The Great World
In March, 1940, a group of thirteen-year-old Javanese boys emerged from the playground of their school in Jogjakarta. They were rounded up by Japanese soldiers, sealed in a cargo train without anything to eat or drink, and taken to Batavia, where they were added to eight thousand other Indonesians. They were then put on two ships bound for Singapore. One was sunk by a torpedo, four thousand drowned. The rest got off in Sumatra, where they were put to work on a railway line. But first the Japanese guards gave them a little demonstration. Eight boys were ordered to lift up a track. When this proved impossible, the Japanese decreased their number, until there were only four. When they, too, failed to lift the track, they were lined up and beheaded. “This,” said the Japanese commander, “is what happens to lazy workers.”
It is but one story out of many, one story to illustrate the brutal statistics: more than 300,000 Indonesians were sent overseas to work for the Japanese as so-called romusha, or warrior-workers; barely 70,000 returned alive. Of the 120,000 on Sumatra, 23,000 survived, and of the 31,700 sent to British Borneo, 2,500 came back. Asian slaves were treated so badly, that even the Western POWs working on the Burma railroad, who were used to a thing or two, were horrified.
But it is, as Monsieur Le Pen might put it, a mere detail of the war, which has escaped the attention of most people in the West. The suffering of British, American, Dutch, and Australian prisoners is of course well known. Who can forget the sight of Alec Guinness stiffening his upper lip in the sun-baked punishment hut in The Bridge on the River Kwai? Or the harrowing drawings of emaciated men in loincloths made by Australian and British artists in captivity. The suffering of Indonesians, Malayans, or Chinese, however, fails to strike quite the same chord in most European hearts. They are too far removed from our lives. And the idea of a Malay slave worker might appear to be less incongruous, and less degrading, than a full-blooded Brit or American reduced to that level. Indeed it might seem almost natural. After all, as they used to say at the planters’ club, these people are used to it. They don’t feel pain as we do. Life in the East is cheap. And so on.
There is a passage in David Malouf’s superb new novel that sums up what I mean. His two main characters, an Australian pair called Digger and Vic, are captured by the Japanese in Singapore and put to work on the death railroad in Thailand. Digger watches the Asian road gangs, and
He thought of the look on that fellow’s face who had told him once, “They wanna make coolies of us”: the savage indignation of it, at the violation of all that was natural in the world, their unquestionable superiority as white men; but there was also the age-old fear in…
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.