Just north of the equator on the island of Sumatra is a rich pepper-growing region known as Acheen. It has been part of the American trade routes since the 1790s when New England merchant ships stopped along the island’s west coast to exchange Spanish silver for the spice used to flavor and preserve food. It was all part of a lucrative trans-Atlantic trade arrangement with Northern European trading partners.
In January 1831, the American merchantman Friendship dropped anchor off the Sumatran town of Quallah Battoo to take on a load of pepper. However, instead of pepper, Malay pirates boarded the ship, murdered most of its crew, absconded with its cargo, beached the ship, and ran away laughing. The ship was eventually recaptured and returned to her owner, but not before the owner sent a vigorous protest to President Andrew Jackson demanding retribution.
At the time of the protest, the American frigate Potomac was tied up at New York, rigged and ready to sail to China via Cape Horn and the Pacific. Navy officials soon changed her route to the Cape of Good Hope and the Indian Ocean. After five months at sea, Potomac anchored five miles off the coast of Quallah Battoo disguised as a Danish East Indiaman.
At two on the morning of 6 February 1832, nearly 300 sailors and Marines entered the ship’s boats and moved off to attack the Malay pirates. In command of the Marines were First Lieutenant Alvin Edson and First Lieutenant George Terrett. Once ashore, the assault company was divided into four platoons, each of these assigned to one of the forts guarding the town of Quallah Battoo. As the first streaks of daylight appeared, Edson led his contingent to a fort nestled in the jungle behind the town. Within minutes of the Marine’s approach, Malays were alerted and intense fighting ensued. Rushing forward, significantly outnumbered Marines exhibited superior discipline and enthusiasm managed to breach the outer walls and capture the fort. Edson, leaving Terrett in charge at Tuko de Lima, took with him a small guard and proceeded through the town to join in efforts to capture the second fort.
It was not long before kris-wielding Malays accosted the small detachment of Marines. Lieutenant Edson was proficient in the use of his Mameluke Sword to dispatch the attackers. Within moments, the second fort fell to the Americans. Then, having dismantled the forts and set the town ablaze, sailors and Marines were recalled to the Potomac, their mission accomplished by 10:00 a.m. Later in the day, ship’s company stood to render honors to the killed in action, one sailor, and two Marines. The next morning Potomac moved to within a mile of the town and shelled it … a final parting shot to remind the Malay pirates: do not mess with the United States of America.
Endnote: this all occurred back when the American people elected strong presidents who were themselves proud to be an American.
- D. Philips, Pepper and Pirates: Adventures in the Sumatra Pepper Trade of Salem, (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1949)
- N. Reynolds, Voyage of the United States Frigate Potomac, Under the Command of Commodore John Downes, During the Circumnavigation of the Globe, in the years 1831, 1832, 1833, and 1834 (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1835)
Painting by Colonel Charles H. Waterhouse, USMCR (Deceased)