April 03, 2006
The Lore of the Corps: Pirate attack brought Marines to Sumatra

By Don Burzynski
Special to the Times

Less than 10 degrees north of the equator on the island of Sumatra is the rich pepper-growing region of Acheen.

Beginning in the 1790s, trading ships from New England stopped along the island’s western coast to exchange Spanish silver for pepper. The spice was valuable not only to flavor and preserve food, it could retail at a 700 percent profit.

In January 1831, the American merchant ship Friendship dropped anchor off the Sumatran town of Quallah Battoo to take on a load of pepper.

While the ship’s commander, Capt. Charles Endicott, was ashore, a band of Malay pirates boarded the ship, murdered much of the crew, looted the cargo and took over the ship.

When Endicott discovered what had happened, he complained to the local chieftain, Mahomet, who promptly put a price on the heads of Endicott and his officers.

Although the ship was recaptured and returned, her owners in New England sent a protest to President Andrew Jackson demanding retribution.

The frigate Potomac, which was equipped with 42 32-pounder cannons, was rigged and ready to sail from New York. Initially under orders to sail to China via Cape Horn and the Pacific, the ship’s route was changed to the Cape of Good Hope and the Indian Ocean.

After sailing for five months, the American frigate, disguised as a Danish East Indiaman, anchored five miles off Quallah Battoo on Feb. 5, 1832.

Before dawn the next morning, 280 Marines and sailors boarded the ship’s longboats and shoved off for the attack, which was the United States’ first official military intervention into Southeast Asia.

Marines were assigned to attack two of the four forts guarding the town; sailors were to attack the others. At dawn, a column led by Marine Lts. Alvin Edson and George Terrett moved forward, while the Marines assigned to the second fort prepared to attack in the jungle behind the town.

Within minutes of the Marine approach, the Malays were alerted. Intense fighting followed. The enemy met the Marines with cannons, muskets and blunderbusses — an early version of a shotgun.

The Marines charged forward, their discipline and ardor compensating for their lack of numbers. The leathernecks broke through the outer walls, blew up the stockade gate and captured the fort, all while wearing dress blues. Edson, with a small guard, pushed through the town to join in the Marine attack on the other fort.

As smoke from the attack drifted overhead, Edson and his Marines, along with a detachment of sailors, smashed through the bamboo walls of the second fort and engaged sword-wielding Malays. The majority of the Malays fought to the death; the rest fled into the jungle immediately after the fort was taken.

With the forts dismantled, the town burning, a few Malays hiding in the jungle, and the surf rising, the Americans were recalled. More than 150 Malay pirates, including Mahomet, had been killed.

The next morning, the Potomac moved within a mile of Quallah Battoo and bombarded the town with cannon fire before raising sail and heading for sea.

The author is a War of 1812 re-enactor. He can be reached at dburzynski2003@yahoo.com.