The ships that didn’t sail

 

A scene from the 1946 Joris Ivens film Indonesia Calling showing Indonesian seamen listening to a short-wave radio for news of Indonesia’s declaration of independence. Courtesy National Film and Sound Archive Australia

In August 1945 in the Sydney suburb of Woolloomooloo, a group of Indonesians crowded around a short-wave radio set in the Indonesian Seamen’s Union offices. They were monitoring every word from Batavia Radio. When news was broadcast announcing the proclamation of Indonesian independence on 17 August, they were ecstatic.

The announcement was the climax of a decades-long campaign for independence from Dutch colonial rule, but it also began a four-year-long political and military struggle for Indonesian independence to be accepted by the Dutch and acknowledged by the international community. During this period, Australian support for Indonesia was prominent.

From late 1945, Dutch ships in Australian ports preparing to return to Indonesia with military arms and personnel were set back by a series of maritime trade union boycotts, called black bans. Support for Indonesian independence then grew beyond the labour movement and Australia led the way in international political recognition of Indonesia. This central moment in the Indonesian struggle for independence has since largely been forgotten in both nations.

Coming amid the wider context of the end of World War II, the declaration of independence made little impact in world news, so the Batavia Radio broadcast was critical. Twenty-year-old Tukliwon was a sailor on one of the Dutch ships that had fled to Australia following the Japanese invasion in 1942. He had worked on Sydney Harbour ferries during the war. The day after he heard the proclamation broadcast, he walked across the city to inform the Seamen’s Union of Australia, who promised their support.

A few days later Tukliwon and his fellow sailors were told that the Dutch wanted their Indonesian crews to take ships back to Java. In support of the foundation of a new independent homeland Indonesia, they refused to sail. The Australian Seamen’s Union then called on members for ‘an embargo on all ships carrying munitions or any other materials to be used against the Indonesian Government’.

SS Moreton Bay was one of the vessels chartered by the Dutch government-in-exile that was affected by the waterside workers’ black bans. Over 400 vessels were caught up in the boycott, significantly hampering the Dutch military and assisting the nascent Indonesian Republican forces. Australian National Maritime Museum Collection

 

By 24 September 1945 a boycott of Dutch shipping was in place in Brisbane and Sydney, before spreading to Melbourne and Fremantle. It quickly extended to other related maritime industry unions — boilermakers, engineers, iron-workers, ship painters and dockers, carpenters, storemen, clerks and tug crews.