How Australian workers helped Indonesia end colonial rule

Seventy years on, Lachlan Marshall explains the important role strike action by Australians unions played in assisting Indonesian independence.

At the end of the Second World War, Britain and the Australian government supported the Dutch returning as colonial masters of Indonesia. But workers in Australia had other ideas.

A trade union boycott of Dutch shipping, uniting Indonesian, Indian, Chinese, Malay and Australian workers, helped aid the fight for Indonesian independence.

The Australian ruling class saw Dutch-ruled Indonesia as an “umbrella” shielding White Australia from Asia, and were therefore initially committed to the restoration of Dutch rule.

But political strike action by the Australian union movement delivered a serious blow against colonialism and showed the power of workers’ action to bring change.

The Black Armada struck during an acute shortage of shipping as a result of the destruction of the war. It paralysed the re-occupation effort by delaying the Dutch offensive in the critical early phase of the Indonesian war of independence, contributing to the ultimate victory of the republic.

Dutch collapse

The Dutch had ruled the Netherlands East Indies (NEI)—today’s Indonesia—for 350 years. But the southward march of the Japanese ended Dutch control just as easily as that of the French in Indo-China or the British in Singapore.

The Dutch fled the Indies and in March 1942 established a Government-in-exile near Brisbane.

Labor Attorney-General Dr H. V. Evatt welcomed the Dutch to their new home, exclaiming, “Australia will become a base from which the Dutch colonies will be finally regained…we visualize the restoration of the former sovereignty.”

For this purpose they were granted extra-territorial powers to maintain their military and to imprison dissidents on Australian soil.

A Dutch steamer arrived in Australia in 1943 carrying 500 Indonesian political prisoners previously interned in the penal colony of Tanah Merah, in Dutch New Guinea. Many were leaders of the Indonesian Communist Party and veterans of the anti-colonial uprising of 1926. They were destined to be re-interned courtesy of the Australian government.

When the ship docked at Bowen, Queensland, a detainee dropped a note to a waterside worker explaining the situation of those on board and urging Australians to help them gain their freedom. A second note reached a rail worker at Liverpool station, Sydney, while the detainees were en route.

The rail worker notified activists in Sydney, who were able to trace the prisoners to the Liverpool and Cowra Prisoner-of-War camps. Unions successfully led a campaign for their release, and these seasoned revolutionaries from Tanah Merah would go on to spearhead the boycott campaign.

During the war the Dutch brought around 10,000 Indonesians to Australia as sailors, clerks, administrative staff, political prisoners and soldiers.

The Communist Party of Australia (CPA) was instrumental in forging connections between Indonesian republicans and the Australian working class.

In 1944 Indonesians in Australia formed Indonesian Independence Committees. The CPA used its network of members on the railways to deliver mail for the Indonesians, who feared monitoring by the authorities.

Indonesian nationalists saw the capitulation of the Dutch to the Japanese in 1942 as forfeiting any claim the Dutch had to the Indies. So on 17 August 1945, as the authority of the Japanese colonial occupation crumbled, Indonesian leaders Sukarno and Mohammad Hatta proclaimed Indonesian independence.

Indonesians in Australia—soldiers, sailors and engineers—declared themselves for the new republic and mutinied against the Dutch government in Queensland, NSW and Victoria.

Indonesians in Sydney were following events at home by radio. They immediately pledged support for the republic and refused to crew Dutch ships back to Java. They approached the communist-led Seamen’s Union of Australia (SUA) and Waterside Workers’ Federation (WWF), who agreed to support their stand.

Many unions opposed colonial restoration, which was regarded as a violation of the Allies’ 1941 Atlantic Charter, which pledged support for national self-determination.

The immediate post-war period saw a surge in trade union action as workers sought to make good on the sacrifices they had suffered during the war. Union membership rose by a third between 1946 and 1951. It was not until the working class rebellion of the early 1970s that Australia would see a higher level of strikes.

Workers’ increased confidence, and the widespread belief that the war had been fought not only against fascism but for a better world, made them sympathetic to the emerging national liberation movements in Asia.

Thousands of returning soldiers added a volatile element to the labour movement. Australian troops were reported to have graffitied on buildings and old tanks in Indonesia at the end of the war, “We fought for freedom—let’s give it to the Indonesians.”

The WWF ban quickly spread to other unions connected with the maritime industry: tugs, boilermakers, ironworkers, engineers, storemen and packers, painters, dockers and carpenters.

In September 1945 Indonesian troops mutinied and Indonesian seamen walked off Dutch ships in Brisbane and Melbourne after discovering arms on an Indonesian-bound ship. The fact that the strike was in part motivated by the conventional trade union grievance of deferred wages assisted them in gaining the support of the WWF.

The Sydney branch of the WWF distributed flyers on Sydney wharves declaring, “The loading of these ships is a definite challenge to the democratic ideals of the Australian Labor Movement. To assist the Dutch in any way is to assist avaricious Dutch imperialism against Indonesian democracy.”

From now on, from Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne to Fremantle, all Dutch shipping was declared banned or “black.” The call would result in bans by 31 Australian unions and four unions of Asian seamen, immobilising 559 ships that would have been deployed against the republic.

Unions from around the world, including the Dutch seamen’s union, pledged support for the republic.

Australian authorities conspired with Dutch imperialism to smash the boycott.

When Indonesians refused to crew the Van Heutz in Brisbane, and Australian unionists imposed a ban on the ship, Dutch soldiers were used to break the strike. State and federal police protected the scabs.

On 30 September a rally of 5000 filled the Sydney Domain calling for the release of imprisoned Indonesians and the removal of Dutch troops from the docks.

In October Indonesian soldiers on the Dutch ship Esperance Bay tore off the insignia on their uniforms and vowed never again to fight for the Dutch. Under trade union pressure, the Australian government repatriated the Indonesian mutineers to republican-held territory to join the struggle, rather than hand them over to Dutch internment.

Australian supporters crowded the docks to farewell the Esperance Bay, showering them with gifts, cigarettes and cries of “merdeka—independence.

As the bans gathered pace, the NSW Trades and Labour Council declared “everything Dutch is black”. When the ACTU voted in support, some 1.5 million Australian workers were formally committed to the boycott.


The Black Armada depended on the solidarity of workers from diverse backgrounds.

Indian seamen were instrumental to the success of the boycott. After a British airlift into the country they were escorted by Australian police to be used as strike-breakers on the Dutch ships.

But it wasn’t difficult for the Indian workers to identify with the Indonesians’ struggle, given the fresh experience of the Quit India campaign and the belief that the defeat of Dutch colonialism would be followed by the fall of the British Raj.

A dramatic victory came in October 1945. The Dutch tried to break the union bans by sailing the Patras out of Sydney Harbour, with Indian seamen forced to sail at gunpoint. A small boat of Australian and Indian unionists sped after them.

One of the Indian unionists, Dan Singh, appealed to the crew by megaphone, telling them they were being used to reimpose colonial rule on Indonesia. But with Dutch troops making any defiance impossible the cargo ship steamed away.

However within hours the Patras was forced to return—the crew had refused to keep the engines running!

The ships were being used for military matters, so the crew were guilty of mutiny. But despite this threat the momentum behind the national revolution rendered the maritime law a dead letter.

In October and November over 200 Indian seamen went on strike, with another 1000 on shore refusing to sail.

With the aid of Australian unions, Indonesian mutineers squatted in mansions in North Sydney and King’s Cross. Toll staff on the Harbour Bridge allowed them to cross free of charge.

The Indian strikers stranded in Sydney waged a campaign to have the Dutch shipping line, KPM, pay for their board and eventual repatriation. Two protests of Indian strikers took place at KPM’s Sydney offices in December.

The second rally marched from the strikers’ accommodation in North Sydney across the Harbour Bridge to KPM’s offices in the CBD. Australian unionists, some wearing their army and airforce uniforms, along with the remaining Indonesian seamen, joined them.

Hundreds of the strikers proceeded to occupy both the offices of KPM and the Indian High Commissioner, winning some of their demands.

Challenging racism

Indian seamen also had to confront entrenched racism from Australian union leaders.

They initially approached the SUA to represent them while in Australian waters. But the union rejected them as “foreign workers,” claiming “the union had enough to worry about as it was.” They were advised instead to form their own “foreign” union, the Indian Seamen’s Union in Australia (ISUiA), which the SUA supported.

Australian unions took a dismissive attitude to the Indians, not even inviting them to the Hands off Indonesia rally they organised in Sydney in April 1946.

Chinese and Indonesian seamen had faced a similar response and also formed separate unions.

This racism only weakened the union movement. The “foreign” workers were amongst the most class conscious workers in Australia. Malay, Indian, Chinese and Vietnamese seamen’s unions struck for equal pay in Australia and pledged support for the Indonesian republic.

One Indian striker explained: “This is not the first time I have been on strike. During the big strike in Calcutta when the Indian Seamen’s Union was first formed I went days without food. They killed some of the strikers and ever since then I have been true to Union principles.”

The “foreign workers” were among the best unionists and working class fighters and should have been welcomed into the unions—a lesson that remains important today.

Ebb and flow

The question of whether to release relief ships from the boycott divided the union movement. Relief ships ostensibly carried only humanitarian supplies and no arms.

In January 1946 the ACTU and NSW TLC suspended the strike and advocated the loading of relief ships while the WWF insisted on maintaining the ban.

The relief ships were discovered to be carrying munitions, and the militant unions defied the ACTU and reaffirmed support for the boycott, rather than trust Dutch promises.

In February Attorney-General Evatt convened a compulsory union conference to try to end the boycott.

Eventually unions agreed on the release of relief ships to Indonesia, provided that trade union monitors would accompany them to Java “to ensure that neither the vessel nor its cargo were used against the Indonesians,” a condition labelled “scandalous and insulting” by the Dutch.

But the union officials were under pressure from the Labor government to end the boycott without conditions. The strike came to an effective end in July 1946, when the ACTU and NSW TLC prevailed on the small coal lumpers’ union, which was unaffiliated to the WWF, to supply coal for Dutch ships in Sydney Harbour.

A year later in July 1947 the Dutch launched a “Police Action” aimed at crushing republican-held areas. Outrage followed.

More unions joined the boycott by refusing to work for Dutch forces or its shipping company, KPM.

Sydney University students in the Labor Club organised a demonstration at the offices of the Dutch Consulate-General, and were joined by a contingent of wharfies. The rally was attacked by NSW police, who arrested protesters. It was the first Australian student demonstration in support of an Asian independence struggle.

In August an ACTU conference reissued the ban on the movement of all Dutch goods-not just those destined for Indonesia.

The Sydney Morning Herald railed against this “industrial warfare”. Then Opposition Leader Robert Menzies lamented that the unions were “dictating Australia’s foreign policy”.

But by now only token bans were possible because most Dutch ships had already left port.

The spirit of the boycott spread to Australian troops in Indonesia supposed to be restoring Dutch rule after the defeat of Japan.

A letter signed by 80 soldiers in East Indonesia sent to the WWF claimed, “The overwhelming majority of our chaps have a tremendous amount of sympathy for these people here whose life is one of continuous squalor under the imperialists.”

The CPA had 4000 members in the military, of whom 1400 were in East Indonesia. They helped establish a pro-republican organisation in the Australian army and air force.

Australian troops encouraged Indonesian protesters and advised them on military strategy against the Dutch. Some of the Australian soldiers supported the Indonesians by distributing republican pamphlets and handing over their arms.

The Black Armada showed the power of workers’ strike action to fight imperialism and to force change despite the policies of the Australian government.

This tradition continued during the Vietnam War when wharfies imposed bans on the shipment of supplies to Australian troops on the Boonaroo and Jeparit in 1966.

As eye-witness Rupert Lockwood concludes in his history of the Black Armada: “Future historians may resolve that in this era the conscience of the Australian people found expression more often on the waterfront than in the nation’s legislatures.”

It shows how workers and trade unions can be a powerful ally for international solidarity, anti-imperialist struggles and the fight for a better world.


Solidarity meetings

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