The pearl diver
Samsudin bin Katib
Photo of Samsudin bin Katib, supplied with his application for naturalisation, 1947
NAA: A435, 1947/4/1253, p.11
On 3 November 1948, the MV Charon set sail from Broome bound for Singapore and Indonesia. On board was an unwilling passenger, the Sumatran-born pearl diver Samsudin bin Katib. Officially, Samsudin was being deported because he could no longer find employment in the pearling industry and was therefore in breach of his indenture agreement. However, underlying his deportation was a complex story of vested interests within the lucrative pearl shell industry.
Memorandum from RW Gratwick, Acting Commonwealth Migration Officer for Western Australia, to the Secretary, Department of Immigration, 5 November 1948
NAA: A2998, 1951/4644, p.1
Pearl shell harvesting in Australia's northern waters was brought to a halt by the war. By 1945, with the shell fetching around 500 pounds a ton, the pearl shellers knew that their banked-up supplies would fetch a handsome profit. However, they also recognised that, now the war was over, Dutch and US vessels would be moving into Indian Ocean waters, competing for the precious resource. The shellers argued that to re-establish the industry on a competitive basis, it was necessary to reintroduce the indentured labour system. Under this system, Malay and Indonesian workers were brought to Australia on bonds to work in the pearl shelling industry. Once they were no longer required, they were expected to be returned to their country of origin.
The indentured labour system had continued after Federation as an uncomfortable exemption to the White Australia Policy. In 1946, the Chifley government sought to phase out cheap coloured labour and to re-establish the industry using white workers. However, knowing that it would take time to recruit and train suitable workers, the government bowed to pressure from the shellers to allow an extension of the indentured labour system for a further five years. It was effectively business as usual for the pearl shellers, who for the time being could continue to exploit this convenient source of cheap labour.
A war hero
Photo of Samsudin bin Katib attached to his war service record, 1942
NAA: B883, WX36791, p.1
Samsudin bin Katib was born in Padang in Sumatra on 15 July 1918. He was 18 years old when arrived in Australia aboard the Centaur on 10 June 1937. Disembarking at Broome, the young man worked as a pearl diver until 1942, when wartime Japanese attacks forced the town's evacuation.
In Perth, Samsudin joined the Australian militia and served in a variety of labour and employment companies, including working at the fish markets with the Water Transport Company. The only blemish on his service record came at this time, when he was fined 40 shillings for disobeying the lawful command of a superior officer. Military authorities eventually recognised that his skills and abilities fitted him for more challenging duties, and in December 1943 he was transferred to join the commandos in the 'Z' Special Unit.
Special forces attestation form submitted by Samsudin bin Katib upon his transfer to the 'Z' Special Unit, March 1944
NAA: B883, WX36791, p.2
Samsudin's small size (5' 2½") proved no barrier to him undertaking the tough combat training demanded of commandos at Fraser's Barracks in Queensland. He also qualified as a parachutist. In June 1945 he was deployed overseas, helping to gather intelligence behind enemy lines in Borneo prior to the Allied attack. He was discharged with the rank of corporal in Melbourne in May 1946.
Service and casualty form listing the details of Samsudin bin Katib's military service, 1942–46
NAA: B883, WX36791, p.8
After his discharge, Samsudin remained for some months in Melbourne, working in factories such as General Motors Holden. In March 1947, perhaps planning for the future, he applied for naturalisation. He must have known that his chances were slim, but hoped, nonetheless, that his war service might sway officialdom in his favour. As one official noted, 'Whilst it is known that persons of coloured origin are not normally eligible for naturalisation, the usual report is submitted in view of the circumstances of this man's Army Record'.
Statutory declaration submitted by Samsudin bin Katib in support of his application for naturalisation, 3 March 1947
NAA: A435, 1947/4/1253, pp.4–5
Report on Samsudin bin Katib's application for naturalisation, 6 March 1947
NAA: A435, 1947/4/1253, pp.6–7
Samsudin's application was rejected, however, and authorities were instructed to remind him that, under the terms of his admittance as an indentured worker, he was forbidden from taking alternative employment. He returned to Broome and resumed his life as a pearl diver.
Cable from the Department of Immigration to the Passports Office in Melbourne, 1 May 1947
NAA: A435, 1947/4/1253, p.1
The pearl shellers were adept at using the technicalities of the indentured labour system to suppress the wages of their workers. Anyone who dared agitate for better conditions was simply denied work, rendering them vulnerable to deportation under the conditions of their bond.
As the pearling fleet prepared for a new season in February 1948, the shellers proposed a 10 percent cut in wages. Samsudin took the lead in resisting the offer, forming an association of Malay and Indonesian workers, and organising a general strike. In response, Samsudin was effectively banned from working as a pearl diver on any boat in Broome. By imposing such a boycott, the shellers created a situation where Samsudin was in violation of his indenture contract. Although he found alternative employment as a barber, it was no use. The shellers shipped Samsudin to Perth to await deportation.
Letter from AS Male, Chairman of the Broome Shellers Association, to Chief Immigration Officer, Perth, 9 February 1948
NAA: A2998, 1951/4644, p.124
'It would indeed be a tragedy', Samsudin wrote to Arthur Calwell, the Minister for Immigration, 'if those of us who offered our lives in service for freedom and the right to work and earn at reasonable wages and conditions were to become the subject of persecution only for the reason that we desire to put those ideals into practice'. Press criticism encouraged Calwell to stay Samsudin's repatriation. Instead of being shipped off to Singapore, the pearl diver was instructed to return to Broome to work for Mrs Dakos, the one pearl sheller who seemed willing to break the boycott. Meanwhile, the government sought to negotiate an end to the wage dispute.
Letter from Samsudin bin Katib to Arthur Calwell, Minister for Immigration, 19 February 1948
NAA: A2998, 1951/4644, pp.132–3
Memorandum summarising developments in the case of Samsudin bin Katib, prepared by RW Gratwick, Commonwealth Migration Officer for Western Australia, for the Minister of Immigration, 23 February 1948
NAA: A2998, 1951/4644, pp.112–13
'We have not yet reached the stage in Australia at which people who agitate for better conditions must be deported merely because of their colour,' Calwell proclaimed in parliament when his decision was questioned. Nonetheless, he was clearly concerned to ensure that the industry, which had earned US$1 million in the previous year, was not hampered by labour problems.
He was also sensitive to any suggestion that the White Australia Policy might be undermined. 'We are informed that the season for gathering pearl shell begins on 1st March and concludes some time in November,' he added, 'Malays may return to their own country during lay offs or may remain in Australia but we insist that none of them shall be allowed to come south of latitude 27 degrees, because we do not want them to come into contact with our own communities in Perth or elsewhere.'
Extract from House of Representatives, Debates, March 1948
NAA: A2998, 1951/4644, pp.96–7
Samsudin's return to Broome was greeted with howls of protest from the shellers, who claimed that his presence made any negotiated settlement impossible. The position offered by Mrs Dakos mysteriously evaporated, and Samsudin was left once more, unemployed and marked for deportation.
With the pearl shellers predicting not only the ruin of the industry, but the breakdown of law and order, pressure mounted on the Minister to act. As well as possible economic damage, Calwell was concerned about the precedent that might be set if Samsudin was allowed to stay in defiance of the White Australia Policy. Despite continued protests from friends in Melbourne, as well as the Seamen's Union and some branches of the ALP, the pearl shellers prevailed over the young 'war hero'. Samsudin faced deportation once again.
Friends and supporters
The Seamen's Union strongly supported Samsudin and his attempts to organise workers in the pearl shelling industry. 'We believe the deportation of the leaders of any Union movement can only be for the benefit of the employers', they wrote to Calwell in June 1948. When the Minister confirmed that Samsudin and his fellow organiser, John Pattiasina, were scheduled for repatriation, the union argued their defence once more. 'This is a brutal and deliberate victimisation,' they insisted, 'and while these men are available and willing to work in the pearling industry they should be allowed to remain in Australia.'
Letter from Eliot V Elliott, Federal Secretary, Seamen's Union of Australia to Arthur Calwell, Minister for Immigration, 5 July 1948
NAA: A2998, 1951/4644, p.53
Elizabeth Marshall was the Honorary Secretary of the 'East–West Committee', which opposed the White Australia Policy and defended the welfare of Asians in Australia. She knew Samsudin personally from his time in Melbourne and thought him 'a sane and reasonable young man, who desires to work constitutionally'. She also understood the power of the pearl shellers. 'The position is that not only is Samsudin being victimised for helping his fellow-men', she observed, 'but that any man whom the owners dislike can automatically be victimised by the same process'. 'It is little enough recompense for his years of war service in our Army to be allowed to earn a living in the country, in Broome', she added pointedly.
Letter from Elizabeth Marshall, Honorary Secretary, East-West Committee, to Arthur Calwell, Minister for Immigration, 18 March 1948
NAA: A2998, 1951/4644, p.92
Letter from Elizabeth Marshall, Honorary Secretary of the East-West Committee, to Arthur Calwell, Minister for Immigration, 12 October 1948
NAA: A2998, 1951/4644, pp.12–13
JK Ewers of Perth was on an expedition through the north-west when he made the acquaintance of Samsudin. He was clearly impressed with the young man, and quickly grasped the significance of his situation. 'It is a clear triumph of an employers' organisation over the destinies of their employees', he wrote to Kim E Beazley, his local MP. The pearl shellers had attempted to smear Samsudin, charging him with 'inculcating what appear to ideas of a most communistic order'. But as JK Ewers observed, 'everyone who protests against exploitation is dubbed a Commo'.
Letter from Kim E Beazley MHR to Arthur Calwell, Minister for Immigration, forwarding extracts of a letter from JK Ewers, 22 July 1948
NAA: A2998, 1951/4644, pp.42–3
Other protests were lodged by the Essendon branch of the Labour Party and the Bootmakers Union. Samsudin himself wrote to the Minister, surprised that Calwell had apparently approved his deportation. 'We do not think you said this', he wrote, 'because you said no man should be punished for trying to get better conditions for the workers'. But this time there would be no reprieve.
Letter from the secretary of the Metropolitan Council of the Australian Labor Party (West Australian Division) to HV Johnson, Minister for the Interior, 2 March 1948
NAA: A2998, 1951/4644, p.111
Letter from Samsudin bin Katib to Arthur Calwell, Minister for Immigration, 3 June 1948
NAA: A2998, 1951/4644, pp.74–5
John Pattiasina was repatriated in September 1948. Samsudin bin Katib's removal was delayed as Australian officials struggled to arrange the necessary travel documents. Indonesia was in the midst of a revolution, with Republican forces seeking to drive out the vestiges of the Dutch colonial administration. Eventually, the new Republic's representative in Australia provided a letter authorising Samsudin's re-entry. Authorities also hastily issued a certificate of identity to allow Samsudin to pass through Singapore en route to Indonesia. The certificate notes that the pearl diver is leaving Australia 'permanently', and is endorsed, as required, by a 'prominent citizen' – in this case, Stanley Davis, manager of Streeter & Male, the largest of the pearl shellers.
Application for Certificate of Identity submitted on behalf of Samsudin bin Katib to facilitate his deportation to Indonesia via Singapore, 7 October 1948
NAA: A2998, 1951/4644, pp.17–18
Elizabeth and Eric Marshall described the circumstances surrounding Samsudin bin Katib's deportation in a pamphlet entitled ASIA … The White Australia Policy and YOU. They argued that the government had tacitly approved of the reintroduction of the indentured labour system, and that wages were being deliberately suppressed by the pearl shellers exploitation of this system.
DW Burbidge, a Research Officer with the Immigration Department, reviewed the Marshalls' publication and found most of its claims to be justified. While the government had not willingly sought the re-establishment of the indentured labour system, there seemed no doubt, he reported, that around Broome 'the indenture system as it existed before the war, is now in full swing'. The government's insistence that the system should be phased out, with the gradual introduction of white labour, was simply being ignored by the pearl shellers.
Report by DW Burbidge, Research Officer, Department of Immigration, on the pamphlet ASIA ... The White Australia Policy, and YOU, 20 October 1949
NAA: A2998, 1951/4644, pp.2–6
Burbidge's report confirmed that Samsudin and Pattiasina were victimised by the pearl shellers because of their efforts to resist cuts to wages and conditions. 'There seems little doubt', Burbidge noted, 'that they have chosen to settle the recurring disputes in their own favour by direct action, within the law, to remove any workers who might succeed in organising their fellow-workers'.
Inquiries by the Marshalls revealed that Samsudin bin Katib died in Singapore on 20 December 1950. They were unable to find out whether he ever made it back to Sumatra. 'Once he was a hero', lamented a report in the Melbourne Herald on his deportation.
Cutting from the Melbourne Herald, 6 July 1948
NAA: A2998, 1951/4644, p.50