Those were the days
Indonesia is an historian’s mother lode – a vein of dazzling riches.
From the bloodletting and intrigue of the Majapahit dynasty to the adventures and betrayal of Prince Diponegoro through to building a nation; the mix of mystery and fact continues to yield high quality ore. Some stories feature European adventurers.
Probably the most famous was K’tut Tantri, aka Surabaya Sue, aka Muriel Walker, the Scottish-American Bali hotelier who supported the nationalists. Tortured by the Japanese she became a broadcaster and speech writer for Soekarno. and told some of her past in Revolt in Paradise. Though not all.
Less famous and less coy is John Coast though his past is almost as fantastic. Had his biography Recruit to Revolution (first published in 1952) not been reissued by a reputable publisher and edited by scholar Dr Laura Noszlopy it might have been considered suspect.
Coast’s story starts in pre-war Britain where he worked as a bored bank clerk who loved to watch ballet. He enlisted and was sent to defend Singapore two weeks before it fell.
As in The Lunchbox film about the Dabbawallahs of Mumbai ‘sometimes you have to get on the wrong train to get to the right station’.
For more than three years Coast toiled on the 418 kilometer Death Railway linking Thailand with Burma. He slaved with thousands of European prisoners and maybe up to 300,000 romusha, conscripted Indonesians; he found them more likeable than the ‘blackguard’ Dutch.
Despite the appalling conditions (about a third of the workers died) Coast spent his time usefully. He discovered Balinese dance and organised performances to entertain the men.
He also studied Dutch and Malay, arousing suspicion as he had the ‘fantastic idea’ of Indonesian independence. Instead of crying in his cups during the long sea voyage home after release he wrote about his experiences. Railroad of Death was published in 1946 and did well. Coast mixed with Indonesians in London and assembled a Javanese dance group to stage tours.
Coast helped his friends agitating to get the Dutch out of the East Indies through cultural activities, translations and lobbying. Although Independence had been declared after the Japanese surrender the colonialists had returned and were engaged in a guerrilla war.
During this time Coast met key players including the Moscow go-between Suripno and the Sorbonne-educated economist Sumitro Joyohadikusumo, who later became Minister of Finance. He and Coast were the same age – both born in 1917.
According to Noszlopy’s introduction, Joyohadikusumo was also associated with the Socialist Party of Indonesia. The reminder may not please his son, failed presidential aspirant Prabowo Subianto now Gerindra Party boss.
The closest Coast could get to Indonesia was the British Embassy in Bangkok. He was supposed to be handling public relations but spent time developing contacts with Indonesians. He quit after a year to work for the new Indonesian government. Coast claimed his former employer considered him ‘unstable’ and a ‘nutcase’.
Long before security clearances and plastic name tags hampered adventurers, oddballs like Coast could get into what he called ‘the thick of things’. He was also a speedy learner, prepared to adapt and dilute his personal beliefs. Keen to be seen as egalitarian in the post-colonial era he wore shorts and walked.
A Javanese friend who understood the protocols of appearances trumping abilities offered advice: Wear long trousers and a tie; use a car; mix only with top officials and wear glasses to look older. The ploys worked and Coast then got treated with respect.
His job was organising clandestine flights of goods and guns into Indonesia past the Dutch blockade which was making the Republic a ‘dirty, shabby, isolated, barren, vicious-minded place.’
American pilots flew old Dakotas from Thailand to Bukittinggi and Jambi in Sumatra, and Yogyakarta. To earn money the revolutionaries exported opium – another awkward piece to fit into the jigsaw of the nation’s history.
Coast met the leaders of the new government and was impressed with their qualities. He formed a close relationship with Agus Salim who cleverly organised support for the new Republic from Arab states using his credentials as an Islamic scholar.
Coast accompanied the Indonesian delegation to the 1949 Round Table Conference in The Hague which led to the Dutch withdrawal from Indonesia. He was then smart enough to realise his job had been done and there was no place for a foreigner in the new nationalism.
He moved to Bali to become a concert promoter taking an Indonesian dance troupe called Peliatan (named after a village near Ubud) on a successful tour to Britain and the US.
Coast wrote about his experiences in Dancing out of Bali and for some time was seen as an Indonesian expert. He worked with people like the naturalist film producer Sir David Attenborough on BBC documentaries. Coast’s essay on East-West relationships (http://thisibelieve.org/essay/16450/) is as relevant today as it was when written in the 1950s.
What this book doesn’t say is that Coast had allegedly been a pre-war fascist and Nazi sympathiser, a background only recently revealed through the release of official papers.
The omission is strange as the information was published in 2015 – and also because Coast was later linked to left-wing activists and causes. Although allegedly of interest to the MI5 spy agency Coast was never arrested though some friends were jailed.
Two years ago Britain’s Express tabloid commented that ‘it is unlikely they (Attenborough and other celebrities) would have wanted much to do with him (Coast) if they had any inkling of the depth of his anti-Semitic fanaticism.’
Was this true – or a Dutch intelligence smear? Fortunately Indonesians saw the man for what he was – a genuine anti-colonialist with the determination to help the new nation through his skills and contacts. Coast married a Javanese (Supianti) and died in 1989, and as the conservative newspaper reluctantly notes, with his reputation intact
Recruit to Revolution by John Coast, edited by Laura Noszlopy NIAS Press 2016
(First published in The Jakarta Post 10 April 2017)