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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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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Fashions on the harbour: Fox furs and cloche hats

Woman posing on board HNLMS Java
Samuel J Hood Studio
ANMM Collection

Object of the week has taken a different direction this week – it’s all about vintage fashion. The museum’s Samuel J Hood collection has been a pleasure to investigate and research. So I found myself mesmerised when I came across these beautiful photographs, shot during the Japanese, Dutch and Chilean naval visits to Sydney Harbour in 1924, 1930 and 1931. Placed within the context of newspaper reports, these stylish ladies symbolise the excitement and attraction that surrounded foreign visits to Australia. They form a part of the vibrant social and cultural fabric of 1920s and 1930s Sydney and display the elements that made the harbour the tourist destination it is today.

Tennis party at Victoria Barracks
Samuel J Hood Studio
ANMM Collection

In 1924, Sydneysiders flocked to the harbour to welcome three armoured cruisers of the Imperial Japanese Naval Squadron, IJN Iwate, Asama and Yakumo. Led by Admiral Makoto Saito, Japanese sailors visited an array of local attractions including Taronga Zoo and the University of Sydney. A Japanese naval officer and two unidentified women are pictured here at a tennis party, which was held on the morning of 26 January at Victoria Barracks in Paddington. Other social events were held at Government House and historic Rowe Street, the bohemian, avant-garde centre of Sydney. The Sydney Morning Herald provided detailed fashion reports, of a ‘three-piece suit of beige silk crepe’, the ‘frock of mole cashmere de soie’ and ‘golden brown lace…embroidered with tortoise-shell beads’.

The visit of the Royal Netherlands Navy in 1930 attracted similar public interest. The light cruisers HNLMS Java, Eversten and De Ruyter moored at West Circular Quay amidst the excitement of the nearly completed Sydney Harbour Bridge. Officers and ratings were granted free transport on Sydney trams and ferries and free entry to theatres. Luncheons and dinners were hosted in their honour, again in Rowe Street’s trendy clubs and function rooms. As with the Japanese navy, Hood was where the action was and often focussed on the social elements of the visit. He shot a series of photographs of women posing on board the Dutch vessels and took spectacular night views of the ships moored at the wharf.

Mrs Elsa Evans on the deck of HNLMS Java
Samuel J Hood Studio
ANMM Collection

In July 1931, the Armada de Chile visited Sydney in its corvette, General Baquedano. Commanded by Captain Luis Alvarez, his crew consisted of seventeen officers, three sub-officers and 292 men. The ship moored at East Circular Quay and, like the Japanese and Dutch visits, the Chileans attracted significant public interest and their daily activities were reported in the SMH. The crew placed a wreath at the Martin Place cenotaph and opened their vessel to the public. The squadron’s eventual departure from Sydney Harbour two weeks later was quite a dramatic event, with one rating attempting to desert ship and swim ashore! He was eventually returned to the vessel in a rowing boat before it left Sydney for New Zealand.

On board General Baquedano at Circular Quay
Samuel J Hood Studio
ANMM Collection

These photographs, and the newspaper reports of the time, highlight the attention and excitement that surrounded foreign naval visits to Sydney’s shores. They also demonstrate how Hood’s status as a brilliant photojournalist rested in his aesthetic sensibility and artistic vision. He clearly had an eye for detail, but these images are more than just pretty snapshots of fashion-savvy ladies. They inspire the viewer with a sense of nostalgic wonder; and though it’s a romantic view, they encourage us to contemplate the stories behind these faces. These images visually express how Sydney society was shaped by these visits and defined by its irresistible harbourside charm.

Next week, my colleague Penny Hyde will bring you another fashion-focussed post, so watch this space.

Nicole Cama
Curatorial assistant