On a rainy October night in Sydney in 1945 Phyllis Johnson was enjoying a social night at the Indian Seamens’ Club in The Rocks. Phyllis was a young Communist Party member, inspired by the dramatic events at the end of World War II when countries such as India and Indonesia were casting off the European empires that had been in control for hundreds of years. A new world was being shaped in the ashes of the war. With her husband and fellow communist ‘Johnno’ Johnson, she excitedly talked about politics with Indian sailors who were keen to practice their English.
Phyllis Johnson, photograph, taken during 1940s. Courtesy Phyllis Johnson personal collection
At 10 o’clock that night, one of the Indian sailors Phyllis had got to know well, Dasrath or ‘Danny’ Singh, burst into the club shouting ‘There’s a ship in one of the North Sydney ports. They are carrying arms on it to send to the Dutch! There are Indian seaman on it and they want to walk off!’
Keen to support these new arrivals, Phyllis and Johnno went straight over to the wharf. Phyllis called her brother who had a truck and by 2am and in the pouring rain, they had picked up the Indian sailors and taken them to a ‘coloured sailors residence’ in Pyrmont. Phyllis recalled that they came off ‘with whatever they had — really just with their bed rolls. It was terrible!’
Finding impoverished Indian sailors somewhere to stay was but part of a bigger series of events that were occurring in the ports around Australia and all over Asia. This was a period of action against the British and Dutch who were using Indian and Indonesian crews to take troopships to recolonise Indonesia.
SS Moreton Bay was one of the vessels chartered by the Dutch government-in-exile that was affected by the waterside workers’ black bans.
The tension on the waterfront in Sydney increased during late 1945 and 1946. Support for the Indian and Indonesian seamen grew amongst the Australian wharfies. In October and November 1945, Phyllis was right in the thick of it, going down to the Woolloomooloo wharves with a comrade who had a microphone and urging the crews to walk off. As Phyllis recalled, they shouted to the vessels;
Leave the ships! Don’t work on ships that are sending munitions to the Dutch! Walk off the ships! Bring whatever you can with you. And the workers of Australia will help you. Come off the ships!
And off the ships they came. Around 400, mostly Indian seamen were already on strike in Sydney Harbour over the trade with the Dutch. Phyllis and her comrades needed to find them new quarters. In a plan with no doubt some irony attached, the key to the Lido — a hotel in North Sydney where the Dutch armed forces were headquartered — was obtained and 400 ‘coloured seamen’ marched across the Harbour Bridge and occupied it.
As Phyllis recalled:
The workers of Australia supported the coloured seamen. It was absolutely wonderful. And John and I, we were both members of the Communist Party. We used to go over to the Lido at night if we weren’t there during the day. And we worked with the Indian seamen — they spoke fairly good English.
It was a long struggle, and it was one of the best experiences that John and I had working with the coloured seamen. It was wonderful international solidarity. And then Clarrie Campbell and some of the trade union leaders got a decision to repatriate the Indian seamen back home.
As Phyllis’s words make clear, the Indonesian Revolution was not just important in itself nor was it important only for Indonesians. Instead it seemed like the first step in the campaign for Independence for all colonised peoples – the ‘coloured peoples’ as Phyllis called them then.
The story of Indonesian Independence is often told as if only men took part. This is the way stories of battles and strikes are usually told — yet there were women involved in all those events. And the whole picture was much wider than the battles and the strikes. It involved particularly the rapid spread of news at the time through radio and newspapers, and, more enduringly, the emotional relationships between people — the friendships and the love affairs — which committed them to lasting support for the new Republic whatever their origin.
Those of us living outside Indonesia have seen little of the work of women then inside Indonesia, involved in the revolution – these stories will best be told by Indonesian women themselves. As an Australian historian, I know more about the Australian women involved. Between 2005 and 2008 I interviewed three of them about their experiences and involvement: Phyllis Johnson, Sylvia Mullins and Lotte Maramis. Another was Molly Bondan, a young Australian secretary who married Mohammed Bondan in 1945 and in 1947 went to live in the Indonesian Republic. After her death, Molly’s writing was compiled as In Love With A Nation which records her life. The stories of these women help to illuminate the many ways in which the Indonesian Revolution was important to people from other places around the world.
The presence of Australian women in the story of Indonesian independence has been completely invisible except for the stellar roles of two extraordinary women, Lotte Maramis and Molly Bondan, whose writing has given us a glimpse of their worlds. Yet these two individuals actually represent two larger groups of women. The first, similar to Lotte Maramis, became involved initially through personal and emotional relationships, although these may then have led them into political activity. Those more like Molly Bondan became involved with Indonesian and other seamen through political activism, which at times shifted into personal and intimate relationships.
These two groups of Australian women have seldom been recognised, except in the untiring work of another woman, the linguist and educator Jan Lingard, who in her book Refugees and Rebels also sketches out a third group in Australia, the small number of Indonesian women who came with the Dutch Government in exile from the Boven Digul prison camp as wives and daughters of the political activists who had been imprisoned, often for many years, on West Irian and who spent most of their Australian time in Mackay in far north Queensland.
Lotte Clayton and Anton Maramis’s wedding in Sydney. Published in Kabar, Australia-Indonesia Association Newsletter, January-March 2013, p 3
The first major group of Australian women, like Lotte Maramis, became involved with Indonesians when the young men exiled in Australia after the Japanese invasion were invited socially to their family homes. All groups of Indonesians, those accidentally caught and those like the ex-Digulists who had been brought by the Dutch, were eventually able to mix relatively freely with Australians in a number of towns and cities all along the eastern seaboard, which opened up social and cultural interactions between Asians and Australians that had not been known in Australia for many decades, if at all.
Lotte fell in love with Anton Maramis, a Manadonese petty officer, and married him with her family’s support, although she battled much antagonism from the broader Australian public she encountered. Many other young Australian women faced strong opposition from families and friends to the decisions they made to marry their Indonesian fiancés and return with them to their homes once Independence had been declared. As Lingard has documented, for some of these women the marriages were not successful in such different environments. But for others – and Lotte and Molly were not alone – these relationships proved strong enough to embrace and flourish in the very different society and cultures they found in Indonesia.
Molly Warner was like many women in the second group I have pointed to, for whom the hopes and visions of a new world after the war opened up many new interactions. Molly was not in a political party. Her initial connections to the other Australians who were interested in opening contacts with people from South East Asian countries, were assisted by Clarrie Campbell, her employer. Clarrie was a member of the Labor Party and a close associate of members of the Communist Party of Australia (CPA).
For Communists and non-Communists alike in the 1930s and 40s, the possibility of influencing society seemed very real. By 1944, many Australians had become aware of the decolonisation process, and – rather than be fearful of it – had begun to look at how they could become more engaged with their closest neighbours as they became independent of empire.
Indian, Indonesian and Chinese seamen had all been trying since 1939 to have the maritime dangers of the war better recognised through pay increases and improved conditions. During their campaigns, each group had met white Australian supporters. One whom the Indians met had been Clarrie Campbell, who had met Indian troops many years before when he was a soldier at Gallipoli. In October 1943, Campbell had been among those who had formed the Indian-Australian Association (IAA), a body aimed at better informing Australians and which had been active in raising funds to relieve the severe famine in Bengal in that year.