Heeding our plea for a posting from Alexandria’s social round, which had become just too arduous for us, the Foreign Office sent us to the Consulate at Surabaya, capital of East Java, which had been vacant for several months but required urgently to be filled because of the growing insecurity and lawlessness. I must admit that when we heard the news, we had to consult the atlas to see where it was, and were not reassured. Only a few degrees South of the Equator, it boasted a hot, humid climate with a humidity rate never far short of 100%, from which the cooler humidity of the hills provided only a relative respite, and the edge of the Australian winter none at all, as cold, clammy humidity replaced the hot. It was far from home, among peoples with a very different cultural background, and extending far out from East Java into unknown, undeveloped regions, as a result of my responsibility for the protection of British lives and property throughout the whole Eastern Archipelago, as far as Portuguese Timur and Darwin. We could not help asking ourselves what it would be like in so remote a post, how we would get on with the Javanese and other races, and how British lives could be protected from the widespread pillaging and rampokking. It needed all our courage and sangfroid to accept the challenge.
We were let in easily during the first few days. The month-long journey out on the Dutch Royal Mail liner ‘Oranje’ had been a marvellous experience, particularly when we reached the sparkling Indian Ocean and were accompanied by porpoises, flying fish and impressive tropical sunsets, and in the last stages when we glided past the golden, palm-strewn beaches of Sumatra and its dense jungle, broken only by the occasional pillar of smoke rising from some isolated settlement. We were well received and looked after by the Ambassador and his wife, but were filled with apprehension when, at our first brush with the earthy realities, we boarded the decrepit old packet boat pretentiously named the ‘Plancius’, which plied between Djakarta and the Spice Islands, and which was to take us to Surabaya owing to the dangers of the overland route. West and Central Java were in uproar and far too unsafe to attempt to cross. East Java was relatively safer, for its Governor had taken draconian measures to quell any looting and rioting in his province, and to restore law and order. The boat was packed, and the open deck littered with local people returning to East Java and beyond with their belongings, large hessian sacks, wicker crates and baskets, and the pigs, goats and other livestock they had bought in Djakarta. The stench was overpowering, but even then not enough to drown the all-pervading odour of rotting copra, the packet boat’s main cargo. Large scaly brown cockroaches ran over the water glasses in our cabin, and rest was impossible in all the clamour and foetid heat. Not a very auspicious introduction, but thankfully a once-for-all experience, which served only to highlight the gracious living, among a kindly and well-disposed people, which awaited us in Surabaya.
The Residence was an imposing building in a fashionable quarter, so constructed as to provide cool air in the humid heat before air conditioners came into vogue, through a lofty dome over the central rooms, marble floors, large ceilings fans, windows and doors open to the elements, and not least a tiled Dutch bath from which to ladle cold water as necessary over one’s heat-wracked body. It was reputed to have been a police HQ during the Japanese occupation, and was still supposed to be haunted by the tortured victims, but this did not deter the Indonesians from flocking to visit us, both because we were very much in their good books, the British having helped them obtain their independence, and because we could offer them regular practice in English conversation, which was then much sought after. The salon was big enough for any size of reception likely to be needed, and to eke out the sparse Ministry of Works furniture, we hired a new Steinway concert grand, for the ludicrous rental of £2 a month, because the Dutch owner of the music shop considered it safer in the Consular Residence than in his shop. The tall open windows led to a balcony, from which a garden stocked with the most exquisite tropical shrubs, blushing double hibiscus, fragrant frangipani, and show bougainvillea, ran down to the Brantas River. There the gardener had constructed a lotus bed to keep away the crocodiles (Surabaya means in old Javanese ‘Where the shark meets the crocodile’, being located at the mouth of the Brantas). He never quite succeeded in eliminating the snakes, which would nest under the stones for coolness, and a sharp eye had to be kept on John, who was then only two and delighted in turning over the stones to watch the writhing mass of young vipers underneath. Fortunately, we had a very attentive and energetic nanny, and snakes were much quicker at getting away than we are, provided they have an escape route.
A row of shacks, or godowns, housing the kitchen and storerooms formed the boundry between us and my Dutch neighbour, and here shortly after our arrival we encountered our first white ants attacking the soft-wood drinks crates. As I went into the storeroom, I was met with a high-pitched hum as a seething mass of white ant stripped the wood and even the labels from the bottles. They quickly devour clothes, hats, and any soft wood, leaving behind only skeletons of the inedible. Furniture has to be protected against their ravages by placing it on the chocks of hard wood such as teak or mahogany, and of course the casing and felts of pianos destined for the tropics must be poised against the marauders. Following the advice of our Chinese administration office, we poured kerosene round our stores, and for a while had some peace. But after a fortnight or so they were back in strength. All we had done was to drive them into our Dutch neighbour’s adjoining godown, and he had applied the same kerosene remedy. At last we decided to dig out the queen ant, the only way of getting rid of the scourge. To do so I am afraid we had to demolish the garden and dig down several feet to reach the nest!
Fortunately the snakes and white ant, the sharks and the mosquitoes were the troublesome exceptions to a very happy life surrounded by great natural beauty and among a friendly, soft-spoken people. One of our greatest assets was the team of devoted servants numbering not two or three, the norm for the Arab world, but three or four times that number! This derives from the traditional Indian way, whereby one servant does one job and will not even temporarily do that of another. If our head servant/waiter dropped something, he would not stoop to pick it up; that was the duty of the houseboy. And so on with the cooking, cleaning, washing up and laundry (an important duty because of the frequent changes of clothing). It was quite a family supporting many dependants, and unlike the fractious Middle East, living in the perfect harmony with each other, and with us, enjoined by the Hindu background. We grew very fond of them, and would have been loth to see any of them go, even if at times I wondered how many mouths we were feeding.
Although the religion in East Java is Islam, Hindu influences are very strong and such relics of Hindu civilisation as the great Borobudur temple are counted among their proudest treasures. The two strains are inextricably mixed up, and it was not an uncommon occurrence for us to see devout Indonesians, wearing tarbushes and burning incense and candles, reciting their Koran in front of the remains of a Hindu temple! To them Islam is their own personal religion, without the political overtones of the Arab variety, to be practiced in the intimacy of the home or the mosque. Together with the tolerance learnt from Hinduism it makes them the gentle compassionate people they normally are.
The wives of the officials, many of them related to the Court of the Sultan of Djokdjakarta, were particularly close to Henrietta, and as the friendship grew would consult her about their personal or family problems. They were conscious about their colour, and would from time to time ask her whether Mrs So and So was not darker than they were. It was a serious problem, for even a short exposure to the sun would make them darker. Hence the chalk or ochre with which peasant women obliged to work outdoors cover their faces, and the insistence with which one Indonesian lady later visiting us in Cairo begged us to take her quickly away from the sun beating down on the Pyramids to the deep shade of the tulip trees at the Gezirah Club, even if that meant watching an incomprehensible game of cricket. They dreaded most of all the thought that their husbands might one day take a second wife. Unlike the Arabs, it was the exception rather than the rule for the Indonesian to do so, but when he did, it sent a shudder through Henrietta’s group. They would gather around to show their sympathy for the tearful, disconsolate first wife, and consult Henrietta how best to keep their beauty and line, and how to retain their husbands’ affections.
As might be expected in a country so exposed to the dangers of the unknown and the violent manifestations of nature, Indonesia is rich in legend trying to explain away in their own simple terms the frightening phenomena, for instance how the great volcano Bromo came into being. Bromo fell in love with the lovely volcano Ardjuno next door, and asked her father for her hand in marriage. He agreed, provided that by dawn on the seventh day he had built a causeway from the mountain to the sea. Bromo was overjoyed, and returning home created and created, until towards dawn on the seventh day he was on the point of completing the causeway, when Ardjuno’s father, realising that the work would be completed on time, rushed to the hen-house and pinched the cock, so that he crowed before the dawn. Thus thwarted, Bromo gave vent to his fury, and for ages threw out his molten rock and lava until all the surrounding countryside was obliterated. In another legend, the Goddess of the South Sea is jealous of anyone wearing green, and snatches them away from their loved ones. It was told to us in all seriousness one day when an American colleague bathing in the Indian Ocean had been overwhelmed by a mountainous roller and swept out to sea. His body was never recovered; but he had been wearing green bathing trunks.
They are a gifted race both for their art and their music and dance. The shadow theatre, weird waxed paper effigies of characters in Hindu legend, manipulated from below on two sticks and performing behind an illuminated screen, provided much diversion and amusement at fairs and parties. Both Java and Bali have a long tradition of accomplished wood carving, creating life-like dancing girls, busts of maidens and warriors, long-boats, rice birds, and a host of other subjects all worked in the hardest woods such as mahogany, teak, or the local sawo. But classical dancing, to the haunting strains of gamelan music, is their greatest passion, slow and stylised in Java, but quicker and more vivacious in Bali.
The chance of a dancing session, usually performed by little girls of ten or so, was never missed, and in Bali there would be a dance somewhere every night, for a birth, a wedding ceremony or a funeral, or just for the love of it. The drivers of the Den Pasar Hotel’s primitive horse-drawn buggies, which were made to take the rough roads but not for the passengers’ comfort, would always swear that the dance that night was no more than ten minutes’ ride away. We would be lucky if it took not more than an hour, but it was worth the discomfort to see the fresh, exuberant movements of the village girls, often performing on nothing more than the dusty ground of the village square or communal hut. And once more we would come across that love and compassion enjoined on them by their religion and traditions, as the older women watching the spectacle gathered to their bosoms and comforted the orphans of the village.
A clear limpid sky, placid blue sea, sharp light, bright colours, and above all a warm, friendly and artistic people. What more could the Belgian painter Meyrier have wanted, when years ago he came to the paradise garden of Bali, married a beautiful Balinese dancer, and settled down to live on the beach? We called on him on one of our visits, at a time when the beaches, of the purest white sand, were deserted, and his was the only dwelling in sight. The guest bedroom was not in the house, but set on the sands themselves, a wooden structure rather like a bandstand, elevated a few feet and roofed over for protection against the morning rains, but otherwise open to the sea breezes on all four sides. We visited Bali three times, each time for an official reason such as the inauguration of a new Governor. They were memorable occasions, from the momentous flight over Bromo and three other extinct volcanoes now holding lakes coloured blue, green and white from the chemical content of the ash, to the ceremonies themselves, performed by Brahmin priests to the light of innumerable tallow candles set in coconut shells around the garden paths, and to the Balinese dancing depicting well-known passages from the Ramayana. Bali was indeed very lovely and restful, and the people very gentle and easy-going, but we would never have chosen to retire there. For over everything hangs a veil of timelessness alien to the Westerner, who cannot resign himself to the all-pervading feeling of being of no account in the cosmic scheme of things. Decay and a fatalistic acceptance of life and death are the overwhelming impressions left by visits to the countless delapidated rice temples or the shrines dedicated to the sacred monkeys, or to a cremation, to watch the funeral pyre sink gradually to the ashes which are then scattered over the Indian Ocean.
We were always glad when Saturday morning came round and we could make for the open air, exploring new horizons on our picnics or visiting friends on the plantations and at Tretes, the nearest hill station high up on the slopes of Ardjuno. The car engine would be at boiling point when we got there, but it was very refreshing in the pure, cool air, and there was much gaiety as the guests relaxed over drinks or a meal. Our favourite picnic spot was, however, at Pasir Putih, or white sands, on the shore of the Java Sea, a good 100 miles away, but we thought nothing of such distances. We would share its lovely stretches with one or two local fishermen and a host of chattering monkeys, who would come down and perch on the car bonnet in search of titbits. Bananas were their preferred morsel, which they would quickly stuff down, then throw the skins at each other, and at us if we gave them half a chance. The devil in them simply drives them on to throw any implement that might be to hand, and while banana skins were harmless enough, it became serious business when on some plantations they would from the safety of their dens high up in the palm trees hurl coconuts at us, with deadly accuracy, great force, and a trajectory with no bend, then shriek with laughter as the coconuts burst open on the road. The only safe way to get past them was out of the range of missiles’ trajectory. The fishermen at Pasir Putih would assure us that it was safe from sharks, but we never wholly trusted the bathing and stayed in the shallows, having on several occasions seen the sharks’ triangular dorsal fins only yards out.
Above all we loved the cool, quiet solitude of Bromo, where we would stay at the secluded villa of a Dutch friend, set high up on the mountainside, in a clearing of the dense emerald jungle, and disturbed only by the wheeling birds of prey and the warthogs in the undergrowth. From the balcony we could see over the treetops to the distant silver sea, and the volcano towered above us, luckily far enough away to be safe. It was still a stiff climb to the crater, first by jeep, then, when the jeep could go no further, by spirited mules to the very lip of the extinct part of the huge crater, now a sand sea a mile or two across, out of which rises a smaller active cone throwing out molten rock and volcanic ash. The olive complexion and long twirled moustache of the muleteer so fascinated Henrietta that she had to photograph him. Once on the fiery mule her normal equanimity deserted her, and she forgot to wind the camera round. On arrival at the edge of the sand sea, she was so overcome by the breath-taking view that she had to take a photo of it, horizontal-wise. The resulting photograph was startling, and so unique that it has been purloined long ago – a fine figure of a man prostrate in a newly excavated sand, and so well preserved by the climate and high altitude that even his moustache and facial expression were still intact.
We were determined to look inside the active volcano. From its base we were obliged to climb its steep slopes on foot, ankle-deep in black volcanic ash so fertile that plants were already growing on its outer edge, although the rest closely resembled a raging inferno. The scene from the top down into the volcano was awe-inspiring. An almost perpendicular shaft descending some 2000 feet to the boiling cauldron of multi-coloured lava below, from which intermittent upheavals would hurl up rock and ash to mingle with the sulphurous fumes. We could now understand, in the volcano’s unharnessed power, the origin of the Bromo legend, and why sacrifices of goats are still made to assuage it at the summer solstice, an extremely cold dawn ceremony requiring winter clothing, though near the Equator, because of the height.
Longer excursions to our coffee and rubber estates became necessary from time to time to fend off the threat to their security, or when the Ambassador and his wife made a tour of my area. The planters were mainly Dutch who had been there for years and were used to the loneliness and the difficulties of controlling the plantation workers. They were on the whole happy with their lot and made themselves as comfortable as the situation would allow. Most of them had swimming pools in their grounds, and at the higher altitudes streams diverted through heated ducts to provide hot baths, a luxury we did not have even in our Surabaya mansion. The race of some of these mountain streams can be so boisterous that the water in high altitude swimming pools changes itself within the half hour. Too cold to enjoy for long. In general, the rubber plantations at sea level struck us as rather dull, and certainly too hot and steamy for comfort, whereas the coffee estates at 4000 feet or more were fresh and invigorating. The coffee bushes in full bloom ranging over the hills as far as the eye could see were a most impressive sight, even if our heads reeled from the overpowering scent of the coffee blossom.
The outlying areas, and particularly Indonesian Borneo, were very unsettled, and required a visit when the rampokking came too close to our estates. In Borneo the Malay and Bandjar races had at independence expected to be allowed to run their own affairs, and when the Javanese took over, hated their new overlords at least as much as they had the colonial power. All too often they would go berserk, and massacre every Javanese man, woman and child on the Government estates, which sometimes adjoined our own. It was high time to go out and make our presence felt, Henrietta accompanying me because some areas had strong matriarchal traditions. We would arrive in Borneo’s rat-infested, mosquito-ridden swamp of a capital Bandjermasin to find that the Governor and his security forces were confined to the town and had left the remote estates to fend for themselves. I would convey to him Her Majesty’s grateful thanks for all he had done to protect British life and property, and this was enough to ensure that within hours a strong guard of police or army were posted to each estate.
We had the good fortune during one of our visits to call on the Bupati (Resident) of the diamond mining area Martapura, where we had some estates. He was a tall well-made figure with a military bearing and the olive complexion Henrietta seemed to find so attractive, and, unusually, had two wives. It was touching to see how well they got on with each other; as we arrived in the drive, we could see the young wife pushing the older one forward to be the first to receive us. They sat in on the conversations, but maintained a discreet silence in the presence of their lord, until we got up to go, the Resident strapped pistols and cutlass to his belt, and I asked the ladies if they did not want to accompany us, at least to the diamond mines. They jumped at the chance, although he remonstrated, rushed to put on their make-up, and returned with their faces heavily ochred against the dreaded sun. The Resident pretended that his objections were due to the hazard of the journey to the mines, but his real reason for not wanting them with us became apparent when we got there. Large high-carat diamonds were being rough-cut and carelessly tossed into Palmboom margarine tins as if they were marbles, and his wives had a field day, clamouring for this or that scintillating gem. Grudgingly he gave in and let them choose the diamonds they had set their hearts on, for although Martapura is geared to the New York and Amsterdam markets and we ourselves would have been obliged to pay their full international market value, his ladies could have their pick because the diamonds were staying in the country. We had to be content, I’m sorry to say, with aquamarines, albeit of a high quality. Later that week the Governor held the National Day celebrations in Bandjermasin’s central hall. Some 600 guests were foregathered, but still the Resident had not arrived. Two guests whispered to us “Wait until he comes, and you will see something. He has two wives, you know”. Clearly the Resident was in the habit of arriving late and clearly this was to ensure a full house for the spectacle. At last he made his entry, followed by his spouses, and the whole concourse gasped, and parted, as neatly as the parting of the Red Sea, to let them pass. His ladies were covered with diamonds, in tiaras, necklaces, broaches and rings, which flashed and glittered as they moved through the sun’s rays, until we had to turn away from a sight too dazzling to behold.
We felt great sympathy for the Dutch, who had done so much for the country over the long period of their rule, and who found it hard to relinquish their most precious possession. Perhaps they clung to power too long, and when we were there, it was fashionable to decry what they had done for Indonesia. But they had built excellent townships and roads, hospitals and schools, and had effectively managed the banking, commerce and export business, mining, shipping and oil industry. They therefore had every reason to expect that they would be welcome back when peace came, and had while in the prisoner of war camps planned in detail the new colonial administration which would take over, even designating the officials for every post from Governor-General downwards. The war had, however, changed all that, and had fostered a fervent nationalism which was in no mood to acknowledge the Dutch legacy, nor to accept anything short of full independence. An ugly situation developed throughout Java, and in Surabaya one of our Indian Divisions had to intervene to quell the uprising. The situation had quietened down by the time we arrived, but the hatred still smouldered on towards the surprisingly large number of Dutch who had stayed on in the key posts. The animosity was strongest against the métisses, the product of the policy of encouraging intermarriage, whom the Indonesians found it impossible to accept as part of their race. Most of them eventually emigrated to Holland, where at least they had a better chance of being accepted into the community. The Chinese were also much disliked, and it was common knowledge that in the drive against the Communists in East Java in the late 1940’s, many old scores had been settled against the Chinese shopkeepers. Worst of all, the Javanese replacing the Dutch throughout Indonesia disported themselves as the master race and incurred the odium of the other races, who had wanted to rule themselves, and resenting the intruder rose up in sporadic revolt, often running amok and killing every Javanese in sight. Throughout this chaotic period, it was my constant preoccupation to defend our own subjects and their property. I had only indirect methods of doing so, by exerting pressure and influence on the local authorities, or when necessary showing a presence, but happily no one was harmed nor damage done to British property.
When the situation became more stable, it was only natural that the Indonesians should turn again to the Dutch for help in running their economy, and to stay on in an advisory capacity in business and in the schools and hospitals. The Indonesians were happy to have them back in this capacity, to provide expert advice and guidance to the many cadres whom they had trained over the years and who were now able to take over in all walks of life. Relations returned to normal, and the Indonesians reassumed their mantle as one of the kindest, most gentle and most likeable peoples in the world.