The Admiral's Baby

Laurens van der Post

William Morrow 1996
A book review by Danny Yee © 2002
When the Japanese in Indonesia surrendered in August 1945, a complex situation ensued in Java, with the Japanese left guarding former prisoners of war and civilian internees amidst widespread social unrest. The following years saw uneasy negotiations between Indonesian nationalists, trying to achieve independence and resolve internal conflicts, the returning Dutch, many of whom thought they could simply pick up where things had left off in 1942, and the British military, to whose theatre of operations Java had been assigned. In this an important role was played by Laurens van der Post, a British officer released from a prison camp in Bandung, in West Java. Written fifty years later, The Admiral's Baby is van der Post's account of his life from the Japanese surrender to his departure from Java in 1947; a quarter of it is taken up by the official report on the British occupation which he wrote in November 1946.

The rather obscure title comes from a message sent by Admiral Patterson (off Batavia) to Lord Mountbatten on 19th September 1945: "We can continue to rock the baby to sleep only if you people outside the house would not make so much noise". The dust jacket of this edition adds two not particularly informative tags. "A True Account of One Man's Great Courage and Dedication Far Beyond the Call of Duty" captures something of the "British officer abroad" feel of the work, but anyone looking for military adventure will be disappointed: Van der Post's role was political and administrative and there are no battles or even skirmishes (the Battle of Surabaya, the biggest military engagement of the period, is mentioned only in passing).

The achievement of Indonesian independence was indeed "An Extraordinary Episode in Twentieth-Century History", and one much neglected by comparison to (say) Indian independence or the Chinese civil war. Van der Post provides no historical background to his narrative, however, and those not already familiar with the general outlines of Indonesian history will find parts of The Admiral's Baby confusing. For historians, either of Indonesia or of Dutch (de)colonisation, it will be a useful source: van der Post's own attempts at historical analysis never go beyond "the spirit of the times", but he includes some interesting details.

There are numerous character sketches, of British commanders Admiral Patterson and General Christison, Indonesian leaders such as Sjahrir and Sukarno, and Dutch officials such as van Mook, but also of less prominent figures. There is also some "name dropping" of famous people van der Post met only briefly, such as prime minister Attlee and Lord Mountbatten. And there are some thought-provoking vignettes: to illustrate the sympathy of the British rank-and-file for the Indonesians, van der Post describes how, on their way to the docks on departure, they raised their clenched hands and shouted 'Merdeka' (the nationalist cry 'Freedom') at the incoming Dutch troops.

Van der Post is self-centred, in places self-indulgent, but he is a skilled story-teller and easy to read. In The Admiral's Baby he stays focused on individuals and their relationships — even when he ventures into history, it is most commonly through comparisons to figures such as Raffles, Wellington, Moore, and even Xenophon — and everything is viewed through the events of his own life, from his South African youth to his visit to Japan in the 20s. Van der Post is quite open about his prejudices. Some of his score settling with now forgotten minor officials is petty and his adulation of others offputting, but his transparency is disarming — and his sympathy for the Indonesian nationalists now seems well-placed.

Overall, though, it is hard to recommend The Admiral's Baby except to those already interested in either Laurens van der Post or the history of the Indonesian Revolution.

September 2002

External links:
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Related reviews:
- Kahin - Regional Dynamics of the Indonesian Revolution
- books about Indonesia + Indonesian history
- books about Java + Javanese culture
- more diaries + autobiography
- books about war + military history
%T The Admiral's Baby
%A van der Post, Laurens
%I William Morrow
%D 1996
%O hardcover, index
%G ISBN 0688151043
%P x,340pp