Dutch expatriate Pieter Dorsman of Peaktalk notes the death in Hawai‘i of the Java-born Dutch adventurer Erik Hazelhoff Roelfzema, the author of Soldier of Orange. That prompted me to begin reading an autobiography I have had sitting on my shelf for quite a while. Here are some excerpts from the chapter “To Arms for Ambon!” from In Pursuit of Life, by Erik Hazelhoff (Sutton, 2003), pp. 242-245, 250-251:
On 24 April 1950 the Ambonese and other inhabitants of a group of islands west of New Guinea proclaimed the Republic Maluku Selatan (RMS) – Republic of the South Moluccas – and declared its independence from Indonesia. They had every right to do so. The preliminary Constitution of the United States of Indonesia, Article 189, affirmed: ‘Each federal state shall be given the opportunity to accept the Constitution. In case a federal state does not accept it, they shall have the right to negotiate a special relationship with the United States of Indonesia and the Kingdom of the Netherlands.’ The same article appeared word for word in the Treaty of Independence between Holland and Indonesia, and as Article 2 of the Dutch Transfer of Sovereignty Law. Both countries’ highest representatives had signed these documents.
To remove any doubt about their status, the Ambonese brought the case before the International Court of Justice in The Hague, which pronounced the RMS legal. The Republic – formerly United States – of Indonesia ignored the verdict and opened hostilities by throwing a sea blockade around Ambon and other major islands, vowing to wipe the new country off the map by military means. Meanwhile the RMS provisional government sent Karel Vigeleyn Nikijuluw, who had resigned from the Dutch Navy, to New York in order to seek support and recognition for the little republic from the United Nations Organization. Before April was over, Nikki – as his friends called him – appeared on our doorstep at Milton Point….
Ideals are like your children, often a pain in the neck, but they are your very own, so you can’t just dump them. You are responsible for them. The cause of the Republic Maluku Selatan, morally right, legally uncontestable, threatened by the overwhelming might of giant Indonesia backed by the limitless power of pragmatic, ill-informed Uncle Sam, was pure as gold and almost hopeless from the beginning. The Ambonese stood for everything that I had fought for in the Second World War, freedom, the right of self-determination and national identity. All they had against them was the size and location of their country, and three centuries of loyalty to the Dutch. How could I not support them? Already in 1572 William of Orange, the George Washington of the Netherlands, remarked during our desperate 80-years’ War of Independence, ‘It is not necessary to hope in order to attempt, nor need one succeed in order to persevere.’ Well. what was good enough for William the Silent was good enough for me. I told Nikijuluw he could count on me, provided it left me time to write. In answer to more specific questions, he assured me that God would show the way….
Through my contact with Vigeleyn Nikijuluw and the cause of the Ambonese I seemed to be sliding back into the past. It felt as if I were partly relinquishing control over my destiny to powers that for the last five years – the era of chaos – had kept their distance from me. It was a familiar, reassuring sensation as good things began to happen for which I myself could not possibly take credit. Judge for yourself.
At the time of the Spanish Civil War (1935–9), the proving grounds and dress rehearsal for the Second World War, a handful of British seamen in small ships regularly risked their lives – and made money – by sneaking through General Francisco Franco’s naval blockade around Spain in order to feed and supply the Loyalists, including thousands of Americans who fought in the International Brigade. The two most renowned of these, Potato Pete and Dod Orsborne, were finally intercepted by the Fascist navy. The former reputedly paid with his life, but Orsborne, cut off from friendly territory and unable to return to England, alone and with no other provisions than some leftover raw potatoes and beans, kept sailing his little craft, the Girl Pat, due west, until one fme day he hit the USA. Instantly famous, he later wrote a book, Master of the Girl Pat, that made the author with his red beard and wicked smile the darling of the radio talk shows. Through this he met, somehow but inevitably, Margaret Sangster. She telephoned us with an invitation ‘to meet this crazy Brit’; Midge took the call because I was out on the Sound discussing ways to sneak through to Ambon. That same night, the most celebrated blockade runner of the times and the world‘s only contemporary naval blockade were fused together at Park Avenue and 77th Street.
The affinity between the Dutch and the Scots is as mysterious as it is documented. In most places on earth, no matter how distant, you’ll find one or two of each, side by side in a local bar, sharing their exile experiences. From my father’s friends in Surabaya to Mauricio Pieper’s buddies in Argentina to my own RAF pals in the war, Scotsmen – and their lassies – abounded. The feisty little redheaded sailor with the Vandyke beard and a Scottish burr that could cut timber proved no exception….
[Many charming misadventures ensue.]
Dirty tricks are pulled in the dark. In the eight months that it took the Republic of Indonesia to wipe the RMS off the map, not one word about it – as far as I know – reached the American newspaper reader. At the height of the conflict 1,800 Ambonese, armed with klewangs and captured rifles, battled against almost 12,000 Indonesians equipped with rifles, light and heavy machine-guns, field artillery, armoured cars and a few light tanks, supported by reconnaissance planes, two B25s and four corvettes with 10cm cannon.
Only the extreme isolation of the war zone made it possible to keep a conflict of such dimensions out of the world press. Day after day Radio Ambon broadcast pleas for assistance, but its primitive signals were received only by the local population, by the Indonesians who did everything in their power to keep the campaign secret, and by the Dutch in nearby New Guinea who, mistrusted and discredited by their police actions, were not believed by any foreign journalist. The Ambonese were not only right, but also strictly on their own.