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Malay Figure

Admiral Keumalahayati

1. Biography

Admiral Keumalahayati was the first woman in the world who became an admiral. She was born on the golden era of Aceh, at the end of the 15th century exactly. Based on a manuscript kept in Kebangsaan Malaysia University on 1254 Hijriah (Islamic Lunar Calendar) or around 1875 A.D, Keumalahayati was from an Aceh aristocratic family. It had not been found the history annotation, however, explaining when the year of her birth and death was. It was estimated that her life was from the end of the 15th century until the beginning of 16th century.

Admiral Keumalahayati was the daughter of Admiral Mahmud Syah. Her grandfather,  Admiral Muhammad Said Syah, was the son of Sultan Salahuddin Syah who governed the Sultanate of Aceh Darussalam around 1530-1539. Sultan Salahuddin Syah was the son of Sultan Ibrahim Ali Mughayat Syah (1513-1530) who was the founder of the Sultanate of Aceh Darussalam.

If it was seen from the pedigree, thus it could be said that Admiral Keumalahayati was a descendant of aristocratic family. Her father and grandfather had big influence on her personality. Although she is a woman, Keumalahayati still wanted to be a brave sailor as her father and grandfather.

a. Education

When Admiral Keumalahayati was an adolescent, she got freedom to choose the education that she wanted. That time, the Sultanate of Aceh Darussalam had a Military Academy named Ma`had Baitul Makdis which consisted of The Ground Force and The Navy. After taking her religious education education at Meunasah, Rangkang, and Dayah, with the reason that she wanted to follow her father`s career as an admiral, therefore she registered in the acceptance of cadet at Mahad Baitul Makdis Military Academy. She was accepted in this academy and could take her military education very well. Even, she got completed the academy with a great result.

As a brilliant student, Admiral Keumalahayati had right to choose the subject that she wanted. She chose the Navy. When she was taking an education in this academy, she became acquainted with a Navy officer candidate who was more senior (the data of his name was not known yet). That acquaintance was continued until the seeds of love grew between them. Finally, they loved each other. After graduating from Ma`had Baitul Makdis Military Academy, they got married.

After graduating from there, Admiral Keumalahayati concentrated on the realm of movement. She was appointed by Sultan Alauddin Riayat Syah al-Mukammil (1589-1604) as a Protocol Commander of Darud-Dunia Palace in the Sultanate of Aceh Darussalam. This position was the evidence of sultan`s trust to her, therefore she had to know a lot of knowledge about the ethic and protocol.

b. Struggle

The story of Admiral Keumalahayati`s struggle when a war in Malacca Strait territorial water broke out, it was between the Portuguese troops and the Sultanate of Aceh Darussalam. Then, the Sultanate`s troops were led by Sultan Alauddin Riayat Syah al-Mukammil and helped by two admirals. The battle happened in Haru Bay and was won by Aceh armada, although they had to lose their two admirals and thousands of their troops who died on the battle field. One of the admiral who died was Admiral Keumalahayati`s husband who occupied as a Protocol Commander of Darud-Dunia Palace. After the death of her husband, she swore to take revenge and was determined to continue her husband`s fight.

Admiral Keumalahayati asked Sultan al-Mukammil to form an Aceh armada that all of the troops were widows whose husbands died in the Haru Bay War. Her proposal was accepted and consented by the Sultan. She was appointed as the Admiral an armada called Inong Bale Armada. She was the first Aceh woman who had position as admiral in the Sultanate of Aceh Darussalam. At the beginning, this armada was only supported by 1000 people, but then its members increased in number and raised to 2000 people. Lamreh Krueng Raya Bay was become its military base. Around this bay, she built Inong Balee Fortress which was situated on the hilly area.

After holding position as the admiral, Keumalahayati coordinated her troops on the sea, controlled various harbors that were Syahbandar under-controlled, and controlled the galley ship of the Sultanate of Aceh Darussalam. The Dutch ship captain who was a British, John Davis, said a fact that during the Admiral Keumalahayati`s military leadership, the Sultanate of Aceh Darussalam had the Navy armada equipments such as 100 galley ships with the 400-500 passengers capacity.

It is not the end of her fight story. She was also involved in a battle against the Dutch colonialism. It happened on June 22nd, 1586 when Cornelis de Houtman led his first sail using four Dutch ships and anchored in Banten Harbor. After coming back to Netherlands, in the second sail, he led the Dutch trade armada which was facilitated by the battle ship as well. It was done to face the weapons contact with the Sultanate of Aceh Darussalam on June 21st, 1599. The two of Dutch ships named de Leeuw and de Leeuwin that were led by two brothers, Cornelis de Houtman and Frederick de Houtman, anchored in the capital of Sultanate of Aceh Darussalam. At the beginning, their arrival got a good treatment from the Sultan because of the importance of the trade relationship.

In the next development, Sultan al-Mukammil disliked the presence of that group and commanded to attack the Dutch who were still in their ships. There was an assumption that the sultan`s anger was provoked by an instigation from a Portuguese who became his translator. That attack was led by Admiral Keumalahayati. As the result, Cornelis de Houtman and some of his men were killed, while Frederick de Houtman was arrested and jailed (for 2 years). The Admiral Keumalahayati`s success was an astonishing achievement.

Keumalahayati was not only an admiral and the Commander of Sultanate of Aceh Darussalam Navy, but she also assumed the position of Troop Commander as the Palace Guard. This position was the sultanate duty in the diplomatic sector and she became a negotiator in the foreign affairs. She had shown her ability and done her duty very well. She had firm and brave quality and character in facing various negotiation, both with the Dutch and England. Nevertheless, as a smart diplomat, she could be friendly and smooth in doing a lot of negotiations.

On November 21st, 1600, the Dutch group which was led by Paulus van Caerden came to the Sultanate of Aceh Darussalam. Before entering the harbor, this group sank the Aceh trade ship after taking all of the pepper inside. After that, the second Dutch group came and was led by Admiral Yacob van Neck. They anchored in Aceh Harbor on June 31st, 1601. They introduced themselves as the merchantmen to buy pepper. After knowing that they were the Dutch, Admiral Keumalahayati commanded directly her men to arrest them. This move was approved by Sultan al-Mukammil with the reason as the compensation of the previous Dutch`s action.

On August 23rd, 1601, arrived the third Dutch group led by Commissioner Gerard de Roy and Admiral Laurens Bicker by using four ships (Zeelandia, Middelborg, Langhe Bracke, and Sonne) in Aceh Harbor. Their arrival was done in purpose and because of Prince Maurits` command. Both group leaders got command to give a letter and some presents to Sultan al-Mukammil. Before giving the letter, actually there was a negotiation between Admiral Keumalahayati and the two Dutch group leaders. The negotiation contents were: 1). The possibility of peace between Dutch and the Sultanate of Aceh, 2). Setting Frederick de Houtman free, and as the compensation, the Dutch should pay all of the loss because of the piracy of Aceh ships by Paulus van Caerden (finally, the Dutch wanted to pay the loss for 50.000 Golden).

After that, both built up a harmonious relationship. The Dutch were welcomed heartedly by the Sultan, and even, they were allowed to engage in trade with the locals. To foster such relationship three envoys of Aceh were sent to meet Prince Maurits and the Dutch Parliament; they were Abdoel Hamid, Sri Muhammad (one of the Navy Armada Officer under Admiral Keumalahayati), and Mir Hasan (the Sultanate aristocrat). Even the Dutch was in war situation with Spanish, the envoys were accepted in a state ceremonial.

Admiral Keumalahayati`s diplomatic role continued as the British wanted to establish a trade relationship with the Sultanate of Aceh Darussalam. Queen Elizabeth I (1558-1603) sent the delegation to bring the letter for Sultan of Aceh, al-Mukammil. The delegation, led by James Lancaster, an officer from U.K. Navy, arrived in Aceh Harbor on June 6th,  1602. Before meeting Sultan al-Mukammil, Lancaster held a negotiation with Admiral Keumalahayati. Lancaster stated the England`s desire to have relationship with the Sultanate of Aceh Darussalam. He also gave message for Admiral Keumalahayati to compete against the Portuguese and had good-hearted to England. Admiral Keumalahayati asked Lancester to write down all those proposals on behalf of Queen of England. After that letter was made, Lancaster was permitted to meet Sultan al-Mukammil.

Admiral Keumalahayati had big role in coping with the political intrigue within the sultanate. It was about the leadership succession among the Royal families of Aceh Darussalam. On 1603, Sultan al-Mukammil appointed his eldest son as his vice who betrayed him. Then the son  appointed himself as Sultan of Aceh with title Sultan Ali Riayat Syah (1604-1607).

At the beginning of Sultan Ali Riayat Syah`s leadership, a lot of disasters struck the Sultanate of Aceh Darussalam, such as prolonged dry season, family bloody conflict, and the threat from Portuguese. There was no strong desire from Sultan Ali Riayat Syah to solve those problems seriously. Therefore, it appeared disappointment from the Sultanate guard, one of them was Darmawangsa Tun Pangkat, his own nephew. Darmawangasa was arrested and put in jail under the Sultan`s command.

On June 1606, Portuguese troops, led by Alfonso de Castro, attacked the Sultanate of Aceh Darussalam. At the time, Darmawangsa was still in jail. He asked Sultan Ali Riayat Syah to set him free to participate in war against Portuguese. Endorsed by Admiral Keumalahayati, Darmawangsa was finally released. They fought together and could drive out the Portuguese troops.

For the common people, Sultan Ali Riayat Syah was considered capable of leading the Sultanate anymore, therefore Admiral Keumalahayati asked Sultan Ali Riayat Syah to abdicate. At the end, Darmawangsa was chosen as the Sultan of Aceh with title Sultan Iskandar Muda (1607-1636). On his era, the Sultanate of Aceh Darussalam entered the golden age.

2. Thoughts   

(It is still in data collecting process)

3. Works

Admiral Keumalahayati`s works were not in the form of books or writings. Nevertheless, her struggle in fighting against the colonialism could be said as her truly works. As the examples were:

  1. She built Inong Balee Fortress with height 100 meters from the surface of the sea. The wall of the fortress looked out the sea with the cannon holes facing the bay. Each holes had width 3 meters.
  2. She had successfully killed Cornelis de Houtman, one of the Dutch ship leaders who came to Aceh.

4. Awards

As the appreciation for her struggle, a series title “Laksamana Keumalahayati” had been made by Minister for Youth and Sports Affairs, and Adhyaksa Dault served as as the director. This series contained of 13 episodes. The premiere episode had been shown in Blitz Megaplex (10 November 2007).


Translated from the Indonesian version by (LA)


  • Abdurahman, G. and friends. 2002. Biografi-biograf Pejuang Aceh. Banda Aceh: Cultural Department of Nanggroe Aceh Darussalam.
  • Laksamana Keumalahayati: Perempuan Laksamana dari Aceh”, on, accessed on 17 December 2007.
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