Culture

The influence of Catholicism on Flores island during WWII

Patricia Hului

If you are not familiar with Flores island, Indonesia, it was the home of Homo floresiensis, a species of small archaic human.

This species of human was nicknamed ‘Hobbit’ by its discoverers, after the fictional race popularised in J.R.R. Tolkien’s book The Hobbit.

It is believed that the Homo floresiensis lived on Flores island until the arrival of modern humans about 50,000 years ago.

Scientists dated the Homo floresiensis skeletal material to about 60,000 to 100,000 years ago.

The remains of the individual discovered in 2003 would have stood about 1.1m in height, hence the nickname ‘The Hobbit’.

Flores island is one of the Lesser Sunda islands, a group of islands in the eastern half of Indonesia.

The largest towns on the island are Maumere and Ende.

The name Flores came from the Portuguese word for ‘flowers’.

The History of Flores island

This comes as no surprise because Portuguese traders and missionaries were the first foreigners who came in contact with the natives of the island.

The first group of Portuguese arrived in 1511 through the expedition of naval officer Antonio de Abreu and his vice-captain Francisco Serrao.

In 1613, the Dutch attacked the nearby island of Solor where there was a Portuguese settlement.

Fleeing the attack, the Portuguese moved to Larantuka town of Flores. There, they formed a mixed population of Portuguese Jewish merchants and local islanders descents called the Topasses.

The group spoke Portuguese when they prayed, Malay when they traded and a mixed dialect as their mother tongue.

The Topasses continued to dominate the region economically for the next 200 years.

In the same time, the Portuguese and the Dutch continued to fight for the sovereignty of island.

Until in 1854 when Portugal ceded all its historical claims on Flores and leaving the island became part of territory of the Dutch East Indies.

The Japanese occupation of Flores Island

After World War Two (WWII) broke out, the Japanese first arrived at Reo on the northwest coast of Flores on May 13, 1942.

Two days later, a few ships of the Japanese Imperial Navy anchored off Ende, the capital of Flores.

There was a huge difference in how the Japanese treated the Europeans on Flores compared to the rest of the world.

Although Germany was an ally of Japan, the Japanese saw all Europeans in an unfavourable light and interned them .

Batu Lintang Camp in Sarawak and Sandakan Camp in Sabah for example, were occupied by European internees and Allied Prisoners-of-Wars (POWs).

Paul Webb in ‘Too Many to Ignore’: Flores under the Japanese Occupation 1942-1945’ explained the reasons behind the differences in treatment.

He wrote,

“Compared with the excesses of the Japanese administration and military forces on the neighbouring islands of Sumba and Timor, where churches were used as brothels, vestments and sacred vessles thrown around carelessly, girls sought for Japanese army brothels, where Christians were killed as suspected Dutch sympathizers and were life under the Japanese was harsh in all respects – compared with all this the Florenese were being treated with ‘kids gloves’. So why were the Japanese so polite and courteous to the Catholics in Flores? Why did they allow European priests and sisters stay at their posts instead of interning them?

Perhaps the reason is that Flores was a strategically placed island for the possible defence of Balikpapan, the great oil town in Dutch Borneo.”

Flores Island, Netherland East Indies. Aug 11, 1945. Aerial photo of a bombing run on four Japanese motor sail ships located near the shore of the island during shipping search ‘able’. Copyright expired- Public Domain. Courtesy of Australia War Memorial.

The influence of Catholicism on Flores island

The Japanese was informed that the Catholic religion was crucial to the people of Flores and there were too many of them to ignore.

Meanwhile, the Japanese forces were small and that if there were no priest left in the island it might become necessary to increase the occupation forces to ‘quieten an enraged population’.

Webb theorised that the Japanese was afraid that history might repeat themselves.

Between 1637 and 1638, the Shimabara rebellion took place near the city of Nagasaki.

It is said that 40,000 Catholic into an old castle on the Shimabara peninsula and held out against 120,000 Japanese soldiers for some four months.

In the end, all the Catholics were put to death after they had surrendered.

Whether the Japanese was afraid that a quarter of a million Catholics from a population of 580,000 would rebel against them or whatever other reason was, the Japanese knew that they could not take their clerics away from the Florenese.

In the end, the European priests and nun managed to stay in Flores without being interned throughout the occupation.

Comfort Women and Military Brothels on Flores island

While the clergy in Flores might escape from Japanese oppression, the rest of Indonesians and other Europeans, especially POWs, did not.

Like many Japanese-occupied territories during WWII, Flores had military brothels set up on the island to ‘cater’ for the Japanese forces.

Yuki Tanaka in his book Japan’s Comfort Women highlighted one of the many victims who were sent to Flores.

“According to a Javanese woman, Siti Fatimah, a daughter of Singadikarto, the sub-district head of Subang in west Java, she was told that she would be sent to Japan to study in Tokyo. In 1943, when she was 16 years old, she and four other girls from her home sub-district were put on a a ship at Tanjung Priok.

They joined a few hundred Indonesian girls who had been deceived by Japanese and believed that they were going to Tokyo. The ship went instead to Flores Island. As soon as they arrived, the Japanese attitude towards the girls suddenly changed. They were out into a camp and were forced to render sexual services to the Japanese soldiers. Each girl had to serve at least two soldiers every day. Three months later they were transported to the north of Buru Island, where they were put into a military compound. Here too, they were sexually abused every day until the end of the war.”

Both in Flores and Buru islands, many women died due to the maltreatment by the Japanese. Those who survived, suffered from psychological trauma from their abuse.

After the war, a military court report revealed that each woman was given a daily quota; twenty enlisted men in the morning, two NCOs in the afternoon and the senior officers at night.

Prisoners-of-war (POWs) and labour camps in Flores

By April 1943, more than 2,000 Dutch and other Europeans POWs arrived in Flores from Java in three ships.

They were brought in to build airfields on the island.

The first group of POWs built three camps near Maumere; two labour camp and another as a hospital camp.

Then by August 1943, another 300 POWs were stationed in a labour camp near Talibura about 60 kilometers east of Maumere.

The airfield in east of Maumere was completed in early November, 1943 so the POWs were sent to work elsewhere on the island.

Some were sent to work on the harbour and others were sent to build another two smaller airfields.

In 1944, these POWs were sent back to Java in batches with the last group left Flores on Sept 12, 1944.

The Japanese made sure there was no contact between the priests and these prisoners.

However, many Florenese helped the prisoners with gifts of food and little packets of fruits.

After the war, the missionaries in Flores received a letter from one of the former POWs.

The letter stated,

“In May 1943 we arrived in Maurmere – 1,200 POWs. Because there were many sick, two camps were built, one in Maumere and one a few kilometeres away. The population was friendly and because were sick they offered us coconuts, fish, meat and fruit. We could buy these cheaply at first but later on the Japanese raised the prices so that after a while the sale of food ceased.

“We often saw the natives being brutally beaten by the solders but we always had some contact with the people. Later on we worked at getting sand for the airstrip and whenever we saw the natives we were impressed by their expressions of loyalty to the Dutch. I remember that on August 31st, the Queen’s birthday, we found a little basket of food on the road, and in it a note which said that it hoped the Queen would receive blessings and a request that everyone in the camp would pray for the priests in Flores.

“When some of the prisoners were working on a new airstrip some Florenese girls were nearby and there are pleasant memories of all kinds of little gifts of sugar, fruit and so on which they passed to us. Some of the prisoners still have rosaries slipped to them by these girls.”

In the end, a total of 214 POWs in Flores did not make out from the island alive.

Flores after the war

Maumere, Flores. Oct 23, 1945. The Bishop of Flores, Reverend H. Levem greeted Major John M. Baillieu and Lieutenant Colonel Whitehouse on their arrival. Copyright expired – public domain. Courtesy of Australia War Memorial.

After the war ended, Flores achieved its independence by being part of Indonesia.

Meanwhile, the Catholic community continued to grow in the island even after the European missionaries left.

On May 26, 2019, the Indonesian government officiated Flores’ St Paul Catholic University of Indonesia.

It is now the first Catholic University in Flores, Indonesia.

Read more:

The mystery behind eight missing priests in Sabah during WWII

The intriguing military history of Rabaul during WWII

Atrocities aboard Japanese destroyer Akikaze during WWII