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?
the ankles of
reflecting amber light
to snake around
her bourgeois breasts
a rather daring
a stand out
in this English
No one sews
on Papa’s order
in Sydney town
full of hats
and the most exquisite
the sumptuous vista
by the foliage
of a flourishing
the two ladies
on the colonial verandah
a wilted waltz
in the stifling
What brings them here
these bronzed youths
from their homes
in the South Seas?
the exploited workers
the unpaid builders
of Papa’s Paradise
and a slice of
© Karin Speedy 2016
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 Reunion. Facing increasing destitution as the sugar industry went bust, a move to a new colony was an opportunity 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 Reunionese, somewhat 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 a 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.
a certain coziness
west to east
north to south
black to almost
in shackled flesh
the frothy skirts
of settler society
served with kari
A new beginning
a second chance
a new family
© Karin Speedy 2016
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.
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.
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
No sleep for you
lying prone on lice straw mattress
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
you thrash and whimper
Pilgrimage aboard a saintly vessel
port, then town, then hermitage
sweet solid walled tranquillity
healing holy scarification
relocating your vocation
to another Oceanic destiny
©Karin Speedy 2016
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
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
in the stranger’s tongue
and now Sydney town
and the mission house
promises of scriptural instruction
a lesson in civilisation
in the Australian haven
of the Marist order
With ecclesiastic fanfare
you, newly baptised Polynesians
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
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
some to preach
forever in indenture
to the cloth
others just until
of your cosmos
©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
My dear friend and colleague Alice Te Punga Somerville and I coined the phrase “all roads lead to Joubert” after almost every research project I undertook seemed to involve in some way, shape or form Didier Numa Joubert. Whether he was obtaining land from the New Caledonian governor for sugar plantations (land seized/stolen from local Kanak after they fled from colonial persecution following the killing of the settler Berard), organising a blackbirding expedition to the Pacific to furnish Reunionese sugar planters with slave labour or bringing Pacific Islanders into Sydney to work for the Marists, Didier was seemingly everywhere in and across the Pacific and Indian Oceans and Sydney in the second half of the 19th century.*
My research has mostly focused on the stories of those silenced or subdued by the exploits of men like Joubert and, while I am loathe to thrust yet another white colonial male into the limelight, I admit that he, the person, has intrigued me. I wondered what this trans-imperial man with his fingers in so many commercial pies, a man who seemed to be at the forefront of every opportunity for capitalist exploitation in the region, could have been like.
The Joubert file in the State Archives in Sydney contains information on the property speculation the Joubert family undertook in Hunters Hill and financial documents ad infinitum. It tells us very little about Didier and his family save they were very interested in the accumulation of money. The Joubert file in the Hunters Hill Museum, however, includes much more family history. Perhaps the most striking finds for me were the images, the portraits of this man. They seemed to speak, to reveal something of the character of this person who was part of Sydney high society despite the numerous scandals that he apparently shook off without too much trouble. On the way home from the archive, his pictures stored on my phone, a poem began to take shape. And this is what eventually emerged…
serious, rather dour
that you sat for
eyes averted and comfortably bourgeois
or the stouter
Speedy, Karin. 2008. “Out of the frying pan and into the fire: Reunionese immigrants and the sugar industry in nineteenth-century New Caledonia”, New Zealand Journal of French Studies, 29.2, 5-19.
Speedy, Karin. 2015. “The Sutton Case: the First Franco-Australian Foray into Blackbirding”, The Journal of Pacific History, 50, no. 3, 344-364.
Speedy, Karin. 2016. “Constructing Subaltern Silence in the Colonial Archive”, Journal of Australian Colonial History, 18, 95-114.
I’m flying over Australia. It is 4pm in Noumea and 7am in France.
Are writing and living really compatible?
Way down below I see four murky-green, oval lakes. A patchwork of enormous fields – brown, green, ochre and purple. Roads criss-crossing as far as the eye can see. The work of Titans: this continent is not of human proportions. The earth is red, ailing, it drags itself crawling towards the ocean, desperately, as if it has been on a long quest:
Drink, I want to drink you, she said, immerse myself in you. Look at me, I am dried up, cracked and broken down languishing here like this. I was a red desert.
I was a sierra divided into squares and triangles. A skeleton carried me.
Finally, I see you. At first you are like a dream, a mirage, a galaxy curled around itself, boiling hot swamp, silver mirror, desert of salt and white mud. I surround you, you act cool, like the sky or a milky way that fell to the ground by mistake: who put you there? And why?
The birds are flying too low, and you are too white!
And these roads are too empty and my destitution is solitary. My children gather together on the lovely coasts, the gulfs and the bays hemmed with foam, from where their sails take off in graceful swarms of butterflies.
They have built proud cities there, at the very doors of my distress.
Sometimes I call out to them: the wind, that red demon, blows from the desert and covers them with a shroud of my colours.
It covers the sun with bloodstained clouds. Then, they think about their land.
When I am alone, I get bored, I take the wind’s quill and I trace hieroglyphics on the sand.
Nobody sees them.
Or else, using the wind’s force, I take the mallet and I sculpt the earth: a phoenix, wings spread, a zebra, head lowered, a grotesque pelican and then, weary of it all, I give up – they no longer have any sense these lines, traits, scarification, the scabs of my heart lying open to the winds…
Death is blinding, like a sun without energy, a liquid sun, an immense ball of mud and salt.
The sun pumps out the last traces of water. Soon, not a single drop will be left. A new desert forever: I love you and I am killing you.
(The temperature is increasing: I feel it through the plane window which is burning to the touch). It is 6pm. We’ve now been flying for two hours.
The magic starts to fade.
This desert is a giant, breathing effigy, an anatomical plate. I see its veins, nerves, diverse humours and circulations, lymph and living flesh with its keloid scars of reddish-brown and other white marks (burns perhaps?). Its imperfections: warts, wrinkles and the bumps and scrapes of our good old earth, seen here as we can never see it anywhere else.
Here, she is naked, skeletal, laid bare.
Here, she survives, solitary, hostile, barren, and all her passions are etched on her skin.
Here are the long, black streaks of her suicide attempts. Here is her hair, dishevelled like that of a bolting thoroughbred mare, spirited, when she dreams of her wild love-making.
(Does the earth dream?)
Here is the embryo, that minuscule dot, that labyrinth of new-life-carrying vessels.
(Does the earth dream too of all the embryos, animal or vegetable, like a woman dreams of the stranger forming [strange mystery, monster or marvel] in her womb?)
Here is the placenta, the irrigated matrix of her dream. Here she is going tirelessly in search of food, the manna of the desert, she is looking by casting out, in all directions, her arteries, veins, arterioles and nerves, as delicate as the finest of leaflets.
Look! An outpost shining unusually brightly: microbes standing guard! (Is this the role of men in the desert?) And, all of the sudden, she casts out again further and further, the smaller river then the long, silver river woven from her demands.
For she is greedy, not for herself but for this gestating dream, a dream that she must carry to term.
She stretches out her legs, rips herself open and scratches around herself to bring back to her belly the substance of her chimeras. By searching so hard and wanting it so much, voilà a watering hole, a tiny one, then another, two, three, four, and then no more.
She sculpts the shapes of her desire and her weariness.
Calm returns. Until a new madness takes hold of her: to give birth to her fantasies. Or else go and drown herself in the other immensity, the Pacific Ocean, another great creator of fantasies.
When the earth cries, traces remain, chiselled on her cheeks and shoulders.
The earth trembles and breaks in two.
At 6.20pm: Uluru.
A crater like a hollow breast (perfect circle, very big), with an erect nipple in the centre. And all around, the earth’s great witching hour – she sends her couples in relief into a frenzied jive.
A man embraces her, she seems pacified. Pause.
Further in the distance: a group of rocks, an enormous flock of stones are grazing in solitude.
The foreground is clear: the first one is a woman lying down, pregnant, waiting for her merciful release with her face lifted toward the sky.
Further away again: men huddled together in the foetal position. Are they awaiting death?
Yet more mountains. A woman, her head raised, her long hair flying in the wind. Or that other woman, with a bird on her head, who is violently attacking a monster or is it a man? With contempt and disdain.
And then more: intertwined paintings and sculptures.
And more again: large canvases, a flight of colours, in matching shades, in a volley, violent slashes of colour or a profusion of pastels.
A dragon lying in a dried-up swamp of fire, another phoenix with a flaming crest, wings spread and the train of its long tail (or is it clutching a snake in its claws?)
And still more: a squad of little clouds of light, the first for hours! They move forward, or rather it’s our plane that is moving away from them, but their shadow remains still.
We’ve now been flying at nine hundred kilometres an hour for two and a half hours over this desert.
She (the earth) tells me her story, she writes it, draws it and sculpts it for me.
And her story is also my story:
When, oh when, poor things of this world, will we reach the sea? The water?
Floating veils of clouds go past, like curtains that we pull.
Like water spreading between these steamy isles… Like fog drowning the valley… And now it’s the sky’s turn to tell me his story, his struggle and his suffering.
A great gust of cloud arrives.
I feel nauseous: it is drizzling outside.
Suddenly, I open my eyes: fantastic scenery!
The earth has become the sky, the bottom is on top, everything has been inverted.
All of this is in me, all of this is mine:
So I throw out my octopus tentacles towards you. On this earth, so many gigantic serpents come slithering out at night and hide in her bowels by day!
Monsters from the dawn of time, they climb out to destroy the creature in the black of night.
As for me, I throw these huge green and black rings out to you, eye of the day.
Suddenly, I tense up, overcome by an icy pain that climbs in a wide, circular motion towards my heart. Once again I have lost trace of you, and my stealthy black chargers break free, dispersing in all directions. A faint light radiates the horizon: could it be You?
My tears of salt and blood have dried on my flat cheeks: where is my splendour?
I am she of wind and fire. My breasts have dried up. My emaciated belly is barren!
And yet I conceal gold and diamonds and the powerful uranium that promotes men to the level of gods and the rarest minerals of all the colours of the rainbow.
My misery and my strength.
My death is rebirth!
Written by Hélène Savoie translated from the French by Karin Speedy
© Karin Speedy 2010
Speedy, Karin and Savoie, Hélène. Les Terres de la demi-lune / Half-Moon Lands. Bilingual edition, Translated and with a Critical Introduction by Karin Speedy. ISBN: 978 2 296 11771 6. L’Harmattan: Paris, 2010. (280 pages)