60 years ago as I write this blog, my parents and their under school age children were on the high seas (in the Mediterranean Sea to be exact) on their way to Australia. Our young family of six was among the more than 1400 migrant passengers on the former Dutch liner Johan van Oldenbarnevelt.
Why did my parents turn their back on their homeland, on their parents and extended family? What moved them to take their little brood to what to the European mind was a remote and God-forsaken country and was certainly on the opposite side of the planet? This worried my maternal grandparents and I’m quite sure not only them! In some parts of the Netherlands at the time, migration became something of an epidemic, as whole streets moved out and away. The most popular destinations were Canada and Australia, and to a lesser extent the U.S., South Africa, New Zealand, Brazil and Argentina. Why?
The war had severely ravaged all these countries in different ways. Australia and most Allied countries lost more soldiers than did the Dutch, but the Dutch people and several of their cities had suffered terribly. The Dutch population (like all of Europe and Russia) was traumatised and anxious, the economies were in ruins with deep debt and destroyed infrastructure, paid work was scarce on the land and the national housing stock had been seriously depleted. National reconstruction was painfully slow and often bred corruption and other injustice.
The Netherlands had been generally devastated by the years of German occupation and then by the collateral physical damage of the liberation. It was then faced with its largest and most lucrative colony, the East Indies, unilaterally declaring its independence as the Republic of Indonesia on 17th August 1945. The Dutch decided on a “police action” to attempt to reverse this; but they had to rely on their military forces including many conscripts, which added to the national trauma and division. Many of those returning from their term of duty felt angry, ashamed or confused, and came back to a homeland that could offer neither work nor suitable housing to young men who were ready to marry and start a family.
There was also a deep mistrust or fear of Communism, fed by Russia’s establishment of totalitarian control over Easter Europe, its sabre-rattling Cold War with the Free World (Western Europe, the U.K. and the U.S.A.), and also by communist union agitation at home.
The Dutch situation was paralleled in many European countries: Europe’s colonial empires were all in meltdown. So after the end of World War 2 several European governments as well as that of the United Kingdom had agreements with the governments of the above-mentioned “new” countries to encourage and financially assist migration. Simply stated, the Old World wanted to ease its complex of population pressures, and New World countries wanted to increase their populations and develop their economies, and that meant attracting people and especially skilled labour.
Was it any wonder that young Dutch men who had served in Indonesia with little or no result or thanks quickly decided that life back in the homeland was as bleak in just about every way as the North European weather – which they had until now taken for granted? Why not seek a new life in a country that promised work, a home, freedom and sunshine, and was far away from all the misery and despair of the Old World?
Conclusion: most Dutch migrants wanted to get away from just about everything in the post-War Netherlands, and were willing to sacrifice kith and kin and risk just about all to do it. Many of the women migrated only to help their restless and unhappy husband, and some of these people went on to battle years of homesickness, and sometimes a too-willful husband.
This great people movement peaked during the fifteen years after the second World War. Some 150,000 Dutch people migrated to Australia alone, and the assisted migration scheme, just for Australia and New Zealand, employed five ships during the 1950s.
By the mid 1950’s the Netherlands and many other countries had begun to see an amazing degree or reconstruction and their economies were sometimes outdoing those of the receiving countries. By the early 1960s the flow of migrants from the Netherlands had reduced greatly.
In my next blogs I want to sketch the fairly distinctive motives for my parents’ and in-laws’ migration in the early 1950s, and to touch on some of the other reasons why people left everything and everyone to start a new life.