An American in Singapore: Devin Smith on the story of Lim Bo Seng

Devin Smith is an American musician/videographer who wrote to us asking if we would be interested in publishing his Medium piece on Lim Bo Seng, Singaporean resistance fighter and regarded war hero. While his piece was too long for this blog, PoP was interested in asking Devin about how he came across this topic, why he was spurred to write about it, and what perspective he was writing from. Here is his thoughtful and thought-provoking reply. A link to his Medium piece is in the end of the post.

My wife’s work decided to relocate her to Singapore. She asked me if I’d come with her, and I said yes. A few weeks later, all of our possessions were tucked away into a storage space in San Francisco, and we were stepping off an airplane into thick tropical humidity. This is the first time I’ve lived abroad.


I had taken only the essentials: an AT-4033a microphone, a UR242 audio interface, and a small MIDI controller. I am a professional musician. The last several years I’ve been employed primarily transcribing and arranging pop songs for easy piano, while recording my own music on the side.

Because English is an official language of Singapore, it’s an easy city for Americans to navigate — but this is also, in a sense, misleading. One only needs to visit the The Former Indian National Army Monument to realize that sharing a language is no guarantee of understanding the complexity of this region of the world.

The average American (like myself) receives very little education about Southeast Asia. Unless she specifically decides to study this region at the collegiate level, the only history she will encounter is the war in Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos — which is often focused more on the sociopolitical effects of the war on American citizens. Our own colonial endeavors in the Phillipines warrant only brief asides in textbooks.

Cognizant of the gaps in my understanding, I spent a lot of time at the library, refueling with nasi goreng and bibimbap at nearby hawker centers. The first time I encountered the term “Fifteen Years’ War” was in Peter B. High’s “The Imperial Screen”, a thorough account of Japan’s wartime film industry. This Asia-centric framework intuitively made sense: from the Japanese perspective, the American entrance into WWII was only a continuation of ongoing imperial expansion.

These are, of course, painfully 101-level observations for historians — but I, of course, am not an historian. My writing tends towards specificity only when I am trying to communicate as precisely as possible: my default (and perhaps more accurate) expression is in the freer, nebulous flow of art. During this period, the art I was making was likewise exploratory, meandering, unformed — musical sketches, odd blips of conceptual art, fragmented language.

For me, often a complete song will just emerge when the time is right. When I wrote “I’m A Witness”, it was (among other things) an abstract digestion of several months of feeling like my grasp of this region was limited only to vignettes. When planning the accompanying video, I decided to work in the style of a fellow Singapore interloper, Ozu: stripping away camera movement and color, focusing exclusively on formalist and center-heavy framing, using low tripod positions.


Over several days of filming, dripping in sweat, covered in 45 spf and pungent sketolene, I eventually found myself on a hill overlooking MacRitchie reservoir, staring at a black granite column embossed with golden lettering. The placards were informative, but infuriatingly brief. What was the aim of Lim’s agitation in the 30s? How did he end up in India with the SOE [Special Operations Executive] after Singapore fell? Who exactly were the guerrillas?

I spent the next month working my way through all of the English language material the NLB had available. It became clear that Lim’s story was also an accessible way to form a basic narrative of Singapore’s late colonial, wartime, and decolonization periods… but honestly, my decision to spend this time with Lim had a more emotional component.

My father’s father was a sort of jack-of-all-trades, and even up to his final years in his 90s, could recite certain poems from memory. Many people of my generation consider poetry exclusive to the rarified world of “fine art”, the only verses they know are, naturally enough, the lyrics to pop songs. Shining through the dusty screen of a microfiche reader, projected in white-on-black negative; seeing that Lim had given poetry a space in his journal alongside the chaos of war and the grind of espionage, I connected deeply.

Lim’s story is well-known and celebrated in Singapore, and my telling is not historiographically challenging. I am neither presenting new evidence, nor countering the prevailing narratives. What I am doing is pulling together many specific, disparate accounts to bring Lim’s story into a fuller context.

British authors often overlook Lim’s pre-SOE activism. Singaporean authors often include very few details about the MPAJA/MCP [Malayan People’s Anti-Japanese Army]/[Malayan Communist Party]. Many accounts on the internet are just overviews, and assume the reader already understands the socioeconomics of colonialism which would lead the British to prioritize resource extraction over defense mobilization in Malaya. Some of the most thorough accounts are tucked away in library reserves, or in the pages of long-since defunct newspapers.

I write history the way an SOE operative writes poetry. An ordinary person might memorize the lines and couplets of a verse in hopes of gaining a deeper clarity into the emotional state the poem brings about. I strive for a thorough, detailed account, because this story connects with me in ways I can’t adequately address using the figurative, oneiric language of art.

Read his medium piece here – Lim Bo Seng: Millionaire. Activist. Romantic. SOE Operative.


Ming Li Yong reflects on the Qing Ming Festival in Malaysia, where heritage, memories and kinship converge.

I am in my father’s hometown of Temerloh in Pahang, Malaysia, for the Qing Ming Festival (清明节), or the Tomb Sweeping Festival. During this festival, Chinese families visit their ancestors’ resting places in order to pay their respects.

“The graves told stories of geographical and familial ties, folklore and local culture, and spanned the realms of the sacred and profane.”

Its early morning and the cemetery is already bustling with activity. A long line of cars are neatly parked to the side of the narrow road running along the edge of the cemetery. The air filled with the chatter of families, spirals of smoke, and the smell of incense.  I have only visited my grandparents’ grave a few times over the past 26 years, but I remember how to get there: descend a short way over the first hill crest and turn right at a large grave of a man and his two wives.

I am looking forward to this occasion for two reasons. First, I have not visited my grandparent’s grave in recent years. Second, having recently attended two heritage tours of Singapore’s historic Bukit Brown Cemetery, I had gained a new perspective relating to Chinese cemeteries, as landscapes resplendent with heritage and histories. The graves told stories of geographical and familial ties, folklore and local culture, and spanned the realms of the sacred and profane. As a geographer interested in how society and landscapes are intertwined, I was struck by how much of a country’s multifaceted histories could be extrapolated from such a ‘landscape of death’.

At my grandparents’ grave, with much food and paper offerings laid out for the festival..jpg

At my grandparents’ grave, with much food and paper offerings laid out for the festival.

At my grandparents’ grave, I reflect on how their lives are intertwined with wider sociocultural histories and customs. I observe the Chinese idioms and paintings adorning the grave, and the rituals associated with the festival: the tidying of the graves, the laying out of sumptuous food offerings (some of which is “recycled” for our lunch later), the paying of respects with joss sticks, and the burning of paper offerings. I think about my grandparents’ ties to China when looking at the inscription of their Chinese hometown on the headstone.

Today, the histories and memories that come to mind are also more of a personal nature. The festival effects a temporal change in this landscape of death, which comes alive with ties of kinship. My extended family catches up with one another, and I also watch as up to four generations of families come together, and scenes such as a pair of elderly men slowly but steadily clearing the unkempt vegetation off a grave. The atmosphere is festive, as families gather around the graves to assist with the tasks of tidying the graves, setting out the offerings, and to chat. Ears are covered and conversations are periodically interrupted by the explosive, crackling sounds of firecrackers puncturing the air.

A ‘landscape of death_ coming alive as families gather during the Qing Ming Festival

A ‘landscape of death’ coming alive as families gather during the Qing Ming Festival. Burning paper offerings of money, clothes, or even ‘branded’ bags for the departed Setting off firecrackers on my grandparents’ grave

While the Qing Ming Festival associated with ancestor worship, its meaning to me lies more in the realm of the mundane. I recall the warm family dinners with my grandparents. As I exchange greetings with my relatives, I realise that apart from Chinese New Year, this is the only other occasion the extended family gathers. Family gatherings used to revolve around my grandparents and I am glad that through the Qing Ming Festival, my grandparents, and our memories of them, take centre-stage in bringing the family together once again.

Ming Li Yong is a Geographer at the University of Sydney,  for more on her work and research you can follow her on twitter or read more of her work here.

When it comes to disappearing ocean history, HMAS Perth is the tip of the iceberg

This Thursday, 8 June, is World Oceans Day and so critical are the issues facing our oceans – including climate change and plastic pollution – that the United Nations has convened a high-level conference on their future. While its focus is ocean conservation, another aspect of our seas has been conspicuously neglected: the vast array of human history lying underwater.

HMAS Perth memorialised at Sydney’s Garden Island Naval Chapel. Source: Natali Pearson

Millions of shipwrecks and archaeological sites lie under the ocean, including most infamously the Titanic, resting almost four kilometres below the North Atlantic. These relics are just as important as terrestrial sites such as the Egyptian pyramids or the temples of Angkor, and preserve a history of our relationship to the seas. Just like marine ecosystems, this underwater cultural heritage is threatened by climate change, pollution, development, fishing and looting.

Indeed just this week, Australian and Indonesian maritime archaeologists reported that HMAS Perth, a World War II wreck lying in the Sunda Strait and the final resting place for hundreds of men, has suffered extensive and recent damage. There is now less than half of the ship left.

Stories from the sea

Humanity’s close relationship with the ocean stretches back thousands of years. Our oceans have provided food, connected civilisations, facilitated trade, travel and conquest, and also served as a sacred place of veneration. It’s estimated that three million ancient shipwrecks and sunken cities lie on the ocean floor.

These include a 9th century shipwreck discovered off Indonesia’s Belitung island in 1998. The ship originated in the Middle East, and its cargo was dominated by commercial quantities of Chinese ceramics. It represents some of the earliest evidence of maritime trade between Southeast Asia, the Chinese Tang dynasty and the Middle Eastern Abbasid Empire.

Nor are these vestiges of the past restricted to shipwrecks. Archaeologists have discovered evidence of sunken civilisations, buried under silt and sand for centuries. In Egypt, relics of the ancient city of Alexandria include temples, palaces, and the 130-metre Pharos Lighthouse, one of the Seven Wonders of the ancient world. Egyptian authorities now plan to construct an underwater museum to share these discoveries with a broader audience.

Sometimes, the smallest of objects discovered underwater can reveal as much as an entire city. Lost for centuries in waters off Crete, the 2000-year old Antikythera mechanism is known as the world’s first computer for its use of gears and dials to predict eclipses and track moon phases. The same site has also yielded human bones, from which scientists hope to be able to extract genetic information for insights into ancient shipwreck victims.

The Antikythera mechanism, the world’s first computer, found in waters off Crete. Marsyas, CC BY-SA

Mother-of-pearl inlays – gathered by early breath hold divers and fashioned by artisans – found at a Mesopotamian site indicate that humans have been responding creatively to the ocean’s resources as far back as 4,500 BCE.

Underwater heritage is the legacy of these past activities, bearing witness to the development of both ancient and modern civilisations. But the significance of ocean artefacts extends beyond trade, travel and recreation. For example, the study of this heritage can show us the impact of rising sea levels on human life. Such information serves as a sobering reminder of the effects of climate change, and can also help us to develop solutions to the present environmental problems we are facing.

Ulrike Guérin from the UNESCO Secretariat of the 2001 Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage explains:

For 90% of human existence, sea levels have been lower than they are at present. As humans mainly lived close to the water, a large majority of humanity’s development took place on areas that are now submerged. It is only within the past decade that there has been recognition of how important the missing data on the submerged shelf is.

Underwater cultural heritage can also help to assess the impact of the ocean on human life, and assist in monitoring issues such as potential ocean pollution from oil and the threat of unexploded ammunition from WWII shipwrecks. Guérin argues that protecting and researching this heritage can lead to better conservation of coastal and marine areas, with increased economic benefits for small island developing states and least developed countries through tourism.

An ocean without history?

Like fish stocks and coral reefs, underwater cultural heritage faces destruction from climate change, marine pollution and over-development. Industrial activities like fishing are becoming a greater concern.

Commercial deep-sea fishing trawlers destroy not only fishing stocks but also well-preserved wrecks. These bottom trawl nets act like ploughs, digging up the ocean bed and tearing archaeological sites apart. In the Baltic Sea, thousands of synthetic fishing nets are lost every year. These “ghost nets” get tangled in wrecks, trapping fish and seals in the process. In Southeast Asia, historic shipwrecks in both Malaysia and Thailand face destruction from “massive trawl nets that scour every metre of the seabed”.

Just as fishing stocks are targeted by illegal poachers, so too is underwater heritage threatened by illegal salvaging and looting. The recent unauthorized disturbance of three near-pristine Japanese shipwrecks in Malaysian waters has destroyed the thriving marine ecosystems that such wrecks support. The damage caused to these underwater museums has had a devastating impact on local diving companies and small-scale fishermen. In Indonesia, these illicit activities appear to be becoming increasingly sophisticated and audacious, including the most recent damage to HMAS Perth.

A thriving marine ecosystem in North Sulawesi, Indonesia. Shipwrecks can provide a support for these ecosystems. Source: Graham Willis

Heritage in the margins

Despite its importance, underwater cultural heritage remains a relatively new concept, and tends to be overshadowed by other legal and policy priorities. At this week’s UN oceans conference in New York, plenary meetings are focusing on reducing marine pollution, protecting marine and coastal ecosystems, and addressing ocean acidification. Underwater cultural heritage, meanwhile, was discussed in a side event held in the margins.

The bell of HMAS Perth is returned to the Australian Embassy in Jakarta, c. 1974. Source: Bob Morrison

The 2001 underwater heritage convention establishes basic principles for protecting these sites, but faces a number of challenges. Only 56 nations have signed or ratified the convention, and big maritime nations such as the US, China, and the UK have not. Australia has not ratified, but introduced new underwater cultural heritage legislation in November 2016 that brings this step closer. The heritage convention also faces the problem of perceived competition with the Law of the Sea, which sets the rules for how the oceans are shared and governed.

And what of HMAS Perth? In a strange twist of history, in the 1970s the Australian Embassy in Jakarta became aware that the bell of the ship had turned up in an Indonesian salvage yard. The embassy successfully negotiated the bell’s exchange, and it is now held in the Australian War Memorial: a small piece of history saved through cultural diplomacy.

Underwater cultural heritage is an essential part of our oceans and the way we relate to them. As important as it is to ensure a sustainable future for our oceans, it is also vital that we understand humanity’s historical relationship with them. Our future is invested in our oceans, and so is our past.



This article was first published in The Conversation. You can join the PoP! conversation on Twitter and Facebook.


Through the Looking-Glass: Indonesian Reflections on Australian History

PoP’s textual historian Wayan Jarrah Sastrawan, a student of Indonesian Studies at the University of Sydney, looks in the mirror of Australian Studies at the University of Indonesia.

Here at PoP, we welcome fresh and challenging perspectives on Southeast Asian pasts. But we mustn’t forget that as Australia-based researchers of Southeast Asia, we are accustomed to visiting, studying and knowing about Southeast Asian people from the high towers of a Western institution. So what happens when the scholarly gaze is turned back towards Australia? How does our own culture appear under the scrutiny of Southeast Asian researchers?

We were compelled to think about this when Dr. Wardiningsih Soerjohardjo (“Dien”) of the University of Indonesia visited Sydney last month. Dr. Dien spoke to PoP about her leadership of the Australian Studies research program at the University of Indonesia, as well as her recently-republished book on Gundagai, a small but historically-prominent township in southern New South Wales. Both the book and the program made us rethink Australia as a culture and as an object of study.

The Book

Gundagai in Mid-Nineteenth Century Australia: A Historical Examination (2013; 2017) happily reverses the Western scholarly gaze. The book provides a meticulous examination of the social history of the town in the 1850s. The disastrous flood of 1852 is Dr. Dien’s point of departure for a deep exploration of the cultural character of the Gundagai community, which at this time was ambitious, egalitarian and litigious.

Dr. Dien’s methodology fuses anthropology and cultural history. She is an unashamed fan of thick description, but she applies this ethnographic tool to a body of archival documents rather than to a living community. Her approach draws inspiration from Hildred and Clifford Geertz’s descriptions of Indonesian villages, Tony Milner’s studies of the traditional Malay worldview, and Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie’s work on fourteenth-century France. All manner of sources come within her purview, including church records, local poetry and popular songs about the town.

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Dr. Dien’s book has little space for anecdotes about dogs and tuckerboxes, or the convict-to-riches biographies that fill many coffee-table books of rural history. Instead, its preface offers a provocative mission statement:

Westerners who have studied my country have found it helpful to delineate certain cultural values which characterize social life in Indonesia and help to explain events occurring there. In this book, which examines one small community in nineteenth-century Australia, I attempt to analyze some aspects of the culture of a European community.

How does Australian culture look, as encapsulated in a typical (though not necessarily representative) example of a nineteenth-century town? This is where Dr. Dien’s identity as a foreign researcher matters. In justifying her descriptive approach, she argues that a foreign perspective can be more aware of historical distance than a local one. She gives a subtle warning to those who might claim privileged understanding based on their insider identity in contemporary Australia: “As scholars continue to explore the social values and cultural categories of nineteenth century Australia, they may well become increasingly cautious about basing judgements about the nineteenth century on their experience of modern Australia”.

In the copious archival material that Dr. Dien examined, she detected several recurring themes:

• a class hierarchy mitigated by a democratic ethos, in which solemn agreement was a paramount value
• the considerable accessibility of the justice system to marginalised groups such as women and the poor
• a preoccupation with moral policing of public drunkenness and obscenity
• a general skepticism towards church-going religiosity

Not content to paint this portrait of Gundagai in its uniqueness, Dr. Dien’s work also offers new approaches to Australian history across the board. “This Gundagai study”, she argues, “has uncovered themes which have been given little emphasis elsewhere, and it is my hope that it will encourage local history specialists to investigate, for instance, attitudes to language or to the concept of ‘agreement’ when they examine the documentation for their own regions of colonial Australia.”

These new approaches emerge out of the investigator’s identity as an outsider, which makes Dr. Dien sensitive to certain aspects of Australian culture that might be more transparent or less noteworthy to Australians themselves. This is where the real value of cross-cultural scholarship is. It offers a strong argument against ‘home scholarship’, interpreted in the narrow sense of scholars restricting their research interests to the nations they come from.

The Program

Dr. Dien’s own work is far from the only example of Indonesian scholars’ examination of Australian history. Under her leadership, dozens of postgraduate students at the University of Indonesia have completed in-depth theses and dissertations on various topics in Australian history. Thanks to her visit, we came to know of a whole body of scholarship on Australia that is generally inaccessible to Australian historians, because it is written in Indonesian and is held by a foreign university library.

But a final revelation was in store when we asked Dr. Dien how she funded her students to visit Australia for field research. She explained that where funding is short, students are able to access a very significant proportion of their primary sources through the National Library of Australia’s online portal Trove.


The front page of Trove, accessed 02/06/2017.

The comprehensiveness of this digital archive and search engine, which provides immediate access to government records, newspaper scans, maps, Australian library collections, archival photographs and very much more, has had a transformative effect on scholars’ approaches to Australian history. Given the recent funding threats to this invaluable public service, Trove’s importance to Indonesian scholars of Australia, and thereby its contribution to the knowledge base of the bilateral relationship, are of urgent relevance.

PoP is most grateful to have had the opportunity to meet Dr. Dien, who has shown us some aspects of our country that we wouldn’t have seen otherwise. I hope that these reflections will cause us to challenge ourselves in our research, and to actively support and protect institutions like Trove, which are of such value to Australia.

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Museums, masterpieces and morals

The ongoing fallout from the criminal charges brought against disgraced Asian antiquities dealers Subhash Kapoor and Nancy Wiener has put a spotlight on the Asian collections of many of the world’s great museums, raising questions about provenance, ownership and the hunt for stolen antiquities. An exhibition of collection masterpieces at New York’s Asia Society Museum prompted Natali Pearson, PoP’s resident museum and heritage studies scholar, to reflect on these issues, and to ask whether museums are friends or foes in the quest to identify and repatriate stolen antiquities. What can, and should, we expect of museums?

In 1956, at the height of the Cold War, John D. Rockefeller 3rd established a new organisation known as Asia Society. Rockefeller’s intention was to promote mutual understanding and engagement between America and Asia, and he saw art as fundamental to this mission. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, Rockefeller and his wife Blanchette worked together with their advisor, also then the Director of the Cleveland Museum of Art, Sherman E. Lee, to assemble the now-renowned Mr. and Mrs. John D. Rockefeller 3rd Collection. The collection was assembled with the intention of ultimately giving it to an institution for public view. Following JDR3’s untimely death in 1978, part of the collection was bequeathed to Asia Society, forming the beginnings of the Asia Society Museum’s small but spectacular collection of Asian antiquities. It has subsequently been added to by a small number of gifts and acquisitions that adhere to the museum’s standards of excellence.

Fifty objects from the collection are currently on display at the Masterpieces from the Asia Society Museum Collection (until 7 January 2018) exhibition in New York. The masterpieces featured in this exhibition include ceramics, metalwork and stone carvings from Southeast, East and South Asia. The Rockefeller’s collecting strategy was motivated not by region or medium, but by how exceptional the pieces were. Be it a Chinese porcelain or a Khmer sculpture, the object had to be the most accomplished and refined of its type available at the time. Rockefeller’s rationale for collecting in this manner was that he believed exposure to examples of the most sophisticated Asian art and culture would lead to a better understanding of Asia and enable people to interact in a more informed way when conducting business and politics. As a result, the collection represents ‘the artistic pinnacles of the cultures that produced them.’

For me, the most important aspect of this exhibition is not the objects themselves – magnificent as they are – but the questions it poses to the audience about the collection and display of cultural heritage, and the role of museums in transmitting knowledge about the acquisition and provenance of these objects. As the international community witnesses the looting and destruction of cultural heritage in the Middle East, such questions are now more important than ever.

Visitors are welcomed to the Masterpieces exhibition by four Buddha heads placed in the entrance gallery, one of which is pictured below.


Head of Buddha. Indonesia, Central Java. 9th century. Asia Society, New York. 1979 [Photo: N. Pearson]

The prevalence of these disembodied heads (and of headless statues) in museum collections remind visitors that these objects have often not survived intact over long periods of time, and that, whatever the circumstances of their dismemberment, they have been removed from their place of origin and have experienced further dislocation from their original context in the process.

There is a reason we often see such features – not only heads, but also hands and feet – dislocated from the original sculpture: whether removed with permission or stolen, these objects are more expedient to remove and transport than an entire statue. Heads of such sculptures in particular, with their curving lips and curled hair, often feature some of the most refined representations of artistic achievement. Hands and fingers arranged in a mudra (a religiously symbolic gesture), or the profound meaning attributed to the Buddha’s feet and footprint, make an equally strong claim for significance.

Inside the main gallery, the Masterpieces exhibition is divided into three parts. The first section, ‘For Sustenance in This World and the Next’, features works from China, Korea and Japan. These are objects used for holding food and drinks in domestic, imperial and ritual settings. The second section, ‘Regarding Gods and Kings’, includes a number of Southeast Asian objects, in particular a number of elegant (and headless) Khmer statues.


Female Figure. Angkor period (802–1431), early 11th century. Cambodia. Sandstone (Baphuon style). Asia Society, New York: Mr. and Mrs. John D. Rockefeller 3rd Collection, 1979.65 [Photo: N. Pearson]

The final section, ‘Transmission of Buddhism’, features various beings from the different streams of Buddhism, exemplifying ‘the complexity of the representation of Buddhist deities among these traditions across Asia.’ One of the most stunning objects in this section, indeed in the whole exhibition, is a fully intact 8th century bronze cast image of the Bodhisattva Maitreya (the future Buddha) from Thailand’s Buriram province. Every detail is impeccably rendered, from the smudge of his navel to the precise placing of each of his four arms.


Bodhisattva Maitreya. 8th century. Thailand, Buriram Province, Prasat Hin Khao Plai Bat II. Copper alloy with inlays of silver and black stone. Asia Society, New York: Mr. and Mrs. John D. Rockefeller 3rd Collection, 1979.63 [Photo: N. Pearson]

Exiting the main gallery and re-emerging again in the foyer among the four Buddha heads, two large wall panels become apparent. Such wall panels, usually dense with text, are one method that museums use to communicate with their audiences. What is left out, such as the issue of provenance (where it is from and how it came to be in the museum’s collection), is just as telling as what is included, particularly with the smaller textual information displays used for specific objects.

Rather than presenting a wall of educative text, these two panels offer both a photo and a list of questions. The photo is from the 19th century, and shows ancient Buddhist sculptures from Gandhara excavated by the British during their rule in India. The sculptures are assembled as if for sale, ready to be plucked out by the discerning buyer. Many sculptures or sculptural fragments like those shown in the photo are now on display in museums throughout the world – including as part of the Asia Society Museum Collection.

As museum visitors, we have become accustomed to seeing objects created for temples, personal devotion, and specific decorative purposes removed from their original time and place and installed in galleries. In this environment their aesthetic qualities take precedence and sometimes the original context or function is forgotten.


Wall panel, Masterpieces from the Asia Society Museum Collection, Asia Society Museum New York. [Photo: N. Pearson]

Visitors to this exhibition are encouraged to engage more closely with the objects and the exhibition, and to reflect on the issues that collections of antiquities present to us – such as provenance, ownership, stewardship and restitution – as modern consumers of heritage.

Should museums worldwide collect and exhibit original artworks from other countries?

During times of political strife, if works of art are under threat of destruction in their home countries, should museums in other countries play a role as a safe haven for them?

Who bears the responsibility for the world’s cultural heritage and why does it matter?

Such questions can be understood within the broader context of international efforts to safeguard cultural heritage, particularly in light of the destruction of archaeological sites in Iraq, Syria, Libya and Yemen.

At the same time, a number of websites and organisations aimed at safeguarding cultural heritage – such as Chasing Aphrodite, Trafficking Culture and the Antiquities Coalition – have been increasing their calls for museums and galleries to be more transparent in their dealings, by sharing information about past and current collecting policies and the provenance of items in their collections. In Australia, the establishment of the Asian Art Provenance Project at the National Gallery is one example of the efforts that museums are making to keep pace with international and community expectations.

Greater transparency of museum collections is critical in a world where cultural heritage is threatened by looting, destruction and illicit trafficking. But in the push for greater scrutiny, many museums, including Asia Society, have found themselves cast as villains rather than allies in the effort to protect and preserve cultural heritage.

Asia Society’s efforts to communicate information about its collection have been proactive, and in fact pre-date the recent publicity about art theft and antiquities looting. For years, the entire permanent collection has been made available through publications and the Asia Society’s website, including, most recently, an online collection site that includes 3D imaging. When then Museum Director Vishakha Desai (1990-2004) received proof of the presence of a stolen 11th century sculpture from Rajasthan in the Rockefeller Collection, the sculpture was returned to India.

In 2016, Nancy Wiener was arrested and charged with conspiracy, accused of using her prestigious antiquities gallery to buy, smuggle, launder and sell millions of dollars worth of illegally-acquired Asian antiquities through leading auction houses. Chasing Aphrodite (‘The hunt for looted antiquities in the World’s Museums’) listed Asia Society as one of numerous cultural institutions that had possibly acquired objects from Nancy Wiener.

But the inclusion of Asia Society on this list was incorrect: Asia Society has never purchased, or acquired in any other way, objects from Nancy Wiener.

When Dr Adriana Proser, Asia Society’s John H. Foster Senior Curator for Traditional Asian Art, considers objects for possible acquisition, she and her colleagues undertake a review of provenance documentation as part of their due diligence. Asia Society’s acquisitions policy is in line with the ethical standards taken by the Association of Art Museum Directors and the American Alliance of Museums, and the Collections Committee does not consider acquisition of objects without proper documentation.

Asia Society has also established the Asia Arts and Museum Network, Transfuze, one of the central themes of which is the preservation of culture. In 2015, Asia Society held the Arts & Museum Summit in Hong Kong, which focused on issues of cultural heritage preservation and protection in Asia. Asia Society Museum has subsequently published Assuring our Cultural Legacy in the 21st Century, an edited collection of essays that consider the key ethical and practical questions facing preservation and cultural heritage. Asia Society also holds regular public seminars about topical issues such as ethical collecting practices.

For centuries, museums have safeguarded much of the world’s cultural heritage, acting as keepers and protectors of unique, fragile and significant objects. Over time, their role has evolved from 17th and 18th century notions of ‘cabinets of curiosities’, in which cultural heritage was something to be acquired and questions of ownership were very much secondary, to a far more inclusive approach that embraces education, access and research, and rejects the complicity of (often colonial) collecting practices.

As this evolution continues, museums are being asked to forge new ground in how they manage, present and even justify their collections to an increasingly concerned public. It is no longer enough for a museum to argue that the collection is a historical legacy, or to claim that the museum, as a modern-day keeper of the collection, is not morally responsible for the collecting decisions made by the institution’s forebears who operated in a different legal and ethical context.

The movement to identify and repatriate looted objects is a critical part of this evolution, and is well overdue. However, as public awareness about stolen antiquities grows, we need to ensure there is also a space for museums in this conversation, and that they are not automatically dismissed as unwilling participants in discussions about ownership and provenance of cultural heritage.  Efforts to undertake and share due diligence of collections should be recognised, and the repatriation of stolen antiquities should be welcomed, particularly when a museum has been proactive in doing so.

Nor are museums the only ones with a role to play. It is critical that we also consider the role that we, the general public, have, in terms of our expectations, understandings and assumptions of how heritage is, and should be, managed.

We should expect, for example, information to be publicly available about provenance, whether it is in publications, online or via object labels in the gallery.

We should also expect museums to return objects that are known to have been illegally acquired.

More broadly, we should reflect on the questions posed in Asia Society’s Masterpieces exhibition. Should museums worldwide collect and exhibit objects that originate from other cultures and countries? If objects are under threat of destruction in their home countries, should museums in other countries play a role as a safe haven for them? Who determines when it is safe enough to return them?

There are no easy answers to any of these questions, except for the last one. Who bears responsibility for the world’s cultural heritage? We all do.


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Disclosure: Natali interned for Asia Society Museum in 2013 and continues to work as a consultant to the biennial Asia Society Arts & Museum Summit.

Ghost ships: why are World War II naval wrecks vanishing in Indonesia?

February/March 2017 marks 75 years since the sinking of many Allied ships in Indonesian waters in World War II. Now the resting place of thousands of sailors, divers were surprised to find five of the wrecks in the Java Sea have completely vanished, likely the work of salvagers. In an extended version of an article first published in The Conversation (and republished on the ABC), Natali Pearson makes the case for better protecting these, and other, underwater graves.

Seventy five years ago this month, Australia, the UK, US and the Netherlands suffered a series of disastrous naval defeats against Japan in the narrow straits and seas around Indonesia. The warship wrecks in the Java Sea and the Sunda Strait are the final resting place for thousands of Allied sailors.

The sites are considered war graves by survivors and their descendants, following a long maritime tradition of respecting human remains on shipwrecks.

So it was with deep shock that an international team surveying the Java Sea wrecks in November 2016 found that at least four Dutch and British shipwrecks – and one American submarine whose entire crew was captured alive – had simply vanished from the seabed some 70 metres below. This video shows the profound disappointment of the divers when they realised the wrecks they had set out to survey were no longer there.

The ships were enormous – the HMS Exeter, for example, was a 175-metre heavy cruiser, longer than three Olympic-sized swimming pools. Other Allied ships in Indonesian waters have also been damaged.

The evidence suggests that the missing ships were stolen, or salvaged, for the valuable metal now sitting on the sea floor.

History repeating

The recent desecration of the Java Sea naval wrecks was unsurprising to those familiar with the state of underwater cultural heritage in Indonesia. Last year, Inside Indonesia reported on measures being taken to mitigate damage to two other Allied wrecks in Indonesia: HMAS Perth and USS Houston in the Sunda Strait, west of Jakarta. These naval ships were attacked by a Japanese fleet in the early hours of 1 March 1942, sinking with over a thousand lives lost between them.25-hmas-perth-in-1942-awm

[HMAS Perth, showing the ship’s distinctive, angular camouflage design (on starboard side only), 1942. Photo: Australian War Memorial]

In 2013, reports emerged of salvage barges removing scrap metal from the sites. Although Indonesian authorities were not identified as participating in the salvage operations, they were criticised for not doing more to protect the wrecks.


[Memorial service for HMAS Perth at HMAS Kuttabul naval base (Garden Island, Sydney), February 2017. Photo: N. Pearson]

Well-meaning recreational divers have also been implicated. In 2013, a diver removed a trumpet from USS Houston, an action that was met with widespread criticism. The USS Houston Survivors’ Association, to whom the diver had attempted to gift the trumpet, rejected it on the basis that US law deemed it illegal to remove property from a US Navy wreck without authorisation. As Executive Director of the Survivors’ Association, John Schwarz, said:

We have no idea of the untold number of other divers who have pilfered our ship […] and have kept relics retrieved for their own personal use, “stealing” that which truly belong [sic] to the lasting memory of the bravery and dedication of the men who served on these warships.

The trumpet was eventually passed to the underwater archaeology branch of the US Naval History and Heritage Command, where it is now undergoing conservation.


[A trumpet recovered from USS Houston in 2013 undergoes conservation. Photo: Michael Ruane / The Washington Post]

Advocacy groups in Australia have long called on authorities to protect HMAS Perth. While a recent sonar scan confirmed that USS Houston was largely intact, results for HMAS Perth were inconclusive. Australian and Indonesian divers are due to return to the site in March. Despite these efforts, some feel that it is already too late to protect HMAS Perth.


[HMAS Perth, as photographed by the US Navy on an inspection dive with the Indonesian Navy (TNI-AL), 2015. Photo: US Navy / Australian National Maritime Museum]

Why steal a ship?

Naval shipwrecks mean huge amounts of scrap metal, with significant potential re-sale value. The sheer quantity of scrap metal on a naval ship means that a single wreck can be worth up to A$1 million. The bronze propellers alone are worth tens of thousands of dollars each.

The presence of a finite resource known as ‘low background steel’ on the Java Sea wrecks may have also been a temptation for salvagers. This refers to the level of radio-activity in steel that was manufactured prior to the ‘Trinity’ above-ground nuclear test in July 1945 and the atomic destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki the following month. These, and the hundreds of other above-ground nuclear tests that took place in the ensuing decades, contributed to an increase in worldwide atmospheric radiation levels and attendant levels of new steel. Even though atmospheric radiation levels have decreased since the introduction of the Partial Test Ban Treaty in 1963, modern steel production is still affected by the remaining radioactive particles in the atmosphere. Modern steel, while not a health hazard, cannot be used in finely-calibrated instruments that measure radiation such as Geiger counters and certain medical and scientific equipment. It is in such applications that low background steel – that is, steel manufactured pre-1945, especially that which was underwater during the 1950s and 1960s – is particularly valuable.

It is doubtful that the salvage was conducted in complete secrecy: removing a shipwreck from the seabed requires time, know-how, and money. The Java Sea wrecks lay close to one of Indonesia’s largest naval bases, and suspicious activity – not to mention visible environmental impacts such as oil spills – is unlikely to have gone unnoticed by passing marine craft.


[Poor visibility limits clear photos of HMAS Perth. Photo: Shinatria Adhityatama / Pusat Arkaeologi Nasional (Arkenas), 2014]

Elsewhere in Southeast Asia, other naval shipwrecks have also fallen victim to illegal salvaging. In 2014, reports emerged of the destruction of British battlecruisers HMS Repulse and HMS Prince of Wales in Malaysian waters. In this instance, the salvage operations appear to have been relatively unsophisticated – divers operated from a small boat disguised as a fishing vessel, and placed homemade explosives, packed in coffee tins, on the wreck to break it up before the arrival of a larger salvage vessel. Dives would have been complicated by fast-moving currents and low visibility, and the use of rudimentary diving equipment such as thin rubber hoses connected to rusty air compressors.

Despite these challenging conditions, illicit salvage of warship wrecks has continued to occur in Southeast Asia – and appear to have become increasingly sophisticated.

In January 2017, fresh reports emerged of World War II wrecks being salvaged. This time, the vessels were Japanese cargo ships, and were located off the coast of Borneo in Malaysian waters. Known collectively as the Usukan wrecks, they supported a spectacular marine eco-system and were popular dive sites. However, a Chinese-registered vessel, complete with a giant crane for hoisting underwater objects, was sighted removing material from the wrecks. Disturbingly, the salvors claimed they had been authorised by the archaeology department at Universiti Malaysia Sabah, and that their operations were for research purposes. Community outrage resulted in permission to operate being withdrawn, but the damage had been done: investigators later found an anchor from one of the Japanese wrecks stowed on board the salvage vessel. While their historical significance is undisputed, the destruction of these wrecks has also resulted in the loss of livelihoods for local fishermen and tourist dive operators.


[A China-registered vessel is spotted by divers above a site where three Japanese second world war ships lie off the coast of Borneo. The wrecks have been destroyed by a metal salvage operation. Photo: The Guardian]

My conversations with people close to the issue suggest that the Java Sea wrecks were removed using a major surface platform known as a claw barge. This reduces the need to rely on large numbers of divers, and, if operated together with specialist imaging equipment such as a sonar scanner, would maximise the efficiency of the salvage. It is also believed that the crew were armed. They gave little-to-no consideration to objects of historical or archaeological significance.

Silent witnesses

Nor does the presence of human remains on these wrecks deter illicit salvagers from their nefarious activities. The removal of propellers and trumpets is one thing, but the desecration of submerged war graves is undoubtedly the most troubling aspect of this story.

However, the legal status of underwater war graves is ambiguous. Although (or because) many of the larger maritime powers hold strong views on the issue, there is no international consensus on the issue of war graves on sunken warships.

Some commentators, concerned about the protection of the World War II wrecks, have urged Southeast Asian countries to sign the 2001 UNESCO Convention on the protection of the underwater cultural heritage. At present, the only Southeast Asian signatory is Cambodia (the Dutch, UK, US and Australia are not yet party to this Convention either).

However, the relevance of the Convention is limited, as it relates to underwater war graves, by the simple fact of the wrecks’ age: the Convention defines heritage as that which has been underwater for at least 100 years, thus excluding World War II wrecks. Even if these wrecks were older than 100 years, the Convention’s treatment of those who have perished at sea is focused on human remains generally, not military human remains specifically.

Furthermore, the question of what constitutes ‘proper respect’ is not defined, and is thus open to interpretation across countries and cultures.

Some observers have examined Indonesia’s obligations relating to commercial seabed exploitation under the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). This Convention, to which Indonesia is a party, imposes a general duty to protect ‘archaeological and historical objects found at sea’, a description that would not be hard to justify in relation to the Java Sea or Sunda Strait wrecks. Theoretically, however, this could be contested, as ‘archaeological and historical’ remains undefined. And whether or not UNCLOS has a framework to apply protective measures is, again, another matter.

In the absence of effective bilateral or multilateral agreements, the onus falls on states to make appropriate provisions for war grave recognition in their domestic legislation. Under Indonesian Law No: 11 of 2010 concerning Cultural Conservation, objects older than 50 years can be considered as cultural heritage.

Unfortunately, none of the wrecks mentioned in this article have been afforded official recognition under this legislation – in fact, not a single underwater site has been heritage listed. Without the protection that an official heritage listing would provide, Indonesian authorities are not able to prosecute illicit salvagers or looters.

Shifting responsibility

The international community has condemned the disappearance of the Java Sea wrecks, with the Dutch launching an immediate investigation. The UK Ministry of Defence also expressed serious concern about “unauthorised disturbance of any wreck containing human remains”, and requested that Indonesian authorities take “appropriate action”.

When the news broke that the ships had vanished, the head of Pusat Penelitian Arkeologi Nasional (National Archaeological Centre of Indonesia), Bambang Budi Utomo, was quoted as saying:

The Dutch government cannot blame the Indonesian government because they never asked us to protect those ships. As there was no agreement or announcement, when the ships go missing, it is not our responsibility.

Chief of Indonesia’s Navy Information Office, Colonel Gig Jonias Mozes Sipasulta, confirmed Indonesia’s view that the Dutch, British and US governments should have done more to protect the wrecks:

The Indonesian navy cannot monitor all areas all the time. If they ask why the ships are missing, I’m going to ask them back, why didn’t they guard the ships?

Although Indonesia quickly committed to investigating the mystery of the missing wrecks, these initial messages undoubtedly caused further damage to Indonesia’s already-troubled reputation when it comes to conserving underwater heritage.

This perception is partly due to Indonesia’s history of permitting the commercial excavation of historic shipwrecks.

Under this system, licences were sold to commercial operators to excavate shipwrecks, and the salvaged objects were sold for profit. To my knowledge, this policy was never extended to modern warships. Although there is now a moratorium on commercial excavation in Indonesia, it has unquestionably contributed to an environment in which shipwrecks are valued at least as much – if not more – for their economic potential as their historical or archaeological significance.

Reducing vulnerabilities

Despite these mis-steps, there are many professionals in Indonesia who are keenly aware of the responsibilities and sensitivities associated with managing and protecting underwater cultural heritage, particularly high-profile naval vessels.

At the Research Institute for Coastal Resources and Vulnerability, housed within Indonesia’s Ministry of Marine Affairs and Fisheries, researchers such as Nia Naelul Hasanah Ridwan have been working on the HMAS Perth site since 2015. This multi-disciplinary project brings together maritime archaeologists and policy makers from the Ministry of Marine Affairs and Fisheries, as well as representatives from the Ministry of Education and Culture.

13-unesco-roundtable-indonesia[Nia Naelul Hasanah Ridwan presenting at a UNESCO Roundtable on underwater cultural heritage, at the WA Maritime Museum, Fremantle. 2016. Photo: N. Pearson]

The research team has used a range of methods to determine HMAS Perth’s condition and assess its vulnerability to a range of threats. These methods include site recording, water quality and side scan sonar measurements, and analysis of waste pollution through the simulation of hydrodynamics and trajectories of debris particles.

The results confirm that the wreck has been damaged by salvagers. There are other threats too, including overly-enthusiastic recreational divers, sea sand mining operations, shipping traffic, and marine pollution from coastal development in nearby Banten Bay.

At the IKUWA international maritime archaeology conference in Fremantle last year, Ridwan confirmed that the HMAS Perth site’s significance and vulnerability warrants ongoing attention from Indonesian authorities. To this end, the project team is considering the introduction of a maritime conservation area around the HMAS Perth site, similar to that in Natuna. Last year, Nia and her team also conducted awareness raising sessions with local communities and authorities, something she believes is key to reducing damage to the site.

Other suggestions include the use of public display signs, and expanding commemoration activities to include coastal communities.


[Nia Naelul Hasanah Ridwan from the Research Institute for Coastal Resources and Vulnerability, Ministry of Marine Affairs and Fisheries, at an international maritime archaeology conference in Fremantle, 2016. Photo: N. Pearson]

16-metal-scavenging[Ridwan’s presentation included photos of photos of metal scavenging operations in Indonesia. 2016. Photo: N. Pearson]

There are also efforts being made to increase awareness within the broader population. In Jakarta, the Ministry of Marine Affairs and Fisheries’ new Marine Heritage Gallery will bring underwater objects to both government officials and the general public. Meanwhile, the Ministry of Education and Culture is developing an online museum dedicated to promoting knowledge and understanding of Indonesia’s underwater cultural heritage.


[The new Marine Heritage Gallery (located at Mina Bahari Building 4, 2nd floor, Ministry of Marine Affairs and Fisheries, Jalan Batu, Gambir, Jakarta Pusat) displays approximately 1000 objects from three historically significant shipwrecks: the Belitung, Pulau Buaya and Cirebon. 2017. Photo: Ministry Marine Affairs and Fisheries, Indonesia]

In Sulawesi, one of Indonesia’s busiest maritime trading destinations, there are plans to open a Regional Training Centre for Underwater Cultural Heritage inside Makassar’s historic Fort Rotterdam.

As recent research on HMAS Perth demonstrates, warship wrecks – and shipwrecks more generally – are vulnerable to a range of threats.

But these threats are not unique to Indonesia.

Britain has also been in the news recently for not protecting its warships in the North Sea, where unauthorised salvagers are alleged to have disturbed at least half of the wrecks from the 1916 Battle of Jutland. With over 8000 lives lost, the destruction has been likened to stealing headstones from a military cemetery.

Sunken warships have both historical and emotional significance. They must be valued for more than their scrap metal re-sale value. Given the ambiguities and complexities of protecting these important naval sites, it is imperative that Flag and Coastal States work together rather than trading diplomatic blows.

This year, the 75th anniversary of their sinking, is the ideal time to actively promote a greater awareness of these warship wrecks, and to work towards a more collaborative model that builds on existing bilateral and multilateral relationships.

Opportunities exist for Flag and Coastal States to share information, conduct capacity-building and training exercises together, and develop mutually beneficial solutions to the challenge of protecting these warships. This model could build on the cooperation already being displayed by Indonesian and Australian cultural institutions to include, for example, technical assistance and legal advice, and could be further extended to include community-focused activities at the local level. Indonesia has already indicated its support for joint site monitoring.

The responsibility to protect and preserve underwater cultural heritage extends to all states, not just those that have lost wrecks or have wrecks in their waters. Internationally, the United Nations’ Ocean Conference will convene in New York in June with the aim of reversing the decline in the health of the world’s oceans. So far underwater cultural heritage is not on the agenda. It is up to UN members to ensure that these issues, and not just marine life, get their time in the spotlight.

A documentary about the missing Java Sea wrecks screened on Dutch TV channel NPO2 on Sunday 26 February – you can see a trailer here.

Join the Perspectives on the Past conversation on Facebook and Twitter!


The Sensual Art of Nyonya Cuisine

We are pleased to welcome back guest blogger and acclaimed food and travel writer, Sheridan Rogers, who shares a mouth-watering account of the development of Nyonya cuisine.

I’ve come to talk to Carol SelvaRajah about her recently released food memoir, Dining with Dragons. SelvaRajah grew up surrounded by Nyonya cooking at her childhood home in Klang, Malaysia, and is an expert in this unique and elaborate cuisine. As I approach her home, a fragrant nutty smell beckons me inside and up the stairs. When she opens the door my nostrils are filled with the alluring aromas of creamy coconut milk mixed with a variety of spices such as cinnamon, cloves, turmeric, chilli, coriander and cumin, exciting not just hunger, but also my imagination. The dish she is preparing, Inche Kabin (double-fried crispy chicken) is a Penang favourite and a typical Nyonya taste experience.


[Carol SelvaRajah’s Inche Kabin. Photo: S. Rogers]

Inche Kabin is one of 28 personal heirloom recipes included in SelvaRajah’s book and one of the dishes she made this year to celebrate the Year of the Rooster. Dining with Dragons is more than a personal memoir of her fascinating life as a celebrity chef and cookery book author. SelvaRajah is also a food historian, and one of the themes of her book is the power of food, particularly Nyonya cuisine, to both reflect and act as an agent of social change.

Nyonya is the unique cuisine developed by the Peranakan communities in the Straits Settlements of Malacca (Melaka), Penang and Singapore. These communities – typically understood as consisting of locally born Chinese, but also including a much smaller community of locally born Indians – developed as a result of increasing mobility and intermarriage. They are often described as ‘hybrid’ or ‘fusion’, because the Baba (male peranakan) and Nyonya (female peranakan) maintained their ancestor’s traditions while also adopting much of the local culture.

‘To study this fusion,’ says SelvaRajah, ‘we need to go directly to Malacca, where Nyonya cuisine originated.’ Located on the west coast of peninsula Malaysia, the port city of Malacca was an important trading hub for spices, porcelain and other valuable goods. It was also a place to exchange ideas, beliefs and knowledge.

As Nor-Afidah Abdul Rahman says,

Malacca’s rise was meteoric, bringing the Malays once again to the forefront of international trade. Acting as a prime redistribution centre of the fabled spice trade – cloves, nutmeg and mace – its fame spread to China, the Indian Ocean and the Mediterranean.

Malacca’s status was further enhanced in the early 15th century by the visit of Chinese envoys. These visits led to Malacca being given the right to participate in the Ming Chinese tributary trade, a status that then attracted international traders.

Malacca was given more than just access to the imperial Chinese market. The Ming emperor, realising the importance of forming an alliance, offered not only trading rights and protection from pesky pirates, but also one of his daughters, Princess Hang Li Poh, to marry the Malaccan Sultan. This auspicious event built upon already-strong trade networks from China, and contributed to the fusion of cultures that eventually became known as Baba Nyonya.

Malacca was also home to wealthy Muslim merchants from Gujarat (India), whose religious beliefs further influenced the development of food traditions – and the introduction of new ingredients – in the region.


[With its government buildings, churches, squares and fortifications, UNESCO World Heritage-listed Malacca demonstrates a history of exchange and trade originating in the 15th-century Malay sultanate and the Portuguese and Dutch periods beginning in the early 16th century. Photo: UNESCO]


According to SelvaRajah, a commonly accepted view of Nyonya cuisine is that it is a composite of the ‘parent’ cuisines of India and China. ‘Indian cuisine was reliant on dairy foods, coconut and spices, while Chinese food was founded on the tofu culture.’ she says. Typical ingredients include curry leaves, coconut, ginger, onions, garlic and tamarind from India, and tofu, noodles, spring onions, ginger, soy and oyster sauces from China. Food preparation techniques were also key, in particular wok frying from China.

But Nyonya cuisine is more than simply the offspring of an Indian and Chinese marriage. It is important to remember that there were also local ingredients and influences at play in the development of these cuisines. As Nyonya cuisine developed, cooks incorporated innovative food preparation techniques as well as local ingredients: fruits, lemongrass, galangal, pandan (screwpine leaves), kaffir lime leaves and assam gelugor (sour fruit) from Malaya; and cloves, mace, nutmeg, pepper, cinnamon bark, cardamom seeds, tapeh (fermented cassava), tempeh and buak keluak (black chestnuts) from Indonesia.

Nyonya can also be distinguished by what is left out. As SelvaRajah explains, fish sauce is rarely used; instead, flavour is added with chilli oil, oyster sauce and of course belacan, a pungent fermented shrimp paste found throughout equatorial Southeast Asia. The capability of a cook could be determined based on the tempo with which she (and it was always a she) crushed the spices to prepare the belacan.

Other ingredients, such as chillies and yam beans from South America, testify to the spread of early trade networks. And when the Portuguese captured Malacca in 1511, their preferences, ingredients and food preparation techniques was also incorporated into the mix, demonstrating the remarkable resilience and adaptability of this cuisine.


[Some of Nyonya cuisine’s key ingredients. Photo: S. Kelly]

Nyonya began as trial and error, but soon evolved into an intricate cuisine ‘famous for its painstaking and lengthy preparations that can take up to days’. The elaborate preparation required can be traced to the wealth of Peranakan communities, whose wives and servants had time to spare. The larger family also included in-laws, devoted grandmothers, widowed aunts and unmarried cousins.

Excellence in Nyonya-style cooking became the hallmark of a good woman:

There was an old tale whereby a potential mother-in-law would listen to the sound of a maiden’s pounding when she was looking for a potential bride for her son, as the beating noise connoted the amount of attention the maiden put into her cooking.


[The kitchen was the heartbeat of any Peranakan home. Here the chef may have been preparing food for dinner, while the matriarch instructed her daughter or daughter-in-law on cooking techniques that were unique to the family. Photo: Malacca’s Baba & Nyonya Heritage Museum]


Only in such an environment – distinguished by the availability of a huge variety of ingredients, and the luxury of time to devote to combining these elements in increasingly creative and delicious ways – could such a heavily-layered cuisine develop.

However, Nyonya cuisine was also sensitive to social changes. When the wealth of these communities declined in the mid-19th century, so too did their culture, including their food traditions. Since the mid-1980s, however, there has been a resurgence of interest in Nyonya cuisine, which some authors attribute to the spread of globalisation. As an essential part of national identity, food is something that states are increasingly keen to stake a claim in. At Singapore’s National Museum, for example, the National Kitchen by Violet Oon celebrates Nyonya flavours in an upmarket environment – a world away from its early ‘trial and error’ beginnings.


[National Kitchen by Violet Oon, at the National Museum of Singapore. Photo: N. Pearson]

Although there are many famous Nyonya restaurants, the best places to find Nyonya food remain inside Baba Nyonya homes. I’m privileged to be invited to Carol SelvaRajah’s home in Sydney, and as I sit down to partake of the Chinese New Year meal she has prepared, every delicious mouthful reminds me of the unique historical circumstances that gave rise to Nyonya cuisine.


[Carol SelvaRajah at her home in Sydney. Photo: S. Rogers]


Sheridan Rogers is a food and travel writer, with a popular blog. See here for her extended interview with Carol SelvaRajah.

If you are in Malacca, be sure to check out the Baba & Nyonya Heritage Museum. In Penang, you can visit the Pinang Peranakan Mansion, while Singapore is host to the marvellous Peranakan Museum.

Film review: ‘1987: Untracing the Conspiracy’ by Jason Soo and ex-political detainees

PoP’s resident oral historian Nien Yuan Cheng attended a screening of Jason Soo’s documentary 1987: Untracing the Conspiracy on 11 February 2017 at The Projector in Singapore. This is a film about 1987’s Operation Spectrum, where 22 people, accused of being involved in a ‘Marxist Conspiracy’ to overthrow the government, were detained without trial under Singapore’s Internal Security Act (ISA). Under the ISA, no evidence is needed for one’s arrest/detention and indefinite detention is possible. A full version is still in the works.

In 1987: Untracing the Conspiracy (the 54-minute version, rated R21), director Jason Soo splices two different kinds of scenes: group interviews with the ex-detainees who agreed to be in the film, and archival footage regarding the mass arrests. These scenes are occasionally punctuated by contextualisations in the form of intertitles, at times devastating/necessary and at times a little on-the-nose (e.g. telling you what to pay attention to or what to feel instead of letting audiences draw their own conclusions). This formula seems simple, and it is, but it is also effective.

As the ex-detainees retell their experiences in state detention without trial, the camera’s frame focuses not merely on their ‘talking heads’, but on their whole upper body. As such, every gesture can be appreciated. This is important because oral history interviews such as these are not merely verbal recountings of ‘what happened’, but a bodily materialisation of experiences as lived.

Vincent Cheng repeatedly whips his forearm across the frame; Chew Kheng Chuan rises slightly in his seat, pumps his arms as if he were running in place, and slashes his palm across an imaginary face; and Low Yit Leng maps the interrogation room with her fingers. These performative re-enactments evocatively tell the audience what they have been through more effectively than any verbal description. This is one of the main reasons why this film plays a role in educating the public about Operation Spectrum in a way that books, websites or articles sometimes can’t.

Many of these accounts are heartbreaking, but the overall tone of the film isn’t. As I see it, the purpose of this film is not to tug at heartstrings or generate sympathy for the former detainees. Jason Soo dedicates a significant portion of the film to an extended scene where Chew Kheng Chuan jovially retells and performs the horrifying night of his arrest to the others in the interview. For instance, he describes leisurely taking a shower and putting on a suit and tie while the police were banging on his door just so that when they took his mug shot, he wouldn’t look as “deranged” – his word – as his fellow detainees. This is a powerful performance. As these detainees laugh together, they subvert narratives of victimhood. They show exactly how ridiculous the situation was both then and now, and indeed redress the power imbalance between them and their detainers, which Soo has indicated is one of the aims of this film.

After the film screening, we had some time to ask Soo and Vincent Cheng some questions. Cheng is an ex-detainee who became branded as the main ‘Marxist conspirator’ based in Singapore by the government and was coerced to confess on prime-time television his ‘intention’ to cause rioting and bloodshed. One of the pieces of evidence the Internal Security Department claimed to prove this intention was the fact that Cheng, as a Catholic social worker at the time, conducted a seminar about poverty in Singapore.


Q&A with Soo (left) and Cheng (right). This quote by Brecht, an important theatre-maker, lifelong Marxist and political dissident, is an interesting choice indeed.

Cheng is understandably angry at the fact that the Internal Security Act is still very much intact in Singapore, having spent more than three years in detention (most of the time in solitary confinement) without trial. Amnesty International had recognised him as a ‘prisoner of conscience’. That said, his bearing is remarkably serene. During the Q&A, we learned that in order to stay sane in prison, he memorised a book on foot reflexology by heart and performed massages on himself. After his release, his freedom was curtailed for another five years; he was essentially under house arrest and could not fraternise with his fellow detainees or his churchmates, much less talk to the press about ‘what really happened’.

Admittedly, answers to questions like ‘what really happened’, and the concept of historical ‘fact’ or ‘truth’, are complex. But that is precisely what many Singaporeans need to understand: that one should critically engage with history instead of accepting the current narrative as definitive. Many would agree that Singapore’s apathy towards this kind of engagement is a product of deliberate strategy and policy-making and not ‘natural ignorance’. In the media, for instance, The Straits Times published a statement after Lee Kuan Yew’s death in 2015 from Archbishop William Goh about how revisiting Operation Spectrum holds no purpose for nation-building and that it was time to “move on”. The makers of 1987: Untracing the Conspiracy obviously disagree. Giving voice to these detainees does not entail mayhem or social anomie, but is one way Singapore becomes a more historically aware and mature nation moving forward.

Indeed one could say that Operation Spectrum is one of the main reasons why Singapore, as a nation, is so politically disinclined. After the crackdown, Singapore lost a whole generation of social and civic activism, which is only slowly starting to emerge again thanks to social media. While this 54-minute version of the film itself did not formally put forth a historical thesis or argument about Operation Spectrum (rather it focused on the ex-detainee’s personal experiences), my understanding is that a future version of the film will cover the issue more extensively as well as highlight the historical repercussions of this event with the benefit of hindsight.

When Tan Pin Pin’s To Singapore With Love (a documentary and oral history about Singapore’s political exiles) was banned from distribution or screening in Singapore, there was a public outcry – at least on Facebook. Let us be the judge, the comments lamented. Let us be the judge of whether this narrative is or isn’t historically sound. By banning it altogether, the Media Development Authority took away that opportunity for Singaporeans to engage with and critique such narratives vis-à-vis The Singapore Story. My hope is that Singaporeans will be able to have this opportunity with 1987: Untracing the Conspiracy when the full-length version is released.

Note: This post was edited to reflect that the restricted conditions Cheng experienced after his release from prison was not over a span of three additional years but five.

Nien Yuan  is a Singaporean PhD candidate at the Department of Theatre and Performance Studies in the University of Sydney. Her thesis is on the oral history method as performance and performative.

Pramoedya’s Message to the Youth of Indonesia

Today would have been the 92nd birthday of the late Pramoedya Ananta Toer, the most important writer in Indonesia. His stature as a leading artist and his leftist politics led to his persecution by the Army-led government of Suharto. International audiences tended to focus on his imprisonment on Buru island between 1969 and 1979, during which he produced four novels now referred to as ‘the Buru quartet’. But for young Indonesians in the 1990s, he was a key inspiration in their mobilisations to topple Suharto and bring about political change.

Today Pramoedya is widely seen as a cultural hero, although his ideas are still considered highly provocative. This has to do with the fact that New Order ideology continues to dominate official discourse, both in the media and in schools. But since his death in 2006, the image of Pramoedya has become increasingly familiar in mainstream Indonesian culture. This year, Google Indonesia celebrated his birthday with a Doodle of him at his typewriter, indicating a level of public acceptance that would have been unimaginable twenty years ago.


To honour Pramoedya’s thinking, we at PoP have translated one of his interviews into English. The main thread of this interview is the role of young people in Indonesian politics and history. Pramoedya challenges the New Order’s distortion of the nation’s past, constructing an alternative vision that emphasises the egalitarian, maritime and revolutionary traditions of Indonesia.

This interview was conducted in mid to late 1999 by three interviewers. Unfortunately we have not been able to identify the original source of this video, and would be very grateful for any information about who conducted and produced the interview.

Why do student movements succeed and why do they bring about change?

All progress in Indonesia is driven by the youth and by students. I’ll explain the historical background first. In the beginning, students in the Netherlands in the 1910s were the ones who discovered their own country and nation, and their influence in Indonesia was the emergence of popular movements that were also composed of young people. But at that time, ‘the youth’ referred to children of the priyayi class, and the priyayi in their turn were the children of the political marriage between colonialism and feudalism. This gave birth to the priyayi class. And the youth that mobilised at that time, students and young people, were the children of priyayi. That’s the reason their influence continues, from the old generation to now. They seek to become bandwagons, so that other people don’t have to think for themselves. Just follow. That’s the culture of bandwagoning, a product of the priyayi. For that reason, democracy has never been present. When there are rowdy masses, opposing this and that, it’s bandwagoning. A culture of bandwagoning, not democracy as we understand it.

When the students mobilised, there were many riots and buildings were burned down, in May last year [1998]. At that time, where you worried about Indonesia, about your own safety? How did you feel at that time?

Back then, some intelligence officers turned up at my house, and they asked, “Mr. Pram, what is your opinion on the riots?”. And I said, “you’re the ones who orchestrated the riots, so why are you asking me?” Usually when the youth mobilised to oppose the New Order, the state apparatus would immediately infiltrate them. That’s normal. Like the events of May 1998, the student movements were infiltrated by vertical politics. Everyone gets that now, it’s not a secret anymore.

Around six years ago, there were many students who formed study groups. They studied books by Marx and other banned writers in Indonesia, including yourself. There were some students who were arrested in Yogya. What happened at that time and how did you feel when you heard those reports?

Ever since the New Order was born, I was familiar with its tactics. So I wasn’t surprised that students were arrested only for reading my books. The New Order regime was a fascist regime, that is, to cause people to be fearful so that they would obey. That’s normal for fascist regimes everywhere, terrorising people to cause them to lose their self-worth and obey any instruction they are given. That’s normal for fascism, all over the world.

You have just written for Time Magazine about Sukarno.

I haven’t seen it.

I’m sorry for not bringing it with me. Why did you support Bung Karno? You were arrested yourself under Sukarno’s adminstration.

No. In Sukarno’s time I was kidnapped and imprisoned by the Army, not by Sukarno. Because since the Revolution, the Army tried to become a state within a state. So as long as Sukarno was president, there was another state, which was the Army. That was the military politics established by Nasution. Only it was Suharto who reaped the benefit, though it was Nasution who created it, ever since the Revolution.

Perhaps as an artist you can describe the environment for artists under Suharto. What was the difference in the environment for artists between the periods of Sukarno and Suharto?

During the Sukarno period, there were two sources of power. Political power was held by Sukarno, while territory and human resources were controlled by the Army. But during the New Order, the Army held absolute power, headed by Suharto. There was no political power, only military power. So the situation for writers at that time was, if they were not afraid of the New Order, they were imprisoned or killed.

In the movements a year ago, did the students come to you to seek information?

Not just information. For the beginning I advised them to study the People Power movement of the Philippines. They tried to create a People Power movement, but it failed because the military didn’t join the students. But they went ahead anyway, which was good. Even though their People Power movement had failed. I had been telling them this for over ten years. During the demonstrations many of the students were talking about People Power. This was the case from the beginning, but in the end it failed because they could not draw the military in to join the students.

Why do all movements in Indonesia begin with students and not with labour? Previously there were not so many industrial workers, not so many factories, twenty years ago. Now there are many, so why does labour still not participate in the movements?

Why the students and the youth? Firstly, they are not yet constrained by a particular political system, their minds are still free. And now many of them study overseas, not like before. So this means that the students are more free than the workers. Workers are tied down by their employment. And all of those many factories, behind them is multinational capital. Don’t forget. If the workers strike, the state apparatus will crush them. They will side with the bosses, and behind the bosses is multinational capital.

It wasn’t for no reason that Sukarno had to be deposed. Behind that deposition was multinational capital, because they sought to exploit the wealth of Indonesia as well as its cheap labour. For that reason, Sukarno had to be brought down.

I don’t believe in the old generation, not in any of them. And the young generation represents the future. Whether Indonesia should be like this or that, let the young people decide. Whether it should be green or blue or white, it’s up to them. As long as it is better than what came before.

Do you think the upcoming elections will be fair or not?

How can I believe in the elections? The bureaucracy is the New Order bureaucracy, the military is the New Order military, the politicians are New Order politicians. For that reason, I personally don’t approve of it and I don’t want to participate in the elections. Because if I were to participate, I would only be choosing my own prison guard.

Where were you on 12 March 1998 when students were shot at Trisakti University, how did you hear about it, and what was your reaction?

I read about it in the papers, and I knew from before that, say the case were to be prosecuted, it would never result in a conviction. Because it was done by the Army, which has killed everywhere, ever since the Revolution, not just now. They kill everywhere, but only because they have weapons that others don’t. I’m often asked during my overseas travels, “why do killings occur in Indonesia?” Well, Indonesia only implements it, but you are the ones who supply the weapons for it. That has been the case since the New Order. They receive weapons to kill their own citizens. Because Indonesian citizens have to be made so small, their self-worth and dignity so debased, so that they are easy to direct, to make it easier for multinational capital to profit. For a long time that hasn’t surprised me.

If those weapons are from America…

Not only America. It’s just a business. They see it as a business issue, not a moral issue. Throughout the world there are activists who make a big deal of Indonesia, but they only go so far as being voices. In terms of the concrete reality, it is the Army who calls the shots here.

How do you make changes in Indonesia?

That’s easy for me to answer. The young generation. Problems in Indonesia can only be solved by the youth. They have to make the decisions and implement them alone. Because tomorrow or the next day, they will have to manage it all. So starting from today, they have to take action. Not just make the decisions, but implement them. Only the youth can respond. Don’t hope for anything from the political parties.

Are you writing new novels?

I can’t write. Even reading makes my eyes water. I only do physical labour now. You saw me before, burning some rubbish.

It seems that the student movements have been anticlimactic, how do you feel about that?

I’ve already told them, forget about your studies for the next two years, mobilise continuously. Because you only have power when you’re united in a demonstration. Outside of that, you have no power. For that reason, understand this, mobilise continuously, forget university for two years. Because the results of your actions now will be much more valuable than the results of your studies.

There are some who say that the young generation has potential but that they lack leadership, so that this potential can’t be maximised.

This is the real world, not heaven. Everything has its faults, and everyone has to strive to reduce their faults. Everything we want is blocked by obstacles, it would be heaven if they weren’t. And we’re not even talking talking about schisms and differences of opinion [within the movements], but that’s the way it is, and they have to overcome it themselves. If you think this is heaven, there’s no need for struggle at all.

What is the character of the Indonesian people, especially young people, their character today? Remembering that in history, Indonesian youth was highly revolutionary, how does it compare today?

Just look, young Indonesians today, from primary school to university, were taught lies by Suharto. If they can free themselves, or even reject or challenge those lies, that alone is great. Let alone standing against the power itself, and even successfully bringing Suharto down, that’s twice as impressive.

According to you, are there any young people who are like that today? Two thumbs up like before?


Who for example?

I won’t mention names, it’s not necessary. As far as I’m concerned they’re a group, not individuals.

What kind of people are they?

The kind who were able to bring down Suharto. Who pushed for reform. They knew that the situation was wrong and needed reform. That alone was good. During the New Order, no-one pushed for improvement. Everyone leaned towards justifying Suharto, including the intellectuals, with all their lines of official titles. The students challenged them; that in itself is impressive.

What was the New Order founded on? Murder, lies, as you said before?

The New Order was founded by the will of multinational capital, through the cooperation of the British and a particular wing of the Army. This wing was later led by Suharto. Suharto was never mentioned previously, the one who was often mentioned was Nasution. People didn’t expect Suharto at that time. Why did Suharto emerge instead of Nasution? It was Nasution who said that the PKI needed to be destroyed to its roots, and that was the order given for those killings.

Approximately how many people were killed at that time?

I myself was involved in setting up an NGO to study the 1965-66 killings. In my regency of Blora alone they found 5000 victims, around 10% of the population killed. Just in one regency. According to the Western press, 500,000 to 1 million. According to Domo, 2 million people. According to Sarwo Edhie, the commander who implemented that killing program on Suharto’s orders, 3 million. He said it with pride.

That was a huge massacre.

One of the largest of this century. Though not the largest, the largest was done by Hitler.

What about your friends, were any killed?

Plenty of artists were killed. Like the one who made the statue in Sukarno’s palace, what was his name? The one from Solo. And then the one who wrote the song Genjer Genjer. Even though the song was actually written in the Japanese period, and was popularised by LEKRA. He was a victim. I don’t remember their names individually. The ones at Buru alone, how many were killed there. Not a single case went to the courts. They wanted to make governing easier by killing, so that people would be afraid. They didn’t understand that people would eventually become bored of their own fear, and resist.

What is your opinion about Timor-Leste, Aceh, West Papua?

Regarding East Timor, that was an excessively stupid thing. Indonesia was founded to oppose colonialism. It is a country that was colonised by a small country. Now that it has become quite a large country, why should it colonise? Small-minded. And it wasn’t resolved for decades. Embarrassing. A colonised country becoming a coloniser, that’s stupid. If they were truly Pancasilist, they would help the East Timorese with aid, with experts. Let them be independent, that’s their right. As far as I’m concerned. And now the stupidity is being continued. It’s not just stupid, it’s idiotic. And the whole colonial mindset is idiotic. Giving aid and experts is cheaper than constant warfare and killing, to the extent that a third of their population was wiped out. The issue of East Timor was engineered by the Army alone.

But there was an ideological factor, the Cold War context.

Not an ideological factor, not the Cold War context. It was a mistake and a stupidity. This is a maritime country, so why is it being occupied by an Army? In a maritime state, the sea is a great road that links one island to another. Under army rule, the sea separates one region from another. This is an essential problem.

And don’t forget Java-centrism, which is a Dutch East India Company (VOC) legacy. So when the VOC succeeded in building the number one maritime empire in the world, its capital was in Batavia, not over there in the Netherlands. Which meant Java. From Java, the VOC sent Javanese killers out to conquer the Outer Islands, and from outside Java, the wealth was brought into Java. That was the VOC. When the VOC ended, this was continued by the Dutch East Indies. When the Indies fell, it stopped for a while because of the Japanese occupation. When Indonesia became independent, Java-centrism was resumed. Javanese killers were sent outside of Java, and wealth from the Outer Islands was brought to Java. This is a VOC legacy.

Because these leaders haven’t studied history, don’t know history, don’t have a sense of Indonesianness, they just keep going with this Java-centrism. Even the capital is still Batavia; that is, Jakarta. That’s why Sukarno wanted to cut the thread of that Java-centrism, by moving the capital to Palangkaraya [in Borneo]. The preparations were already being made. But Suharto came and cancelled it all.

What about Aceh?

All they do is kill, kidnap, trample and humiliate them, including babies. I would fight back too if I were treated that way. They still have their dignity and they should resist. But they shouldn’t secede, because Indonesia is a maritime unity.

A maritime unity created by the Dutch.

No, a geographical unity. The Dutch united it administratively. Sukarno united it politically. It wasn’t united by the Dutch. Geographically it is a maritime unity. That’s why, in the Majapahit period, it was called ‘Nusantara’, an archipelago between two continents. In the Singhasari period, when they were facing an invasion by Kublai Khan, it was called ‘Dipantara’, a fortress between two continents. It is a geographical maritime unity, but it’s only that the current leaders don’t have a sense of Indonesianness, and they don’t want to understand. Or they can’t understand.

Do you have an idol among Indonesian artists?

No, I don’t pay attention to anything outside of my own affairs.

How many works have you produced?

Including the ones destroyed by the Army, approximately 36. Just yesterday I compiled a list. 38. Including those destroyed.

How many were destroyed?

They have to be counted from this list. Approximately nine. In manuscript form, they had not been published yet.

What is your best work?

I don’t worry about good or bad, I never have. They are all my spiritual children, they have their own history, separate from me. When I’m asked about the links between me and my works, I never answer. There are those that died young, there are those that might live forever. That’s beyond my power.

Coming back to the youth, do you think that they need to collaborate with the military?

No. Don’t talk about the military, but about the Army. Because the military includes the Marines.

Aren’t they the same thing?

At least the Marines had a role in protecting the youth, when they were demanding that Suharto resign.

But they are ultimately part of the same command.

A single command, but they are different people. They also feel subjugated by the Army, and so does the Air Force. Even though they should be autonomous.

Can you give a message to the young people?

My message to the young people is: don’t pretend not to understand. You understand well enough what needs to be done. Do the best thing for Indonesia, and for yourselves. Don’t pretend to be stupid. You’re smart enough, you’re brave enough, you have the skill to unite all the youth movements. Keep moving until you reach your goal.

Translation by PoP’s textual historian Wayan Jarrah Sastrawan

Treasure Island meets Lord of the Flies: rediscovering the Batavia shipwreck

Natali Pearson, PoP’s resident museologist, visits the site of one of Australia’s bloodiest maritime disasters, and discovers the remarkable technology that is being used to make Beacon Island accessible to everyone

From our tiny 6-seater plane, the 122 islands that make up the Houtman Abrolhos are deceptively close to the Western Australian coast. Taking off from Geraldton airport in a small GA8 Airvan, it seems only a matter of minutes before the first patches of coral appear in the opalescent sea-green waters below us.


Our plane’s shadow passes over the southern edge of the Houtman Abrolhos islands [photo: N. Pearson]

These islands lie some 80 kilometres from the Australian mainland, and while such distances are easily navigable in a small plane, they may as well have been a death sentence for anyone wrecked here.

Danger ahead

The name alone suggests marine peril – Houtman was the Dutch captain credited with discovering the islands in 1619, while Abrolhos is believed to refer to a Portuguese phrase for ‘open your eyes’ (abre os olhos). Today, the Houtman Abrolhos make for spectacular vistas from the air, but for seafarers of the past, these shallow seabeds and low-lying islands were very dangerous.

Over crackling headphones, our cheerful pilot Josh points out at least half a dozen known shipwreck sites, including the Zeewijk (1727), Ocean Queen (1842), Ben Ledi (1879) and Windsor (1908).


The Ben Ledi, one of many wrecks in the Houtman Abrolhos. Can you spot it? [photo: N. Pearson]

Our chartered ‘shipwreck tour’ of the Houtman Abrolhos had been organised as part of the IKUWA6 international maritime archaeology conference , held at the Western Australian Maritime Museum in Fremantle in December 2016. This was the first time IKUWA had been held in the southern hemisphere, and it is clear that organisers were keen to showcase Australia’s significant maritime histories and amazing natural landscapes to conference delegates.

For those fortunate enough to participate in the ‘shipwreck tour’, myself included, the main drawcard was the opportunity to see Morning Reef and nearby Beacon Island – site of the 1629 Batavia wreck. My interest in this wreck had been stimulated by Mike Dash’s Batavia’s Graveyard: The true story of the mad heretic who led history’s bloodiest mutiny (2002), which I chanced upon in Sydney University’s Fisher Library (there is much to be said for browsing a shelf rather than an electronic catalogue).

History isn’t usually as neat as this. The story of the Batavia not only has well defined heroes and villains, but a distinct beginning, middle and end that makes it ideal for narrative history ~ Mike Dash

The Batavia was a massive Dutch East Indiaman – greater in length than an Olympic swimming pool – that crashed on her maiden voyage from Amsterdam to the Dutch East Indies.

What happened next is the stuff of horror movies: although most of the passengers survived the initial shipwreck, the presence of a man named Jeronimus Cornelisz would have soon made them wish otherwise. Over the next few months, 125 of these survivors would be murdered by Cornelisz and his band of thugs in a gruesome rampage from which there was no escape.

Of the 300-odd people who departed Holland on the Batavia, only 122 would make it to their final destination.

Wine and women, murder and mayhem

Cornelisz was a former apothecarist who had joined the Dutch East India Company (Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie, or VOC) to escape debts and a difficult family life in Holland. Not only was he the most senior VOC representative on the islands (all other senior officers having gone in search of help), but he was extremely charismatic, articulate and persuasive.

Cornelisz subscribed to a set of religious beliefs that valued the pursuit of sensual pleasures above anything else. To this end, he collected as much treasure as he could from the wreck – silver coins, gaudy clothes, gallons of wine – and set up camp on Beacon Island to await rescue. It is clear that he intended to enjoy the wait.


View of Beacon Island, also known as Batavia’s Graveyard, from our plane [photo: N. Pearson]

In a particularly terrifying development, Cornelisz also exerted sexual authority over the surviving female passengers. Lucretia Jansz, a renowned beauty who had been travelling solo to join her husband in the Dutch East Indies, had resisted Cornelisz’s advances since the ship’s departure from Holland. He exercised revenge by restraining Jansz in his tent for his own personal use.

But Cornelisz’s pursuit of pleasure went far beyond wine and women: murder and carnage soon became a common event on these islands. By the time help arrived three months later, 125 people had been killed – drowned, bludgeoned, stabbed – at the hands of Cornelisz and his group of supporters.


Engraving of the massacre that followed the Batavia shipwreck – from the Jan Janz 1647 edition of Ongeluckige Voyagie [Source: Western Australian Museum]

From the air, the Batavia’s impact on the coral reef is still evident, a light turquoise patch amidst the darker blues and greens revealing where the ship made contact almost four hundred years ago.


A turquoise patch (centre) amidst the dark blues and greens reveals the site where the Batavia collided with the reef in June 1629 [photo: N. Pearson]

For the several hundred survivors who washed up here, the Australian mainland would not have even been visible. Even before Cornelisz began the killings, their isolation and despair would have been overwhelming.


The Houtman Abrolhos islands may be a beautiful day trip for tourists, but the unrelenting sun, lack of adequate cover and limited fresh water would have made life incredibly difficult for survivors of the Batavia. [photo: N. Pearson]

The Batavia was under the command of VOC Senior Merchant Francisco Pelsaert when it left Holland in late 1628. Part of a larger fleet of VOC ships bound for Batavia (now Jakarta) in the Dutch East Indies, the Batavia was carrying cargo for the fledgling colony – including silver coins and a massive sandstone portico which doubled as ballast – and over 300 crew, soldiers and passengers.


A replica of the portico on display at the WA Shipwrecks Museum in Fremantle, adjacent to a portion of the excavated Batavia hull. The original portico is in the Shipwrecks Gallery at the Museum of Geraldton.  Archival research indicates the portico was destined for use either at the Land Port or the Waterport for the Castle at Batavia.  [photo: N. Pearson]

Tensions between Commander Pelsaert and his Captain, Ariaen Jacobsz, began to simmer early in the voyage during a scheduled stop on the Cape of Good Hope.

While there, it became clear that there was not much love lost between Pelsaert and the ship’s captain Adrian Jacobsz, whose drunken behaviour extracted a very public scolding from Pelsaert. This was to sow the seeds of disaster. ~ WA Museum

Jacobsz wasn’t the only crew member to resent Commander Pelsaert; enigmatic Junior Merchant Jeronimus Cornelisz was also resistant to Pelsaert’s authority. Once the Batavia left Africa and began to make its way east across the Indian Ocean, this dissent began to solidify into plans for a mutiny. These plans were thwarted when the Batavia was wrecked in the Houtman Abrolhos late one night in June 1629. More than 250 people survived the wreck and managed to salvage some supplies, albeit limited, of fresh water and rations.

Despite the isolation of the wreck site and the fact that nearly four centuries have elapsed, an abundance of archival and archaeological evidence means that a great deal is known about the horrifying events that ensued after the Batavia was wrecked.

For historians, one of the most important documents is the Pelsaert Journal, which Commander Pelsaert began the day after the Batavia was wrecked.


Reproduction of the Pelsaert Journal at the WA Shipwrecks Museum in Fremantle [photo: N. Pearson]

As the most senior VOC representative and ultimately responsible for cargo and passengers (in likely order of priority), Pelsaert had kept a diary since the Batavia’s departure from Holland in late 1628, but this early version was lost in the ship’s wrecking. The extant journal, much of which is based on confessions extracted under torture, documents Pelsaert’s decision to take the remaining longboat and, together with Captain Jacobsz and most of the senior officers, set off on a desperate search for fresh water.

Finding none, and realising they were now closer to Java, their original destination, than to the ship’s wreck site, Pelsaert and his small crew made the decision to seek help from authorities in Batavia rather than return to Beacon Island.

First wrecked, now abandoned

For the hundreds of people left behind, Pelsaert’s decision looked like abandonment. First wrecked and now deserted, they were now faced with the horror of being marooned on these islands indefinitely.

Thus began Cornelisz’s reign of terror.

Together with his band of henchmen, many of whom were the same men who had previously indicated support for a mutiny, Cornelisz set about systematically eliminating survivors. This was, initially, a strategic move – rations were limited and Cornelisz was determined to ensure his own survival.

Using a small boat, some survivors were dumped on nearby islands under the pretence of looking for fresh water – the assumption being there was no water, and that they would be stuck there until they perished. Others were drowned or bludgeoned to death. One infant, recounts Dash, was murdered by poison (Dash contends that this is the only murder Cornelisz carried out with his own hands).

These killings had initially been motivated by survival and the desire to minimise demands on the remaining rations. But at some point, the killings turned into sport: a reprieve from boredom, perhaps, or a deranged response by those in control to the unrelenting sun and ever-diminishing prospects of rescue.

After three months of killings, Cornelisz was eventually captured by a small group of survivors led by soldier Wiebbe Hayes. Hayes, who will undoubtedly occupy one of the hero roles in Russell Crowe’s forthcoming movie about the Batavia, was one of a small group of survivors previously abandoned by Cornelisz on a nearby island (now known as West Wallabi island) in a supposedly hopeless quest for fresh water.

Not only did Hayes and his fellow survivors find fresh water and plentiful food (including wallabies, seals and birds), but, upon realising the mayhem that was unfolding around them, they also constructed a small fort as protection against Cornelisz.

There was a great deal of excitement in our plane when we spotted this fort from the air, followed by astonishment at its size (tiny) and the ability of the survivors to source the construction materials (coral) on such a desolate island – an enduring, material testament to their will to live.

dsc_1032-1presentation1Wiebbe Hayes’ 1629 fort on West Wallabi Island remains standing to this day, and is significant for being the earliest European building in Australia. [photos: N. Pearson]


Rescue and retribution

In a remarkable twist of history, the capture of Cornelisz coincided with Pelsaert’s return from Java aboard the rescue ship Sardam. Given that three months had elapsed since he first set off in search of water and assistance, Pelsaert may well have expected to find no survivors of the Batavia – or maybe he did expect to find some survivors, notwithstanding a few deaths caused by dehydration or starvation.

But Pelsaert could never have anticipated the carnage that had taken place at the hands of the Junior Merchant and his cohort.

Confessions were extracted under torture, and punishment was harsh and rapid. Many of the mutineers, including Cornelisz (deemed too much of a risk to be placed aboard the Sardam), were executed using hastily-constructed gallows on Seals (now known as Long) Island. Two mutineers were abandoned on the Australian mainland, and the rest were taken back to the Dutch East Indies for trial and execution.

Bringing the Batavia to a wider audience

Re-discovered and first excavated over 40 years ago, the Batavia continues to provide research opportunities for archaeologists, anthropologists and historians. Under the auspices of the multi-disciplinary Australian Research Council Linkage Project, Shipwrecks of the Roaring 40s: A maritime archaeological reassessment of some of Australia’s earliest shipwrecksresearchers are now using new technologies and new research questions to interrogate the Batavia site (and other previously-excavated Dutch wreck sites of the 17th century in Australian waters).

As part of this project, steps have been taken to bring Beacon Island to a much wider audience than the remoteness of the Houtman Abrolhos would otherwise permit. Some of the results of these efforts are on display at the Western Australian Maritime Museum’s ‘Travellers and Traders’  exhibition (on show until 23 April 2017), where museum visitors are able to experience Beacon Island in a virtual environment through Beacon Virtua.


Staff at WA Maritime Museum demonstrating Beacon Virtua to IKUWA conference delegates [photo: N. Pearson] 

This remarkable technology, developed by Curtin University’s HIVE (the Hub for Immersive Visualisation and eResearch), allows the public to tour Beacon Island, including its jetties, fishing shacks (now demolished in recognition of the archaeological significance of the site) and several grave sites. Nor do you have to visit the Museum to experience this technology – it is also accessible from your desktop here.

As this introductory video demonstrates,

The graves have been reconstructed through a technique called photogrammetric 3D reconstruction, a process which uses multiple photographs of an object to build an accurate and detailed 3D model of it. Beacon Virtua presents the island as it was in 2013, using audio and photography captured during multiple expeditions to the island to preserve this period in its history. In 2013 there were around 15 small shacks located across Beacon Island, originally used by the fishing community. These shacks have been recreated as 3D models, which can be explored inside and out. Around the island are photographic panorama bubbles offering 360° views of the island. These bubbles have been captured using a special panoramic photography process – stepping inside a bubble allows you to see the island from that point exactly as it was in 2013.

The use of 3D photogrammetry and virtual simulation technology to enable greater public access to shipwrecks and other underwater cultural heritage is an exciting – albeit funding-intensive – development not only for maritime museums but for museums (and their visitors) more generally.


IKUWA conference delegates Dr Lucy Blue (Senior Lecturer in Archaeology at the University of Southampton) and Patrick Baker (WA Museum’s shipwrecks photographer) experiencing some of HIVE’s incredible technology. Baker took many of the original photographs in the 1960s that are now being used to digitally re-create the wreck [photo: N. Pearson]

Requiring less funding, but just as much enthusiasm and innovation, is the work of Western Australia’s Museum of Moving Objects (MoMo), which has also been instrumental in bringing the story of the Batavia to a wider audience.  MoMo is a ‘museum without walls’ that brings archaeology and history to communities including schools, aged-care facilities, ferry terminals, airports – anywhere – through mobile workshops. Challenging the idea of what constitutes a museum, MoMo has brought a number of maritime archaeology workshops to its audiences, opening up a world of possibilities for people physically incapable of diving such as the young, elderly or disabled.

One of MoMo’s first ‘Archaeology in a Shoebox‘ workshops looked at themes of annexation and commemoration in relation to Dirk Hartog, but MoMo organisers realised the response was noticeably gendered: while women responded well, interest amongst men was limited. In response, MoMo curators developed a workshop aimed specifically at engaging men: ‘Murder and Mayhem’, focused on the Batavia. To no-one’s surprise, this workshop was a resounding success, and generated more questions than they have ever had in any other workshop.

Alternative narratives

Despite numerous books, documentaries and even an opera, the tragic and astonishing tale of the Batavia has made a surprisingly limited impact on the Australian consciousness. As Australian maritime archaeologist Jeremy Green has reflected, ‘It is a story that is well-known amongst West Australians but, for many reasons, people in other states aren’t as well acquainted with it’.

Perhaps this is because the Batavia displaces the stories we tell ourselves, the ones that place Australia’s Eastern seaboard, and not the West coast, at the centre of frontier histories.

But is it more than simply a question of the east vs west?

Perhaps the Batavia unsettles many of the accepted tropes of colonial Australian histories: instead of invasion and displacement of Indigenous Australians by the British, this is a primarily Dutch story that takes place on Australian soil. Setting aside the (tantalising) question of what happened to the two mutineers abandoned on the mainland, the wreck survivors had no known interaction with Indigenous Australians. 

Perhaps, as Sparrow asks,

The traditional narrative of white Australia posits the coming of the First Fleet as an almost natural development, the inexorable result of the British Empire’s growth. By contrast, the Batavia story, and contemplation of the Dutch presence in Australia prior to 1788, sets both England and the Australian continent itself on a different axis. It remaps the regional geography around Jakarta, and Amsterdam becomes more significant than London. We’re pushed into a multivalent history in which there are more actors and the outcomes feel somehow less preordained. The specific way that white settlement unfolded loses some of its inevitability.

The shipwreck tour to the Houtman Abrolhos was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for most of us, and undoubtedly the best conference ‘side visit’ I have participated in. Even the locals among us were dazzled by the beauty of these islands, and the uncomfortable realisation that we knew so little about what had taken place here.

As Beacon Virtua and MoMo’s Murder and Mayhem demonstrate, new technologies and ideas can provide the public with greater access to the significant historical and archaeological discoveries that continue to be made on remote Beacon Island and its surrounds. These innovations may, in turn, prompt a deeper appreciation of the possibility of alternative narratives in Australian – and Dutch, and Indonesian – histories.



East Wallabi island’s airstrip enables visitors to experience the remoteness of the Houtman Abrolhos from the ground [photo: N. Pearson]



The shelter shown here on East Wallabi island has been constructed to accommodate day-trippers [photo: N. Pearson]



Thanks to IKUWA6 conference organisers and presenters; staff at the WA Maritime Museum (including curator Corioli Souter) and WA Shipwrecks Museum who took the time to show us around the exhibitions; Geraldton Air Charters; Dr Andrew Woods at HIVE; Patrick Baker for making sure we had our 3D glasses on the right way; and the lively international delegates who participated in the Houtman Abrolhos shipwreck tour. 

Natali travelled at her own expense.