Skip to main content Accessibility help

Two hitherto unknown Indonesian tsunamis of the seventeenth century: Probabilities and context

  • Anthony Reid


The 2004 tsunami intensified fruitful scientific research into dating past tectonic events in Sumatra, though without comparable work on Java. Geology needs to be informed by careful historical research on documented events, but less such work has been done in Indonesia than in other tectonically endangered areas. This paper examines the historical evidence for two hitherto unknown tsunamis of the seventeenth century. In better-researched Sumatra, Dutch reports that a flood from the sea devastated Aceh in 1660 adds to what the geologists have discovered on the ground. By contrast geological research has barely begun on the south coast of Java. Javanese sources for events before 1800 need careful re-evaluation. The myths around Ratu Kidul, the ‘Queen of the South Seas’, together with more chronologically reliable dated babads, point to a major tsunami in 1618 on the coast south of Yogyakarta.


Corresponding author

Correspondence in connection with this paper should be addressed to:


Hide All

1 Jelle Z. de Boer and Donald T. Sanders, Volcanoes in human history: The far-reaching effects of major eruptions (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2002); Gillen D'Arcy Wood, Tambora: The eruption that changed the world (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2014); Reid, Anthony, ‘Population history in a dangerous environment: How important may natural disasters have been?’, Masyarakat Indonesia 39, 2 (2013): 505–26.

2 Peter Boomgaard, ‘Crisis mortality in seventeenth century Indonesia’, in Asian population history, ed. Ts'ui-jung Liu, James Lee, David Sven Reher, Osamu Saito and Wang Feng (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), pp. 212–13.

3 George Eberhard Rumphius, Waerachtigh verhael van de schrickelijke aerdbevinge in d'Eylanden van Amboina (Batavia: transcribed and repr. W. Buijze, 1997 [1675]), available at (last accessed 26 Oct. 2015).

4 William Marsden, A History of Sumatra, 3rd rev. ed. (Kuala Lumpur: Oxford University Press, 1966 [1811]), p. 30.

5 Anthony Reid, ‘History and seismology in the Ring of Fire: Punctuating the Indonesian past’, in Environment, trade and society in Southeast Asia: A longue durée perspective, ed. David Henley and Henk Schulte-Nordholt (Leiden: Brill/KITLV, 2015), pp. 66–8.

6 Newcomb, K.R. and McCann, W.R., ‘Seismic history and seismotectonics of the Sunda Arc’, Journal of Geophysical Research 92, B1 (1987): 424, 427.

7 Tijdschrift voor Nederlandsch Indië, Jaargang 7 (1845): 113–15 (I owe this reference to Kerry Sieh); Sophia Raffles, Memoir of the life and public services of Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles particularly in the government of Java, 1811–1816, Bencoolen and its dependencies, 1817–1824, new ed., 2 vols. (London: Duncan, 1835), pp. 333–4.

8 Natawidjaja, Danny Hilman et al. , ‘Source parameters of the great Sumatran megathrust earthquakes of 1797 and 1833 inferred from coral microatolls’, Journal of Geophysical Research B, 111, B6 (2006), available at (last accessed 26 Oct. 2015); Kerry Sieh, ‘The Sunda megathrust: Past, present and future’, From the ground up: Perspectives on post-tsunami and post-conflict Aceh, ed. Patrick Daly, Michael Feener and Anthony Reid (Singapore: ISEAS, 2012), p. 7; Philibosian, Belle et al. , ‘Rupture and variable coupling behavior of the Mentawai segment of the Sunda megathrust during the supercycle culmination of 1797 to 1833’, Journal of Geophysical Research: Solid Earth 119, 9 (2014): 7258–87.

9 Generale missiven van gouverneurs-generaal en raden aan Heren XVII der Verenigde Oostindische Compagnie, ed. W. Ph. Coolhaas et al., 13 vols. (The Hague: Nijhoff for Instituut voor Nederlandse Geschiedenis, 1960–97), vol. 5, pp. 413, 844; Newcomb and McCann, ‘Seismic history and seismotectonics of the Sunda Arc’: 424.

10 Alan Harfield, Bencoolen: A history of the honourable East India Company's garrison on the west coast of Sumatra 1685–1825 (Barton-on-Sea: A&J Partnership, 1995), p. 61; Marsden, A history of Sumatra, pp. 30–31.

11 Sieh, Kerry et al. , ‘Earthquake supercycles inferred from the sea-level changes recorded in the corals of West Sumatra’, Science 322, 5908 (2008): 1674–7; Philibosian et al., ‘Rupture and variable coupling behavior’.

12 Sieh, ‘The Sunda megathrust’, p. 11.

13 Meltzner, A.J. et al. , ‘Coral evidence for earthquake recurrence and an A.D. 1390–1455 cluster at the south end of the 2004 Aceh–Andaman rupture’, Journal of Geophysical Research 115, B10402 (2010), doi:10.1029/2010JB007499.

14 Meltzner, A.J. et al. , ‘Persistent termini of 2004- and 2005-like ruptures of the Sunda megathrust’, Journal of Geophysical Research 117, B04405 (2012), doi:10.1029/2011JB008888; Meltzner, Aron et al. , ‘Time-varying interseismic strain rates and similar seismic ruptures on the Nias–Simeulue patch of the Sunda megathrust’, Quaternary Science Reviews 122 (2015): 258–81.

15 Meltzner et al., ‘Coral evidence for earthquake recurrence’.

16 Jankaew, Kruawun et al. , ‘Medieval forewarning of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami in Thailand’, Nature 455, 7217 (2008): 1228–31; Monecke, Katrin et al. , ‘A 1,000-year sediment record of tsunami recurrence in northern Sumatra’, Nature 455, 7217 (2008): 1232–34; Bondevik, Stein, ‘Earth science: The sands of tsunami time’, Nature 455, 7217 (2008): 1183–4.

17 J. Pilarczyk et al., ‘Predecessors of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami in a coastal cave, Aceh province, Sumatra’, paper presented at the American Geophysical Union, Fall Meeting, 9–13 Dec. 2013, San Francisco, abstract #T22E-08.

18 Reid, ‘History and seismology in the Ring of Fire’, pp. 73–5.

19 Meltzner et al., ‘Persistent termini of 2004- and 2005-like ruptures’, para. 64.

20 Jankaew et al., ‘Medieval forewarning of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami’, 2008; Monecke et al., ‘A 1,000-year sediment record of tsunami recurrence’.

21 Aceh Sultanate: State, society, religion and trade. The Dutch sources, 1636–1661, 2 vols., ed. Takeshi Ito (Leiden: Brill, 2015).

22 Groenewegen, 28 Jan. 1660, in ibid., vol. 2, pp. 792–3; also p. 832.

23 Sher Banu A.L. Khan, ‘Rule behind the silk curtain: The sultanahs of Aceh, 1641–1699’ (Ph.D. diss., Queen Mary College, University of London, 2009), pp. 148–50.

24 Groenewegen, 28 Jan. 1660, p. 793.

25 Augustin de Beaulieu, Mémoires d'un voyage aux Indes Orientales, 1619–1622: Un marchand Normand à Sumatra, ed. Denys Lombard (Paris: Maisonneuve & Laroche, 1996), pp. 207–8.

26 From Reid, Anthony and Ito, Takeshi, ‘A precious Dutch map of Aceh, c.1645’, in Archipel 57 (1999): 191208. The coloured original of this now well-published map is in the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana of Florence.

27 Takeshi Ito, ‘The world of the Adat Aceh: A historical study of the Sultanate of Aceh’ (Ph.D. diss., Australian National University, 1984), p. 126; Sher Banu, ‘Rule behind the silk curtain’, p. 191.

28 Their accounts of Aceh are conveniently reprinted in Witnesses to Sumatra: A travellers’ anthology, ed. Anthony Reid (Kuala Lumpur: Oxford University Press, 1995).

29 ‘Memorandum about the appearance of and trade in Aceh in 1689 by the commander of the civilian yacht Den Arend about the City of Aceh in 1689’; extract from the Batavia Daghregister, 2 Nov. 1689, folios 807–18, ANRI Arsip VOC Hoge Regering 2505, transcribed by Risma Manurung and Hendrik E. Niemeijer. Available at (last accessed 26 Oct. 2015). The above is my translation of their Dutch transcription, differing significantly from the English translation the Harta Karun team provide.

30 Ito, ‘The world of the Adat Aceh’, pp. 413–27; de Vienne, Marie-Sybille, ‘Premiers jalons pour une histoire économique du sultanat d'Aceh à “l’âge du commerce” (XVIe–XVIIIe siècles)’, Archipel 87 (2014): 253–8.

31 Newcomb and McCann, ‘Seismic history and seismotectonics of the Sunda Arc’: 28–30.

32 Ibid.: 436.

33 Jacob, J., Dyment, J. and Yatheesh, V., ‘Revisiting the structure, age, and evolution of the Wharton Basin to better understand subduction under Indonesia’, Journal of Geophysical Research: Solid Earth 119 (2014): 169–90.

34 McCaffrey, Robert, ‘Global frequency of magnitude 9 earthquakes’, Geology 36, 3 (2008): 263–6.

35 Newcomb and McCann, ‘Seismic history and seismotectonics of the Sunda Arc’: 27, 431.

36 Synolakis, C. et al. , ‘Damage, conditions of East Java Tsunami of 1994 analyzed’, in Eos, Transactions, American Geophysical Union 76, 26 (1995): 257, 261–2; University of Southern California, ‘The East Java Tsunami’, (accessed 7 Sept. 2011).

37 Hariri, Maya El and Bilek, Susan L., ‘Stress changes and aftershock distribution of the 1994 and 2006 Java subduction zone earthquake sequences’, Journal of Geophysical Research: Solid Earth 116, B6 (2010), doi: 10.1029/2010JB008124.

38 Generale Missiven, vol. 2, pp. 373–4.

39 Ibid., p. 757.

40 Generale Missiven, vol. 6, pp. 49–50; The junk trade from Southeast Asia: Translations from the Tosen Fusetsu-gaki, 1674–1723, ed. Ishii Yoneo (Singapore: ISEAS for ECHOSEA, 1998), p. 237.

41 Europische Mercurius, Sept. 1699; Nata, Tommagan Porbo and Witsen, R., ‘A relation of the bad condition of the mountains … occasioned by the earthquake between the 4th and 5th of January, 1699’, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society 22 (1700–01): 595–8. I am indebted to Jonathan Griffin for these sources.

42 Th. G. Th. Pigeaud, Java in the fourteenth century: A study in cultural history, vol. IV (The Hague: Nijhoff, 1962), p. 211; see also Jordaan, Roy, ‘The mystery of Nyai Loro Kidul, goddess of the Southern Ocean’, Archipel 28 (1984): 99116.

43 Hostetler, Jan, ‘Bedhaya semang: The sacred dance of Yogyakarta’, Archipel 24 (1982): 129–30.

44 Bigeon, Cécile, ‘Labuhan: Rite royale du kraton de Yogyakarta célébré sur la plage de Parangtrites’, Archipel 24 (2008): 117–26.

45 M.C. Ricklefs, The seen and unseen worlds in Java: History, literature and Islam in the court of Pakubuwana II (St. Leonards: Allen & Unwin for ASAA, 1998), pp. 5–7.

46 Florida, Nancy, ‘The Badhaya Ketawang: A translation of the song of Kangjeng Ratu Kidul’, Indonesia 53 (1992): 2032; Ricklefs, The seen and unseen worlds in Java, pp. 5–9.

47 Florida, ‘The Badhaya Ketawang’: 23.

48 Babad Tanah Djawi: Javaansche Rijkskroniek, summarised in Javanese prose by J.J. Meinsma and translated to Dutch by W.L. Olthof, 2nd ed. (Dordrecht: Foris, 1987), p. 80. My English renderings have also been influenced by an Indonesian translation by H.R. Sumarsono from the same Meinsma Babad, in Babad Tanah Jawi: Mulai dari Nabi Adam sampai tahun 1647 (Yogyakarta: Narasi, 2014).

49 IOL Jav 36 A, India Office Library Javanese Manuscript 36A, f. 25 r., British Library, London, kindly translated for me and made available by Merle Ricklefs.

50 Meinsma, Babad Tanah Djawi, pp. 145–6.

51 H.J. de Graaf, De Regering van Panembahan Sénapati Ingalaga (‘s-Gravenhage: VKI 13, 1954), pp. 76–7; Ricklefs, The seen and unseen worlds in Java, pp. 8–14.

52 Judith Schlehe, Die Meereskönigin des Südens. Ratu Kidul: Geisterpolitik im javanischen Alltag (Berlin: Dietrich Reimer Verlag, 1998).

53 ‘Heilige pleffen Kasunan Surakarta’, 15 Mar. 1932, Leiden University Library Cod. Or. 11.12.2012.

54 M.C. Ricklefs, Modern Javanese historical tradition: A study of an original Kartasura chronicle and related materials (London: SOAS, 1978), p. 166; Th. G. Th. Pigeaud, Literature of Java, 3 vols. (The Hague: Nijhoff, 1967–70), vol. 2, p. 459.

55 Ricklefs, Modern Javanese historical tradition, p. 168.

56 H.J. de Graaf, De Regering van Panembahan Sénapati Ingalaga, pp. 128–30.

57 Ricklefs, Modern Javanese historical tradition, pp. 168–9.

58 M.C. Ricklefs, Jogjakarta under Sultan Mangkubumi, 1749–1792: A history of the division of Java (London: Oxford University Press, 1974), p. 12.

59 Ricklefs, Modern Javanese historical tradition, p. 172.

60 Ricklefs, Modern Javanese historical tradition, pp. 32–3, stanzas 26 and 27; see also Anthony Reid, 2012, ‘Historical evidence for past tsunamis in the Java subduction zone’, ARI Working Paper no. 178, National University of Singapore, Feb. 2012,

61 Additional Manuscript 12323 B, British Library, known to me only through the generous translations of Merle Ricklefs.

62 Rijklof van Goens, ‘De Samenvattende Geschriften’ (1656), in De Vijf Gezantschapsreizen van Rijklof van Goens naar het hof van Mataram, 1648–1654, ed. H.J. de Graaf (‘s-Gravenhage: Martinus Nijhoff, 1956), pp. 212–16.

63 C. van Maseyck, ‘Verbaal gehouden door Cornelis van Maseyck als gezant van den Gouverneur-Generaal Laurens Reael … aan den Panembahan van Mataram 22 Juny tot 22 July 1618’, in De opkomst van het Nederlandsch gezag in Oost-Indië, ed. J.K.J. de Jonge (‘s-Gravenhage: Nijhoff, 1862–1909), vol. 4, p. 92.

64 H.J. de Graaf, De Regering van Sultan Agung, Vorst van Mataram, 1613–1645, en die van zijn voorganger, Panembahan Seda-ing-Krapjak 1601–1613 (‘s-Gravenhage: VKI 13, 1954), p. 46.

65 Ricklefs, Modern Javanese historical tradition, pp. 164–5; C.C. Berg, ‘Javanese historiography: A synopsis of its evolution’, p. 16, and ‘The work of Professor Krom’, pp. 164–71, both in Historians of South East Asia, ed. D.G.E. Hall (London: Oxford University Press, 1961).

66 M.C. Ricklefs, ‘Javanese sources in the writing of modern Javanese history’, in Southeast Asian history and historiography: Essays presented to D.G.E. Hall, ed. C.D. Cowan and O.W. Wolters (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1976), pp. 332–44; Ricklefs, Modern Javanese historical tradition, pp. 204–6; M.C. Ricklefs, A history of modern Indonesia since c.1300, 2nd ed. (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1993), pp. 40–42.

67 Eko Yulianto, Fauzi Kusmayanto, Nandang Supriyatna and Mohammad Dirhamsyah, Where the first wave arrives in minutes (Jakarta: UNESCO, 2010), p. 5; available at (last accessed 26 Oct. 2015).

68 E.A. Bryant, G. Walsh, and D. Abbott, ‘Cosmogenic mega-tsunami in the Australia region: Are they supported by Aboriginal and Maori legends?’, in Myth and geology, ed. L. Piccardi, and W.B. Masse (London: Geological Society, Special Publications 273, 2007), pp. 203–14.

This paper has developed through many iterations, though first presented as a whole at the EuroSEAS Conference in Vienna, in August 2015. The guidance of others has been critical, and I wish particularly to thank geophysicists Kerry Sieh, Aron Meltzner (both of Earth Observatory Singapore), Belle Philibosian (Paris), Brian Atwater (U. Washington) and Jonathan Griffin (Geoscience Australia), and anthropologist Judith Schlehe. Historian Merle Ricklefs’ knowledge of the Javanese texts was indispensable, and he was good enough to go through a number of them in pursuit of further clues. Unlike a science paper, this nevertheless has only one author who must take sole responsibility for the conclusions, which are not necessarily endorsed by these helpful colleagues.

Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

Journal of Southeast Asian Studies
  • ISSN: 0022-4634
  • EISSN: 1474-0680
  • URL: /core/journals/journal-of-southeast-asian-studies
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *


Altmetric attention score

Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed