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.

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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

 

 

Sydney’s Global Slavery Scandal of 1857

Imperial & Global Forum

Sugarcane harvesters, Reunion Island c.1885 Sugarcane harvesters, Reunion Island

Karin Speedy
Macquarie University, Sydney
Follow on Twitter @KarinESpeedy

In 1857, 51 Gilbertese (I-Kiribati) and 14 Solomon Islanders were spirited away from their homes. They were transported on the Sydney-based barque Sutton, and then sold as indentured sugar labourers on the French-owned island of Reunion in the Indian Ocean. When the scandal hit the shores of Sydney, the incident  shifted from a global diplomatic dispute between the British and French empires to a local story, revealing the complexity of the colonial space where culpability was tied to local politics, class, and notions of nationality.[1]

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