The Evolution Of ‘Malay’ Labour Activism, 1870-1947: protest among pearling crews in Dutch East Indies-Australian waters

Julia Martinez

Abstract

The history of Indonesian labour activism as seen from an Australian perspective is best known in the context of World War Two when the presence of Asian seamen in Australia sparked a flourish of internationalism and anticolonial protest under the umbrella organization of the Seamen's Union of Australia. But the story of Malay maritime worker protest has a deeper history, reaching back to the early years of the pearl-shelling and trepang industries when Malay workers from the Dutch East Indies were brought to work off the northern Australian coast. Before the advent of a seamen's union, these workers faced harsh working conditions and had little recourse to legal forms of protest. Their refusal to accept poor conditions was met with reprisals which included physical punishment, gaol sentences and detention on board ships without shore leave. There is evidence that in the late nineteenth century the most common form of protest was mutiny, with Malay crews seizing vessels and sailing to the Dutch East Indies. By the twentieth century there was more scope for negotiation, with increasing support from Australian unions and improved government regulation. The milder forms of more recent protests and the willingness of Indonesians to take their cue from Australian unionists has somewhat obscured the nature of early Malay protest. This paper takes a longer view of worker activism in order to highlight the deep roots of maritime protest in the Indian Ocean region.

Keywords

Malays, seamen, activism

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