The Legacy of Minangkabau’s Istinggar: A Journey Through Malay Weaponry

In the annals of ancient writers, we find notes about the large-scale casting of cannons in the realms of Achin (Aceh), and it can be ascertained that firearms and keris (daggers) are currently being produced in the land of Menangkabau (Minangkabau). The quote from William Marsden’s “The History of Sumatra” (1811) regarding the massive production of firearms in Achin and Menangkabau is just the tip of the iceberg of arms technology development in the Malay world at that time. Through this record, we can take a sample of how two ethnic groups in the Malay world apparently had different skills in the development of firearms technology. If in Aceh large cannons were made under the influence of the Ottoman Empire since the 17th century, then in Ranah Minang (Minangkabau) long-barreled matchlock firearms were mass-produced. These firearms later became known as Minangkabau’s istinggar. Istinggar, with an explosive head similar to a rope or cable burned on a match fuse, was first brought to the archipelago by Portuguese explorers who began to occupy Malacca in 1511.

The term “istinggar” originates from the Portuguese word “espingarda,” which means “firearm.” Although this Portuguese loanword is famous among the Malays in Sumatra and the Malay Peninsula, in some places, istinggar is also called “senapang” as an adaptation of the Dutch word “esnapaan.” In Java and some other Malay communities, istinggar is associated with the term “bedil,” which is more popular. In Malay social history, istinggar holds a special place in the hearts of the people. Although introduced in the 16th century by the Portuguese colonizers, istinggar remained in use until three centuries later. English colonial news in Malaya often reported how the Minang people smuggled weapons into their colonies. As reported by T.J. Newbold in “Political and Statistical Account of the British Settlements in the Straits of Malacca: Volume Two” (1971), which recorded the situation in the Malay Peninsula in 1839, the Malays were considered to be lagging behind. Newbold stated that the ancient technology of the Minangkabau’s istinggar was irrelevant to the development of firearms manufacturing and usage technology at that time. This argument arose because the Malays still used very simple materials, making the firearms prone to exploding. Furthermore, its non-ideal shape prevented the istinggar’s butt from being attached to the shoulder when the user wanted to shoot, resulting in the projectile’s accuracy always being off-target or even completely missing, according to Newbold.

Outside of Newbold’s notes, the Malays actually knew another type of long-barreled firearm, namely the terakul. In the Western firearm classification, this gun falls into the blunderbuss category. It was commonly used by sailors sailing in the Malacca Strait. According to N.B.T. Ismail in “Warfare in Johor Historiography: A Study of Tuhfat Al-Nafis” (2012), the terakul is said to have emerged during the reign of the Sultanates of Johor and Siak in the 17th to 18th centuries. He noted that this weapon was commonly used by pirates, many of whom came from South Sulawesi. They clashed several times with the Sultan of Johor in the Malay Peninsula and the Sultan of Siak, leading to the adoption of their weapon in both regions.

One of the events related to the terakul was a naval war that involved Raja Kecik of the Siak Sultanate in the early 18th century. According to the manuscript Tuhfat an-Nafis, Raja Kecik (Raja Siak, 1723–1746) was defeated by a Bugis sailor wearing chain mail armor with a terakul firearm.

The Minangkabau’s istinggar, which was generally easier to make and apply than the terakul, became a favorite weapon among the Malays during the colonial period. Despite the Malay people’s favoritism towards the Minangkabau’s istinggar, the Minang community itself placed this weapon at an important point in their historical trajectory. In M.S.M. Ali’s article titled “Minangkabau Society’s Technology in the Padri War in West Sumatra” (2020), the istinggar was used as the main weapon in the Padri War (1803–1837). This was not surprising, as the Minangkabau people were accustomed to producing this item around Payakumbuh and Bukittinggi. They usually exported these firearms to neighboring regions, such as Aceh. Even the Portuguese themselves used them in the 17th and 18th centuries. The export of istinggar production from Minang to the Portuguese demonstrates the Minang people’s technological prowess in making firearms.

In terms of culture, the Minang people placed this weapon in their literary tradition, namely in the manuscript of Ilmu Bedil (Firearm Knowledge). As mentioned by W.M.D.W. Hasbullah and S.R. Mustafa in “The Manuscript of Ilmu Bedil as a Source of Ethnohistorical Knowledge of Malay Firearm Technology” (2014), various aspects related to istinggar are mentioned in this manuscript, especially regarding manufacturing techniques, usage techniques, and its history of use. The authors of Ilmu Bedil often associate this weapon with the teachings of Sufism that developed in Ranah Minang. Besides Sufi teachings, the authors also mention the mythology of the birth of this weapon in the context of Islamic theology. The following is a quote from the manuscript regarding the history of the appearance of istinggar: “Then the Prophet asked Jibril: O Jibril, how is the use of this gun? [Then Jibril answered,] ‘Wa fī anfusikum afalā tubsịrūn?’ And in yourselves is your light; why do you not know? Then Jibril returned. Then after that, the Prophet said to his four companions: O Abu Bakr, Umar, Uthman, Ali, shoot this. You use it to protect the religion of the City of Mecca. Fight against the enemies of Islam with the accursed infidels. Then it was accepted by the four companions. Then after that, Syeikh Syamsuddin wished. Then after that, Syeikh Abdul Kadir Jailani wished. Then after that, the Minangkabau pilgrim Tuan Haji Muda wished. Then Tuan Haji Muda wished to shoot this to Syeikh Abdul Kadir Jailani. Then it was handed down by Syeikh Abdul Kadir Jailani to Tuan Haji Muda to shoot three shots.”