Black Armada: Australian support for Indonesian independence

by Dr Stephen Gapps

Black Armada

The ships that didn’t sail

A scene from the 1946 Joris Ivens film Indonesia Calling showing Indonesian seamen listening to a short-wave radio for news of Indonesia’s declaration of independence
A scene from the 1946 Joris Ivens film Indonesia Calling showing Indonesian seamen listening to a short-wave radio for news of Indonesia’s declaration of independence.

Courtesy National Film and Sound Archive Australia

In August 1945 in the Sydney suburb of Woolloomooloo, a group of Indonesians crowded around a short-wave radio set in the Indonesian Seamen’s Union offices. They were monitoring every word from Batavia Radio. When news was broadcast announcing the proclamation of Indonesian independence on 17 August, they were ecstatic.

The announcement was the climax of a decades-long campaign for independence from Dutch colonial rule, but it also began a four-year-long political and military struggle for Indonesian independence to be accepted by the Dutch and acknowledged by the international community. During this period, Australian support for Indonesia was prominent.

From late 1945, Dutch ships in Australian ports preparing to return to Indonesia with military arms and personnel were set back by a series of maritime trade union boycotts, called black bans. Support for Indonesian independence then grew beyond the labour movement and Australia led the way in international political recognition of Indonesia. This central moment in the Indonesian struggle for independence has since largely been forgotten in both nations.

Coming amid the wider context of the end of World War II, the declaration of independence made little impact in world news, so the Batavia Radio broadcast was critical. Twenty-year-old Tukliwon was a sailor on one of the Dutch ships that had fled to Australia following the Japanese invasion in 1942. He had worked on Sydney Harbour ferries during the war. The day after he heard the proclamation broadcast, he walked across the city to inform the Seamen’s Union of Australia, who promised their support.

A few days later Tukliwon and his fellow sailors were told that the Dutch wanted their Indonesian crews to take ships back to Java. In support of the foundation of a new independent homeland Indonesia, they refused to sail. The Australian Seamen’s Union then called on members for ‘an embargo on all ships carrying munitions or any other materials to be used against the Indonesian Government’.

Photograph of SS Moreton Bay was one of the vessels chartered by the Dutch government-in-exile that was affected by the waterside workers’ black bans
SS Moreton Bay was one of the vessels chartered by the Dutch government-in-exile that was affected by the waterside workers’ black bans. Over 400 vessels were caught up in the boycott, significantly hampering the Dutch military and assisting the nascent Indonesian Republican forces.

Australian National Maritime Museum Collection

By 24 September 1945 a boycott of Dutch shipping was in place in Brisbane and Sydney, before spreading to Melbourne and Fremantle. It quickly extended to other related maritime industry unions — boilermakers, engineers, iron-workers, ship painters and dockers, carpenters, storemen, clerks and tug crews.

Image of a pro-Indonesian demonstration on 28 September 1945
Photograph from the Daily Telegraph of Indonesian seamen speaking at a pro-Indonesian demonstration in Wynyard Square on 28 September, 1945

Courtesy State Library of New South Wales/Daily Telegraph

In Brisbane, the Dutch vessel Van Heutz, loaded with Netherlands Indies government officials, troops and arms, was unable to leave port. Eventually, without tug boats, little coal and few supplies, Van Heutz limped from Brisbane towards Java.

Similarly Karsik — loaded with Dutch money for the returning administration — and Merak in Melbourne were both unable to find coal in Australian ports.

On 28 September waterside workers in Sydney, carrying ‘Hands off Indonesia’ banners, led a demonstration outside Dutch shipping companies and diplomatic offices. By October, the actions had escalated. The Trades and Labor Council issued a leaflet with instructions to unionists:

Dutch soldiers and officers should not get transport. No Dutch munitions should be touched. Repairs on Dutch ships, etc., must not be done. Dutch ships must not get coal. Tugs must not be made available to Dutch ships. Food, stores, etc., must not be provided to Dutch ships, offices, canteens or personnel. Dutch officers and seamen should not be taken to and from ships. In fact everything Dutch is black.

Indonesia Calling

But not quite everything Dutch was ‘black listed’. A lone but significant Dutch figure was working with Indonesians to tell the world about their struggle, and about Indonesian support from Australian, Indian and Chinese sailors. Dutch film maker Joris Ivens resigned his position as Film Commissioner for the Netherlands Indies government in protest against the Dutch policy of recolonising Indonesia. In Sydney in November 1945 he was approached by Indonesians and Australian sympathisers to make a film about the Australian events supporting the Indonesian independence struggle.

The film Indonesia Calling was based around a re-enactment of the mutiny by Indian seamen aboard the Patras, a ship laden with arms sailing for Indonesia from Sydney. The brave Indian sailors, under Dutch armed guard, stopped stoking the engines and the Patras was forced to return to Sydney Harbour. The only motivation of the Indian sailors was solidarity and support for another Asian country also seeking its independence from colonial rule.

Narrated by Australian actor Peter Finch, the film premiered to an audience of Indonesians in Kings Cross, Sydney, on 9 August 1946. It screened three times a day for a week, to packed houses. The film was then smuggled into Indonesia by Waterside Workers’ Federation official Ted Roach. It was shown in open-air cinemas to freedom fighters who were delighted with such support in Australia.

A copy of the Atlantic Charter, 1941
A copy of the 1941 Atlantic Charter, signed by the Allied countries, that recognised the rights of people to govern themselves after World War II ended.

Source: National Archives and Records Adminstration Records of the Office of Government Reports, 513885

Indonesia’s declaration of independence had long been on the minds of a small group of Australian sympathisers. In July 1945, before the August 17 declaration, the first public organisation of Australians supporting an Asian nation’s anti-colonial struggle was formed. The Australia–Indonesia Association took inspiration from the 1941 Atlantic Charter, signed by the Allied countries including the USA and Britain, that recognised the rights of people to govern themselves after World War II ended. The association’s aims were to ‘foster friendly cultural, sporting, educational and trade relationships with Indonesia’. Australians were beginning to come to grips with the fact that their northern neighbour might not be a Dutch colony forever.

In fact around 10,000 Indonesians had accompanied the fleeing Dutch administration to Australia when the Japanese invaded in 1942. Many were government officials, merchant sailors and military personnel. Some were political prisoners. Most Australians had never met Indonesians before, and many were enchanted by these people and their cultural traditions. Friendships and relationships were formed as the Indonesians assisted Australia in the war effort.

An Australian gamelan

One of the Dutch political prisoners was Surakarta-born court musician and political activist Bapak Pontjopangrawit. Indonesians had been agitating for independence from the Dutch since the 1920s. At this time, the Dutch established a series of internment camps for political prisoners in what was then part of the Netherlands East Indies (now Irian Jaya/Papua). The Digul River was chosen for its remote and isolated location deep in the jungle, hundreds of kilometres from the nearest township.

Javanese gamelan orchestra
The Javanese gamelan orchestra constructed by Bapak Pontjopangrawit.

Courtesy Monash University Music Department

In 1927 Bapak Pontjopangrawit was sent to the Tanah Merah prison camp in Upper Digul. To entertain the prisoners, he constructed a Javanese gamelan orchestra from the rudimentary materials available in the prison camp, including milk and sardine tins, animal skins and Dutch-made cast-iron rantang or cooking pots. The instruments were bought to Australia with the political prisoners in 1942 when the Dutch fled the invading Japanese.

The Dutch feared that if left behind, the prisoners would establish a guerrilla force and make the return of the Dutch difficult after the war. After interning the prisoners in camps in Australia, the Dutch faced growing pressure from Australian sympathisers to release them. For example, in December 1945 at the Casino internment camp in northern New South Wales, sympathetic Australians had tried to give Christmas gifts to Indonesian prisoners, but were refused by the Dutch guards. Some Casino residents then formed an Indonesians’ Defence Committee and demanded the camp’s closure.

Under increasing pressure from the federal government led by Prime Minister Ben Chifley, the Dutch government-in-exile agreed to release Indonesian political prisoners in Australia. Bapak Pontjopangrawit’s gamelan was then played to appreciative audiences in Melbourne, and is believed to feature in the film Indonesia Calling.

When the Indonesians returned home, the gamelan — named Gamelan Digul after its prison camp origins — was donated by them as a gift of thanks to Australia to the Museum of Victoria in 1946, and then to the Monash University Music Department in 1976.

The bonang pélog from the gamelan Digul
A bonang is part of a Javanese gamelan orchestra of 19 different instruments. The bonang pélog from the gamelan Digul is being played here by Javanese gamelan musician Ki Poedijono (on left) while Margaret Kartomi, author of a book on the gamelan Digul, plays a bonang sléndro from the traditional gamelan at Monash University in 1981. The bonang sléndro from the c. 1930 gamelan Digul was skilfully tuned by Bapak Pontjopangrawit from cast-iron Dutch-made rantang or cooking pots.

Photograph Tony Miller, courtesy of Monash University Music Department

Independence recognised

Australia’s relationship with the Dutch and the new Indonesian republic was complex. At first, Australian and British troops assisted the Dutch in returning to their ex-colony after World War II. Although not involved in combat with the desperate and under-armed Indonesian forces, Australian soldiers were part of the initial military push — though many disagreed with the return of the Dutch to Indonesia.

Two British infantrymen take cover in a side street during action against Indonesian nationalists in Surabaya (Soerabaja).
Two British infantrymen take cover in a side street during action against Indonesian nationalists in Surabaya (Soerabaja).

© Imperial War Museum (SE 5652)

The battle of Surabaya from 27 October to 20 November 1945 was the bloodiest single engagement of the war for independence with around 10,000 Indonesians killed fighting British troops. Although they lost the battle, the fierce resistance of the Indonesians removed any doubts the Dutch might have had over the determination of the Indonesians.* Britain and Australia grew increasingly reluctant to be involved. In Indonesia today, 10 November is commemorated as Heroes Day and, like Anzac Day in Australia, it honours a terrible defeat — but one that had a galvanising effect on a new nation.

By December 1948, there was little Australian opposition to a complete boycott of Dutch goods and trade. The Chifley government boldly referred the conflict to the United Nations Security Council and stepped up aid to the Indonesian Republic. While Dutch armed forces had gained control of much of Indonesia at the cost of tens of thousands of Indonesian lives, international condemnation of the Dutch forced them into negotiations. On 27 December 1949 the Dutch formally recognised Indonesian sovereignty.

Indonesian gratitude for Australian support was heartfelt. President Sukarno paid tribute to the ‘freedom-loving’ stand taken by the Australian labour movement. The Brisbane based Central Committee of Indonesian Independence wrote:

The understanding and support given us by the Australian people will never be forgotten, and we will convey this history of our struggle in your land to our countrymen at home. We hope that the friendship between our two peoples may become stronger and endure in the best interests of democracy.

The period of widespread Australian support for the Indonesian republic that grew from the maritime workers and the radical labour movement to the government and beyond between 1945 and 1949 is an amazing yet forgotten period of transnational history.

Some of the personal stories of this period will be further explored in the collaborative exhibition Black Armada:  Australian support in upholding Indonesian independence. This is the first in a series of digital stories published throughout the exhibition.

The exhibition Black Armada will be on display at the Australian National Maritime Museum from 20 August 2015 to 24 February 2016. It is also on display at the Museum Benteng Vredeberg, in Yogyakarta, Indonesia from 31 August to November 2015. The Museum Benteng Vredeberg is a heritage listed 17th century colonial Dutch fortress building. The museum is dedicated to displaying the history of the Indonesian Independence struggle.

Museum Benteng Vredeburg
The Museum Benteng Vredeburg in Yogyakarta, Indonesia

Photograph by Jeffrey Mellefont


    • *Muriel Pearson was born in Scotland in 1898. After seeing the 1932 film Bali - The Last Paradise she went to Indonesia to become an artist. She was adopted by a Bali Rajah and changed her name to Ketut Tantri (KT). She was associated with Bung Tomo, leader of the Indonesian resistance and made broadcasts in English over the Voice of Free Indonesia radio. KT was in Surabaya in November 1945 and broadcast the events to the world. She became known as ‘Surabaya Sue’. A future story will explore ‘Surabaya Sue’ and Australian women who supported Indonesian independence.