When the US invaded Indonesia… It was the Pepper that made them do it

Given the the multi-polar way the world is going, it is probably just as well that Indonesia’s President Jokawi wants to reclaim the maritime greatness of 10th century Srivijaya. What with China, not content with laying claim to the entire South China Sea and all that lies beneath, seeking to overturn US naval dominance in the West Pacific, we also have the Russian Far Eastern Fleet making its re-appearance in the Pacific, not to mention naval build-up by regional powers, Japan, India and Australia.

Alas, rather than an Indonesian led ASEAN maritime Srivijayan style confederation dominating the inner seas between the Indian and Pacific oceans, we are more likely to see a return to the situation prevailing in the early 19th century. Back then, when the navies of the major colonial and trading nations of Europe, plus an aggresive new player in the non-colonial but already imperial United States of America, held sway over Asian waters. Even before the California gold rush of 1844, having barely reached its Western shores, the new republic had set its heart on extending its manifest destiny to the Asian shores of the Pacific Ocean.

The only players missing at the time were the historic Asian powers, India and China. Countries whose commerce and cultural influence dominated Southeast Asia for a thousand years until the mid 16th Century and who, with no hope of matching Western naval supremacy , had no alternative but accept a greatly diminished and progressively subservient role over the past 450 years.

Clearly that is not how things are going to play out in the 21st century.

The fact that the US invaded towns in the sultanate of Aceh in Sumatra on the Indian Ocean coast, not once but twice in the early 19th century, in 1832 and again 1838, is mostly forgotten. The question is, why would the US President of the day, Andrew Jackson, feel the need to send American warships halfway across the world to bombard and send in the marines to kill large numbers of Acehnese in a matter of days and then sail away?

The answer lies not just in the agressive nature of Andrew Jackson but in the religious and economic Yankee zeal of New Englanders, their experience of ships and the sea, and to the East Indian spice trade, most particularly pepper.

While Britain’s Royal Navy ruled the waves that did not apply when it came to Yankee privateers, who as often bested British frigates and were far too fast to be caught by ships of the line. The stage was set for the rapid development of a Yankee merchant marine. By 1783, the war won, schooners, sloops and fast clippers, slim high-masted vessels built for speed and high value cargo, set sail from the New England ports bound for the Orient. They traded American salmon, codfish, tobacco, snuff, flour, soap, candles, butter, cheese, beef and barrel staves for all the treasures of the Indies – tea, coffee, silks, indigo and spices (pepper, cassia, cloves, cinnamon, nutmeg and ginger). En route for Cape Horn there was bartering for sugar and rum in the West Indies. The most remunerative trade of all was pepper.

In 1795, a mere dozen years after independence, the first successful commercial pepper voyage from Salem was completed by the 120-ton schooner “Rajah”, leaving in secret for ports unknown, returning eighteen months later with a full cargo of bulk pepper taken on at Bencoolen in southwestern Sumatra. From this one voyage the ship’s owners made a profit of 700%, thanks to the skill and cunning of shipmaster, Capt. Johnathan Carnes, on the dangerous 26,000-mile voyage. He managed to buy large amounts of pepper cheaply from the native rulers of coastal of Sumatra , avoiding the high prices charged by the Dutch merchants for small quantities of the spice and avoid the assaults of Malay pirates.

The success of the Rajah inspired other Salem merchants to enter the trade and by 1810 Salem had become the world’s pepper capital. In 1806 the largest single pepper cargo on record entered Salem when the Eliza, a vessel of 512 tons unloaded over a million lbs (500 tons). To give an idea of the value of the trade to the US government duties paid by one trader alone to the US government amounted to $175,000 ($3.5m in today’s money) on just 1,200 tons of pepper. For several years Salem’s pepper trade paid an average of 5% of the nation’s total import duties.

These long voyages were always dangerous. Added to the hazards of storms at sea, and shipwreck, the unwelcome attentions of pirates, penalties imposed by Dutch authorities or seizure by French privateers an ever present risk.

In February 1831 the pepper trader Friendship out of Salem commanded by Capt. Charles Endicott was moored off Kual Batu in Southwest Aceh. Endicott and a party went ashore to buy pepper but his ship was attacked by three proas. His first officer and members of his crew were murdered and his cargo plundered. Capt. Endicott managed to escape down the coast and with the aid of three other merchant captains was able to recover his vessel. Upon reaching Salem the outcry against the massacre was intense and President Jackson dispatched the USS Potomac on a punitive mission. Meantime the Dutch used the incident as an excuse to attack and annex parts of Aceh.

A year later the Potomac arrived off Kuala Batuto exact vengeance and bombarded the town, flattening its defenses and landing 282 marines, who killed over 300 inhabitants and plundered the town . The Potomac then warned that worse would follow if other US citizens were attacked and sailed away.

The trouble with Kuala Batu were not over however. Six years later in 1838 another US merchantman the Eclipse was boarded and the entire crew murdered. The response was rapid. The US East India Squadron cruising off Ceylon commanded by Commodore George Read in the frigate Columbia accompanied by the frigate John Adams arrived off Kuala Batu, landed 360 marines, who set fire to the town following bombardment from the two American ships.
Whether this treatment did the trick or the fact that that the pepper trade was dwindling due to over supply, no further attacks are recorded on US merchantmen on this stretch of the Sumatran coast.

If the pepper trade was no longer what it was, the American conquest of the Pacific was in full spate. The next hot commodity was guano, which allowed the US to declare that any uninhabited Pacific attoll could be annexed by the US if they chose, and they did.

By 1898, with Guam,Samoa and Hawaii and dozens of other islands already pocketed the US took possession of the Philippines in a short war against Spain. In a remarkably few decades the Pacific had become an American lake. An achievement ratified by victory in the Pacific War, 1941-45. Economic but not so much colonial or territorial imperialists, the US now confronts a China determined push the US navy back to Hawaii, if not San Diego and that China, not the US, is the indispensible nation when it comes to East and Southeast Asia.

Better than this, the scenario whereby Indonesia leads a latterday ‘Srivijayan’ league throughout the ‘Malay Barrier‘ ensuring peace and free passage between the Indian and Pacific oceans is attractive. And not an impossible at that, given the international support that would be forthcoming; and, if the snare and illusion of enrichment afforded by China’s maritime & Eurasian silk roads can be resisted by the region’s leaders.

Alternative Voice
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