This superb siwaih dagger, from the Sultanate of Aceh in the northern tip of Sumatra, is illustrated in Hales (2013, p. 120). It is composed entirely of ivory and gold, other than for the steel blade.
The blade is curved and chiselled. The upper part of the blade is wrapped in high-grade sheet gold. This leads to a suasa covering over part of the hilt, which has been cut in a leaf or flower bud form. (Suasa, also known as tembaga suasa, is a gold and copper alloy with a reddish hue).
The hilt is of ivory, the top of which is carved finely with a bungong mancang (mango flower) motif.
The crossguard is of ivory. It is has a leaf shape and is carved with a ‘tree-of-life’ motif. The leaves of the ‘tree’ might also be interpreted as more bungong mancang motifs.
The scabbard is of ivory ringed with twelve bands of gold, and with a gold chape and a gold upper section.
It is likely that the siwaih was commissioned as a presentation piece most probably by the Sultan of Aceh or another member of the royal family. Brinkgreve & Sulistianingsih (2009, p. 127) illustrate an ivory dagger with steel bands along the scabbard which is not unrelated to this piece. Although not Acehnese, it has similar dimensions, is of carved ivory and has similar scabbard banding. This piece was a gift from the Sultan of Deli, North Sumatra, to the Governor General of Deli and dates to before 1877.
The siwaih is free of repairs, chips or losses. Some of the gold bands on the scabbard are loose due to minor age-related shrinkage of the ivory, but this is as expected.
The final image shows Sultan Muhammad Daud Syah Johan Berdaulat, the last sultan of Aceh. The hilt of a siwaih can be seen poking from his waistcoat.
About the Sultanate of Aceh
As mentioned, Aceh is located at the northern tip of Sumatra with the Indian Ocean on one side and the Malacca Strait on the other. It is a Muslim stronghold in Southeast Asia that for centuries had more contact with the Muslim centres in India, the Middle East and Ottoman Turkey than any other Islamic centre in Southeast Asia. Also, it has long had trade links with other parts of the world. It is thought that the earliest written Indian reference to Sumatra, a fourth century Indian Buddhist Sutra, refers to trade with Aceh, to the 42 kinds of perfume and the white glass produced there (Leigh, 1989). Later records refer to the Acehnese capital as having a cosmopolitan merchant class of Persian, Arab, Indian, Chinese and other Southeast Asian traders. Aceh’s economy, being coastal, saw it develop a strong trading emphasis linked to other entrepots in the region such as Penang and Malacca, as well as to cities much further afield.
Aceh long has held an evocative place in the imaginations of Europeans ever since the Sultan of Aceh sent a letter to Queen Elizabeth I of England in 1585 which marked the beginning of a trade agreement between the two countries. The Sultan famously introduced himself thus:
‘I am the mighty ruler of the regions below the wind, who holds sway over the land of Aceh and over the land of Sumatra and over all the lands tributary to Aceh, which stretch from sunrise to sunset.’
an important centre for Islamic religious study for Indian, Persian, Arab, Malay and Javanese scholars. Surat in India was an important station for pilgrims travelling to Mecca from the East and so strong commercial, religious and cultural links developed between Surat and Aceh. Aceh became an important Sufi centre as well, although by the twentieth century, modernist Islam had largely replaced this tendency.
Aceh’s trade, religious and cultural links brought wealth leading to a Golden Age for the Sultanate. The Sultanate was so well known by the early seventeenth century that travellers on the eastern side of the Cape of Good Hope who were heading to Sumatra merely said that they were going to Aceh (Leigh, 1989). It was now the wealthiest city in the region.
The close links between Aceh and the rest of the Islamic world saw significant Mughal, Ottoman and Persian influence on Acehnese art. The Acehnese rulers adopted Mughal architecture, garden design, and court dress. Aceh became home to traders and craftsmen from Persia, India and Istanbul and this further had a significant impact on the arts. In this way, enamelling on precious metals was introduced from Persia and Istanbul.
Sumatra was a source of gold and became known as the ‘Island of Gold.’ Gold was sieved from the rivers of eastern Sumatra and mined in the Minangkabau hills. After the expansion of the sultanate down the west coast of Sumatra, most of the Minangkabau gold was directed through Aceh and contributed to the wealth of the sultanate. And when the Minangkabau gold mines were lost, new ones were found in Acehnese territory (Reid, 1988).
The gold was put to good use, as were the diamonds that came from Borneo, carried to Aceh by Bugis traders. Sixteenth and seventeenth century Aceh was home to magnificent court rituals and ceremonies staged for important court events such as births, deaths, marriages and circumcisions, and events for visiting ambassadors. Gold, silver and gems all played a conspicuous role in the festivities. A seventeenth century visitor (quoted in Reid, 1989) described one court event thus:
‘All the singers with good voices sang while striking their dap drums which were encrusted with jewels and made of gold,suasa and silver, and theirrepana drums were the same. The various types of singers of zikir all wore gold studded jewels, lapis-lazuli and suasa.’
Another seventeenth century visitor marvelled at the farewell procession for the Siamese ambassador (also cited in Reid, 1989):
‘We met his majesty in most royal state on the way to the church with great solemnity. He had for his guard [that] went before him, 200 great elephants, 2,000 small shot, 2,000 pikes, 200 laces, 100 bowmen; 20 naked swords of pure gold carried before him…A horse [was] led before him, covered with beaten gold, the bridle set with stones…His majesty rode upon an elephant, his saddle of pure gold; his slave behind him in rich array, with his betel box and a fan of pure gold in his hand, to keep the flies from the king. The king’s robes were so rich that I cannot well describe them. He had a turban upon his head, set with jewels and precious stones invaluable; kris and sword of pure gold, the scabbard set with stones. Before him went an elephant with a chair of state, covered all with beaten silver…’
By this time, Aceh’s capital rivalled those of Europe in terms of wealth and population. The population was estimated to have been between 50,000 and 100,000 (Leigh, 1989). Towns along the west coast of the Malay Peninsula were required to pay tribute to the Acehnese sultan, although Malacca was under control of the Portuguese by the early sixteenth century.
The capture of Malacca by the Portuguese saw Aceh forge a formal alliance with Ottoman Turkey whereby the latter agreed in the mid-sixteenth century to supply weapons, ships and men to assist Aceh in its defence against the Portuguese. These resources were used by the Acehnese to extend their control of the pepper trade southwards. The relationship with Turkey continued until the nineteenth century and in 1873, the Acehnese requested Turkish help to repel the Dutch.
The Dutch colonial government declared war on the Aceh Sultanate on 26 March 1873 using discussions between representatives of Aceh and the US in Singapore as a pretext. An expedition under Major General Kohler was sent out later in the year. The Sultan requested and possibly received military assistance from Italy and the British in Singapore. Kohler was killed and the Dutch sent more expeditions which ultimately were successful in capturing Aceh. The last sultan finally was removed in 1903, and the splendour of the court, by now quite diminished, came to an end.
Backman, M., Rare Antique Asian & Colonial Decorative Arts, Paul Holberton Publishing, 2016 – see p.28.
Hales, R., Islamic and Oriental Arms and Armour: A Lifetime’s Passion, Robert Hale CI Ltd, 2013 – see p. 120.
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Brinkgreve F, & R. Sulistianingsih (eds), Sumatra: Crossroads of Cultures, KITLV Press, 2009.
Hales, R., Islamic and Oriental Arms and Armour: A Lifetime’s Passion, Robert Hale CI Ltd, 2013.
Ibbitson Jessup, H.,C ourt Arts of Indonesia, The Asia Society Galleries/Harry N. Abrams, 1990.
Leigh, B., Hands of Time: The Crafts of Aceh, Penerbit Djambatan, 1989.
Jasper, J.E. & Pirngadie, De Inlandsche Kunstnijverheid in Nederlandsch Indie V: de Bewerking van Niet-Edele Metalen, 1930 (reprinted 2009 by Sidestone Press, Leiden).
Reid, A., Southeast Asia in the Age of Commerce 1450-1680, Volume 1: The Lands below the Winds, Silkworm Books, 1988.
Reid, A., ‘Elephants and water in the feasting of seventeenth century Aceh’, in Journal of the Malaysian Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, Part II, 1989.
Smith, H.,Aceh: Art and Culture, Oxford University Press, 1997.
Van Zonneveld, A.,Traditional Weapons of the Indonesian Archipelago, C. Zwartenkot Art Books, 2001.
Wassing-Visser, R.,Royal Gifts from Indonesia: Historical Bonds with the House of Orange -Nassau (1600-1938), Waanders Publishers, 1995.
Zandvliet, K.et al,The Dutch Encounter with Asia 1600-1950, Rijksmuseum Amsterdam, 2002. :
private Japanese collection;
Bob Hales Collection (UK).