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Royal Siwaih Dagger with Black Coral, Gold, Suasa, Marine Ivory, Diamonds & Enamel
Sultanate of Aceh, Indonesia
This extraordinary dagger almost certainly is the sister dagger of one in the National Museum of Indonesia in Jakarta and which was formerly in the regalia of
the Sultan of Aceh. It has a curved chiselled blade and a hilt that comprises a bevelled cast suasa collar (suasa, also known as tembaga suasa, is a gold and
copper alloy with a reddish hue); a tiered border of repeated V-shaped pucuk rebang (bamboo shoot) motifs in high carat gold each engraved with fine Islamic
arabesques and in-filled with blue-black enamel; and like the Museum example has a pommel made from a single piece of a species of black coral known
locally as akar bahar. The coral is topped with a plate of high-carat gold lined with a plate of reddish suasa and overlaid with fine scrolling filigree in high-carat
gold that is set with faceted diamonds, sapphires and green and white enamel. Two cross-bands of bold white enamel lay across the plate as does a cross bar
set with a row of faceted precious stones which helps to secure the plate to the coral.
The crossguard is of ivory, most probably from a sea cow or dugong. It is etched with four bands that are in-filled with black lac and has a superb, rich patina.
The end of the crossguard is encased in high-carat gold layered with suasa and then overlaid with Malay arabesques in high-carat filigree gold set with
faceted diamonds and precious stones.
The scabbard is of rosewood ringed with four silver bands and ends in a chape of ivory.
This and the Museum example are the only two siwaihs known to have been published that have black coral hilts. And the example here is the only known
royal siwaih to employ dugong ivory and black coral in this manner.
The use of enamel on precious metal and filigree work is a technique that seem to have been copied from Ottoman Turkey and Persia. Ottoman sultans sent
craftsmen to Aceh in the sixteenth century to help the Acehnese to develop weapons to repel the Portuguese. It is believed that the Turkish-inspired jewellery-
making techniques of filigree and granulation date from that period. The court employed hundreds of artisans: spinners and weavers, wood carvers and gold
and silversmiths. They were formed into guilds and occupied specific parts of the city.
The sewar is a dagger of Indian origin designed to be worn through the belt. In the Acehnese dialect it is known as a siwaih, and a royal siwaih with fine gold
work is known as a siwaih meukeurawang (also sometimes spelt siwaih meurawang). The siwaih is similar to the more usual Acehnese dagger, the rencong,
but as Leigh (1989, p. 52) says,
Siwaihs tend to have straighter blades than do rencong but both are sharpened on one side only and end in a fine, sharp point.
The siwaih was sourced from a UK collection of weapons. How it came to Europe is unclear. One possibility is that it was looted in 1873 from the Sultan’s
exceptionally lavish palace and associated paradise gardens when the Dutch captured Aceh’s capital.
The National Museum Siwaih
As mentioned, Jakarta’s National Museum has one very similar siwaih that could only have been made by the same hand as this one and which formerly was a
part of the regalia of the Sultan of Aceh (Brinkgreve & Sulistianingsih, 2009). The Museum’s siwaih has an identical black coral hilt and almost identical filigree
gold, suasa and enamelling work that also is inlaid with diamonds and other precious stones.
The crossguard of the Jakarta example is covered in filigree gold whereas this example has an engraved ivory handguard that is embellished at the end with
gold filigree. But essentially the two weapons almost certainly are of the same hand. The royal provenance of both weapons is clear: in much of Islamic
Southeast Asia, it was prohibited to possess a kris or similar weapon embellished with gold unless one were royal or the weapon was a gift of the sultan. And
as noted in Leigh (1989), ownership of a siwaih with its bulbous hilt was a royal prerogative.
The Museum’s siwaih is among its star items. It has been lent to international exhibitions in the Netherlands, Singapore and Australia and has been illustrated
in exhibition catalogues including Brinkgreve & Sulistianingsih (2009, p. 134), Bennett (2005, p. 148), and Asian Civilisations Museum (2010, p. 60) although
not always with precise descriptions. It has been mis-labelled as a rencong, and the black coral described as wood.
The Sultanate of Aceh
Aceh is located at the northern tip of Sumatra with the Indian Ocean on one side and the Malacca Strait on the other. It is a Muslim stronghold in Southeast
Asia that for centuries had more contact with the Muslim centres in India, the Middle East and Ottoman Turkey than any other Islamic centre in Southeast Asia.
Also, it has long had trade links with other parts of the world. It is thought that the earliest written Indian reference to Sumatra, a fourth century Indian Buddhist
Sutra, refers to trade with Aceh, to the 42 kinds of perfume and the white glass produced there (Leigh, 1989). Later records refer to the Acehnese capital as
having a cosmopolitan merchant class of Persian, Arab, Indian, Chinese and other Southeast Asian traders. Aceh’s economy, being coastal, saw it develop a
strong trading emphasis linked to other entrepots in the region such as Penang and Malacca, as well as to cities much further afield.
Aceh long has held an evocative place in the imaginations of Europeans ever since the Sultan of Aceh sent a letter to Queen Elizabeth I of England in 1585
which marked the beginning of a trade agreement between the two countries. The Sultan famously introduced himself thus:
‘I am the mighty ruler of the regions below the wind, who holds sway over the land of Aceh and over the land of Sumatra and over all the lands tributary to
Aceh, which stretch from sunrise to sunset.’
By the sixteenth century, Aceh had become the ‘Gateway to Mecca’ – pilgrims from Southeast Asia gathered there before leaving for the Holy Land. It became
an important centre for Islamic religious study for Indian, Persian, Arab, Malay and Javanese scholars. Surat in India was an important station for pilgrims
travelling to Mecca from the East and so strong commercial, religious and cultural links developed between Surat and Aceh. Aceh became an important Sufi
centre as well, although by the twentieth century, modernist Islam had largely replaced this tendency.
Aceh’s trade, religious and cultural links brought wealth leading to a Golden Age for the Sultanate. The Sultanate was so well known by the early seventeenth
century that travellers on the eastern side of the Cape of Good Hope who were heading to Sumatra merely said that they were going to Aceh (Leigh, 1989). It
was now the wealthiest city in the region.
The close links between Aceh and the rest of the Islamic world saw significant Mughal, Ottoman and Persian influence on Acehnese art. The Acehnese rulers
adopted Mughal architecture, garden design, and court dress. Aceh became home to traders and craftsmen from Persia, India and Istanbul and this further
had a significant impact on the arts. In this way, enamelling on precious metals was introduced from Persia and Istanbul.
Sumatra was a source of gold and became known as the ‘Island of Gold.’ Gold was sieved from the rivers of eastern Sumatra and mined in the Minangkabau
hills. After the expansion of the sultanate down the west coast of Sumatra, most of the Minangkabau gold was directed through Aceh and contributed to the
wealth of the sultanate. And when the Minangkabau gold mines were lost, new ones were found in Acehnese territory (Reid, 1988).
The gold was put to good use, as were the diamonds that came from Borneo, carried to Aceh by Bugis traders. Sixteenth and seventeenth century Aceh was
home to magnificent court rituals and ceremonies staged for important court events such as births, deaths, marriages and circumcisions, and events for
visiting ambassadors. Gold, silver and gems all played a conspicuous role in the festivities. A seventeenth century visitor (quoted in Reid, 1989) described one
court event thus:
‘All the singers with good voices sang while striking their dap drums which were encrusted with jewels and made of gold, suasa and silver, and their repana
drums were the same. The various types of singers of zikir all wore gold studded jewels, lapis-lazuli and suasa.’
Another seventeenth century visitor marvelled at the farewell procession for the Siamese ambassador (also cited in Reid, 1989):
‘We met his majesty in most royal state on the way to the church with great solemnity. He had for his guard [that] went before him, 200 great elephants, 2,000
small shot, 2,000 pikes, 200 laces, 100 bowmen; 20 naked swords of pure gold carried before him...A horse [was] led before him, covered with beaten gold,
the bridle set with stones...His majesty rode upon an elephant, his saddle of pure gold; his slave behind him in rich array, with his betel box and a fan of pure
gold in his hand, to keep the flies from the king. The king’s robes were so rich that I cannot well describe them. He had a turban upon his head, set with jewels
and precious stones invaluable; kris and sword of pure gold, the scabbard set with stones. Before him went an elephant with a chair of state, covered all with
By this time, Aceh’s capital rivalled those of Europe in terms of wealth and population. The population was estimated to have been between 50,000 and
100,000 (Leigh, 1989). Towns along the west coast of the Malay Peninsula were required to pay tribute to the Acehnese sultan, although Malacca was under
control of the Portuguese by the early sixteenth century.
The capture of Malacca by the Portuguese saw Aceh forge a formal alliance with Ottoman Turkey whereby the latter agreed in the mid-sixteenth century to
supply weapons, ships and men to assist Aceh in its defence against the Portuguese. These resources were used by the Acehnese to extend their control of
the pepper trade southwards. The relationship with Turkey continued until the nineteenth century and in 1873, the Acehnese requested Turkish help to repel
The Dutch colonial government declared war on the Aceh Sultanate on 26 March 1873 using discussions between representatives of Aceh and the US in
Singapore as a pretext. An expedition under Major General Kohler was sent out later in the year. The Sultan requested and possibly received military
assistance from Italy and the British in Singapore. Kohler was killed and the Dutch sent more expeditions which ultimately were successful in capturing Aceh.
The last sultan finally was removed in 1903, and the splendour of the court, by now quite diminished, came to an end.
Provenance: From a UK collection.
Jasper, J.E. & Pirngadie, De Inlandsche Kunstnijverheid in Nederlandsch Indie V: de Bewerking van Niet-Edele Metalen, 1930 (reprinted 2009 by Sidestone
Reid, A., Southeast Asia in the Age of Commerce 1450-1680, Volume 1: The Lands below the Winds, Silkworm Books, 1988.
Reid, A., 'Elephants and water in the feasting of seventeenth century Aceh', in Journal of the Malaysian Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, Part II, 1989.
Leigh, B., Hands of Time: The Crafts of Aceh, Penerbit Djambatan, 1989.
Ibbitson Jessup, H., Court Arts of Indonesia, The Asia Society Galleries/Harry N. Abrams, 1990.
Wassing-Visser, R., Royal Gifts from Indonesia: Historical Bonds with the House of Orange -Nassau (1600-1938), Waanders Publishers, 1995.
Smith, H., Aceh: Art and Culture, Oxford University Press, 1997.
Van Zonneveld, A., Traditional Weapons of the Indonesian Archipelago, C. Zwartenkot Art Books, 2001.
Zandvliet, K. et al, The Dutch Encounter with Asia 1600-1950, Rijksmuseum Amsterdam, 2002.
Bennett, J., Crescent Moon: Islamic Art & Civilisation in Southeast Asia, Art Gallery of South Australia, 2005.
Brinkgreve F, & R. Sulistianingsih (eds), Sumatra: Crossroads of Cultures, KITLV Press, 2009.
Asian Civilisations Museum, Sumatra: Isle of Gold, ACM, 2010.
Inventory no.: 1184 SOLD
Sultan Muhammad Daud Syah Johan Berdaulat, the last sultan of Aceh.
He wears, in his waistband, either this siwaih or perhaps the Jakarta Museum example.
The black coral hilt with the gold filigree end can be seen poking from his waistcoat.
‘the ceremonial dagger, siwaih, is a royal weapon, the prerogative of the sultan and men of substantial wealth [the orangkaya, or nobility]. It differs
from the rencong in appearance in that it has a more bulbous hilt...The decoration on these fine, old weapons befits their royal heritage. Precious
jewels, ivory and intricate gold filigree work adorn particularly the protruding portion scabbard at the upper end of the scabbard where the blade
enters the sheaf.’