Sultan Alauddin Riayat Shah

Letter from James I to an unspecified Asian ruler
Letter from James I

Letter from James I

The island of Sumatra consisted of a number of sultanates. In the late 1500s the sultanate of Aceh, on the northern tip of Sumatra, grew to become the most powerful Islamic kingdom in Southeast Asia. However, this state was not to last. Following the reign of Sultan Iskandar Muda the rulers of Aceh were weak, and its influence in the area declined. The Dutch and English took advantage of this, and established trading settlements there.

Sultan Alauddin Riayat Shah (1588-1604) was a wise ruler. He encouraged trade by inviting foreign merchants to come and trade in Aceh. However, Portuguese accounts also describe his reign as cruel and harsh.

When the East India Company first visited Aceh, Sultan Alauddin entertained Captain James Lancaster and his crew. The Sultan plied them with such strong drink that the Captain begged to be allowed to dilute it with water. The Company had brought a letter for the Sultan from Elizabeth I. The Sultan replied, but by the time his letter reached London, Elizabeth had died. The reply was read by her successor, James I and VI. 

Sultan Iskandar Muda (1607 - 1636)

Aceh reached its golden age in the 1600s under Sultan Iskandar Muda. Under his rule, Aceh's territory increased at an unprecedented rate, as did the kingdom's involvement in the spice trade. Spices at this time were as vital to the global economy as oil is today. Aceh expanded over much of Sumatra and spread into parts of the Malay peninsula. Under Iskandar Muda and his successor, Iskandar Thani, Aceh was also a centre of Islamic scholarship.

The Dutch were slowly but surely increasing their control over what was to become the Netherlands East Indies (present-day Indonesia), and Aceh was the last, very late, addition to this sprawling empire.