There were a significant number of incidents that proceeded what led to one of the larges maritime boycotts ever, known as the Black Armada..

Australian Trade Unions and the wage disputes of NEI workers

The first incident had to do with the large number of Indos (this was the name for a wide variety of native people across the large Indonesian archipelago) who ended up in Australia after the Japanese invasion. The Dutch had negotiated with the Australian Government that despite the White Australia Policy these people were allowed to stay in Australia as long as they would all be returned to NEI after the war.

These people were working for the KNIL (NEI Army) and the merchant navy. They either had fled NEI with the Dutch military or they were stranded on ships and as such ended up in Australia. Here these people were now deployed by the NEI Government in Exile, however they were paid wages that were significantly lower than the wages the Australian soldiers and sailors received.

In April 1942 some 2,000 Indo seamen, employed by the NEI authorities in Australia, went on strike over these wage differences, and were backed by the Seaman Union of Australia.  The heavy-handed Dutch jailed the strikers. The Union won the dispute and instead of £2 a month for unlimited hours they were paid £22 a month for an eight-hour day. Soon after that the prisoners were released, and most went back to the Dutch ships they worked on.  It would have been impossible for the Indonesian workmen to live on a £2 wage in Australia. Over the next two years other Australian unions assisted other Indonesian workers across Australia and eventually most of them received equal pay.

These activities cemented at a very early stage a close the link between the Indonesian workers and the Australian Trade Unions. Australia is known for its ‘Fair Go’ attitude.

Political Prisoners

The next incident was the arrival of political prisoners, After an uprising in 1926/27 the Dutch had put some 800 leaders of the revolt and their families in a malaria invested concentration camp in Tanah Merah in the middle of the jungle in Dutch New Guinea. With the Japanese invasion of the Netherlands East Indies (NEI) in March 1942, the Dutch were worried that these prisoners would be freed by the Japanese and thus further their cause for independence. Under the pretences of prisoners of war these political prisoners were brought to Australia. However, when it became clear that they were political prisoners the Australian Unions took up their plight and pressured the government to free these people, which indeed happened at the end of 1942.

Black Armada in support for more freedom for the Indonesian people

While the Australians had little or no knowledge about what happened in their neighbour’s country, these above mentioned incidents, which were widely covered in the Australian press, brought these issues to the attention of a much wider public.

As soon as the war had ended in August 1945, massive relief efforts were launched from Australia to the 100.000 women and children which had been held in Japanese camps, many of whom were close to starvation. Furthermore there were another 100.000 Allied prisoners of war across the islands who also had to be looked after and transported back to the respective countries.. The relief effort was combined with restoring Dutch rule in NEI. The Dutch ignored the Declaration of Independence that the Indonesians had issued in August 1945.

By this time the trade unions were ready to assist the ‘Indonesians’ in obtaining a greater say in their future. They launched plans to to boycott Dutch shipping to NEI/Indonesia.

 In order to make the planned boycott a legitimate trade union issue their political support was linked to demands that any deferred pay and retention would be based on the non-colonial wage rates as they had been negotiated in Australia. The Dutch refused to go into such an agreement.

As a result, on 20 September 1945, the first embargo on Dutch ships was proclaimed in Brisbane, followed by Freemantle, a few days later Sydney and Melbourne followed (hospital ships were exempted).

The following are newspaper articles from the archive of Jan de Wit.

The boycott was not limited to Dutch shipping but also applied to air transport, trade, repairs and storage. As reported by Rupert Lockwood[1], over the two-year period it effected: nine corvettes, 2 submarines, 7 submarine chasers; 36 Dutch merchant ships, passenger liners and troop transport ships; two tankers and 35 other oil industry craft; 450 power and dumb barges, lighters and surf-landing craft; aircrafts and land transport vehicles. Furthermore, two British troopships and three Royal Navy vessels were blacklisted. In all 559 vessels and 1.000 land crafts have been identified as being affected by the ban of the 31 trade unions involved in the boycott.

Joris Ivens with Queen Beatrix at the premiere of his last movie in 1989

The boycott was actively supported by  Asian trade unionists especially Indian and Chinese workers. One of their leaders Fred Wong[4]  features in the documentary film “Indonesia Calling”.

This was a documentary made by Dutch filmmaker Joris Ivens. The documentary was banned in the Netherlands and also briefly in Australia. Only many year later was Joris Ivens awarded for this documentary.

An Australian public opinion poll at the end of 1945 showed that 60% had read about the situation in the Netherlands East Indies in the press. Of these, 40% favoured Dutch rule because the Dutch had done a good job and the ‘Indonesians’ were not yet ready for self-government. Some 30% favoured independence because the ‘Indonesians’ had been exploited and, besides, self-rule was the right of all people. The remaining 30% either opted for joint rule or simply didn’t know what to think.

In Sydney – as documented in the Joris Ivens film – there was on 30 September 1945 a rally for Indonesia attended by over 5,000 people, all showing support for their northern neighbours. More public rallies – many supported by the churches – followed, all demanding the Dutch to hold up the Atlantic Charter[5].  This support was especially significant as at the same time the country had a strong anti-Asian policy in place, known as the White Australia Policy, this banned non-Europeans from settling in Australia. However, this official policy clashed with an important Australian sentiment that of supporting the under-dog, here being the Indonesian people.

At the same time however, the Australian Government kept supporting the Dutch and, on several occasions, proclaimed that actions taken by the Dutch – with force or not – were not subject to Australian (military) law.  The Dutch – under the extraterritorial rights they had received from the Australian Government – could act as they saw fit.

These Australian concessions to the Dutch Government were attacked by the trade unions and remarkably the unions were able to boycott the use by the Dutch of eight corvettes the Australian government had sold to the Dutch Navy.

It is important to note that not all of Australia supported the Indonesian cause, a significant part supported the re-colonialisation of NEI. The opposition to the position of  the unions was led by conservative political parties under the leadership of Robert Menzies, as well as by the mainstream Australian press and the business establishment. They strongly condemned the Black Armada boycott.

There was a serious incident in 1946.  Following the death of two people in the prison camp in Casino – one possibly a suicide – the ‘Indonesians’ in the prisoners refused to work for the Dutch recolonialisation effort. This drew a violent reaction from the Dutch military. On 12 September the Dutch prison guards opened fire at a protest by the Indonesians. One defiant ex-soldier named Soerdo was shot dead and two others wounded. Sympathisers, Casino residents and the press were outraged.

The incident was an embarrassment for the Australian Government, they demanded the closure of the camp. This nearly led to a diplomatic incident between the two countries. Eventually in November that year the camp was closed[6].

International pressure did not end the boycott

The boycott was a major international setback for a quick reoccupation of NEI needed to end the Japanese occupation of the archipelago. The Brits had taken-over Allied control in SE Asia from the Americans and had been put in charge of the liberation of NEI. They in turn wanted to handover control to the Dutch as soon as possible and like the Dutch Government they put pressure on the Australian Government to break the boycott.

Lord Mountbatten the newly appointed South East Asian Allied Commander (SEAC) did want to see the Dutch getting back to NEI as soon as possible. He flew into Sydney to try and persuade the trade unions to stop the boycott, all to no avail.

This needs to put against the background of the great overall international shortage of ships. The Dutch ships caught in the boycott were desperately needed in the global post-war effort. However, the Australian Chifley Government was unable/unwilling to break the ban. The union movement in Australia was simply too strong. Controversially there were several actions from the Australian Government in this crisis that can only be interpreted as tacit support for the Indonesian cause. 

By mid-1946 the Australian boycott petered out and the last ships and warplanes left Australia. Australia remained – be it conflicted – an important stronghold for the Dutch in their ongoing efforts to recolonise NEI.

While the boycott didn’t stop the reconquest of NEI, the delay in the recolonialisation worked in favour of the new republic, something that later was acknowledged by successive Indonesian governments. In the end of course, it was the desire of the Indonesian people to be independent that brought about their freedom from colonial rule.

The boycott was revived twice, first during the Dutch military actions against the self-proclaimed Republik of Indonesia in 1947 and 1949 and  secondly in 1960 during the New Guinea crisis when the aircraft carrier Karel Doorman and its escort on their way to what is now Papua were black listed.

The boycott remains one of the largest in global maritime history.

Paul Budde 2022

[1] Rupert Lockwood –  Black Armada

[2] Ivens came to Australia in early 1945 as the NEI Film Commissioner, to document the re-colonisation effort of the Dutch Indies from Australia.  He was employed by the NEI Government Information Service (NIGIS) in Melbourne they had 128 staff—25 of these ‘Indonesians’—(a branch office of three in Sydney), and a further 24 journalists and stringers attached as war correspondents. However, Ivens defected and started as an independent film maker to document the Indonesian struggle for independence, resulting in his Dutch passport being revoked by his government.  He moved from Melbourne to an apartment in Birtley Towers in Elizabeth Bay Road, Sydney. The movie premiered on Kings Cross in August 1946. The Dutch Government tried to stop screening elsewhere in Australia and asked for an export ban, this was initially granted but overturned a month or so later. It then screened in New York and London as well as Indonesia and New Zealand. The film was instrumental in internationalising the Indonesian cause and it supported the strong relationship that was building up between Australia and its neighbour Indonesia. Ivens left Australia in 1947. In 1985, his work was finally recognised by the Dutch Government, who offered him an apology and awarded him the highest Dutch film award the ‘Golden Calf’. This documentary had a profound impact on documentary making in Australia and it encouraged discussions about censorship, politics, national security, international relationships, film regulations and communism/cold war issues, with numerous people involved in these discussions at the highest levels: politician, bureaucrats, military, film makers, and many others. It opened up a range of issues around film making that were very specific for a rapidly growing up Australian film industry that up to than was basically based on British examples (After Indonesia Calling – John Hughes

[4] One of the strong supporters of the ‘Indonesians’ was Fred Wong, a Chinese Australian who lived in Leichhardt and had a greengrocer’s business on Parramatta Road. He features in the movie as a strong supporter for the Indonesian cause. His commitment to the Indonesian cause was amazing, he started a company Air Asia to support Indonesia with food and medical supplies, this enterprise however, was boycotted by the Australian Government as the world was rapidly entering the Cold War and Fred was seen as far to leftish but nevertheless, he was able to launch the service with one Catalina. In 1948, on his way with food and medicine to Indonesia on a stopover in Lake Boga (Victoria) he drowned in what many suggest were suspicious circumstances.

[5] The Atlantic Charter was a pivotal policy statement issued during World War II on 14 August 1941, which defined the Allied goals for the post war world. The leaders of the United Kingdom and the United States drafted the work and all the Allies of World War II – including Australia and the Netherlands – later confirmed it. The Charter stated the ideal goals for after the war—no territorial aggrandisement; no territorial changes made against the wishes of the people, self-determination; restoration of self-government to those deprived of it; reduction of trade restrictions; global cooperation to secure better economic and social conditions for all; freedom from fear and want; freedom of the seas; and abandonment of the use of force, as well as disarmament of aggressor nations. Adherents of the Atlantic Charter signed the Declaration by United Nations on 1 January 1942, which became the basis for the modern United Nations. The Atlantic Charter set goals for the post-war world and inspired many of the international agreements that shaped the world thereafter. The General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), the post-war independence of European colonies, and much more are derived from the Atlantic Charter. Source Wikipedia

Batavia, Netherland East Indies. 1945-08-17. After the Japanese surrender and before Dutch troops could reach the East Indies, Indonesians proclaimed the Republic of Indonesia. Here they are seen hoisting the red and white flag of independence. Source: Australian War Museum.

[6] De Indonesische revolutie op Australische bodem