This is an adapted and translated version of an article I published in 2011 in “Wapenfeiten”.
Sumatra is the single biggest island of the many that together form the state of Indonesia. On this island there are many different people that have had their own distinctive development in language and culture and maybe even different origins. In the North of Sumatra the two biggest ethnic groups are the Acehnese and the Batak.
The Batak consist of six related groups that live in a large area around lake Toba. The are called the Toba, Pakpak, Simalungun, Angkola, Mandailing and the Karo Batak. These tribes have differences in language, culture, arts but also in the weaponry they used in the 19th century.
Why mention weapons specifically? They were, at least in that period, an important and often integral part of many societies around the world. Most specifically in the Indonesian archipelago with the Keris as its foremost example.
The spear, or more correct lance that is the subject of this blog only appears to have been used in the Karo Batak area. This is the most northern Batak area that borders with Aceh. The area that was in a, more or less continuous, war with the Dutch colonial army between 1873 and 1942.
The proximity of the Aceh region can be recognized in some of the weaponry in use with the Karo Batak in the 19th century. The “lopah petawaran”, a small ritual knife that is closely related to the rencong (the traditional Aceh weapon) is such an example that can be seen in Aceh and with the Batak. Often it is very hard to determine from which culture/ethnicity such items originate due to the resemblances in style, quality and materials.
The Dutch influence in the Batak area was very limited in the 19th century. There were multiple reasons for this. Trade with the area was limited and they did not have raw materials that were of specific interest to the Dutch colonials nor were they waging war against the Dutch, unlike their northern neighbours the Acehnese.
This made the main group of westerners in the Batak region that of religious groups with an aim to convert the Batak, who had their own religion, to Christianity (in different forms). During most of the 19th century the attempts to convert the Batak were unsuccessful but this changed towards the late 19th and early 20th century due to the changing circumstances in the region. Two groups seemed to be successful in that period, the Dutch Bible Society (Nederlands Bijbelgenootschap) and the German Rheinische Mission Society (Rheinische Sendungs Gesellschaft).
The people involved in these societies also amassed great ethnographical collections that ended up in Germany and the Netherlands. Amsterdam even had a Batakmuseum for a period of time with the collection of Mr. Van der Tuuk of the Dutch Bible Society. This collection later became part of the Tropenmuseum also located in Amsterdam. Next to this there seems to have been a hype in Europe regarding the private collecting of Batak ethnographic items. One of these collections was owned by G. Meissner in Germany and the collection was described in a booklet by F.W.K. Müller. In this booklet we find the only period description of the spear/lance that is the theme of this article. The Lembing Raja – or lance for Batak kings…
Drawing by FWK Müller from the Meissner collection
Weapons as symbol of status
The title of Raja was important within the Batak community, the literal translation being King. The actual meaning could be different depending for the different Batak tribes and even per region within a tribe. Looking at the period literature it seems if could range from the actual King of a region the size of the Netherlands to the mayor of a village.
One of the recurring themes in the whole Northern Sumatra region is the use of weapons as a symbol of status for local leaders and nobility. Where in the Europe of that period a crown was the visible symbol of the status of a king weapons were used as such in Sumatra. For the Batak a specific form of sword, the podang, seems to have been the typical symbol of leadership status. For the Karo Batak this lance also fulfilled the role as symbol of formal status for the local Raja’s.
The description by Müller was also used in the standard work of Zonneveld; Traditional Weapons of the Indonesian Archipelago and as such has become available to the modern audience as the original book by Müller has become very difficult to find.
The original description can be translated as follows: Karo parade lance, only can be used by important Pengulu’s (leaders). Very long blade with strong silver fittings.
A similar Lembing Raja from my private collection
The Leiden ethnographic museum has a very similar example in its collection under collection number B2-20. This is part of a large Batak group that has been on permanent loan from Jan C. Heestermans since the end of the 19th century. Research shows that this man was professor in the Batak language for the University of Utrecht in that period. This example also has been described as a Lembing Raja based on the original Müller description. A few similar lances can be found in Dutch private collections also a variation with a wavy blade like a keris.
The Raja of Dolok and his entourage
The photo in the header of this article is the only known picture of a Lembing Raja in use. The picture shows several weapons that are carried by people of his entourage and all seem to be symbols of status for the Raja.
Detail from the bigger picture of the Raja of Dolok with the Lembing Raja
•Traditional Weapons of the Indonesian Archipelago, Albert G. van Zonneveld, Leiden 2001
•Beschreibung einer von G. Meissner zusammengestellten Batak Sammlung, F.W.K. Muller, 1883
•Batak, Kunst aus Sumatra, Achim Sibeth, Frankfurt am Main 2000
•Museum voor volkenkunde Leiden – collectienummer B2-20