On the morning after my family left our homeland for Australia on 29th March 1951, my observant father noticed the sun had risen in the wrong position. “What’s going on? Are we going back to Amsterdam?” he asked one of the crew. As one of the migrant ship’s chaplains he was asked to be very discreet about the ship’s turning back after less than a day.
Later that day the Johan van Oldenbarnevelt arrived back in Ijmuiden, at the entrance to the Netherlands’ North Sea Canal, where it was tied up in effective isolation while Dutch police and security questioned most of the crew. At least ten small, scattered and pesky arson incidents had been discovered in the twelve or so hours after the ship’s departure from Amsterdam on the afternoon of Friday March 29th. Fires had been started in scattered areas of the ship that were off-limits to the more than 1400 migrant passengers; everybody on board was very grateful that all the fires had been promptly located and extinguished.
A day later, with the initial but inconclusive inquiries completed and the damage repaired as much as possible, the ship set sail again on its 19th post-war voyage, this one a 3-month round voyage to Australia and returning via Indonesia.
Once back on the North Sea, Captain H A Broere addressed everybody on board to assure them that he was satisfied it was responsible to resume the voyage. Additional safety measures had been put in place: the “Nederland” Line had assigned several additional crew members to the ship to boost the fire safety patrols, and the Dutch government had appointed three police officers to join the ship for the voyage.
Continued investigations on board and in the Netherlands never found those responsible, but there was no recurrence of the arson. The ship had suffered a significant fire on 11th March 1950 while berthed in its home port of Amsterdam, and during the following 12 months had often been troubled by arson attempts. The Johan van Oldenbarnevelt came to be nicknamed “de brandjesboot” (meaning “the ship of small fire outbreaks” – but much more pithy!).
The venerable Johan delivered its load of Dutch settlers safely to three Australian ports four to five weeks later.
After its return to Amsterdam late in June 1951, the ship was given a 7 month refit after a decade of strenuous service and minimal maintenance as a troopship. This time the Johan was rebuilt to carry 1414 migrants instead of four classes of passengers or thousands of troops (and then migrants in austerity accommodation). Its first voyage after the 1952 overhaul took my family-in-law (including my wife) to Australia… and there were no more fires.
During the first decade after World War 2, the Netherlands and several other European countries were troubled by Communist strikes, sabotage and other harassment. The Dutch were also going through a difficult time withdrawing from Indonesia, the jewel of its former colonial crown which had unilaterally declared its independence in August 1945. The crew of the Johan van Oldenbarnevelt no doubt included both Communist and Indonesian sympathisers, and perhaps also somebody otherwise troubled.
When my parents unpacked their belongings on arrival in Australia, they discovered considerable water damage to part of my father’s valuable theological library. So our family suffered some “collateral damage” from the fire crew’s good work to protect our ship. One of my earliest memories is of our family spreading out hundreds of dad’s books to dry in Sydney’s warm winter’s sunshine.
[I am grateful to my father for the stories he told us. Much of the detail of this family story comes from Wim Grund’s book about the ship published in 1996: De Johan van Oldenbarnevelt: een schip met zes levens (translated: The JvO, a ship with six lives. The book was published by Van Soeren & Co., Amsterdam.]