Monday, April 16, 2007

The first Indonesian boat people

Among the first were a group of Indonesians who came on their own - the first 'boat people'. In March 1942 a group of 67 Javanese men, women and children who had been living in Sumatra attempted to sail back to Java. Trained fitters and turners, the men were required to report for work at the Dutch arsenal in the town of Bandung. However, the speed of the Japanese invasion made this impossible, and the group turned south. After a hazardous journey they reached Fremantle, in Western Australia. There they were told to continue to Port Melbourne, arriving in April. As their ship docked, local Melburnians were treated to a sight they had never seen before. The Javanese were gathered on deck, wearing traditional dress: colourful sarongs, sashes and long lace blouses for the women, some of them suckling babies; sarongs, black jackets and caps and ceremonial kris for the men. John Guthrie, a young boy living at Port Melbourne at the time, recalls the excitement as word spread and he and his friends raced to the dock. Of particular interest was the fact that these were 'brown' people, whom the boys had never seen before. Dutch officials met the ship, but were at a loss to know what to do with these unexpected arrivals. Finally they asked the advice of Rev John Freeman, minister of the Port Melbourne Methodist Church, who agreed to help. With permission from the church authorities the church hall was turned into home for the refugees for the next three years. Small rooms off the main hall were allotted to family groups. Single men used the hall itself. Dutch authorities and the Red Cross provided furniture, bedding, clothing and equipment. A communal kitchen was set up.
Aided by some of the local community, the Freeman family helped the refugees settle in to daily life in their temporary home. A kindergarten was established, attended by both Indonesian and Australian children. The older children attended the Nott Street primary school, where they soon learned English and excelled at their studies. Mrs Freeman took particular care of the women, taking them shopping, arranging hospitalisation when babies were born and generally looking after their welfare. A journalist from the newspaper The Argus, who visited the hall commented: 'In this little corner of Port Melbourne, East has met West'. The men, meanwhile, had much-needed technical skills. Rev Freeman had no trouble finding work for them in the government aircraft factory at Fishermen's Bend. The Indonesians made many friendships in the Port Melbourne community. John Guthrie and other young men took the opportunity to explore a new culture. They even learned to speak 'Malay' (Indonesian). In return, they took their new friends to Australian Rules football matches, ice-skating and the theatre. These friendships later led Guthrie to take part in demonstrations and marches in support of Indonesian independence. They were held in Melbourne after the world learned of Sukarno's 'proklamasi' of 17 August 1945. Jan Lingard (jan.lingard@asia.usyd.edu.au)

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