These photos ended colonialism in Indonesia

Posted on 1 October, 2020

Explaining the Hotel Yamato Incident and its historic photograph.

Written by Fahry Slatter – AIYA National Blog Editor

For the Indonesian version, click here.

“Insiden Hotel Yamato”, unknown photographer, September 19, 1945. The blue stripe on a Dutch flag had been ripped on top of a Japanese hotel in Surabaya, Indonesia, by Indonesians. 

On the afternoon of August 17, 1945, the city centre of Batavia (now Jakarta), pulsated to the rhythm of celebrating families. Cheers and geers erupted from the crowds as President Sukarno declared Indonesian independence. But what happened 1 month later on September 19th at the Hotel Yamato in Surabaya, was just as significant.

What most people don’t know was that after 17th of August, a month-long war that resulted in several people dying occurred. 

Let that sink in.

The photo was taken by an unknown person on 19 September in 1945. The location was at Hotel Yamato, located in Surabaya. On top of the building, it shows several young men holding a flag in the first photo, then hoisting a two coloured flag in the second photo. On the bottom, several more men on ladders are cheering with arms outstretched. The men at the bottom look as though they were queueing to go up. 

It wasn’t even taken on the 17th of August and the Indonesian flag had already been invented decades ago – so why is this blurry, out of focus shot so powerful? It is because of the symbolism behind it. 

Let’s take a look at the flag, then the men and lastly the hotel. The men you see weren’t just any random men – they were Sudirman, Haryono and Kusno Wibowo. Sudirman was a general for the Indonesian resistance alongside him was Haryono and Kusno Wibowo who were natives of Surabaya. You’ve probably heard of Sudirman if you’ve been to Jakarta, because a lot of streets are named after him. This is the man behind the names of those long, narrow, crowded streets in Jakarta. Haryono and Kusno Wibowo were native Surabayans, who became politically involved in Indonesia’s struggle for independence. 

Several weeks before this incident, President Sukarno had announced that Indonesia will start hoisting the Red-White flag all throughout the archipelago. This, however, did not go down well with the Dutch who were still present.

The Battle of Hotel Yamato

 General Raden Sudirman

On the night before the incident, Dutch general, Gen. Ploegman, the mayor of Surabaya appointed by NICA, hoisted the Dutch flag on the Hotel Yamato in order to celebrate the birthday of Queen Wilhelmina. On September 19, Surabaya led by residents Sudirman, Sidik and Hariyono, marched to the hotel to protest. However, all 3 men had been attacked by General Ploegman’s army. A storm of bullets whizzed past helmets as both sides frantically mobilized to fight. One of the three men, Sidik, managed to kill General Ploegman. Chaos reigned in the hotel and the evening turned into a bloody massacre. Hariyono assisted Sudirman to the top of the hotel. Shortly after, Kusno Wibowo followed. 

This photo captured that exact moment. It was significant because at the time, the Dutch and British refused to recognize Indonesian sovereignty, despite the fact that President Sukarno had declared independence 1 month earlier.

Next is the hotel. It showed several young men atop a building. The building is called the Hotel Yamato. It was used as a stronghold for the Dutch army then the Japanese army and then the Dutch army again. The only Indonesians allowed in were slaves, prisoners and those that had been kidnapped. The hotel is now called Hotel Majapahit.


Hotel Oranje/Yamato, 1930. Photo archived by Hendro D. Laksono

Thus the capture and liberation meant a key moment in the battle – Indonesia had been victorious and this was a personal message to the Dutch & Japanese that we have your stronghold, we have your soldiers and we have won. The hotel in this photo was originally called Hotel Oranje then renamed to Hotel Yamato when the Japanese arrived and then Hotel Merdeka (Independence Hotel) after Indonesia’s victory in the Battle of Surabaya. Not once before 1946 was the hotel named after anything related to Indonesia. In 1946, it was renamed to ‘Hotel Majapahit’, in honor of Indonesian irredentism and it is still standing to this day. It is a piece of history in itself, as it has gone through a lot since its opening in 1910. 

Persona Non Grata

It was a message to the rest of the world that Indonesia is a sovereign state, we have kicked the Dutch & Japanese out and we have our own flag. The fact that it was a Dutch flag on top of a Japanese hotel, showed the powerful symbolism behind it. At a time when messages took ages to be delivered and colored photography wasn’t available yet, Indonesia needed to send a quick, but straightforward and powerful message that it is ready a fully fledged independent nation.  Its underlying message is: foreign invaders are not welcomed back. In a way, the photographer who shot this, captured the birth of Indonesian independence.

Illustration (left) by Dutch comic artist, Peter Van Dongen. Photo (right) uploaded by Randy Wirayudha

Ripping the blue part of the Dutch flag on top of the same hotel is still a tradition in Surabaya today. On the 18th of May, 2019 the mayor of Surabaya, “Tri Rismamahani” led this annual tradition, and inspired nationalism in the hearts of Surabayans, stating that “Surabayans will not fear and quit, just like our grandparents on this historic day, 74 years ago.