Review: Refugees and Rebels: Indonesian Exiles in Wartime Australia, by Jan Lingard

Refugees and Rebels: Indonesian Exiles in Wartime Australia, by Jan Lingard (Australian Scholarly Publishing, 2008)

Jan Lingard’s book, Refugees and Rebels – Indonesian Exiles in Wartime Australia is a humane, interesting, informative and readable book. Every person interested in the history of the Australian and/or Indonesian people should read this book. It should be on the reading lists of high school and university history of Australia courses. The book describes and analyses the experiences of  5000s Indonesians living, working and engaging in political struggle in both cities and country towns in Australia between 1942 and 1947, the period of Japanese occupation of their country and the beginning of the armed struggle for Indonesian independence which started soon after the proclamation of Independence on August 17, 1945.

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 The book describes and analyses events which are precious to the collective memory of the Australian people, and in particular to the Australian working class.  The collective class memory, and even the national memory, of the events in this book has been mostly erased, and where that has proved awkward, domesticated. This book is an important step forward in recovering that memory. In follows more than two decades later the work by the Communist journalist, Rupert Lockwood, who wrote Black Armada. Lockwood chronicled one aspect of the experiences and struggle of Indonesians in Australia in the 1942-47 period, their involvement in the black banning of Dutch ships in Australian ports which were supposed to be heading north to help the Dutch army retake Indonesia and make it again a colony.

Lingard’s research and writing enormously expands the picture of the experience and struggles that was inherited from Lockwood. Lockwood wrote mainly from his direct experience and the materials that he had at hand in the port unions and at the offices of the Tribune newspaper offices. Tribune was the newspaper of the Communist Party of Australia (CPA), which was an active participant in joint activities with some of the Indonesians active in Australia during this time. Lingard’s book takes us through the experiences of the black armada, but also into the hostels and labour camps where many Indonesian merchant seamen, evacuated employees of the Dutch colonial state as well as its prisoners lived and worked. She provides a series of short biographical sketches of many of the Indonesians and Australians involved, as well as a more detailed narrative of the most active and interesting figures.

As she points out clearly in her book, the special character of the presence of these 5,000 Indonesian men and women (although the women were a tiny minority) was an acute anomaly in what, in 1942, was still very much the White Australia of “Advance Australia Fair”. Furthermore, most of these “javos” as they were sometimes called (although by no means were they all from Java) were highly political, demonstrative of their refusal to accept exploitation and subordination. Those that had been in the terrible Boven Digul Dutch-run prison camp in western Papua were union militants, nationalist activists or communists. Merchant seamen and other sailors and employees who were drafted into militarised labor camps were often no less rebellious. And eventually almost all became involved in, as Lingard put it, executing the Indonesian revolution on Australian soil.

The richness of the human as well as the political experience of these people, and the internationalist Australians who worked with them (as well as the Australians that simply became their social friends and acquaintances) deserves to be a cultural and political asset for the Australian people, and especially the working class, today. This is not to romanticise the experience: Lingard documents the unevenness of reception at the grass-roots level as well as the considerable apathy about the cause of Indonesian independence that existed among the Australian public. Whether it was a white Australian’s negative response to the aromas of Indonesian food next door or hostility to romantic relationships between brown or white, the warts on the experience of interaction are there, as well as the inspiring stories of friendship and comradeship.

The book also documents Australian and Dutch government policies, showing the consistent deep colonial attitudes and policies of the Dutch and the contradictory policies of Australia, caught between a strong democratic sentiment in society and the interests of the Australian state in cooperating with a fellow white imperial state, as was the Dutch. A contradiction did develop between the Dutch and Australian ruling classes, which was sharpened by the campaigning initiated by the Indonesian activists in Australia.

It is the struggles of the Indonesian seamen’s union and the Indonesian Independence committees and the strikes and protests of Indonesian workers against imprisonment and economic mistreatment, and the solidarity and friendship of many Australians that should be a part of the collective memory of the Australian people. It would be one powerful antidote against the white racism of the Australian working class as well as an inspiring cultural asset.

Lingard comments in her conclusion that it was a fortuitous circumstance that there was a Labor government in Australia during these years and not a government headed by Robert Menzies, the head of the coalition of conservative parties that made up the parliamentary opposition. She points out that Menzies, as well as most of the Australian press, consistently supported the Dutch colonial interests on almost every issue and opposed every concession made by the Labor government to Indonesia and its supporters in Australia. It was important that the Labor party was in power, not because of innate tendency of the Labor Party and its government to support Indonesia but because the Labor Party leadership in parliament- especially before the 1980s – was still susceptible to pressures from its support base in the trade unions.

Lingard’s point is not only important as an assessment of where parties stood over the issue – and there is plenty of good material on this in her book – but also important in explaining how the memory of this very exciting, inspiring and humane event was erased from class and national memory. The Labor government was followed by 17 years of government by Menzies (1949-1966). During almost all of this time the Australian government adopted a hostile attitude to Indonesia, supplying arms to rightist military rebels against the Indonesian government in the 1960s and waging a propaganda, diplomatic and military opposition towards the anti-imperialist policies of president Sukarno in the 1960s. It is not surprising that solidarity with the Indonesian militants of the 1940s was encouraged to disappear. (A history of how that actually happened would also be interesting, including how and when it disappeared from the institutional memory of Australian trade unions).

Now, occasionally, the belated Australian government support in the United Nations for Indonesian independence after 1946 will get a mention in official speeches about Australian Indonesian relations. This domestication of the memory of those events is based on the erasure of memory of the working class, grass-roots fundamentals of that experience.

This is a very important book. Buy it and read it, is my suggestion.

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