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The first Asian boat people

Published: Jul 30, 2007

Jan Lingard

Before 1942 much Australian opinion about Asia focussed on preserving a 'White Australia'. Its vast spaces, it was assumed, could be nothing but an irresistible attraction for the 'teeming millions' to Australia's north. To most Australians, Asia was China and Japan. Most seemed unaware that the British, French, Portuguese and Dutch colonies in the region were also part of Asia. These they considered, like Australia, to be outposts of European civilisation, whose 'native' populations attracted little interest.

When war broke out in the Pacific, and Malaya and Singapore fell to the Japanese, Australians suddenly realised the Asian countries to the north had strategic importance. Newspapers were filled with previously little known place names, as one by one the islands, cities and towns of the Netherlands East Indies fell. Finally, in March 1942, the Dutch in Java capitulated. Senior members of the Indies administration fled to Australia. They brought with them several thousand evacuees - Dutch, Eurasian and particularly Indonesian subjects of the Royal Netherlands colonial empire. Between then and 1948, when the last remaining handful were repatriated, some five and a half thousand 'coloured' Indonesians had, through the exigencies of war, been brought to a country which had enshrined its 'White Australia' policy since 1901 through the Immigration Restriction Act.

The Indonesians came from all parts of the archipelago. They comprised merchant seamen, members of the army, navy and air force, clerical workers, civilian refugees, domestic servants, and political prisoners evacuated from the prison settlement at Boven Digul in Dutch New Guinea. A handful just happened to be working at ports or airfields in Java, and in the confusion were gathered up and brought against their will. Upon arrival, the Indonesians were dispersed to many different cities and country towns, particularly in Victoria, New South Wales and Queensland. They went to military camps, internment camps, seamen's hostels, ships or ordinary houses. Here Australians and Indonesians met one another in ways that neither had dreamed of. Indonesian children were born and went to school here, adults married here - occasionally to Australian girls - and others died here.

'Brown' people

Among the first were a group of Indonesians who came on their own - the first 'boat people'. In March 1942 a group of 67 Javanese men, women and children who had been living in Sumatra attempted to sail back to Java. Trained fitters and turners, the men were required to report for work at the Dutch arsenal in the town of Bandung. However, the speed of the Japanese invasion made this impossible, and the group turned south. After a hazardous journey they reached Fremantle, in Western Australia. There they were told to continue to Port Melbourne, arriving in April. As their ship docked, local Melburnians were treated to a sight they had never seen before. The Javanese were gathered on deck, wearing traditional dress: colourful sarongs, sashes and long lace blouses for the women, some of them suckling babies; sarongs, black jackets and caps and ceremonial kris for the men. John Guthrie, a young boy living at Port Melbourne at the time, recalls the excitement as word spread and he and his friends raced to the dock. Of particular interest was the fact that these were 'brown' people, whom the boys had never seen before.

Dutch officials met the ship, but were at a loss to know what to do with these unexpected arrivals. Finally they asked the advice of Rev John Freeman, minister of the Port Melbourne Methodist Church, who agreed to help. With permission from the church authorities the church hall was turned into home for the refugees for the next three years. Small rooms off the main hall were allotted to family groups. Single men used the hall itself. Dutch authorities and the Red Cross provided furniture, bedding, clothing and equipment. A communal kitchen was set up.

Aided by some of the local community, the Freeman family helped the refugees settle in to daily life in their temporary home. A kindergarten was established, attended by both Indonesian and Australian children. The older children attended the Nott Street primary school, where they soon learned English and excelled at their studies. Mrs Freeman took particular care of the women, taking them shopping, arranging hospitalisation when babies were born and generally looking after their welfare. A journalist from the newspaper The Argus, who visited the hall commented: 'In this little corner of Port Melbourne, East has met West'. The men, meanwhile, had much-needed technical skills. Rev Freeman had no trouble finding work for them in the government aircraft factory at Fishermen's Bend.

The Indonesians made many friendships in the Port Melbourne community. John Guthrie and other young men took the opportunity to explore a new culture. They even learned to speak 'Malay' (Indonesian). In return, they took their new friends to Australian Rules football matches, ice-skating and the theatre. These friendships later led Guthrie to take part in demonstrations and marches in support of Indonesian independence. They were held in Melbourne after the world learned of Sukarno's 'proklamasi' of 17 August 1945.

When war was over and the refugees were eventually repatriated, there were tearful scenes at Spencer Street railway station when they left.

The Freeman family, along with other Australian families, also opened their home to Indonesian merchant seamen and military personnel in this country at the time. There was a constant stream of visitors to the 'open house' they held every Sunday. In turn they often visited 'Indonesia House' which the Dutch had established at the Hotel Metropole. Together with other interested citizens of Melbourne, they enjoyed Indonesian food and cultural performances. Miriam Nichols and Bonita Ellen, two of the Freeman daughters, have maintained friendships with some of their Indonesian visitors to the present day.


James Gibson is another Australian who enjoyed a special friendship with one Indonesian. Gibson was in the Royal Australian Air Force. With some other Australians he was co-opted into the 18 Netherlands East Indies Squadron, to make up for the shortfall in Dutch ground crew. The squadron trained initially in Canberra, but in November 1942 it was moved first to MacDonald and then to Bachelor airfield in the Northern Territory. There it commenced bombing operations against the Japanese. The Australians were instructed not to fraternise with the 'native' members of the squadron, but Gibson ignored this order and struck up a friendship with a Javanese man named Djadi. From Djadi he learned about Javanese culture and learned some Malay language, which he still remembers. The two men were inseparable at this time, but lost contact when the war ended and Djadi was repatriated. In 1997 Gibson was able to trace Djadi's whereabouts. He made a trip to Java to see his old friend again. This became a treasured experience, as Djadi died about a year later.

The Australian government played a role in eventually supporting the recognition of the new Republic of Indonesia by the United Nations. Much has been written about this. But the first support came at grass roots level from within the Australian community. In particular it came from the Communist Party and the labour union movement. It also came from individuals who shunned the racist attitudes of White Australia and seized the opportunity to learn about and enjoy friendships with Asian people.

The bans Australian waterside workers placed on loading Dutch ships they suspected were carrying arms to be used against the Indonesian revolutionaries are well documented. The former Dutch political prisoners from Boven Digul, who had initially been interned in the prisoner of war camp at Cowra in New South Wales, also played an important role. After their release many actively politicised other Indonesians and encouraged them to disobey the Dutch. They also educated Australians about their struggle, using Independence Committees established in Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane. Australian sympathisers assisted their work - beginning from the time independence was proclaimed in 1945 until it was finally attained in 1949. The Indonesian Revolution, it could be said, was in some part fought on Australian soil.

Since those days, the political relationship between Indonesia and Australia has been like a roller coaster ride. But the friendships forged during the war years were the forerunner of ongoing 'deeply human people-to-people rapport between Australians and Indonesians', as the former Indonesian ambassador Mr S Wiryono once put it. He was speaking at a ceremony in memory of the thirteen Indonesians who died during their internment in Cowra. Their graves in the Cowra cemetery remain today as a tangible reminder of that rapport.

Jan Lingard ( teaches Indonesian at the University of Sydney. She is writing a book about this historical episode.

Inside Indonesia 68: Oct - Dec 2001

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