The Indonesian military officer Keumalahayati (1570?–c. 1630) was the first major female naval commander to sail the seas in the modern world. Also known to Indonesians as Malahayati, Keumalahayati was preceded in her accomplishment only by the Anatolian leader Artemisia I of Carla, who was active in the late fifth century BCE.
Detailed historical accounts of Keumalahayati's life and activities are sparse, but her major accomplishments are known to have been stirring and dramatic. After her husband was killed in action in a battle against Portuguese invaders, Keumalahayati petitioned the sultan of Aceh, persisting after his initial refusal, to be allowed to form an all-female naval force consisting of women whose husbands had died fighting the Portuguese. She then led that force into battle on several occasions, against not only the Portuguese but also Dutch marauders who sought plunder under the cover of trade negotiations. Keumalahayati supervised the construction of a large fort on the Acehnese shoreline and built her navy into an armada that impressed European commanders of the time. She rose to a high position in the Acehnese court, and she was active not only as a military commander but also as a diplomat. Through her negotiations, Aceh enjoyed a prolonged period of peace and prosperity even as other parts of Indonesia were being conquered by the Dutch.
Keumalahayati, also known as Malahayati (many inhabitants of the Indonesian archipelago use only one name), was probably born in the last quarter of the 15th century in the Sultanate of Aceh Darussalam (pronounced “At-CHEH Dar-oos-sa-LAHM”). Her name surfaces in descriptions of the events of 1599, when Acehnese forces engaged Dutch ships in a destructive naval battle; by that time she had attended a court military school in Aceh and married, so she was likely born sometime in the late 1570s. Keumalahayati came from an esteemed family: her father and grandfather were both respected military officers, and her great-grandfather, Sultan Ibrahim Mughayat Shah, reigned from 1513 to 1530 as the founder of the Sultanate of Aceh Darussalam.
While women of the era were hardly expected to pursue military careers, an exception was apparently made for Keumalahayati because of her distinguished lineage. She attended a pesantren, or Islamic boarding school, and then enrolled at the sultanate's Ma'had Baitul Maqdis Military Academy. The school had a top military staff provided by the Turkish Ottoman Empire, which was allied with the Aceh sultanate at the time. Allowed to choose a major, Keumalahayati decided to study naval and ground-force tactics. At the school, she met a naval officer candidate whose name has been lost to the historical record. The two fell in love and married, but their time together was short: Keumalahayati's new husband died in a sea battle against Portuguese invaders at Haru Bay, near the present-day city of Medan on Sumatra island. Although the Acehnese forces prevailed in this battle, it was at the cost of losses running into the thousands of fighters.
It is possible that Keumalahayati's appointment was the result of palace intrigue within the Aceh sultanate. The sultan was of advanced years—although his birth date is unknown, one report estimated his age at 94—and various descendants were jockeying for influence with powerful factions at court. As quoted by Cerita Sampul in Tempo, Indonesian scholar Rusdi Sufi has suggested that the sultan might have favored the elevation of women to high positions in order to avoid putting too much power into the hands of any one possible male heir. Another woman, Cut Limpah, was installed as the head of the palace's intelligence-gathering network.
Whatever the reason for her elevation, Keumalahayati performed brilliantly. In 1599 a Dutch flotilla landed at the city of Banda Aceh. At the time, the European colonization of the small kingdoms and sultanates making up what is now Indonesia had just begun, and the European powers— at this point primarily Portugal, the Netherlands, and England—were contending for influence. The Dutch ships approached with trade rather than conquest in mind. After a misunderstanding involving a Portuguese translator, however (either he was perceived as insulting to the sultan, or actively tried to foment discord), negotiations broke down and conflict ensued. At the close of a vicious sea battle in which Keumalahayati captained the Acehnese forces, Aceh was once again victorious. Cornelis de Houtman, one of the two Dutch brothers who had led the expedition, was killed and his brother Frederijk de Houtman was imprisoned by the Acehnese. While being held, Frederijk compiled the first Dutch-Acehnese dictionary.
Keumalahayati's instincts proved equally canny when further Dutch forces arrived. At first, a flotilla led by Paulus van Cerden sank an Acehnese ship in 1600, stealing its stores of pepper. Then an expedition the following year, under Dutch admiral Jacob van Neck, presented itself in Banda Aceh as a merchant fleet intending to trade for pepper. Keumalahayati had the group arrested and jailed. The tactic worked: back in the Netherlands, Prince Maurice of Orange-Nassau had little desire for further conflict with either the Acehnese or with other European powers in the area. He sent a group of four ships with a letter of apology addressed to the sultan, proposing a peace treaty. After the Netherlands agreed to pay the Acehnese 50,000 guilders for the losses of the seized pepper, the sultan agreed and Frederijk de Houtman was freed. Three ambassadors were sent to the Netherlands to negotiate further trade deals, one of whom was Keumalahayati's deputy.
While Keumalahayati would fight the Portuguese again, from the first years of the 17th century on, most of her triumphs were diplomatic. On June 6, 1602, a delegation led by naval officer James Lancaster arrived in Aceh with a letter from England's Queen Elizabeth I. Keumalahayati handled the negotiations with Lancaster before he met with the sultan. After he expressed to her a desire for friendly relations with the Aceh sultanate at the expense of their rivals, the Portuguese, Keumalahayati asked that his proposals be put into writing before he was admitted to the sultan's chambers. The result of these negotiations was a long history of English trade links to Aceh and north Sumatra generally.
Once negotiations with the English were concluded, much of Keumalahayati's attention focused on the problem of succession at the court of the Aceh sultanate. In 1603 Sultan al-Mukammil designated his son as his successor, but the son betrayed his father and seized the throne for himself, taking the title of Sultan Ali Riayat Syah. When one of his rivals, his nephew Darmawangsa Tun Pangkat, attempted to resist this usurpation, he was arrested and imprisoned on the new sultan's orders. Keumalahayati was among Darmawangsa's backers, and when Portuguese troops under Alfonso de Castro attacked Aceh in 1606, she successfully petitioned Sultan Ali Riayat Syah for his release, arguing that a united front was necessary to fight the invaders. After the Portuguese had been defeated, Darmawangsa, with Keumalahayati's help, succeeded in deposing Sultan Ali and taking the throne for himself. He took the title of Sultan Iskandar Muda.
As sultan, Darmawangsa would reign until 1636, and the period during and following his rule became known as the golden age of the Aceh sultanate: Aceh's influence extended over much of Sumatra and peninsular Southeast Asia. At some point in Darmawangsa's reign, Admiral Keumalahayati was killed while fighting the Portuguese in a sea battle at Kreung Raya Bay. Her tomb is located on Bukit Kota Dalam, a hill about 21 miles from Banda Aceh.
Keumalahayati's legacy has been widely recognized in Indonesia, especially in Aceh province. Local hospitals, streets and roads, and educational institutions have been named for her and Indonesian schoolchildren are still taught her story. Dramatizing her life for new generations, an Indonesian television series, Laksamana Keumalahayati, was produced. On an international level, her alternate name, Malahayati, appeared in the Destiny video game (released in 2014). It was bestowed on a character in the Warmind category of figures concerned with military strategy.
Ultimately, Keumalahayati's influence contributed to the long period of prosperity enjoyed by the Aceh Sultanate and, more distantly, to Aceh's success in resisting European colonization longer than almost any other part of the Indonesian archipelago. Indonesian president Joko Widodo formally recognized Keumalahayati as a National Hero of Indonesia in November of 2017.
Tempo (Indonesia), April 27, 2009, Cerita Sampul, “Panglima Armada para Janda.”
History Aceh, https://steemit.com/history/@punkxer/admiral-keumalahayati-first-rear-admiral-in-aceh-who-fightsportuguese-and-dutch-in-the-xv-century-2017724t122448312z (November 13, 2017), “Admiral Keumalahayati, First Rear Admiral in Aceh Who Fights Portuguese and Dutch in the XV Century.”
Jakarta Globe, http://jakartaglobe.id/news/female-admiral-three-muslim-leaders-become-national-heroes/ (November 13, 2017), Telly Nathalia, “Female Admiral and Three Muslim Women Become National Heroes.”
Melayu Online, http://melayuonline.com/eng/personage/dig/330/admiral-keumalahayati (November 13, 2017), “Admiral Keumalahayti.”
Mvslim Inspires, http://mvslim.com/meet-first-female-commander-modern-world-aceh-malahayati (November 13, 2017), “The First Female Commander in the Modern World Was Muslim.”□