Surviving in the Indies

 A historical perspective of wartime life in colonial Indonesia based on family accounts.

1939 Hotel des IndiesBatavia had once been known throughout the world as the Amsterdam of the East. With its city-wide labyrinth of canals, drawbridges, cobblestone streets, trams, harbors, and European cultural awareness Batavia was now adding to this romantic exotic moniker and focused on becoming a world class city; one that could attract people by boasting opportunity, success, and lifestyle.

The ever increasing population required infra-structure. Civil servants from the Netherlands were offered incentives to pack-up and move to the Indies.

The promise of a life in the tropics was hard to resist. With unrest in Europe becoming more and more likely, a chance to escape and start again was appealing. People flooded into the Indies throughout the 1930’s. 

By the turn of the decade the world was bracing for war.

In Europe, Germany had mobilized and by the end of 1940 Austria, Poland, Czechoslovakia, France, and the Netherlands had fallen.

In Asia, Japan had invaded China and was systematically moving its forces south through Burma, Indo-China, Malaysia, and Singapore.

The goal was oil…and that belonged to the Dutch East Indies.

On December 8th 1941 Japan attacked multiple targets that flanked its objective. The most famous being Pearl Harbor.

Life in the Indies, under Dutch colonial rule, was about to be turned upside down.

The writing was on the wall as the outer islands began to fall to Japanese rule in January and February of 1942.  Oil was the prize but it was cloaked in a veil of liberation from colonial oppression. This veil was quickly lifted however as South East Asia quickly learned that they had simply swapped one form of oppression for another, far more sinister, version.

The colonial rule of the French, English, and Dutch was at an end.

In March of 1942 the Japanese invading forces landed at Tanjung Priuk harbor in Batavia. This is the same point of debarkation that families, full of wonder and hope for a better future, had once arrived.

Within weeks the systematic internment of Dutch civilians was underway.

Blavotsky Park, on the south western corner of Koningsplein (Merdeka Square), acted as a staging area from where people would be shuttled to camps.  Some were trucked to the army barracks on Matramanweg while completion of one of the largest camps continued.

In 1943 my family and thousands of others entered through the gates of Tjideng.

The innocence and the adventure of living in the tropics now turned to survival and it would never turn back.

Overcrowding, blazing heat, disease, hunger, cruelty, and tenko (bowing to the emperor) would make up the day to day routine of the men, women, and children divided among camps throughout the Indies.

Clutching small portions of dignity and hope were straws worth grasping. For four years surviving was paramount followed closely by reunification with loved ones and a return to normalcy.

Many innocent lives were lost during these years.

A death rate in excess of 30% was recorded for those interned. Malaria and beri-beri acting as silent assassins while the brutality of the commanders and guards acted in stark contrast but with the same result.

The Commander at Tjideng, a man who would howl at the full moon and beat women and children mercilessly, was the first to be found guilty of war crimes following the wars conclusion. He was hung.

After years of captivity it would be the irony of war, and this one in particular, that would be the most confounding.

Following the surrender in August of 1945 the Japanese switched roles. In a cruel act of fate the interns could not leave the camps even though the gates were open.

The Indies was now in a revolutionary war and the safest place to be was behind the relative protection of the walls that had just moments early held people captive; the prison becoming the fortress. For nearly five more years the Nationalists fought for a free and independent state.

In the years that followed 1945 the Indies was in a state of turmoil and chaos; the Dutch attempting to reclaim its territory while the Indonesian Nationalists declared independence and laid the foundations for its future.

In total the country was at war for nearly nine years.

When it emerged, it was the Republic of Indonesia. The Indies became a lost era but for those that lived through Tempo Doeloe, the depression, and the war, the Indies became a defining passage of time.

Living in the Indies ultimately meant a struggle to survive. Surviving the Indies was like losing a love…a gut wrenching void that, for some, could never be filled.

For more on this four part series see;
Arriving in the Indies , Living in the Indies , Departing the Indies

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29 thoughts on “Surviving in the Indies

  1. Hi Tim,
    Wonderful bit of juxtapositioning:

    “In March of 1942 the Japanese invading forces landed at Tanjung Priuk harbor in Batavia. This is the same point of debarkation that families, full of wonder and hope for a better future, had once arrived.”

    In one of my earlier comments on your series, I mentioned that I’d never heard Indonesia referred to as The Indies. At that time, I didn’t realize that “the indies” was the precursor to Indonesia. Loving this series.
    ~ Vernessa Taylor

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  2. You are just a wealth of knowledge! Thanks for sharing it with us. I can’t imagine what it must have been like to live through the events you’ve described and thanks for exposing me to the word: “tenko.” Fascinating.

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  3. Hi Tim, Your articles are so interesting and personal. It’s clear you’ve done your homework. I’m curious though… how much was handed down to you from your parents and grandparents? I’ve studied my genealogy and I have uncovered a LOT of stuff. My family has been unable to tell me anything; I’m so puzzled by that. How could they not know?
    Anyway, I really loved the post. Looking forward to me.
    Have a great weekend Tim!
    ~ Don

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    1. I did a lot of reading on the subject and also asked relatives as much as I could. Like with your relatives though, it appears a lot things have slipped from memory over the course of time. One of the biggest issues I had was that of perspective. My mother was just a child/teenager through most of it so her perspective is sometimes at odds with an adults. Fortunately the eyes of a child see things in a better light than may be captured by someone older.

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      1. Great point Tim, kids have a way of seeing things as they are and we as adults sometimes see things as we either perceive them to be or want it to be.

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  4. Tenko, bowing to the emperor. The hunger for power is an age old issue which will linger on for decades to come. Man wants to be feared more than to be revered and respected.

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  5. Tim, I agree with Jacquie – this has all the makings of a great book. It was heart-wrenching to read, but you just had to finish reading it. It kept me glued from start to finish.

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  6. The colonial rule of the French, English, and Dutch was at an end. When I read something like this, my thoughts , quickly go for Indian held Kashmir. I wish someday , no matter how, people get the chance to decide their future.
    This story is coming like a series, we end one and look forward to the next part.
    I feel sad for all people including your family, who were there to fulfill their duties and faced hard times. I am sad to read that they were not allowed to leave place and have to take refuge with relatives. Seems many were struggling in that hard time for survival.

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  7. My family had been in Indonesia since the 1700’s. As mixed Dutch/Indonesians, they were Interned then sent to Holland ( a place only read about or heard of in stories) They were treated poorly for being mixed and for taking up space and food as rations were still in effect. Opa went back to Indonesia for a job. Later Oma and 4 children followed. When Indonesia won Independence from Holland, All Dutch and those with mixed nationaity were given a choice. renounce Dutch citizenship or leave. Many who did so, regretted it. They were not to be treated well in Indonesia. I have pre WWll photos,papers and letters from Oma and Opa in the camps. How these items survived I dont know.

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  8. I found some comfort in the fact that the Commander at Tjideng was hung. He deserved it for what he did to others. Inflicting abuse like he did is simply horrible.

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    1. I think many found comfort in that Lorraine. It is insane what people can do each other, I am talking about Sonei and the likes, given a particular set of circumstances but why they chose to do it is beyond me. Parts of the world, at times, can be very sad.

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    1. The VOC, a company, arrived in the Indies in 1602 so 450 years is not exactly accurate. The Dutch government did not take over from the VOC for another 200 years when the VOC went bankrupt. That said, the use of the word “era” is defined as a “long and distinct period” so I am thinking the word fits in nicely. I do very much appreciate your comment Frank and thanks very much for reading the post.

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    1. They were all in Batavia at the time of the invasion. My mother and her sisters, and grandmother (Oma) were sent to Tjideng camp. My grandfather (Opa) was sent to an all mens prison called Striswijk on the other side of town; he would eventually be transferred to Sumatra.

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