Sumatra Johnny: Personal Memories Of A Sea Voyage To Palembang From Staten Island (Part 2)

Route: Dakar – Jeddah

Saturday, 7 June

Position: North Atlantic off Liberia

Weather: warm and humid, 30 degrees Celcius (85˚ Fahrenheit)

Sea: very slight


Get up after an adventurous and epic evening in Dakar [see above]. Work well [with Alatas on my Dutch] during the morning. [We have] a discussion about French colonial possessions and the [current] state of Senegal. Like Europe before the [French] Revolution? I am on deck to see a large pod of dolphins (ikan lumba-lumba) playing around the boat. One is a very bad jumper and always falls on his side! Very low swell and surface of the sea hardly ruffled by the wind. [African] swallows playing on the wake of the ship so must be near land. Everyone seems slightly hung over after Dakar and the Chief Electrician especially after a contretemps with the captain [who swears at him in Dutch]: ‘hoe je mond, God verdommen! [Shut up! God damn you]’. Decides to eat by himself – nasi goreng [fried rice]. There are long stories about various people’s exploits [in the bars and brothels of Dakar], especially David [a crew member] who had been so drunk at the harbour gates [on our return]. I work [on deck] during the afternoon. Talk to the purser about marijuana and drunkenness as prevalent aspects of a seaman’s life. Marijuana is roundly condemned by the purser as likely to lead to trouble with the authorities: [cites] Hans [one of the crew members] who was trailed by the FBI during his time in New York [to check he was not peddling drugs]. Take tea in the crew mess and there is much laughter about orang hitam (‘blacks’) and trouble with the kafir (unbelievers). [Stories of Dakar] will obviously regale people for some time to come, at least until our next stop in Jeddah.

During the evening, talk with the third engineer and one of the sea cadets [as well as] the chief electrician and second quartermaster in my cabin. But I get very tired of talking so have to make up an excuse to make an exit. The chief electrician attacks my motives for going to Java: he is probably right and they are in fact only selfish and will not be of much use to Indonesia in her present condition. [I am] very tired, so to bed early. Thinking a lot about Stephanie and the twenty-five more days before I receive [my next] letter from her.  I hope the time goes quickly: I have so much to do before [I get to] Djakarta. I am still wondering whether I should stay for one year or just a month to five weeks. It is a difficult decision. I think now that I am out [there], one year would be best.


Route: Dakar – Jeddah

Monday, 8 June

Position: off the coast of West Africa

Weather: fine and sunny around 31 degrees Celsius, equator passed at midnight

Sea: moderate to slight



Diary entry entitled: “Peter as Communist menace number One”


This day must remain memorable for my interview with the captain (a misogynist Minangkabau) which went rather as follows.

After dinner, which was very good – steak, potatoes and vegetables, of which I ate a considerable amount, I wandered down to the officers’ mess to watch the football. Rather boring [match] really, but quite pleasant to sit [under] one of the air-conditioners and let one’s mind wander amongst the shouts and concentration of the players. Agus wandered in [like] a black shadow in his dark-blue shirt. [He] smiled in my direction, but I felt uncomfortable as I did not know whether to go over to him and talk or whether this would be regarded as non-U by the officers. Discretion is the better part of valour I thought, so I went outside on deck to smoke a cigarette. It was a beautiful evening with a warm tropical breeze, slight white caps on the waves and the sunset tinting the clouds a warm pink. The [Javanese] chief engineer appeared and we started talking about the disgraceful condition of the metalwork on the aft deck. I had always felt slightly shy about speaking to him before, but now I really feel he is a very charming and ingenuous person. We have had many long talks about Djogja [Yogyakarta] and the Javanese. Indeed, if he is at all representative of the Javanese people then I feel sure that my time in Java will be tremendously interesting and pleasant. The laundry man [then] appeared on the deck below and looked up with a half-amused expression. I was about to ask him how things were going when a white-clad figure came slopping out of the door with a slightly hurried step.

We have had many long talks about Djogja [Yogyakarta] and the Javanese. Indeed, if he is at all representative of the Javanese people then I feel sure that my time in Java will be tremendously interesting and pleasant.

“Peter, the captain wants to see you.”

Why me? I thought. The captain [a taciturn man] had never addressed a word to me since I had boarded the ship at Staten Island and indeed I had found his cold stare slightly perplexing as if I was guilty of some heinous crime which only he knew the truth about. Only that morning before lunch I had wandered up to the bridge in my swimming trunks and old sun hat to be suddenly confronted by the captain himself. He looked coldly at me and I could hardly splutter out a ‘good morning [selamat pagi]’. Instead, I effaced myself and went to lean over the side of the ship at the back of the bridge area.

Well, anyway, so now the captain wanted to see me!

Anticipation, gnawing questions and doubts much as I felt before seeing old Podge [Brodhurst, my house master in Kingsgate House/Beloes] at Winchester [College]. Like a lettre de cachet [Royal judicial orders in pre-1789 France permitting immediate arrest and imprisonment of someone – usually a family member – one wishes to put behind bars indefinitely], the terrible news was brought: “Housemaster wants to see you, Carey!”

Fellow students turn and gaze indifferently out of their ‘Toyes [cubby-hole desks or carrols]: “Carey’s in for a rocket” they smirk. The tumbrel [vehicle for carrying condemned prisoners during the French Revolution] rolls down to the guillotine. Authority as a group of black-clothed avocats and public prosecutors.

I fumble slightly before I reach the door of the captain’s cabin, hurriedly stuffing a half-finished cigarette in my breast pocket. The steward waves me in impatiently: ‘masuk, masuk!’ Look around at the captain’s cabin – green rug; pictures of Mecca on the wall and a faint smell of orange juice.

“Ah yes, sit down [silahkan duduk]’

Silky voice from the sofa, a smooth face with thinning hair smoothed back and small eyes fixed too close to the bridge of the nose with a slightly pouting expression of the mouth. General appearance very suave. [The captain] comes straight to the point:

“Ahahm, when you were in America, did you ever take part in what do they call it there  – Students for a Democratic Society?’

A short – slightly nervous – laugh accompanies this opening salvo.

‘Oh, so that’s it’, I thought, ‘politics – easy’. Thank God it was not about the Dakar Affair [when we all got so drunk in bars and brothels]. But it was annoying though. Who told the captain about my political views? What concern are they to him? Anyway, I decide to adopt an attitude of composure, concern, mild surprise and serious attention.

If I had been an American [US] citizen, maybe I would have [joined the Students for a Democratic Society movement]’ ….. I know what they want – or at least some of the things they are demanding such as an end to the war in Vietnam.

‘No, actually one of my principles is that a foreigner should not get involved in the domestic politics of another country. But, if I had been an American [US] citizen, maybe I would have [joined the Students for a Democratic Society movement]’.

No reaction, hardly a nod of the head even to indicate that I had been understood. [The captain then launched] straight into a discussion about America.

‘There is something wrong with America – a lack of spiritual values. The youth are dismayed, but they don’t know what they want!’

I know what they want – or at least some of the things they are demanding such as an end to the war in Vietnam, and a complete restructuring of economic opportunities to give Black African Americans a fair share, an end to the military-industrial domination of government posts, greater control of Universities and curricula [the Kent State shootings which killed four students and wounded nine others had just occurred on 4 May 1970, the very month I sailed from New York].

Oh well, this not the time to go into all that here, he would not understand and indeed would not want to understand. ‘La Royale [the old nickname for the ever so royalist French navy during the post-Revolutionary era]’, I thought. Conservatism and royalism, so traditional in the navy – the most reactionary of all the armed forces since the French Revolution. I decide to put forward a non-sequitur.

“Of course, the country’s too big. People feel frustrated. There is not enough direct democracy [and] not enough scope for change!”

Change subject to Bobby Kennedy (JFK’s younger brother who had been assassinated in the Ambassador Hotel, Los Angeles, on 6 June 1968) as I see that the captain has a book about him open on his desk.

“A great shame about Kennedy’s death. [He was] a real hope for the youth of America. Would have matured into a great politician. Also Martin Luther King [assassinated in the same year, 4 April 1968]….”

My sentence was cut short by a slight shrug of the captain’s shoulders.

In Indonesia we have had a terrible time now with the Communists: they stabbed us in the back at Madiun in September 1948 and again in 1965.

“Of course, in Indonesia we have had a terrible time now with the Communists: they stabbed us in the back at Madiun in September 1948 and again in 1965. That man! [Sukarno I presume] gave them far too much influence. The country was about to be taken over by them. Stupid economic policies!”

The captain explained how he had been recalled from London where he was serving as the Indonesian naval attaché because of his criticism of Sukarno. He was content with General Suharto’s ‘New Order’ government:

“Suharto knows what’s good for the people. But those Communists – We still haven’t caught all of them. A veritable witch-hunt is going on – a bad business, the country is controlled by the Army.”

Insinuation here that extreme caution required with political viewpoints. I pretend an attitude of shock and great interest:

“I never realized this … I am just an historian, of course, … no interest or experience in politics. I feel bad about it sometimes – [my] irrelevance, you know!”

“But historians must be interested in politics. When you reach Indonesia, you will know the truth – the truth, that is, about the Gestok (30 September 1965) coup I mean”.

Conversation then changes to my plans for my stay in Djakarta, the role of the UK Embassy and visa issues.

“Of course, I won’t have any difficulty renewing my [visitor’s] visa?”

“No, as long as you don’t make trouble for us! Don’t go joining any student organizations or engage in politics: we don’t want that kind of person in Indonesia!”

The conversation changes again to talk about the captain’s son who is studying in London.

“Of course the captain continues] I am not a narrow Indonesian nationalist, I want my children to have a broad education and see the world!”

A slight silence falls.

“Well, that’s all. You can go now. And try and mix with the others a bit more: bicara sedikit ya [talk a bit more, yes]?”

A close-clipped naval tone of voice; headmaster dismissing you after a beating – “okay, okay, Carey, go away now!”


This was my last entry in my diary – at least what remains of it. But it was certainly not the last of my experiences on the SS Sam Ratulangie. I append below what I said much later about the dramatic denouement of this voyage when I eventually reached Sumatra in early July 1970 and was operated on in Palembang for a burst appendix on 7 July.

The reason this came to pass was as follows: my downfall was the ship’s cook, a middle-aged East Javanese of vast Semar-like proportions who used to lie down for his afternoon for his afternoon siesta on the metal slats of his galley while his jiggery – chopped nuts in palm sugar- cooled in the open baking dishes on the galley table.

The reason this came to pass was as follows: my downfall was the ship’s cook, a middle-aged East Javanese of vast Semar-like proportions who used to lie down for his afternoon for his afternoon siesta on the metal slats of his galley while his jiggery – chopped nuts in palm sugar- cooled in the open baking dishes on the galley table. I used to slip in while he was asleep to stock up on these delicious Javanese sweets, only to discover that by the time I reached Indonesia I had developed acute peritonitis as the indigestible parts of the jaggery became lodged in my appendix (even rounding the Cape of Good Hope in late June I had felt the early pangs of peritonitis coming on and I worried what would happen to me if I fell ill on the high seas).

Luckily I was able to hold out until we sailed through the Sunda Straits in mid-July and received an urgent telex from the Djakarta Lloyd head office in Jakarta telling us not to go direct to Tanjung Priok, but to make first for Teluk Betung (where the second engineer gave me that fantastic Chinese meal) and then Palembang to pick up rubber. We had no ship’s doctor aboard, only a male nurse who had seen service with the Indonesian army during the Mandala Campaign (1961-1963) to regain West Irian (Papua Barat).

When he learnt that I was having stomach pains from my over-indulgence in Teluk Betung, he prescribed a laxative—precisely the wrong diagnosis because no sooner had I taken it than my appendix promptly burst. At the time, we were lying off Palembang in the middle of the Musi River, a picturesque enough spot from which to contemplate this cradle of the Srivijayan empire (shades of Oliver Wolters!), but not one I could enjoy on that morning of our arrival as I lay writhing in agony on my bunk. Dulled with morphine, I was helped down the gangway of the tall vessel to a small passenger lighter with benches under a wooden roof which gave only partial shade. It was a painful journey as the small boat pitched and heaved its passage across the powerful ebb current to the riverside customs shed where a few indifferent officials were eating lunch with their hands from palm-leaf covers.

Eventually I was directed to the Catholic Caritas hospital where a solitary Dutch-trained surgeon looked after over sixty patients. Since he himself had a serious heart condition he didn’t come in every day. Summoned from his home, he agreed to operate for a 150,000 Rupiah fee (USD50—this was 1970 Indonesia) saving my life by extracting a lump of jaggery the size of a compacted blunderbuss ball from my wrecked appendix. But there his medical skills ended. He failed to leave the peritoneal cavity open so the wound could drain, relying instead on powerful Australian manufactured antibiotics to contain the sepsis after he had sown me back up again. Disaster. Within a few days my acute peritonitis had returned and my face had begun to turn green.

Every step around the ward was an agony and I could no longer excrete the food I was given to eat. At the time I was reading Kurt Vonnegut’s Catch22, an appropriate piece of literature given my circumstances, but every page was a purgatory because as I laughed the pains in my stomach grew more unbearable. Had it not been for a good friend from Cornell days, Simon Head, who was waiting for me in Jakarta and flew up to Palembang at his own expense to see what had happened to me, I would have died. Luckily, Simon was not the sort of person who took no for an answer. He was also someone who knew how to use the proverbial “old boy net”—that privileged self-help “guild” of the English public school elite—to great effect (truly the one time in my life when I was thankful for it!).

Son of Lord Head—former British High Commissioner in Malaysia and Nigeria, and a friend of the recently appointed foreign secretary, Sir Alec Douglas Home [in office, 1970-74] —Simon was able to threaten to have his father raise a question in the House of Lords if the then British ambassador in Jakarta, Henry C. Hainworth [in office, 1969-71], did not act. Hainworth was on a visit to Maluku, but he instructed the duty officer in the British Embassy in Jakarta to arrange an evacuation procedure for me. This involved the British military attaché in Jakarta obtaining special clearance with the deputy head of the Indonesian Air Force for a New Zealand Air Force Bristol Freighter transport aircraft to land at Palembang airport with a medical team on board to take me to the RAF hospital at Changi in Singapore, then still a major British military base.

There were some difficult moments as the doctor in charge of the Caritas Hospital seemed reluctant to release me. He clearly saw the arrival of the NZ Air Force team as a direct challenge to his medical competence. But eventually an exit was negotiated and I was taken by stretcher to the awaiting ambulance. I vividly remember the bright orange of the flame trees along the Palembang military runway streak past the windows of the Freighter’s cavernous hold as we picked up speed for take-off. It was a wonderful moment. I knew I was going to live even though ahead of me lay a further operation (which re-opened my original wound and allowed two pints of pus to drain from my stomach) and many more weeks of painful convalescence at Changi and then evacuation via the Princess Alexandra RAF hospital in Wroughton in Wiltshire. I eventually arrived home at my parent’s home in Surrey in early September 1970, two and a half stone lighter and covered in sores from the places where the needles had gone in to administer the antibiotics in Palembang. It was a narrow escape. But my parents were not so lucky. Just two months after I arrived back, in early November, my father died of a massive stroke brought on by the worry of my near death experience in Sumatra. He had just turned sixty. It was a terrible blow from which my mother never really recovered.”


Peter Carey

4 May 2014

Buku Langgar Shop
Peter Carey
Peter Carey, yang lahir di Myanmar 30 April 1948, adalah Fellow Emeritus Trinity College, Oxford, dan Adjunct Profesor FIB-UI (Fakultas Ilmu Pengetahuan Budaya, Universitas Indonesia). Karya yang lahir dari sentuhan tangannya antara lain : Burma: The Challenge of Change in a Divided Society (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1997); The Power of Prophecy; Prince Dipanagara and the End of an Old Order in Java, 1785-1855. Leiden: KITLV Press, 2007 (terjemahan dalam Bahasa Indonesia, Kuasa Ramalan; Pangeran Diponegoro dan Akhir Tatanan Lama di Jawa, 1785-1855. Jakarta: Kepustakaan Populer Gramedia, 2012); The British in Java, 1811-1816. A Javanese Account. Oxford: OUP Press, 1992. Terjemahan Inggris di Jawa. Jakarta: PBK, 2017). Kemudian beberapa ulasan mengenai dirinya antara lain : buku Urip iku Urub; 40 Tahun Sarjana Lelono di Negara Leluhur. Tulisan yang dipersembahkan kepada Peter Carey untuk HUT ke-70. FX Domini BB Hera (peny.). Jakarta: PBK, Oktober 2018.