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

Colonial Curtains

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…

Didier’s Drapes

There’s a portrait of you

young-joubert

Didier Numa Joubert, Joubert file, Hunters Hill Museum

serious, rather dour

with strangely dead eyes
for such a young man
with a fulsome life
of adventure, toil, scheming, scandal
and some serious money-making
ahead of you
The portrait of you
shirt open like a sea trader
shiftily handsome with your
high cheekbones and masculine brow
and those eyes that refuse my gaze
is now in the Hunters Hill museum
unceremoniously filed
in a yellowing Manila folder
stuffed full of family history
This portrait of you
a watercolour

that you sat for

rock-hounds

Joubert file, Hunters Hill Museum

eyes darkly to the side
with cash transactions
deals and deceptions
swirling around
your businessman brain
was later reproduced
to serve as a Christmas card
“I thought it would interest you
Rock hounds of Hunters Hill”
scrawled on the back
“our warmest wishes to you
for the New Year”
Did you ever imagine that your
pinched-lipped portrait
devoid of joy
would be used in place of
holly or Father Christmas
or sleigh bells or baby Jesus
to send Christmas greetings
your image an emblem of that manicured
sandstone beacon
of French village life
on the edge of the
Parramatta?
I had always known you
in other portraits
or photos
taken in later life
the mutton-chop profile
of a middle-aged man

eyes averted and comfortably bourgeois

old-joubert

Joubert file, Hunters Hill Museum

or the stouter

fully-bewhiskered
grand-père
in a black suit
with your eyes firmly shut
This painted portrait of you
a man in his twenties
clean-shaven, straight-nosed
slightly unruly
coal-coloured curls
teasing your forehead
is different, striking, unnerving
It’s the eyes
those curiously
dead
eyes
for man in the bloom of youth
Yes, in this candid portrait of you, Didier
you had not quite learned the art
of curtaining
your windows
Karin Speedy ©2017
* See the following for details:
Hosie, John. 1987. Challenge: The Marists in Colonial Australia. Sydney: Allen & Unwin.
Speedy, Karin. 2007. Colons, Créoles et Coolies: L’immigration réunionnaise en Nouvelle-Calédonie (XIXe siècle) et le tayo de Saint-Louis. Paris: L’Harmattan.

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.

A Trip to Australia

799px-Uluru_(Helicopter_view)-crop

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

Reference

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)

Cuttings From a Pacific Garden

Today is National Poetry Day in Aotearoa! New Zealand is celebrating poets and poetry. Here is a poem I wrote in 2011 at a hui in Wellington on Pacific literature. It speaks to roots and renewal, themes that were very important to me at that moment and it pays homage to some of the most influential New Zealand and Pasifika writers. Poets, I love you!
800px-Frangipani_flowers
Cuttings from a Pacific Garden
 
For Albert Wendt
 
I cried for Alistair Campbell last night
I cried for Alistair Te Ariki Campbell
and his house perched
on that windy mountain
overlooking Kapiti Island
and Te Rauparaha.
 
How solitary.
No, I wouldn’t have lived there either
but he had Meg
almost to the end.
 
You introduced me to him, actually.
More than twenty years ago now –
can it really be that long?
I loved him from the first page.
When I say I loved him
I mean his words
his poetry
his magic.
 
I cried for Alistair Campbell this morning.
At 5.27am
my tears had formed little pools
in the indent and crevasses of my Novotel pillow.
 
I thought of those cuttings in your garden
so obviously symbolic
yet utterly disarming.
 
They have grown, survived, thrived.
They are us, all of us
who have loved
Alistair
and Hone
and Epeli
and John Pule
and Patricia Grace
and so many others
and you, of course –
writers from our part of the world
whose stories and poetry
speak to us in rhythms familiar
who speak to us
touch us
move us
make us cry at 5.27am in the morning.
 
Just like those precious yet hardy cuttings
from Alistair Te Ariki Campbell’s garden
you nurtured us and
let us grow
strong.
 
Last night
the new generation of Pacific poets
held their Te Papa audience captive.
Their voices
joyous
angry
questioning
poignant
proud
beautiful.
 
Last night I cried for Alistair Campbell.
Last night I also smiled for those poets
and all of us
cuttings from your garden.
© Karin Speedy 2015
First published in ‘Piercing the White Space, Blackmail Press, 41, 2015

Shouting through the Silence

DN Joubert

From Hunter’s Hill Museum Archives, Sydney

As any readers of this blog have gathered, I have a bit of a thing for archives, particularly the colonial archive. Archives house myriad, if mediated, stories of much of our past. Yet, as a mirror of the societies they recorded, they are notorious for their selective exclusions and tendency to allow the voices of the privileged and powerful to resonate through the centuries. This is not to say that others are not there. They are. It’s just that they are not as loud, not as visible and the historian has to work harder to find them.

The exclusion of other/Indigenous/non-white voices was always part and parcel of the colonial project, an epistemic continuation of the everyday violence ‘subaltern’ people experienced during their lifetimes. Rereading the colonial archive through a postcolonial lens often enables recovery of the lost narratives and a retelling of colonial history that highlights Indigenous or subaltern agency and resistance. Historians, particularly those working on slave, convict and indentured labourers and other marginalised groups, engage with fragmented archival material in order to piece together the stories of those who have been excluded from the colonial archive and, until recently, colonial history.

Charroi-Beaufonds-Georgi

Beaufonds sugar factory (near st Benoit, Reunion) at the end of the 19th century, Henri Georgi, Centre des archives d’outre-mer, Wikipedia

In an article that has just been published called “Constructing Subaltern Silence in the Colonial Archive: An Australian Case Study”, I deconstruct an 1857 instance of kidnapping in the Pacific by a Sydney-based consortium of well-connected merchants and sea captains, headed by Didier-Numa Joubert. The Gilbert (I-Kiribati) and Solomon Islanders they ‘recruited’ were taken on board an old whaling ship, the Sutton, to Reunion Island in the Indian Ocean and sold into indenture. In the article, instead of attempting to recover the voices of the Pacific Islanders, I focus on the methods by which their voices were silenced. A close reading of the archival documents available in the colonial archive (in London and Paris) allows me to describe the very deliberate production of subaltern silence and show how particular agents of empire, men with trans-imperial connections, were able to draw on these interconnections, knowledge and experience to create and exploit it.

Map_OC-Oceania

Despite the thorough, cynical and ruthless efforts to obfuscate the voices of the Pacific Islanders on the part of the men holding the power in this ‘transaction’, the gaps left by so many untruths speak volumes. The ghosts reposing in the interstices of the archive can, indeed, speak. While I was writing my academic article, concentrating on teasing out a recipe for the construction of subaltern silence, I was also listening to these ghostly revelations. As I am apt to do, I turned to creative writing to express them, writing a longish poem that experiments with polyphonous voices. It expresses what I understand to be the most likely version of events. And here it is.

Secrets of the Sutton

Her whaling days over
leaky, saggy, weighed down
with blubbery death stench
the Sutton
a Baltimore clipper-built barque
18th century relic
unseaworthy really
receives a cheap lick and spit

She’ll be good
for one more
South Sea
adventure

Villainous voyage
quick fire trickery
fast money plunder
for her slick talking owner
and duplicitous
filibuster crew

Marist collusion
or cynical suggestion
of non-existent missionary middle-men
coconut-oil tales of
short sojourns
on a neighbouring isle
a pound of tobacco
in return
for copra dreams

A pair of Judas beachcombers
fair weather interpreters
embark to aid
the kidnapping mariners

Come hither
strapping young men of the Gilberts
your brown bodies our bread
your muscles our meat
inspect below decks
mind the swivel guns
no we’re not slavers
but we’ll lock the hold
as we haul anchor
and head out to sea

Solomon Islands
ideal dumping ground
for mutinous Micronesians
knife-wielding prospective assassins
according to sailor testimony
one on New Georgia
the other one…

where was it again?
no one can quite recall

tossed out trussed up
no food or water
life expectancy measured
in hours not days

Fourteen Solomons bondsmen
traded for shiny glass trinkets
join fifty-one Gilbertese captives
packed in tight down below
sixty-six days
of suffering and gagging
on putrid dank air
whale flesh planks
unwashed bodies
fear
vomit
human excreta
bilge water slops underfoot

In the cabin are
muskets and pistols
cutlasses and axes
gunpowder and canisters
an arsenal to save us
from native rebellion
to keep us safe from
the savages down there

Disembark the cargo
on the Isle of Bourbon
France’s sugar bowl
in the Indian Ocean
1848 emancipation
leaving a desperate craving
for slave replacements
on boom production plantations

Top price fetched
for fresh strong flesh
Pacific Islanders snatched up by planters
on five-year French indentures
for forty pounds sterling a head
Coconut and tobacco promises
exposed as nowt
but fraudulences…
the seamen decamp
to British Mauritius
where petty jealousies play out
on the imperial stage

Those bloody Frogs!

Governor Stevenson sniffs slavery
statements solicited
but not from the Islanders
muted and left to their cane-cutting fates
yarns spun criss-crossing
fact with fanciful fiction
flurry of indignant diplomatic dispatches

What, they’re not our natives?
Nevermind
Nothing more we can do

Sham enquiry over
scandal hits Sydney
headlines scream high sea irregularities
kidnapping
privateering
slaving
these dastardly acts
damaging money-making prospects
with South Sea cannibals
so ripe for exploiting
furious merchants
pen letters to the editor
their ocean-going
capitalist
dreams
at stake

The captain should swing!

Ship owner Joubert
backed by French consul
deftly dismisses attacks on his honour

Outrageous accusations!
Nothing untoward
occurred on board
a French sanctioned delegate was present
no laws were broken
no harm was done
no persuasion needed
the natives were more than willing
why, they were happy ship helpers
of course they knew what they were signing
those beachcomber interpreters
double-dealing scoundrels trying to scam us
pay them no heed

Lie, defy, deny
expert extrication
establishment players emerge from the mêlée
rich man reputations intact
no charges laid

It was all above board
a legal business transaction

Newspapers fall quiet
blackbirding implicitly sanctioned
Queensland’s future assured

What of the abductees from the Islands?
How did they fare on faraway fields?
Did they find their way back to the Pacific?
Or were they buried an ocean away?

No news of the men
caught in this nefarious traffic
nothing to report
no update
no footnote
the colonial conspiracy
to banish their voices
to hide their stories
to silence the archive
creates
an echoing void of indifference
that violently shouts
the truth
from the page

©Karin Speedy 2016

For further details on this incident see:

Speedy, Karin. 2015. “The Sutton Case: the First Franco-Australian Foray into Blackbirding,” The Journal of Pacific History, 50, no. 3, 344-364.
DOI:  dx.doi.org/ (for those with institutional access).

Speedy, Karin. 2015. “Sydney’s Global Slavery Scandal of 1857”, Imperial & Global Forum, imperialglobalexeter.com/2015/ (free access to this blog post).

Speedy, Karin. 2016. “Constructing subaltern silence in the colonial archive: An Australian case study”, Journal of Australian Colonial History, Vol. 18, Jul 2016: 95-114.

Malabar Woman

Sometimes we can be quite surprised by the seething raft of connections and currents running through our work and which can touch us in our everyday lives. Quite by chance, one of my friends had posted on Facebook the very famous poem À une Malabaraise by icon of French poetry, Charles Baudelaire, just as I was writing a paper on the forced migration of Malabar workers from La Réunion to New Caledonia. It hit a nerve. It infuriated me. The gaze of this young, white, Frenchman, however full of spleen and revolution he may have been, upon the body of the Malabar (Indian) woman seemed such a textbook example of a certain type of leery colonialism, that I immediately had to respond. If he had been standing in front of me, I would have slapped his smarmy face. Instead, I wrote this poem. Yes, yes, I know he was critiquing France by trying to say it didn’t hold a candle to (a perfectly exoticised) Reunion Island. Still, if he were here, this is what I would say to him over a glass or ten of absinthe

 

Malabar Woman
Baudelaire
you pervy bastard
objectifying
exoticizing
eroticizing
velvet-eyed
wide-hipped
dark-skinned
Beauty

She whose bare feet
caress the dirt
as she saunters
sensuously
toward the market
her delicate arms
laden with fruits
of the tropical
persuasion
hurrying home
to that benevolent
Master

Is it you
in your dreams?
Does she light
your pipe?
Chase away
those pesky
mosquitoes
that so torment one
in the colonies?
Does she sing to you
in a low
throaty voice
thrilling
in its
Otherness?
Do you visit her
in her hut
as she lies
vulnerable
on her mat?
Oh Baudelaire
you really aren’t
that romantic
are you?
Painting such a cliché
dredged from
a white man
Fantasy

And then once you
have had your
exotic
erotic
poetic
moment
with she of the
flimsy
filmy
go on
you might as well say it
transparent
sari
you cast her off
like a used hanky
to fall into
some eager
Sailor’s
arms
And you imagine
a foul
fetid
future
for the girl who once
kept her Master
in fresh water
and his house
smelling of sweet
perfume

You relocate
dislocate
suffocate
incarcerate
the flesh
of your belle
Malabaraise
You decorate her eye
with nostalgia
for her life
in her natural
habitat
fulfilling
her natural
role
subservient
servant
of
Empire

But her body
now for sale
on the grey streets
of Paris
was never free
will never be free
at home
or in exile

She is Beauty
she is coolie woman
she is the subject/object
trapped
in your poem

Let her be
Baudelaire
let her be

©Karin Speedy 2016