Trove beyond borders

Last week, news came that Trove, the National Library of Australia’s fabulous digital repository, was under threat from funding cuts. A flood of users from all walks of life began tweeting their support under the #fundTrove hashtag. (See an article in the Conversation outlining the funding cuts here.) They also shared the reasons why Trove is so valuable to them in their professional and/or everyday lives. It has made for quite

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Sydney Morning Herald, 17 Sept. 1913

compelling reading – historians, teachers, novelists, family history buffs, students, all have their unique Trove stories.

For archival researchers, such as myself, Trove is a godsend. Millions of documents are available, it is easily searchable and its scope stretches far beyond the shores of Australia.

I have used Trove, for instance, to find all of the newspaper articles pertaining to the “Sutton Case”, the first organised Franco-Australian blackbirding expedition. You can read about this here. It has also been useful in my research into Reunionese migrants in 19th century New Caledonia as often events that occurred in the Pacific Islands were reported in the Australian press. When a ship came in from the Pacific, any significant events would find their way into the local newspapers.

The great thing about Trove, as with all archival research, is you never know what gems you will unearth. I came across the “Island Crime” story (reproduced above) when looking for information on a Reunionese family (Aymard), who had settled in New Caledonia.

Dated 1913, this article relates a murder that took place in the Vallée des Colons, a quartier of Noumea. While, at first glance, it seems to have little to do with my research, it demonstrates that the French colonial and, more specifically, New Caledonian approach to conceiving of or constructing race that I have discussed here persisted into the the 20th century.

In the article, we learn that an unfortunate “Arab”, El Haoussine ben Cherif, was stabbed in the stomach by a “Javanese” man called Belenguen. Apparently, Belenguen owed ben Cherif 5 francs and, unable to pay him, left his mandolin as security. When the Javanese New Year came round, Belenguen went to ben Cherif to ask for his mandolin. Ben Cherif wanted his 5 francs, an argument ensued and ben Cherif was fatally stabbed. A “neighbour”, Aymard, rushed to the “Arab’s” aid, asking him who had stabbed him. Ben Cherif gurgled the “name of the employer of the Javanese” before taking his last breath. The next day, the “Javanese” was found in the bush with a knife and was arrested.

The evidence appears quite circumstantial and one wonders whether the fact that ben Cherif named the employer of Belenguen as the murderer was ever investigated. One suspects not, given the unquestioning way in which the story was reported and the social status of both victim and alleged killer.

Algeria_CIA_mapAside from this judicial question, the interesting thing about this story is the way in which the three men were represented. Two of them were given broad, stereotypical, racial/ethnic labels: “Arab” and “Javanese”, while the other is simply described as a “neighbour”.

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Cheik El Mokrani, leader of the Algerian revolt against the French

 

 

 

The “Arab” was certainly an Algerian. The French deported to New Caledonia around 350 Algerian political prisoners  who were captured after a series of revolts against French rule in Algeria 1870-71. Ben Cherif was possibly the son of prisoner no. 845, Brahim ben Cherif, cheik, who arrived as an Algerian déporté on board the Calvados in January 1875. While these déportés are perhaps the most well-known of the Algerian convicts, there were also several thousand others transported to the Pacific before 1897 for run-of-the-mill crimes (theft, insubordination, assault etc.) and this man may well have been one of those. The French referred to Algerians collectively as “Arabs”, despite this not being entirely accurate (Algeria is in North Africa). For an excellent study of the Algerians who ended up spending the rest of their lives exiled in the Pacific, see Ouennoughi (2006).

The “Javanese”, Belenguen, would have arrived in New Caledonia as an indentured worker sometime in 1896 or later, when the French began recruiting in Indonesia to meet the labour demands of agriculture, domestic service and mining.

The third man, Aymard, whose neutral, non racialised depiction leads the modern-day Australian reader, conditioned by the questionable habit of some journalists to identify non-white persons by their supposed ethnicity (viz. Polynesian, “of Middle Eastern appearance”, Chinese etc.), to decode as white. Aymard, however, was almost certainly black, of African extraction, son or grandson of enfranchised Reunionese slaves (as neither his first name nor his age is given, it is not entirely clear to which generation he belongs). Why is it that he was not “othered” or racialised in the news story?

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Algerian convicts in New Caledonia

The answer has nothing to do with skin colour. Notions of whiteness in New Caledonia (following, to an extent, the lead of Indian Ocean colony, Reunion), were related to citizenship and one’s belonging to the “free” group of settlers. Both the “Arab” and the “Javanese” were racialised due to their “unfree” status (whether or not they were technically free at the time). The “Arab” was likely a convict or son of a convict and the “Javanese” had entered the colony on a contract of indenture. In addition, neither would have had French citizenship. The Algerian would have been classed under the Code de l’Indigénat (Native or Indigenous code) that was in effect in French colonies as a French “subject”.

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Photo credit: Le cri du cagou

The Indonesian would have had only his Indonesian citizenship, bound by contract to an employer. As such, these men were excluded from the French/white social group and subject to racist laws. Interestingly, the Algerians, forced to marry local French convict women as no Algerian women were sent to New Caledonia, eventually blended into the local “white’ settler population, although some managed to preserve elements of their culture and in recent times, there have been reconnections with Algeria, books, television documentaries etc.

Aymard, on the other hand, despite outward appearances, belonged to the free settler group by virtue of his French citizenship and was therefore, by default, “white”. When slavery was abolished in the French colonies in 1848, all of the former slaves received French citizenship. French law forbade any mention of the “race” of its citizens in official records and this meant that in a colony like New Caledonia, newcomers from elsewhere in the empire were absorbed into the white settler population. This whitewashing of colonial history was bolstered by the tradition of the non-dit (the unsaid) that enshrouded so-called “undesirable” social backgrounds (slave, convict) in secrecy and silence. In this colonial context, we can clearly see the social construction of “race”.

From this one small article among the currently (as of today’s count) 471,603,782 online resources on Trove, we can learn so much. Trove is not only a national treasure, but a world heritage site! #fundTrove

References

Ouennoughi, Mélica. 2006. Les déportés maghrébins en Nouvelle-Calédonie et la culture du palmier dattier: (1864 à nos jours), Paris: L’Harmattan.

Speedy, Karin. 2012. “From the Indian Ocean to the Pacific: Affranchis and Petits- Blancs in New Caledonia”, Portal Journal of Multidisciplinary International Studies, Special Issue: Indian Ocean Traffic http://dx.doi.org/10.5130/portal.v9i1.2567

 

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Flame Tree

CMwofqeVAAEGFqDFlame trees (les flamboyants) have become somewhat ubiquitous in New Caledonia. They are, however, exotic plants, native to Madagascar. They arrived in New Caledonia with the first Reunionese settlers who disembarked in the early 1860s. A sugar crisis in Reunion, France’s previously booming sugar island in the Indian Ocean, forced large numbers of people who had relied on the sugar industry for their livelihoods to migrate to France’s newest colony in the Pacific. There they would help set up New Caledonia’s sugar industry, bringing their expertise and equipment (sugar processing machinery in parts that they would put back together on arrival). They also brought seeds, plants, foodstuffs, recipes, language, songs, customs etc. from Reunion to New Caledonia.

Curiously, the 19th century Reunionese migration to New Caledonia was little known. History books mentioned the arrival of a few rich, white, sugar planters and Indian “coolies” who had come expressly for the production of sugar. However, it was claimed that few actually stayed, moving on to Australia, other Pacific Islands or France when the New Caledonian sugar industry crashed in the 1880s.

The reality was far different. Hidden from the official narratives, almost erased from the colonial archive, their stories silenced, their faces whitewashed, were the thousands of black and mixed race Reunionese who also made the journey from the Indian Ocean to the Pacific. Many of these migrants were former slaves or descendants of slaves (slavery was abolished in 1848 in the French colonies) and were highly valued sugar workers or tradespeople.

The French law proscribing any mention of race for French citizens teamed with the New Caledonian tradition of the “non-dit” (the unspoken or unsaid) meant that this important group of black founding settlers was forgotten, left out, excluded from  official New Caledonian history.

In a number of publications since 2007 (see below for references), I have uncovered the existence and started to tell some of the stories of this hidden group of settlers.

I have reproduced below a poem I wrote about the extraordinary life of Marie-Alexandrine Elphège (pictured). She is the great-grandmother of Chris Vidal who has been sharing her family’s oral history with me. I look forward to talking more about this in future posts.

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Marie-Alexandrine Elphège

©2015, source: Chris Vidal

Flame Tree or Portrait of a Reunionese Woman in New Caledonia circa 1908

A warm day in sleepy Ouégoa
and you would much rather
be sitting
legs stretched straight out in front of you
on the grass
embraced by the shade
of the cool flame tree
eating achards
or bread and chillies
or lychees
freeing the sweet flesh
from the shell
the pulpy goodness
slipping down your throat
as you spit the seeds
on the soil
to settle
silently
like your many children
in this Southern Pacific isle

Instead here you are
stiff
hot
itchy
uncomfortably elegant
trussed up in this unforgiving costume
of black fabric
with a peep of white ruffle
and lace
wound tightly around your neck
heavy petticoats and ample overskirt
obscuring your sturdy limbs
whose muscles bear witness
even now
to your prowess as a horsewoman
riding for hours through the bush
to help
to heal
to gather herbs
to deliver new life
a wise woman and sage-femme
respected
and a little feared
by the other broussards
both exotic and native
in this Southern Pacific isle

Your tiny brown hands
disguised by the hide
of creamy kid gloves
grip the wicker chair
a photographer’s prop
that dwarfs
your diminutive frame
a ti paille en queue
who crossed the oceans
bidding adieu to the craggy cliffs
the volcanic soil
the cirques
the sugar plantations
and the social stigma
of your slave name,
fleeing Bourbon’s impoverished shores
centuries of knowledge
stored deep within
to be shared with your daughters
and no one else.
“It must not be said”
le non-dit
guardian of all manner of family skeletons
in this Southern Pacific isle

A miner’s widow
this is not a familiar ritual
but you handle it with aplomb
posing with your absent husband
standing rigid
head intelligently cocked
black eyes staring directly through the generations
in front of a hastily erected damask
that does a poor job of
shielding
the corrugated iron
and wooden crates
that decorate
your garden.
You think of the flame tree
a living memory of your past
brought on the boat
as a sapling
now flowering
brilliant red
and providing cover
as its roots
spread wider
deeper
hiding
in plain sight
like your people
in this Southern Pacific isle

©Karin Speedy 2015 First published in “Piercing the white space”, Blackmail Press no. 41, 2015.

References

Speedy, Karin. 2014. “Les Réunionnais oubliés du Caillou : un terrain de recherche multi-situé et pluridisciplinaire traversant temps et espace” in Véronique Fillol and Pierre-Yves Le Meur (eds.), Terrains océaniens : enjeux et méthodes, L’Harmattan: Paris, 267-283.

Speedy, Karin. 2012. “From the Indian Ocean to the Pacific: Affranchis and Petits- Blancs in New Caledonia”, Portal Journal of Multidisciplinary International Studies, Special Issue: Indian Ocean Traffic. http://dx.doi.org/10.5130/portal.v9i1.2567

Speedy, Karin. 2009. “Who were the Reunion Coolies of Nineteenth-Century New Caledonia?”, Journal of Pacific History, 44:2, September, pp. 123-140. http://dx.doi.org.simsrad.net.ocs.mq.edu.au/10.1080/00223340903142090

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, pp. 5-19.

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