Personal and political — Australian women and Indonesian Independence

by Heather Goodall

Black Armada

Australian women and Indonesian Independence

On a rainy October night in Sydney in 1945 Phyllis Johnson was enjoying a social night at the Indian Seamens’ Club in The Rocks. Phyllis was a young Communist Party member, inspired by the dramatic events at the end of World War II when countries such as India and Indonesia were casting off the European empires that had been in control for hundreds of years. A new world was being shaped in the ashes of the war. With her husband and fellow communist ‘Johnno’ Johnson, she excitedly talked about politics with Indian sailors who were keen to practice their English.

Photograph of Phyllis Johnson taken during 1940s
Phyllis Johnson, photograph, taken during 1940s.

Courtesy Phyllis Johnson personal collection

At 10 o’clock that night, one of the Indian sailors Phyllis had got to know well, Dasrath or ‘Danny’ Singh, burst into the club shouting ‘There’s a ship in one of the North Sydney ports. They are carrying arms on it to send to the Dutch! There are Indian seaman on it and they want to walk off!’

Keen to support these new arrivals, Phyllis and Johnno went straight over to the wharf. Phyllis called her brother who had a truck and by 2am and in the pouring rain, they had picked up the Indian sailors and taken them to a ‘coloured sailors residence’ in Pyrmont. Phyllis recalled that they came off ‘with whatever they had — really just with their bed rolls. It was terrible!’

Finding impoverished Indian sailors somewhere to stay was but part of a bigger series of events that were occurring in the ports around Australia and all over Asia. This was a period of action against the British and Dutch who were using Indian and Indonesian crews to take troopships to recolonise Indonesia.

SS Moreton Bay was one of the vessels chartered by the Dutch government-in-exile that was affected by the waterside workers’ black bans.

The tension on the waterfront in Sydney increased during late 1945 and 1946. Support for the Indian and Indonesian seamen grew amongst the Australian wharfies. In October and November 1945, Phyllis was right in the thick of it, going down to the Woolloomooloo wharves with a comrade who had a microphone and urging the crews to walk off. As Phyllis recalled, they shouted to the vessels;

Leave the ships! Don’t work on ships that are sending munitions to the Dutch! Walk off the ships! Bring whatever you can with you. And the workers of Australia will help you. Come off the ships!

And off the ships they came. Around 400, mostly Indian seamen were already on strike in Sydney Harbour over the trade with the Dutch. Phyllis and her comrades needed to find them new quarters. In a plan with no doubt some irony attached, the key to the Lido — a hotel in North Sydney where the Dutch armed forces were headquartered — was obtained and 400 ‘coloured seamen’ marched across the Harbour Bridge and occupied it.

As Phyllis recalled:

The workers of Australia supported the coloured seamen. It was absolutely wonderful. And John and I, we were both members of the Communist Party. We used to go over to the Lido at night if we weren’t there during the day. And we worked with the Indian seamen — they spoke fairly good English.
It was a long struggle, and it was one of the best experiences that John and I had working with the coloured seamen. It was wonderful international solidarity. And then Clarrie Campbell and some of the trade union leaders got a decision to repatriate the Indian seamen back home.

As Phyllis’s words make clear, the Indonesian Revolution was not just important in itself nor was it important only for Indonesians. Instead it seemed like the first step in the campaign for Independence for all colonised peoples – the ‘coloured peoples’ as Phyllis called them then.

The story of Indonesian Independence is often told as if only men took part. This is the way stories of battles and strikes are usually told — yet there were women involved in all those events. And the whole picture was much wider than the battles and the strikes. It involved particularly the rapid spread of news at the time through radio and newspapers, and, more enduringly, the emotional relationships between people — the friendships and the love affairs — which committed them to lasting support for the new Republic whatever their origin.

Those of us living outside Indonesia have seen little of the work of women then inside Indonesia, involved in the revolution – these stories will best be told by Indonesian women themselves. As an Australian historian, I know more about the Australian women involved. Between 2005 and 2008 I interviewed three of them about their experiences and involvement: Phyllis Johnson, Sylvia Mullins and Lotte Maramis. Another was Molly Bondan, a young Australian secretary who married Mohammed Bondan in 1945 and in 1947 went to live in the Indonesian Republic. After her death, Molly’s writing was compiled as In Love With A Nation which records her life. The stories of these women help to illuminate the many ways in which the Indonesian Revolution was important to people from other places around the world.

Australia in the 1940s: recognising the personal and the political

The presence of Australian women in the story of Indonesian independence has been completely invisible except for the stellar roles of two extraordinary women, Lotte Maramis and Molly Bondan, whose writing has given us a glimpse of their worlds. Yet these two individuals actually represent two larger groups of women. The first, similar to Lotte Maramis, became involved initially through personal and emotional relationships, although these may then have led them into political activity. Those more like Molly Bondan became involved with Indonesian and other seamen through political activism, which at times shifted into personal and intimate relationships.

These two groups of Australian women have seldom been recognised, except in the untiring work of another woman, the linguist and educator Jan Lingard, who in her book Refugees and Rebels also sketches out a third group in Australia, the small number of Indonesian women who came with the Dutch Government in exile from the Boven Digul prison camp as wives and daughters of the political activists who had been imprisoned, often for many years, on West Irian and who spent most of their Australian time in Mackay in far north Queensland.[1]

Photograph of Lotte Clayton and Anton Maramis’s wedding in Sydney
Lotte Clayton and Anton Maramis’s wedding in Sydney

Published in Kabar, Australia-Indonesia Association Newsletter, January-March 2013, p 3

The first major group of Australian women, like Lotte Maramis, became involved with Indonesians when the young men exiled in Australia after the Japanese invasion were invited socially to their family homes. All groups of Indonesians, those accidentally caught and those like the ex-Digulists who had been brought by the Dutch, were eventually able to mix relatively freely with Australians in a number of towns and cities all along the eastern seaboard, which opened up social and cultural interactions between Asians and Australians that had not been known in Australia for many decades, if at all.

Lotte fell in love with Anton Maramis, a Manadonese petty officer, and married him with her family’s support, although she battled much antagonism from the broader Australian public she encountered.[2] Many other young Australian women faced strong opposition from families and friends to the decisions they made to marry their Indonesian fiancés and return with them to their homes once Independence had been declared. As Lingard has documented, for some of these women the marriages were not successful in such different environments.[3] But for others – and Lotte and Molly were not alone – these relationships proved strong enough to embrace and flourish in the very different society and cultures they found in Indonesia.

Molly Warner was like many women in the second group I have pointed to, for whom the hopes and visions of a new world after the war opened up many new interactions. Molly was not in a political party. Her initial connections to the other Australians who were interested in opening contacts with people from South East Asian countries, were assisted by Clarrie Campbell, her employer. Clarrie was a member of the Labor Party and a close associate of members of the Communist Party of Australia (CPA).[4]

For Communists and non-Communists alike in the 1930s and 40s, the possibility of influencing society seemed very real. By 1944, many Australians had become aware of the decolonisation process, and – rather than be fearful of it – had begun to look at how they could become more engaged with their closest neighbours as they became independent of empire.

Indian, Indonesian and Chinese seamen had all been trying since 1939 to have the maritime dangers of the war better recognised through pay increases and improved conditions. During their campaigns, each group had met white Australian supporters. One whom the Indians met had been Clarrie Campbell, who had met Indian troops many years before when he was a soldier at Gallipoli. In October 1943, Campbell had been among those who had formed the Indian-Australian Association (IAA), a body aimed at better informing Australians and which had been active in raising funds to relieve the severe famine in Bengal in that year.

Photograph of Molly Warner and Mohammed Bondan taken in Indonesia, some years after their marriage.
Photograph of Molly Warner and Mohammed Bondan taken in Indonesia, some years after their marriage.

From In Love with a Nation: Molly Bondan and Indonesia: her own story in her own words, edited by Joan Hardjono and Charles Warner, 1995

Another goal of the IAA and others like it were to offer social support to seamen when they were in Australian ports, as well as to strengthen their capacity for collective action. The Chinese seamen had been supported by the already-existing Chinese Youth League, set up in 1939, which already offered a meeting place and an organisational structure. The Indian-Australian Association negotiated an arrangement with the Seamen’s Mission and opened an Indian Seamen’s Club in December 1944.

In the Australian port cities during this period, there were many men enlisted in the military forces of Australia, then later the British, American and other forces. Social clubs were established for them, and similar clubs operated for merchant seamen, all run on a voluntary basis by Australian groups, offering music, films, dancing, suppers and local companionship – usually carefully chaperoned. Most of these clubs, however, excluded ‘coloured’ men.

The Seamen’s Mission in Sydney’s Rocks district operated a social club for navy and merchant seamen. But it too practiced racial exclusion – it had an upper floor in this multi-storey building which was universally known as the ‘Black Floor’. It was here that the India-Australia Association was able to operate its social club, which offered one of the few venues for seamen from many other countries as well as India to combat the exclusions of most establishments in Sydney at the time.

But such clubs as the Indian Seamen’s opened up a window onto the new worlds of emerging nations for people like Molly who were eager to learn more. Molly moved from helping to set up the new Australia-Indonesia Society, to developing a personal relationship with Mohammed Bondan, an ex-Digulist who was active contacting the new Indonesian government. Bondan and Molly moved to Brisbane in September 1945 to set up CENKIM, the Central Committee for Indonesian Intelligence and Molly herself took on a role operating the radio to receive broadcasts from the Republican government and writing the press releases to circulate the news. She married Bondan and they began a life together which continued when she joined him in Indonesia where she remained for the rest of her life.[5]

Although interested, Molly had not been in a political party before her involvement with Indonesians. There were other Australian women whose political interests had already brought them to a political membership. Sylvia Mullins had grown up in Lithgow where she developed a strong interest in politics.[6] As soon as she could come to Sydney independently to work she did so, and joined the Communist Party soon after. She was interested in the possibilities of a new world of connections across the region, and hoped to build political links with the Indonesians and Indians she met.

She came to the Indian Seamen’s Club as a volunteer to meet more people and when I interviewed her many years later, she told me that many Indonesians came there too, not only during the war but when the Indonesian Republic was declared, for the music and company and the political conversation. Sylvia was particularly interested in one of the Indonesian petty officers, sympathetic to the Republic like Anton Maramis, but who had stayed on the ship as a skeleton crew when the main body of sailors walked off on strike.

Sylvia was invited to dinner on board, and asked along her brother, Jack Mullins, a member of the airforce who was in a camp near Sydney, waiting to be demobilised. Both of them recalled the lively interest in Indonesian Independence among the Indonesian officers still on the ship and the Indian catering crew who were serving them a meal.[7] Out of her growing friendships, Sylvia took part in the Communist Party demonstration on the docks in 7 November 1945, protesting about the Stirling Castle, a British ship known to be transporting Dutch troops back to the Netherlands East Indies (Indonesia). The Dutch and British crew on board threw rubbish at the demonstrators and then turned their fire hose onto them, leading to a memorable photograph which was on all the front pages of the Sydney press, showing Sylvia in the jet of the hose.[8]

Sylvia Mullins and other protesters being hosed by Dutch troops aboard a British ship
Sylvia Mullins and other protesters being hosed by Dutch troops aboard a British ship, The Stirling Castle, during a Sydney demonstration against the transport of Dutch military support to the Netherlands East Indies.

The Sun, 9 November 1945

Phyllis Johnson was another young woman who was in the Communist Party who came along to the Indian Seamen’s Social club. Just married to Johnno Johnson, a violin maker and fellow Communist, when I interviewed her Phyllis described to me the excitement she felt on meeting people who were in the midst of such dramatic events as decolonisation.[9] Phyllis laughed about how she was always asking about political figures and parties, while the Indian sailors in the Social Club were mainly trying to practise their English. Both women shared warm friendships with many of the Indians and Indonesians at the same time as they learned about these neighbouring countries.

Phyllis saw her involvement in an even broader way than Sylvia Mullins. Phyllis, for example, insisted on beginning her interview by talking about her involvement with the Chinese crew of the Silkswood who had walked off the ship in Newcastle and been arrested for ‘desertion’ on 18 October, 1937. The Silksworth had left China before the Japanese invaded and its crew refused to sail the ship back into any of the Chinese ports because they had all by then fallen under Japanese control. Australia was not then at war with the Japanese, and the Australian Attorney General, Robert Menzies (later famously labelled ‘Pig Iron Bob’), insisted the Chinese crews must not jeopardise Australia’s relationship with Japan by interrupting trade.

But the Australian political left, and particularly the Communist Party, supported the Chinese seamen, arguing that the brutality of the Japanese in Nanjing and other Chinese cities was just like that of Franco and the Fascists in the Spanish Civil War. They supported the Silksworth crew with a banner reading:

Fascism is War:
Boycott Jap Goods:
Guernica, Madrid, Canton, Nanking
Stop exports to Japan
Build the Communist Party

Phyllis kept in close touch with the Chinese seamen who stayed in Australia after the Silksworth eventually sailed with a white Australian and non-union crew. She was also close to their activist supporters among members of the Sydney Australian-born Chinese community like Fred Wong and, when the Silksworth crew and others formed a branch of the Chinese Seamen’s Union in 1941, they contributed to an election fund for Phyllis in March 1941 when she was standing as a CPA candidate for Paddington in local government elections.

Phyllis was next involved with the Indian seamen on the Dalfram, the ship which docked in Port Kembla on 14 November 1938 to load pig iron for Japan. Australian waterside workers refused to load it and there was strong support from all the Australian maritime unions. The Dalfram’s seamen, some Indian, some British and some Indian-Arab men from Aden, had also refused to crew the ship – they were gaoled immediately and not released till 10 December, when their leader, Mohamet Goulah, was met on his release by a large crowd of cheering Australian seamen.[10]

Contributions to Phyllis Johnson’s election campaign in Paddington
Contributions to Phyllis Johnson’s election campaign in Paddington, from, as Phyllis remembered it, the Chinese seamen from the Silksworth who had remained in Sydney and joined the Chinese Seamen’s Union. Photograph shows the formal named list of donators and is dated 1941 March 29th (translation Professor Louise Edwards, UNSW).

Courtesy Phyllis Johnson personal collection

The initial thrust of this strike had been to support the Chinese people against Japanese rule, like the dispute over the Silksworth, which had only had the Newcastle unions supporting the Chinese crew.[11] With the Dalfram, however, and the weight of the whole Australian Waterside Workers Federation and other maritime unions in support, the message shifted eventually to the potential threat to Australia, rather than to China, even though it continued to be the Chinese-Australian community in Sydney who donated most food and money.

But initially, as Phyllis and others remember, it was about supporting the Chinese.[12] Two of the Indians from the Dalfram, Ameer Ahmed and Elef Khan, had been jailed for six months hard labour for ‘desertion’ and eventually deported, after being given the notorious ‘dictation test’ under the White Australia Policy, as ‘prohibited immigrants’.[13]

So Phyllis saw herself as having a long history of supporting ‘coloured’ seamen against fascism and to her, the Indonesian call for independence was another part of the struggle against the fascism of colonial control. She and Johnno had been aware of the formation of the Australia Indonesia Association in July 1945 and had been meeting both Indian and Indonesian seamen at the Indian Seamen’s Club. They heard the news there that the Indonesian nationalists had declared Independence immediately after the Japanese surrender of August 15 1945 and looked forward to their Indonesian friends taking an active role in the new country. But it soon became clear that the South East Asian Command, SEAC, under the British, was not going to support the new Republic and a long and bitter struggle to uphold Indonesian independence was to occur.

As Phyllis and the other women I interviewed who worked with Indians, Indonesians and Chinese in 1940s Australia made clear, the Indonesian Revolution was not just important in itself nor was it important only for Indonesians. Instead it seemed like the first step in the campaign for Independence for all colonised peoples. And this was a hope shared by people like Phyllis, Sylvia and Johnno, but also by Molly and Lotte, despite their very different political positions.

We in Australia have had only brief glimpses of what was happening inside Indonesian during the struggles for the new Republic, from 1945 to 1949. Yet that struggle to maintain Indonesian Independence was important to people in many countries. There were strikes and boycotts around the region and beyond, by wharfies, seamen and other unions, to ensure that the Dutch were not rearmed. The Independence struggle in Indonesia was important in Australia, the Netherlands, British India (which became India and Pakistan) and French Indochina (which became Vietnam) as well as the Philippines, the United Kingdom and the United States.

Phyllis Johnson recalling the events of 1945 in 2008.
Phyllis Johnson recalling the events of 1945 in 2008.

Photograph Heather Goodall

Even this brief overview shows the many different ways that women were involved during 1945 in the events around the Indonesian Revolution. The events, campaigns, friendships and relationships outlined here all created ongoing interest and in many cases, networks of communication. In Indonesia, for example, Yetty Zain, a young nationalist in Surabaya, had made sure that the story got out to international audiences by patiently explaining Indonesian aspirations to overseas journalists there. Both Molly and Lotte became interpreters and journalists after they went to live in Indonesia with their new husbands. They were able to send news of the newly independent Indonesia out to the broader English speaking world. Both of them were involved in the reporting of the first Afro-Asian conference which was held at Bandung in 1955 and which marked the emergence of the Non-Aligned Nations, a grouping which was fluid but which nevertheless was important in shaping world affairs over decades to come.

The work of the expatriate Australian women like Molly and Lotte offered an important alternative perspective to add to the stories of the exiting Dutch but were able to contribute also to the emerging voices of Indonesians themselves on the world stage, including those of Indonesian women. Finally, the women who stayed in Australia, like Sylvia and Phyllis, have left their memories and photographs for us to learn more about them and their important role, communicating between Australians and Indonesians. They all hoped in the 1940s that the terrible World War had not only brought horrors, but had cleared the way for a better new world – and one that would grow significant connections between Australia and its new regional neighbours.


[1] There is a third group of women here – Indonesian women in Australia who were involved in Indonesian Independence and were the wives and daughters of the men whom the Dutch had held as political prisoners at Boven Digul in West Papua and then had been brought to Australia. Jan Lingard has written about Siti Chamsinah, the daughter of an ex-Digulist who lived in Mackay, who came to Melbourne to train as a nurse. Even as young woman in the 1940s, Siti made clear her opposition to Dutch rule and, as Lingard discovered when she met her many years later in Indonesia, she had remained a strong-minded and thoughtful woman all her life. We do not know what became of the other Indonesian women who had been associated with Boven Digul and returned to the new Republic – this remains to be followed up in later research. What is clear is that as women’s organisations took shape after Independence in Indonesia, they began to look for international networks. Jan Lingard, 2008: Refugees and Rebels: Indonesian Exiles in Wartime Australia, Australian Scholarly Publishing, Melbourne, pp 97-98

[2] Charlotte Clayton Maramis, 2006: Echoes Book One: Australia and Indonesia, Best Legenz, Sydney, pp 5-36

[3] Jan Lingard, 2008: Refugees and Rebels: Indonesian Exiles in Wartime Australia, Australian Scholarly Publishing, Melbourne, pp 237-248.

[4] Joan Harjono and Charles Warner 1995: In Love with a Nation: Molly Bondan and Indonesia, pp 18-21, published by Charles Warner, Picton, Australia; ASIO tried repeatedly to prove that Clarrie Campbell was a card carrying CPA member but never succeeded. There is no doubt however that Clarrie, who was a member of the ALP, had extremely close relationships with the CPA and with Communist Parties elsewhere. Note Clarrie’s experience organising an Australia India association to raise funds to assist Indians through the severe Bengal famine of 1943, NLA, (ASIO files), Australia-India Association, 16 January 1947, HSD Hay, Temp Inquiry Officer, to Deputy Director, Commonwealth Investigation Service, pp 167-169.

[5] Hardjono and Warner 1995: In Love with a Nation, pp 1-41.

[6] Sylvia Mullins interviewed Heather Goodall, Normanhurst, NSW, 13 Mar 2007.

[7] Jack Mullins interviewed by Heather Goodall, Glebe, NSW, 2 March 2007.

[8] The Sun, 7 November, 1945, Sydney.

[9] Phyllis Johnson (born 1917) interviewed Heather Goodall, Padstow, NSW, 10 May 2007.

[10] Newcastle Morning Herald and Miners’ Advocate, 10 Dec 1938, p1.

[11] Lockwood, 1987, War on the Waterfront, pp 33-35.

[12] Phyllis Johnson, 13 Mar 2007; Lockwood, 1987: War on the Waterfront, p 35.

[13] Sydney Morning Herald, 14 Mar 1939, p12; The West Australian, 14 Mar 1939, p10.

About the author

Professor Heather Goodall is an Adjunct Professor of History at University of Technology, Sydney. She has worked extensively with oral history in Australia and India. Heather is currently writing Beyond Borders: International implications of the Indonesian Revolution, a book which traces transnational interactions between India, Indonesia and Australia during the dramatic campaigns around decolonization at the end of WW2. She is also working with A/Professor Devleena Ghosh on Countering the Cold War, tracing the transnational relations between women’s movements in Australia, Indonesia and India during the Cold War.