Tropical Depression: Nuns in the Pacific

Saint-Louis mission girls, 1890. Source: Collection service des Archives de la Nouvelle-
Calédonie 1 Num 2 148, fonds de l’Archevêché de Nouvelle-Calédonie.

Women played an integral part in the “civilising mission” in New Caledonia and elsewhere in the Pacific. The Marists were in New Caledonia from 1843 and the male missionaries were followed a few years later by the Sisters of Saint-Joseph de Cluny and then the Sisters of the Tiers-Ordre. Their role was to convert the indigenous population, principally through the creation of schools and “education centres” for children and young people who would be separated from their clan. The aim was to erase indigenous language and culture in favour of that of the missionaries and, later, colonisers and to create local indigenous missionaries who would convert their own people. Girls and women would be taught to cook, clean and sew (in the Western tradition and thus severing their connection with their own cultural practices). The billowy, colourful “robe mission” that today serves as the traditional dress of Kanak women, for instance, was foisted upon them as a modest cover-up by the nuns and priests on the mission.

La robe mission or Mother Hubbard dress as worn by Kanak women in New Caledonia

For the nuns arriving in New Caledonia from France, conditions were rudimentary and life was very different from what they had known in Europe. For some, this culture shock was overwhelming and a few Sisters were sent to Villa Maria in Hunters Hill, Sydney to recover from their physical and mental ills – their tropical depression. This poem reflects on their experiences.

Tropical Depression

Surreptitiously
you scratch
the weeping pustules
poisonous mosquito kisses
forming sceptic angel footprints
up and down your unloved legs
blood drunk mission fleas
etching itchy art on infected arms
throbbing tracks of parasitic misery
tattoos forever testifying
to your proselytising
Pacific dream

No sleep for you
lying prone on lice straw mattress
conversion disillusion
black swamp mind unravelling
unpicking tender stitches
sewn by fellow Sisters
sniping, snaking artifice
shining like sunbeams
through their skeleton hollow eyes

Floating, screaming, unleashing
a lagoon of injured tears
salty balm for
self-inflicted stigmata
Sisters whisper
you thrash and whimper
spirit severed
calm prevails

Pilgrimage aboard a saintly vessel
port, then town, then hermitage
sweet solid walled tranquillity
mental exhaustion
expelling demons
healing holy scarification
relocating your vocation
to another Oceanic destiny

©Karin Speedy 2016

Further Reading

Hosie, John. 1987. Challenge: The Marists in Colonial Australia. Sydney: Allen & Unwin.

Speedy, Karin. 2013. “Mission-educated girls in nineteenth-century Saint-Louis and their Impact on the Evolution of Tayo”, Shima: The International Journal of Research into Island Cultures, 7.1, http://www.shimajournal.org/issues/v7n1/f.%20Speedy%20Shima%20v7n1%2060-79.pdf

Speedy, Karin. 2016. “Tropical Depression”, original poem in Snorkel literary magazine, issue 23, http://snorkel.org.au/023/speedy.html

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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