Invasion Day

Today is Australia Day. aka Invasion Day or Survival Day It is an ill-chosen date for a national holiday as it commemorates the landing of the First Fleet and the start of British settler colonialism which of course led to horrendous violence (genocide) against the Aboriginal people. My thoughts in a sort of poem…

Invasion Day

Perky girls in
patriotic
made in China
beachwear

flag bikinis
bedecking 
their orange-brown
bodies
sweating
in the summer
heat

blond
sombrero boys
white zinc noses
and capes
of southern cross polyester
flapping parochially
in their
wake

chanting
laughing
singing
barbecuing
boozing
swearing
celebrating

under the glorious empire sun

drinking to their
parched
“lucky”
country
and their day off work

Holdens revving
in time
to tuneless renditions
of Waltzing Matilda
or Khe Sanh

the irony completely
lost on them
as they curse
Aboriginal rights
migrants
boat people
and un-Australian values
taking root in
“their land”

this is Australia
this is Australia Day

the view from the beach
in 1788
however
was no cause
for celebration

26 January
Invasion Day
a day of
mourning

Karin Speedy 25/01/2016

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The Mysterious “Arab” Castaways: Mobilities, Border Protection and White Australia

This paper was given at the Colonial Formations Conference, University of Wollongong, 23-25 November, 2016. 

Picture8

The arrival, in 1901, on the Far North Queensland coast of a suspicious group of brown men, ‘Arabs’ in a boat, or ‘refugees’, as they were initially referred to in some headlines, provides interesting insights into the continued presence, connections and movements of non-white people in Australia, the marginalisation of that history, and the concerted effort on the part of the authorities to implement the national imperative of closing the borders to all ‘clandestine’ landings that were said to pose a threat on racial, religious or moral grounds.

As the significant body of research into refugee history in Australia has shown, the contemporary fierce, military policing of any ‘unauthorised’ arrivals by boat has developed out of Australia’s tradition of liberalism and 19th century exclusionary practices culminating in the White Australia policy. While fears of ‘degradation’ to society based on white supremacist notions of the racial and moral inferiority of non-white ‘others’ drove the push to close Australia’s borders, 19th-century Australia, as has been shown in transnational historiography, was also an ‘interconnected space within a set of expansive global networks’, a centre of entwined or ‘entangled’ maritime mobilities and connections or even, as Tracey Banivanua-Mar has put it, a hub in the Hau’ofa inspired ‘Greater Pacific’.

As Australia moved toward nationhood in the late 19th century, the bio-political agenda to create a white settler nation became evident through both discourse and legislation. Anxiety around non-white migration and mobilities, and fears of miscegenation led to the production of a national narrative that ultimately whitewashed Australia’s racially diverse settler population. It also played a key role in the move to pass laws that actively sought to exclude non-white and non-British ‘others’. An important factor in this exclusion was the shoring up of the hitherto permeable oceanic borders; patrolling, policing and protecting the emergent White Australia from purportedly dangerous ‘aliens’ who could arrive (or invade) by sea.

Yet, the dynamic, global networks of mobility that characterised colonial Australia did not disappear overnight. Indeed, parliamentary debates in the lead up to Federation and the passing of the Immigration Restriction Act, revealed the competing desires of ‘fostering a national ideology based on racial exclusivity’ whilst not offending the sensibilities of a diverse British Empire.

This incident illustrates wonderfully the competing tensions that would shape modern Australia. Between June 1901 and February 1902, Australian newspapers published numerous articles on what was first framed as an ‘extraordinary’ drama of shipwrecked ‘Arab’ sailors in Far North Queensland. Sometime in June, eight men had landed in Cape Grenville. The steamer, Omba, reported them to Thursday Island authorities after the Piper Island lightship alerted its crew to the men’s plight. When the steamer reached Cape Grenville, she sent a boat that was met by a Japanese pearling lugger that was going to drop off the men on Thursday Island. At this point, the men were assumed to be escaped convicts from New Caledonia.

Once on Thursday Island, the men’s incredible story hit the headlines. Professing to be ‘Arabs’, the men recounted through local Arabic-speaking interpreters a fantastic story of shipwreck and survival at sea. They said that they were sailors who had left Port Saïd (Egypt) three months earlier. After sailing across the Persian Gulf, they became lost. A storm had hit their boat and they had spent eight days in the water before all reaching the shore together. They did not know where their boat had disappeared.

Inconsistencies in their accounts, however, caused suspicion. They claimed that they were sailors but did not know the name of their boat, the size of their boat, where they were going, nor did they have a compass. The men were described as looking ‘like Lascars’ or having an ‘appearance similar to that of the firemen employed on steamers trading to the East’. Thursday Island shipping master and sub-collector of Customs, Mr G. H. Bennett, quickly decided to hand them over to police. In a telegram to the Home Secretary in Brisbane he named the men as ‘Hamad, Usop, Mohammed, Ali, Lool, Mustaga, Abdul Kadir, and Gadu’, which demonstrated to him that they were ‘Mohammedans’ and had all ‘been pilgrims to Mecca’. Bennett did not think they were from New Caledonia, as they ‘did not appear to have any knowledge of French’.

An inquiry was launched and they appeared before the Thursday Island Police Court the next day. Evidence was produced that showed their tale of shipwreck was false. One man was found to have a letter on him containing a prisoner’s name and number, postmarked in Algiers and written in Arabic. Another was carrying a New Caledonian newspaper. A witness, Big Alick, described as ‘an aboriginal’, said he had seen the men land in a creek at Temple Bay where they were drawing up a boat into the mangroves. When he called out to them, they ran off into the bush. Bennett sent another telegram to the Home Secretary stating this time that they were escapees from New Caledonia and had been remanded for eight days on the charge of vagrancy.

The men were sentenced to six months in Brisbane Gaol. In December, the French made a formal demand for their extradition. The warrants were issued and the handover to French authorities took place in January 1902. They left under the charge of a French military warder on board the steamer Arrawatta for Sydney from where they then went on to Noumea.

Despite the somewhat entangled histories of Australia and New Caledonia in the 19th century and the frequent traffic between the two colonies, the proximity of the French island was a source of anxiety for Australia. Longstanding Franco-British imperial rivalries, tensions surrounding the balance of power in the Pacific and, most importantly, the establishment of a penal colony there in 1864, made New Caledonia into something of a bête noire. Jill Donohoo has highlighted the moral panic it engendered in a society emerging from its own history of transportation. This ‘post-convict shame’ teamed with the imagined perils posed by escaped foreign prisoners, played an important role in the shaping of Australia’s focus on border security in its fledgling foreign policy.

Between 1864 and 1897, the French sent over 21,000 prisoners to New Caledonia. Of these, 2106 were ‘Arabs’, Arabic-speaking North African Muslims, 94% of whom were Algerian. While the political prisoners sent to New Caledonia after a series of revolts against French rule in Algeria have served as the face of this group and have been the subject of some fascinating research into the transplantation of Arab-Berber culture in the Pacific, they actually formed the minority of ‘Arab’ convicts. Most North Africans were sentenced to hard labour and transported to New Caledonia for common-law crimes.

While there are a number of studies on New Caledonian escapees to Australia, the focus has been on the ‘Frenchness’ of the arrivals. However, in the newspaper reports on the 1901 case, the essentialised ‘Arabness’ of the men was to the fore. They were variously painted as ‘Arab Castaways’, ‘Mysterious Arabs’, ‘Arab Refugees’, ‘Shipwrecked Arabs, ‘Arab Romancers’ and ‘Wily Arabs’. As ‘Arabs’, ‘Mohommedans’ and escaped convicts from the French penitentiary in New Caledonia, these unfortunate maritime arrivals seemed to epitomise the racially, religiously, culturally and morally different/dangerous ‘other’ that White Australia perceived as such a threat to its embryonic nationhood.

A close reading of the newspaper reports suggests, however, that the initial reception that the men received from the multi-ethnic locals and seamen in Far North Queensland was not one of immediate distress. Once on Thursday Island, their inability to speak English did not hamper them from telling their ‘remarkable’ tale of survival at sea as Arabic speakers were able to interpret for them. This highlights the fact that this northern corner of Australia was far from the reserve of white Anglo-Celtic occupation. It was instead a racially diverse community that had strong links to Asia and the Muslim world through its history of Indigenous networks and trade. Regina Ganter has described the importance of the Macassan trepang trade in northern Australia and the cultural, religious, linguistic and biological impact of the Muslim Macassan fishermen on the Indigenous peoples of the area. Through the trepang trade, Indigenous Australians ‘were linked in trade with China well before the British colonists’ in a network that reached through the Dutch East Indies and around the port cities of Southeast Asia. The pearling industry saw further diversification of the population with Pacific Islanders, Japanese, Filipino, Indonesian, Malay and Chinese workers living in the region. The appearance of eight ‘Arab’ Muslims in this society was thus neither terribly unusual nor perceived as a threat.

Yet, alongside this apparent facility of interaction with the Algerians and an unruffled reaction to their arrival, there is a competing thread of tension and mistrust running through the newspaper articles. This unease focuses our attention on the foreignness and dark complexions of the men and reads these and their unannounced appearance as forcibly criminal.

The story, in fact, portrays a society on a collision course. Established practices of Indigenous and non-white mobilities and openness to outsiders arriving by sea were being challenged by a new national framework that revolved around the policing of coastal borders and the restriction of movements. The emergence of the latter, which, in the north, coincided with increasing white settlement from the 1880s, would ultimately erase the former from national memory, creating a metanarrative of Indigenous isolation prior to European colonisation. In this new national order, the sea as bridge metaphor was transformed into one of sea as barrier, exposing a vulnerable White Australia cut off by both water and distance from the European centre.

Picture6

Embodying this nationalist agenda was G. H. Bennett, the Thursday Island customs officer. As instruments of the state, customs officers served as eyes and ears for any sniff of illegal entry into the country. Their task was supported both by the pre-existing networks of communication between the Indigenous people, fishermen, traders and sailors and by the more recent state maintained surveillance measures employed around the coast and at sea. In the newspaper reports we note, for instance, the interplay of the coastal and seaborne networks through the steamer Omba, the Piper Island lightship, the Japanese pearl lugger and the Thursday Island customs officer. An Indigenous informant also provided damning information concerning the men’s furtive behaviour. Big Alick’s testimony shows how Indigenous people were drawn into the nationalist web to act as agents of the surveillance state.  His watching of the shore mirrors the activities of the police indigène in New Caledonia, a Kanak police force that kept a sharp look out for escaped convicts who they would track and pursue for a bounty.

The circulation of the story itself occurred through the modern network of overland and undersea telegraph cables and reached the wider public via newspapers. Bennett cabled the story to Brisbane from where it rapidly made headlines across Australia and in New Zealand. The story eventually reached Fiji by steamer in August where it was reported in Na Mata, the Fijian language newspaper.

Bennett was immediately sceptical of almost every aspect of the escapees’ (admittedly ill-prepared and conflicting) story. He was quick to racialise the men, conflating them with the soon to be outlawed ‘Lascars’, other undesirable, brown, Muslim sea folk that Queensland had already attempted to ban from working on mail carriers. His initial doubts that the men had escaped from New Caledonia suggests that he was operating more on alarmist, Orientalist assumptions in his construction of the men’s identities than much intimate knowledge of the racial landscape of the New Caledonian penal colony or of Islam.

Bennett’s assertion that the names of the men showed that they had all been to Mecca, for instance, is odd. It reveals either Bennett’s own anxiety or his desire to create moral panic given the fears engendered by the assumed opportunities for the spread of dangerous (anti-colonial) ideas at Mecca among mobile Muslim subjects of European empires. There is in this a striking parallel with the 21st century discourse on Muslim ‘radicalisation’. In fact, none of the names he listed included ‘Hajj’, the title bestowed upon Muslims who have completed their pilgrimage to Mecca. The names themselves raise other questions. If some of them are recognizable, others are not. Was it a communication problem with interpreters or was it Bennett who made transcription errors when recording the oral information passed on to him? Or, was it more a deliberate ploy for the men to give false names to the authorities to conceal their real identities?

When the French sought the men’s extradition in December 1901, the names that they supplied to the Australian authorities were quite different. Some of these names match prisoner records held in the Centre des Archives d’outre-mer of common law criminals. Whoever they were, Bennett read their dark otherness, their racial, cultural, religious and linguistic differences as signs that they were ‘aliens’, probably criminals, and certainly contravening border laws. As such, they were not welcome in the exclusively white nation that was being fashioned. He declared the men to be vagrants and handed them over to the police.

Picture7

The Vagrancy Act was used as a provisional catch-all to prosecute escaped prisoners from New Caledonia. It was also legislation that supported liberal philosophies favouring fixity of habitation and property ownership over temporary relationships to place and mobility. Bennett’s decision to invoke the Act to deal with wandering men of uncertain identities can thus be seen as following the logic of the national ideology. Consistent with Bennett’s Orientalist framing of the men meant that he failed to imagine that ‘Arabs’ could speak French. Of course it was in the men’s best interests not to speak French in front of their captors if they wished to maintain their fiction of shipwreck and hide their fugitive status. But how likely would it have been that none of them spoke a word of the coloniser’s tongue?

In Algeria, many Arabic and Berber-speaking Indigenous people employed passive cultural ‘resistance-refusal’ in the face of French linguistic imperialism. This took shape in their refusal to allow their children to attend French schools. When the French invaded, many Algerians were literate in Arabic having a long established Islamic schooling system. The French sought to replace this with schooling in French. While some, particularly in urban settings, sent their children to the bilingual French-Arabic schools, many other parents saw the French system as a ‘civilising’ endeavour to drive their children away from Islam and opted not to let their children attend. Eventually, towards the end of the 19th century, the settler administrators blocked the Indigenous population from accessing French education fearing the potential for political empowerment.

Taking into account the dates that the men were sentenced, they would have spent between seven and eleven years in French detention. This alone would make it extremely unlikely that the men had no knowledge of French. The letter and newspaper that they were found to have in their possession suggest that some of them may have attended an Islamic school and learned Classical or Literary Arabic and some may have had some schooling in French. Indeed, the written texts are both intriguing and tantalising details in this story. The letter in Arabic underscores the circulation of texts from North Africa to the Pacific. If it is easy to imagine that a letter from home might be the kind of prized possession an escapee would take with him, one wonders what the purpose of the New Caledonian newspaper was? Was it to be read? Was it a souvenir? We cannot be sure but if it was taken to be read then we have to assume that at least one of the men was literate in French.

The texts along with the evidence supplied by Big Alick were enough to convince the Thursday Island police court that the men were not Arab sailors. They were, in fact, escapees from the dreaded penal colony across the sea, not just racially and religiously transgressive but also, as convicts, morally corrupt. The press, true to their supporting role in the creation of the exclusionary national narrative, were not slow to highlight the additional undesirable and frightening qualities of the men who had arrived illegally by boat. Along with their construction as the dark, Muslim, ‘Arab’ other, they were referred to as ‘New Caledonian Escapees’, ‘Convicts from New Caledonia’, ‘Fugitives from New Caledonia’, ‘French Algerines’ and ‘French Escapees’. They thus presented a nightmarish vision which merged ‘Arabness’, ‘Frenchness’ and roaming criminality that politicians bent on a white supremacist agenda could use to frighten the populace.

This coastal drama, unfolding in 1901, the year of Australian Federation and the passing of the Immigration Restriction Act, throws the spotlight on a moment in history when the dynamic and complex global networks of northern Australia were being interrupted by the prerogatives of a developing national narrative that demanded fixity over mobility and the closing and policing of borders to keep out the alleged danger posed by invaders by sea. The ‘invaders’ here were a small group of Algerian men, escaped prisoners, who, despite their unfree status, were mobile, crossing oceans and imperial and national spaces. As such, they were perceived as dangerous to the new White Australia, a liberal democratic society so desperate to hide its own less than lily-white past. Despite its history of convict transportation, Australia as a nation had no sympathy for those fleeing a similar system and chose to incarcerate the men in Brisbane, collaborate with the French authorities and hand them over to the New Caledonian military warder who had come to take them back to their island prison.

In the case of the ‘Castaway Arabs’ or the ‘French Escapees’, the fledgling nation did not quite ‘stop the boat’. However, in the way that the foreign men arriving by sea were racialised and criminalised by the authorities and the press before being rejected as undesirables, we recognise yet another historical echo of 21st century discourse on border security and the alleged threat posed by brown, non-Christian, ‘crimmigrant’ others attempting to land on Australia’s closely guarded shores.

A full, written version of this paper was published here:

Speedy, Karin. 2016. “‘Arab Castaways’/‘French Escapees’: Mobilities, Border Protection and White Australia”, Law, Crime and History, 6.2, 15-30

 

The Night Before Waitangi Day

I wrote this poem when living in Sydney. I always felt like I was living in exile there. It was February 5, 2015, the night before my birthday, the night before Waitangi Day. I was feeling nostalgic, thinking of home and the Treaty (Te Tiriti o Waitangi) and what it means in different places and to different people. Also imagining the links and disconnect between the two settler colonies of New Zealand and Australia. It seems an appropriate poem for National Poetry Day in Aotearoa.
______________________________
The Night Before Waitangi Day
 
Birthday Eve
In Poihakena
No holiday tomorrow
This country does not stop to reflect
Upon what has been
And what might have been
And what could be
Written between the lines
Inscribed in blood
Across the way
In Aotearoa
 
No time off to
Contemplate what was
Translated
Creatively?
Faithfully?
Culturally?
No,
Erroneously.
Dangerously.
Colonially.
 
All a bit slapdash
Really.
Never mind
Not important
The power in the hands
Of those writing
The history
And all that.
Fudge it
A bit
The natives will never notice.
Besides
They won’t be here long
To relate their version
Their history
To question
To protest
To speak
Even.
 
Absence
Silence
Extinction
Progress
Taming
Homogenising
Nation building
Or some such
Developmental bullshit.
Wasn’t that
The plan?
 
Not so different here.
No treaty though
No celebration
No day off work
No discussion
No critique
A non-event
Almost.
 
Birthday Eve
In Sydney
Time to remember.
(c) Karin Speedy 2015
First published in “Piercing the White Space”, Blackmail Press 41, November 2015,

À la mode in Hunters Hill

Louis Joubert

Louise Joubert, Joubert folder, Hunters Hill Museum

One of the characters who features quite regularly in this blog is Didier-Numa Joubert, a Franco-Australian merchant who made his fortune in the mid-1800s through trade of all types (legal and not-so-legal). This poem imagines a conversation between his daughter Louise, whose portrait I saw in the archives of the Hunters Hill museum, and a friend at the Joubert house in Hunters Hill. It reflects on the material trappings and lifestyle afforded certain sectors of white colonial society and how this was enjoyed at the great expense of others.

 

À la mode in Hunters Hill

Is it silk?

Incredulous look

Mais naturellement!

Hand stitched

delicate detail

embroidered yoke

ample sleeve

teasing flounce

rustling skirts

gently graze

the ankles of

la belle

Mademoiselle

Louise

 

Tortoiseshell buttons

left unfastened

reflecting amber light

tracking

mapping

tacking down

to snake around

her bourgeois breasts

showing

a rather daring

swathe

of luminescent

white

 

Beautiful dress

my dear

a stand out

in this English

colony

it’s French….

n’est-ce pas?

Mais oui!

No one sews

such sophistication

in the

antipodes!

 

A trunk

brimming

on Papa’s order

arrived

last week

in Sydney town

full of hats

and gloves

and undergarments

and the most exquisite

Parisian gowns

 

Taking in

the sumptuous vista

sun caressing

sparkling waters

crisscrossed

by the foliage

of a flourishing

flame tree

the two ladies

on the colonial verandah

slowly sip

their China

tea

 

Coconut palms

perform

a wilted waltz

in the stifling

breeze

while bent

brown backs

toil

under

the oppressive

summer

heat

 

What brings them here

these bronzed youths

from their homes

in the South Seas?

They are

the exploited workers

the unpaid builders

of Papa’s Paradise

a sandstone

Sydney suburb

founded on

trade

tenacity

luck

and plunder

and a slice of

slavery

 

© Karin Speedy 2016

CMwofqeVAAEGFqD

Flame tree in Hunters Hill, photo credit: Karin Speedy

Transformative Journeys

Academic articles take forever to come out. I have one due to be published shortly (touch wood) based on the oral histories of the Aymard and Elphège families, descendants of mixed race migrants from Reunion Island (Indian Ocean French sugar colony) who settled in New Caledonia in the 1870s. The Reunionese had been enticed to New Caledonia to help set up the fledgling sugar industry that local administrators hoped would supply sugar to the region. They were mostly former slaves or free people of colour (of mixed African, Malagasy and French origin) who had become impoverished after the sugar industry collapse in Reunion. Most entered New Caledonia as French citizens, a status bestowed upon them on emancipation

Despite their freedom and citizenship, many of the formerly enslaved Reunionese remained on the outer limits of society in ReunionFacing increasing destitution as the sugar industry went bust, move to a new colony was aopportunity to start afresh for them. The division of New Caledonian society into free settlers, convicts, indentured labourers and indigenous people (free, unfree, and indigenous)allowed all Reunionesesomewhat serendipitously, as French citizens, to enjoy their social status as part of the white settler population. In New Caledonia, the blacks were the indigenous Kanak. They were assigned inferior social status and were subject to extreme prejudice born of 19th-century  scientific racism and the exigencies of settler colonialism. In this climate, the tradition of the non-dit (the unsaid) in New Caledonia assisted the Reunionese to negotiate their new settler whiteness while enabling the colonial administration to populate/occupy the land with French citizens; the silence and silencing allowing for the emergence of settler colonial narrative centring on the white settler/black Indigenous binary.

Despite the deliberate masking of the past, cultural practices, family stories and artefacts were passed on even if this was done behind closed doors. This poem imagines the journeys of those who transitioned from the oppressed in one colonial space to a position more akin to oppressor in a new one.

 

 

#FantasyLives

Fascinating
fabricated
family histories
that create
a certain coziness
in inhospitable
social climes 

Transformative journeys
west to east
north to south
black to almost
white
or French
at least 

Camouflaging
marks
still fresh
still raw
in shackled flesh
concealed beneath
the frothy skirts
of settler society 

Hiding pasts
still manifest
in the
rougail
served with kari
consumed
with relish
but never
questioned 

A new beginning
a second chance 

Hush
don’t ask
stick together
the seamstresses
will stitch
a new family
tapestry

© Karin Speedy 2016

Tropical Depression: Nuns in the Pacific

Saint-Louis mission girls, 1890. Source: Collection service des Archives de la Nouvelle-
Calédonie 1 Num 2 148, fonds de l’Archevêché de Nouvelle-Calédonie.

Women played an integral part in the “civilising mission” in New Caledonia and elsewhere in the Pacific. The Marists were in New Caledonia from 1843 and the male missionaries were followed a few years later by the Sisters of Saint-Joseph de Cluny and then the Sisters of the Tiers-Ordre. Their role was to convert the indigenous population, principally through the creation of schools and “education centres” for children and young people who would be separated from their clan. The aim was to erase indigenous language and culture in favour of that of the missionaries and, later, colonisers and to create local indigenous missionaries who would convert their own people. Girls and women would be taught to cook, clean and sew (in the Western tradition and thus severing their connection with their own cultural practices). The billowy, colourful “robe mission” that today serves as the traditional dress of Kanak women, for instance, was foisted upon them as a modest cover-up by the nuns and priests on the mission.

La robe mission or Mother Hubbard dress as worn by Kanak women in New Caledonia

For the nuns arriving in New Caledonia from France, conditions were rudimentary and life was very different from what they had known in Europe. For some, this culture shock was overwhelming and a few Sisters were sent to Villa Maria in Hunters Hill, Sydney to recover from their physical and mental ills – their tropical depression. This poem reflects on their experiences.

Tropical Depression

Surreptitiously
you scratch
the weeping pustules
poisonous mosquito kisses
forming sceptic angel footprints
up and down your unloved legs
blood drunk mission fleas
etching itchy art on infected arms
throbbing tracks of parasitic misery
tattoos forever testifying
to your proselytising
Pacific dream

No sleep for you
lying prone on lice straw mattress
conversion disillusion
black swamp mind unravelling
unpicking tender stitches
sewn by fellow Sisters
sniping, snaking artifice
shining like sunbeams
through their skeleton hollow eyes

Floating, screaming, unleashing
a lagoon of injured tears
salty balm for
self-inflicted stigmata
Sisters whisper
you thrash and whimper
spirit severed
calm prevails

Pilgrimage aboard a saintly vessel
port, then town, then hermitage
sweet solid walled tranquillity
mental exhaustion
expelling demons
healing holy scarification
relocating your vocation
to another Oceanic destiny

©Karin Speedy 2016

Further Reading

Hosie, John. 1987. Challenge: The Marists in Colonial Australia. Sydney: Allen & Unwin.

Speedy, Karin. 2013. “Mission-educated girls in nineteenth-century Saint-Louis and their Impact on the Evolution of Tayo”, Shima: The International Journal of Research into Island Cultures, 7.1, http://www.shimajournal.org/issues/v7n1/f.%20Speedy%20Shima%20v7n1%2060-79.pdf

Speedy, Karin. 2016. “Tropical Depression”, original poem in Snorkel literary magazine, issue 23, http://snorkel.org.au/023/speedy.html

Pacific Island Labour in mid-19th Century Sydney

Hunters 1

When examining the shipping records for goods that were being brought into Sydney by Franco-Australian merchant Didier-Numa Joubert, I was struck by how many “Pacific Islanders” were coming and going on his ships, often accompanied by Marist priests. The first arrivals were fourteen young Melanesian evacuees from New Caledonia who fled with the missionaries in 1847 after the mission post had come under attack by local Kanak. From the early 1850s, groups of Pacific Island converts who were brought to Sydney by the Marists, ostensibly for religious instruction, often found themselves labouring for the Marists and their friends. Joubert had Pacific Islanders gardening at his Hunters Hill residence, for instance. One of the main occupations of the Islanders was to quarry rock for the churches that they would build back in their respective islands. (You can read about the Pyrmont quarry here). These young men served as free labour for the Marists and it is thanks to their hard work that the second Villa Maria, on the shore of Tarban Creek, was built in Hunters Hill.*

Interestingly, as you can see in the image above, a reminder of this early Pacific presence is recorded in the palm trees planted along the side of Villa Maria. There are pockets of palm trees or coconut palms around Hunters Hill, notably on former Joubert properties and they seem to me natural memorials to the neophytes from the Pacific who traveled to and toiled in Sydney.

Last year, I published a poem, “Rites of Passage”, in Snorkel magazine in which I reflect upon the largely hidden history of these early Pacific Island (unpaid, slave?) workers in Sydney.

Rites of Passage

Port Jackson at last
months of seasickness
some schooling in Wallis
a local temptress
bless me Father
you mumbled
almost sincerely
in the stranger’s tongue
and now Sydney town
and the mission house
promises of scriptural instruction
French perfection
a lesson in civilisation
in the Australian haven
of the Marist order

With ecclesiastic fanfare
you, newly baptised Polynesians
future catechists
soon-to-be spreaders of the Word
receive first communion
at Saint Mary’s cathedral
and you wonder why
there are so many spectators
to mark the occasion
with curious gaze
suffocated white glove giggles
and whispers of cannibal taming
under the holy roof

While cutting, hewing, lugging
Pyrmont yellow block
with its smooth texture
and sensuous ripple lines
left by the flow of an ancient river
you also ponder
exactly what biblical enlightenment
the Marists are bestowing upon you
in this quarry
as you toil and sweat
in Saunders’ Purgatory
Hellhole best avoided
Paradise if you are lucky
harvesting God quality stone
for the churches
you will build
back in Wallis and Samoa

The scraps of learning
imparted by candlelight
as you fuel your shattered bodies
with morsels of bread and miserly broth
will have to suffice
for now
the schooner
heavy in the water
packed with the sacred rock
a few bibles, robes, Catholic paraphernalia
and worldly provisions
is ready to sail
for the Islands

And you, newly confirmed Polynesians
catechists in training
a few with silicosis cough
will return
to labour
for free
some to preach
forever in indenture
to the cloth
others just until
the pull
of your cosmos
prevails

©Karin Speedy 2016

* John Hosie has written at length on the Marists in Australia in Hosie, John. 1987. Challenge: The Marists in Colonial Australia. Sydney: Allen & Unwin.

Speedy, Karin. 2016. “Rites of Passage” original poem first published in Snorkel literary magazine, issue 23, http://snorkel.org.au/023/speedy.html

Hunters 3