Magazine article The Spectator

Saying Goodbye to the Islands

Magazine article The Spectator

Saying Goodbye to the Islands

Article excerpt

Who now remembers the Dutch East Indies? The third largest empire in the world, jewel of the Dutch Crown, was invaded and occupied by the Japanese in 1942 and, after the Japanese surrender in August 1945, gave way by degrees to Indonesian independence. But progress towards independence was checkered, hazardous, and at times violent, especially in its early stages. Colonel van der Post, as he then was, emerging from a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp in Java, found himself playing a key role - at times the key role - in the immediately post-war situation. This book tells his story, following on an earlier account of his experiences as a prisoner of war.

Not sharing Sir Laurens van der Post's philosophical outlook, I approached this book with reserve, especially as I knew that he would be critical of my own boss of those days, Lord Killearn. However, I found myself deeply impressed by the courage and fortitude of the author as well as by the political sagacity of his advice to successive military and diplomatic eminences in South-East Asia. His style of writing is sometimes discursive but, aside from the mystical whimsy, the narrative is lucidly told in a manner that belies the author's now advanced age.

In August 1945, when the British took over responsibility for South-East Asia from the Americans, there was a wide gap between the Dutch perception of the situation and the actual position on the ground. The Dutch - or at any rate most of their leading figures -- thought that the British would simply reoccupy the territories and then hand them over so that they might hang the leading 'rebels' such as Sukarno and Hatta and then resume their imperial rule. In fact this was never even remotely possible. The British had not the available forces, let alone the will, to reoccupy Java and Sumatra, and the Indonesian independence movement was so strong that it would have required a determined colonial war to crush it - if indeed it could be crushed.

Van der Post early recognised the solid basis of the Indonesian independence movement and the danger that, through our sympathy with the Dutch, we might be dragged into an expensive and probably futile colonial war on their behalf. On the other hand he also understood the bitterness and frustration of the Dutch at being denied the resumption in full sovereignty of their colonial possessions when they saw the British re-establishing themselves in Malaya and Borneo. …

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