Jeffrey Mellefont was a founding staff member of the Australian National Maritime Museum from 1987, and was the editor of its quarterly journal Signals. On retiring in 2014 he was appointed honorary research associate. Formerly a mariner, navigator, marine journalist and photographer, he has a lifelong research interest in Indonesian and Asian maritime history.
LEFT: Pinisi trading ship on the Barito River, S.E.Kalimantan, 1983. RIGHT: Patorani fishing boat, Makassar Harbour 1985. Photographs: Jeffrey Mellefont.
UNESCO heritage-lists Indonesian wooden-boat building
Across the 17,000 equatorial islands comprising the Republic of Indonesia, the ingenious arts of timber boat building have been a crucial enabler of human ventures from prehistoric times until today. As ports, kingdoms and states developed, distinctive traditions of boat building and seafaring underpinned trade, politics and warfare, transport and communications as well as day-to-day livelihoods and subsistence … more so in this sprawling tropical archipelago than in just about any other region in the world.
These accomplished seafarers, key participants in the world’s spice trade since ancient times, have also had long-standing economic and cultural connections with nearby northern Australia and its Indigenous coastal populations. Best-known was a centuries-old fishery that brought annual fleets from the central Indonesian island of Sulawesi, harvesting a costly, luxury marine product for trade with imperial China. This teripang or bêche-de-mer fishery was long-established when British settlers first arrived, but was prohibited in 1906 by customs officials of the new Commonwealth of Australia. Continue reading →
Arriving at Pasongsongan, Madura, to inspect a flamboyant fishing fleet returned from its nightly fishery on the Java Sea. All photography by Jeffrey Mellefont.
Thirty years ago, field-research for the museum took me to a remote little Indonesian island called Raas in the Java Sea. It was so far off regular motor-ship routes that I took passage on an engineless trading prahu propelled by a huge lateen sail. Prahus like these, called lete-lete, provided transport and livelihoods for Raas and adjacent islands, and some of them were sailed on long-haul fishing expeditions into northern Australian waters. The museum, which at that time was just beginning to develop its collections and first exhibitions, wanted to learn more about various types of maritime contacts linking Australia and Indonesia.
This autumn I returned to these same waters, leading a small group of visitors from Australia, the UK and Canada who were eager to meet some of Indonesia’s least-known maritime communities, in a region of the Java Sea where tourism has not yet arrived.
Woodcut by Joan Hassall illustrating a pivotal scene from the novel, an accident in Lyme Regis. Anne Elliot is third from left and Captain Wentworth kneeling at centre. From the 1975 Folio Society edition of Persuasion, reproduced with permission.
If, like me, you’ve been meaning to reread Jane Austen, among other classics you first read long ago, then this year is the time to do it — the 200th anniversary of her death in July 1817. And if, like me, you weren’t sure which one to begin with, let me guide you as a reader of Signals to Persuasion, with its splendid central characters drawn from the Royal Navy at the end of the Napoleonic Wars. It’s not just chick-lit for the literati. You can read it, if you like, as an adjunct or appendix to the well-thumbed maritime classics of C S Forrester and Patrick O’Brian, most likely sitting on your bookshelves already.
Exploring Indonesia’s maritime cultures and traditions on Ombak Putih, based on traditional Bugis and Makassan pinisi-style sail trader. Photos by author unless otherwise credited
In December 2015 I joined a mixed group of American, European, Australian and New Zealand guests on this handsome motor-sailer, during a 12-day voyage through some of the most historic – and most remote – islands of our vast, archipelagic neighbour, the Republic of Indonesia. My role was to deliver nightly lectures about the maritime history, cultures and traditions of the islands we were sailing through. It’s a truly extraordinary maritime world of 17,000 islands, and one in which the Australian National Maritime Museum has taken an increasing interest over recent years.
Borobodur, Indonesia 2015. Photo by Jeffrey Mellefont
Candi Borobodur, the great 8th-century Buddhist stupa in central Java, is rightly considered one of the wonders of the ancient world. With its backdrop the spectacular, active volcano Gunung Merapi, Borobodur is an hour and half drive from Yogyakarta where the ANMM exhibition Black Armada has just opened. (see curator Dr Stephen Gapps’ recent blogs about setting up and opening the exhibition).
When chairman of the ANMM Council, Peter Dexter AM, arrived in Yogyakarta after an intense schedule of meetings in Indonesia’s chaotic capital Jakarta, and with just a brief Sunday afternoon’s break before the official opening of Black Armada the following day, Borobodur was the absolute ‘must see’ priority. Not just Indonesia’s most iconic ancient site, it offers insights into the maritime significance of our archipelagic neighbour Indonesia, a significance as vital today as in the distant past.
Recent maritime research in the big archipelagic nation next door – Indonesia – reveals an explosion of creative expression among some traditional fishing communities that are turning hard-working, everyday timber vessels into floating art galleries. They’re combining older decorative traditions – usually linked to religious beliefs, ritual and magic – with modern influences from popular culture, and sometimes adding a dash of political or social commentary as well.
The brightest and most striking examples were observed on Madura, an island that lies just off north-east Java. A notable resurgence of the decorative arts was clearly under way there.