My historical connection with Maluku by Amanda Johnston

My name is Amanda Johnston and I live in the south of England. I have worked freelance as a translator for many years from German and French to English. 


I have been very pleased to offer my support as a tutor, since Jeff Malaihollo asked me if I would be interested in doing so last spring. Although I am not running a class at present, I hope to do so again in the future. During 2020, I tutored a group of Pattimura University lecturers in English. The standard was high, of course, as most of them use English professionally for research and to write and read academic papers. We were, therefore, able to discuss some interesting subjects. I also gained insight into the local and national culture of Ambon and Indonesia. 


I am also delighted to be able to learn Bahasa Indonesia in weekly online classes conducted by the excellent Language Study Centre of Pattimura University. I have improved a great deal since June last year when I was a complete beginner.


Indonesia has long been of interest to me. So, what is my connection with Ambon? I know that many of my fellow tutors have an association via family and heritage, but for me, the link is a different one, historical in nature. This is how it came about:


My late father served in the Royal Air Force during the Second World War. In early 1941 his squadron was sent to Singapore, which fell to the Japanese while they were en route there. Their ship was diverted to Oosthaven on Sumatra but this met with the same fate as Singapore. The squadron ended up on Java, and when the Dutch KNIL forces capitulated, my father and his cohort became prisoners of war of the Japanese. 


Following initial drafts in Java, they were shipped to Ambon in 1942, and ended up on Haruku at a camp near the village of Pelauw. The Japanese wanted to build an airstrip there for a planned assault on Australia. To achieve this, prisoners of war, along with local people, had to flatten out a hump of coral using hand tools and baskets. It was extremely hard manual labour, undertaken on starvation rations and having to contend with tropical diseases and the brutality of their captors. Unfortunately, around one-fifth of the 2,000 men on this Haruku draft died in the first few months, mainly due to a dysentery epidemic. They were buried on a hillside, but after the war, they were reinterred at the war cemetery in Ambon.


I never really knew much about this first-hand from my father. He died when I was in my twenties, and it was some years later that I found out all about it via books written by survivors. When I first read about this, I could not take in what they had gone through, and I wondered why my father never spoke about it. I can now understand that he would not have wanted to relive it. 


My father learnt quite a bit of Ambonese Malay when he was a prisoner of war there. In fact, an early recollection I have is that he taught me to count to ten in the language. I always remembered this and it helped me when I started the Bahasa Indonesia classes last year! He also used to cook nasi goreng now and again, which was not my favourite dish as a kid, though I love it now!


My overriding impression is the irony of going through such terrible experiences in a place that is ostensibly a tropical paradise. I would have loved to hear his descriptions of Java and the “Moluccas” aside from their grim situation. The local population were forbidden to help the men, but I am certain they shared their misery, and some of the books mention that they did try to pass them food.


Going back to Bahasa Basudara, I have known Jeff Malaihollo for many years. We were first put in touch with one another via a mutual connection, and he has kindly helped me considerably in the past with finding information. His work in Bahasa Basudara is admirable, to say the least, and I am very proud to be part of this superb community. Thank you for making me so welcome and for all that you do!