À la mode in Hunters Hill

Louis Joubert

Louise Joubert, Joubert folder, Hunters Hill Museum

One of the characters who features quite regularly in this blog is Didier-Numa Joubert, a Franco-Australian merchant who made his fortune in the mid-1800s through trade of all types (legal and not-so-legal). This poem imagines a conversation between his daughter Louise, whose portrait I saw in the archives of the Hunters Hill museum, and a friend at the Joubert house in Hunters Hill. It reflects on the material trappings and lifestyle afforded certain sectors of white colonial society and how this was enjoyed at the great expense of others.

 

À la mode in Hunters Hill

Is it silk?

Incredulous look

Mais naturellement!

Hand stitched

delicate detail

embroidered yoke

ample sleeve

teasing flounce

rustling skirts

gently graze

the ankles of

la belle

Mademoiselle

Louise

 

Tortoiseshell buttons

left unfastened

reflecting amber light

tracking

mapping

tacking down

to snake around

her bourgeois breasts

showing

a rather daring

swathe

of luminescent

white

 

Beautiful dress

my dear

a stand out

in this English

colony

it’s French….

n’est-ce pas?

Mais oui!

No one sews

such sophistication

in the

antipodes!

 

A trunk

brimming

on Papa’s order

arrived

last week

in Sydney town

full of hats

and gloves

and undergarments

and the most exquisite

Parisian gowns

 

Taking in

the sumptuous vista

sun caressing

sparkling waters

crisscrossed

by the foliage

of a flourishing

flame tree

the two ladies

on the colonial verandah

slowly sip

their China

tea

 

Coconut palms

perform

a wilted waltz

in the stifling

breeze

while bent

brown backs

toil

under

the oppressive

summer

heat

 

What brings them here

these bronzed youths

from their homes

in the South Seas?

They are

the exploited workers

the unpaid builders

of Papa’s Paradise

a sandstone

Sydney suburb

founded on

trade

tenacity

luck

and plunder

and a slice of

slavery

 

© Karin Speedy 2016

CMwofqeVAAEGFqD

Flame tree in Hunters Hill, photo credit: Karin Speedy

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Pacific Island Labour in mid-19th Century Sydney

Hunters 1

When examining the shipping records for goods that were being brought into Sydney by Franco-Australian merchant Didier-Numa Joubert, I was struck by how many “Pacific Islanders” were coming and going on his ships, often accompanied by Marist priests. The first arrivals were fourteen young Melanesian evacuees from New Caledonia who fled with the missionaries in 1847 after the mission post had come under attack by local Kanak. From the early 1850s, groups of Pacific Island converts who were brought to Sydney by the Marists, ostensibly for religious instruction, often found themselves labouring for the Marists and their friends. Joubert had Pacific Islanders gardening at his Hunters Hill residence, for instance. One of the main occupations of the Islanders was to quarry rock for the churches that they would build back in their respective islands. (You can read about the Pyrmont quarry here). These young men served as free labour for the Marists and it is thanks to their hard work that the second Villa Maria, on the shore of Tarban Creek, was built in Hunters Hill.*

Interestingly, as you can see in the image above, a reminder of this early Pacific presence is recorded in the palm trees planted along the side of Villa Maria. There are pockets of palm trees or coconut palms around Hunters Hill, notably on former Joubert properties and they seem to me natural memorials to the neophytes from the Pacific who traveled to and toiled in Sydney.

Last year, I published a poem, “Rites of Passage”, in Snorkel magazine in which I reflect upon the largely hidden history of these early Pacific Island (unpaid, slave?) workers in Sydney.

Rites of Passage

Port Jackson at last
months of seasickness
some schooling in Wallis
a local temptress
bless me Father
you mumbled
almost sincerely
in the stranger’s tongue
and now Sydney town
and the mission house
promises of scriptural instruction
French perfection
a lesson in civilisation
in the Australian haven
of the Marist order

With ecclesiastic fanfare
you, newly baptised Polynesians
future catechists
soon-to-be spreaders of the Word
receive first communion
at Saint Mary’s cathedral
and you wonder why
there are so many spectators
to mark the occasion
with curious gaze
suffocated white glove giggles
and whispers of cannibal taming
under the holy roof

While cutting, hewing, lugging
Pyrmont yellow block
with its smooth texture
and sensuous ripple lines
left by the flow of an ancient river
you also ponder
exactly what biblical enlightenment
the Marists are bestowing upon you
in this quarry
as you toil and sweat
in Saunders’ Purgatory
Hellhole best avoided
Paradise if you are lucky
harvesting God quality stone
for the churches
you will build
back in Wallis and Samoa

The scraps of learning
imparted by candlelight
as you fuel your shattered bodies
with morsels of bread and miserly broth
will have to suffice
for now
the schooner
heavy in the water
packed with the sacred rock
a few bibles, robes, Catholic paraphernalia
and worldly provisions
is ready to sail
for the Islands

And you, newly confirmed Polynesians
catechists in training
a few with silicosis cough
will return
to labour
for free
some to preach
forever in indenture
to the cloth
others just until
the pull
of your cosmos
prevails

©Karin Speedy 2016

* John Hosie has written at length on the Marists in Australia in Hosie, John. 1987. Challenge: The Marists in Colonial Australia. Sydney: Allen & Unwin.

Speedy, Karin. 2016. “Rites of Passage” original poem first published in Snorkel literary magazine, issue 23, http://snorkel.org.au/023/speedy.html

Hunters 3

Shouting through the Silence

DN Joubert

From Hunter’s Hill Museum Archives, Sydney

As any readers of this blog have gathered, I have a bit of a thing for archives, particularly the colonial archive. Archives house myriad, if mediated, stories of much of our past. Yet, as a mirror of the societies they recorded, they are notorious for their selective exclusions and tendency to allow the voices of the privileged and powerful to resonate through the centuries. This is not to say that others are not there. They are. It’s just that they are not as loud, not as visible and the historian has to work harder to find them.

The exclusion of other/Indigenous/non-white voices was always part and parcel of the colonial project, an epistemic continuation of the everyday violence ‘subaltern’ people experienced during their lifetimes. Rereading the colonial archive through a postcolonial lens often enables recovery of the lost narratives and a retelling of colonial history that highlights Indigenous or subaltern agency and resistance. Historians, particularly those working on slave, convict and indentured labourers and other marginalised groups, engage with fragmented archival material in order to piece together the stories of those who have been excluded from the colonial archive and, until recently, colonial history.

Charroi-Beaufonds-Georgi

Beaufonds sugar factory (near st Benoit, Reunion) at the end of the 19th century, Henri Georgi, Centre des archives d’outre-mer, Wikipedia

In an article that has just been published called “Constructing Subaltern Silence in the Colonial Archive: An Australian Case Study”, I deconstruct an 1857 instance of kidnapping in the Pacific by a Sydney-based consortium of well-connected merchants and sea captains, headed by Didier-Numa Joubert. The Gilbert (I-Kiribati) and Solomon Islanders they ‘recruited’ were taken on board an old whaling ship, the Sutton, to Reunion Island in the Indian Ocean and sold into indenture. In the article, instead of attempting to recover the voices of the Pacific Islanders, I focus on the methods by which their voices were silenced. A close reading of the archival documents available in the colonial archive (in London and Paris) allows me to describe the very deliberate production of subaltern silence and show how particular agents of empire, men with trans-imperial connections, were able to draw on these interconnections, knowledge and experience to create and exploit it.

Map_OC-Oceania

Despite the thorough, cynical and ruthless efforts to obfuscate the voices of the Pacific Islanders on the part of the men holding the power in this ‘transaction’, the gaps left by so many untruths speak volumes. The ghosts reposing in the interstices of the archive can, indeed, speak. While I was writing my academic article, concentrating on teasing out a recipe for the construction of subaltern silence, I was also listening to these ghostly revelations. As I am apt to do, I turned to creative writing to express them, writing a longish poem that experiments with polyphonous voices. It expresses what I understand to be the most likely version of events. And here it is.

Secrets of the Sutton

Her whaling days over
leaky, saggy, weighed down
with blubbery death stench
the Sutton
a Baltimore clipper-built barque
18th century relic
unseaworthy really
receives a cheap lick and spit

She’ll be good
for one more
South Sea
adventure

Villainous voyage
quick fire trickery
fast money plunder
for her slick talking owner
and duplicitous
filibuster crew

Marist collusion
or cynical suggestion
of non-existent missionary middle-men
coconut-oil tales of
short sojourns
on a neighbouring isle
a pound of tobacco
in return
for copra dreams

A pair of Judas beachcombers
fair weather interpreters
embark to aid
the kidnapping mariners

Come hither
strapping young men of the Gilberts
your brown bodies our bread
your muscles our meat
inspect below decks
mind the swivel guns
no we’re not slavers
but we’ll lock the hold
as we haul anchor
and head out to sea

Solomon Islands
ideal dumping ground
for mutinous Micronesians
knife-wielding prospective assassins
according to sailor testimony
one on New Georgia
the other one…

where was it again?
no one can quite recall

tossed out trussed up
no food or water
life expectancy measured
in hours not days

Fourteen Solomons bondsmen
traded for shiny glass trinkets
join fifty-one Gilbertese captives
packed in tight down below
sixty-six days
of suffering and gagging
on putrid dank air
whale flesh planks
unwashed bodies
fear
vomit
human excreta
bilge water slops underfoot

In the cabin are
muskets and pistols
cutlasses and axes
gunpowder and canisters
an arsenal to save us
from native rebellion
to keep us safe from
the savages down there

Disembark the cargo
on the Isle of Bourbon
France’s sugar bowl
in the Indian Ocean
1848 emancipation
leaving a desperate craving
for slave replacements
on boom production plantations

Top price fetched
for fresh strong flesh
Pacific Islanders snatched up by planters
on five-year French indentures
for forty pounds sterling a head
Coconut and tobacco promises
exposed as nowt
but fraudulences…
the seamen decamp
to British Mauritius
where petty jealousies play out
on the imperial stage

Those bloody Frogs!

Governor Stevenson sniffs slavery
statements solicited
but not from the Islanders
muted and left to their cane-cutting fates
yarns spun criss-crossing
fact with fanciful fiction
flurry of indignant diplomatic dispatches

What, they’re not our natives?
Nevermind
Nothing more we can do

Sham enquiry over
scandal hits Sydney
headlines scream high sea irregularities
kidnapping
privateering
slaving
these dastardly acts
damaging money-making prospects
with South Sea cannibals
so ripe for exploiting
furious merchants
pen letters to the editor
their ocean-going
capitalist
dreams
at stake

The captain should swing!

Ship owner Joubert
backed by French consul
deftly dismisses attacks on his honour

Outrageous accusations!
Nothing untoward
occurred on board
a French sanctioned delegate was present
no laws were broken
no harm was done
no persuasion needed
the natives were more than willing
why, they were happy ship helpers
of course they knew what they were signing
those beachcomber interpreters
double-dealing scoundrels trying to scam us
pay them no heed

Lie, defy, deny
expert extrication
establishment players emerge from the mêlée
rich man reputations intact
no charges laid

It was all above board
a legal business transaction

Newspapers fall quiet
blackbirding implicitly sanctioned
Queensland’s future assured

What of the abductees from the Islands?
How did they fare on faraway fields?
Did they find their way back to the Pacific?
Or were they buried an ocean away?

No news of the men
caught in this nefarious traffic
nothing to report
no update
no footnote
the colonial conspiracy
to banish their voices
to hide their stories
to silence the archive
creates
an echoing void of indifference
that violently shouts
the truth
from the page

©Karin Speedy 2016

For further details on this incident see:

Speedy, Karin. 2015. “The Sutton Case: the First Franco-Australian Foray into Blackbirding,” The Journal of Pacific History, 50, no. 3, 344-364.
DOI:  dx.doi.org/ (for those with institutional access).

Speedy, Karin. 2015. “Sydney’s Global Slavery Scandal of 1857”, Imperial & Global Forum, imperialglobalexeter.com/2015/ (free access to this blog post).

Speedy, Karin. 2016. “Constructing subaltern silence in the colonial archive: An Australian case study”, Journal of Australian Colonial History, Vol. 18, Jul 2016: 95-114.

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

 

 

World Poetry Day: Tayo, a resistant language

As it is World Poetry Day (hooray for world poets!) and as a footnote to my most recent post, Saint-Louis: New Caledonian Marist Mission Station turned Creole/Melanesian Village, I have decided to put up a poem I wrote when reflecting on the young people, taken from their homes by the Marists, who were instrumental in creating a new creole language, Tayo, in the village of Saint-Louis (Kanaky-Nouvelle-Calédonie).

girls

Saint-Louis “girls”, reproduced with permission in Speedy 2007

Tayo

Child stealers
black robes flapping
like sails on a devil ship
agile tongues
pidginising
in silken effort
to persuade parents
presents and promises
made with a sign of the cross
spiriting away
those little bodies
impressionable
malleable
easily convertible
future fluent mouthpieces
of the men on the mission

Stolen boys
needing nourishment
crying out
for absent mothers
squealing
like injured flying foxes
caught in a cruel trap
of Latin, French and catechism
hard labour in the cane fields
corporal punishment
ever more liberal lashes
for errant field hand scholars
Saint-Louis rum
the prize winning by-product
of Catholic capitalism

Stolen girls
strictly schooled
by feuding Sisters
in stiff white amborella bonnets
skinny limbs
drowning beneath
the loose floral folds
of the robe mission
cultural asphyxiation
gasping
resisting
in those letters
written a thousand times over
till the Sisters are satisfied
and blood flows
from their nibs
the Vicar Apostolic
well pleased with their progress

Stolen children
grown up
in spite of
institutionalisation
education
exploitation
white-ification
eschewing vocations
to discover the censored delights
of the flesh
now plump and visible
under those newly traditional
gaily coloured
cotton smocks
forming couples
founding families
spouses from different clans
on neutral ground
old language patterns
subsumed
in the heady mix

Stolen voices
spurning
the French tongue
forced down their throats
in its straight-laced
straight-jacket
pious purity
instead
incorporating
interweaving
creolising
the grammar
syntax
rhythm
music
of their
never-forgotten
ever-present
ancestors
distilling their spirits
to form
the heart
the core
the soul
of their new village language
linguistic testament
to their
theft
conversion
adaptation
resilience
life
©Karin Speedy, 2016

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

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

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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]

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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

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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]

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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.

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 .