THE GREAT UNKNOWN AND THE UNKNOWN GREAT: The incarceration of Indonesians in the United States: An untold story


bioline_Greg RobinsonEditor’s Note: This is the first part of a series.

Some time ago, I was reading back issues of the Pacific Citizen, the national Japanese American Citizens League newspaper, and I came across a special issue from 1967 that marked the 25th anniversary of Executive Order 9066. There I found a memoir by Edison Uno, the future champion of Japanese American redress, about his wartime imprisonment at the “family internment camp” at Crystal City, Texas. (For those unaware of its history, the Crystal City concentration camp, opened in 1942, originally housed ethnic Germans and Japanese from Latin America who had been seized from their homes and transported to the United States, as well as Japanese aliens in Hawai‘i held under martial law.

Starting in 1943, the Justice Department moved a group of Issei “enemy aliens” previously incarcerated at Lordsburg and other facilities to Crystal City. There they were permitted to bring in their families from the War Relocation Authority camps to join them).

In his memoir, after explaining how he moved to Crystal City to join his incarcerated father, Uno mentioned a topic new to me:

“Many residents were released soon after V-J Day. A portion of the camp was segregated and more than 300 new residents were shipping in to join the remainder. This was a group of Indonesian sailors that were taken off a Dutch ship that landed in New York … Only a few could speak sufficient English so the sailors designated a spokesman for the group in any negotiations with camp authorities or other inmates. These sailors were not allowed to mingle with other groups in the camp. Yet, due to their Muslim religion, diet, and their cultural differences they were quite content to be left alone. Their imprisonment was a solitary one, they had very little recreation or work to keep them occupied. Their only pleasure seemed to be watching American movies, which they could not understand; however, they always enjoyed the westerns and, as I recall, became quite boisterous over typical Hollywood love scenes.”

After reading this, I became interested to learn more, and began to accumulate material wherever I could find it. Unlike the imprisonment of Japanese Americans, this story is almost completely unknown. However, it is well worth close study, in my view. Why? First, because the actions of asylum seekers from Java led to the first large-scale incarceration of Muslims in the United States. At the same time, the legal process they went through was an important part of the development of American law on the treatment of refugees. Finally, the struggle to help the sailors led to the development of the first visible community of Southeast Asians in North America. I must report that the record, at least in English, is fragmentary, and my research is still rather incomplete. What I can do is lay out the story as best as I have traced it, and conclude by saying what I think it can teach us.

First, I should make clear that these seamen were not the first Indonesians in the United States. Instead, a set of 50 of so came during the 1920s, presumably coming by ship and overstaying their time. It was the time of the Asian exclusion laws, whereby Asians, who were “ineligible to citizenship,” were not allowed to enter unless they were ministers or diplomats. As a result, the first Indonesians were technically illegal immigrants. However, they managed to settle there. For example, Philip Sumampow, born in Medan in 1906, came to the U.S. as a seaman in 1929, and later worked for General Aniline Works in New Jersey. Sumampow married in the New York area and had 5 children.

The coming of war would greatly expand the Indonesian population in New York. Beginning as early as 1940, crews of Dutch ships stranded by the conflict in Europe began settling in the city. As a result, a group of some 200 Dutch seamen, including Indonesians, created a Home for Netherlands Seamen in the Seamen’s Church Institute on New York’s South Street. In December of 1940, Netherlands Crown princess Juliana held a well-publicized meeting with a group of Indonesian sailors there (in July of 1942 Queen Wilhelmina herself visited the Institute). At Christmas 1940, a group of 40 Javanese were engaged to sail a captured German prize freighter, the Wuppertal, renamed the Noesaniwi.

In the years that followed, some 400 Indonesians came to New York and other U.S. ports, sailing on British or Dutch ships. Their crews were directed by “mandoers” or head men. In February 1942 The New York Times carries a picture of Javanese seamen, signing up for the draft in the U.S. (though ineligible for the draft, as registered aliens they could volunteer). In July of 1943, the Netherlands Shipping Committee, in conjunction with the merchant Marine, opened the “Huize Hollandia,” a rest and recreation center in Northport, Long Island, just outside New York City. Separate accommodations in bungalows, including halal cooking and dining facilities, were provided for Indonesian seamen to prepare Indonesian cuisine. Roema Djawa, a rest home located at 477 Washington Avenue in Brooklyn, was also maintained by the Dutch government for the seamen, and featured Indonesian food. A furlough center, the “Hook of Holland” opened in the suburbs of San Francisco in January of 1943, while a Holland House opened in the city of San Francisco, with Princess Juliana officiating, in 1944. A separate Home for Indonesian Seamen was created in San Francisco.

With this migration came disputes over shore leave and labor. At first, Asian sailors, as ineligible for immigration, were not allowed to disembark. In response to complaints from Chinese seamen sailing on British and Dutch ships, in August 1942 the U.S. government declared a “free gangway” allowing all seamen who were in transit a temporary visa to remain for 60 days. However, once Chinese were permitted to enter, there was renewed friction. Under wartime regulations, there was a fixed labor pool of seamen divided up by the countries that shipped goods. Under the law, a seaman could not withdraw from the pool once his country officially joined it. Chinese sailors, dissatisfied by conditions on the ships, went out on strike for higher pay and asked to be released from the pool and permitted to remain in the U.S., but were unsuccessful. Several dozen Chinese were imprisoned at Rikers Island prison for violating immigration law or refusing to leave.

The same pattern became common among the Indonesians. In mid-1943, Indonesian seamen in New York and San Francisco staged walkouts to protest unequal wages. The Dutch shipowners asserted that the sailors had signed contracts before going ashore that fixed their base pay at $17 per month (about the same tiny wage as Japanese American in WRA camps received). The seamen responded by claiming that they had been coerced into signing in order to obtain shore leave, and that the contracts were drafted in Dutch, a language they did not understand. In response to the walkouts, 200 sailors in New York were incarcerated at Ellis Island, while 40 more who walked out in San Francisco were incarcerated at the Sharp Park detention camp (there were several hundred more in Australia). They vainly requested the mediation of President Roosevelt and the U.S. State Department. To help resolve conflicts, the Dutch Central Transport Workers Union established a West Coast branch.

Greg Robinson, Ph.D., the author of “By Order of the President: FDR and the Internment of Japanese Americans” and “A Tragedy of Democracy: Japanese Confinement in North America,” is a professor of history at l’Université du Québec À Montréal. He can be reached at


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