Kevin Sherlock Collection: Researching Timorese migration to Australia

5 January 2021

 Kevin Sherlock’s death in Darwin in 2014 marked the end of his forty years of dedicated travelling, researching, collecting, translating and indexing published materials about Timor. He bequeathed his collection to the Charles Darwin University Library for long-term preservation and access.

Dr Vannessa Hearman recently accessed the Sherlock collection for her current research on East Timorese migration to Australia. She writes here of her immersion in this rich and valuable resource. 

Dr Vannessa Hearman delving into the Kevin Sherlock Collection.

Charles Darwin University (CDU), a small regional university located in Australia’s tropical north, has an outstanding collection on East Timor worthy of a research visit. CDU holds a special collection on East Timor that can be consulted in the library of its main campus at Casuarina, as well as a decent range of monographs in its Main Collection that can be borrowed directly or via interlibrary loans. CDU really stands out, though, as the custodian of the Kevin Sherlock East Timor Collection.

Establishing one of the best private collections in the world on East Timor, Darwin-based Kevin Sherlock was recognised by the East Timorese government for his services to the country in 2010. After organising and listing the collection at CDU in 2015, CHART’s John Waddingham observed: ‘This is a seriously impressive research collection which will be much consulted in the years to come.’ In this post, I share with readers some of my experiences in using the collection.

Location: Palmerston Campus
Due to space constraints, the Sherlock collection is housed at CDU’s Palmerston campus, some 20 kilometres from the Casuarina Campus where the other collections are held. For researchers planning to visit, it is important to contact the library beforehand, so that a librarian can arrange access. The collection is housed in a locked room which can only be accessed through library staff members. You will need to find your own way around the Sherlock collection, as there is not much collection advice available from the staff, who are either casual or on rotation from front desk duties at Casuarina.

At first glance, the collection appeared to be small, as the room in which it is hosted, in one corner of the library, is small. But its treasures reveal themselves slowly. It took me a few days to get used to the way the collection was arranged. Several pieces of information were needed to reveal the depth of the collection. I used a combination of the CDU library catalogue showing the books, journals and reports that have been catalogued thus far, an Excel spreadsheet showing CDU’s entire East Timor collection drawn up by one of the librarians for me, and Kevin’s own partial shelf list created in 2002 of almost 450 pages in length. By consulting all of these resources, I managed to get a reasonably good idea of what was in the collection. Nothing, though, beat being able to touch, see and read the materials directly.

Browsing the collection
The beauty of the Sherlock collection is its integrity. Much of the historical writing about East Timor is sharply divided between the time of pre- and post-Indonesian invasion. Having materials across several historical periods in one place allows the researcher plenty of opportunities for serendipitous discovery by just walking along the shelves. Being able to inspect the items, such as by pulling out and inspecting folders, based on pure speculation and curiosity, can also help foster new ways of thinking about East Timor and consider connections, rather than ruptures, between topics and historical periods.

The collection can be roughly divided into books and other materials (such as theses, newsletters and bulletins) that can be found by searching through the library catalogue (marked by CDU with the letters KS before the call number), and a variety of materials filed in folders (as discussed here). Kevin’s partial shelf list, mentioned earlier, provides some guidance to the folder materials. For my research on the East Timorese community in Australia, I focused initially on the newsletters published in Melbourne, Sydney, Darwin and Brisbane. In particular, the collection has extensive holdings of newsletters from Darwin (Eco, O Lusitano and La’o Rai) and Melbourne (Hadomi), as well as newsletters produced by the East Timorese community in Lisbon, Portugal.

A treasure trove
But the real treasure trove, for me, was the ordinary looking folders. A group of 502 folders, consisting of materials collected and arranged in alphabetical order, contained hard-to-find materials, such as exhibition catalogues, conference programs and papers, and ephemera such as leaflets and brochures of activist groups and fundraising campaigns. Materials Kevin collected, such as minutes of the meetings of the City of Darwin’s Friendship City Committee (with Dili) and plans for the Darwin Tetum School, founded in 1993, to teach the Tetum language to Timorese children in the diaspora showed the many hours of activities carried out in Darwin in support of East Timor, including by Kevin himself.

Poignantly, many of these materials also reflected the contribution of the late Jose Adriano Gusmao, National Council of Timorese Resistance (CNRT) representative in Darwin, as well as of other East Timorese activists. Despite the availability of digitised newspapers now, other folders containing press clippings from the late 1970s to 2014 might also yield items of interest to researchers, for example, Jakarta Post and other media articles.

A role for researchers

Hosting a collection like the Kevin Sherlock requires ongoing support from the university and the library administration. East Timor researchers can help secure its future and demonstrate its value by using the collection and, perhaps as a professional grouping, discussing with the library as to how more of the collection could be made accessible to researchers worldwide. In this way, Kevin’s legacy may be more fully realised.

At the time of writing (late 2020), Vannessa Hearman was senior lecturer in Indonesian Studies at Charles Darwin University. In 2021, Dr Hearman will be senior lecturer in History at Curtin University in Western Australia [vannessa.hearman[at]]. Her research on East Timorese migration to Australia is funded by the Australian Research Council (ARC SR200201031).

Operation Skylight, 1978: Unresolved questions

26 June 2020

The still-sensitive historical topic of the 1978  ‘Operation Skylight’ has been a recent focus of public debate in Timor-Leste. We provide here a small sample of surviving records from the period and summarise what we know (and don’t know) about the 1978 events.

There is clearly a need to uncover more sources of information about Operation Skylight and related events. Only then will it be possible to properly study those events

Such study may not resolve some difficult questions. But it will get us much closer to understanding the whole story at that time. It should also help us to better understand the roles of individuals in the high-pressure 1978 environment of sharp military conflict, internal divisions and general human catastrophe.

Examination of any particular historical event must take account of the time and circumstance in which it occurred.

The whole of 1978 in Timor can be generally described as a period of intensified Indonesian military actions to break the Fretilin-led armed resistance control of much of the countryside and population. The humanitarian effect of these operations was increasingly large numbers of East Timorese on the run and starved of food supplies, ultimately resulting in widespread famine and death (1).

The pressure of Indonesian military actions was also undoubtedly responsible for widening the divisions within the organised resistance. Divisions over political orientation and military strategy were clearly evident at the time of the expulsion of Xavier do Amaral from Fretilin in late 1977. Subsequent reports from 1977 and through 1978 tell of expulsions, imprisonment and extra-judicial executions of ‘traitors’.

It is in this context we should try to understand Operation Skylight in the second half of 1978.

Operation Skylight – What was it?

There are informed but differing views on what ‘Skylight’ actually was.

At the time of the events it was believed to be a creation of Alarico Fernandes and his associates to eliminate key Fretilin leaders including Nicolau Lobato (2). Radio messages sent by Alarico Fernandes from late September 1978 identify these plans under the term ‘Operation Skylight’.

Informed later analysts described Skylight as an Indonesian military/intelligence operation, started in mid-1978 under General Yusuf, to achieve surrender or elimination of the Fretilin leadership (3). The authoritative 2005 Chega! report also adopts this understanding of the term but acknowledges Xanana Gusmao’s alternative description of Alarico’s actions as the Skylight ‘Movement’ (4).

The ‘Saturno’ messages

Starting in late September and through October 1978, Alarico Fernandes sent out a series of coded radio messages. These messages were issued in the name of ‘Saturno’.

The messages were received, recorded and transcribed by a group of Australian activists based in Sydney and Darwin (see our 2016 backgrounder on Resistance Radio). The text was then telexed to Fretilin’s external delegation for decoding.

The messages were kept secret until Fernandes’ surrender to Indonesia became public in early December. The external delegation condemned Fernandes’ actions but did not release the full text of the messages at the time. A summary of their content and some major extracts were published in English in the Fretilin-aligned Australian solidarity periodical, East Timor News. The messages outline Operation Skylight as a plan to cooperate with Indonesian military forces to eliminate Nicolau Lobato and a number of other named members of the Fretilin Central Committee (5).

Another Australian activist in Darwin, Rob Wesley-Smith, regularly monitored radio transmissions from Timor and kept recordings of some of the ‘Saturno’ messages. We provide here a sample of his transcription of one of the coded Saturno messages (click on image at left to read the message) and some short audio samples from the final days of radio contact.

The audio segments are: (1) Coded message read by Alarico Fernandes; (2) An awkward two-way exchange between Fernandes and an Australian radio operator in Darwin; (3) Rogerio Lobato sending a repeated message to (unsuccesfully) re-establish radio contact with Timor. 02:57. Source: Rob Wesley-Smith (published here with his permission).

Death of Nicolau Lobato, 31 December 1978

It is commonly believed that Alarico Fernandes directly assisted the Indonesian military operation to find and kill Nicolau Lobato. Strangely though, this was not claimed to be the case at the time.

Our best English-language source on these events at the time is the late Denis Freney‘s articles in East Timor News. Denis (1936-1995) was very close politically to Fretilin/RDTL external delegation members Abilio Araujo and Rogerio Lobato and in frequent contact with them at the time. He was also a fervent supporter of the Fretilin Central Committee as led by Nicolau Lobato and was deeply affected by his death (6).

While Denis Freney was absolute in his condemnation of Alarico as a ‘traitor’, he seemed to hesitate holding him directly responsible for Nicolau’s death. In mid-January 1979 he wrote: “We do not exclude that President Lobato was betrayed to the Indonesian forces by counter-revolutionary elements of Xavier do Amaral and Fernandes still existing in the area” (7).

Three months later he wrote that the Indonesian military ambush of Nicolau Lobato was “enabled” by “the internal knowledge provided to the invaders by Fernandes, and the treason of his agents still active in (the ambush area)” (8). Weeks later, Denis’ reflection  following (mistaken) reports of Alarico Fernandes’ execution makes no mention of his direct link to Nicolau’s death and even suggested it was “possible that Fernandes refused to totally capitulate to the Suharto fascists” (9).

Surrender or Capture?

The circumstances and timing of Alarico Fernandes’ alignment with Indonesian forces remain contested.

Indonesia claimed Fernandes was captured in an ambush on Saturday December 2, 1978 (10). East Timor News claimed on the basis of a Reuters news report that Fernandes surrendered to Indonesia on December 3. ETN conceded the possibility of direct contact between Fernandes and Indonesia in late November but doubted suggestions that he was under Indonesian control from late September when the ‘Saturno’ messages began (11).

The 2005 Chega! report does not undertake any particular study of this question but appears to accept that Fernandes surrendered in September 1978 (12). If this is correct, it opens up a possibility that the Saturno messages were created under Indonesian influence. Chega! also reports later speculations from senior leaders on the reasons why Alarico defected.

CHART Comment

This brief exploration of available source materials reveals there are uncertainties about some basic facts concerning Operation Skylight. Those uncertainties could be clarified by other sources in other languages, formal archives and private document collections in Timor-Leste, Indonesia and elsewhere.

The unearthing and careful study of such sources is an important ongoing task. Most of the surviving witnesses and participants in these events are now aged in their 60s or 70s. It is especially important that they be given every opportunity to record and share their source materials, memories and interpretations of events while they are still with us.

CHART can contribute to this process by identifying more primary-source materials in Australian-held archival collections on Timor.

[See also a Tetum-language version of this article]


(1) This brief summary of conditions in 1978 drawn from Chega!, the monumental report of Timor-Leste’s Commission for Reception, Truth & Reconciliation (CAVR). See particularly Part 3: History of the conflict. Full report available for download here.

(2) See ‘A Fernandes great betrayal: Secret messages exposed’, East Timor News #46, 14 December 1978, page 1.

(3) See Carmel Budiardjo & Liem Soei Liong’s book, The War against East Timor (1984), p.36; James Dunn, East Timor: A rough passage to independence (2003), p.271.

(4) Chega! (official English edition), pages 220, 225.

(5) ‘The Saturno messages’, East Timor News #46,, 14 December 1978, page 1.

(6) Personal knowledge and recall, John Waddingham.

(7) ‘After Comrade President Lobato’, East Timor News #48, 18 January 1979, page 3.

(8) ‘The life of Nicolau Lobato’, East Timor News #52, 12 April 1979, page 4.

(9) ‘New manoeuvres by Suharto: Xavier in puppet government’, see subsection ‘Fernandes executed’. East Timor News #55, 31 May 1979, page 1.

(10) ‘Fretilin’s off the air claim’, The Herald (Melbourne), 8 December 1978.

(11) ‘Alarico Fernandes road to betrayal’, see subsection ‘When did he defect?’, East Timor News #46, 14 December 1978, page 2.

(12) Chega! (official English edition), pages 225, 228.



A Voz de Timor online

17 June 2019

The National Library of Australia has added to its marvellous Trove facility some text-searchable issues of the Portuguese Timor-era  newspaper, A Voz de Timor. We briefly introduce this important new online resource for Timor-Leste historical research.

Portuguese Timor’s last general newspaper of record, A Voz de Timor (1959-1975), is an irreplaceable documentary resource. While ceasing publication at the outbreak of the 1975 ‘civil war’ in Timor, the journal published materials which may not have otherwise survived in any form after the Indonesian invasion in December.

Coverage and contents
This initial upload to Trove includes a few issues from 1973, almost all issues from 1974 and a few from February and March 1975. They provide a valuable record of developments in Portugal and Timor after the April 1974 ‘Carnation Revolution’ set Timor-Leste on course for its dramatic road to independence.

Page One News: 26 April 1974

For example, A Voz de Timor published early/foundation statements from the newly-formed East Timorese political organisations – UDT, ASDT (later Fretilin) and Apodeti.

But the journal is not only about politics. The National Library’s Anya Dettman points to “a vibrant snapshot of everyday life at the time….. advertisements from companies trading there, airline schedules, radio programs, movie screenings, local sports match results, social news and events, and Tetum language features. There are even early poems from some young man called Jose Alexandre Gusmao …”*

Online access options
Ways to access this resource include:

Browse all issues: Click on the ‘1970’ link in the ‘Coverage Graph’

Browse all articles: These can be sorted by earliest or latest date of publication.

Simple Search: Use the search box in the ‘Browse all articles’ screen. See Trove’s help page for tips and tricks with simple searching

Advanced Search: Provides more control over search terms and dates than a simple search. Requires user to restrict the search to the journal title under ‘Places and Titles / International’ section (click on ‘Show Titles’).

Trove also allows users to download individual articles as text, jpg or pdf files, as well as single pages or whole issues in pdf format. See menu icons at left of Trove screen.

End-user text correcting
An outstanding feature of the Trove newspaper resource is that it allows end-users to correct computer-created text errors and to add subject headings or ‘tags’ to articles. See the ‘Fix this text’ button in the left-hand pane of the Trove screen. These activities assist other users to conduct more accurate searches and to find materials of research interest.

The National Library is encouraging East Timorese and other A Voz de Timor readers to contribute text corrections to improve this already very valuable resource. We at CHART hope they do.

* See full A Voz de Timor announcement by Anya Dettman, Trove Digitisation Outreach Officer at the NLA.

Note: CHART was very pleased to play a minor role in contributing to this online resource. Early 1975 issues of A Voz were discovered during CHART work to arrange and describe Jim Dunn’s Timor papers. The issues were loaned by Jim Dunn through CHART to the National Library for inclusion in the Trove digitisation project.

CHART has high-resolution digital copies of the Jim Dunn-held issues of A Voz de Timor. These were created through a special project conducted by the University of Melbourne’s Student Conservators for Timor-Leste. The top graphic in this article was created from the SCTL scans.

Access to CHART digital files

5 September 2017

We are delighted to announce the launch of CHART Digital – a website to access digital materials created by Clearing House for Archival Records on Timor (CHART) Inc.

CHART Digital is a project to provide access to some digital files on Timor-Leste history, 1974-1999. The digital files were created in the course of CHART work on privately-held Australian collections.

CHART Digital is an interim access step. The original physical collections must ultimately be secured in a public library or archive. CHART Digital provides access to digital copies of some of these materials while decisions are made about where to permanently house the physical collections.

We expect CHART Digital to provide a unique Australian supplement to the extensive online collections already available through the Timorese Resistance Archive & Museum and CIDAC.

Modest beginnings
This online resource begins with one collection – the Timor papers of former Senator Gordon McIntosh. Many of the working files of McIntosh’s time in the Australian Senate (1974-1987) have been digitised and are accessible on CHART Digital. We also selected a small number of individual documents to exhibit the range of material to be found in the larger collection.

Digital files from other collections will be added to the website as time and resources permit. These include, for example, materials from Timor Information Service (1975-1983) and the Australian Council for Overseas Aid (ACFOA) Human Rights office, 1978-2000.

Feedback wanted
We are calling CHART Digital a pilot project. We are keen to get feedback from researchers on the design of the website and any difficulties experienced in finding or accessing material.

Please let us know what you think by way of a ‘Comment’ (see below) or emailing us at: chart[at]

Photographs: Creators, context, content

24 June 2016

Photographs are an important primary source of information in Timor history but information on their creators is often lost. We post a few such images here and ask: Who were the photographers and where are the original hard copies?

Thousands of Timor images for the 1974-1999 period can be found in private archives or online on social media or in archival databases* – but seldom with any record of the key information needed to extract their full historical value. Photographs are most valuable when we know the photographer’s identity, when they were created and where.

Identifying the photographer  serves a number of purposes. It assists in determining the date, location and context of the images. It increases the probability that the image is depicting real events and is not fake. It also ensures proper attribution or credit to the original creator of the photo.

In many cases however, the actual photographer may never be known. This is particularly so with photos from inside occupied East Timor such as the many available images of the armed resistance. To establish authenticity of such images, we can draw on whatever knowledge we have about the ‘chain of custody’ or the first identifiable owner of the photographs.

Central Register?
In the interests of long-term historical knowledge and research, a case can be made for a central online register of historical photographs of the 1974-1999 era. Such a register would enable researchers and publishers to identify the origins of a particular image. It would also provide an opportunity for missing information to be provided by anyone with such knowledge; so-called ‘crowd-sourcing’ the data.

Ideally, such a register would be established and maintained by a relevant institution in Timor-Leste.

Who took these photos? Do you know?
We present here a few images for which we would like to establish the name of the photographer and any known location of original prints or negatives.

We invite you, the ‘crowd’, to assist us in this task by making a public comment on this post or emailing us at: blog[at]

IMAGE A: FRETILIN rally. 1975?

IMAGE A: Fretilin rally. 1975?

IMAGE B: Fretilin rally. 1975?

IMAGE B: Fretilin rally. 1975?

IMAGE C: Nicolau Lobato. 28 November 1975? Photographer could be Jill Jolliffe or Michael Richardson?

IMAGE C: Nicolau Lobato. 28 November 1975? Photographer could be Jill Jolliffe or Michael Richardson?

IMAGE D: First RDTL Government. Photographer could be Jill Jolliffe or Michael Richardson.

IMAGE D: First RDTL Government. Photographer could be Jill Jolliffe or Michael Richardson?

IMAGE E: Fretilin resistance members meet Australian parliamentary delegation leader, Bill Morrison. July 1983.

IMAGE E: Fretilin resistance members meet Australian parliamentary delegation leader, Bill Morrison. July 1983.

_ _ _ _ _

*  Some image sets can be found online through the following links:

1975 Australian professional photographers Oliver Strewe, Penny Tweedie and Bob Hannan.

Timorese Resistance Archive & Museum

Facebook Albums on FALINTIL and Indonesian invasion.