We took an early interest in what is now Indonesia. Drake, for instance, on a round-the-world voyage came home via Java, Sulawesi and the Moluccas (Maluku Islands). Of the European powers, it was the Portuguese first, and then more extensively and successfully the Dutch, who became deeply involved in this part of the world.
Rivalry between the Dutch and ourselves over this area was at times extremely bitter. In the notorious and murky Amboyna Affair, some East India Company men were executed by a Dutch East India court on the charge of conspiring to seize the Dutch-held fortress at Amboyna, now called Ambon. This became a source of continuing English anger towards Holland and played a part in the wars between England and Holland. In 1654, Cromwell forced the Dutch to pay financial compensation to the victims’ descendants and give us Manhattan as well. In 1673, Dryden produced the tragedy Amboyna; or the Cruelties of the Dutch to the English Merchants. I’ve never read the play myself, but judging from the title you would guess that Dryden doesn’t make the Dutch look good in it.
We still managed to set up in business at, among other places, Bengkulu on the south-western coast of Sumatra, where we established a trading post in 1685 and built Fort Marlborough in 1714. And in 1793, British naval officer Lieutenant John Hayes endeavoured to establish a settlement near Manokwari, in Irian Jaya.
Inevitably, when we ended up at war with Holland at the end of the eighteenth century, the extensive territories it controlled in what is now Indonesia were an obvious target for us.
Our first invasion started in the last years of the eighteenth century after a pro-French regime had come to power in Holland. We took Malacca, Padang, Ambon and the Bandas without much trouble. Admiral Peter Rainier played a prominent role in these events, and when we captured a Dutch 16-gun brig at Kuyper’s Island, Java, on 23 August 1800, its captors took it into service as HMS Admiral Rainier. Temate resisted for a while, but finally fell in 1801. There was a slightly messy and confusing battle at Kupang on Timor, which ended with some of our troops dead, a lot of the locals killed, and us bombarding the town. After all that, though, we handed back what we had taken from the Dutch under a peace treaty of 1802.
Then in 1810, as hostilities resumed, we returned. We took Ambon again, despite French reinforcements. Some of the garrison at Temate mutinied and we took that. And then we started working our way through assorted other Dutch posts as Lord Minto (great name) moved to expel the Dutch from Java. The campaign took just forty-five days. We installed Thomas Stamford Raffles as lieutenant-governor. Yes, before he got Singapore, he was our man running a bit of what’s now Indonesia for us. Sadly, his wife Olivia died there in 1814. The Anglo-Dutch convention of 1814 again gave territory back the Dutch. Finally, an 1824 treaty between us and the Dutch separated our spheres of influence, giving us control of what would become Malaysia and the Dutch what would become Indonesia.
With the Second World War we were back in Indonesia. As the Japanese swept through the Dutch East Indies in 1941 and 1942, forces were sent to help the Dutch. These were mainly Australian, but there were also British. For example, the British 79th Light Anti-Aircraft Battery landed in Dutch-controlled West Timor in February 1942. They fought bravely against both Japanese air and ground attacks, but eventually Timor fell to the Japanese, though guerrilla action against them continued.
Then in 1945 we landed again in Indonesia in the face of heavy fighting. After the Japanese surrender there was an explosive situation in Indonesia in which pro-independence Indonesians were trying to prevent the return of Dutch colonial rule. British forces were supposed to restore Dutch control and disarm the Japanese. The Japanese ended up at times both helping the pro-independence Indonesians and fighting them. In this chaotic and dangerous situation, Brigadier Mallaby was killed in Surabaya and in November 1945 we launched an attack on the pro-independence forces there, supported by tanks, air and sea bombardment (including from HMS Cavalier). Many Indonesians were killed, and there were a lot of British and Indian casualties as well, before Surabaya fell. Our troops left Indonesia later that month, and after a bitter struggle Holland recognised Indonesian independence in 1949.