Review by Ron Witten from RIMA

Review of Indonesian and Malaysian Affairs, vol 42, no.2

This is truly a fascinating book and admirably fills a gaping lacuna in Australian and Indonesian historical scholarship. It would be as surprising to most Australians as it would be to Indonesians to learn that over 5,000 Indonesians spent the World War II in Australia and that they played a vital role in publicising and materially supporting the Indonesian revolution.

The book begins by recounting the ways that Indonesians had already impacted on Australian history. In Australia’s north, there had been the Makasars who had interacted, and even occasionally intermarried, with Aboriginal communities while collecting bêche-de-mer (trepang). In colonial Queensland there had been Javanese canecutters. In Western Australia there were Indonesians who over many years had established a community in Broome where they we reemployed as pearl divers.

The Japanese invasion of the Dutch East Indies in 1942, however, resulted in the introduction into racially conservative ‘White’Australia of over 5,000 Indonesians who lived here for about five years before returning to Indonesia. These Indonesians were brought hereby their Dutch colonial employers and rulers in the face of the advancing Japanese. The majority were either merchant seamen on the Dutch ships that sought refuge in Australian ports or were soldiers Ianthe Royal Netherlands Indies Army who retreated to Australia with their Dutch officers.

Most significantly, the retreating Dutch also brought with them hundreds of Indonesian political prisoners who had been imprisoned over the previous decades for their pro-independence nationalist activities and had been held in concentration camps in the swamps of west Papua. The Dutch feared that such politically activists would assist the Japanese war effort and so brought them to Australia. Little did they realise that these activists with the help of many Australians, particularly trade unionists, would soon convert to the nationalist cause virtually all the other Indonesians exiled in Australia with them. Thus when Indonesia’s independence was declared on 17 August 1945, it was from Australia that much of the world learnt of this momentous declaration, and within a short time the Indonesian seamen on Dutch ships had gone on strike, thus marooning the Dutch merchant and naval ships in Australia and severely hampered Dutch efforts to reclaim their colony.

Within a short time after the end of the war, a majority of the Indonesians returned to Indonesia through the assistance of the Australian government who, in direct opposition to the wishes of the Dutch, repatriated them to those areas of Indonesia that were already held by the nationalists.

It is what happened during those war years that has largely been unstudied and the history of that period is grippingly related in the book. It describes in detail the way that ordinary Australians in Australian cities and, most significantly, in a number of Australian country towns, mixed with the Indonesians. It also analyses the political intrigues that occurred as the Labor government, the conservative opposition, the trade unions, the Dutch and the Indonesians all interacted in a period during which, in Lingard’s words, ‘a foreign revolution was fought in part on Australian soil’ (p. 277).

On a personal note, I enjoyed reading about the background of two people whom I was very fortunate to meet when I was a Sydney University undergraduate in the early sixties. In 1962 at the end of my first year in the Department of Indonesian and Malayan Studies, I travelled to Indonesia with an introduction to Julius Tahija, then an oil executive in Jakarta, where I also met his Australian wife whom he had met and married in Australia. Indeed, a remarkable (for the period we are discussing) number of Australian women married the Australian-based Indonesians and returned with them to Indonesia. The book deals in sensitive detail with such inter-racial marriages which were quite significant given the mores of that by-gone era. Many of the events surrounding these romances are poignantly related in the book as are the vicissitudes the women faced after the war when it was impossible for their husbands to stay in Australia, given the highly restrictive immigration laws, and barriers were placed by the Australian government in their accompanying their husbands to Indonesia.

The book recounts Julius Tahija’s wartime adventures when he proved of great assistance to the Allies when he took part in a highly significant and secret intelligence-gathering expedition into Japanese territory. He saw heroic action as he fought his way back to Australia and, in the presence of the Governor of Victoria, was decorated with Holland’s equivalent of the Victoria Cross and was described by the local Melbourne press as ‘a hero: a black sergeant from the East Indies’(p. 17).

The other person in the book whom I have met was Molly Bondan. Molly Warner, as she was then, had been instrumental in founding the still active Australia-Indonesia Association, before she met and married Mohamad Bondan. He had been a political prisoner of the Dutch in West Papua before he became one of the foremost Indonesian leaders in Australia. It was he who first learnt of Sukarno’s declaration of independence through a clandestine radio broadcast and was instrumental in spreading news both in Australia and to the world. Like the other wives, Molly Bondan returned to Indonesia with her husband. In the university 1964–65 summer vacation I again went to Indonesia, this time to collect material for my bachelor honours thesis on Sukarno. I had been given an introduction to her by Herb Feith, one of my supervisors, who had worked with her while he was an Australian graduate volunteer in Indonesia in the fifties. I met Molly Bondan in her Indonesian government office where, fortuitously for my research, one of her many duties was translating Sukarno’s speeches. She was a wonderfully engaging person who had lived through historical times which she was more than happy to talk to me about. I can certainly endorse the book’s description of her as‘indefatigable’ and ‘remarkable’!

Of particular importance is the book’s analysis of the tumultuous events that occurred in such very conservative country towns as Cowra, Bundaberg, Casino, Gaythorne, Mackay, Toowoomba and Wallangarra, where many of the Indonesians were either first interned or later lived, worked and organised.

This is a book to be savoured and enjoyed, and its many photos help to bring to life this very important period in the history of both Indonesia and Australia.

Ron Witton
University of Wollongong

Book Launch
29 October 2008

49 Glebe Point Road
Glebe, NSW
6.00pm for a 6.30pm start

To be launched by Hamish McDonald, Asia Pacific Editor of Sydney Morning Herald.
Where to Buy the Book
Click here to find out where you can purchase the book.