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Jakarta riots, May 1998

In the middle of May 1998, major riots broke out in Jakarta and – to a lesser extent – some other Indonesian cities. They began with a peaceful student demo that ended in deaths, followed over the next two days by more protests and by riots by students, Islamic groups, looters and thugs, each with their own agenda. The week-long breakdown of law and order resulted in President Suharto stepping down and the path to democracy beginning.

I was living in West Jakarta at the time, teaching English at a college some kilometres away and working afternoon/evening shifts. What follows is my personal experience in two of the hot spots of the time, based on notes I made on today’s date back then.

Jakarta 13 May ‘98

I had just finished lunch at Citraland Shopping Centre on Jl Parman in West Jakarta and headed off over the foot-bridge, intending to catch a bus to the Australian Embassy to obtain papers for my fiancee’s visa. Across the multi-lane highway I could see a group of students in front of Trisakti University, cheering and chanting. The far side of the footbridge was filled with people peering down at them, blocking my egress. I found a vantage spot for myself to watch what might happen.

A short distance down the highway were a couple of hundred students who had drawn up in a phalanx confronting a thin line of a dozen cops in white helmets carrying round rattan shields, some with red flowers in them, and ordinary nightsticks. Student leaders were containing the front line about five metres in front of the cops, while other student ‘officials’ pushed back students who jumped the fence onto the road and a few traffic cops and soldiers waved the traffic through. The atmosphere was carnival-like.

Other students were slowly pouring out from campus, while those at the front set up a chant and surged forward. The cops retreated 6 or 7 metres in a muddled way; none had walkie-talkies and no one was obviously directing them (few people had cell-phones then). This happened a few times until the student body, now several hundred strong, reached a point where the lanes from a major artery intersecting Jl. Parman merge with the straight-through traffic. Nearly all the protesting students were on the street now, while traffic cops, soldiers and student leaders waved traffic through on the far lane. The student body had come to a halt at a double line of ordinary police with truncheons.

By this time, a crowd of wong cilik (ordinary or ‘little’ people) had gathered on the foot-bridge, shouting “Advance” and “Enter the toll road” once they learned the students wanted to march on Parliament, a couple of kilometres away. About twenty anti-riot personnel appeared from nowhere in jungle-green gear including flak vests, neck guards, full-length shields, long black batons and rifles slung across their backs. I moved from directly over the students back to further down the bridge, in case warning shots were fired over the students’ heads.

In fact, the ‘flak-jacks’ simply took a position at one side of the student body to deter them from jumping the fence into the main lanes from the airport. By this time, the lanes from Daan Magot were blocked and a long line of buses and cars were stuck. An armoured personnel carrier with a water cannon on the roof moved up behind the police. Somehow, some students spilled out around the end of the fence where the lanes converged, pushing past Polisi. Some traffic cops and student leaders made ineffectual attempts to herd them back, until only one lane remained open and traffic bottle-necked back up the lanes from the airport.

Two more personnel carriers arrived and police got out to form another double line about fifty metres behind the first lot. Military police appeared and pushed the ‘spillover’ students back over the divide, so they were then between two lines of police. Several hundred metres down the road (to the east, or city centre), three army personnel carriers drew up, plus some soldiers on motorbikes. The front line of the police was pushed back a bit, so that a student could climb on front of the police carrier and address the students through a megaphone. There was some chanting, and generally the atmosphere was still peaceful but boisterous on the students’ part, and restrained on the soldiers’ part.

It began raining lightly and students sat down on the road. Then a Military Policeman cleared the bridge of onlookers and I went to California Chicken upstairs in Citraland, with a window overlooking the street, so I could eat and watch. Many journalists had appeared, mainly occupying the ‘DMZ’ between the soldiers and students. When I left to go to work at 3.15 pm, nothing had changed. Later that evening, we heard that four students and two others had been shot dead. One of the deceased was a pal of an inmate at my boarding-house, who arrived home very upset.

The four students died within the grounds of Trisakti and others were injured. Later it was revealed that Polisi shot at students who had already retreated to campus. One of my students had watched from the 9th floor of a faculty building and later told me the trouble started when students threw rocks and bottles at the police. One newspaper said the students had become angry when they found an intelligence agent in their midst. As for the police, I thought they showed great constraint for many hours. If they’d had a stronger presence and acted more firmly, they may have contained the students without incident.

14 May

The day began normally but with a touch of tension. Class attendances at my college were nearly back up to strength. However, mid-afternoon a mother came to take her boy from my class, babbling incoherently about fires. We teachers went up on the roof and could see smoke billowing from Grogol district (where my fiancée lived) and from a government building closer to town. Word was that a petrol station had been torched and more trouble was afoot. Classes were cancelled.


15 May

Still anxious to get to the embassy, I again go to the bus-stop outside Trisakti. Riot troops are resting on the lawn in front of Citraland, which is closed. I cross the footbridge – no sign of students. Wait for in vain for a bus and my pager buzzes: a message from my fiancee says “Danger. Go home.” I need to get money and food, so I walk to Taman Anggrek shopping centre about a kilometer down the highway, but the shops inside are shutting down. The centre’s head of security notices me and invites me to stay at his home for safety, as “the neighbourhood is dangerous.” I say I’ll be fine as my landlord is a retired colonel. He says that’s dangerous too. Incredulous, I decline his offer and have lunch at a food-stall in the street, whence I see smoke billowing high in the sky from several places.

As there is now no transport to be seen on the almost-deserted highway, I start to walk home and turn into Jl Tanjung Duren Utara, a suburban artery. Small groups of wong cilik seem surprised to see me but greet me cheerily. Ahead, near the local police station, I see a large group of people blocking the street as they trap some Polisi in their small station. Deciding to be cautious, I backtrack into a side street and go to a mate’s boarding-house to have a yarn till the streets cleared. Out front were Cina (ethnic Chinese) and pribumi (indigenes) who advise me not to proceed home. We can see smoke billowing from behind Mercuri Hotel – in fact, the traffic police office and two patrol vans burning. There are sounds of the mob approaching, so all guests go inside and the grill access door is locked.

Now I realize that the guests are nearly all Cina students and we are thus a possible target. Twice the mob surges past, once rattling the grill door, and I become genuinely frightened. The Cina retreat to their rooms, some armed with lengths of wood. I check the rear of the boarding-house for exits and find the back wall is two metres high and topped with glass. Escape that way would be with injury. In any case, things calm down and inmates watch cartoons in the lounge instead of non-stop news of burning buildings and riot.

Through the afternoon, parents come to take their offspring home. Once or twice I go to the front door but the young pribumi guards say ‘Tanung Duren is burning’ or ‘crowded’ (i.e. with mobs). They seem concerned for the inmates’ welfare. By 6 pm it seems quiet, I feel bored, it’s Muslim prayer time, so I think I’ll try walking home before it’s dark. Out on the streets it is very quiet, barricades removed, a big bunch of cops being briefed at the formerly besieged police station. I’m still scared and force my legs to move.

Turning into Jl Tanjung Duren, the street to my place, it is very quiet, with just a few pribumi around. A police patrol car cruises by. A burnt-out Kijang SUV lies on its side. All down the street, windows are smashed on Chinese shops and buildings, and on all banks except two regarded as ‘people’s banks’. No buildings are burnt out entirely and pribumi-owned Ramayana department store within the local markets has its lights on. The side street I live in was unscathed and I find my old landlord and his maid waiting anxiously for me. On my fiancee’s emphatic instruction, I stay indoors for two days and most local Chinese do likewise.

Normality has only returned this week (25 May). Slipi Jaya shopping centre, a favoured haunt of mine further along Jl. Parman, was totally razed: 64 burnt to death, mainly looters and shop assistants. Burnt buses and cars sit on the lot opposite Citraland. “100% native-owned” is painted on some buildings in case of a resurgence of burning and smashing. Slogans on the side of the foot-bridge say “Kill Suharto quick” and “Suharto must be killed”. There are wreaths on the front fence of Trisakti and the slain students are now hailed as heroes of democracy and Reformasi.


It was an anxious time for several weeks, for no-one could be quite sure that the rioting was over or what Suharto, the government and/or the armed forces would do. For a few days, TV was full of scenes of burnt-out buildings and neighbourhoods, of wong cilik chasing police down the street, of gangs controlling the road to the airport and robbing carloads of people trying to flee, of tales of people getting home to find their husband/wife/children killed by fire or murdered, of stories of pack rapes (denied by officials), of the death-toll (1000, 1200, 1500, 2000 – the last being popularly accepted), of rumours about ‘robust young men with military haircuts’ acting as agents provocateur, of finger-pointing and wild surmise.

Many department stores had been gutted of everything moveable. English schools closed and only reopened when their mainly Chinese clientele dared to venture out again. Under pressure from senior officials and generals, Suharto stepped down, shocked, confused, but seemingly shameless. A new normalcy slowly asserted itself, but things were never quite the same again.

My fiancee and I later married and moved to Australia. Having met a lady from Jakarta, I related my experience and said how, in my local convenience store, looters even stole the clocks of the wall. ‘At my place,’ she responded quietly, ‘they even took the doorknobs off our doors.”

Indonesian Heroes Day – the eve of Armistice

We all know 11 November is Armistice Day, when we remember those fallen in battle, especially in major wars that everyone knows about. But few people other than Indonesians are familiar with the Battle of Surabaya, celebrated on 10 November as Heroes Day in Indonesia.

This is despite the fact that one the main protagonists, apart from Indonesian nationalists, were the British armed forces (including many Indians), with numbers of Dutch personnel. It was a battle for independence for Indonesians and for reassertion of colonial power by the Dutch, with the Brits caught in between.

British armor in Surabaya

During the battle, there were propaganda broadcasts by ‘Surabaya Sue’, a Scots woman whose life included many moves, name changes, adventures and delusions (for more, see If she is to be believed, at least two Australians present crossed over to the Republican side, as did significant numbers of Indians.

BersiapinSurabayaTo see how the battle worked out, click  DUTCH EAST INDIES October 1945: the Battle of Surabaya part 1 and DUTCH EAST INDIES November 1945: the Battle of Surabaya part 2.

Happy Heroes Day to Indonesia, and respectful remembrance to all Commonwealth forces who did their duty.

Little Dove, Big Heart

This is the tale of the good ship Duyfken (Little Dove) and her sometime skipper, Willem Janszoon – a tale that gives us a window into the contest for the Spice Islands and also tells of the first European landfall on Australia.

duyfken_sailBEGINNINGS OF THE SPICE RACE: For centuries, highly-sought spices of the East – cinnamon, peppers, cloves, nutmeg, mace – had been transported by sail variously to Malacca (in Malaya), Achin (north Sumatra), Bantam (now Banten, West Java) or key ports in the Moluccas, a huge island-specked area west of New Guinea. From there they would be conveyed by Indian, Persian and Arab traders to the Middle East, and thence by caravan to the eastern Mediterranean, before being distributed by Venetian and Genoese ships to the sale points of Europe. However, in 1453 the Turks captured Constantinople and levied tolls on the caravans, making this route much less profitable.

East Indies are between Asia and Australia

The East Indies are between Asia and Australia

Portugal was therefore keen to find an ocean route to the Indies, a vague term roughly encompassing India and lands eastward, and a great age of maritime exploration began. In 1511,  Portugal’s Captain Alburqerque conquered the trading port of Malacca and the maritime nation proceeded to establish itself in Bantam and the Moluccas, home of the Spice Islands, gaining virtual monopoly of the spice trade within ten years.

In the late 1500s, the Netherlands rose in revolt against Spanish domination and, in retaliation, King Philip of Spain blocked their access to the port of Lisbon. A major part of Dutch sea commerce had consisted of collecting Asian goods brought by the Portuguese to Lisbon and distributing them around Europe. The port closure prompted the Dutch to step up efforts to secure their own maritime line-of-supply from the Spice Islands. England, which had also been reliant on Lisbon, did the same. Portugal wanted to block everyone else.

THE FIRST DUTCH FLEET:  In 1595,  Fleet_of_Houtman  a company of Amsterdam merchants dispatched a four-vessel fleet under Cornelius de Houtman along the established route to the Indies: roughly southerly to Africa’s Cape of Good Hope and then very roughly easterly to Java. It was a wretched journey and, when the surviving vessels limped home two and a half years later, 160 out the original 249 men had perished. Nonetheless, the expedition brought back enough spices to cover costs.

Also in 1595, the Duyfken was built in the Netherlands. She was a kind of vessel referred to as a pinnace: three-masted, less than 20 metres long, 5 metres wide and with a 2 metre draught. Fast and nifty, she was armed with eight guns and four catapults. I recently looked over its replica and can assure you there is precious little room for twenty men, which was the original Duyfken’s complement (for videos of the replica, see YouTube). It is unclear exactly what she was used for in the first years of her life.

Duyfin replica

Full-scale replica of the Duyfken, built in Fremantle, Western Australia

THE SECOND WAVE: Competing Dutch merchants sent out more fleets to the Indies, with varying degrees of success. In March 1598, a well-equipped fleet under Admiral van Neck set sail with eight ships, including the Hollandia, on which Willem Janszoon (or Jansz) sailed as mate. Little is known of his earlier life but it is thought he was an orphan born around 1570, who received a reasonable education. He was described as “a very competent and sober man”. It seems no picture of him has survived.

When van Neck’s fleet reached Bantam, four ships spiceswere loaded with spices and returned with Janszoon to Holland, realising a 400% profit! The rest of the fleet sailed eastwards to the Moluccas, home of key spice-trading ports, where they loaded with nutmegs and mace, and set up trading posts on the Banda islands (1,700 miles east of Bantam) with a few men left to staff them.

Some Dutch companies formed a joint venture to finance another large fleet. In 1599, the original four ships were sent out as an advance party under Vice-Admiral Jacob Wilkens, with Janszoon as a first mate, returning in 1601 after a successful voyage. Janszoon sailed again as ship’s master in fleet of three, reaching Sumatra in 1602. The Dutch commander went off with an English fleet to attack a Portuguese ship, while Janszoon stayed behind and charted Malayan coasts. He got back to the Netherlands the next year.

Moluccas in pale green. Ternate & Tidore near the top, Banda to south.

Indonesia, with Maluku (the Moluccas) in pale green. Ternate & Tidore near top, Banda to south.

As for the Duyfken, two years earlier it had joined a fleet led by Willem Cornelisz Schouten, whose four ships reached Bantam on Christmas day, coming up against a Portuguese fleet of no less than thirty vessels. The plucky Dutch engaged this force in intermittent skirmishes, taking only a week drive them off. The dominance of the Iberians (Portuguese and Spanish) had been cracked.

After repairs, Duyfken sailed to the spice-trading port of Ternate in the Moluccas, taking on a cargo of cloves. She then sailed to Banda islands to load up with nutmeg, and thence eastwards to check what the Portuguese were up to. After this voyage, Duyfken set off for her homeland in company with some larger ships but was separated from them in a storm off Africa, still reaching the Netherlands before them in early 1603. ternate THE DUTCH EAST INDIA COMPANY: In 1602, the Netherlands government had sponsored the establishment of the United East India Company (VoC), and granted it monopoly of trade in Asia, thus combining the strength of the former competing-cum-cooperating merchants. The cartel had the right to build forts, raise armies, make treaties and militarily engage in the region as it saw fit.

The VoC assembled a 12-vessel fleet under Admiral van der Hagen, with instructions to intimidate Spanish and Portuguese ships on the coasts of Africa and India, and to chase the Iberians out of the Duyfken2Spice Islands. The refitted Duyfken, skippered by Willem Janszoon, was part of this fleet, which embarked for the Indies again in late 1603. They captured two Portuguese ships near Africa before arriving in Bantam on the eve of 1604.

In 1605, Duyfken was in a fleet that recaptured the key island of Amboina from the Portuguese. Then onward to Banda, consolidating the Dutch trading post there. The Duyfken and another vessel stayed in the area for three years exploring trading opportunities.

THE TORRES STRAIT VOYAGE: The next year, Duyfken returned to Bantam to be fitted out for a mission we read of in an English trader’s diary: “The eighteenth, heere departed a small pinnasse of the Flemmings, for the discovery of the land called Nova ginnea [New Guinea].The captain was Willem Janszoon. After reaching Banda, Duyfken pushed easterly to the southern ‘belly’ of New Guinea,  rounded it and headed through the Arafura Sea until she arrived in the Gulf of Carpentaria in northern Australia. Changing course, she bumped into Cape York Peninsula, the huge finger of land that points at New Guinea. Janszoon imagined it was the New Guinea coast extending south, but he and his men were in fact the first whiteys to see or land on the continent of Australia. Karte_Expedition_Willem_Jansz_1605-1606They explored the coast southwards as far as Cape Keerweer, before heading back north. At the Batavia River, “in sending their men on shoare to intreate of Trade, there were nine of them killed by the Heathens… so they were constrained to returne.” Thus the very first white-black contact in Australia was marred by conflict. Duyfken continued until close to the northern-most tip of mainland Australia, and then north adjacent to the narrow neck of Torres Strait until she reached the coast of New Guinea. This area is so strewn with islands, reefs, sand banks and mists that Janszoon did not discern he was in a strait leading through to the Southwest Pacific. Baffled by obstructions, he headed west around New Guinea’s belly and home to Banda, arriving in May 1606.

What the Portuguese did not know was that Captain captcookLuis Torres, for Spain, left the Southwest Pacific just weeks after the Duyfken got back to Banda and traversed westwards the strait that now bears his name. The true nature of this stretch of water was not confirmed by other powers until Captain Cook (at right) sailed west through it after his land-grab of eastern Australia in 1770.

DUYFKIN’S LAST DAYS: After her return to Bantam, it is unclear whether Duyfken made a second voyage to Australia. Later in 1607, it is recorded she had to fetch supplies for the Dutch fortress on Ternate, under stress from its enemies. Janszoon, after a misadventure in which he had to abandon a ship in Mauritius, was sent to Banda with instructions to stall English ship on their way there and buy up all the spice he could so there’d be none left for the Brits. dovestern

The Dutch next had to deal with an Iberian fleet which arrived in the Moluccas, spoiling for trouble. Setting out to confront them, a fleet including the Duyfken and the Delft, skippered by Janszoon, had a five-hour battle with three Spanish galleys, which they managed to rout. In June the following year, Duyfken was dispatched with other ships to capture a fortress on Makian Island, and a few weeks later she was taken to Ternate for repairs. The well-travelled vessel was reported as “burst in the doubling”, judged irreparable and “cast away”. Thus did the bold Little Dove meet its end in 1608.

WILLIE’S LATER CAREER: Meantime Janszoon had been sent on missions to Sumatra and India, dishing it out to the Portuguese. When his term of service expired in 1611, he returned to his homeland but soon signed for another three years and set off for the Indies again, bashing Portuguese again. He next governed the island of Solor, a centre of sandalwood trade, for few years until his new term expired,  and then went back to the Netherlands, where he served on the defence fleet.

Natives of Banda

Natives of Banda

Next – you’ve guessed it –he returned to the Indies, participating in the destruction of Jacatra (on whose ruins the future capital of Indonesia was built) and then trounced four English ships off Sumatra. When England and the Netherlands made peace in 1620, Janszoon was in a combined fleet that attacked any common enemy between Bantam and Tokyo, becoming an admiral to the bargain. For a while he served as Governor of Banda, before heading a fleet on a diplomatic mission to India.

After that, he helped organise the defence of Java but finally went home for good in 1628, ending his VoC career with a report on the state of the Indies, with the company recording “he has pleased us greatly”. And that’s the last we hear of Willem Janszoon. They don’t make men like him any more.


‘A Brave Ship’ (no date) at

Corn C, 1999, The Scents of Eden: A History of the Spice Trade, Kodansha, New York.

Milton G, 1999, Nathaniel’s Nutmeg, Sceptre, London.

Mutch T D, 1942, ‘The First Discovery of Australia…’ at

USS Houston & HMAS Perth, 1942

March 1st marks grim events in Southeast Asia 75 years ago. The Japanese Empire had recently bombed Pearl Harbor and also begun its invasion through the Malay Archipelago. Now it was poised to take over the Dutch East Indies. By late February 1942, a Japanese convoy was approaching the east end of Java.

map_of_java - LP

Dutch Admiral Karel Doorman was put in command of Allied craft on hand and headed from the East Java port of Surabaya to confront the invaders. His fleet comprised five cruisers and ten destroyers, of mixed Dutch, British, American and Australian flags. Light cruiser HMAS Perth had already served with distinction in several theatres of war before arriving in the East Indies, while heavy cruiser USS Houston had seen action in the region for some weeks previously, becoming nicknamed ‘the Galloping Ghost of the Java Coast’ because the Nips had reported her sunk so often.

What would be called the Battle of Java Sea began mid-afternoon on 27 February and consisted of intermittent engagements in which Allied vessels were repeatedly repuexeterlsed by Japanese naval forces, with heavy losses to the Allies. One by one, Allied craft came to grief or had to retreat. Admiral Doorman was a casualty, going down with his ship. Obeying orders, Perth and Houston fled westward to Batavia (Jakarta), the capital of the Dutch East Indies. Next morning, the Japanese dispatched the remainder of the Allied fleet, except for four American destroyers that escaped south to Australia.

This battle was the largest surface engagement since World War One. The Allied forces had been wiped out as a naval threat to the Japanese, whose invasion of Java was delayed by a merely a day, at cost of over 2,000 Allied lives but without the loss of a single Japanese ship.


Next day (28 February), Perth and Houston arrived at Batavia harbour, where they took on oil but could only access limited amounts of ammunition. Both ships had suffered considerably from previous action. Orders were received to sail with Dutch destroyer HNLMS Evertsen to the port of Cilacap on the southern coast, on the Indian Ocean. To to this, they would have to sail around

USS Houston

USS Houston

the western end of Java, through the Sunda Strait (top left of map) between Java and the massive island of Sumatra. The Americans and Australians duly set out at seven that evening, while the delayed Evertsen followed an hour later.

Perth’s Captain Hector Waller, higher in rank to Houston’s Captain Albert Rooks, decided to sail directly to Sunda Strait, without making a curve around the invasion forces as ordered by Admiral Helfrich, commander of Allied naval forces in the region. Waller and Rooks were apparently unaware of the exact deployment of Japanese navy vessels. In fact, the Nippon navy had a number of invasion forces at hand, including a cruiser and four destroyers at Merak in the Sunda Strait, plus a cruiser, eleven destroyers and fifty transports in Bantam Bay on the north coast near the entrance to the strait, as well as other vessels elsewhere.

Doubtless the Japanese in Bantam Bay were surprised to see enemy ships appear in their midst in the dark, but wasted no time in engaging them. At

Capt. Hec Waller

Capt. Hec Waller

about10.30 pm a Nippon destroyer loosed off torpedoes at the Allied duo, but in vain. The two cruisers now saw the enemy forces in the bay and fired at transport ships there. Stronger Japanese vessels closed in on the Allies, effectively surrounding them. Perth and Houston replied with gunfire and, in Perth’s case, also torpedoes. There was some mutual but limited damage inflicted at first. However, the battle quickly escalated with attacks from all directions, sometimes at very short range.

By 11.30 pm, the Allied cruisers were nearly out of ammo and could only hope to cut and run for safer waters. As she attempted to do so at a few minutes past midnight, Perth was struck by four torpedoes in succession. Following orders, most of her crew abandoned ship during the strikes but incurred many casualties in the process, especially from exploding ordinance in the water. Still under fire from several destroyers and with its last guns blazing back, Perth heeled over

HMAS Perth crew

HMAS Perth crew in Fremantle, Western Australia.

and sank at about 12.25 am on 1st March, taking half the crew down with her. The good ship lost 375 men, including Hec Waller. Of the three hundred or so who survived, more than one hundred died in captivity, with 214 men repatriated after the end of hostilities.

Meanwhile Houston fought valiantly on, badly on fire and with only smaller guns left operational, but she gave of her best. Then a torpedo struck her and she

Capt. Albert Rooks

Capt. Albert Rooks

began to lose headway. Her gunners managed to strike three enemy destroyers before Houston took three more torpedo hits around 12.30 am. Captain Rooks was killed by flying debris and, minutes later, yet another grand ship heeled over and sank, taking two-thirds of her crew down with her. Out of over a thousand men just 368 survived, only to be interned in Java and elsewhere.

While the two cruisers were fighting for their lives, Dutch destroyer Evertsen had arrived on the scene, saw the flashes of battle, tried to bypass it, ran into enemy fire, altered course, managed to escape, re-entered the strait (reason unclear), raElverstenn into the enemy again, and escaped again but with her stern on fire. Still under attack, her captain beached Evertsen on a reef and the crew escaped just before their ship exploded. Nearly all were captured and interned, with their captain dying in captivity.

In the whole battle, Japanese casualties were relatively light and – all up – only four transports and a minesweeper were sunk, possibly all by ‘friendly torpedoes’ rather than by the Allied ships; two of these vessels were refloated. The Nippon victory secured the vast resources of archipelagic Southeast Asia and established a defensive arc stretching from Malaya, through the entire East Indies, across the north of New Guinea and finally on to the Southwest Pacific. It would prove a hard perimeter to crack.

The full story of Perth and Houston’s last stand was unknown until war’s end in 1945,  when survivors were released from concentration camps. The ships, captains and crews are now honoured in plaques or shrines in a number of towns and cities in America and Oz. Regrettably, the wrecks of both cruisers have suffered from illegal salvage to the point of disappearance.

“There are no great men – only ordinary men who, from time to time, are called upon to do great things.”  – Admiral William F. Halsey.


Carlton, M. 2011, Cruiser, Heinemann, Australia

Morton, L. 1962, The War in the Pacific: Strategy and Command, Dept of the Army, Washington.

Thompson, P, 2008, Pacific Fury, William Hienemann, Sydney.


Ever seen the musical The King and I? Or watched Jodie Foster in Anna and the King of Siam? Sure these films are different, but they both portray Anna Leonowens as a plucky Christian English governess alone in the Siamese court, battling fearlessly for enlightened principles against a barbarous autocracy, and guiding Siam (Thailand) along the path to reform.

This sort of imagery built upon that in the 1944 book Anna and the King of Siam, based on Anna’s own writings about her Siam sojourn in the 1860s. All the above were exercises in myth-making, as revealed in a carefully-researched biography by Alfred Habegger called Masked: The Life of Anna Leonowens, Schoolmistress at the Court of Siam (University of Wisconsin Press, 2014).

Foster with Chow Yun-Fat

Jodie Foster with Chow Yun-Fat

For her self-crafted persona, Anna concealed that she was no ‘lady’ in the sense used then, but rather the daughter of an English sergeant and a half-Indian woman, who attended a charitable school in India. She married an Irishman, following him through doomed career moves in Singapore, Australia and Penang until he died penniless. For a while, she tried to run a school in Singapore before scoring the job of governess to King Mongkut’s many progeny. Cutting all ties with her family (she had previously quarreled with a number of them), she set off for Bangkok with her two kids and created a new identity for herself as a pure English lady.

Despite conflict and breakdowns, Anna displayed true grit as well as arrogance, surviving there for five years. However, her influence on king and country was far less than she made out. She was not, for instance, the architect of slavery abolition in the kingdom. And to this day Thais vehemently object to King Mongkut being portrayed as a bit of a boof and to suggestions Anna played a key role in Siam’s modernisation.

After Siam, Anna moved to North America, wherei she re-tooled her identity as a writer and lecturer. For many years, she enjoyed fame based on her mythologised life, negative tales(and outright lies about King Mongkut, his hareem and Siam in general. In the process, Anna shamelessly plagiarised other people’s writings and boldly faced down anyone who fingered her falsehoods. She was active and apparently respected in the fields of education and women’s rights, dying at the age of 88 in Canada.

So, a remarkable woman who showed real pluck in handling the cards life dealt her, but also a fraud to some extent. Nevertheless, Anna’s self-styled legend seems likely to endure in popular imagination.


Kartini Day: Indonesia remembers a heroine

On 21st April, Indonesia celebrates  ‘Kartini Day’, in remembrance of R. A. Kartini, who argued for women’s emancipation in the Dutch East Indies (as they were then called).

Raden Ajeng Kartini was born into an aristocratic family in 1879, when Javanese women rarely received an education. Her liberal father allowed her to go a Dutch school until the age of twelve, after which she was mainly secluded in the household, as was the custom for upper-class women. She managed to befriend a number of progressive Dutch and Indonesian individuals who stimulated her thinking, including the need for Indies women to get an education. She became active in that regard, but some of her plans (such as going to Holland to study) were thwarted by the conservative establishment and by her concern for her father’s feelings.

In letters to her friends, Kartini poured out her heart on issues such as her duty as a daughter, conflicts between the good and bad of Western values and the good and bad of traditional Java, and the lot of Indonesian women. She wanted to “substitute justice for old traditions” and “enlighten all of our people, and… raise up our sisters, so they may live and be treated as human beings”.

Kartini & husband

Kartini & husband

One of the issues that vexed her was polygamy, widely practised at the time and still legal in Indonesia today. She called it a “monstrous crime… enlivened by women’s foolishness: the victims.” She wrote that, if set on the path to this “cruel torture”, she would scream “I won’t.”

Some of her views and activities bothered her father, who also suffered recurrent illness. Kartini agonised that perhaps her behaviour was making him ill. When he arranged her marriage to an older man with three wives already, she conceded. Luckily her husband was also comparatively progressive and supported her efforts to establish a school for the wives of native officials. However, several days after she gave birth to a son, she tragically died, at the age of only 25.

After her death, one of her friends published a collection of her letters called “Through Darkness to Light” in English, and later as “Letters of a Javanese Princess”. The letters made her famous and had much more effect than her endeavours while she was alive; they continue to be republished today.

If you’re interested in a slightly longer account of Kartini’s life, see and click on the “Women of the Indies” button.

THE PACIFIC WAR: Battle of Java Sea

This is the story of the doomed resistance by Allied naval forces to the Japanese invasion of Southeast Asia during World War Two.               

In late 1941 and early 1942, Japanese land, air and sea forces swept down through the Malay peninsula, Sumatra, the Philippines and Borneo in their efforts to expand the Nippon Empire. A number of desperate defence efforts were made by Allied

The Japanese landed where the brown of Thailand meets the green of Malaya.

Java is the yellow ‘sausage’, bottom centre. Surabaya is below the “I” of Indonesia.

forces, without stopping the well- prepared Nippon advance. By February 1942, the Japanese were in possession of the islands of Timor and Ambon, and able to launch bombing raids on Australia’s northern shores. At the time, the ABDA (American, British, Dutch, Australian) naval forces were not in the best of form: they were hastily put together,  disunited, demoralised,  deficient in joint training, lacking modern warships, and suffering insufficient air support.

By February 27, a Japanese convoy of 18 craft was approaching the east end of Java. Dutch Admiral Helfrich, Commander-in-Chief of ABDA naval forces in the East Indies, ordered that all available Allied warships fight for the survival of Java. Admiral Karel Doorman commanded the 14 craft on hand and sailed from the East Java port of Surabaya to confront the invaders. Contact was made mid-afternoon, beginning a battle consisting of intermittent engagements in which the ABDA fleet was repeatedly repulsed by the Japanese, with heavy losses to the Allies.

The Exeter under fire.

HMS Exeter under fire. It was destroyed by gunfire, torpedos and scuttling charges.

In the first encounters, the British heavy cruiser Exeter was critically damaged and had to slink back to Surabaya, escorted by a Dutch destroyer. Then the Japanese sank the Dutch destroyer Kortenaer and British destroyer Electra, while one Nippon ship had to retire because of damage.

Early in the evening, the ABDA fleet broke away from the engagement and four American destroyers returned to Surabaya to refuel. The remains of the ABDA force tried in vain to sink Japanese transports. Later in the night, British destroyer Jupiter hit a mine and sank. At 11pm, the rump of the ABDA fleet ran into the Japanese escort group, resulting in the sinking of the Dutch flagship cruiser De Ruyter and destroyer Java. Doorman went down with his ship.

Admiral Doorman

Admiral Doorman

Obeying orders the remaining Allied ships, HMAS Perth and USS Houston, fled to Batavia (Jakarta) at the western end of Java; their sad end will be related in a separate article. Next morning, the Exeter and two destroyers tried to flee Surabaya northwards but patrolling Japanese warships dispatched them all, while the four American destroyers escaped southwards to Australia.

The ABDA forces were thus wiped out as a naval threat to the Japanese, whose invasion of western Java was delayed by a merely a day, at terrible cost of well over 2,000 Allied lives. The Japanese hadn’t lost a single ship, and their complete takeover of the East Indies was now guaranteed.

Postscript: In the 75th anniversary year of this battle, it is saddening to learn that many of the sunken craft (Dutch, British, Australian and American) have been illegally plundered for scrap, often to the pint of disappearance. They are not officially classed as war graves.

SOURCES                                                                                                                   Carlton, Mike 2011 Cruiser, Heinemann, Australia         ‪                                    Willmott H, 1982, Empires in the Balance: Japanese and Allied‬ Pacific   Strategies to April 1942, Orbis, London.                   

See also Youtube “Battle of the Java sea Feb/March 1942” plus related vids.

cover.edEast Java in the late 1940s forms the setting for a major strand of my novel, Shadow Chase. Check it out at, where you can also find other material related to Indonesia.