While the actual war in the Pacific had already increased Dutch and Australian (military) relations, it was the Dutch surrender in the NEI n 1942 catapulting it to a whole new level, with the Australian Government allowing the NEI government-in-exile to be established in Australia and providing them with far reaching extraterritorial rights.
Dutch colonial attitudes started to clash with the Australian attitude of a ‘fair-go’, when it became clear that extremely low colonial wages were paid to Indonesian personnel.
Soon after this, there was the issue of what the Dutch called Japanese collaborators but what turned out to be 500 political prisoners from the concentration camp Tanah Merah in Dutch New Guinea. Luckily for the soon to become ‘Indonesia’ Australia had a Labor Government under Prime Minister Curtin. He made it clear to the Dutch that this situation was unacceptable and that these people had to be released.
These political prisoners became instrumental in making Australians aware of the Indonesian independence movement. With the support of the Australian trade unions this led to one of the largest maritime boycotts in history aimed at hampering the re-colonisation of NEI. This greatly hampered the Dutch reoccupation effort. Known as the Black Armada these boycotts were reinstated the 1960s when the Dutch were forced to handover Dutch New Guinea to Indonesia be it at the sad detriment of the local Papuan population.
Other interesting observations are the ignorance and confusion on the side of the Dutch not recognising the very strong independence movement among the ’Indonesians’; they totally missed an opportunity for a peaceful resolution and the consequences of this are still felt today.
On the Australian side we see a conflicted government that on the one side provides support to the Dutch – beyond their call of duty – and on the other hand support for the ‘Indonesians’ in their quest to decide what sort of future they wanted for their country.
Lastly the intertwined Australian-Dutch-Indonesian relationship influenced the White Australia policy. A High Court case regarding a Dutch-Indonesian family from Ambon (Moluccas) created the first crack in that policy however, the untenable policy be it in a watered-down version continued till 1973.
While in 1942 the Australian Government was still committed to the re-colonialisation effort of NEI, by 1947 they were the official Republik’s representative at the United Nations and a critic of British, American and Dutch colonialism; an incredible turnaround in such a short period.
As this study focusses on the Australian and Dutch relationship in the context of the emerging Republik of Indonesia, it could give the impression that both the activities of the ‘Indonesians’ in Australia and the Black Armada Boycott were major events in the Indonesian story, for the people involved that certainly was the case, but in all reality they were relative small events in the bigger picture.
As for Australia this was the first time, they took an independent position in an international affair and as such this was a mayor event in its history.
On the Dutch side losing NEI was humiliating and a painful experience and therefore the events covered in this study were quickly buried and are hardly known in the Netherlands.
Indonesia most certainly has regularly acknowledged the important role Australia played but in their overall struggle this was a minor event and very few ‘Indonesians’ would be aware of the activities that took place in Australia in the 1940s in relation to their struggle for independence.
While the study includes several critical observations regarding all three major players, Netherlands, Australia and Indonesia the story needs to be placed in that point in time. It is always easy to look back and draw conclusions and make analyses in hindsight. Nevertheless, some seriously wrong policies in all three countries have thrown shadows over this period that has been haunting them all those years.
Paul Budde, March 2019