Less than 10 degrees north of the equator on the island of Sumatra lay the rich pepper-growing region of Acheen. Since the late 1790s, New England trading ships had stopped along the island’s western coast to exchange Spanish silver for the spice, needed not only to flavor and preserve food, but for the lucrative trans-Atlantic trade with northern Europe. In January 1831, one of these American merchantmen, the Friendship of Salem, dropped anchor off the Sumatran town of Quallah Battoo to take on a load of pepper, instead, a band of Malay pirates boarded the vessel, and murdered a large part of the crew, looted the vessel, and drove her ashore. Although the ship was eventually recaptured and returned, her owners sent a vigorous protest to President Andrew Jackson demanding retribution.
At New York, the frigate Potomac under Captain John Downes was rigged and ready to sail. Under orders to proceed to China by way of Cape Horn and the Pacific, her route, as a result of the protest and public outcry, was changed to the Cape of Good Hope and the Indian Ocean. On 5 February 1832, after five months of hard sailing and a little more than a year after the attack on the Friendship, the American frigate, camouflaged as a large Danish East Indiamen, anchored about five miles off Quallah Battoo.
At two the following morning, after an afternoon of reconnoitering and a busy night of preparation, 280 sailors and Marines entered the ship’s boats and moved off in the attack. Divided into four divisions (the first command by Navy Lieutenant A. B. Pickham, the second by Navy Lieutenant Henry Hoff, the third by Navy Lieutenant Jonathan Ingersoll, and the Marines by Lieutenants Alvin Edson and George Hunter Terrett, and the whole by Navy Lieutenant Irvine Shubrick), each was assigned to one of the four forts guarding the town. “Without the least confusion or accident” despite the darkness and heavy surf, the men of the Potomac landed “in perfect silence” about a mile north of the town. As the first streaks of daylight appeared, the column, lead by the Marines, moved forward along the beach. A short distance from the town, each division filed off to attack its respective fort.
Within minutes of the Americans’ approach, the Malays were alerted and the fighting became intense as the inhabitants made “a most desperate resistance” expecting no quarter. Braving showers of javelins, musketry, and a times cannon fire, the sailors and Marines “stood it like brave fellows,” capturing the forts, then sitting them and the town ablaze in order to destroy everything of value.
As the surf was rising rapidly, the divisions were called together and reembarked. Under cover of a small Marine guard, the boats pulled off from shore and headed for the Potomac. The whole raiding party was on board the frigate by 1000. Later in the day, all hands gathered on deck to witness the burial of their three shipmates, on sailor and two Marines, killed in the attack. The next morning, the Potomac moved within a mile of Quallah Battoo, ran out her long 32-pounders and bombarded the town, before raising full sail and heading for sea.