Pepper was introduced to Sumatra and Java from south India around 600 B.C.E. Black pepper is the result of picking unripened fruits and drying them in the sun, while white pepper comes from larger fruits left on the vine until ripe. The outer skin must then be peeled off and the fruit dried. Pepper could be fitted into farming because the vines were raised on the edges of fields planted with other crops.
In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries archipelago suppliers felt increased pressures for pepper. Numbers of Chinese buyers in the archipelago increased. Arab and European traders also became regular visitors to pepper ports searching for supplies to sell to the Chinese and for additional sources to divert to Middle Eastern and European markets. The profits to be made from pepper convinced archipelago suppliers to produce more pepper for sale and in regular amounts.
One way to boost production in southeast Sumatra was by changing the way farming families allocated jobs among members and the amount of time spent on them. Farm women, when offered cloth in exchange for pepper, substituted the time-consuming chore of weaving cotton and directed that freed time to planting more vines and cultivating pepper. In northern Sumatra, Aceh’s kings financed the laying out of pepper plantations from their taxes on trade. Their armed men raided villages in the non-Muslim interior of north Sumatra and their navy raided villages on the west coast of the Malay Peninsula for males of working age, and sent them to pepper farms that spread along the north coast of Sumatra. In Banten territories, pepper cultivation brought forced production for overseas markets and an increase in consumer goods; in Aceh, pepper brought slave production on commercial plantations.