Like other Malay kingdoms along the Straits of Melaka, such as Inderagiri, Palembang and Johor, Jambi claimed authority over groups of “sea-people” (Orang Laut) who made their living from fishing and collecting sea products. In Jambi the main Orang Laut settlement was Simpang at the mouth (kuala) of the Nior River, a tributary of the Batang Hari that led out to the Straits of Melaka. From this base the Orang Laut relayed news of maritime activities, guided ships upriver and patrolled the surrounding sea-lanes. They mobilized fleets in times of invasion, attacked enemy vessels, and under the ruler’s orders often harassed ships sailing to other ports in order to damage a rival’s trade. The Orang Laut were thus a key element in the Jambi economy and were essential for its security. In return, the ruler gave Orang Laut leaders prestigious titles and gifts (including women) and allowed them to keep part of any booty acquired during raiding expeditions. A traditional feature of all Orang Laut communities was their personal loyalty to the ruler they served.
During the sixteenth century, Jambi had become famous for the pepper grown in its highlands, and in 1615 both the Dutch and English East India Companies established posts there. At this time, Jambi was allied to Johor, but disputes occurred because both claimed control of Tungkal, a district on the border of Jambi and Inderagiri that gave access to interior pepper-growing areas. Between 1671 and 1674, ongoing quarrels led to outright conflict. Orang Laut, who served the ruler of Jambi, raided ships in Johor waters, while Orang Laut from Johor did the same in Jambi. Johor fleets even came right up the Batang Hari River and threatened the Jambi capital. Subsequently, relations improved and in 1681 the rulers of Jambi and Johor were still willing to form an alliance against their common rival Palembang. Orang Laut from both kingdoms attacked trading ships in Palembang waters and raided the coast.
In the late seventeenth century, the loyalty of Orang Laut in both places was tested. Jambi’s economy declined drastically because of falling pepper prices, and unrest was so widespread that in 1687 the Dutch banished the ruler and installed his son, Kiai Gede, as ruler. However, a number of Orang Laut refused to transfer their allegiance to the unpopular new sultan, especially since the poor economy meant he could not reward them as previous rulers had done. Some even left Jambi to place themselves under the ruler of Inderagiri. Others remained because they believed that Kiai Gede was the rightful king and deserved their loyalty despite his shortcomings.
Meanwhile, Johor also faced problems. In 1699, when the ruler was assassinated by his nobles, several Orang Laut groups would not serve the new sultan (a leader in the regicide), saying they would rather be under the Sultan of Palembang. Yet large numbers of Orang Laut did stay with the new dynasty because they were able to benefit from Johor’s flourishing trade. This prosperity attracted ships to the new Johor capital on Bintan Island (near Singapore), which meant profits in VOC-controlled Melaka continue to decline. The sultan’s brother, the powerful Raja Muda, also used the Orang Laut to dissuade or prevent ships from patronizing other ports along the Melaka Straits. These tactics led to considerable hostility between Johor and Dutch Melaka.
Conflict between Johor and Jambi erupted again in September 1714 when Kiai Gede tried to prevent the smuggling of Jambi pepper from the highlands down the Tungkal River to Johor because this deprived him of much-needed revenue. Although the court nobles did not like Kiai Gede, they and the Dutch resident Isaac Panhuys were concerned to hear reports of Johor boats downstream. Temenggong Mangkubumi, a leading noble, Pangeran Nattadiningrat (Kiai Gede’s son-in-law) and the Resident then sent five armed vessels downriver to investigate. It was discovered that Johor shipshad reached the Batang Hari River via Kuala Nior and also through a narrow river known as the “mosquito’s gap”. The Johorese tried to persuade the Jambi Orang Laut to desert with their families, telling them they would have a better life under the Johor ruler. When they were unsuccessful, they burnt Simpang, and captured a number of Orang Laut, They also attacked four Javanese ships and killed some of those aboard, sending a lesson that trading ships should patronize Johor, not Jambi.
This document demonstrates not only the importance of Orang Laut in the economic competition between Malay states, but also shows that the Orang Laut of Johor, like their rulers, felt able to challenge Dutch Melaka and even Batavia. On this occasion Johor’s threatened invasion of Jambi did not eventuate, and the rivalry between the two kingdoms faded following the Minangkabau conquest of Johor in 1718 and the death of Kiai Gede in 1719. Though the Orang Laut continued to be economically important through the eighteenth century, their ties to the rulers of both Johor and Jambi declined because their role in security and defense was assumed by the Bugis and Makassar migrants to the Malay world.
- Barbara Watson Andaya, To Live as Brothers. Southeast Sumatra in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries. Hawaii: University of Hawaii Press, Honolulu, 1993.
Barbara Watson Andaya, “Report of three residents of Jambi about the threat of Johorese war vessels in the Batang Hari River, 11 September 1714”. In: Harta Karun. Hidden Treasures on Indonesian and Asian-European History from the VOC Archives in Jakarta, document 10. Jakarta: Arsip Nasional Republik Indonesia, 2013.