Jan Poortenaar – An Artist in Java

When first we conceived the plan of spending an undefined period in that “Somewhere East of Suez” , where the tropical East stretches an arm of land three thousand miles long towards Australia, we did it with the light-hearted cheerfulness of enthusiasts. We loved travel and here were strange sights and stranger peoples, other skies, other men, other manners; we loved the arts, and here we could practise music and painting and literature, my wife, Geertruida van Vladeracken, giving concerts as we went. I filling sketch-books, and both of us concocting this book of our impressions. We should be brought in touch, moreover, with the surviving native art of these vast islands, and in particular with the exquisite theatre art of the Wayang and of the Court dancing which had already attracted the attention of European theatre lovers by its tradition of exotic beauty. So it was to be an art journey through the Eastern Tropics, a quest of beauty and interest, with some little air of the Troubadour about it; for had we not songs for sale?

Jan Poortenaar – An Artist in Java

This little known book was the outcome of a leisurely journey made by a Dutch artist and his wife through Indonesia – then the Dutch East Indies – in the 1920’s. Jan Poortenaar travelled extensively in Indonesia with his wife Geertruida van Vladeracken who performed as a singer/reciter and was accompanied by Poortenaar on piano.

The Haughty Durmagati (Javanese Actor)

In Solo they were invited to the court of H.R.H. the Soesoekan Pakoe Boewono X, and in Yogya to the court of H.R.H. the Sultan Hamengkoeboewono VIII. There they had the opportunity to see the noble Serimpi dancers and Wayang players, which Poortenaar rendered in colourful oils and watercolours. 

The King of Awangga (Javanese Actor)

They spent most of their time in Java but also visited Madura, Bali, Sulawesi, Kalimantan and Sumatra. Jan Poortenaar was clearly a skilled artist who could provide with pencil and brush, a decorative interpretation of a beautiful country with a rich artistic life such as Indonesia. There are included in the book fifty-five of his sketches and paintings of all parts of Indonesia.

A Javanese Village

The Indonesian landscape inspired Poortenaar to execute a major series of large etchings related to the many places they visited. Poortenaar and his wife recorded their journeys throughout Indonesia in Een kunstreis in de Tropen, later translated as ‘An artist in Java, and other Islands of Indonesia’. His writing was intensely visual in its descriptions, as only an artist would make it; and through his highly placed introductions, he could give a reader glimpses into Javanese life rarely observed by the casual visitor.

Two Javanese

At another level, the book is also interesting because of its observant portrayal of the Dutch social life of the period, with its extremes of formal and informal behaviour. Thus this is an unusual book, which is other than an art book, other than a travel book, and other than a diary.

Portrait of a Javanese Boy

It is notable that they also travelled to the outer islands of Sulawesi, Kalimantan and Sumatra. This was because the Artist’s wife Geertruida van Vladeracken was performing as part of a concert tour, which was the basis of their journey, and she was also part author, part translator, and certainly inspirer of this book.


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Book Review from the Joseph Conrad Society of America

The following is an extract from a book review in Joseph Conrad Today a publication of the Joseph Conrad Society of America.

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

… Burnet’s book is not literary-critical, and it makes no pretence to being so. His confident and wide-ranging contextual account, combined effectively with his relating of the plots and features of the Borneo novels themselves, provides a powerful sense of the lived reality through which Conrad passed and on which he drew. This enables the reader to gain a reliable grasp of the enormous achievement of Conrad’s Malay fiction in its systematic engagement with a culture not his own but of significance to at least “all of Europe”—like Kurtz—for its interpretation of historical roots in a world that colonialism relentlessly and cruelly changed, and for its portrayal of the human condition through the characters that Conrad portrays inhabiting such a world. Burnet quotes the well-known comment by Henry James to Conrad in 1906 that: “No one has known—for intellectual use—the things you know, and you have, as the artist of the whole matter, an authority that no one has approached” . “The whole matter” is a phrase potent in its conciseness and significance, and Burnet’s book skillfully provides an insight into part of the whole matter regarding the Archipelago that often remains obscure.

Andrew Francis

Andrew Francis received his PhD from the University of Cambridge in 2010. He has published in The Conradian and contributed to The New Cambridge Companion to Joseph Conrad. His book entitled Culture and Commerce in Conrad’s Asian Fiction was published in 2015.

To read the full book review on my website then please follow the link below:


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Pulau Kumba is erupting! – Part 2

In 1849 the British naval ship, HMS Maeander, captained by Henry Keppel sailed from Singapore to Batavia (Jakarta) then to Australia, New Zealand and across to the Pacific coast of the United States.

HMS Maeander by Oswald Brierly

Pulau Kumba is located in the Flores Sea of Eastern Indonesia and lies north of the island of Lembata. The island must be sitting over a hot spot in the earth’s mantle as it seems to have been actively erupting over many years. While sailing the Indonesian archipelago HMS Maeander encountered what they called Comba Island and Oswald Brierly produced this dramatic painting.

HMS Maeander at Comba Island,1849, Oswald Brierly
From ‘A visit to the Indian Archipelago’ by Captain Henry Keppel.

The sailing ship Vega stopped at Pulau Kumba in 2015 and its captain Shane Granger took this beautiful photograph of the island, its still active volcano and an unusual smoke ring.

Pulau Kumba an active volcanic island in the Flores Sea
The location of Pulau Kumba

We visited there with the Ombak Putih in 2016 but the eruption was not quite as spectacular.

Pulau Kumba is erupting


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Joseph Conrad’s EASTERN VOYAGES – Book Review by Mark Heyward

The title caught my eye immediately: Joseph Conrad’s Eastern Voyages, Tales of Singapore and an East Borneo River. The cover, with its image of sailing ships and steamships in Singapore whet my appetite for a bookish journey back to some of my favourite haunts in Indonesia and Southeast Asia.

Ian Burnet’s latest offering follows a now familiar pattern. His no-nonsense prose draws on thorough research and a deep knowledge of Indonesia. But it is his first-hand experience of living, working and travelling in the Indonesian archipelago that brings the narrative to life. A natural storyteller, Burnet writes with a personal touch, as if he is giving a talk on one of his guided trips to Eastern Indonesia. The stories, the cultures and characters of the region are introduced through anecdotes, vignettes and pen portraits which illustrate the broader sweep of history.

Burnet’s first six books explore the history of European exploration and colonization of the region (Spice Islands, East Indies), and its cultures and geography (Archipelago, Where Australia Collides with Asia, The Tasman Map). The new book looks deep into the late colonial era through the lens of Joseph Conrad’s novels. This is a clever device, enabling Burnet to celebrate the novelist and his works, while at the same time exploring this remarkable region in its heyday of travel and commerce at the end of the nineteenth century. It is a universal yet personal tale, told through the intimate stories of individuals, their ambitions and shifting alliances, their loves and hates, and ultimately flawed humanity set against the muddy rivers, the open oceans and the bustling seaports of the time. And all of this resonates with contemporary Southeast Asia. Somehow the characters seem just as real and relevant today as a hundred years ago.

Born to Polish parents in Eastern Europe in 1857, Josef Teodor Konrad Korzenioswki, reinvented himself as Joseph Conrad and joined the British Merchant Marine in 1878, becoming a British citizen in 1886. After a series of voyages to Singapore, Sydney and various ports in what is now Indonesia and Southeast Asia, Conrad received his first and only command, as Captain of the Otago in 1888.

The Otago in heavy seas. State Library of Queensland.

This was the high period of tall ships, when three-masted clippers and windjammers crisscrossed the globe, carrying goods back and forth from Europe to the new worlds of Southeast Asia and shiploads of emigrants to the colonies in the south. But, as Burnet’s book describes, sail was already giving way to steam. The tall ships jostled for position in crowded eastern ports with sampans, junks, bumboats, Bugis schooners and the new steel steamers with their smokestacks, oil slicks and plumes of coal smoke smudging tropical skies.

Conrad’s career as a writer began in 1889. Over the next thirty years he published fourteen books and he is recognized as one of Britain’s greatest novelists. The barque he commanded, the Otago, now lies forgotten in shallow water on the shores of the Derwent River, where I live in Tasmania, her rusting spine a sad memorial to the great age of sail. But Conrad’s books remain to tell the story of that remarkable period.

In An Outcast of the Islands, Conrad laments the passing of the age of sail.

Like a beautiful and unscrupulous woman, the sea of the past was glorious in its smiles, irresistible in its anger, capricious, enticing, illogical, irresponsible; a thing to love, a thing to fear. It cast a spell, it gave joy, it lulled gently into boundless faith; then with quick and causeless anger it killed. But its cruelty was redeemed by the charm of its inscrutable mystery, by the immensity of its promise, by the supreme witchery of its possible favour. Strong men with childlike hearts were faithful to it, were content to live by its grace—to die by its will….

Then a great pall of smoke sent out by countless steam-boats was spread over the restless mirror of the Infinite. The hand of the engineer tore down the veil of the terrible beauty in order that greedy and faithless landlubbers might pocket dividends. The mystery was destroyed. Like all mysteries, it lived only in the hearts of its worshippers. The hearts changed; the men changed. The once loving and devoted servants went out armed with fire and iron, and conquering the fear of their own hearts became a calculating crowd of cold and exacting masters. The sea of the past was an incomparably beautiful mistress, with inscrutable face, with cruel and promising eyes. The sea of to-day is 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 of its promise.

I have always harboured a love of the sea, a willing victim to the romance of sail. Growing up in the remote harbour town of Hobart, how could one not grow to love the sea and her many moods? Living and working for thirty years in Jakarta, Singapore, Makassar and Kalimantan, on the east coast of Borneo, has deepened that love. It is the sea and the vessels who sailed upon her that connect us all, historically linking my hometown of Hobart to the great ports of Southeast Asia and the remote jungle rivers of Borneo. So, Conrad’s fictionalised experiences in Singapore, Kalimantan and Southeast Asia have long intrigued me – and Burnet’s book resonates.

The Vidar in Macassar Harbour. J.C.Rappard

The vibrant bustling jumble of cultures, and the mercantile seafaring world that Conrad conjures up provide a seductive setting for the personal narratives of his novels. In Joseph Conrad’s Eastern Voyages, Tales of Singapore and an East Borneo River, Ian Burnet takes the reader back to that time at the tail end of the 19th Century, when adventurers and opportunists from the various European nations rubbed shoulders, struggling to gain a commercial edge over the Chinese, the Arabs and coastal Malays who traded with the indigenous upriver Dayaks of Borneo. Burnet’s book brings that world back, enlisting Conrad’s prose from Youth to recreate that first taste of Asia that many of us from the ‘West’ have felt.

Suddenly a puff of wind, a puff faint and tepid and laden with strange odours of blossoms, of aromatic wood, comes out of the still night – the first sigh of the East in my face … It was impalpable and enslaving, like a charm, like a whispered promise of mysterious delight.

Burnet’s book follows Joseph Conrad from his early life through to his seafaring years and his eventual retirement to England. He takes us through Conrad’s novels, and the various characters that inhabit them, the books ordered according to the sequence of events they depict from the novelist’s life experience, rather than the year each was published. The text is sprinkled with illustrations from the period, which help to establish the context.

Ian Burnet has captured something of Conrad’s world and something of his own love of Indonesia and the region in Joseph Conrad’s Eastern Voyages. It is a great summer read, and, for me, an enticement – as if I needed one – to escape the confines of my covid exile and return to the islands; to once again taste the sigh of the East in my face.

Mark Heyward

Mark Heyward is an Australian educator who has worked for over 30 years in Indonesia. He has published numerous articles for magazines and national papers in Indonesia and Australia on education, culture, literature, travel and the arts. His book, Crazy Little Heaven, an Indonesian Journey, is now in its second edition in both English and Indonesian.

3rd January, 2022.


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A French Voyage to the Spice Islands 1838

Dutch vessels in Ambon Bay. Louis Le Breton

From 1837 to 1840 the French vessels Astrolabe and Zellee commanded by Dumont d’Urville conducted a scientific expedition around the Pacific including a visit to the Moluccan Islands of Ternate, Ambon, Banda and Ceram. The official ship’s artist had died during the voyage and the Assistant Surgeon, Louis Le Breton had taken over as the ship’s artist. Whatever his skills as a doctor, his artistic skills are remarkable and self-evident from these sketches, paintings and lithographs that he produced.

The Strait in Ternate. Louis Le Breton

In Ternate, enterprising merchants brought out to the ship a large number of stuffed Birds of Paradise. There was a glut of birds because no European ship had called there for months and no fewer than four hundred of these birds changed hands.

The Sultan Mosque in Ternate. Louis Le Breton

After a banquet at the Dutch Residency they attended a reception in their honour by the Sultan of Ternate. The evening began with tea, served in exquisite china the Sultan had received from the Dutch Royal Family. All around the huge whitewashed reception room were luxurious gifts from Holland, which the Sultan showed off with great pride and the evening concluded with traditional dances.

Anchored off Fort Victoria in Ambon Bay. Louis Le Breton

After an uneventful four day voyage from Ternate they anchored off Fort Victoria in Ambon. During their twelve days here, the ships rigging were checked and repaired, water and provisions were replenished and for the officers there were numerous invitations to lunches, dinners and receptions.

Collecting fresh water from a stream in Ambon. Louis Le Breton
The river at Batu Merah in Ambon. Louis le Breton

From Ambon they sailed to the Banda Islands a visit which was marked by the same generous hospitality. D’Urville went with the Dutch Governor to inspect the nutmeg plantations on the island of Lontar and some of the crew climbed the Gunung Api volcano.

Gunung Api and ships in the strait of Banda. Louis Le Breton

From Banda they sailed towards Ceram, the village of Warrou, and then towards the New Guinea coast and the Torres Strait.

The village of Warrou on Ceram. Louis Le Breton
A Mosque in the village of Warrou on Ceram. Louis Le Breton


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The Tasman Map – IMCOS Book Review


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The Wallace Line – Nature’s Great Divide – ABC TV November 30 at 9:30pm

The Orang Hutan in Borneo

Australia Remastered returns to ABC in a 3 part series billed as Australia Remastered: Nature’s Great Divide.

Australia and Asia are divided by a narrow strait that separates the Indonesian islands of Bali and Lombok. Known as the Wallace line, it’s one of the greatest divides in nature. Safe behind this barrier, life in Australia has evolved in isolation, creating species found nowhere else on earth.

A Separate Realm:

While elephants and tigers patrol the lush forests of South East Asia, on the Australian side of the Wallace Line, kangaroos and giant lizards roam across vast plains. Safe from large predators, marsupials and strange monotremes have adapted to survive in Australia’s harsh landscape. This is the story of how Nature’s Great Divide has protected Australia’s wild world, allowing life to evolve in parallel, and creating a separate and unique wild realm.

9:30pm Tuesday November 30 on ABC.

The Komodo Dragon – the last of the Australian megafauna on Komodo Island

Where Australia Collides with Asia

This book follows the epic voyages of natural history of Continent Australia, Joseph Banks, Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace.

The voyage of Continent Australia after it breaks away from Antarctica 50 million years ago with its raft of Gondwanaland flora and fauna and begins its journey north towards the equator.

The voyage of Joseph Banks on the Endeavour who with Daniel Solander became the first trained naturalists to describe the unique flora and fauna of Continent Australia that had evolved during its 30 million years of isolation.

The voyage of Charles Darwin on the Beagle, who after his observations in South America and the Galapagos Islands, sat on the banks of the Coxs River in New South Wales and tried to rationalize his belief in the idea of biblical creation and understand the origin of species.

The voyage of Alfred Russel Wallace, who realized that the Lombok Strait in Indonesia represents the biogeographical boundary between the fauna of Asia and those of Australasia. It was tectonic plate movement that brought these disparate worlds together and it was Alfred Russel Wallace’s ‘Letter from Ternate’ that forced Charles Darwin to finally publish his landmark work ‘On the Origin of Species’.


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Joseph Conrad’s EASTERN VOYAGES at the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival

I was recently invited to appear at the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival. Moderated by Virania Munaf the session has now been posted on YouTube and to view please follow this link:


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Maps of the Pacific – the Tasman Map remastered

The remastered Tasman Map is now on view at the Maps of the Pacific exhibition which which is being held at the NSW State Library until April 2022. More than 12 months of conservation work has gone into preparing the Mitchell Library’s Tasman Map for its first public outing in 10 years.

Conservator Dana Kahabka consulted international experts and developed an eco-friendly solvent to remove varnish without damaging the map. The 380-hour operation used 6000 cotton swabs, 2400 pieces of abaca tissue and three litres of solvent and is the first time anything like this has been attempted by the Library’s conservation team.

Conservator Dana Kahabka working on the Tasman Map, photo by Joy Lai, (Mitchell Library)

It is believed that Prince Roland Bonaparte, the great-nephew of Napoleon I, had the map varnished and framed after buying it at auction in 1891, and it was in this condition that it arrived at the library in 1933.

The 1644 Tasman Map as received from Princess Marie Bonaparte in 1933 (Mitchell Library)

The work revealed previously obscured details and subtle markings on the seventeenth-century manuscript chart which is was compiled in Batavia in late 1644 or early 1645, as a display map for the Directors of the Amsterdam Chamber of the United Dutch East India Company (VOC).

Following the conservation work the chart was rescanned by the digitisation team.  Joy Lai the Library’s Imaging Specialist, set up strobe lighting in our studio to ensure even illumination across the object.  The chart was digitised in six frames using a high-resolution medium format camera, ensuring maximum colour accuracy was captured across its surface texture and fine detail.   Joy then combined these files to produce a single, master image, approximately 1 gigabyte, 15000 pixels long by 12500 pixels high. This new preservation master reveals the unvarnished surface, providing an opportunity to deep zoom into the intricate features of cartouche and coastlines. 

Detail of the Tasman Map before and after the treatment.

Detail of the Tasman Map before treatment
Detail of the Tasman Map after treatment

The remastered Tasman Map is now on view at the wonderful Maps of the Pacific exhibition which which is being held at the NSW State Library until April 2022.

Maps of the Pacific – Curators Maggie Patton and Alice Tonkinson

Over a period of only forty years from 1606 to 1644 and based on sixteen separate discoveries the first map of Australia took shape. The Tasman Map shows a recognisable outline of the north, west and south coasts of Australia that was not to change for another 125 years until the British explorer James Cook chartered the east coast of Australia. It was in 1925 and 1933 that the Mitchell Library in Sydney, Australia, acquired both the Tasman Huydecoper Journal and the Tasman Bonaparte Map which are icons of both Dutch and Australian History.

The story of the Tasman Map and how the library managed to acquire these treasures of Dutch exploration and cartography are told in the book The Tasman Map which is available for purchase in the Library Bookshop.


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Oxford in Asia paperbacks

First published in 1930 by Jonathan Cape and reissued by Oxford in Asia in 1982. Painting by Walter Spies, 1939

‘Oxford in Asia’ paperbacks present a wide range of books on South-East Asia. Many of these are reissues which were widely acclaimed when first published, while others were overlooked because of the circumstances of their publication and have long been unavailable.

These works include a rich field of literature on the history and culture of South-East Asia and old books of travels. Many of these works are now out of print and only available with difficulty and at great expense. Because of continuing demand from librarians, scholars, and students for much of this literature, since the 1960’s Oxford University Press has been reissuing the most important works on South-East Asia, with the addition of an Introduction written by a specialist.

‘Images of Asia’ offers a rnge of titles covering aspects of life and culture in South-East Asia. Each book in the series combines an introductory text, written for the non-specialist reader, with extensive illustrations both in colour and black and white. ‘Images of Asia’ therefore provides a means of acquiring a deeper understanding and appreciation of the region in all its diversity.

Between the 1960’s and the mid 1990’s Oxford published more than 80 ‘Oxford in Asia’ titles but the series has now been discontinued. With their white covers and often with a book image on the spine they are easily recognised and I have been collecting them for more than twenty years in second-hand bookshops in Sydney, Melbourne, Perth, Bali, Jakarta, Singapore and Amsterdam. I am sure there are more to be found out there and will continue the search.


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