Sea Gypsies to Sultans: Meeting the mariners of the Java Sea

Arriving at Pasongsongan, Madura, to inspect a flamboyant fishing fleet returned from its nightly fishery on the Java Sea. All photography by Jeffrey Mellefont.

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.

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Maritime tourism helps keep Indonesian traditions alive

Picture of Indonesian cruise vessel based on a tradtional sailing trader

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.

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When the Indonesian revolution came to an Australian country town

A hut still standing on the site of Camp Victory in Casino

A hut still standing near the site of Camp Victory in Casino, northern New South Wales. Photograph courtesy Anthony Liem.

On October 24 this year over a hundred people gathered in Casino in Northern New South Wales to commemorate the 70th anniversary of an event not widely known in Australian history. In late 1945 residents of the sleepy rural township of Casino were dramatically drawn into the events surrounding the struggle for Indonesia’s independence from the Dutch.

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ANMM Chairman visits key maritime history sites in Indonesia

Borobodur, Indonesia

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.

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Installing an ANMM exhibition in Indonesia

A dilapidated Fortress Benteng Vredeburg

A dilapidated Fortress Benteng Vredeburg c. 1970

The Black Armada (Armada Hitam) exhibition about Australian support for the early years of Indonesian independence just after WWII opened at the Australian National Maritime Museum on 20 August 2015. You can see the display in the Tasman Light gallery over the next few months. Black Armada is a collaboration with the Museum Benteng Vredeburg in Yogyakarta, Indonesia. A travelling version of the exhibition opened there on 31 August.

Mr Peter Dexter AM, Chairman of the Australian National Maritime Museum Council, Curator Dr Stephen Gapps, Indonesian Ambassador His Excellency Mr Nadjib Riphat Kesoema and Museum Director and CEO Kevin Sumption at the opening of Black Armada

Mr Peter Dexter AM, Chairman of the Australian National Maritime Museum Council, Curator Dr Stephen Gapps, Indonesian Ambassador His Excellency Mr Nadjib Riphat Kesoema and Museum Director and CEO Kevin Sumption at the opening of Black Armada on 20 August 2015. Photo: Andrew Frolows

As curator of the display, I travelled to Indonesia to assist in the installation and attend the opening. Working with an Indonesian museum has been an amazing insight into Indonesian museums, history and culture.

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Seventy years of Indonesian independence

Black Armada_IDfinal_landscape

August 17 2015 is the 70th anniversary of Indonesia’s declaration of independence. The occupation of Indonesia by the Japanese during World War II had ended with the Japanese surrender on 15 August. A small group of nationalists swiftly chose the moment to proclaim independence.

The Dutch had controlled Indonesia for over 300 years before World War II and when the war ended, they wanted to return to their colony they called the Netherlands East Indies. They had fled to Australia at the advance of the Japanese in 1942 and established a government in exile. In 1945 the Dutch loaded ships with military arms and personnel and readied them to leave from Australian ports.

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Floating art galleries of Madura

Helmsman's 'pilothouse', perahu selerek, Pasean, Madura

Helmsman’s ‘pilothouse’, perahu selerek, Pasean, Madura. Jeffrey Mellefont 2015

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.

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The Maritime Museum tour : ‘Celebes Sailors, Ships and Spice’

You haven’t seen Indonesia until you have been to South Sulawesi.

Our group of 14 intrepid ANMM members set off on 2nd June with our leader Jeffrey Mellefont, five Indonesian guides and a driver for a two week adventure tracking the history of the Makassan/Bugi forays to Northern Australia in search of the Trepang, the building of the pinisi wooden boats and the magic culture of South Sulawesi.

Photo courtesy of fellow traveller Robert Osmond

Photo courtesy of fellow traveller Robert Osmond

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