The Portuguese Exploration of Sumatra in the 16th Century: Tracing Footprints and Uncovering Trade Routes

The 16th century marked the era of Portuguese exploration, with navigators like Bartolomeu Dias circumnavigating Africa in 1488. The Portuguese expanded their maritime explorations based on the Treaty of Tordesillas in 1494, establishing the Portuguese Empire across three continents. While their presence in Malacca is well documented, their footprint on the nearby islands, particularly Sumatra, remains relatively unexplored. This article delves into the Portuguese exploration of Sumatra in the 16th century, uncovering their interactions, trade agreements, and the challenges they faced.

In the early 16th century, Sumatra, referred to as Camotora by the Portuguese, was recognized as a rich and densely populated island. Tome Pires, in his book “The Suma Oriental” (1512–1515), identified nineteen kingdoms and eleven territories across Sumatra, including Aceh, Pasai, Batak, Siak, Barus, Inderagiri, and Kampar. Minangkabau, an inland kingdom with three kings, was noted as a significant source of gold traded in Malacca.

The Portuguese first landed in Sumatra around 1509, with João de Barros noting that their fleet, under Diogo Lopes de Sequeira, landed in Pidië and Pasai on their way to Malacca. The strategic importance of Sumatra lay in its vital ports for trading commodities such as pepper, camphor, and gold, attracting Eastern traders from Arabia, India, and China.

After the conquest of Malacca in 1511 by Afonso de Albuquerque, Muslim traders were barred from passing through Malacca. This redirected trade southward, leading to the rapid development of Aceh as a new trading center, challenging Portuguese influence. The competition intensified, eventually giving rise to the powerful Sultanate of Johor in 1528.

In 1516, Fernão Peres de Andrade visited Pasai to load pepper and other goods on his way from Cochin to China. The Portuguese were initially welcomed and allowed to establish a trading post. However, tensions escalated, leading to Portuguese attacks on Pasai in 1521. The largest assault aimed to assist a Pasai Sultan deposed in a coup, with the hope of establishing a fortress and receiving annual tributes. The conflict resulted in significant casualties on both sides, and the Portuguese were expelled from Pasai in 1523 by Aceh forces.

Apart from northern Sumatra, the Portuguese also explored the interior of Sumatra, particularly Minangkabau, through Siak in 1515. Facing famine in Malacca, Jorge Botelho led an expedition to Minangkabau, establishing trade agreements with local rulers and seeking potential sources of gold. Despite facing challenges from local rulers influenced by anti-Portuguese sentiments, the expedition managed to establish diplomatic ties and trade relationships.

In 1520, Diogo Pacheco embarked on a mission to explore the western coast of Sumatra in search of rumored gold islands. Despite negotiations with local authorities in Barus and Daya, the expedition failed to locate the fabled gold islands. Subsequent attempts in 1521 faced hostility from Muslim ships, resulting in the loss of Portuguese vessels.

A manuscript from the late 16th century revealed Portuguese intentions to conquer Sumatra, specifically Aceh, due to its alleged disturbance of Portuguese interests. The document suggested military and religious motives, emphasizing the wealth of Sumatra in precious minerals and its suitability for pepper cultivation.

By the end of the 16th century, Portuguese dominance waned, replaced by the Dutch East India Company (VOC), which explored areas previously visited by the Portuguese. While the Portuguese left cultural influences in Indonesia, including stone pillars (padrão), culinary terms, and potential linguistic influences, their impact on Sumatra remains relatively obscure.

The Portuguese exploration of Sumatra in the 16th century was a complex interplay of diplomacy, trade, and conflict. Sumatra’s strategic importance in the spice trade attracted Portuguese attention, leading to explorations, trade agreements, and attempts at territorial control. The legacy of Portuguese exploration, though overshadowed by subsequent European powers, left an indelible mark on the historical landscape of Sumatra.