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

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