From “Leaky Wooden Boats” to the Imbecile Asian

Michael Roberts, 16 December2010

 Pic from Christian Science Monitor

Scratch an average Australian and he will tell you that asylum-seekers try to enter Australia in dilapidated vessels, with “leaky wooden boats” serving as the standard image. This understanding is derived from, and then sustains, a reading of Indonesia, Sri Lanka, India and the Middle East in typically “Orientalist” terms. “Orientalism” is the concept coined by the redoubtable Edward Said for the stereotypical picture of the “East” manufactured by intellectuals and travellers from Europe during the age of European expansion – an arrogant and self-boosting simplification in an imperial era.


 Pic by Athika Gitaanggun

   The “leaky wooden boat” has rather similar ramifications in the Australian mind-set. It sustains a “brain tumour” which pictures Asia as a poverty-stricken and dangerous continent that produces terrorists (JI, Tigers), as well as persecuted minorities and poor people who are exploited by “people smugglers” as they venture forth towards the Australian Valhalla in unseaworthy vessels. In short, we have the implicit image of “imbecile Asians.”

   This week’s tragedy off Flying Fish Cove in Christmas Island is feeding upon this background. On one of Thursday’s breakfast shows Pamela Curr was near hysterical in slamming both Australia’s coastal surveillance and the people smuggling trade. Though no doubt well-intentioned, her position maximises victimhood in ways that serve the interests of those assisting victims. However, my criticism here is that she spoke as a landlubber with no recognition of her limitations.

 Pic from Island  

   I too am a landlubber; but my training makes me aware of my shortcomings. As such, Curr’s catholic denunciation of the Australian border protection services indicated that she had no conception of the vastness of the seas and the difficulty of preventing small vessels from penetrating any cordon sanitaire, especially at night. The people drowned because the Indonesian crew made the fatal error of seeking the shore at night without a smidgeon of local knowledge. The fault did not lie in the boat, but in the skipper’s decision.

    There are some poorly equipped boats to be sure. One Sri Lankan boat with Tamil refugees that floundered in May 2010 does not seem to have carried enough supplies. There was another instance of a Sri Lankan boat that sank near an Australian coastguard ship in November 2009 which is presented as an example of the inadequacies of the people smuggling trade. However, there is every possibility that this trawler was scuttled and that people died because they got their timing wrong.

    My contention is that we need more care about our generalisations. The vast majority of media personnel and others who pontificate on the subject simply have no seafaring knowledge and infinitesimal information on the fishermen and mariners of the Asian coastline. 

 Pic by Brett Kiteley depicitng refugees off Christmas Island  

  Two chance events have provided me with suggestions that the trawlermen of Sri Lanka are competent mariners and that we should hesitate to venture into generalisations of the sort purveyed in the Australian media without some empirical investigation of the daily/monthly activity of the trawling fleets in such places as Kalpitiya, Negombo, Beruwala and Mirissa in Sri Lanka.

    The first tale may suggest otherwise. Mahesh Pushpakumara[1] was the only survivor from a five-man trawler from Beruwala that floundered in mid-June 2010 when its engine packed up. The wandering trawler was discovered near the Maldives in October. It may not have had GPS and a radio-beacon, but one must not think this ship was ill-equipped. Note this account:

On May 19, 2010 Dinusha II, a 40 feet multi day fishing vessel, ventured to sea from Beruwala …. Manned by an experienced skipper, 47 year old Priyantha the vessel’s destination was a location 1800km off Sri Lanka between Mauritius and Seychelles in the Indian Ocean. ….The whole journey meant nearly three months of treacherous life at sea. [Dinusha II] had only returned from a successful journey to the same far off location that they were going today, in January this year.

These were capable mariners in a solid boat. Engine failures incapacitate yachts, tuna boats and crab boats in Australia every now and then. We cannot brand these tradesmen incompetent for just that reason. 

    The second ‘accident’ was a conversation opened up by a hire-van driver from Mirissa during my visit down south to watch cricket in November 2010. When he discovered that I was from Australia, he told me that he had often been to the north-western coastal seas off Australia on fishing trips. I have no reason to doubt the veracity of his information.

    This note is not directed towards breast-beating about the tragedies surrounding asylum-seekers. Nor does it wish to belittle the bravery of the Christmas Islanders and navy personnel who tried to save the aspirant-migrants off Flying Fish Cove. Rather I wish to examine the foundations of knowledge and to pinpoint the dangers of sweeping evaluations on the seafaring scene by those with little experience in the seas or knowledge of the Asian fishing world. We risk arrogant imperialism through such ill-informed generalizations that happen, incidentally, to boost our own self-image.


Filed under asylum-seekers, australian media, life stories

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