White Australia Policy and the Indonesian war refugees

The developments around the Netherlands East Indies (NEI) situation during the 1942-1945 period caused headaches for all parties involved, the interned and striking ‘Indonesians’, the Dutch and the Australians.

Under the White Australian policy, the non-European “Indonesians’ were – as agreed on their arrival in 1942 – not allowed to stay in Australia and with the war over most of them wanted to go home and the host country wanted to get rid of them ASAP. The ‘Indonesian’ prisoners who refused to work for the Dutch wanted to be returned to those parts of Indonesia under the control of the new republic and they were supported in this by the Australian Government, but the Dutch were vehemently opposed to this they wanted to bring them to those areas occupied by them. They were supported in this by the Brits and the Americans.

With an uncooperative Dutch Government, Australian ships at Australian costs were now used to bring the ‘Indonesians’ back to areas now controlled by the young Republic, according to government records this involved 3,768 persons. The Dutch were furious about this Australian intervention, and this led to yet another diplomatic row.  

There were ‘Indonesians’ who stayed loyal to the Dutch but they were only a minority and as mentioned they came mainly from Ambon. This resulted in further problems as these people were promised independence by the Dutch, a promise they were unable to honour. This resulted in serious problems that lasted for decades after the conflicts ended.

The chaos around repatriation led to further delays in their departure from Australia. Prisons and refugee centres were overflowing, other temporary facilities had to be used to house them such as the offices of the trade union in Brisbane and two empty hotels in Sydney.

The re-patriation process to Indonesia led to further Dutch-Australian conflicts, with Australian ships being intercepted by the Dutch and certain ‘Indonesians’ being removed from them forcibly and brought to Dutch prisons in areas in Indonesia controlled by them. However, in one way or another be it months or even a year later most of those who had been stranded or imprisoned in Australia or indeed re-occupied NEI did end up in the liberated areas.

Memorial of the crash at the War Cemetery in Cairns.

The following story about Samuel Jacob has an interesting link to the White Australia policy, but apart from that there are other links to the broader story.

Returning from New Guinea to Cairns in September 1944, the  C-47 (Dakota) DT-941 (VH-RDK) aircraft in which Samuel was flying disappeared without trace. It was not until 1989 that the remains of the aircraft and its 19 passengers and crew (including 14 Dutch airmen) were discovered in mountainous rainforest near Mossman, Queensland, about 150 kilometres short of their destination. 


Here are the other links to the story:

  • Merauke where Samuel has worked and from where the ill-fated plane left in 1944 was also – as indicated above – the town where my aunt, in the 1950s started her career as a teacher in Dutch New Guinea;
  • In 1989, in Cairns, I attended the burial of the victims, which took place with full military honours in Cairns War Cemetery;
  • Samuel’s wife was the first person to cause a crack in the ‘White Australia Policy’.

Samuel Jacob – Merauke, a plane crash and the ‘White Australia Policy’

  Samuel Jacob, born in Ambon was a headmaster in Merauke, a job he combined with being a local civil administrator. Together with his family he was evacuated in August 1942 to Australia. Here he worked with the NEI government-in-exile for the re-building of Indonesia after the war. He worked here with van Mook and attended the school for civil servants that was established by van Mook in Melbourne.  

Samuel went back to Merauke in 1944 for a reconnaissance visit but on the way back his plane crashed near Mossman in Queensland. The wreck was not found until 1989. The 18 victims were buried with full military honours at the War Cemetery of Cairn on 28 July 1989. Dutch relatives were flown over to Sydney from where they were taken by a military Hercules plane to Cairns. At that time, I was a radio correspondent for the Dutch broadcaster Veronica and I was asked to do a report on the ceremony, so I was present when Samuel (among the others) was honoured on that day; at that time totally unaware of the history that I have now written in which he plays a role.  

The Family O’ Keefe

The third angle to this story is that Samuel and his family while having the Dutch nationality, were all born in Ambon. Under the White Australian Policy, it had been negotiated with the Dutch Government that all ‘Indonesians’ (non-whites) would go back after the war. However, Samuel’s wife Annie and their seven children had settled in Melbourne and the kids were among the best pupils of their school and the family therefore wanted to stay in Australia. She had – after the death of her husband – married her landlord, John O’Keefe an Australian, however the Australian government wanted her and her family to leave. This became a political issue as the community around her as well as the national press got behind her, and eventually a High Court ruling allowed her to stay, this case became the first crack in the White Australian Policy, while over subsequent years watered down considerably it was only officially repealed in 1973.  


Squadron Leader Dawson (left) in conversation with the commanding officer of No. 18 (NEI) Squadron, Lieutenant Colonel B.S. Fiedeldij, in May 1943 at McDonald strip, the squadron’s operational base in the Northern Territory. Source: Australian War Memorial.

One of the other victims of the crash was Squadron Leader Leslie “Smokey” . He was the commander of the Australian element of No. 18 (NEI) Squadron, and was awarded the Dutch Order of Orange Nassau for his “highly valued assistance, both in training and under active service condition”, he was also the air liaison officer to the Dutch forces.