THE QUEEN'S CORONATION DAY CELEBRATIONS IN EAST JAVA, 2ND JUNE 1953
I was Consul in Surabaya at the time of the Coronation, having been posted there at a very unsettled time when British interests were under threat across the whole of Eastern Indonesia, a vast archipelago stretching from East Java and Kalimantan (Indonesian Borneo) in the West through the Celebes to the Moluccas, the Spice Islands and Timor in the East. A huge area indeed, very primitive in the outlying parts, but everywhere very beautiful. Volcanic lakes made blue, green or white from the chemical compound of their ash, tropical flora and fauna in every conceivable form, all the colours of the rainbow from the plants and flowers, and streaks of yellow, blue, green and red as the Java sparrows darted through the trees and shrubs in the humid, orange glow of sunrise just after the daily early morning downpour. Above all a warm, friendly people, with natural gifts for sculpture, wood carving, music and the dance, and mime and drama drawing inspiration from their rich folklore and legend. Glamour and still more colour were imparted by the women in their bright sarongs, each batik pattern identifying the region from which they came, and by the ceremonial dress of the Djokdjakarta court, from which most of them came or to which they were related.
Against this rich backcloth of art and natural beauty, we quickly decided that the celebrations for the Queen’s Coronation must match the people’s inborn love of colour, rhythm and music. We would invite the Governors of the six provinces in my area, with their senior staffs, the East Javanese officials with whom I had most dealings, Army and Navy representatives (Surabaya being the main naval base), Dutch and other colleagues and well-wishers, and not least members of the Commonwealth and the British community, who up to then had been bitterly divided by the lingering shadows cast by the Japanese occupation. Some seven hundred guests in all, but easily absorbed in the large garden (we could count on the weather being fine). We would invite them for 6.45 p.m. to ensure that they were foregathered before tuning into the actual Coronation Ceremony at 7.30 p.m. Toasts would then be exchanged with the East Java’s genial Governor Mr Samadikoen, after which the Community would celebrate with a show of English and Scottish country dancing, and medleys of British tunes would keep up the festive spirit until the small hours.
There was enthusiastic support from all sides. Philips provided the necessary equipment to bring the Abbey ceremony into our midst, a Chinese friend offered a highly polished platform for the country dancing, the Indian and Pakistani ladies provided spiced food suited to the Indonesian taste, and the local branch of Calico Printers built the magnificent Crown, five feet in diameter and illuminated from within, which would surmount the main pole above the platform in the centre of the lawn, and from which eight strings of white light would run to the flagpoles of the Commonwealth. Finally the young bloods of the British Community plunged into the three months’ practice needed for the reels and dances, for which it was necessary to chalk out on the marble floor of the reception room an area four metres square, to avoid anyone falling over the edge of the raised dai’s on Coronation night. Their enthusiasm seemed to stem indeed from a keen desire to show what they could do, but I have a lingering suspicion that our comely, well-endowed Yorkshire nanny was also a major attraction.
The Admiral of the Indonesian Navy had generously agreed to his band’s playing music throughout the evening. Thirty lusty drummers and blowers of brass as powerful as any Black Dyke Mills band, making their practice Nissen hut quake with the decibels; but the garden took it on the night. I had a further headache when I tried to find the music. The owner of the music shop, a helpful Dutchman who had loaned me a brand new Steinway concert grand for £2 a month because it was safer in the Residence than in his shop during a period of intense rampokking, helped me to find some Australian Community song books from which to make up a medley of British tunes. But we had to ransack his shop for “God Save the Queen”, which after much perspiration we actually unearthed in the form of “God Save the Queen”: Schott’s florid contribution to Queen Victoria’s marriage to the Prince Consort! Great was my consternation when I heard the band play it the day before the reception. It started off with the first stanza of the National Anthem, then broke into a long and ornate variation, second stanza, similar flowery effusion, and so on, all played with the maximum decibels. “No, no, no” I protested, “you do play it well, but it should go like this, short and sweet. Firm roll of drums, then straight through the whole anthem, no ornamentation”. I was crossing my fingers on the night, in the trepidation that it might falter.
The flowers began arriving soon after the sun’s rays had dried up the puddles left by the morning rains. All were creations of the Chinese flower shops, and very fine they were, large tableaux representing every conceivable Royal subject – Crowns, Prince of Wales Feathers, Windsor Castle and Buckingham Palace, and even likenesses of the Royal Family. At first we arranged them on racks round the reception rooms, but soon they came so thick and fast that they had to be placed all round the garden, to add to the natural cascade of colour. It was a beautiful setting for a memorable evening, but Sefton Delmar, who called that morning, had his own way of putting it. “Good God”, he exclaimed on entering, “it’s just like Golders Green crematorium!”
We had hardly emerged from our ablutions (euphemism for a Dutch tub from which one ladles cold water over one’s hot perspiring body) and were cooling down nude under the ceiling fan, when the first guests arrived, nearly an hour early, the Army contingent who like their colleagues everywhere never miss a moment’s drinking time. Never have I put on a black tie so quickly, nor perspired so much in the process. Henrietta fared even worse, as she wrestled desperately with the wayward hooks of her tight bodice.
At last all the guests were foregathered, in their most lovely sarongs, their best uniforms and most exquisite court dress, and we could go over to Westminster Abbey, to the joyful singing, the clarion calls, the moving moments of the actual crowning, and the last majestic outburst of choir and organ as the ceremony moved to its close. The company were spellbound by the magic of it all. Only after the last rapture notes had died away could we tear ourselves away, back to our own party, spectacular in its own way, but necessarily more mundane after the glittering pageant we had in imagination just witnessed. Our toasts were exchanged, national anthems played (without a hitch, in the event), and warm applause rang out as I announced the conquest of Everest by Hillary and Tensing – a further bond to cement the close relations between East and West forged by that night’s proceedings.
Now it was the turn of the young men and women to show their dancing skills. Thanks to their weeks of practice, and perhaps our Yorkshire nanny’s active encouragement, they had been welded into a coherent team, and amazement and admiration greeted them as, in their showy tartan kilts and sashes, and in perfect step, they gave us a flawless exhibition of the Gay Gordons, Hamilton House and other famous reels and dances. The official Antara news agency was at that time denouncing the decadence of Western music and dancing, but the writ of Djakarta propagandists clearly did not extend as far as East Java. The ladies in their brilliant court robes and jewellery could not draw their chairs close enough to the raised dais, nor did it seem that they would ever be satisfied. Round after round of applause was followed by encore after encore, until the dancers could do no more.
The Navy band then took up the threads, and (with the encouragement of a case of Scotch to whet their whistles) played their medleys of well-known tunes until far into the night. Only fatigue put a stop to the jollity; the guests one by one came to take their leave, and we said goodbye, with many smiles and greetings, to almost the same number we had greeted (some had fallen by the wayside). Our arms ached from the handshaking, and we had that fixed, rather vacuous Cheshire cat grin which comes from cheek muscles tautened through abnormal exercise, when the following morning we stared at ourselves in the mirror. We have had great sympathy ever since for the Royal Family, who to cope every day, always smiling, with this form of exercise.
The celebrations had been primarily to pay homage to Her Majesty and to mark a great and joyful occasion, but they left their own permanent stamp on life around us. The small British Community, no longer divided and demoralised, held its head high, conscious of its new stature in the eyes of the Indonesians. Anglo-Indonesian relations in my part of the Archipelago took on a new cordiality, enabling us to throw an even bigger umbrella over British interests in the vast area. Whatever remote island the defence of British lives and estates took us to during the storms of looting, murder and inter-tribal fighting, the renown of the British and their woman Raj had gone before, and it was enough on these occasions to express to the Governor Her Majesty’s gratitude for the excellent measures he had taken to safeguard the lives and property of Her subjects, to ensure that within hours a posse of armed police or army were posted to guard each British estate. This was only one obvious way in which the Coronation celebrations had had their effect. The more intangible repercussions were manifested in the friendship and mutual respect which characterised our day-to-day relations throughout that insecure period of transition. For in the longer term the protection of our interests must be anchored in deep-rooted friendship and mutual trust based on mutual respect for each others’ cultures, traditions, needs and aspirations. The Queen and her family excel in fostering such warm and close relations around the world. Henrietta and I defended them, in a period of great insecurity, by building up as close a relationship as we could, socially and culturally as well as politically. The Queen’s Coronation celebrations made an immense contribution to this objective, and we like to think that it is still remembered, and still has its strong influence, in the Eastern Archipelago.