The Indonesian resistance fighter Cut Nyak Dhien (1848[?]–1908) was an important military leader in the struggle of her homeland. In the late 19th century, Dhien helped to defend the Aceh Sultanate, located on the island of Sumatra, against Dutch colonial invaders.
Cut Nyak Dhien (pronounced “Tchoot Nee-OCK dee-EN”) was motivated to join with others in a military struggle when her husband, Teuku Ibrahim Lamnga, was killed while fighting the Dutch forces invading Sumatra in 1878. Operating from a jungle base against large Dutch garrisons, Dhien and her second husband would lead a guerrilla war that destabilized Aceh for several decades and killed several top Dutch military leaders. Finally captured in 1901, Dhien was sent into exile on the island of Java, there to live among people who did not know who she was, and whose language she did not speak. They were nevertheless impressed by her knowledge of Islamic sacred texts, which she taught to local Javanese in her final years, and she is considered one of Indonesia's national heroes.
Cut Nyak Dhien was born in Lampadang, at the northern tip of Sumatra island, around 1848 (some sources cite her birth year as 1850). In the old Dutch spelling applied to Indonesian languages, her name would have been written “Tjoet Nja' Dhien”; the “Dhien” spelling of her surname has been retained in some modern sources. It is also written as Dien in some places. At the time, Lampadang was part of an independent principality known as the Sultanate of Aceh or the Kingdom of Aceh (“AH-tcheh”), Darussalam, located in northern Sumatra. Other parts of Indonesia by that time had been conquered by the Dutch and brought under colonial administration, but the fiercely independent Acehnese, with their Islamic culture, managed to resist incorporation through a mixture of military action and diplomatic strategy.
The name Cut often indicates noble roots in Acehnese culture, and Dhien was indeed a member of the Acehnese aristocracy. Her father, Teuku Nanti Setia, was a top military officer of the sultanate and a descendant of a famed female ambassador from the neighboring Pagaruyung Sultane; her mother also came from a high-ranking military family. (Most Indonesian surnames are not family names.) While growing up, Dhien was given a thorough grounding in Islamic studies as well as in domestic matters. Considered a prize catch by many local young men, she was given in an arranged marriage to Teuku Ibrahim Lamnga, the son of another military commander, when she was 12 years old. In the words of Benny Ohorella and Zaynab El-Fatah, writing in Victory News Magazine, Dhien “soon realized, as the daughter and the wife of commanders of Army divisions, that she would have to [say farewell to] them when war broke out against the Dutch.”
In 1878, during the Battle of Sela Glee Tarun, both Dhien's husband and father were killed. Swearing revenge against the Dutch colonizers, she took up her husband's command of the Acehnese guerrilla force. An Acehnese leader, Teuku Umar, was impressed by Dhien's piety: her father and husband, she proclaimed, should not be mourned because they had entered heaven as Islamic shaheed, or martyrs. When Umar first proposed marriage, she rejected him, but he tried again, agreeing to Dhien's insistence that she be allowed to continue to be part of the military struggle. When the two were married in 1880, their wedding was said to have greatly inspired Acehnese fighters. The couple soon had a daughter, Cut Gambang.
The Aceh War continued through the last quarter of the 19th century, with the Dutch establishing control over major Acehnese cities, including Kutaraja and Meulaboh. However, they failed to subdue the countryside, where guerrilla actions were led by Dhien and Teuku Umar. Aceh had long had strong connections to the direct sources of Islam in the Middle East, and over time the regional struggle took on more and more of a religious character. A series of Dutch generals were assigned to Aceh and subsequently departed, removed from their posts because they were unable to defeat the Acehnese insurgency. The Dutch eventually decided to leverage the strong interethnic tensions existing within the Indonesian archipelago, bringing troops from the Christian island of Ambon to combat the Islamic Acehnese guerrillas.
In 1893, as the situation for the guerrilla fighters worsened, Teuku Umar executed a daring plan in which he and 250 Acehnese fighters ostensibly surrendered to Dutch officers, leaving Dhien in charge of the remaining Acehnese force. The fighters were welcomed, and Teuku Umar was even made an officer in the Dutch force. For months he maintained the ruse, waiting for the right opportunity, which came when he was ordered to initiate a campaign against guerrilla-controlled villages in the Acehnese interior. Instead, Teuku Umar and his compatriots deserted, taking with them large caches of Dutch ammunition and heavy weaponry; the event is known from the Dutch perspective as the Treason of Teuku Umar.
Although Umar's coup gave new energy to Dhien's resistance campaign, by the mid-1890s the Dutch were cultivating relationships with hereditary Achenese military families, concluding that the sultanate's Islamic religious leaders were immune to such efforts. They developed a network of spies within Acehnese society, even as the increasing brutality of their armed campaign led to growing sympathy for the Acehnese within the Dutch military and the larger society of the colonial Dutch East Indies. Finally, in 1899, Teuku Umar was killed during an Acehnese attack on Meulaboh. Dhien told Cut Gambang that Achenese should not weep for those who had become martyrs.
Following the death of her husband, Dhien continued to lead the Acehnese resistance forces, which over time increasingly consisted of both men and women. After two decades spent living in the jungle, she suffered from a variety of medical problems, and although some of her troops urged her to surrender to the Dutch and seek treatment, she refused. Possibly betrayed by someone in the resistance, Dhien found herself surrounded in 1901 after the location of her camp was provided to the Dutch army. She and a small group fought until the end, with Dhien wielding a traditional Acehnese dagger at the time of her capture. Cut Gambang escaped and continued to carry out sporadic guerrilla actions, but by 1904 Aceh was effectively under Dutch control.
Fearful that Dhien's continued presence on Aceh would inspire native residents to carry out more rebellions, the Dutch exiled to Dhien to Sumedang, on the island of Java. The Dutch did not tell the Javanese who she was; with no national Indonesian language, her identity remained a secret because Acehnese was unintelligible to the local Sundanese. A local Islamic leader became impressed by Dhien's knowledge of Islamic Arabic texts, however, as well as by her general piety. Eventually dubbed by locals as “Dhien Ibu Perbu” (“Dhien the Queen”), she taught Quranic recitations in Sumedang until her death on November 6, 1908. She was buried in a local cemetery dedicated to the noble residents of the town.
Dhien's identity was revealed only in the early 1960s, when research was carried out in Dutch archives. On May 2, 1964, she was declared a national hero of Indonesia by the country's first president, Sukarno. Her image has been featured on an Indonesian stamp and banknote, and Cut Nyak Dhien Airport in Aceh's Nagan Raya Regency is named in her honor.
Aquino Siapno, Jacqueline, Gender, Islam, Nationalism, and the State in Aceh, Routledge, 2002.
Ensiklopedi Tokoh Indonesia, http://www.tokohindonesia.com/ensiklopedi/ (September 2, 2017), “Cut Nyak Dhien (1850–1908).”
History of Indonesian, http://first-history-indonesian.blogspot.com/2012/02/cut-nyak-dien-1848-1908-womens-steel.html (February 2012), “Cut Nyak Dien (1848–1908): Women's Steel Watch Aceh.”
Media Saragih, https://mediasaragih.blogspot.com/2015/05/cut-nyak-dhien-inggris.html (May 2015), “Cut Nyak Dhien.”
Victory News Magazine, http://www.victorynewsmagazine.com/TjoetNjakDien.htm (September 2, 2017), Benny Ohorella and Zaynab El-Fatah, “Tjoet Njak Dien.”□