The comic of "Keumalahayati, Laksamana Perempuan Utama" (Keumalahayati, the First Woman Admiral) by Marcella Zalianty and Edna Caroline. (JG Photo/Diella Yasmine)

Aceh's Wonder Woman: Admiral Keumalahayati

MAY 28, 2018

Jakarta. Last November, Indonesian President Joko Widodo presented a National Heroine title to Keumalahayati, a woman admiral from Aceh – the first ever woman admiral in the country's recorded history – who lived in the last half of the 16th century.

Born as Malahayati in the 1550s, Keumalahayati has been called by historians as one of Indonesia's earliest national heroines.

And yet, her life story is not as well known to Indonesians as the stories of other, more popular female heroes such as the guerilla warrior Cut Nyak Dhien – also an Acehnese – or the Javanese princess Raden Ajeng Kartini.

According to actor Teuku Rifnu, who also hails from Aceh, Keumalahayati's name is largely unknown outside Indonesia's westernmost province.

"Keumalahayati's name is not in children’s books or in serious literature in Indonesia. Google search reveals few details of her life," he said.

But things may soon change as filmmaker Marcella Zalianty has now published a children’s comic book titled "Keumalahayati, Laksamana Perempuan Pertama" (First Woman Admiral Keumalahayati).

During the book's launch at the National Library in South Jakarta on May 12, Marcella said introducing this forgotten heroine in Indonesian history should start with the children.

"We've heard a lot about Kartini, Cut Nyak Dhien and Cut Nyak Meutia [another war and national heroine from Aceh]. These names are easily found in school textbooks. But no one's really heard about Keumalahayati. This is the reason I want to publish this book," Marcella said.

Royal Blood

Keumalahayati was a descendant of the first Sultan of Aceh and the founder of the Kingdom of Aceh Darussalam, Sultan Ibrahim Ali Mughyat Syah.

Since she was a child, Keumalahayati showed little interest in domestic chores. She developed her love of the sea and naval knowledge from her father, Machmud Syah, who was a respected admiral and her biggest inspiration.

Her mother wanted Keumalahayati to get married at the age of 15, but she refused. Instead, she decided to pursue her dream to become an admiral.

She joined the Ma’had Baitul Maqdis Military Academy where she met the man who would later become her husband, navy cadet Zaenal Abidin.

Their love story had a tragic ending. Not long after the couple's marriage, Zaenal was killed during a sea battle against the Portuguese.

Even more determined to continue Zaenal's fight against European colonizers, Keumalahayati made a request to the then Sultan of Aceh, Alaiddin Riayat Syah Al Mukammil, to form her own army.

Soon, she gathered 2000 women whose husbands had died during the war against the Portuguese to train and base themselves in Teluk Haru (Haru Bay).

This women army was known as the Inong Bale.

In 1559, a Dutch expedition led by Cornelis de Houtman arrived at the port of Aceh. The Sultan had initially welcomed them with open arms, hoping to establish a good relationship with the Dutch.

But conflict soon grew between them and the Dutch decided to attack the Acehnese.

Keumalahayati led her Inong Bale army to fight de Houtman's forces and killed him in September 1599.

This success in battle earned Keumalahayati the title of Laksamana (Admiral) – the first woman in Nusantara to get it.

Strong-Willed

According to the comic book's author, journalist and writer Edna Caroline, Keumalahayati was a strong and courageous woman.

"Like Cut Nyak Dhien, who also took up arms to continue her husband’s quest to fight against the Dutch, Keumalahayati also deserves to be recognized," Edna said.

"She was born before the era of [women's] emancipation, though she didn't face much inequality in her life. She even joined the navy with her father’s blessings," she said.

Panels from the comic book, 'Keumalahayati, Laksamana Perempuan Pertama' (First Woman Admiral Keumalahayati) by Marcella Zalianty and Edna Caroline. (JG Photo/Diella Yasmine)

The book includes many local references and even slang.

"I want the readers to learn about the Aceh language, the one that we speak everyday," Edna said.

This includes traditional appellations like "Cut dek" (wife)," "Cut bang" (husband) and "Agam" (son).

The book's graphics were drawn by local comic artists Ardian Syaf and Aris Naka Abee.

Ardian has done freelance work for DC and Marvel Comics. Aris is involved in Little Patriot, drawing junior versions of Indonesian superhero characters Gundala Putera Petir (Gundala Son of Lightning), Si Buta Dari Goa Hantu (The Blind Warrior From Ghost Cave) and Godam (Hammer).

The 40-page Keumalahayati comic book is published by Kepustakaan Populer Gramedia and is already available at all Gramedia bookstores. A special edition of the comics will be out in June next year.

Edna said she is planning to make series out of Keumalahayati's biography.

"Her story is so interesting. And we don't have many comic books featuring historical figures, let alone female ones," she said. "Keumalahayati is a name to remember. She showed us that women can achieve anything if we set our mind to it," Edna said.

Film Project

Marcella said she also plans to turn Keumalahayati's story into a feature film. The project, under her production house Keana Films, had been put on hold for months until she found support from Eros Djarot, who directed the award-winning Cut Nyak Dhien biopic ("Tjoet Nja' Dhien," 1988) and is also a big fan of Keumalahayati. The film is now back in development.

The script will be written by Rayya Makarim dan E.S. Ito, the author of the historical thriller "Rahasia Meede."

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