Legacy of the Minang: A Journey Across the Malay Peninsula

Armed with the idea of their homeland as the origin and the region of adventure, the Minangkabau people were motivated to seek their fortune in distant lands, one of which was the Malay Peninsula. It’s difficult to find written evidence from local sources about the Minang people being there even before the Malacca Sultanate. But early European records, particularly Portuguese, Dutch, and English, from the 16th to the 19th centuries, have unveiled their existence and activities.

Barbara Watson Andaya, in “Recreating a Vision: Mainland and Archipelago in Historical Context” (1997), indicates that without gold from Minangkabau, which could reach up to 8 katis (227 kg) upon arrival, exchanged for cloth from India, Malacca wouldn’t have prospered. Therefore, access to the three rivers (Kampar, Siak, and Inderagiri) into the interior of Minangkabau was always sought to be controlled by the Malacca Sultanate.

As the first European nation to reach the Malay Peninsula and have had a foothold for almost two centuries, the Portuguese confirmed the existence of the Minangkabau people, as mentioned in Tome Pires’ “Suma Oriental” in the early 16th century. This source stated that most of the gold traded in Malacca at that time was brought by Minangkabau traders. Subsequent Portuguese records from João de Barros in “Decades of Asia” in the second half of the 16th century reinforced the same reality. According to this source, just a few years after taking control of Malacca, the Portuguese sent envoys to the Minangkabau king in the Sumatran interior, who was said to be not yet Islamic, to ensure the continued presence of Minangkabau traders in the Malay Peninsula.

Furthermore, anonymous Portuguese manuscript sources from the late 16th century are consistent with the previous two records: Minangkabau still served as the original land of precious metal commodities and various promising agricultural products.

After the Dutch East India Company (VOC) seized Malacca in 1641, the involvement of the Minangkabau people was still frequently mentioned. Leupe, in his article “The Orang Benoea’s or Wilden in Malacca, in 1642,” examined a report from Jan Janz Menie, a VOC official in Malacca in 1642. He visited the primitive Malay tribes in the hills between Muar and Naning. Representatives of these indigenous tribes expressed concerns about the presence of Minangkabau people [Manicabers] who brought their women and children, distancing them from their ancestral traditions. However, in subsequent records, these indigenous tribes collaborated and even intermarried with the Minangkabau people.

Another Dutch record from the journey of a Portuguese descendant VOC officer, Thomas Dias, to the Minangkabau interior in 1684 was discussed by Timothy P. Barnard in “Thomas Dias’ Journey to Central Sumatra in 1684.” Thomas Dias was directly sent by the VOC governor in Malacca to meet the King of Pagaruyung for friendship and trade cooperation. From his writings, it appeared that the VOC governor in Malacca and the Pagaruyung Palace had corresponded several times. The King of Pagaruyung also expressed gratitude that his cousin, the Black King, had been well accommodated by the VOC in Malacca.

Another significant Dutch source is from Francois Valentyn in 1726. According to this source, in the early 18th century, the VOC in Malacca still traded a lot of gold brought from West Sumatra through the rivers in the east, although at the same time, the VOC had also established trading posts on the west coast of Sumatra, particularly in Painan and Padang.

After the Dutch departed from the Malay Peninsula due to the Anglo-Dutch Treaty of 1824, the existence of Minangkabau people there continued to be a topic for discussion among the new ruling European power: the British. John Crawfurd, in his work “A Descriptive Dictionary of Indian Islands and Adjacent Countries” (1856), stated that all civilized Malays on the Malay Peninsula claimed their origins from Sumatra and Minangkabau, and this migration was still ongoing at that time. However, according to Crawfurd, this claim was not entirely accurate because the historical literature of the Malay kingdoms stated their origins in the noble families of Srivijaya in Palembang. One state with a significant Minangkabau population in Malaysia is Negeri Sembilan, a confederation of nine states almost entirely inhabited by Minangkabau migrants, although some had intermarried with the native Malay tribes, becoming the biduanda ethnic group. According to JM Gullick in “Indigenous Political Systems of Western Malaya” (1958), in the early 17th century, Minangkabau people had long been permanent settlers in Rembau and Naning, two significant nagari (villages) in Negeri Sembilan.

In “A Geography of the Malay Peninsula” (1884), edited by AM Skinner, it is mentioned that the regions of Jelebu, Sri Menanti, Jempol, Rembau, Johol, Sungei Ujong, Klang, Naning, and Moar were initially a confederation of Minangkabau migrant territories under the rule of their respective chiefs. This confederation in the 18th century was led by a Yang Dipertuan with a hereditary title bestowed by the Sultan of Pagaruyung. The population of these nine states at that time was more than 42 thousand. Negeri Sembilan agreed to be under the administration and protection of the British in the treaty signed on July 13, 1889. The customs and culture of Negeri Sembilan, similar to Minangkabau, have been extensively discussed by P.E. De Josselin de Jong in his 1980 work “Minangkabau and Negri Sembilan.” The daily language of the people there until now can be seen as one of the Minangkabau dialects.

Another hot topic in Malaysia lately is the early history of Penang Island, one of the three Strait Settlements of the British (alongside Singapore and Malacca). The common narrative has been that Penang Island was opened by the Englishman Captain Francis Light as a gift from the Sultan of Kedah in 1786 in exchange for British military aid. However, before the British, some parts of the island were already inhabited by Minangkabau people under the leadership of Nakhoda Bayan, Nakhoda Intan, and Nakhoda Kechil, who, with the permission of the Kedah ruler in the early 18th century, settled in Bayan Lepas, Balik Pulau, Gelugor, Tanjung, Jelutong, and Batu Uban. Even Nakhoda Kechil is said to have assisted the English in establishing Fort Cornwallis. The traces of the Minangkabau legacy in the form of a mosque in Batu Uban, built in 1734, still stand today.

Professor Ahmad Murad Murican, in his book “Batu Uban: Early History of Penang Island” (2015), elaborates on countering the colonial narrative on the history of Penang Island. Many migrations of Minangkabau people to the Malay Peninsula seem not to worry the Malay rulers, indigenous tribes, Europeans, and immigrants from China and India.

In addition to constant migrations to the Negeri Sembilan area and its surroundings and the establishment of several native settlements on Penang Island, Minangkabau people also contributed individually to the early history of the Malay Peninsula. Among the famous Minangkabau figures from Rao were Mat Kilau (1865–1970), a renowned warrior and hero of Malaysia; Syekh Muhammad Murid Rawa; and Haji Yusuf Rawa (1922–2000), who once served as Malaysia’s Ambassador to the UN, Turkey, Afghanistan, etc.

Minangkabau traders and tin miners also played a role in the early history of Kuala Lumpur. It’s no wonder that the first imam, khatib, and qadi (Islamic judge) of Kuala Lumpur was a Naqsyabandiyah Tarekat scholar from Tanah Datar, Haji Utsman bin Abdullah (1850–1919).

Other Minangkabau scholars held high positions in various kingdoms. The position of Syaikh al-Islam (Mufti) of the Perak Kingdom was held by Syekh Muhammad Saleh al-Minangkabawy (died 1925) and Syekh Muhammad Zain Simabur (died 1957). Syekh Thahir Djalaluddin al-Falaki (1869–1956), a renowned scholar from Ampek Angkek, had a broad influence as an Islamic reformer in Malaysia, especially in Perak, Johor, and Singapore. In earlier times, Syekh Ismail al-Minangkabawy (the bearer of the Naqshbandiah Khalidiah Tarekat to the archipelago) also played a significant role in spreading the Tarekat in Malaya, including Melaka, Kedah, and Perak. Many Minangkabau scholars, before returning to their homeland from the Hijaz cities, also spent some time teaching religion there, such as Syekh Abdurrahman Kumango and Syekh Muhammad Silungkang.

The influence of Minangkabau on the Malay Peninsula, which is now Malaysia, can be seen in other aspects as well. The appointment of the Yang Dipertuan of Negeri Sembilan as the first Yang Dipertuan Agong of Malaysia shows the influence of Minang descendants in the country’s political arena. The common use of the word “surau” for a prayer room in Malaysia originates from Minangkabau heritage. Place names such as Ampang, Gombak, Kampar, and Kuantan are familiar to Minangkabau people.

One of the famous Minangkabau cuisines in Malaysia is rendang. This dish is commonly found on nasi kandar and nasi lemak menus, although its form and preparation may slightly differ from those in West Sumatra.

In terms of martial arts, several silat (traditional Malay martial arts) styles that developed in Malaysia trace their origins to Minangkabau, such as Silat Lintar, Silat Sendeng, Silat Si Pincong, Silat Lintau, and Silat Harimau.

Although nowadays the arrival of Minangkabau people in Malaysia is often for studying, tourism, and medical purposes, history records that one of the ethnic groups from Indonesia has significantly contributed for centuries.