The Dukono Volcano on Halmahera

When our Coral Expeditions cruise arrived in the town of Tobelo on the northwestern arm of the island of Halmahera in October 2018, the Dukono volcano was erupting ash. This should not have been a surprise since research shows that the volcano has been erupting almost continuously  since 1978.


The Dukono volcano as seen from the Coral Discoverer

A rift in the earth’s mantle has caused a sea floor spreading zone between the islands of Sulawesi and Halmahere, causing subduction and related volcanic activity along the edge of both islands. There are sixteen volcanoes on the Halmahera volcanic arc, many of which are still active, and an equal number along the Sangihe volcanic arc.


This seafloor map shows the central ridge, like the larger mid-Atlantic ridge, formed by the intrusion of oceanic magma. This intrusion causes spreading of the sea floor and the related subduction zones are shown by the seafloor trenches developed on each side of the central ridge . The water filled sediments that are subducted into the earths interior then become superheated, melt the surrounding rocks, and cause the volcanic activity.

Google Map

The related volcanoes can be best seen on this topographical map of Halmahera which shows a line of volcanoes formed along the western side of the island, including the clove islands of Ternate, Tidore, Moti and Makian which are offshore.


The Dukono volcano is only 10 km from the town of Tobelo. While we were there it was continuously erupting ash, but fortunately the wind was blowing to the northeast and away from the town.

Ash cloud

The Dukono volcano as seen from the town of Tobelo


A closer view of the erupting Dukono volcano


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King Willem III of the Netherlands – Abandoned and Forgotten in Pulau Banda

Willem was the son of King Willem II and Anna Paylovna of Russia and on the death of his father in 1849, he succeeded as king of the Netherlands where ruled until his death in 1890.

William III was a man of immense stature with a boisterous voice, standing at 6’5″ (196 cm) he was an exceptionally large and strong man. Known to be a philanderer he had several dozen illegitimate children from various mistresses. He could be gentle and kind, then suddenly he could become intimidating and even violent. He was inclined to terrorize and humiliate his courtiers and servants. His ministers were afraid of him and most people around him agreed that he was, to some degree, insane.

He married his first cousin, Sophie, daughter of King William I of Württemberg and Grand Duchess Catherine Pavlovna of Russia on 18 June 1839. This marriage was unhappy and was characterized by struggles about their children. Sophie was a liberal intellectual, hating everything leaning toward dictatorship, such as the army. Whereas William was simpler, more conservative, and loved the military. His extramarital enthusiasms, however, led the  New York Times to call him “the greatest debaucher of the age”. Another cause of marital tension (and later political tension) was his capriciousness as he could rage against someone one day and be extremely polite the next.

Queen Sophie

After years of turmoil, Sophie and Willem mutually wished to have a divorce, but a divorce was seen as an impossible scandal because of their position. By the mediation of Prince Frederick of the Netherlands, a formal separation without divorce was finalized in 1855, and it was decided that the couple was to remain formally married in public, but allowed to live separate lives in practice. Willem was to be given full right to decide about the upbringing of their eldest son, who would become King, while Sophie was given full custody of their youngest. Sophie was to fulfill her representational duties as Queen in public, but allowed to live her private life as she wished.

Sophie was an unusual queen with her left leaning political opinions and scientific interests, and her non-dogmatic views on religion, her support for progressive development and her disdain for etiquette gave her the soubriquet “la reine rouge” (‘The Red Queen’). Sophie died at Huis ten Bosch Palace in the Hague in 1877 and she was buried in her wedding dress, because, in her own view, her life had ended on the day she married.

 During his reign, the king became more and more unpopular with his bourgeois-liberal subjects, his whims provoking their resistance and mockery, but he remained quite popular with the common people.

Willem III had two sons by his marriage with Sophia, Willem (1841–1879), and Alexander (1843–1884). Both of them died unmarried and the death of Prince Alexander left the house of Orange without a direct male heir. After the death of Queen Sophia in 1877 the prospect of a disputed succession was averted by the marriage of the king in 1879 with the twenty year old princess Emma of Waldeck-Pyrmont, who managed to produce an heir.

King Willem, Queen Emma and Princess Wilhelmina

From this union a daughter, Wilhelmina, was born in 1880. In 1888 and 1889, the ailing king became increasingly demented and died in 1890. On her father’s death Wilhelmina succeeded him as Queen of the Netherlands and ruled for the next 58 years until her death in 1948.

Abandoned and forgotten, a magnificent bronze bust of King Willem III lies in a side garden and usually behind a locked door, in the rear of the former Dutch Colonial headquarters on the island of Pulau Banda in Eastern Indonesia. Perhaps he should be rescued and brought back to the Netherlands,

King Willem III (Ian Burnet)
The former Dutch Colonial Headquarters on Pulau Banda (Ian Burnet)

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Joseph Conrad’s Singapore

In Conrad’s time the Post Office, the Harbour office, the offices of the ships chandlers and various shipping agents were situated along the harbourside with a view of the ships lined up in the Straits of Singapore. A rambling two-story building with a colonnaded façade and shuttered windows stood on the point near the Cavanagh Bridge where Flint Street meets Battery Road. It contained the premises of McAlister and Company who were Ships Chandlers, Sailmakers, Ship Brokers and General Merchants. A vast cavern-like space which contained every sundry item that a ship needed to put to sea. In the same building were Emmerson’s Tiffin, Billiard and Reading Rooms which drew sailors, merchants and those from the Harbour Office to its daily lunch menu which was advertised as Tiffin a La Carte and is best described as Mulligatawny soup and a Malay chicken curry and rice. These men liked the noisy camaraderie of Emmerson’s rooms which were filled with tales of ships, sailors, piracy, disasters at sea and the latest rumours circulating the port.

Plaque in honor of Joseph Conrad Koreniowski on the harbourside near the Fullerton Hotel in Singapore.

The location of the current Fullerton Hotel was once the site of the former Post Office and Harbour Office in Conrad’s time. A memorial to Joseph Conrad stands on the seafront of the hotel and dedicated to him as a ‘British Master Mariner and great English writer who made Singapore and the whole of South East Asia better known to the world’.

Keppel Harbour in Singapore

Between 1870 and 1890 the value of exports and imports passing through Singapore nearly tripled and Singapore boomed as a regional entrepot where half of everything that arrived in the city was off-loaded onto different vessels for delivery to ports on the Malay Peninsula, Borneo and the Dutch East Indies. The painting shows this is the beginning of age of steamships as in the background are the masts of the three masted barques as sailed by Joseph Conrad and the smoke from the steamships in the harbour. According to Conrad ‘the sea was now a used-up drudge, wrinkled and defaced by the churned-up wakes of brutal propellers, robbed of the enslaving charm of its vastness, stripped of its beauty, of its mystery and its promise’.

Keppel Harbour showing the pilgrim ship Jeddah

On the left is what I believe to be the 993-ton steamship Jeddah with its Muslim passengers streaming aboard. The Jeddah left Singapore in July 1880 for Penang to pick up additional pilgrims bound for the Holy Land. The ship was owned by Syed Mohsin bin Salleh Al Joffree who was listed in the Singapore Register as a merchant and ship owner of 36 Raffles Place and his son Seyyid Omar was on board. There were seven European officers including Captain Clark and the first mate Austin Williams, who became the Lord Jim of Conrad’s famous story.

Unloading archipelago goods from the Riau Archipelago.

The painting also shows Malay praus at the dock with archipelago traders and Chinese coolies unloading their goods such as fruit, vegetables and native rubber (gutta- percha) from the Riau Archipelago which lies just south of Singapore as can be seen on this painting of Singapore. The beginning of Conrad’s book ‘The End of the Tether’ is set in Singapore where his Captain Whalley is ending his days and Conrad best describes the shipping in the Singapore Strait with these lines:

Some of these avenues ended at the sea. It was a terraced shore; and beyond, upon the level expanse, profound and glistening like the gaze of a dark-blue eye, an oblique band of stippled purple lengthened itself indefinitely through the gap between a couple of verdant twin islets. The masts and spars of a few ships far away, hull down in the outer roads, sprang straight from the water in a fine maze of rosy lines penciled on the clear shadow of the eastern board. Captain Whalley gave them a long glance. The ship, once his own, was anchored out there. It was staggering to think that it was open to him no longer to take a boat at the jetty and get himself pulled off to her when the evening came. To no ship. Perhaps never more’.

View of Singapore and the Singapore Strait with the Riau Islands in the distance.

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The Portuguese Church in Oecussi, Timor Leste

Many people will not know where is Timor Leste – and where is Oecussi?

Oecussi is an enclave of Timor Leste (East Timor) located within the territory of West Timor, which is part of Indonesia as shown on this map. And the only access without crossing Indonesian territory is by ferry or small plane from Dili.

There is a statue on the beach near the mouth of the Tono River which commemorates the first arrival of Portuguese explorers at this site in 1515. After which a settlement was established to trade machetes and iron goods, including firearms, for the valuable sandalwood found growing in the interior.

The Portuguese disembarked here in 1515
The Portuguese Priests in Oecusse from 1515 – 1704

A statue in the town of Pante Macassar celebrates the Portuguese arrival in Timor. The first permanent Catholic presence in Timor occurred in 1641 when the Dominican priest Father Jacinto sailed from Larantuka and converted the Queen of Mena and the nearby Kings of Ambeno and Amanuban to Christianity.

The Portuguese Church in Pante Macassar is solidly built, needs some maintenance on the outside, but is clean and tidy inside.

The Sunday service was conducted by a young Dominican priest who the next day officiated at the blessing of some sandalwood plants that were part of a re-forestation program.

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When the Australian Lillipilly Collides with Asia

You’re probably familiar with the sight of a lillipilly bush. This hardy Australian staple – a glossy evergreen bearing powder-puff flowers and clusters of bright berries – features in many a garden hedge.

The powder-puff flowers of lillipilly’s light up our lives when they flower

But you may not know this humble native has spread across the globe in waves of emigration, adaptation and evolution. Almost 1,200 species of lillipilly are now found in rainforests across the tropics and subtropics of Africa, Asia and the Pacific. Research has helped reconstruct the evolutionary history of lillipilly’s in unprecedented detail and we can show how lillipilly’s evolved in Australia and now form the largest genus of trees in the world.

Twenty-one million years ago – When the Australian continent is about to collide with Asia.

Lillipilly’s began their international adventures about 17 million years ago. At that time, the Australian continent (which together with New Guinea is known as the Sahul Shelf) was colliding with Southeast Asia (known as the Sunda Shelf) following its breakup with Antarctica. This breakup was the final dramatic act of the fragmentation of Gondwana. The collision provided opportunity for biotic exchange between the northern and southern hemispheres. Many plants and animals moved south to the Sahul Shelf and prospered in the new lands. Lillipilly’s are one of the few lineages that moved in the other direction. Along with our songbirds, lillipilly’s stand as a rare example of an Australian group that set out from these shores and achieved major evolutionary success abroad.

Plump clove buds from the annual clove harvest. Photo Ian Burnet

Many species in the genus are used as food and medicine by indigenous people, and cloves have potent antibacterial and analgesic properties which made them very valuable in a world without modern medicine. A favourite spice of home bakers, cloves are the dried flower buds of an Indonesian lillipilly – the aptly named Syzygium aromaticum.

Credit to an article by Darren Crayn, Professor and Director of the Tropical Herbarium at James Cook University and published in The Conversation.

To achieve the maximum amount of clove oil the buds are picked before they break into flower. Photo Ian Burnet

Commercial quality cloves were originally only found in seven ‘Spice Islands’ off the west coast of the island of Halmahera in Eastern Indonesia. In the 17th and 18th centuries the Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch and English all built forts and fought wars over control of the valuable spice trade.

Ternate is the northernmost of the seven volcanic Clove Islands off the west coast of Halmahera. This image shows the Dutch fort on the island as well as the clove trees it was built to protect.
As the cloves are laid out to dry in the sun their colour changes from green to red to black. Photo Ian Burnet

The clove tree has a characteristic triangular shape and can be recognised from a distance. As seen here covering a hillside of the island of Obilatu, south of Halmahera, in Eastern Indonesia.

The two spicy Ian’s. Ian (Herbie) Hemphill and Ian (Spice Islands) Burnet.
Ian (Herbie) Hemphill of ‘Herbies Spices’ admiring a mountain of cloves at a warehouse in Ternate. Photo Ian Burnet

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Flores – The Portuguese Church in Sikka

Like the Portuguese Church in Batavia this is actually a Dutch Church built in the grounds of a former Portuguese Church. This becomes evident when you look at all the Portuguese names on the gravestones in the adjacent cemetery, such as DaSilva, DaCosta, Minggo, Couterius, DaLopez, Fernandez etc etc.

The Portugese Church in Sikka. Photo Ian Burnet

The interior of the Church is magnificent. I am amazed at its size and the construction of the interior beams that form its huge vaulted ceiling. Solid teak columns rise from the tiled floor and support two more levels of columns, beams and crossbeams before slanting inwards to form the vaulted ceiling.

I expect that pre-cut Javanese teakwood was imported in kit-form for its construction in the 1890’s, as the columns and beams formed a self-supporting structure that was built before the brick-and-mortar walls of the church were added.

The columns and beams that form the interior of the Church. Photo Ian Burnet
The construction of the vaulted ceiling. Photo Ian Burnet

At the far end of the church the nave is simple in its design and three stained glass windows transmit a soft light into the interior. Surprising to me is that the stained glass is in a geometric floral design without any religious symbolism. I gaze in awe at this magnificent construction and think of the master craftsmen who put it together, over 100 years ago, in this small village on the island of Flores in eastern Indonesia.

Inside the church is a memorial stone dedicated to the memory of Father J.F. LeCocq D’Armandville. He was born in Delft in 1845 and trained to be a Jesuit priest before leaving for the Dutch East Indies in 1879. After serving in Semarang and Maumere he arrived in the village of Sikka in 1885 to revive the Catholic faith there. His determination led to the building of the new church. The first mass was conducted in 1887 within the teak frame of the new church which already had an iron roof but no walls. For the walls LeCocq showed his parishioners how to bake bricks with a local clay and it was not until 1889 that the church, with its white plastered walls and an interior adorned with a band of traditional ikat design, was officially completed.

Ian Burnet combines his love of adventure and travel with his knowledge of history to take us on a personal journey through geographic space and historical time, which will delight all armchair travellers.

Travelling by bus, plane, train, ferry, boat, car and motorcycle from Java to Timor, he hops from island to island across the Indonesian archipelago, following the smoking volcanoes that form its spine.

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Joseph Conrad’s Eastern World – National Geographic, March 1924

The Earth is a stage, and though it may be an advantage, even to the right comprehension of the play, to know its exact configuration, it is always the drama of human endeavour that will be the thing, with a ruling passion expressed by outward action, marching perhaps blindly to success or failure, which themselves are often undistinguishable from each other at first.

Of all the sciences, geography finds its origin in action, and, what is more, in adventurous action of the kind that appeals to sedentary people, who like to dream of arduous adventure in the manner of prisoners dreaming behind their bars of all the hardships and hazards of liberty, dear to the heart of man.

Joseph Conrad, National Geographic, March 1924

No region on his voyages across the world inspired Joseph Conrad more than the lush, green archipelago’s of South East Asia, the ancient city of Bangkok; the busy port of Singapore, awhisper with sea intrigue; the resource- rich forests of Borneo; the steamy, storm-crossed seas of South China, Celebes and Java; and the pirate-pillaged straits of Macassar and Malacca; these are the settings for the stories and novels of Conrad’s early work.

Keppel Harbour, Singapore, 1850’s

As shown in this painting of a Singapore harbour, Conrad’s time in the East coincided with the last days of sail, the rise of steam and the high water mark of colonial trade. His stories of Dutch traders, English adventurer’s, Brunei rovers and Malay, Bugis and Arab rulers unfold against a backdrop of exotic island landscapes, reef-sharpened shallows, and deadly straits. Conrad’s characters develop within a climate heavy with the threat of monsoon, typhoon or tsunami.

The Journeys that inspired the South Seas stories, National Geographic Magazine, 1924.
Please click and enlarge to see the details of his voyages and his books.

Joseph Conrad serves as first officer on the trading vessel Vidar from August 22, 1887 to January 4, 1888. His voyages along the treacherous Karimata and Macassar Strait to Tanjung Redeb in East Borneo inspired his books – Almayers Folly, An Outcast of the Islands, Lord Jim, Victory and The Rescue.

Plan of the trading ship Vidar

The Vidar was a Singapore ship captained by James Craig, with Joseph Conrad as the Chief Officer, two British engineers and a crew of Malays, Chinese and Indians from Singapore. Most of their cargo of English and Dutch goods would be unloaded in Macassar before they sailed on to collect rubber, rattan and other archipelago goods in the remote trading post of Tanjung Redeb on the northeast coast of Borneo, which became Sambir or Patusan in his books.

The Vidar in Macassar, 1883, J.C.Rappard

Joseph Conrad’s Eastern Voyages – Tales of Singapore and an East Borneo River

Ian Burnet’s book, published this year, is a very welcome addition to a complex area of Conrad’s life and writing. It is a curious feature of Conrad studies that few Conrad scholars have been to many of the places in the region that feature in his Malay fiction, and it is refreshing to read a book that contains Burnet’s knowledge of Indonesia and of Singapore. This, and his sensitive response to Conrad himself, make themselves felt throughout the short book, a book that would be justifiably classed as suggested reading for any reader or student of Conrad’s works set in this part of the world’.

Andrew Francis – Joseph Conrad Society of America

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The Struggle for Indonesian Independence – Hatta and Sjahrir in exile in Banda

Mohammad Hatta ditangkap oleh Pemerintah Colonial pada 25 Februari 1934, dan dipenjarakan di Penjara Glodok. Sebelum ia di berankatkan ke Boven Digul, Hatta diizinkan keluar selama tiga hari untuk mengepak buku-bukanya dalan enam belas peti. Pada salah satu hari itu foto ini dibuat di Kebon Jeruk nomor 37.

After his return from the Netherlands in 1932. Mohammad Hatta was arrested by the Colonial Government on 25 February 1934 and jailed in Glodok prison until his deportation to Boven Digul in January 1935. Before his departure he was allowed to pack up his books in sixteen chests. This picture was taken on one of those days at Kebon Jeruk number 37.

Mohammad Hatta at home with his mother and sisters

Hatta and Sjahrir were moved from Boven Digul arriving on the colonial vessel Fomalhaut on February 11 1936, and were greeted by a large crowd while landing in Banda Neira.

Hatta and Sjahrir temporarily stayed in the house of a fellow exile Tjipto Mangunkusumo for a week until they were able to move to their own residence which happened to be next to the jail. A few months later Sjahrir decided to move to another residence.

Dr. Tjipto Mangunkusumo and his wife

Rumah Pengasinan Sutan Sjahrir
Sutan Sjahrir on Banda with members of the Alwi family

In total their were sixteen political detainees living in Banda from 1880 until 1942 as listed in this memorial erected by Des Alwi.

To occupy their time Hatta and Sjahrir opened an afternoon school for the children of Banda Neira. Hatta gave lessons to the older children and Sjahrir to the younger ones. The house has been restored as a national memorial and the desks and the blackboard from the school are in place in the rear of the Hatta house.

Exile Residence of Mohammad Hatta
The school in the rear of the house

After Pearl Harbour was attacked by the Japanese in December 1941, the Dutch Governor General in Batavia ordered that Hatta and Sjahrir be brought back to Java. In the early morning of January 31, 1942 a Catalina seaplane of the American Navy landed in the harbour and according to Sjahrir:

We had to leave before daylight, because otherwise it would not be possible. The Japanese were in Ambon and their planes were expected to follow the Catalina at any moment. All of Banda was on the dock – half awake, half dressed, unwashed, and frightened – to see us off.

On July 7, 1942 Soekarno returned to Batavia from his ten years of exile in Sumatra. Soon after his return, he, Hatta and Sjahrir met to plan their response to the Japanese occupation and their plans for Indonesian independence. It was agreed that for the time being Soekarno and Hatta would cooperate with the Japanese, while Sjahrir and his friends , who were anti-fascist democrats would be active in the underground with the goal of resurrecting the nationalist movement.

After the bombing of Hiroshima and the Japanese surrender on August 15, 1945 then on August 17, 1945 Soekarno and Hatta proclaimed the independence of the Republic of Indonesia.

The Proclamation of Independence
Admiral Maeda, Soekarno and Hatta at the Proclamation of Independence, August 17, 1945

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Singapore – Saint Joseph’s (The Portuguese Church)

I )used to spend a lot of time doing research in the National Library of Singapore. From the upper levels I would look down on the church across the road without knowing of its significance. However, one day I wandering across to the church and discovered that this was the site for one of the earliest churches in Singapore.

Memorial for the founder of the Church the Reverend Francisco da Silva Pinto e Maia

The history of Saint Joseph’s Church and that of its predecessor, the Church of São José, both built on the same site, is inextricably linked with the Portuguese Mission. Father Francisco da Silva Pinto e Maia of Porto arrived from Goa in 1826 and founded the Mission in Singapore. When he died in 1850, he left his money and some land for the building of a small church. The church, which was called São José, was built by the priest who succeeded him from 1851 to 1853, to mainly serve the Portuguese and Eurasian Catholics in Singapore.

Coat of Arms of the Diocese of Macao

The present Saint Joseph’s Church was completed in 1912 and blessed by the then Bishop of Macau, João Paulino de Azevedo e Castro, who was the impetus behind this project.

Saint Joseph’s church on Victoria Street, Singapore.

The plan of the church was laid in the form of a Latin cross. The interior is a single large space roofed by a wooden barrel-vault instead of a gothic-style ceiling. Neither the nave nor the transepts have aisles. It is currently painted in white, with blue details, like the exterior. The west front has three towers: a central octagonal tower capped by a dome flanked by two smaller towers.

The Altar and the domed ceiling

A significant segment of the Eurasian community in Singapore in the early days were baptised and married here. It was known as the “Eurasian Church”, with successive generations of families such as the de Costas, the d’Cottas, the de Souzas, the de Mellos, the Deskers, the Fernandezes, the Gomeses, the Josephs, the Pereiras, the Pintos, the Tessensohns and many more, among its parishioners.

Looking towards the entrance to the Church.

What I appreciated about the church was the decorative Portuguese terracotta tiles that formed its floor. The church has been closed for five years while it was fully renovated and recently reopened in June 2022. This panoramic image shows the newly restored church and the decorative floor tiles.

To maintain the Portuguese character of the church, the Bishop of Macau continued to post priests to the church until 31 December 1999, when the rector of the church, Father Benito de Sousa, ended his term and the Bishop of Macau had decided to stop sending missionaries to the church. So, the last link between Saint Joseph’s Church and the Portuguese Mission was severed.

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Batavia – Gereja Sion (The Portuguese Church)

Detail from this 1780 map of Batavia shows a Church labelled Jassen Kerk (top left) outside the walls of Batavia.

The Gereja Sion, built around 1693, is the oldest building in Jakarta that is still used for its original purpose and the Church’s massive columns and walls have allowed it to stand for over three hundred years. The site of the original church was built outside the walls of Batavia for the so-called black Portuguese. These Portuguese mestizos who were a class of  prisoners of war and indentured labourers, who also happened to be Catholic, and were captured after the VOC victories at Malacca and Galle then brought to Batavia. Later known as the Mardijkers after they were given their freedom in 1661 and granted land at Kampung Tugu in North Jakarta.

On Christmas Day I decide to attend the morning service at Jakarta’s oldest standing church, the Gereja Sion, which is also known as the ‘Portuguese Church’. Greeting the worshippers at the massive wooden doors are the elders of the church, who call me an Orang Belanda, meaning a Dutchman but now used in Indonesia as a generic term for a white person of any nationality. The worshippers were a mixture of the community but are predominantly Batak Christians from North Sumatra and Chinese Christians from Kota. 

Gereja Sion003
The Portuguese Church, J.W.Heydt, 1739
Gereja Sion over 314 years old

In the Church grounds is a very elaborate bronze grave marker of a former VOC Governor-General, Henrick Zwaardecroon

The gravestone of VOC Governor-General Henrick Zwaardecroon

The arched roof of the church is supported by six huge white columns rising from the basalt floor and surmounted by solid teak beams. Hanging from the ceiling are four huge brass chandeliers adorned with emblems of the Dutch East India Company. Around the walls are numerous Dutch memorial plaques and I quickly realise that it is a Dutch church.

Gereja Sion004
Interior of the ‘Portuguese Church’, J.C.Rappard, 1888
Interior of the Church as it is today
‘Gereja Portugis’ J.C.Rappard 1888

The original Portuguese church burnt down in 1628 and the only reason it is known as the ‘Portuguese Church’ today is because of its location on the former site of a church built outside the main walls of Batavia for the Portuguese community. A wooden plaque in the presbytery describes the foundation of the current church:

The first stone of this Church was laid on 19th October 1693 by the youth Pieter van Hoorn and it has been built at the orders of the Honourable Government of these countries under the rule of the Church-wardens the honourable Joan van Hoorn, Director General and the Honourable Joan Lammertse Radde, Vice President of the aldermen of this town.

Gereja Sion008

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Joseph Conrad, a voyage to Mauritius

In 1888 the barque Otago was commissioned to sail to Mauritius with general cargo and return with a cargo of sugar. As captain of the Otago, Joseph Conrad sought the permission of the owners to take the more difficult, but more direct route to Mauritius by sailing north from Sydney through the Torres Strait, rather than trying to beat west in the southern ocean against the prevailing winds.

The Otago in heavy seas – State Library of Queensland

As he later wrote in Last Essays:

All of a sudden, all the deep-lying historic sense of the exploring ventures in the Pacific surged to the surface of my being. Almost without reflection I sat down and wrote a letter to my owners suggesting that, instead of the usual southern route, I should take the ship to Mauritius by way of the Torres Strait. I ought to have received a severe rap on the knuckles, if only for wasting their time in submitting such an unheard of proposition.

Conrad never expected the owners to agree to his suggestion, but to his great surprise they raised no objection. An additional insurance premium had to be paid for that route but it would also save time at sea. He left Sydney in a terrible south-easterly gale to the great dismay of the pilot and the tug-master who guided the Otago out of the harbour. By choosing to sail through the Torres Strait, Conrad was choosing to sail in the wake of the historic voyages of exploration made by Luis Vaz de Torres in 1606 and Lieutenant James Cook in 1770, as well as the voyage of desperation made by Captain William Bligh after the mutiny on the Bounty in 1789. He recalls the voyage with considerable pride:

It was not without a certain emotion that commanding very likely the first, and certainly the last, merchant ship that carried a cargo that way – from Sydney to Mauritius – I put her head at daybreak for Bligh’s Entrance, and packed on her every bit of canvas she could carry. Windswept, sunlit empty waters were all around me, half-veiled by a brilliant haze.

Conrad carefully navigated the Otago through the reefs, tides, currents and shallows of the Torres Strait before exiting into the Arafura Sea. With favourable south-east trade winds they reached Mauritius in 54 days where he unloaded his cargo. The island, renowned for the scenery of its central mountains and tropical forests, was known as ‘The Pearl of the Ocean’. Port Louis had a lazy, unhurried French colonial charm and was known for its beauty and the ethnic diversity of its Indo-Mauritian and Creole population.

Conrad enjoyed his time in Port Louis and especially the opportunity to mix with a French-speaking society. His excellent French and perfect manners opened all the local salons to him and he became a frequent guest of the Renouf family. He joined them for tea parties, dinners and carriage rides down the palm-lined avenues of the Jardin des Pamplemousses. For Conrad, who had lived for years without family ties, the Renouf residence and the Renouf family would have been like the home he never had.

A Portrait of Maud Coats by John Singer Sargent

He seems to have fallen in love with the charming and beautiful 26 year-old Eugénie Renouf and in his book The Planter of Malanta he writes of a young lady who could possibly be a memory of his lost love, the beautiful Eugénie:

That young lady came and sat down by me.  She said: ‘Are you French, Mr. Renouard?’” He breathed a whiff of perfume of which he said nothing either — of some perfume he did not know.  Her voice was low and distinct.  Her shoulders and her bare arms gleamed with an extraordinary splendor, and when she advanced her head into the light he saw the admirable contour of the face, the straight fine nose with delicate nostrils, the exquisite crimson brushstroke of the lips on this oval without colour. 

The expression of the eyes was lost in a shadowy mysterious play of jet and silver, stirring under the red coppery gold of the hair as though she had been a being made of ivory and precious metals changed into living tissue.

There must have been a mutual feeling between them and before leaving Port Louis a love struck Conrad asked the eldest of the Renouf brothers for the hand in marriage of Eugénie. Obviously the family did not regard a sea-captain as a suitable match and he was told she was already engaged to marry her cousin, a fact which had not been mentioned by Eugénie in their private conversations. Hurt and heartbroken by this rebuff, Conrad did not pay a farewell visit to the family but sent a polite letter to Gabriel Renouf, saying he would never return to Mauritius and adding that on the day of her wedding his thoughts would be with the couple.

The Otago then sailed for Melbourne and Sydney with her cargo of sugar and a few short trips from Sydney to Adelaide to load wheat followed. When the owners requested that Conrad continue in the sugar trade and make a second voyage to Mauritius, he refused to return and signed off from the Otago in March 1889.

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