Saint-Louis: the New Caledonian Marist Mission Station turned Creole/Melanesian Village

Saint-Louis%2c New Caledonia

Saint-Louis, photo credit: Karin Speedy

The Pacific of the 19th century was not only theatre to trans-imperial (British/French) secular tensions, but was also a battleground between Protestant and Catholic for the souls of the indigenous peoples of the region. Reading Tony Ballantyne’s discussion in Entanglements of Empire of the spatial history of Protestant mission stations in New Zealand and his description of them as contact zones of cross-cultural exchange and contest, I was struck by the similarity of the discourses produced in the Catholic mission stations of the Marists in New Caledonia.[1] Interestingly, despite the missionaries’ evident aims of Europeanisation, the mission stations emerged in both New Zealand and New Caledonia as sites of cultural mixing, negotiation, struggle and, ultimately, in the case of Saint-Louis in New Caledonia, creolisation.

While the Marists were itinerant in New Zealand, they established several mission stations in New Caledonia, the largest and most important being at Saint-Louis, some 17 kilometres from Noumea. I have written quite extensively on the emergence of Tayo, the Pacific’s only documented French creole language, which is the community language of Saint-Louis.[2] While I will not go into the details of the complex linguistic processes at work in the formation of the language this post, I want to show how important it is to have a clear and detailed historical picture of the nature and workings of a space in which a creole language emerged. In doing so, I will be deconstructing some of the more simplistic claims that the Marist mission station was a site of first contact or beginning point for the new language.

What was the function of a mission station?

For the Marists in New Caledonia, the mission station was a vital instrument in the civilising mission, a place where they settled Kanak (Melanesian) converts from different parts of New Caledonia, separating them from their families, to train them as catechists or to school them in European ways.[3] Alongside the schools and seminary, the Saint-Louis mission station had a strong agricultural focus. For the mission station to remain self-sufficient, the Kanak neophytes had to spend many hours per day toiling in the fields. They cultivated food crops, built a saw mill and a grain mill before the Marists moved into large-scale sugar production, constructing a sugar mill and rum distillery. At this point, the work took on plantation-like proportions with many Kanak providing what was in essence slave labour for the missionaries.

missiond

Saint-Louis, E. Dardoize, reproduced in Speedy 2007a with permission

Work, along with schooling in the French language and religious instruction were the foundation blocks the Marists used to ‘civilise’ their Kanak converts. Father Rougeyron, one of the founders of Saint-Louis, took his cue from Marist intervention among the French peasantry when he gave Saint-Louis the double vocation of Model Farm and technical training centre for young Melanesians. In 1867, Rougeyron wrote with delight to his niece of the ‘progress’ made by the indigenous converts:

What we are doing here is what monks used to do back in France. We group people  around us and get them to clear the land. We teach them how to work and be good Christians. You really should see them – how happy they are! [4]

The multilingual founders of Saint-Louis and the beginnings of Tayo

AiresCoutumieresNC

Linguistic Map of New Caledonia, source LACITO-CNRS 2011, reproduced in Speedy 2014 with permission

New Caledonia is a linguistically diverse space with over 30 indigenous languages spoken. In descriptions of Tayo, linguists Chris Corne and Sabine Ehrhart put forward 1860 as the foundation date, a sort of ground zero, when the Marists successfully established a mission station at Saint-Louis.[5] They set up camp with neophytes from Touho in the north (speakers of Cèmuhî) and were soon joined by Kanak from the surrounding areas in the far south (speakers of Drubea and Numèè). In 1880, Kanak from Bouloupari (speakers of Xârâcùù and Xârâguré) fleeing French reprisals following the 1878 Franco-Kanak war arrived at the mission. The village of Saint-Louis developed along ethno-linguistic lines, with the emergence of four distinct quarters, each with its own distinct and mutually unintelligible Melanesian language. This linguistic diversity meant that the neophytes needed to form a language of intra-village communication, which provided the incentive for the creation of Tayo.[6]

11230847_10205769993721036_3652364760950795270_n

The Melanesian Village of Saint-Louis, reproduced with permission in Speedy 2007a

However, this depiction of a Pacific Babel needs to be nuanced. Considering the history of contact that the founding Kanak converts had with the Marists and other   Europeans, the assumption that they would not have been able to communicate with each other is highly doubtful. As I explain below, the first Kanak to arrive in Saint-Louis, the Touho and a smaller group from Pouébo-Balade, would have already had French as a second language or at least a pidgin which they used to communicate with the Marists. Some of them may have spoken French well. The later arrivals from the far south and Bouloupari would most likely have had some command of the local New Caledonian French-based pidgin which they would have been able to introduce in the interim to communicate with both the Marists and other neophytes at Saint-Louis. This French-based pidgin came about after French annexation (1853) and subsequent contact between Kanak and French administrators and colonists. According to Hollyman (1964:58), it developed from the beach-la-mar or English-based pidgin spoken in New Caledonia from the 1840s through trade and was spoken throughout the 19th century. It contained French, English, Polynesian and Melanesian elements.[7]

What is more, the Marists were not monolingual French speakers either. From their arrival and first installation at Balade in the north of the main island in 1843, they started learning local languages. Initially operating via the Polynesian lingua franca that Kanak and Europeans had been using since first contact,[8] the missionaries learned the language of Balade and then tried to learn the languages of the peoples in their later installations. In 1851, François Leconte wrote of the missionaries:

Missionaries who have previously sojourned in either Tonga or Wallis Island therefore have a distinct advantage over their fellow clergymen as they can make themselves understood in almost all parts of the island before having studied the language of the tribe [that they are attempting to convert].[9]

Of the first Marists to arrive in New Caledonia, Father Viard, who had a good command of Tongan, led the evangelisation. It took Monsignor Douarre and Father Rougeyron about a year to learn the local Kanak language. In 1845, Father Rougeyron wrote of his initial struggle with this linguistic task:

The language of the New Caledonians seems very difficult to me, both because of its characteristics that are so different from our European languages and because of its pronunciation. As the only Europeans on this island, with no interpreters and no grammar or vocabulary books […] we have had enormous challenges to overcome. In the last three months we have started to babble in New Caledonian and give some instruction [to the New Caledonians].[10]

That same year, Father Rougeyron, whose language skills steadily improved, began work on his dictionary. In 1860, Rougeyron’s Dictionnaire de Pouébo et d’Ouvéa was completed.

As Kanak contact with European whalers, sandalwood and bêche-de-mer traders increased from the 1840s, the language of communication, which had initially been via the Polynesian vehicular language, shifted to an English-based pidgin that originated in New South Wales or the New Hebrides (Vanuatu). Once French settlement got underway and the gallicisation of the indigenous population began, a local French-based pidgin developed. After coexisting for about fifteen years, the French-based pidgin replaced the English-based pidgin by about 1875-1880.[11] As the Kanak began speaking these European-based pidgins, the Marists were also able to   use them as languages of evangelisation.

Nevertheless, learning the local Melanesian language continued to remain high on the agenda for the missionaries. When the three Marist Sisters arrived at La Conception in 1858, for instance, we are told that along with teaching the children French, teaching the women to sew and taking care of the sick, they were also expected to learn the local Kanak languages. The Marists and the neophytes of Saint-Louis, then, would most certainly have had ways of communicating with each other.

In addition to learning Kanak languages, the Marists naturally began teaching French to their converts. This was the practice from their first installations at Balade and Pouébo. They used to take young people, the children of chiefs in particular, under their tutelage to teach them language and literacy.[12] These educated converts then became intermediaries in the Marists’ dealings with other Kanak. When, in 1847, the Marists were forced to temporarily flee their northern installation, they took the young people with them on their travels – to the New Hebrides, Sydney, the Ile of Pines, Yaté and Futuna. Once the group returned to Balade and Pouébo in 1851, these young people participated in the foundation of new mission stations.[13]

La Conception and Colonial Machinations

map nc

In 1855, after a series of failures elsewhere, Father Rougeyron decided to set up a mission station at La Conception in the south of the colony, not far from (what is today) Noumea. He took with him 120 converts from Balade. In 1856, 90 converts from Touho and 158 from Pouébo joined them. These neophytes lived together for four to five years at La Conception before the Marists took a group of 30 of them to set up the nearby Saint-Louis reduction.[14]

Unsurprisingly, the settling of hundreds of northern Kanak in southern New Caledonia was greeted enthusiastically by the local military administrators who saw the mission stations as providing a buffer zone between the fledgling civilian settlement in Port-de-France (Noumea) and the local Kanak. They also regarded the converts as allies in their quest to rid the south of its “hostile” indigenous population in order to seize their lands for farming. They used the converts as guides and soon asked them to participate in the military campaigns against the local so-called “rebel” tribes. The converts were rewarded with provisions, booty and children, who they had taken prisoner and who they were allowed to take to La Conception to be raised in “Christian families”.[15]

The foundation members of Saint-Louis, then, had been with the Marists for at least four or five years. Some of them, especially those who the Marists had taken under their wing as young people, may well have been living alongside the Marists for much longer. Some also had contact with the French and other Europeans through military service and public works. It is improbable, then, that they did not already have some command of French.

Local pidgins

The first language of communication at Saint-Louis could not, as Corne and Ehrhart have argued, have been a pidgin that came about at Saint-Louis itself after 1860 solely due to the diversity of Kanak languages spoken there. Rather, most of the converts were multilingual prior to their arrival at Saint-Louis. They had Kanak languages that they could use to communicate with people from their own clan – we must not forget too that most would have spoken more than one Kanak language due to the tradition of societal multilingualism in New Caledonia. They also would have had command of the pidgins (French and/or English-based) which were widely used as vehicular languages in the colony at this time. Some, particularly those who travelled with the Marists as children, would have attained a good level of French. Right from the beginning, then, the linguistic ecology of the mission station at Saint-Louis was more complex than linguists have portrayed it to date.

Bi- and multilingualism would have been the norm rather than the exception with the evangelising and civilising mission of the Marists pushing everyone towards French. Could Tayo have grown out of the local pidgins that underwent expansion and modification by the various Melanesian, European and other languages spoken at Saint-Louis? Later arrivals at Saint-Louis would have reinforced the pidginised elements in the emerging creole. The input of the New Caledonian pidgins could perhaps account for the retention of “generalised” Melanesian features in Tayo that Jeff Siegel has argued for in other contact languages.[16]

The name of the language ‘Tayo’ comes from the Polynesian and subsequent pidgin word ‘tayo’ (friend) which designated the Kanak man as opposed to the Kanak woman (‘popinée’ – again from Polynesian ‘wahine’) in colonial New Caledonia. Other lexical items that entered via pidgin, such as ‘poka’ (pig), are also found in Tayo (cf. Ehrhart 1993: 115).[17] If you are interested in grammatical and other linguistic transfers, see my 2014 article here.

Complex contact situations

The development of a new language is very complex. It is important to understand   the historical context and linguistic ecology of a creolophone society at the time the creole was developing if we hope to comprehend why or how the language came into being. This short reanalysis of the founding of Saint-Louis indicates that the mission station was not a ground zero where people who had never encountered each other before came into first contact. Instead, there had been a history of interaction between the Marists and the converts as well as with other Europeans prior to the settlement in the far south. The French input into the creole language was not as simple as the label ‘Marist French’ implies as the Marists were (unevenly) multilingual and may have reinforced (consciously or not) the transfer of elements from the Kanak languages and the Polynesian, English and French pidgins that they spoke. Moreover, the French of the Marists was not standardised and they would have had regional variations as evidenced in their letters.

The Kanak input consisted of four or five mutually unintelligible Melanesian languages that shared a number of general grammatical patterns as well as similar worldviews. The Melanesian features may have entered directly or indirectly through the pidgin of the first arrivals which was reinforced over the first twenty years of settlement as new pidgin-speaking converts arrived.

girls

Sister Marie-de-la-Croix and her Saint-Louis “girls”, reproduced in Speedy 2007a with permission

I have not had space to discuss the important role that the mission-educated girls (Kanak and Kanak-European girls) had in the creation of the creole but they certainly transmitted not only their reportedly “good” second language French into Tayo but also most likely reinforced the transfer of Kanak features into the emerging creole.[18] Nor have I gone into the full complexity of the mission station once it moved into sugar production and the Kanak converts came into close contact with speakers of Reunion Creole, convict French and New Hebridean pidgin (Bislama) in the Saint-Louis fields. These all provided additional opportunity for input/influence/transfer, with Bislama perhaps reinforcing general Oceanic patterns in the emerging Tayo and Reunion Creole perhaps reinforcing emerging creole features.[19]

51g2jtN79dL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_

The peculiar space of the Marist mission station as a nexus of cross-cultural interaction and locus of tensions between evangelisation, civilising mission and capitalist production led to the development of Tayo. The mission station ultimately failed in its goal to produce Kanak missionaries who would return to their ancestral lands to convert their brethren. Most converts (men and women) opted to marry, stay in Saint-Louis and form a new “tribe” (les Saint-Louis). This new artificial regrouping of Melanesians from all over New Caledonia and others from diverse origins and backgrounds resulted in a creolised language and culture and a re-Melanesianisation of the appropriated European space.

 

NOTES

[1] Ballantyne, Tony. 2015. Entanglements of Empire: Missionaries, Maori, and the Question of the Body. Auckland: Auckland University Press.

[2] See, for example: Speedy, Karin. 2007a. Colons, Créoles et Coolies: L’immigration réunionnaise en Nouvelle-Calédonie (XIXe siècle) et le tayo de Saint-Louis. Paris: L’Harmattan., Speedy, Karin. 2007b. “Reunion Creole in New Caledonia: What influence on Tayo?”, Journal of Pidgin and Creole Languages, 22.2, 193-230, Speedy, Karin. 2014. “Reflections on creole genesis in New Caledonia”.  Acta Linguistica Hafniensia: International Journal of Linguistics, DOI: 10.1080/03740463.2014.897817.dx.doi.org/ (or the author accepted manuscript on academia.edu:  https://www.academia.edu/7749715/Reflections_on_creole_genesis_in_New_Caledonia

[3] See Speedy (2014) for extensive references for this post.

[4] My translation of a letter from Father Rougeyron to his niece dated 2 July, 1867. Copie de la correspondence du Père Rougeyron Nouvelle-Calédonie à sa famille 1843-1900, MSS 525/9

[5] In 1856, the Marists made a first attempt to set up a mission at Saint-Louis but it was abandoned due to hostilities from local Kanak.

[6] See, for instance: Corne, Chris. 1999. From French to Creole : the development of new vernaculars in the French colonial world. London: University of Westminster Press, Ehrhart, Sabine. 1993. Le créole français de St-Louis (le tayo) en Nouvelle-Calédonie. Hamburg: Buske.

[7] Hollyman, K. J. 1964. L’ancien pidgin français parlé en Nouvelle-Calédonie. Journal de la société des océanistes, 20.2, 57-64.

[8] Prior to European contact, small groups of Polynesians had at various times arrived and settled in parts of the east coast of New Caledonia and Uvea (where a Polynesian language, Faga Uvea, is still spoken today). Polynesian languages were thus spoken in New Caledonia and some lexical items entered local Melanesian languages. Initial contact with European explorers was facilitated by the presence of Polynesian languages and speakers, who sometimes acted as interpreters. Indeed, in Balade, Polynesian became the lingua franca for communication between European explorers, missionaries and traders (Hollyman, K. J. 2000. “Les pidgins anglais et français de la region calédonienne”, Observatoire du français dans le Pacifique. Etudes et documents, 13, 25-64). The Europeans used pidginised Polynesian (or Maritime Polynesian Pidgin) as reported by Drechsel (Drechsel, Emmanuel. 2007. “Sociolinguistic-ethnohistorical observations on Maritime Polynesian Pidgin in Herman Melville’s two major semi-autobiographical novels of the Pacific”, Journal of Pidgin and Creole Languages, 22.2, 231-261).

[9] Quoted in Hollyman (2000: 28).

[10] Letter from Father Rougeyron to Jean-Claude Colin, New Caledonia, 1 October 1845. Quoted in Essertel, Yannick. 2008. “L’évangélisation en Nouvelle-Calédonie et en Nouvelle-Zélande: etude comparative de deux phases pionnières entre 1838 et 1853”, in F. Angleviel and S. Levine (eds.), New Zealand – New Caledonia, Neighbours, Friends, Partners / La Nouvelle-Zélande et la Nouvelle-Calédonie, Voisins, amis, partenaires, Wellington: Victoria University Press, 83-106, 97.

[11] Hollyman (2000: 46-47).

[12] Essertel (2008: 99).

[13] Delbos, Georges. 1993. L’église catholique en Nouvelle-Calédonie. Un siècle et demi d’histoire. Paris: Desclée.

[14] Delbos (1993: 100-101).

[15] Dauphiné, Joël. 1995. Les débuts d’une colonisation laborieuse: le sud calédonien (1853-1860). Paris: L’Harmattan, 23-24, 31-32.

[16] See Siegel, Jeff. 2007. “Transmission and transfer”, in U. Ansaldo, S. Matthews and L. Lim (eds.), Deconstructing creole, Amsterdam: John Benjamins, 167-201.

[17] In the Loyalty Islands and some northern Kanak languages, the term ‘puaka’ is used to designate the pig and comes from Polynesian. Pidgin ‘poaka’, from English ‘porker’ appears to be the source of ‘poka’ or ‘poca’ as used in Kanak languages in the north and far south of New Caledonia.

[18] For details see: 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, no.1, https://www.academia.edu/3202762/Mission-Educated_Girls_in_19th_Century_Saint-Louis_and_their_Impact_on_the_Evolution_of_Tayo

[19] See Speedy (2007a,2007b,2014) for details.

Advertisements

One thought on “Saint-Louis: the New Caledonian Marist Mission Station turned Creole/Melanesian Village

  1. Pingback: World Poetry Day: Tayo, a resistant language | Embruns

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s