The Lost and Found column in colonial newspapers

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Perhaps the most fascinating thing about archival work is the volume of ever-so-interesting-yet-not-related-to-what-you-are-actually-researching snippets of life that you notice (and get distracted by) along the way. Much of my research centres on the Colonial archive, particularly the archives pertaining to New Caledonia. 251px-Loyalty_Islands_mapA few years ago, I combed through thousands of pages of Le Moniteur de la Nouvelle-Calédonie, the local newspaper and mouthpiece of the colonial administration in Noumea from 1862-1886, looking for traces of Reunionese settlers and sugar workers for my research projects. Whilst perusing shipping arrivals, news stories, local decrees and so forth, I became intrigued by the curious and very frequent advertisements in the “objets trouvés” (Lost and Found) column. These ads catalogued all manner of everyday (and occasionally bizarre) items that appeared to be of immense value to their owners.
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The objects, often personal accoutrements made of metal or textiles, almost always manufactured, seemed to represent tangible traces of “civilisation” in the “wild” colonial space in which their owners found themselves. While the columns sometimes listed expensive items, many of the things held so dear by the colonisers were nothing more than cheap baubles. Yet,  there they were, occupying column inches in the newspaper. Of course, I began to wonder about the stories behind these material things brought from Europe to the far-flung Pacific colony. And I also speculated on how various items became lost in the first place…
While my imaginatiodunst18700304-2-11-2-a1-332w-c32-782-146-664-13681n ran wild, I also thought about the hideous irony of the invading people fretting about lost trinkets while they were busying themselves dispossessing the indigenous Kanak of their land and livelihoods (not to mention their lives). Naturally, none of these more significant losses featured in the lost and found columns in the colonial newspaper.
TS18690828.2.12.1-a1-445w-c32-119-5371-889-921None of this is peculiar to New Caledonia, of course. The few examples of lost and found ads I have posted here are from New Zealand newspapers and they reflect an almost identical preoccupation with man-made consumer goods from the home country. Similar ads litter the Australian colonial press and I am sure the same sort of announcement can be found in newspapers in any former colony. For me, however, it was the New Caledonian “colonial rag” and its “objets trouvés” that inspired the following poem.
——-
Objets Trouvés in the New Caledonian Archives
 
Intriguing
a button
in the Lost and Found column
of the colonial rag
a brass button
no longer shiny
a bit tarnished
fallen
or torn
from some
sweaty settler’s
well-worn
coat
quite unsuited to
tropical climes
cut in the fashion
of a decade
ago
a dull
discoloured
metal
button
precious
obviously
as it occupies space
in the Lost and Found
column of the colonial rag
 
much like the
pair of trousers
lost too
on the side of the road
down in a ditch
thick
rough
cloth
kicked off
chafed
pasty
legs
in a moment of passion
with a pock-faced pute
imported from Ireland
via Sydney
or a duskier maiden
surely missed
in the morning
by the sharecropper
in shirt-tails
once the
whisky
had worn off
 
titillating
and clearly
treasured
as they occupy space
in the Lost and Found
column of the colonial rag
 
Buttons
trousers
thimbles
brooches
handkerchiefs
hairpins
stirrups
boots
all lost
or found
all
cherished
evidently
as they occupy space
in the Lost and Found
column of the colonial rag
 
fertile land
terraced taro gardens
freedom of movement
languages
autonomy
severed heads
on pikes
or preserved in alcohol
all lost
none found
of no value
obviously
absent
unsurprisingly
from the Lost and Found
column of the colonial rag
© Karin Speedy 2015
First published in “Piercing the White Space”, Blackmail Press, 41 .
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