time between the US and Indonesia. While in Indonesia, I’ve been to thousands of restaurants and small shops in both big cities and remote areas from Aceh to the eastern islands. No matter the location of the shop it never fails. When I place an order for the most appealing dish on the menu or when I order a specific variety of durian that is advertised on the sign, the kind person waiting my table or from behind the counter always answers, “kosong.”


Orangutans from Atjeh in the French Riviera, 1928

Cannes, French Riviera, April of 1928. A ship arrived from the Dutch East Indies carrying tourists, colonial officials and their relatives, prospectors, capitalists, scientists, explorers, and various kinds of cargo. In the bowels of the ship were cages filled with an assortment of wildlife from the Sumatran rainforests. Most prominent among the animals was a haul of more than eighty orangutans taken from the forests of southern Aceh. The collector was J.F. van Geuns, a wildlife trader who was responsible for the transport of an incredible amount of wildlife, including orangutans, elephants, rhinos, and tigers, from Sumatra to the rest of the world. This situation was common at the time; in 1928 alone, hundreds of orangutans were taken from the Gayo and Alas regions, of which only a small portion survived the journey to Europe or the United States. Oftentimes, all of the orangutans perished before reaching their destination. This particular shipment was split up into family groups, sold, and transported to zoos, circuses (including more than twenty sold directly to the son of PT Barnum who personally traveled to Germany to ensure he received his orangutans), and private collectors around the world. A few weeks later, in early May, sixty orangutans arrived at the zoological gardens in Cannes. The sight of these strange, exotic creatures evoked emotions and reactions of all kinds in the people who came by to catch a glimpse. One person who visited the Cannes Zoo that month to see the “orangutans from Atjeh” was immediately heartbroken at the site of the caged primates, and it prompted him to write a letter to the editor. That person was Sir Hesketh Bell, a retired British colonial administrator. 

Bell wrote a powerful and emotional appeal in The Times of London, one of the most widely circulated newspapers in Europe at the time, calling for the protection of orangutans. He wrote: “Up to quite recently a live orang in Europe was a rare spectacle, and the sudden appearance of more than a hundred of these distant cousins of ours must be of more than passing interest, not only to those who are students of the ‘ascent of man’, but especially to all who are keen on the preservation of tropical fauna… The suddenness of this large influx of specimens of the great ape, which is the nearest approach to man, indicates that some method of capturing them wholesale has recently been adopted. I learn that such is the case. It seems that a European in Sumatra, having discovered the favourite habitat of a considerable number of orang-utans, is making use of the following method.”[2]

His letter was written in the right place at the right time. It ignited a media campaign throughout Europe advocating for the protection of fauna in the colonies. P.G. van Tienhoven, founder of the Dutch Committee for International Nature Protection, watched the media storm transpire and used it to the advantage of his organization. He reponded directly to Bell and brought him on board as a member of the international nature protection movement in Europe. Tienhoven also sent the letter to numerous newspapers around the world and translated it into Dutch so it could be published in a few dailys in the Netherlands. Finally, he passed it on to government officials in the East Indies and in the Netherlands. The letter was passed up the chain of command and eventually read to the Governor-General of the East Indies. Bell’s letter and the public uproar it helped to create played a major role in getting legislation passed in the early 1930s banning the trade of orangutans, rhinos, and other famous wildlife in the East Indies.

Although there are certainly issues with some of the language in Bell’s letter, including essentialism and social evolutionary traits, I found his appeal to be quite nice and thought I’d share a portion of it below.

Bell himself was quite a character. I will post another blog soon that explores Bell as an individual. He was a prominent British colonial official who served in numerous colonies. Between 1905 and 1924, he held governorships in the Uganda Protectorate, the Northern Nigeria Protectorate, the Leeward Islands, and Mauritius. He was a well-known big game hunter while serving in Africa and a google image search pulls up multiple photos of him surrounded by his “trophies”. Bell was also a prolific author and published memoirs and works on colonial history and administration. His writings touched upon the spirituality of the native peoples of the West Indies, as well as on histories of resources, trade, and geographies of the places he served. After retiring in 1924, Bell moved to Cannes, but continued to travel, including a trip to the East Indies from 1925 to 1926 to study Dutch systems of colonial governance. He was eventually knighted for his service.

Hesketh Letter

Travel Bugs

Rebakah and I both came down with a fairly brutal illness in Kutacane — the locals, obviously, diagnosed it as “masuk angin” from the recent arrival of the rainy season, one doctor guessed malaria, a nurse tossed out dengue, while an archeologist of ancient Aceh called it the “Arab flu”. We’re normally accurate at diagnosing our tropical illnesses since we’ve had our fair share over the course of more than four years of living in various parts of SEA. Between the two of us, we’ve combined to get TB (2008 Thailand), dengue (2009 Bandung), E.coli (2006 Vietnam), almost had my lower left leg amputated in Miri (2008) after being bit on the knee by some poisonous insect in the Sarawak rainforest, life-threatening kidney infection (2013 Singapore), plenty of stomach bugs, respiratory infections, pre-term labor caused by tooth infection (Salatiga 2009 – Eliot was eventually born in the US, but just a week after landing), and so on. Our parents keep telling us to stay in NY since it is too dangerous here, but Rebakah and our dog, Appa, both contracted Lyme disease from ticks last year in Ithaca!!

We left Kutacane on this Susi Air flight to Banda Aceh a few days earlier than planned to get tested for malaria just to be safe. The flight was a pleasant, albeit slightly nerve-wracking, experience across the length of Aceh. Seeing the expansive dense forests and jagged mountains from the sky paints a more hopeful view, I think, for the forests of Aceh than maybe what appears in the news reports.

Eliot stayed healthy the entire time, took care of us, and pushed us onward with an incredible positivity. He is the toughest research assistant around and continues to amaze us with his adaptability. So thankful for the strength this little guy has and the health he has maintained. Next stop is the Provincial Archive in Banda Aceh. I think I’ll stick to the archives for a bit and maintain my greatest chances of illness or injury from paper cuts, bruised toes from dropped bundles, or a cold from the insane levels of the AC.

It turns out that Rebakah did indeed have dengue fever, and I picked up an e.coli bug along the way, but thankfully we’ve recovered.


The National Archives in Jakarta, Indonesia


Here is some basic info on Arsip Nasional in Jakarta:

Address:  Jalan Ampera Raya No.7, Jakarta Selatan (+62 0217805851 ext. 128)

Hours:  Monday – Friday: 8:30 – 3:30pm (Friday the archives are closed from 11:30-1:00pm). Closed on weekends.

Foreigners must have a research visa (izin penelitian) to enter the archives, but you might try working something out with the staff at the front desk if you are only in Jakarta for a few days. The linked document below lists all the information on the collections at the National Archives in Jakarta.

For additional information on the National Archives in Jakarta, please visit my detailed description on the Dissertation Reviews website:

A Review of the National Archives of the Republic of Indonesia (Arsip Nasional Republik Indonesia) in Jakarta, Indonesia.

Layanan Arsip Direktorat Pemanfaatan

Snouck doc - Jul 23, 2014, 11-23 AM