Publication Details

Martinez, J. T. (2009). The evolution of ''Malay'' labour activism, 1870-1947: protest among pearling crews in Dutch East Indies-Australian waters. Transforming Cultures eJounral, 4 (2), 85-110.


The history of Indonesian labour activism as seen from an Australianperspective is best known in the context of World War Two when the presenceof Asian seamen in Australia sparked a flourish of internationalism and anticolonialprotest under the umbrella organization of the Seamen's Union ofAustralia. But the story of Malay maritime worker protest has a deeper history,reaching back to the early years of the pearl-shelling and trepang industrieswhen Malay workers from the Dutch East Indies were brought to work off thenorthern Australian coast. Before the advent of a seamen's union, these workersfaced harsh working conditions and had little recourse to legal forms of protest.Their refusal to accept poor conditions was met with reprisals which includedphysical punishment, gaol sentences and detention on board ships without shoreleave. There is evidence that in the late nineteenth century the most commonform of protest was mutiny, with Malay crews seizing vessels and sailing to theDutch East Indies. By the twentieth century there was more scope fornegotiation, with increasing support from Australian unions and improvedgovernment regulation. The milder forms of more recent protests and thewillingness of Indonesians to take their cue from Australian unionists hassomewhat obscured the nature of early Malay protest. This paper takes a longerview of worker activism in order to highlight the deep roots of maritime protestin the Indian Ocean region.