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The Trans-Sumatra Trade and the Ethnicization of the Batak

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L. Andaya The trans-Sumatra trade and the ethnicization of the Batak In: Bijdragen tot de Taal-, Land- en Volkenkunde 158 (2002), no: 3, Leiden, 367-409

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The Trans-Sumatra Trade and the Ethnicization of the 'Batak'Considerations of historiography and ethnicity1

Early visitors to Southeast Asia were fascinated by rumours of a cannibal tribe called the Batak in the interior of Sumatra. When John Anderson travelled along the east coast and its interior areas in the early part of the nineteenth century, he met a Batak who told him of having eaten human flesh seven times, even mentioning his preference for particular parts of the body. Two other Batak confirmed having also participated in this practice and 'expressed their anxiety to enjoy a similar feast upon some of the enemy, pointing to the other side of the river. This they said was their principal inducement for engaging in the service of the sultan.'2 Such reports simply reinforced myths and partial truths which had circulated about these people since Marco Polo's oft-quoted story of a Sumatran people (presumably the Batak) who consumed their ill (Latham 1978:255). European perceptions were also influenced by stories commonly told in east coast Sumatra by 'downstream' (hilir) people that those 'upstream' {hulu), that is, in the interior, were hostile and grotesque. A Portuguese chronicler even repeated downriver stories of an inland group possessing tails 'like unto sheep' (B. Andaya 1995:542). It has been suggested that lurid details of cannibalistic practices may have been provided by the Batak themselves in an effort to prevent outsiders from penetrating into their lands. From early times, therefore, cannibalism became associated with Batak identity and had the desired effect of limiting the intrusion of Europeans until the nineteenth century. But perhaps a moreMy thanks to Barbara Watson Andaya, John Miksic, and Uli Kozok for reading earlier drafts of this essay and for their most useful comments. I would also like to express my gratitude to Bob Blust and Sander Adelaar for their helpful advice regarding linguistic evidence. 2 J. Anderson 1971:34. The 'sultan' was the Malayu ruler of Deli, who claimed many of Deli's hinterland Batak as his subjects. LEONARD Y. ANDAYA obtained his PhD at Cornell University and is Professor of History at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. A specialist in the history of Southeast Asia, in particular Malaysia and Indonesia, he has published, among other titles, The heritage of Arung Palakka; Ahistory of South Sulawesi (Celebes) in the seventeenth century, The Hague: Nijhoff, 1982, and The world of Maluku; Eastern Indonesia in the early modern period, Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press,1

1993. Professor Andaya may be contacted at the Department of History, University of Hawaii at Manoa, Honolulu, Hawaii, USA 96822. E-mail address: [email protected]


Leonard Y. Andaya

important reason for the late entry of Europeans in Batak lands was the fact that, from the beginning of sustained European involvement in the area in the sixteenth century until the establishment of plantation and other export industries in the nineteenth century, European orientation was toward the sea and the coastal polities. With hindsight it is easy for historians to see that the Batak were fortunate in avoiding the Europeans in these early centuries. Yet European involvement often resulted in the keeping of records and the accumulation of written materials which have been crucial in the reconstruction of the history of many Southeast Asian societies.3 The lack of a European presence in the Batak lands until the nineteenth century has meant that historians have had very limited or no access to any contemporary European accounts of the Batak in the pre-modern period. The ethnonym 'Batak' is very likely an ancient name, but no one has been able to give a satisfactory meaning of the term.4 Perhaps the very first time that the name appears in written sources is in the Zhufan zhi, written by Zhao Rugua, Inspector of Foreign Trade in Fujian, sometime in the mid-thirteenth century. It mentions a dependency of San-fo-tsi (Srivijaya) called Ba-ta, which may be a reference to 'Batak' (Hirth and Rockhill 1966:35,62,66).5 The next definite identification of Batak comes from Tome Pires' Suma Oriental, which was written in Melaka sometime between 1512 and 1515. It mentions the kingdom of Bata, bordered on one side by the kingdom of Pasai and the other by the kingdom of Aru (Cortesao 1990, 1:145). From the sixteenth century onward, references to the Batak as inhabitants of the interior of north Sumatra, and also3

For the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the official records of the Portuguese and Spanish overseas enterprise, plus the many accounts found in the collections of the Catholic Orders in Portugal, Spain, France, and the Vatican, have been valuable for historians. For the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the archives of the European trading companies have proved useful. The most valuable are the voluminous records of the Dutch East India Company (VOC) housed in the National Archives in The Hague. They date from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and have been used by historians to reconstruct the early modern history of many parts of Southeast Asia. 4 In the literature on the Batak, one of the most common explanations for this ethnonym is that Muslims used it to refer to 'pig-eaters'. Rita Kipp cites other possible derivations provided by her informants: from the Sanskrit bhata or bhrta, meaning 'mercenary, soldier, warrior, hireling, servant', because of their functions in the past; and 'savage' or 'bumpkin' (Kipp 1996:27). It is tempting to define 'Batak' as 'human beings', which is a common definition of ethnonyms of many indigenous groups around the world. The Batek on the Malay Peninsula, for example, gloss their name as 'human beings'. Despite the lexical similarity, unfortunately there is no link between the two terms, because 'Batek' is from an Austro-Asiatic language, while 'Batak' is Austronesian. There is an Austronesian-speaking group called 'Batak' in Palawan in the Philippines, but no meaning is known for the term. 5 Travellers, including Marco Polo at the end of the thirteenth century, refer to certain groups who are cannibals in Sumatra without providing the names of such people. One should nevertheless exercise caution in believing stories of 'cannibalism' because of the practice in medieval Europe for travellers' tales to depict 'monstrous races' in lands beyond their known world.

The Trans-Sumatra Trade and the Ethnicization of the 'Batak' of certain kingdoms along the northeast coast, become more frequent. Today, the Batak groups are listed as the Karo, the Simalungun, the PakpakDairi, the Toba, and the Angkola-Mandailing. It was the Europeans who first placed these clusters of communities in and around Lake Toba who spoke a similar dialect and shared customs under one rubric, the Toba. Following this usage, I will apply the term 'Toba' in this essay to the communities living on Samosir and the lands surrounding Lake Toba, including those of Silindung. There is a growing tendency to use the word 'Batak' to refer solely to the Toba, since many of the other groups prefer to be regarded as non-Batak and as Mandailing, Karo, Simalungun, and so on, in the ongoing process of redefinition of ethnic groups. In the nineteenth century, however, the term 'Batak' appears to have been applied to all these different groups. In writing this essay, I have been very much aware of the uneven distribution of source materials. Any systematic study of the Batak began with the arrival of European missionaries in the nineteenth century. With the penetration of the area by the Dutch colonial administration later in the century, more studies were commissioned and travel reports published in governmental and scholarly journals. The continuing presence of German and Dutch missionaries and teachers in north Sumatra has assured an ongoing literature on various aspects of Batak society, particularly its religious beliefs. In addition, Indonesian government encouragement of local culture in the 1970s and ethnic chauvinism and pride since the 1990s have fostered Indonesian and local scholarship on Batak society. For the period before the nineteenth century, there have been a few archaeological studies, particularly by E. Edwards McKinnon and John Miksic, which have considerably advanced our understanding of early settlements in the Batak areas. Nevertheless, much still needs to be done to gain a more comprehensive understanding of northern Sumatran communities for the first 1800 years AD. With the unevenness of the sources in terms of both period and content, I was confronted with a historiographical problem. Would it be possible to reconstruct the history of an area on the basis of sources which pre- and post-date the events themselves? Should a historian undertake such a task as a legitimate historical enterprise? Both questions I have answered in the affirmative, but with certain reservations. In the following pages I attempt to provide a historical overview of economic and political events in the region of the Straits of Melaka as a basis for suggesting a Batak response to such events. This reconstruction is based on archaeological findings, as well as nineteenth- and twentieth-century compilations of origin tales of the various Batak marga.6 I have also drawn on a knowledge of the better-documented6


In Batak social organization the marga is one of the basic kinship units and traces descent to a single male ancestor. Membership of a marga is determined patrilineally, with children of


Leonard Y. Andaya

neighbouring communities of the Malayu7 (M

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