Italy’s ‘white raja’: the fabulous life of Celso Cesare Moreno

Italy’s ‘white raja’: the fabulous life of Celso Cesare Moreno

Anticolonial campaigner or operatic poseur? Anthony Reid examines the role of a 19th century Italian adventurer in Aceh’s anticolonial struggle.

In 1868 Celso Cesar Moreno (1831–1901) came to international attention by offering the United States the occupation of Pulau Weh (known to divers today as Sabang), off Banda Aceh, in return for protecting Aceh against Dutch designs upon it.

As a graduate student 50 years ago I was intrigued, but consigned Moreno to a colourful but miniscule role in Aceh’s search for allies in the 19th century.

Moreno has made a comeback. In 2011 a statue was erected in his honour in his birthplace, Dogliani, in the Italian Piedmont near Turin. Its inscription reflects the self-image he promoted in later years when his practical schemes had failed, as a superman of the world:

Captain, navigator, adventurer, politician, journalist … Fought in the war in Crimea and against colonialism in Indochina. Married the daughter of the sultan in Sumatra and was foreign minister of Hawaii … Knew 14 languages well including Chinese and was a friend of the greatest men of his age: Victor Emanuel II, Garibaldi, Verdi, Napoleon III.

Celso Cesar Moreno

A full and well-researched monograph on ‘La vita favolosa’ of Moreno appeared in Italy in 2014. This debunked some of the wilder myths but added substance to his hitherto shadowy role in Italy. The authors (one of whom died before it appeared) were academic specialists on the Italian connection with America, where Moreno played his most public and enduring roles. But Moreno’s swashbuckling youth, in his 20s and 30s, was spent in Asia, where hard data is sparse and Moreno’s self-promoting claims have often had to stand instead.

A consistent theme that emerges from his years in India, Southeast Asia and China in 1855–66 was his ardent anti-imperialism. This was born from the Italian Risorgimento against Austria, but nurtured in sympathy for the anti-British Indian rebels of 1857 and their harsh suppression by the East India Company. Moreno’s only semi-autobiographical work put these sentiments in the mouths of his Indian informers such as the leader of the rebellion in Kanpur, Nana Sahib:

The palm of barbarity and cruelty consummated in India, as well in the last revolution as in the preceding ones, does not belong to us black and barbarous Indians, but rather to the white and civilized English … The English are the cause of all our evils. The East India Company was the most immoral and rapacious institution that history can commemorate.

Moreno arrived in Aceh in 1858 as an anti-imperialist seeking a last Asian refuge against the onward march of (northern) European domination in Asia. According to his later account, Moreno encountered in Aceh Muslim refugees from the British crackdown after the ‘Indian Mutiny’, and probably presented himself as in effect one of them. In an interview with a New York Herald journalist in 1873, he recounted:

[The Sultan] determined to expel the Dutch as early as 1859, when many of the chiefs of the Mussullman faith left East India after the war of the rebellion and went as political refugees to Acheen, which was regarded as a kind of political Mecca. I, coming from the Indian rebellion in 1859, was received with great consideration.

Moreno listed four prominent Muslim participants in the Indian rebellion who had undertaken leading roles in organising Aceh’s defences. As well as recording this anti-imperial and pan-Islamic turn in Aceh, Moreno certainly contributed to it.

The most senior British official to visit Aceh in this period, the superintendent-designate of the Andaman Islands, left in a huff the next day, in September 1859. He was ‘received with much discourtesy’, and was not given an interview with the Sultan.

The Acehnese believed the English had suffered a great setback during the Indian rebellion, and were endangered everywhere. Arguably this anti-British turn lost Aceh the best chance it had to persuade the British to maintain its independence as a buffer with the Dutch sphere.

Operatic touch

Moreno must certainly have made an impression on Acehnese Sultan Ibrahim at this time. He knew things about the sultan that appear nowhere else in the public record. However, the idea that he married the sultan’s daughter, ‘the most beautiful young woman in the Malay Archipelago’, was an operatic touch that emerged only in interviews with the Italian press long after his Sumatra schemes had failed.

He reportedly ‘hypnotised’ King Victor Emmanuel with his description of the beauties and riches of Sumatra

That he did belatedly mention a marriage in Aceh, beside the fact he used the name Mustafa Vizir there, confirms that he must have presented himself as an Italian Muslim, even if he never admitted this to westerners. Other Europeans who took the Acehnese side were typically rewarded with a bride after they had demonstrated good faith by becoming Muslim.

Although much of Moreno’s subsequent boasting that his high standing with the sultan could deliver Aceh to whom he pleased was empty rhetoric, new data does show that he came close in 1865–67 to getting Italy seriously involved in an adventure there. He reportedly ‘hypnotised’ King Victor Emmanuel with his description of the beauties and riches of Sumatra, and had his support and that of the Genoa Chamber of Commerce for sending a fleet to Sumatra.

His most energetic supporter was the senator and Risorgimento hero Nino Bixio (1821–73), who had already survived an extraordinary adventure in Aceh in the 1840s after jumping from an American pepper ship. He pressed the ministry to form a three-man commission including himself to look into the proposal. The minister was sensibly unconvinced that either the Dutch or the Acehnese would accept an Italian colonial venture.

The last and strangest result of Moreno’s hyperbole about Sumatra came seven years later. Tired of the sedentary life of a senator after again distinguishing himself in the conquest of the Papal States in 1870, Nino Bixio set off for Aceh himself in 1873, after the Acehnese had gained world attention by defeating the first Dutch expedition sent against them.

With a partner he equipped the ship Maddaloni for this last adventure, probably hoping to become the romantic ‘white raja’ that Moreno had presented himself to be. Like hundreds of the Dutch troops then besieging the Aceh capital, however, he succumbed to cholera and was buried hastily and ingloriously on an Acehnese beach.

Only four years later was a patriotic Italian mission sent to Aceh to find his remains and transfer them with suitable honours to the Pantheon of Staglieno Cemetery in his native Genoa. The task was not easy in the midst of a war. Some remains found their way to Genoa, but no-one will ever know whether they were Bixio’s.

Featured image
The statue erected in 2011 in honour of Moreno at his birthplace, Dogliani, near Turin. On the left is the tower, which is the icon of Dogliani, and on the right is the Statue of Liberty.

Anthony Reid is an emeritus professor in the College of Asia and the Pacific, Australian National University.

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