The Mysterious “Arab” Castaways: Mobilities, Border Protection and White Australia

This paper was given at the Colonial Formations Conference, University of Wollongong, 23-25 November, 2016. 

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The arrival, in 1901, on the Far North Queensland coast of a suspicious group of brown men, ‘Arabs’ in a boat, or ‘refugees’, as they were initially referred to in some headlines, provides interesting insights into the continued presence, connections and movements of non-white people in Australia, the marginalisation of that history, and the concerted effort on the part of the authorities to implement the national imperative of closing the borders to all ‘clandestine’ landings that were said to pose a threat on racial, religious or moral grounds.

As the significant body of research into refugee history in Australia has shown, the contemporary fierce, military policing of any ‘unauthorised’ arrivals by boat has developed out of Australia’s tradition of liberalism and 19th century exclusionary practices culminating in the White Australia policy. While fears of ‘degradation’ to society based on white supremacist notions of the racial and moral inferiority of non-white ‘others’ drove the push to close Australia’s borders, 19th-century Australia, as has been shown in transnational historiography, was also an ‘interconnected space within a set of expansive global networks’, a centre of entwined or ‘entangled’ maritime mobilities and connections or even, as Tracey Banivanua-Mar has put it, a hub in the Hau’ofa inspired ‘Greater Pacific’.

As Australia moved toward nationhood in the late 19th century, the bio-political agenda to create a white settler nation became evident through both discourse and legislation. Anxiety around non-white migration and mobilities, and fears of miscegenation led to the production of a national narrative that ultimately whitewashed Australia’s racially diverse settler population. It also played a key role in the move to pass laws that actively sought to exclude non-white and non-British ‘others’. An important factor in this exclusion was the shoring up of the hitherto permeable oceanic borders; patrolling, policing and protecting the emergent White Australia from purportedly dangerous ‘aliens’ who could arrive (or invade) by sea.

Yet, the dynamic, global networks of mobility that characterised colonial Australia did not disappear overnight. Indeed, parliamentary debates in the lead up to Federation and the passing of the Immigration Restriction Act, revealed the competing desires of ‘fostering a national ideology based on racial exclusivity’ whilst not offending the sensibilities of a diverse British Empire.

This incident illustrates wonderfully the competing tensions that would shape modern Australia. Between June 1901 and February 1902, Australian newspapers published numerous articles on what was first framed as an ‘extraordinary’ drama of shipwrecked ‘Arab’ sailors in Far North Queensland. Sometime in June, eight men had landed in Cape Grenville. The steamer, Omba, reported them to Thursday Island authorities after the Piper Island lightship alerted its crew to the men’s plight. When the steamer reached Cape Grenville, she sent a boat that was met by a Japanese pearling lugger that was going to drop off the men on Thursday Island. At this point, the men were assumed to be escaped convicts from New Caledonia.

Once on Thursday Island, the men’s incredible story hit the headlines. Professing to be ‘Arabs’, the men recounted through local Arabic-speaking interpreters a fantastic story of shipwreck and survival at sea. They said that they were sailors who had left Port Saïd (Egypt) three months earlier. After sailing across the Persian Gulf, they became lost. A storm had hit their boat and they had spent eight days in the water before all reaching the shore together. They did not know where their boat had disappeared.

Inconsistencies in their accounts, however, caused suspicion. They claimed that they were sailors but did not know the name of their boat, the size of their boat, where they were going, nor did they have a compass. The men were described as looking ‘like Lascars’ or having an ‘appearance similar to that of the firemen employed on steamers trading to the East’. Thursday Island shipping master and sub-collector of Customs, Mr G. H. Bennett, quickly decided to hand them over to police. In a telegram to the Home Secretary in Brisbane he named the men as ‘Hamad, Usop, Mohammed, Ali, Lool, Mustaga, Abdul Kadir, and Gadu’, which demonstrated to him that they were ‘Mohammedans’ and had all ‘been pilgrims to Mecca’. Bennett did not think they were from New Caledonia, as they ‘did not appear to have any knowledge of French’.

An inquiry was launched and they appeared before the Thursday Island Police Court the next day. Evidence was produced that showed their tale of shipwreck was false. One man was found to have a letter on him containing a prisoner’s name and number, postmarked in Algiers and written in Arabic. Another was carrying a New Caledonian newspaper. A witness, Big Alick, described as ‘an aboriginal’, said he had seen the men land in a creek at Temple Bay where they were drawing up a boat into the mangroves. When he called out to them, they ran off into the bush. Bennett sent another telegram to the Home Secretary stating this time that they were escapees from New Caledonia and had been remanded for eight days on the charge of vagrancy.

The men were sentenced to six months in Brisbane Gaol. In December, the French made a formal demand for their extradition. The warrants were issued and the handover to French authorities took place in January 1902. They left under the charge of a French military warder on board the steamer Arrawatta for Sydney from where they then went on to Noumea.

Despite the somewhat entangled histories of Australia and New Caledonia in the 19th century and the frequent traffic between the two colonies, the proximity of the French island was a source of anxiety for Australia. Longstanding Franco-British imperial rivalries, tensions surrounding the balance of power in the Pacific and, most importantly, the establishment of a penal colony there in 1864, made New Caledonia into something of a bête noire. Jill Donohoo has highlighted the moral panic it engendered in a society emerging from its own history of transportation. This ‘post-convict shame’ teamed with the imagined perils posed by escaped foreign prisoners, played an important role in the shaping of Australia’s focus on border security in its fledgling foreign policy.

Between 1864 and 1897, the French sent over 21,000 prisoners to New Caledonia. Of these, 2106 were ‘Arabs’, Arabic-speaking North African Muslims, 94% of whom were Algerian. While the political prisoners sent to New Caledonia after a series of revolts against French rule in Algeria have served as the face of this group and have been the subject of some fascinating research into the transplantation of Arab-Berber culture in the Pacific, they actually formed the minority of ‘Arab’ convicts. Most North Africans were sentenced to hard labour and transported to New Caledonia for common-law crimes.

While there are a number of studies on New Caledonian escapees to Australia, the focus has been on the ‘Frenchness’ of the arrivals. However, in the newspaper reports on the 1901 case, the essentialised ‘Arabness’ of the men was to the fore. They were variously painted as ‘Arab Castaways’, ‘Mysterious Arabs’, ‘Arab Refugees’, ‘Shipwrecked Arabs, ‘Arab Romancers’ and ‘Wily Arabs’. As ‘Arabs’, ‘Mohommedans’ and escaped convicts from the French penitentiary in New Caledonia, these unfortunate maritime arrivals seemed to epitomise the racially, religiously, culturally and morally different/dangerous ‘other’ that White Australia perceived as such a threat to its embryonic nationhood.

A close reading of the newspaper reports suggests, however, that the initial reception that the men received from the multi-ethnic locals and seamen in Far North Queensland was not one of immediate distress. Once on Thursday Island, their inability to speak English did not hamper them from telling their ‘remarkable’ tale of survival at sea as Arabic speakers were able to interpret for them. This highlights the fact that this northern corner of Australia was far from the reserve of white Anglo-Celtic occupation. It was instead a racially diverse community that had strong links to Asia and the Muslim world through its history of Indigenous networks and trade. Regina Ganter has described the importance of the Macassan trepang trade in northern Australia and the cultural, religious, linguistic and biological impact of the Muslim Macassan fishermen on the Indigenous peoples of the area. Through the trepang trade, Indigenous Australians ‘were linked in trade with China well before the British colonists’ in a network that reached through the Dutch East Indies and around the port cities of Southeast Asia. The pearling industry saw further diversification of the population with Pacific Islanders, Japanese, Filipino, Indonesian, Malay and Chinese workers living in the region. The appearance of eight ‘Arab’ Muslims in this society was thus neither terribly unusual nor perceived as a threat.

Yet, alongside this apparent facility of interaction with the Algerians and an unruffled reaction to their arrival, there is a competing thread of tension and mistrust running through the newspaper articles. This unease focuses our attention on the foreignness and dark complexions of the men and reads these and their unannounced appearance as forcibly criminal.

The story, in fact, portrays a society on a collision course. Established practices of Indigenous and non-white mobilities and openness to outsiders arriving by sea were being challenged by a new national framework that revolved around the policing of coastal borders and the restriction of movements. The emergence of the latter, which, in the north, coincided with increasing white settlement from the 1880s, would ultimately erase the former from national memory, creating a metanarrative of Indigenous isolation prior to European colonisation. In this new national order, the sea as bridge metaphor was transformed into one of sea as barrier, exposing a vulnerable White Australia cut off by both water and distance from the European centre.

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Embodying this nationalist agenda was G. H. Bennett, the Thursday Island customs officer. As instruments of the state, customs officers served as eyes and ears for any sniff of illegal entry into the country. Their task was supported both by the pre-existing networks of communication between the Indigenous people, fishermen, traders and sailors and by the more recent state maintained surveillance measures employed around the coast and at sea. In the newspaper reports we note, for instance, the interplay of the coastal and seaborne networks through the steamer Omba, the Piper Island lightship, the Japanese pearl lugger and the Thursday Island customs officer. An Indigenous informant also provided damning information concerning the men’s furtive behaviour. Big Alick’s testimony shows how Indigenous people were drawn into the nationalist web to act as agents of the surveillance state.  His watching of the shore mirrors the activities of the police indigène in New Caledonia, a Kanak police force that kept a sharp look out for escaped convicts who they would track and pursue for a bounty.

The circulation of the story itself occurred through the modern network of overland and undersea telegraph cables and reached the wider public via newspapers. Bennett cabled the story to Brisbane from where it rapidly made headlines across Australia and in New Zealand. The story eventually reached Fiji by steamer in August where it was reported in Na Mata, the Fijian language newspaper.

Bennett was immediately sceptical of almost every aspect of the escapees’ (admittedly ill-prepared and conflicting) story. He was quick to racialise the men, conflating them with the soon to be outlawed ‘Lascars’, other undesirable, brown, Muslim sea folk that Queensland had already attempted to ban from working on mail carriers. His initial doubts that the men had escaped from New Caledonia suggests that he was operating more on alarmist, Orientalist assumptions in his construction of the men’s identities than much intimate knowledge of the racial landscape of the New Caledonian penal colony or of Islam.

Bennett’s assertion that the names of the men showed that they had all been to Mecca, for instance, is odd. It reveals either Bennett’s own anxiety or his desire to create moral panic given the fears engendered by the assumed opportunities for the spread of dangerous (anti-colonial) ideas at Mecca among mobile Muslim subjects of European empires. There is in this a striking parallel with the 21st century discourse on Muslim ‘radicalisation’. In fact, none of the names he listed included ‘Hajj’, the title bestowed upon Muslims who have completed their pilgrimage to Mecca. The names themselves raise other questions. If some of them are recognizable, others are not. Was it a communication problem with interpreters or was it Bennett who made transcription errors when recording the oral information passed on to him? Or, was it more a deliberate ploy for the men to give false names to the authorities to conceal their real identities?

When the French sought the men’s extradition in December 1901, the names that they supplied to the Australian authorities were quite different. Some of these names match prisoner records held in the Centre des Archives d’outre-mer of common law criminals. Whoever they were, Bennett read their dark otherness, their racial, cultural, religious and linguistic differences as signs that they were ‘aliens’, probably criminals, and certainly contravening border laws. As such, they were not welcome in the exclusively white nation that was being fashioned. He declared the men to be vagrants and handed them over to the police.

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The Vagrancy Act was used as a provisional catch-all to prosecute escaped prisoners from New Caledonia. It was also legislation that supported liberal philosophies favouring fixity of habitation and property ownership over temporary relationships to place and mobility. Bennett’s decision to invoke the Act to deal with wandering men of uncertain identities can thus be seen as following the logic of the national ideology. Consistent with Bennett’s Orientalist framing of the men meant that he failed to imagine that ‘Arabs’ could speak French. Of course it was in the men’s best interests not to speak French in front of their captors if they wished to maintain their fiction of shipwreck and hide their fugitive status. But how likely would it have been that none of them spoke a word of the coloniser’s tongue?

In Algeria, many Arabic and Berber-speaking Indigenous people employed passive cultural ‘resistance-refusal’ in the face of French linguistic imperialism. This took shape in their refusal to allow their children to attend French schools. When the French invaded, many Algerians were literate in Arabic having a long established Islamic schooling system. The French sought to replace this with schooling in French. While some, particularly in urban settings, sent their children to the bilingual French-Arabic schools, many other parents saw the French system as a ‘civilising’ endeavour to drive their children away from Islam and opted not to let their children attend. Eventually, towards the end of the 19th century, the settler administrators blocked the Indigenous population from accessing French education fearing the potential for political empowerment.

Taking into account the dates that the men were sentenced, they would have spent between seven and eleven years in French detention. This alone would make it extremely unlikely that the men had no knowledge of French. The letter and newspaper that they were found to have in their possession suggest that some of them may have attended an Islamic school and learned Classical or Literary Arabic and some may have had some schooling in French. Indeed, the written texts are both intriguing and tantalising details in this story. The letter in Arabic underscores the circulation of texts from North Africa to the Pacific. If it is easy to imagine that a letter from home might be the kind of prized possession an escapee would take with him, one wonders what the purpose of the New Caledonian newspaper was? Was it to be read? Was it a souvenir? We cannot be sure but if it was taken to be read then we have to assume that at least one of the men was literate in French.

The texts along with the evidence supplied by Big Alick were enough to convince the Thursday Island police court that the men were not Arab sailors. They were, in fact, escapees from the dreaded penal colony across the sea, not just racially and religiously transgressive but also, as convicts, morally corrupt. The press, true to their supporting role in the creation of the exclusionary national narrative, were not slow to highlight the additional undesirable and frightening qualities of the men who had arrived illegally by boat. Along with their construction as the dark, Muslim, ‘Arab’ other, they were referred to as ‘New Caledonian Escapees’, ‘Convicts from New Caledonia’, ‘Fugitives from New Caledonia’, ‘French Algerines’ and ‘French Escapees’. They thus presented a nightmarish vision which merged ‘Arabness’, ‘Frenchness’ and roaming criminality that politicians bent on a white supremacist agenda could use to frighten the populace.

This coastal drama, unfolding in 1901, the year of Australian Federation and the passing of the Immigration Restriction Act, throws the spotlight on a moment in history when the dynamic and complex global networks of northern Australia were being interrupted by the prerogatives of a developing national narrative that demanded fixity over mobility and the closing and policing of borders to keep out the alleged danger posed by invaders by sea. The ‘invaders’ here were a small group of Algerian men, escaped prisoners, who, despite their unfree status, were mobile, crossing oceans and imperial and national spaces. As such, they were perceived as dangerous to the new White Australia, a liberal democratic society so desperate to hide its own less than lily-white past. Despite its history of convict transportation, Australia as a nation had no sympathy for those fleeing a similar system and chose to incarcerate the men in Brisbane, collaborate with the French authorities and hand them over to the New Caledonian military warder who had come to take them back to their island prison.

In the case of the ‘Castaway Arabs’ or the ‘French Escapees’, the fledgling nation did not quite ‘stop the boat’. However, in the way that the foreign men arriving by sea were racialised and criminalised by the authorities and the press before being rejected as undesirables, we recognise yet another historical echo of 21st century discourse on border security and the alleged threat posed by brown, non-Christian, ‘crimmigrant’ others attempting to land on Australia’s closely guarded shores.

A full, written version of this paper was published here:

Speedy, Karin. 2016. “‘Arab Castaways’/‘French Escapees’: Mobilities, Border Protection and White Australia”, Law, Crime and History, 6.2, 15-30

 

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Transformative Journeys

Academic articles take forever to come out. I have one due to be published shortly (touch wood) based on the oral histories of the Aymard and Elphège families, descendants of mixed race migrants from Reunion Island (Indian Ocean French sugar colony) who settled in New Caledonia in the 1870s. The Reunionese had been enticed to New Caledonia to help set up the fledgling sugar industry that local administrators hoped would supply sugar to the region. They were mostly former slaves or free people of colour (of mixed African, Malagasy and French origin) who had become impoverished after the sugar industry collapse in Reunion. Most entered New Caledonia as French citizens, a status bestowed upon them on emancipation

Despite their freedom and citizenship, many of the formerly enslaved Reunionese remained on the outer limits of society in ReunionFacing increasing destitution as the sugar industry went bust, move to a new colony was aopportunity to start afresh for them. The division of New Caledonian society into free settlers, convicts, indentured labourers and indigenous people (free, unfree, and indigenous)allowed all Reunionesesomewhat serendipitously, as French citizens, to enjoy their social status as part of the white settler population. In New Caledonia, the blacks were the indigenous Kanak. They were assigned inferior social status and were subject to extreme prejudice born of 19th-century  scientific racism and the exigencies of settler colonialism. In this climate, the tradition of the non-dit (the unsaid) in New Caledonia assisted the Reunionese to negotiate their new settler whiteness while enabling the colonial administration to populate/occupy the land with French citizens; the silence and silencing allowing for the emergence of settler colonial narrative centring on the white settler/black Indigenous binary.

Despite the deliberate masking of the past, cultural practices, family stories and artefacts were passed on even if this was done behind closed doors. This poem imagines the journeys of those who transitioned from the oppressed in one colonial space to a position more akin to oppressor in a new one.

 

 

#FantasyLives

Fascinating
fabricated
family histories
that create
a certain coziness
in inhospitable
social climes 

Transformative journeys
west to east
north to south
black to almost
white
or French
at least 

Camouflaging
marks
still fresh
still raw
in shackled flesh
concealed beneath
the frothy skirts
of settler society 

Hiding pasts
still manifest
in the
rougail
served with kari
consumed
with relish
but never
questioned 

A new beginning
a second chance 

Hush
don’t ask
stick together
the seamstresses
will stitch
a new family
tapestry

© Karin Speedy 2016

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

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)

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

Interconnections and Mobilities: the Pacific Francosphere

Call for Abstracts for a Special Issue of Francosphères
Interconnections and Mobilities: the Pacific Francosphere

Within nationalist, border-focused frameworks, the Francophone Pacific has been painted as isolated and cut-off from its neighbours due to its linguistic difference. However, French-speaking islands have long established Indigenous connections with other sites and peoples both outside of and within the Pacific. These ancestral and historical connections, often linked to widespread ocean-going mobilities, continued throughout the colonial era and were important in the shaping of populations, cultures, languages and relationships in the region. While these links have been somewhat eroded by the uncompromising imperatives of nation-building, there has been increasing interest in rediscovering and reviving these connections and creating new pathways of exchange between linguistically diverse Pacific spaces.

This special issue of Francosphères invites contributions that reflect critically on the Pacific Francosphere as part of a dynamic, interconnected, transcultural space of moving bodies, ideas and texts. How do Francophone islands connect/intersect with each other, with other Indigenous, Anglophone or Hispanophone spaces in the region or with other Francospheres beyond the Pacific?

In the first instance, we are calling for 250-300 word abstracts for papers in English or French that engage with the theme of this special issue. Please email your abstract and brief bio to the Guest Editor, Associate Professor Karin Speedy, Macquarie University, Sydney: karin.speedy@mq.edu.au by 30 June 2016.

If your abstract is selected, you will need to submit a completed 5,000 word article (including bibliography and footnotes) by 30 September 2016. The articles will then proceed to peer review. The special issue will be published in December 2017.

For more information about Francospères, please visit the journal’s website.

Call for Abstracts Francospheres

Cannibalism, Métissage and Racist Ideologies in a (Post)colonial New Caledonian Novel

ACbZhdpiUAAAmxbz.jpg larges a dividing line between savage and civilised and identity marker of the ‘primitive’ other, cannibalism has served the colonial project in its quest to demonise indigenous, colonised peoples. Much has been written on the veracity of accounts of cannibalism, with some denying its existence and others insisting that while anthropophagy was a real phenomenon, cannibalism, with all its associated horror, belongs to the realm of the Western imaginary (see, e.g. Lindenbaum 2004, Arens 1979, Lestringant 1997, Obeyesekere 2001). In this post I will reflect on early New Caledonian writer Georges Baudoux’s use of tropes of cannibalism in his short 1919 novel Jean M’Baraï the trepang fisherman to critique the colonial project, flirt with racist discourses and read the role and body of the métis (mixed-race person) in colonial society.

In the Pacific, the threat of being eaten by cannibals is a common motif in both the anglophone and francophone (post)colonial literature. Many of Georges Baudoux’s stories contain theatrical representations of cannibalism which serve to underline the downloaddark/cruel/dangerous/bestial/less developed nature of the indigenous subject and justify the colonial project. Baudoux’s Légendes canaques, recounted by this self-described transcriber of Melanesian tales (or cannibaliser of Kanak oral histories), are steeped in racist discourses that display his adherence to a monogenetic view of humanity and developmental view of history.

If cannibalism operates as a boundary between the savage and civilised in Baudoux’s Légendes canaques, how does it function in a story about a métis? In Jean M’Baraï le pêcheur de tripangs Jean M’Baraï is the son of a Breton sailor and Kanak woman, who had been bought from her clan for some trade goods. On the birth of his son, M’Baraï’s father, a marginal, coast-dwelling adventurer, does not register his birth as there was no registry officer in the area. Here we see two main themes of the narrative: the body as a commodity and object of exchange and/or consumption and the role of genealogy, kinship, lineage and breeding in the transmission of characteristics. He also establishes the theme of the recognition and the legitimacy of the métis that recurs throughout the narrative. While the term métis was used to describe racially mixed people in colonial New Caledonia, it was not a legal status. Whether the métis was considered ‘Kanak’ (and thus a colonial subject under the Indigenous Code of 1887) or a French citizen depended whether his birth had been registered and he had been legally recognised by his (white) father.

Picture6Through the many adventures of Jean M’Baraï, which include his job as a ‘négrier’ or blackbirder, his capture, incarceration and role as a breeder in a Malekulan tribe, his period of indenture in Queensland and brief career as a boxer, and his final return to New Caledonia, Baudoux explores the conflicting colonial discourses surrounding the nature of the métis. There is the trope of the monstrous being, a representation of the violation of the laws of nature and symbol of racial and social degeneration. And there is  also the notion that the métis embodies hope for the future civilisation of the colonised ‘race.’  What do Baudoux’s accounts of cannibalism reveal about his position in this clash of differing, yet similarly racist, ideologies? For Baudoux, is the métis the site of degeneration or regeneration? Is he a man or a monster?

In Jean M’Baraï the trepang fisherman, Jean M’Baraï, the person of the métis is often reduced to a domestic animal, one that can become wild if provoked. His body is a commodity destined for exploitation and consumption, and he is held captive by both Kanak and white society. In addition to the physical incarceration, he is perhaps also metaphorically a prisoner of both spheres, a captivity that prevents him from living fully in either. He is able to play limited roles within both white and black worlds, roles for which his genetic makeup predisposes him, yet, despite dressing up (or down) and a certain element of role-play or performance, M’Baraï is not at home in either. Nor is he fully accepted or recognised by the members of these two opposing worlds. He inhabits a truly in-between or liminal space.Canaques,_c._1870

Initially functioning as a threat conjured up by the Western imaginary, the fear that the unknown other is coming to eat you, cannibalism is also played as a dividing line between savage and civilised in the story. However, it is a line that blurs when M’Baraï unknowingly consumes human flesh. His wholehearted rejection of the practice, however, means that in his mind he has not crossed over to the fully primitive. While still other, not white, his choice to abstain from eating the other and thus avoiding complete degeneration, allows for the possibility of redemption or of becoming fully civilised. That he does not is blamed on his Kanak blood and wild upbringing on the coast (at the very limits of colonial society), too removed from civilisation to have had a formative influence on him during his early years.

MalakulaMapBaudoux thus shows the potential in the métis both for degeneration and regeneration, yet M’Baraï is an example of neither. While the main thrust of the narrative rests upon the role of ‘nature’ or genes in a person’s development, Baudoux seems to make a nod towards the ‘nurture’ school of thought in his attempt to explain why M’Baraï cannot integrate into the white man’s world. More importantly, perhaps, by giving M’Baraï many of the hallmarks of a monster, he also shows that the racist views of society exclude the métis from belonging anywhere. His hybrid person, representing the taboo of miscegenation, threatens the borders of identity of both white and black communities and he is condemned to live on the margins, as he does for a while before his suicide. Whether or not this lifestyle really brings happiness or fulfillment to M’Baraï who, until the end, is painted as something of a lost soul, he does at least live freely on his own terms, as a métis, far from the Kanak ‘tribe’ or white settlements and away from the use and abuse of either society.

Interestingly, if cannibalism, the other eating, is used to demonise KanaksPicture8, serving as an excuse for colonial crimes such as blackbirding and ‘pacification,’ Baudoux also portrays the metaphoric cannibalism of indigenous peoples through colonisation by way of body commodification, exploitation and consumption, capitalist greed, land expropriation and the civilising mission. Here we have the sublime ambiguity of Baudoux—for, if the black world is savage, frightening and brutal the ‘civilised’ white world is no less cruel and inhumane. Jean M’Baraï thus has the dual function of presenting a critique of colonialism and civilisation while at the same time providing a vehicle for racist discourses.

Indeed, the text contains many cues for a dual reading. On the one hand, the narrator (a white/legitimate double of M’Baraï and gatekeeper of colonial ideologies) voices the prevailing views of white colonial society. He promulgates a Social Darwinist ideology, where the notion of the ‘loi du plus fort’ is paramount. No matter whether we are on a blackbirding ship, in the New Hebridean bush or on a Queensland plantation, the strongest emerge the winners, and the losers either perish or are captured, exploited and consumed. M’Baraï, the métis, the victim of both blacks and whites, is ultimately portrayed as the loser, weaker than the black or white ‘races’ that combined to form him.

Baudoux, the author, on the other hand, presents a ‘warts and all’ vision of the colonialPicture1 world. For him, there is no limit to the savagery of any society. This subversive parallel discourse, particularly the description of the barbarity of the ‘civilised’ in the colonial project, serves as a postcolonial critique of colonialism and emerges as a very important feature of the text. Baudoux, in effect, redefines the borders between us and them, pushing further the concept of savagery while also rethinking the notion of cannibalism, at times appearing to make a case for the acceptance of alternative cultural practices. In this context, we might be able to go so far as to read Jean M’Baraï and his ultimate failure to find his place in the world as a symbol of the inevitable failure of the colonial project itself.

Picture7Whether this revolutionary message is one that Baudoux’s early 20th century audience would have grasped is questionable. The narrator’s racist comments and judgments seem there to appease or comfort the colonial reader, to reassure him or her that the frank depiction of the brutality of colonialism is a just reflection of the natural order of things. Baudoux, who enjoyed both the privileges that came with being a white man in a colonial context but who, for many years, lived on the edges of New Caledonian society where he frequented Kanaks, métis, convicts and migrant workers, undoubtedly developed a unique understanding of the complexity of the colonial encounter. Perhaps, through this story, he was attempting to enlighten his audience by giving them a lesson in cultural relativism—the duality of the text allowing him to do indirectly what he could not do directly. Perhaps too, the dialogical relationship between narrator and author represents Baudoux’s own inner struggle with the inequities of his society and his role within it. Alternatively, the narrator’s voice may epitomise Baudoux’s own thoughts as well as those of his contemporaries with the unfolding realities and injustices of the story serving as a (subconscious?) foil to challenge his own deep-seated prejudices.

Exactly what Baudoux’s purpose was cannot be determined by the 21st century reader. What we are left with, however, is a polysemous text that is testament to the universality of inhumanity. Exploring conflicting colonial discourses on breeding and heredity and underlining the shifting nature and dislocation of identity experienced by the métis as he negotiates a third space between black and white worlds, in Jean M’Baraï the trepang fisherman Baudoux exposes, through his descriptions of cannibalism (literal and metaphorical) and portraits of the indigenous other, white pirates, slave traders and capitalist masters, the ambivalence of a colonial society where notions of savagery and civilisation are far from binary oppositions.

Notes

Georges Baudoux’s Jean M’Baraï the trepang fisherman, http://dx.doi.org/10.5130/978-0-9945039-1-6 was recently published Open Access with UTS ePress. A print edition has just been published and copies are available for $24.95 AU from UTS ePress (email: matthew.noble@uts.edu.au ). Containing my translation of a short but fascinating novel by New Caledonian writer Baudoux (1870-1949) and a critical introduction that places the work in its rich, complex and brutal  19th century socio-historical context, the book offers a window into the intersecting trans-imperial networks that once existed between Australia and its francophone Pacific neighbours and highlights the competition between imperial rivals in the blackbirding trade (see my guest blog on ‘The Coastal History Blog’ A Pacific Blackbirding Narrative).

This post is based on parts of Karin Speedy, 2013. “‘After me fellow caïcaï you’: Eating The Other/The Other Eating“, Portal Journal of Multidisciplinary International Studies, Special Issue: Edible Alterity, vol. 10, no. 2.

Reference List

Arens, W. 1979, The Man-eating Myth: Anthropology and Anthropophagy. Oxford University Press, New York.

Baudoux, G. 1952, Légendes canaques. Nouvelles éditions latines, Paris.

King, R. C. 2000, ‘The (Mis)uses of Cannibalism in Contemporary Cultural Critique,’ Diacritics, vol. 30, no. 1 (Spring): 106–23.

Lestringant, F. 1997, Cannibals: The Discovery and Representation of the Cannibal from Columbus to Jules Verne. University of California Press, Berkeley.

Lindenbaum, S. 2004, ‘Thinking about Cannibalism,’ Annual Review of Anthropology, vol. 33: 475–98.

Obeyesekere, G. 2001, ’Narratives of the self: Chevalier Peter Dillon’s Fijian cannibal adventures,’ in Body Trade: Captivity, Cannibalism and Colonialism in the Pacific, (eds.) Barbara Creed and Jeanette Hoorn, Pluto Press, Annandale: 69–111.

Speedy, K. 2015, Georges Baudoux’s Jean M’Baraï the trepang fisherman, UTS ePress, Sydney http://dx.doi.org/10.5130/978-0-9945039-1-6