Flame Tree

CMwofqeVAAEGFqDFlame trees (les flamboyants) have become somewhat ubiquitous in New Caledonia. They are, however, exotic plants, native to Madagascar. They arrived in New Caledonia with the first Reunionese settlers who disembarked in the early 1860s. A sugar crisis in Reunion, France’s previously booming sugar island in the Indian Ocean, forced large numbers of people who had relied on the sugar industry for their livelihoods to migrate to France’s newest colony in the Pacific. There they would help set up New Caledonia’s sugar industry, bringing their expertise and equipment (sugar processing machinery in parts that they would put back together on arrival). They also brought seeds, plants, foodstuffs, recipes, language, songs, customs etc. from Reunion to New Caledonia.

Curiously, the 19th century Reunionese migration to New Caledonia was little known. History books mentioned the arrival of a few rich, white, sugar planters and Indian “coolies” who had come expressly for the production of sugar. However, it was claimed that few actually stayed, moving on to Australia, other Pacific Islands or France when the New Caledonian sugar industry crashed in the 1880s.

The reality was far different. Hidden from the official narratives, almost erased from the colonial archive, their stories silenced, their faces whitewashed, were the thousands of black and mixed race Reunionese who also made the journey from the Indian Ocean to the Pacific. Many of these migrants were former slaves or descendants of slaves (slavery was abolished in 1848 in the French colonies) and were highly valued sugar workers or tradespeople.

The French law proscribing any mention of race for French citizens teamed with the New Caledonian tradition of the “non-dit” (the unspoken or unsaid) meant that this important group of black founding settlers was forgotten, left out, excluded from  official New Caledonian history.

In a number of publications since 2007 (see below for references), I have uncovered the existence and started to tell some of the stories of this hidden group of settlers.

I have reproduced below a poem I wrote about the extraordinary life of Marie-Alexandrine Elphège (pictured). She is the great-grandmother of Chris Vidal who has been sharing her family’s oral history with me. I look forward to talking more about this in future posts.


Marie-Alexandrine Elphège

©2015, source: Chris Vidal

Flame Tree or Portrait of a Reunionese Woman in New Caledonia circa 1908

A warm day in sleepy Ouégoa
and you would much rather
be sitting
legs stretched straight out in front of you
on the grass
embraced by the shade
of the cool flame tree
eating achards
or bread and chillies
or lychees
freeing the sweet flesh
from the shell
the pulpy goodness
slipping down your throat
as you spit the seeds
on the soil
to settle
like your many children
in this Southern Pacific isle

Instead here you are
uncomfortably elegant
trussed up in this unforgiving costume
of black fabric
with a peep of white ruffle
and lace
wound tightly around your neck
heavy petticoats and ample overskirt
obscuring your sturdy limbs
whose muscles bear witness
even now
to your prowess as a horsewoman
riding for hours through the bush
to help
to heal
to gather herbs
to deliver new life
a wise woman and sage-femme
and a little feared
by the other broussards
both exotic and native
in this Southern Pacific isle

Your tiny brown hands
disguised by the hide
of creamy kid gloves
grip the wicker chair
a photographer’s prop
that dwarfs
your diminutive frame
a ti paille en queue
who crossed the oceans
bidding adieu to the craggy cliffs
the volcanic soil
the cirques
the sugar plantations
and the social stigma
of your slave name,
fleeing Bourbon’s impoverished shores
centuries of knowledge
stored deep within
to be shared with your daughters
and no one else.
“It must not be said”
le non-dit
guardian of all manner of family skeletons
in this Southern Pacific isle

A miner’s widow
this is not a familiar ritual
but you handle it with aplomb
posing with your absent husband
standing rigid
head intelligently cocked
black eyes staring directly through the generations
in front of a hastily erected damask
that does a poor job of
the corrugated iron
and wooden crates
that decorate
your garden.
You think of the flame tree
a living memory of your past
brought on the boat
as a sapling
now flowering
brilliant red
and providing cover
as its roots
spread wider
in plain sight
like your people
in this Southern Pacific isle

©Karin Speedy 2015 First published in “Piercing the white space”, Blackmail Press no. 41, 2015.


Speedy, Karin. 2014. “Les Réunionnais oubliés du Caillou : un terrain de recherche multi-situé et pluridisciplinaire traversant temps et espace” in Véronique Fillol and Pierre-Yves Le Meur (eds.), Terrains océaniens : enjeux et méthodes, L’Harmattan: Paris, 267-283.

Speedy, Karin. 2012. “From the Indian Ocean to the Pacific: Affranchis and Petits- Blancs in New Caledonia”, Portal Journal of Multidisciplinary International Studies, Special Issue: Indian Ocean Traffic. http://dx.doi.org/10.5130/portal.v9i1.2567

Speedy, Karin. 2009. “Who were the Reunion Coolies of Nineteenth-Century New Caledonia?”, Journal of Pacific History, 44:2, September, pp. 123-140. http://dx.doi.org.simsrad.net.ocs.mq.edu.au/10.1080/00223340903142090

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, pp. 5-19.

Speedy, Karin. 2007. Colons, Créoles et Coolies: L’immigration réunionnaise en Nouvelle-Calédonie (XIXe siècle) et le tayo de Saint-Louis. Paris : L’Harmattan.


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