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

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Colonial Curtains

My dear friend and colleague Alice Te Punga Somerville and I coined the phrase “all roads lead to Joubert” after almost every research project I undertook seemed to involve in some way, shape or form Didier Numa Joubert. Whether he was obtaining land from the New Caledonian governor for sugar plantations (land seized/stolen from local Kanak after they fled from colonial persecution following the killing of the settler Berard), organising a blackbirding expedition to the Pacific to furnish Reunionese sugar planters with slave labour or bringing Pacific Islanders into Sydney to work for the Marists, Didier was seemingly everywhere in and across the Pacific and Indian Oceans and Sydney in the second half of the 19th century.*

My research has mostly focused on the stories of those silenced  or subdued by the exploits of men like Joubert and, while I am loathe to thrust yet another white colonial male into the limelight, I admit that he, the person, has intrigued me. I wondered what this trans-imperial man with his fingers in so many commercial pies, a man who seemed to be at the forefront of every opportunity for capitalist exploitation in the region, could have been like.

The Joubert file in the State Archives in Sydney contains information on the property speculation the Joubert family undertook in Hunters Hill and financial documents ad infinitum. It tells us very little about Didier and his family save they were very interested in the accumulation of money. The Joubert file in the Hunters Hill Museum, however, includes much more family history. Perhaps the most striking finds for me were the images, the portraits of this man. They seemed to speak, to reveal something of the character of this person who was part of Sydney high society despite the numerous scandals that he apparently shook off without too much trouble. On the way home from the archive, his pictures stored on my phone, a poem began to take shape. And this is what eventually emerged…

Didier’s Drapes

There’s a portrait of you

young-joubert

Didier Numa Joubert, Joubert file, Hunters Hill Museum

serious, rather dour

with strangely dead eyes
for such a young man
with a fulsome life
of adventure, toil, scheming, scandal
and some serious money-making
ahead of you
The portrait of you
shirt open like a sea trader
shiftily handsome with your
high cheekbones and masculine brow
and those eyes that refuse my gaze
is now in the Hunters Hill museum
unceremoniously filed
in a yellowing Manila folder
stuffed full of family history
This portrait of you
a watercolour

that you sat for

rock-hounds

Joubert file, Hunters Hill Museum

eyes darkly to the side
with cash transactions
deals and deceptions
swirling around
your businessman brain
was later reproduced
to serve as a Christmas card
“I thought it would interest you
Rock hounds of Hunters Hill”
scrawled on the back
“our warmest wishes to you
for the New Year”
Did you ever imagine that your
pinched-lipped portrait
devoid of joy
would be used in place of
holly or Father Christmas
or sleigh bells or baby Jesus
to send Christmas greetings
your image an emblem of that manicured
sandstone beacon
of French village life
on the edge of the
Parramatta?
I had always known you
in other portraits
or photos
taken in later life
the mutton-chop profile
of a middle-aged man

eyes averted and comfortably bourgeois

old-joubert

Joubert file, Hunters Hill Museum

or the stouter

fully-bewhiskered
grand-père
in a black suit
with your eyes firmly shut
This painted portrait of you
a man in his twenties
clean-shaven, straight-nosed
slightly unruly
coal-coloured curls
teasing your forehead
is different, striking, unnerving
It’s the eyes
those curiously
dead
eyes
for man in the bloom of youth
Yes, in this candid portrait of you, Didier
you had not quite learned the art
of curtaining
your windows
Karin Speedy ©2017
* See the following for details:
Hosie, John. 1987. Challenge: The Marists in Colonial Australia. Sydney: Allen & Unwin.
Speedy, Karin. 2007. Colons, Créoles et Coolies: L’immigration réunionnaise en Nouvelle-Calédonie (XIXe siècle) et le tayo de Saint-Louis. Paris: L’Harmattan.

Speedy, Karin. 2008. “Out of the frying pan and into the fire: Reunionese immigrants and the sugar industry in nineteenth-century New Caledonia”, New Zealand Journal of French Studies, 29.2, 5-19.

Speedy, Karin. 2015. “The Sutton Case: the First Franco-Australian Foray into Blackbirding”, The Journal of Pacific History, 50, no. 3, 344-364.

Speedy, Karin. 2016. “Constructing Subaltern Silence in the Colonial Archive”, Journal of Australian Colonial History, 18, 95-114.