Surabaya Johnny

Nov 28th, 2010, in History, by

Is there any non-Indonesian song that has the name of an Indonesian city in its very title? The only one I can think of (and if it is not the only one it is certainly the most famous one) is Brecht and Weill’s "Surabaya Johnny".

Here is a mixed English-German performance by a well-known interpreter of Kurt Weill's songs: Ute Lemper (even in the English bit she betrays her ethnic origin by referring to this Javanese port as Zurabaya):

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Yxz81DtK_9k

And here is a fully English performance by an anonymous singer. If her portrayal of Johnny’s teenage love has any realism about it one rather understands why he made himself scarce:

What is the origin of the song? I have always assumed that it was part of Brecht’s and Weill’s Dreigroschenoper, the most successful theater performance of the Weimar Republic, and that it was right up there with the song of Mackie Messer (Mack the Knife) and that of Pirate Jenny. But no – the Brecht canon usually places the song in the other Brecht-Weill co-production “Happy End”. It can indeed be found there but this is somewhat strange because that story is set in Chicago and deals with a tug of war between the Salvation Army and a bunch of gangsters. What is a song with such “exotic” place names as Burma, the Punjab and Surabaya doing there?

If one digs a bit deeper one comes to a more likely setting and one that usually is not ascribed to Brecht: Lion Feuchtwanger’s 1925 play "Kalkutta 4 Mai" which was a rewrite of his “Warren Hastings, Gouverneur von Indien” that dated from 1914. It seems certain that Brecht cooperated in this rewrite and though opinions differ about his share in it the cognoscenti agree that he at any case contributed "Surabaya Johnny" (the full text of which can apparently only be found in the first edition of the play). Feuchtwanger-Brecht made a certain Marjorie Hilke, in the play Hasting’s mistress, sing the song to divert her troubled lover.

I have never seen a copy of this play but I can’t imagine that the text of “Surabaya Johnny” there is similar to the one we know. For one thing Johnny had lied about working for the railways – a rather futuristic occupation in the eighteenth century.

The “Asian” roots of the song go however more deeply than its chance placement in a play about a British-Indian governor. It is supposed to be an adaptation of one of Kipling’s “Barrack-Room Ballads” viz. “Mary, Pity Women!”. It turns out that the Marxist Brecht was an avid reader of that glorifier of British imperialism: Kipling. His use of the British writer was not limited to “Surabaya Johnny”. We are told that in the very first performance of the Dreigroschenoper the spoiled Berlin public was initially rather distrustful and distant until the performance of the “Kanonen Song” turned the tide. This was greeted by wild applause and after that it was uphill all the way. Now this “Kanonen Song” is also an adaptation of one of the Barrack-Room Ballads namely “Screw-Guns”. It didn’t take long for the critics to find out because this literary theft, if it was one, was not the only one. There were other adaptations of Kipling (and Villon for that matter) and one critic even took to talking about Rudyard Brecht.

How did Brecht get to this for him unlikely author? According to one close friend his knowledge of English amounted to next to nothing. This seems to me a bit exaggerated. He was at one stage enrolled at a University, thus must have finished high school and it is unlikely that he would not have been taught some English there. But probably it was some limited school English. However, early in the twenties, Brecht had met a gifted female translator, Elisabeth Hauptmann, whose futile love for him (he married other women) rivaled that of Surabaya Johnny’s would be lover. It was, in fact, her translation of John Gay’s "Beggar’s Opera" (then exactly two hundred years old) that he used for his Dreigroschenoper text (this was originally fully acknowledged). And equally so he used her Kipling translation for some of his songs.

There is a literary dispute about this. It is now the fashion with some to blow up Hauptmann’s share in his productions as if she were an unacknowledged ghostwriter of Brecht’s stuff. I have no desire to further research this but to judge from what is supposed to be the Kipling “original” of “Surabaya Johnny” I think there is some exaggeration here. If Hauptmann was a faithful translator, which by all accounts she was, Brecht used her text in his own creative fashion. You can judge this for yourself by comparing the text of “Mary, Pity Women!” with the English translation of “Surabaya Johnny” of which that exuberant lass from Sacramento in the video above gave a clear rendering, that is fairly close to the German original:

Mary, Pity Women!

You call yourself a man,
For all you used to swear,
An' leave me, as you can,
My certain shame to bear?
I 'ear! You do not care --
You done the worst you know.
I 'ate you, grinnin' there. . . .
Ah, Gawd, I love you so!

Nice while it lasted, an' 
now it is over --
Tear out your 'eart 
an' good-bye to your lover!
What's the use o' grievin', 
when the mother that bore you
(Mary, pity women!) knew it 
all before you?

 

It aren't no false alarm,
The finish to your fun;
You -- you 'ave brung the 'arm,
An' I'm the ruined one;
An' now you'll off an' run
With some new fool in tow.
Your 'eart? You 'aven't none. . 
Ah, Gawd, I love you so!

When a man is tired there is 
naught will bind 'im;
All 'e solemn promised 'e will 
shove be'ind 'im.
What's the good o' prayin' for
 The Wrath to strike 'im
(Mary, pity women!), when 
the rest are like 'im?

What 'ope for me or -- it?
What's left for us to do?
I've walked with men a bit,
But this -- but this is you.
So 'elp me Christ, it's true!
Where can I 'ide or go?
You coward through and through! . . .
Ah, Gawd, I love you so!

All the more you give 'em the 
less are they for givin' --
Love lies dead, an' you 
cannot kiss 'im livin'.
Down the road 'e led you 
there is no returnin'
(Mary, pity women!), but 
you're late in learnin'!

You'd like to treat me fair?
You can't, because we're pore?
We'd starve? What do I care!
We might, but ~this~ is shore!
I want the name -- no more --
The name, an' lines to show,
An' not to be an 'ore. . . .
Ah, Gawd, I love you so!

What's the good o' pleadin', 
when the mother that bore you
(Mary, pity women!) knew it 
all before you?
Sleep on 'is promises an' wake 
to your sorrow
(Mary, pity women!), for we sail 
to-morrow!

Surabaya Johnny

I had just turned sixteen that season
When you came up from Burma to stay.
And you told me I ought to travel with you,
You were sure it would be OK.
When I asked how you earned your living,
I can still hear what you said to me:
You had some kind of job on the railway
And had nothing to do with the sea.

You said a lot, Johnny,
All one big lie, Johnny.
You cheated me blind, Johnny,
From the minute we met.
I hate you so, Johnny,
When you stand there grinning, Johnny.
Take that damn pipe out of your mouth, 
you rat.

Surabaya Johnny,
No one's meaner than you.
Surabaya Johnny,
My God - and I still love you so.
Surabaya Johnny,
Why am I feeling so blue ?
You have no heart, Johnny,
And I still love you so.

At the start, every day was Sunday,
Till we went on our way one fine night.
And before two more weeks were over,
You thought nothing I did was right.
So we trekked up and down through the 
Punjab,
From the source of the river to the sea.
When I look at my face in the mirror,
There's an old woman staring back at me.

You didn't want love, Johnny,
You wanted cash, Johnny.
But I sewed your lips, Johnny,
And that was that.
You wanted it all, Johnny,
I gave you more, Johnny.
Take that damn pipe out of your mouth, 
you rat.

Surabaya Johnny.
No one's meaner than you.
Surabaya Johnny.
My God — and I still love you so.
Surabaya Johnny,
Why am I feeling so blue ?
You have no heart, Johnny.
And I still love you so.

I would never have thought of asking
How you'd got that peculiar name,
But from one end of the coast to the other
You were known everywhere we came.
And one day in a two-bit flophouse
I'll wake up to the roar of the sea,
And you'll leave without one word of warning
On a ship waiting down at the quay.

You have no heart, Johnny!
You're just a louse, Johnny!
How could you go, Johnny,
And leave me flat ?
You're still my love, Johnny,
Like the day we met, Johnny.
Take that damn pipe out of your mouth, 
you rat.

Surabaya Johnny.
No one's meaner than you.
Surabaya Johnny,
My God - and I still love you so.
Surabaya Johnny,
Why am I feeling so blue ?
You have no heart, Johnny.
And I still love you so.

Thank you! Thank you very much.

34 Comments on “Surabaya Johnny”

  1. avatar berlian biru says:

    Is there any non-Indonesian song that has the name of an Indonesian city in its very title?

    There’s a song called “Macassar” by Colin Bass (no, me neither). “Road to Bali” by Bing Crosby and Bob Hope and “Krakatoa” by Saxon aren’t about Indonesian cities but they’re all I could find.

  2. avatar lyka says:

    Through this song, I pity the girl. It only proves that love is really blind. Whatever it takes as long as you’re happy. But it does not apply to me because the reason why God put the brain above the heart, is for you to think first before making any moves so that you will not get hurt deeply.

  3. avatar David says:

    If her portrayal of Johnny’s teenage love has any realism about it one rather understands why he made himself scarce:

    Yes; I had never heard the song before but after that version I wish I never had, I’d like to get up on that stage and say firmly ‘Will you please stop singing now? Thanks”. Hideous. The other version, Ute Lemper, just leaves me slightly bewildered, but it’s not offensively annoying and horrible.

    But unless I missed it, is it clear why he was ‘Surabaya Johnny’? I mean loads of sailors passed through Surabaya; or perhaps it has no real significance, just a nickname…

    There is a website – http://www.surabayajohnny.com/ – Surabaya Johnny’s
    Bar & Grill; I’d never even heard of it until searching around just now; from that website they have a slightly different version of the song:

    I was only a child when I met you.
    You came up from the Burma Lagoon.
    You said, “Would you like a bit of travel?”
    You promised all but the moon.
    I asked you what you did for a living.
    You swore, “God’s my witness,” to me.
    That you worked for the railroad people,
    and you would never follow the sea.

    You said a lot, Johnny.
    Not a word was true, Johnny.
    You betrayed me, Johnny
    from the moment we met.
    I hate you so Johnny.
    Don’t stand there grinning, Johnny.
    And take that pipe out of your mouth, you rat.

    Surabaya Johnny,
    why’d you treat me so wrong?
    Surabaya, Johnny,
    my god, and I do love you so.
    Surabaya, Johnny,
    why am I feeling so low?
    You have no heart, Johnny.
    And I do love you so.

    At first, it was always Sunday,
    as long as I pleased you at night.
    But only a few weeks later,
    not a thing that I did was right.
    Up and down we tramped through the Punjab,
    by a river along to the sea.
    But now when I look in the mirror,
    there’s a broken face that I see.

    You wanted no love, Johnny.
    You wanted the loot, Johnny.
    But your lips, Johnny,
    I could never forget.
    You asked for everything, Johnny,
    I gave you more, Johnny.
    And take that pipe out of your mouth, you rat.

    Surabaya, Johnny.
    Why’d treat me so wrong?
    Surabaya, Johnny,
    my god, and I do love you so.
    Surabaya, Johnny.
    Why am I feeling so low?
    You have no heart, Johnny,
    and I do love you so.

    I wish I had paid more attention
    to that nickname of yours and the rest.
    All along that bloody awful coastline,
    you have been a notorious guest.
    In a sixpence-a-night bed one morning,
    I will wake to the thunder of the sea.
    And your ship will be leaving the harbor,
    and you won’t even wave to me.

    You have no heart, Johnny!
    You’re just a bastard, Johnny!
    Why did you leave me, Johnny?
    Can you tell me that?
    I love you more, Johnny,
    than the first night, Johnny.
    And take that pipe out of your mouth, you rat.

    Surabaya, Johnny.
    Why’d you treat me so wrong?
    Surabaya, Johnny,
    my god, and I do love you so.
    Surabaya, Johnny.
    Why am I feeling so low?
    You have no heart, Johnny.
    And I do love you so.

  4. avatar Arie Brand says:

    Yes that Sacramento singer grossly overdid it. But she was not exactly helped by her text. I wrote that it was fairly close to the German one. But looking at it again I find that one crucial sentence has been mistranslated. The German “Warum bist du so roh” became “No one ‘s meaner than you”. Yet there is a perfectly straightforward translation possible viz “Why are you so rough?”. The American translation made of a girlish complaint an aggressive accusation. And the lass from Sacramento took her main cue from there. Yet I found her performance comical rather than abhorrent.

    There are many versions of this song. One of the more interesting ones is the Hebrew rendering by Keren Hadar (see Youtube). Not knowing Hebrew the only term I can pick up there is “Surabaya Johnny”. I do believe that many thousands of people have only heard of Surabaya through this song. The German language Wiki on Surabaya mentions it in an otherwise very factual description of the city. Why did Brecht use the name? He probably liked the sound of it and his choice did not detract from the logic of the song since Surabaya, being a port city, must indeed have been to some sailors almost a second home.

    What did detract from the logic of the song was the complaint that he was after money rather than love. Why would he pick on a sixteen year old if he wanted money? Was he after her pocket money or her lollies? The complaint can of course have been inspired by his use of her pocket money to buy an ice cream from time to time (the suspicion that he hired her out to line his pockets goes too far for me).

  5. avatar Arie Brand says:

    Brecht’s use of Kipling has led to the question why he wasn’t put off by the latter’s supposed glorification of British imperialism. It has been suggested that perhaps the attraction could be found in Kipling’s defence of the “Tommies”, the pawns who had, in the colonial project, to defend the interest of a class to which they didn’t belong – a class that generally despised them.

    There could be an element of truth in this. But it should be pointed out, I think, that Brecht’s reading of Marx would not necessarily have led to his condemnation of British colonialism in India, because his grim mentor from Dean Street, Soho, didn’t condemn it either. He thought, in fact, that that colonialist enterprise was a for India necessary phase to help it to get out of its stagnation. Why stagnation? As is well known for Marx history was propelled forward by the clash of opposites such as that between labour and capital (in the case of an agrarian society landowners and the landless) or urban centers and the agrarian countryside. These opposites did, according to him, not exist in India. That between landowners and the landless could not play itself out because of what he believed to be the collective landownership at the bottom of society (in the little “village republics”) and the “higher unity” that could be found in the overarching royal landownership.

    Marx had a very dim view of these village communities. We shouldn’t forget, he wrote, in an article in the New York Daily Tribune of 25 June 1853

    that these idyllic village communities, inoffensive though they may appear, had always been the solid foundation of Oriental despotism … We must not forget the barbarian egotism which, concentrating on some miserable patch of land, had quietly witnessed the ruin of empires, the perpetration of unspeakable cruelties, the massacre of the population of large towns, with no other consideration bestowed upon them than on natural events…

    Long ago I had occasion to go into his writings on India and colonialism. I don’t of course know whether Brecht ever did. And it could well be that he has condemned British Indian colonialism somewhere or other. My point is merely that his discipleship of Marx did not necessarily have to lead to an anti-colonialist stance nearly one hundred years ago. The embarrassment with which “the West” now looks back on its colonial past might induce a distorted view on these matters.

  6. avatar timdog says:

    I do believe that many thousands of people have only heard of Surabaya through this song.

    I come from Penzance, and Surabaya is my usual port of anchorage in Indonesia. I am apparently fated to be associated with bloody musicals forever more. “Are you a pirate?” and “Oooh! Surabaya Johnny!” (the latter occasionally sung!) are responses I have become progressively more weary off…

    David

    But unless I missed it, is it clear why he was ‘Surabaya Johnny’?

    My interpretation of the song has always been that he’s not Surabaya Johnny, and the presence of the comma in the lyrics rather supports that. it’s “Surabaya? [for f*ck’s sake! Of all the end-of-the-world places, why did it have to be Surabaya?] Johhny!”

    AB

    Brecht’s use of Kipling has led to the question why he wasn’t put off by the latter’s supposed glorification of British imperialism.

    I would say that this is perhaps a question that doesn’t really require a great deal of pondering. Perhaps he simply approached Kipling as literature, which is how, ultimately, he should be approached (it’s not relevant here, but that Kipling’s approach to empire was nowhere near as crudely simplistic as many commentators who had never read a word he wrote would have it).
    As for there being a connection between Surbaya Johnny and Mary, pity women, I can’t see it myself, except in that both are versions of one of the oldest stories of all time – the abandoned woman and the wanderer (Donal Og is my favourite; poetry almost always leaves me totally cold, but “My heart is as black as the sole of a shoe left in white halls” sends a shiver down my spine). The story can go the other way too – the woman who runs off happily with the wanderer (see Black Jack Davy/the Raggle-Taggle Gypsies), but perhaps “Surabaya Johnny” is the “ever after”…

  7. avatar madrotter says:

    nice post again arie!

    but ehrr let’s not forget the song Hallo Bandoeng!

    http://www.geheugenvannederland.nl/index.php?/en/collecties/theaterlied/hallo_bandoeng

  8. avatar David says:

    beat you to it…. not quite…

  9. avatar madrotter says:

    hehehe, i actually got a record from him here but hallo bandoeng isn’t on it…

  10. avatar Arie Brand says:

    Madrotter

    That is an interesting one. I had never heard it before. It is a historical document in more than one way because, as is clear from the introductory text, it was written to commemorate the establishment of the first direct telephone link between Holland and the Indies in 1929 (I hadn’t realized that that happened at at such an advanced date).

    You probably know that there is a more recent rendition of the song by Wieteke van Dort, who was born in Bandung and spent the first fourteen years of her life there (until life was made impossible for the Indo-European community by Sukarno in 1957).

    This rendition has many interesting photographs of pre-war Bandung:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q2zR7K95k7Q

    Her text is that of Willy Derby, except for one small but interesting difference. In Wieteke’s song the old mother asks her son how his ‘small brown wife’ (‘kleine bruine vrouw’) was doing. I have listened several times to Derby’s version but there is no trace of a ‘small brown wife’ there. Not kosher enough at the time.

    Timdog,

    My interpretation of the song has always been that he’s not Surabaya Johnny, and the presence of the comma in the lyrics rather supports that.

    Your interpretation of the song has at any case the merit to be completely original, in addition to being completely untenable of course. In the “Urtext” there is no comma between Surabaya and Johnny but a connecting stripe. The comma is only found in some of the translations.

    Also the girl sings at one stage:

    Ich hatte es nicht beachtet?
    Warum du den Namen hast

    Literally translated:

    I had not paid attention to
    Why you have that name.

    She is obviously not referring to the name Johnny here, which can hardly have been a source of wonderment, but to his full nickname.

  11. avatar ET says:

    I once had the opportunity to visit the Pasar Malam Besar* in The Hague, a huge yearly event that draws thousands of people. It is quite remarkable to what degree of nostalgia the Dutch still hold on to their colonial past without a trace of spite or acrimony. Nederlands Indië is definetely still a part of Holland’s collective memory.

    * It seems they have changed the name into Tong Tong Fair but I don’t know why. I think the name Pasar Malam had a deeper connection with real life in Indonesia.

  12. avatar David says:

    because his grim mentor from Dean Street, Soho, didn’t condemn it either. He thought, in fact, that that colonialist enterprise was a for India necessary phase to help it to get out of its stagnation. Why stagnation? As is well known for Marx history was propelled forward by the clash of opposites such as that between labour and capital (in the case of an agrarian society landowners and the landless) or urban centers and the agrarian countryside. These opposites did, according to him, not exist in India. That between landowners and the landless could not play itself out because of what he believed to be the collective landownership at the bottom of society (in the little “village republics”) and the “higher unity” that could be found in the overarching royal landownership.

    I read, I think it was something by Frank Knopfelmacher, who you might have heard of, that Marx said the British Empire was “the greatest civilizing force in history”. I’ve made some desultory internet attempts to find that quote but haven’t been able to, is it true he said that do you know? Of course, if he did say it, like you say to some extent he was probably thinking just that the colonizers were inadvertently speeding up the historical process and bringing the revolution closer in the backward countries by sort of shocking or dragging them into the modern world. But there’s the word civilizing which doesn’t sort of gel in with that.

  13. avatar timdog says:

    I guess you’re right Arie. It’s just the way singers always seem to place the stress on the “Surabaya” – often specifically on the middle syllable. It makes the line sound like a bemused, baffled, outraged, frustrated question, rather than a simple howl of a departed lover’s name. Could simply be both, of course…

  14. avatar Arie Brand says:

    David

    I read, I think it was something by Frank Knopfelmacher, who you might have heard of, that Marx said the British Empire was “the greatest civilizing force in history”.

    Yes I have heard of Knopfelmacher . What I remember of him is, inter alia, that he didn’t shy away from exaggeration to make a point (his merit was of course that he didn’t just come up with waffle but had some clear points to make).

    I have never read this alleged statement by Marx and doubt, with you, that he ever said it. He gives in Das Kapital too many examples of gruesome actions in the colonialist enterprise. As far as Holland is concerned he quotes with obvious relish Raffles verdict that the history of the Dutch colonial trade offers a supreme picture of treason, bribery, assassination and vileness. Interestingly, immediately after having said this he quotes some report on the capture of slaves in Sulawesi for Java and the miserable condition of the unhappy victims of that enterprise in the overcrowded prisons of Makassar. One regrets that he obviously didn’t know about Raffles’ “Banjarmasin enormity” else he could have added that to his testimony from him and this account of similar but earlier exploits by the Dutch.

    He is hardly more flattering about the British, particularly their exploits in the West Indies, but you are right, he saw it all as a sort of necessary evil – the birth pangs of a new mode of production and new social forms, not only in the colonies but in the metropolitan centers. I quote from Das Kapital (Vol.III p.345): “The sudden expansion of the world market, the multiplication of circulating commodities, the competition among European nations to get hold of the Asian products and the American treasures, the colonial system, contributed essentially to the blasting of the feudal limits on production” (my translation AB)

  15. avatar Arie Brand says:

    ET

    I once had the opportunity to visit the Pasar Malam Besar* in The Hague, a huge yearly event that draws thousands of people. It is quite remarkable to what degree of nostalgia the Dutch still hold on to their colonial past without a trace of spite or acrimony. Nederlands Indië is definetely still a part of Holland’s collective memory.

    As far as I can judge the situation from here I would say yes and no: the acrimony is now mainly directed at earlier generations. There is a famous (notorious) book on the Indies with the title “Something Grandiose was wrought over there” (“Daar werd wat groots verricht”). Nowadays this title only evokes a sneer. The sociologist Jacques van Doorn was the last major Dutch publicist on the Indies to have known the place in pre-independence days. He spoke of the colonial project as “the greatest adventure of the Dutch nation” – but you would today find very few Dutch “public intellectuals” who would speak of it in these terms.

    Of course the nostalgia and the interest is still there especially among the Indo-European community and its descendants – but also among the wider population I would say. All under the motto “oh it was all very sinful of course but let us sneak a look…”

    Tong Tong was (is?) the name of the magazine for the Indo European community – it was edited, I think, by the late Tjalie Robinson.

  16. avatar ET says:

    Here’s another song about Surabaya by Anneka Grönloh

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ybd9Aobqq_E&feature=related

    Apparently the melodious sound of the word Surabaya contributes a lot to its popularity. Michael Palin mentioned in his TV-series about the Pacific rim that the only nice thing about the city of Surabaya was the sound of its name.

  17. avatar timdog says:

    On the use of Surabaya in song – bear in mind that until the early decades of the 20th Century the place had the same kind of loaded exoticism that still lingers around “Shanghai” and “Singapore” and such places.
    It was as well-known as the above, and was indeed often mentioned in the same breath as being the same sort of place at the end of the world to which raffish sailors run off, full of strange, beguiling scents, intrigue, riches and sexual promise (I guess you might still find all of that down Jl Dolly, come to think of it…).

  18. avatar timdog says:

    One regrets that he obviously didn’t know about Raffles’ “Banjarmasin enormity”

    It is remarkable how totally and utterly “the Banjarmasin enormity” has been erased from Anglophone writings about Raffles and Java – simply ignored, obliterated, never-even-happened. However, I think too much mileage can be made out of it (and, it seems, has been by the Dutch).

    For me the business in Palembang is much more significant as an irrefutable indictment of Raffles ruthless approaches. Banjarmasin was just a little casual hypocrisy to help out a friend; Palembang was shocking Machiavellianism of the highest order.

    HOWEVER, for all the entirely understandable impotent frustration that seems to have later emerged in Holland at the way Raffles and his administration was later presented by British hagiographers, and at the way both the man himself and those who have written about him contrasted his “reforming liberalism” with those wicked Dutchies (as both a political and literary device), this can easily be pushed too far in the opposite direction.
    For there seems to be a lingering undercurrent in Dutch attempts to tilt at English-speaking windmills and to point out the manifest hypocrisy, ethical dubiousness and general failure of Raffles’ administration – an attempt to use all that somehow to “prove” that the Dutch weren’t all that bad after all. And that just turns the whole thing into a patriotic p*ssing contest…

  19. avatar Arie Brand says:

    Timdog

    For me the business in Palembang is much more significant as an irrefutable indictment of Raffles ruthless approaches. Banjarmasin was just a little casual hypocrisy to help out a friend; Palembang was shocking Machiavellianism of the highest order.

    Now you seem, in your turn, to go overboard by trivialising what happened there. A few thousand Javanese became the victims of that “little casual hypocrisy”. I guess that the reason why the “Banjarmasin enormity” ranks above the Palembang affair in many a Dutch charge sheet is that in the former the Javanese were the main victims whereas in the latter it was the Dutch. Now Raffles had never declared to be committed to the welfare of the Dutch but he had done so as far as the Javanese were concerned, at any case implicitly by his sour indictment of the Dutch administration.

    So the attention for Banjarmasin has a ‘gotcha’ element.

    HOWEVER, for all the entirely understandable impotent frustration that seems to have later emerged in Holland at the way Raffles and his administration was later presented by British hagiographers, and at the way both the man himself and those who have written about him contrasted his “reforming liberalism” with those wicked Dutchies (as both a political and literary device), this can easily be pushed too far in the opposite direction.

    Quite so – but I think part of the urge to cry out about the new clothes of Emperor Raffles had to do with the fact that for a remarkably long period Dutch publicists seem to have believed in these new garments. Once they found out that they had been fooled their discourse became a wee bit spiteful.

    Professor P.J.Veth published some 130 years ago the main handbook on Java in four hefty tomes. He never went to the Indies himself (as James Mill never went to India) but read just about everything that at that time could be read about the place. Now Veth was originally one of those believers in Raffles’ virtue – only after he read about Palembang and Banjarmasin and Raffles’ machinations re Singapore did he change his mind. But he seems to have been one of the small advance guard on this matter. He wrote:

    Public opinion on Raffles’ administration grew ever more favourable in the Netherlands as the principles of colonial politics championed by him were more generally acknowledged as beneficial to both the colony and the home country. However, impartial history is compelled to state that his real character has declared itself ever more unfavourably, when more thorough researches were made in the colonial archives for documentary evidence which might throw light on his actions and motives.

    This judgment dates from 1878.

    Part of the spleen in Dutch writings on him is caused by the awareness, I think, that given the limits of the Dutch language and with it Dutch source material, one can publicitywise never compete with Anglo Saxon writings on him.

  20. avatar timdog says:

    Arie,
    I think we fundamentally agree about Raffles, but the reason why I consider Palembang more significant, is because it is a more complex matter, and demonstrates very clearly how Raffles worked, how ethical consideration went straight out of the window when it came to any attempt to further “British” interests.
    I’m obviously not in any way attempting to belittle the suffering of the vagrants and “loose women” shipped out to Alexdander Hare’s heart of Borean darkness (though I would point out the well attested “mounds” of dead Javanese heaped up at the gates of Yogyakarta after the 1812 assault work just as well as an axe with which to hack at the totem of his “compassion”). However, this kind of straight-forward double-standardism was very much the order of the day, and you’ll find similar stains on the records of many supposedly benign colonial administrators all over the place.

    Palembang was another kettle of kippers altogether…
    For the benefit of anyone else bothering to read all this, and wondering what the hell we’re going on about, put very shortly, it went like this:

    Raffles knew there would be enormous pressure to make a British-held Java pay for itself.
    From his years in Penang he was aware of rich tin mines on Bangka, territory of the Dutch vassal Palembang.
    Prior to the British invasion he sent a string of letters to the Sultan of Palembang, trying increasingly desperately to incite him to “evict” the Dutch community there (a few dozen families) and to proclaim outright independence BEFORE the British invaded Java.
    This was so Britain could then seize Bangka, and would be able to argue for its retention – as a territory taken from a sovereign native state – should Indonesia later return to the Dutch on the settlement of peace in Europe.
    So desperate for the Sultan to do this was Raffles, that he sent a ship load of guns to him, for the expressed purpose of ousting the Dutch. the Dutch community there included women and children.
    The Palembang sultan, sensibly, was playing for time – if he had “ousted” the Dutch, and the British invasion of Java had then failed, he would have been in very deep trouble indeed.
    So he waited, and then as soon as he heard that the British HAD invaded Java, be had the Dutch killed, and attempted to dress things up to make it look as though he done so in advance of the invasion.
    Raffles reacted with manufactured outrage at this “unexpected” atrocity, and had the Sultan toppled, and Bangka seized by way of retribution for the deaths of these innocent Europeans.

    Arie can explain “the Banjarmasin Enormity” for you; my typing fingers are tired…

    It’s a by-the-way, but I’d also point out that as well as the dead Dutch (and their slaves and native troops), the whole Palembang business also led to the deaths of unknown numbers of local residents – the British advance up the River Musi in the name of retribution unleashed a wave of internecine fighting in the town, and when the British party arrived they found the palace “awash with blood” (or some similarly melodramatic phrase)…

  21. avatar Gerry says:

    Hütet Euch vor den deutschen Linken! Hati-hati! Awas!

  22. avatar Arie Brand says:

    In case any one had missed it Gerry’s post above warns against the ” German Left”, advice about as relevant here as the admonition to avoid the French Jacobins. I believe that the Marx quote above has triggered this knee jerk response. To perceive a dead Marx as a live bogey is, for me at any rate, as obtuse as mistaking a Dutch Australian for a German compatriot.

  23. avatar John J says:

    There is a song called “Surabaya-Santa” from the show SONGS FOR A NEW WORLD, but it’s a parody of “Surabaya Johnny”.

  24. avatar David says:

    There are quite a few versions of that song, here’s just one:

  25. avatar Arie Brand says:

    Just another addition to the Dutch language Surabaya repertoire:

    Rudi Wairata with his ‘Amboina Serenaders’:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uL6LW5UOckY&feature=feedrec_grec_index

    Would there still be an audience for this type of music in the Moluccas?

  26. avatar habib says:

    Not a town, but Edith Piaf sang a song called ‘La Javanaise’.

    Apparently, it’s about a Javanese girl who is seduced by a Frenchman and ends up as a prostitute in Paris.

  27. avatar diego says:

    Doh… It’s about a parisian dance named “La Javanais”. Nothing to do with Java (island).

Comment on “Surabaya Johnny”.

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