The First Female Commander in the Modern World Was Muslim – Meet Aceh Malahayati

The history is full of women who have been doing great work the past decades. From science to fine art to extreme sport, nowadays every discipline has its female heroes. As a matter of fact there has always been ‘the first female’ in everything. Aceh was one of them.

Keumalahayati, also known as Malahayati, was the first female admiral in the world. Her story and achievements are more than just impressive; they are brave, honorable, successful and admirable. She is a role model and an inspiration for everyone.

Malahayati lived in the period of the Aceh Sultanate during the 15th and the 16th century. She was a descendant of the founder of the Sultanate of the Aceh Darussalam. In fact, one of the founders was her great great grandfather Sultan Ibrahim Ali Mughayat Syah. Her father and grandfather were both very respected admirals. She was interested in the fascinating work her father fulfilled and decided to enter the Ma’had Baitul Maqdis Military Academy after graduating from Pesantren, an Islamic boarding school. The Academy offered education in The Navy and The Ground Force department. After graduating from there she married her true love, a Navy officer candidate. Unfortunately he was killed during the Haru Bay War against Portuguese troops. Malahayati swore to take revenge for her husband.

Determined to continue her husband’s fight, she requested the Sultan to form an armada from Aceh’s widows. After his approval the armada was named the ‘Inong Bale Armada’ and Malahayati was appointed as the First Admiral. She led many different battles against the Dutch and Portuguese.

In 1599 the Dutch commanders Cornelis de Houtman and his brother Frederick de Houtman visited the Sultan to establish their trade relationship. They were welcomed peacefully but Cornelis brought a Portuguese as a translator, which was an insult against the Sultan. Many violent battles followed in which Malahayati was the lead. She succeeded to defeat the Dutch, killed Cornelis and jailed his brother for two years.

In 1600 Paulus van Caerden, who led the Dutch Navy robbed an Aceh merchant ship of its pepper and sank it. A year later Admiral Jacob van Neck and his companions introduced themselves as merchantmen to buy pepper. But after Malahayati found out that they were Dutch, they were arrested as a compensation for the previous deeds. After a few months Maurits van Oranje ordered two emissaries, Admiral Laurens Bicker and Gerard de Roy, to take a diplomatic letter of apology and some presents for the Empire of the Aceh. As a result Malahayati and the emissaries made a treaty agreement. Meanwhile she was appointed as a Troop Commander and Palace Guard. Malahayati was also involved when England entered Malacca Strait. Queen Elizabeth I had sent James Lancaster with a letter for the Sultan. After he had a negotiation with Malahayati an agreement opened the English route to Java.

An extraordinary coincidence is the way Malahayati died. She was killed during the battle against the Portuguese, just as her husband. These days many universities, hospitals, roads and Sumatran cities are named after her. Even a series, “Laksamana Keumalahayati” was made to honor her great work.

There is no doubt that Malahayati is a name to remember. She was a warrior with a will to achieve anything if she sets her mind to it.