Wednesday, November 19, 2014
Border Security Australia – 1825 style (includes pirates!)
The Timor-Arafura Gap
“To benefit fully from Asia's rise, we need to truly understand the diverse ‘Near North’, as opposed to colonial notions of a ‘Far East’”.
- Bill Shorten, Aug 2013
Quite. But sadly, Bill Shorten is not talking literally about Australia’s near north (which I’d define as PNG, West Papua and the south-east Indonesian/Timor islands (say, south of latitude 3ºS, and east of longitude 123ºE) – but about the far north (or more accurately, from the main population centres, the far north-west). If Indonesia gets even a look-in in Shorten’s world view, it apparently goes no further south-east than Bali/Lombok.
Overwhelmingly, though, Bill Shorten’s “Australia’s near north” is north of the equator, and the colonial/northern-hemisphere notion, say, of India as “south Asia” would not be inconsistent with it.
Anyway, I want to move beyond these clichéd north vs east, and colonial vs modern dichotomies. Newsflash: Asia has a south-east, a farsouth-east, in fact (Tenggara Jauh). Yes, it’s obscure, particularly the central (yes, central) parts of it that I’ll be focusing on here. But this is where it’s at – where the backyards of Australia and Asia meet, 300km apart.
The 19th C history of either side of this 300km gap is poignant (but, cue the boys’ own sidebar, it also contains pirates!). But most of all, it is deeply confronting to many of Australia’s colonial founding myths – which is no doubt why the events of 1825 on a new (and thereafter, doomed) British colony on Melville Island and the Dutch-occupied (sort-of) islands to its immediate north have until now, never been properly told, let alone analysed for their present-day ramifications, which include Australian policies re immigration, China trade, and settler/Indigenous relations.
But first, to home in on the “far south-east” area I’ll be talking about. I’m excluding Indonesian (West-) and East Timor, and the islands to their north and west. In the other direction, I’m excluding PNG, West Papua and the Kai and Aru archipelagos, which are firmly in the orbit of Papua. In turn, Papua is arguably more anchored in the south-west Pacific than in south-east Asia. What’s left over, then is south of latitude 6ºS (and north of present-day Top End Australia), and east of longitude 127ºE and west of 132ºE.
I’ll call these islands 300-500km N and NNW of the Tiwi Islands (and 400-600km ditto from Darwin) the “Serwatti Islands”. They have the Arafura and Timor Seas** on their eastern and western fringes respectively, and the straits between them are/were shipping lanes on the direct route between Macassar (present-day Sulawesi) and China on one hand, and Top End Australia on the other. However, note that there was quite possibly more shipping going through these obscure straits in the 19th C (and even 17th C), to and from and Top End Australia, than today – the wounds of 1825 are thus arguably still raw here. Certainly in 2013, without a private boat (the only airport I’m aware of is at Saumlakki on Tanimbar, which in turn is only serviced via Ambon), you cannot do the short hop between Darwin and the Serwatti Islands, and I imagine that the immigration authorities would rather frown on anywhere the Serwatti Islands as an entry/exit point for Indonesia.
“Serwatti Islands” was a label in popular use in the 19th C, that in present-day geography corresponds with most of the islands in the “remote” (as it is invariably described) south-western area of the Maluku/Moluccas province of Indonesia, about latitude 8º S, between and including Kisar and the Tanimbar group. Note that I’m excluding Wetar here, which is officially in south-western Maluku, but doesn’t much concern my subject. Also note that the Serwatti Islands, aka “Serawatti Islands”, both historically and in present-day conceptions of Maluku’s south-western islands, usually do not include the Tanimbar group. But for present purposes, the islands of Babar and Yamdena (the main island in the Tanimbar group, aka “Timor Laut”, and also the largest single island, by far, in my Serwatti Islands grouping) are peas in a pod, as well as being only 130km apart.
As for the 20-odd minor islands west and north-west of the Babar/Barbat group, up to Kisar, which I’m also labelling “Serwatti Islands”, these are too dispersed, and also too peripheral to my subject to be worth a separate nomenclature. And one more clarification: confusingly perhaps, Ambon locals (in Maluku terms, big-city folk) refer to the south-western Maluku islands as Tenggara Jauh, or the far south-east – despite some them being due south, and even slightly south-west, of downtown Ambon (at 128º E).
But in this part of the world (not to mention most of Australia, north-west of Cape Howe), south-east is destiny – and going to or from the south-west is only a Sunday ramble in a cross-wind.
** Darwin sometimes is also caught between deciding whether its harbour abuts the Arafura or Timor Seas – although the case for the latter seems geographically overwhelming, IMO. Perhaps, in occasionally wistfully batting for Team Arafura, Darwin – ever eager to snuggle up to Asia – wishes to metaphorically bridge the Timor Trough, a rather non-snuggly natural feature running the entire length of the Timor Sea, whose eastern end is smack-bang between Babar and Yamdena – at the very middle, then, of my erstwhile, archipelagic centre of Australia’s “near north”.
bare facts of the several failed, short-lived attempts to set-up a British
outpost in Australia’s Top End between 1824 and 1849 (Alan Powell, Far Country, p 45) – are
well-enough known, especially the case of the last, longest and most successful
of these, at Port Esssington (1839-49).
However, there is perhaps a tendency for this comic-heroic pattern of repeated failure to blunt the edge of the historical record of the first – and most abject – failure, at Port Cockburn (Fort Dundas*) on Melville Island (1824-1828 #). [*Fort Dundas would have been the name of the military base within or adjacent to the settlement, had it prospered, at least; q.v. Fort Wellington for Raffles Bay, and Fort Concordia for Kupang]. [# Some sources put the demise of Port Cockburn at 1828, others as 1829.]
Helping to obscure the record here is the overlap between Port Cockburn and its twin/replacement settlement at Raffles Bay/Fort Wellington, on the mainland’s Cobourg Peninsula. Raffles Bay was geographically close to, but did not overlap with, the later settlement at Port Esssington. Port Esssington itself was almost the second, rather than the third, British settlement in the Top End. Though already reconnoitred, Port Esssington lost out to Raffles Bay either because it was closer to Croker Island, per Bath’s original instructions, or because the reconnaissance of Port Esssington had been only superficial.
Conversely, Raffles Bay’s overlap with Port Cockburn was more temporal than geographical – the former was settled in 1827, when the fate of the latter, 200 km east, was already sealed on paper. However the actual dates of demise of the twins are quite close – Port Cockburn had a protracted demise, while Raffles Bay’s own, also in 1829# was speedy. But it is not only their close dates of demise that qualifies them to be called “twins” – London’s original intention and official instruction was to establish Port Cockburn and Raffles Bay (or Croker Island, at least) at the same time, and when low staff numbers meant that only one of these could initially proceed, it was a spectacular mistake, in hindsight, to have chosen Port Cockburn.
Since 1835, commenters and historians have invariably noted the irony of Raffles Bay being closed just as it was finding its feet; albeit this took a hard couple of years to achieve. In contrast to the unfortunate on-the-fly decision to choose the Port Cockburn location over the alternative (or both), the abandonment edict from London was carried through to the letter, however palpably misjudged it was at the time, according to those on the ground.
While this irony/farce sits well with the plucky-diggers-vs-incompetent-British-toffs recurring theme in Australian history, an alternative interpretation is that it was the Port Cockburn fiasco – which couldn’t much be sheeted home to incompetent British toffs – that sealed the fate of the Raffles Bay settlement. The older, but feebler, twin thus took its more vigorous twin to the grave with it – and, however un-Australian this may sound, there was little plucky heroism in this. For both, the die had been cast in 1824 when Port Cockburn was mistakenly chosen as first priority, which is why it is necessary now to look at its surprisingly little-researched, brief heyday in early 1825.
The bleak, doomed British garrison on Melville Island wasn’t always so. It’s just that early on, it needed Asia very badly, and upon reaching out in a moment of vulnerability, Asia ferociously bit back. And in response, as is often the way, rather than admitting humiliating defeat, the British doubled-up their efforts, to make the end defeat vaguer in cause, and so more glorious to posterity. Or until I came along (sorry).
Raffles Bay thus is easily cast as an aspiring player on the Asian main-stage – a nascent mainland entrepot**, a la Singapore (which was just a fishing village at the time). This makes Port Cockburn all the more forgettable, as an entrée or mere rehearsal. On a scrubby island (although if truth be told, not that different from the mainland, in terms of terrain and settlement potential), Port Cockburn was not much talked up as a stillborn entrepot, during its brief life, or subsequently. There is searing irony in this; it traded with Asia (or attempted to, at least) just to survive, while mainland Raffles Bay, perhaps better provisioned by the British and conceptually anchored to Sydney (there was excited talk of building a road between them!), got the glamorous – if hypothetical, hype aside – role of bustling entrepot where all manner of exotica were to be traded; of which incoming survival basics would have been the least interesting items on the list. [** But Raffles Bay's ostensible success arguably hinged on large-scale Chinese immigration, which may have well been a step too far, for Sydney and/or London].
The provisioning question turns on luck, in part – two ships sent from Port Cockburn to near Asia for supplies were lost to pirates in short succession, while Raffles Bay had no equivalent interdictions. But pirates usually only thrive where their home bases are beyond the law, and here there were delicate matters of empire, with the long-established Dutch and the interloping British, flexing their ascendant military muscle and keen to consolidate their hold on the whole Australian continent, facing off across the Arafura Sea. An indication of just how up-close this face-off was is that Melville Island was formally ceded by the Dutch in an 1824 treaty. Though it seems obvious now that Melville Island belongs to Australia, and not to Asia, that small, insular Serwatti part of Asia just to the north of it, barely belonged to the Dutch (or any other colonial power), despite the Moluccas, just further north in turn, being a Dutch economic powerhouse for centuries. The spice-less Serwatti Islands were, like the depressing but closely-charted Gulf of Carpentaria, too Australian for the Dutch – although the Dutch were happy to fly their nominal flag over them, if nothing else as a buffer against British interests on mainland Australia. Otherwise, bar a minimal handful of Dutch-administered port (and not fort) outposts, the islanders were left to their own devices – and, when it came to non-Dutch ships, their own murderous plunders.
Unfortunately, the plucky Brits at Port Cockburn on Melville Island also had a strongly independent mindset, when it came to where to go to obtain much-needed provisions: the (theoretically) Dutch-administered Serwattis, or the free port of Kupang on West Timor. The former had the advantage of being quite a bit closer to the Top End, but the disadvantage of being closed ports (to non-Dutch), under a recently-signed British/Dutch treaty. Oh, and also of being notorious pirate hotspots.
Why two ships apparently disobeyed their instructions, or at least common-sense (the supposed instructions are rather vague), to go to Kupang for supplies; instead choosing to land at the nearer but much-riskier Serwattis, will probably never be known. Assuming that there wasn’t a planned and pointed provocation to the Dutch, possibly there were issues with the boat or crew, making urgent landfall – anywhere – the priority, and this factor, by curious coincidence, happened twice in a few months.
I like to think, however, that there was a crushing geographical fate at work, beneath which the Brits on Melville Island were mere pawns. If the Serwatti Islands were too Australian for the Dutch, Melville Island was – similarly – too Asian for the British. United by a sort of Arafura zeitgeist – of feisty independence from European colonisers, as enabled by a paucity of Euro-coveted resources ## – it was always Melville Island’s destiny to cast off its British veneer as a passing aberration. [## One account has it that the Dutch chopped down every nutmeg tree on Babar, because it was too small and island and too far away from East Indies HQ to bother exploiting, but equally they didn’t want those who could be bothered to do so. No doubt this fuelled Babarians [?] sense of grievance, and so propensity to piracy]
It is sweet and fitting, then, that the two sides of this Arafuran family drama have slumbered on ever since, although in separate ways. The Serwatti Islands remain bizarrely remote, despite their proximity to Darwin, which in turn trumpets its proximity to Asia (perhaps justifiably, but if so, then its own backyard is rather unkempt). While the Tiwi Islands are now fairly assimilated geographically into Top End remote Indigenous Australia, the site of Port Cockburn, and the story of how it went so wrong, seems bizarrely forgotten. As Crocodile Dundee would never have dared to say, at the pointy end of a Serwatti sword: “Now THAT’S proximity to Asia!”
Sidebar: Aggregated facts on the two 1825 ships ex Port Cockburn attacked by pirates
Feb 1825: military ship Lady Nelson departs Port Cockburn (Fort Dundas) to trade with near Asia. Attacked by pirates on the Serwatti island of Babar; all crew murdered.
Carried to sell: firearms and ammunition
Looking to buy: cattle and/or buffaloes, tortoise shell and drinking water
April 1825: trading ship Stedcombe arrives, unloads, and soon after departs Port Cockburn (Fort Dundas) to trade with near Asia, and to investigate the disappearance of the Lady Nelson. Attacked by pirates on Yamdena/Tanimbar/Timor Laut; all crew were murdered except for two members, Joseph Forbes (“Timor Joe”, who retired to Williamstown, Victoria) and John Edwards. Both were kept as slaves in the village of “Laouran” on Yamdena. Edwards died at some stage during the following ten years, while after 14 years a slave, Forbes was liberated in 1839 and given a hero’s welcome in London.
Carried to sell: beads, knives, axes, mirrors and cloth
Looking to buy: cattle and/or buffaloes, pigs and fruit. Note that a scurvy outbreak at Port Cockburn had intensified after the mysterious (at that stage) non-return of the Lady Nelson.
Actually offered on Yamdena: coconuts, pigs and parrots