The Mysterious “Arab” Castaways: Mobilities, Border Protection and White Australia

This paper was given at the Colonial Formations Conference, University of Wollongong, 23-25 November, 2016. 

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The arrival, in 1901, on the Far North Queensland coast of a suspicious group of brown men, ‘Arabs’ in a boat, or ‘refugees’, as they were initially referred to in some headlines, provides interesting insights into the continued presence, connections and movements of non-white people in Australia, the marginalisation of that history, and the concerted effort on the part of the authorities to implement the national imperative of closing the borders to all ‘clandestine’ landings that were said to pose a threat on racial, religious or moral grounds.

As the significant body of research into refugee history in Australia has shown, the contemporary fierce, military policing of any ‘unauthorised’ arrivals by boat has developed out of Australia’s tradition of liberalism and 19th century exclusionary practices culminating in the White Australia policy. While fears of ‘degradation’ to society based on white supremacist notions of the racial and moral inferiority of non-white ‘others’ drove the push to close Australia’s borders, 19th-century Australia, as has been shown in transnational historiography, was also an ‘interconnected space within a set of expansive global networks’, a centre of entwined or ‘entangled’ maritime mobilities and connections or even, as Tracey Banivanua-Mar has put it, a hub in the Hau’ofa inspired ‘Greater Pacific’.

As Australia moved toward nationhood in the late 19th century, the bio-political agenda to create a white settler nation became evident through both discourse and legislation. Anxiety around non-white migration and mobilities, and fears of miscegenation led to the production of a national narrative that ultimately whitewashed Australia’s racially diverse settler population. It also played a key role in the move to pass laws that actively sought to exclude non-white and non-British ‘others’. An important factor in this exclusion was the shoring up of the hitherto permeable oceanic borders; patrolling, policing and protecting the emergent White Australia from purportedly dangerous ‘aliens’ who could arrive (or invade) by sea.

Yet, the dynamic, global networks of mobility that characterised colonial Australia did not disappear overnight. Indeed, parliamentary debates in the lead up to Federation and the passing of the Immigration Restriction Act, revealed the competing desires of ‘fostering a national ideology based on racial exclusivity’ whilst not offending the sensibilities of a diverse British Empire.

This incident illustrates wonderfully the competing tensions that would shape modern Australia. Between June 1901 and February 1902, Australian newspapers published numerous articles on what was first framed as an ‘extraordinary’ drama of shipwrecked ‘Arab’ sailors in Far North Queensland. Sometime in June, eight men had landed in Cape Grenville. The steamer, Omba, reported them to Thursday Island authorities after the Piper Island lightship alerted its crew to the men’s plight. When the steamer reached Cape Grenville, she sent a boat that was met by a Japanese pearling lugger that was going to drop off the men on Thursday Island. At this point, the men were assumed to be escaped convicts from New Caledonia.

Once on Thursday Island, the men’s incredible story hit the headlines. Professing to be ‘Arabs’, the men recounted through local Arabic-speaking interpreters a fantastic story of shipwreck and survival at sea. They said that they were sailors who had left Port Saïd (Egypt) three months earlier. After sailing across the Persian Gulf, they became lost. A storm had hit their boat and they had spent eight days in the water before all reaching the shore together. They did not know where their boat had disappeared.

Inconsistencies in their accounts, however, caused suspicion. They claimed that they were sailors but did not know the name of their boat, the size of their boat, where they were going, nor did they have a compass. The men were described as looking ‘like Lascars’ or having an ‘appearance similar to that of the firemen employed on steamers trading to the East’. Thursday Island shipping master and sub-collector of Customs, Mr G. H. Bennett, quickly decided to hand them over to police. In a telegram to the Home Secretary in Brisbane he named the men as ‘Hamad, Usop, Mohammed, Ali, Lool, Mustaga, Abdul Kadir, and Gadu’, which demonstrated to him that they were ‘Mohammedans’ and had all ‘been pilgrims to Mecca’. Bennett did not think they were from New Caledonia, as they ‘did not appear to have any knowledge of French’.

An inquiry was launched and they appeared before the Thursday Island Police Court the next day. Evidence was produced that showed their tale of shipwreck was false. One man was found to have a letter on him containing a prisoner’s name and number, postmarked in Algiers and written in Arabic. Another was carrying a New Caledonian newspaper. A witness, Big Alick, described as ‘an aboriginal’, said he had seen the men land in a creek at Temple Bay where they were drawing up a boat into the mangroves. When he called out to them, they ran off into the bush. Bennett sent another telegram to the Home Secretary stating this time that they were escapees from New Caledonia and had been remanded for eight days on the charge of vagrancy.

The men were sentenced to six months in Brisbane Gaol. In December, the French made a formal demand for their extradition. The warrants were issued and the handover to French authorities took place in January 1902. They left under the charge of a French military warder on board the steamer Arrawatta for Sydney from where they then went on to Noumea.

Despite the somewhat entangled histories of Australia and New Caledonia in the 19th century and the frequent traffic between the two colonies, the proximity of the French island was a source of anxiety for Australia. Longstanding Franco-British imperial rivalries, tensions surrounding the balance of power in the Pacific and, most importantly, the establishment of a penal colony there in 1864, made New Caledonia into something of a bête noire. Jill Donohoo has highlighted the moral panic it engendered in a society emerging from its own history of transportation. This ‘post-convict shame’ teamed with the imagined perils posed by escaped foreign prisoners, played an important role in the shaping of Australia’s focus on border security in its fledgling foreign policy.

Between 1864 and 1897, the French sent over 21,000 prisoners to New Caledonia. Of these, 2106 were ‘Arabs’, Arabic-speaking North African Muslims, 94% of whom were Algerian. While the political prisoners sent to New Caledonia after a series of revolts against French rule in Algeria have served as the face of this group and have been the subject of some fascinating research into the transplantation of Arab-Berber culture in the Pacific, they actually formed the minority of ‘Arab’ convicts. Most North Africans were sentenced to hard labour and transported to New Caledonia for common-law crimes.

While there are a number of studies on New Caledonian escapees to Australia, the focus has been on the ‘Frenchness’ of the arrivals. However, in the newspaper reports on the 1901 case, the essentialised ‘Arabness’ of the men was to the fore. They were variously painted as ‘Arab Castaways’, ‘Mysterious Arabs’, ‘Arab Refugees’, ‘Shipwrecked Arabs, ‘Arab Romancers’ and ‘Wily Arabs’. As ‘Arabs’, ‘Mohommedans’ and escaped convicts from the French penitentiary in New Caledonia, these unfortunate maritime arrivals seemed to epitomise the racially, religiously, culturally and morally different/dangerous ‘other’ that White Australia perceived as such a threat to its embryonic nationhood.

A close reading of the newspaper reports suggests, however, that the initial reception that the men received from the multi-ethnic locals and seamen in Far North Queensland was not one of immediate distress. Once on Thursday Island, their inability to speak English did not hamper them from telling their ‘remarkable’ tale of survival at sea as Arabic speakers were able to interpret for them. This highlights the fact that this northern corner of Australia was far from the reserve of white Anglo-Celtic occupation. It was instead a racially diverse community that had strong links to Asia and the Muslim world through its history of Indigenous networks and trade. Regina Ganter has described the importance of the Macassan trepang trade in northern Australia and the cultural, religious, linguistic and biological impact of the Muslim Macassan fishermen on the Indigenous peoples of the area. Through the trepang trade, Indigenous Australians ‘were linked in trade with China well before the British colonists’ in a network that reached through the Dutch East Indies and around the port cities of Southeast Asia. The pearling industry saw further diversification of the population with Pacific Islanders, Japanese, Filipino, Indonesian, Malay and Chinese workers living in the region. The appearance of eight ‘Arab’ Muslims in this society was thus neither terribly unusual nor perceived as a threat.

Yet, alongside this apparent facility of interaction with the Algerians and an unruffled reaction to their arrival, there is a competing thread of tension and mistrust running through the newspaper articles. This unease focuses our attention on the foreignness and dark complexions of the men and reads these and their unannounced appearance as forcibly criminal.

The story, in fact, portrays a society on a collision course. Established practices of Indigenous and non-white mobilities and openness to outsiders arriving by sea were being challenged by a new national framework that revolved around the policing of coastal borders and the restriction of movements. The emergence of the latter, which, in the north, coincided with increasing white settlement from the 1880s, would ultimately erase the former from national memory, creating a metanarrative of Indigenous isolation prior to European colonisation. In this new national order, the sea as bridge metaphor was transformed into one of sea as barrier, exposing a vulnerable White Australia cut off by both water and distance from the European centre.

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Embodying this nationalist agenda was G. H. Bennett, the Thursday Island customs officer. As instruments of the state, customs officers served as eyes and ears for any sniff of illegal entry into the country. Their task was supported both by the pre-existing networks of communication between the Indigenous people, fishermen, traders and sailors and by the more recent state maintained surveillance measures employed around the coast and at sea. In the newspaper reports we note, for instance, the interplay of the coastal and seaborne networks through the steamer Omba, the Piper Island lightship, the Japanese pearl lugger and the Thursday Island customs officer. An Indigenous informant also provided damning information concerning the men’s furtive behaviour. Big Alick’s testimony shows how Indigenous people were drawn into the nationalist web to act as agents of the surveillance state.  His watching of the shore mirrors the activities of the police indigène in New Caledonia, a Kanak police force that kept a sharp look out for escaped convicts who they would track and pursue for a bounty.

The circulation of the story itself occurred through the modern network of overland and undersea telegraph cables and reached the wider public via newspapers. Bennett cabled the story to Brisbane from where it rapidly made headlines across Australia and in New Zealand. The story eventually reached Fiji by steamer in August where it was reported in Na Mata, the Fijian language newspaper.

Bennett was immediately sceptical of almost every aspect of the escapees’ (admittedly ill-prepared and conflicting) story. He was quick to racialise the men, conflating them with the soon to be outlawed ‘Lascars’, other undesirable, brown, Muslim sea folk that Queensland had already attempted to ban from working on mail carriers. His initial doubts that the men had escaped from New Caledonia suggests that he was operating more on alarmist, Orientalist assumptions in his construction of the men’s identities than much intimate knowledge of the racial landscape of the New Caledonian penal colony or of Islam.

Bennett’s assertion that the names of the men showed that they had all been to Mecca, for instance, is odd. It reveals either Bennett’s own anxiety or his desire to create moral panic given the fears engendered by the assumed opportunities for the spread of dangerous (anti-colonial) ideas at Mecca among mobile Muslim subjects of European empires. There is in this a striking parallel with the 21st century discourse on Muslim ‘radicalisation’. In fact, none of the names he listed included ‘Hajj’, the title bestowed upon Muslims who have completed their pilgrimage to Mecca. The names themselves raise other questions. If some of them are recognizable, others are not. Was it a communication problem with interpreters or was it Bennett who made transcription errors when recording the oral information passed on to him? Or, was it more a deliberate ploy for the men to give false names to the authorities to conceal their real identities?

When the French sought the men’s extradition in December 1901, the names that they supplied to the Australian authorities were quite different. Some of these names match prisoner records held in the Centre des Archives d’outre-mer of common law criminals. Whoever they were, Bennett read their dark otherness, their racial, cultural, religious and linguistic differences as signs that they were ‘aliens’, probably criminals, and certainly contravening border laws. As such, they were not welcome in the exclusively white nation that was being fashioned. He declared the men to be vagrants and handed them over to the police.

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The Vagrancy Act was used as a provisional catch-all to prosecute escaped prisoners from New Caledonia. It was also legislation that supported liberal philosophies favouring fixity of habitation and property ownership over temporary relationships to place and mobility. Bennett’s decision to invoke the Act to deal with wandering men of uncertain identities can thus be seen as following the logic of the national ideology. Consistent with Bennett’s Orientalist framing of the men meant that he failed to imagine that ‘Arabs’ could speak French. Of course it was in the men’s best interests not to speak French in front of their captors if they wished to maintain their fiction of shipwreck and hide their fugitive status. But how likely would it have been that none of them spoke a word of the coloniser’s tongue?

In Algeria, many Arabic and Berber-speaking Indigenous people employed passive cultural ‘resistance-refusal’ in the face of French linguistic imperialism. This took shape in their refusal to allow their children to attend French schools. When the French invaded, many Algerians were literate in Arabic having a long established Islamic schooling system. The French sought to replace this with schooling in French. While some, particularly in urban settings, sent their children to the bilingual French-Arabic schools, many other parents saw the French system as a ‘civilising’ endeavour to drive their children away from Islam and opted not to let their children attend. Eventually, towards the end of the 19th century, the settler administrators blocked the Indigenous population from accessing French education fearing the potential for political empowerment.

Taking into account the dates that the men were sentenced, they would have spent between seven and eleven years in French detention. This alone would make it extremely unlikely that the men had no knowledge of French. The letter and newspaper that they were found to have in their possession suggest that some of them may have attended an Islamic school and learned Classical or Literary Arabic and some may have had some schooling in French. Indeed, the written texts are both intriguing and tantalising details in this story. The letter in Arabic underscores the circulation of texts from North Africa to the Pacific. If it is easy to imagine that a letter from home might be the kind of prized possession an escapee would take with him, one wonders what the purpose of the New Caledonian newspaper was? Was it to be read? Was it a souvenir? We cannot be sure but if it was taken to be read then we have to assume that at least one of the men was literate in French.

The texts along with the evidence supplied by Big Alick were enough to convince the Thursday Island police court that the men were not Arab sailors. They were, in fact, escapees from the dreaded penal colony across the sea, not just racially and religiously transgressive but also, as convicts, morally corrupt. The press, true to their supporting role in the creation of the exclusionary national narrative, were not slow to highlight the additional undesirable and frightening qualities of the men who had arrived illegally by boat. Along with their construction as the dark, Muslim, ‘Arab’ other, they were referred to as ‘New Caledonian Escapees’, ‘Convicts from New Caledonia’, ‘Fugitives from New Caledonia’, ‘French Algerines’ and ‘French Escapees’. They thus presented a nightmarish vision which merged ‘Arabness’, ‘Frenchness’ and roaming criminality that politicians bent on a white supremacist agenda could use to frighten the populace.

This coastal drama, unfolding in 1901, the year of Australian Federation and the passing of the Immigration Restriction Act, throws the spotlight on a moment in history when the dynamic and complex global networks of northern Australia were being interrupted by the prerogatives of a developing national narrative that demanded fixity over mobility and the closing and policing of borders to keep out the alleged danger posed by invaders by sea. The ‘invaders’ here were a small group of Algerian men, escaped prisoners, who, despite their unfree status, were mobile, crossing oceans and imperial and national spaces. As such, they were perceived as dangerous to the new White Australia, a liberal democratic society so desperate to hide its own less than lily-white past. Despite its history of convict transportation, Australia as a nation had no sympathy for those fleeing a similar system and chose to incarcerate the men in Brisbane, collaborate with the French authorities and hand them over to the New Caledonian military warder who had come to take them back to their island prison.

In the case of the ‘Castaway Arabs’ or the ‘French Escapees’, the fledgling nation did not quite ‘stop the boat’. However, in the way that the foreign men arriving by sea were racialised and criminalised by the authorities and the press before being rejected as undesirables, we recognise yet another historical echo of 21st century discourse on border security and the alleged threat posed by brown, non-Christian, ‘crimmigrant’ others attempting to land on Australia’s closely guarded shores.

A full, written version of this paper was published here:

Speedy, Karin. 2016. “‘Arab Castaways’/‘French Escapees’: Mobilities, Border Protection and White Australia”, Law, Crime and History, 6.2, 15-30

 

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Transformative Journeys

Academic articles take forever to come out. I have one due to be published shortly (touch wood) based on the oral histories of the Aymard and Elphège families, descendants of mixed race migrants from Reunion Island (Indian Ocean French sugar colony) who settled in New Caledonia in the 1870s. The Reunionese had been enticed to New Caledonia to help set up the fledgling sugar industry that local administrators hoped would supply sugar to the region. They were mostly former slaves or free people of colour (of mixed African, Malagasy and French origin) who had become impoverished after the sugar industry collapse in Reunion. Most entered New Caledonia as French citizens, a status bestowed upon them on emancipation

Despite their freedom and citizenship, many of the formerly enslaved Reunionese remained on the outer limits of society in ReunionFacing increasing destitution as the sugar industry went bust, move to a new colony was aopportunity to start afresh for them. The division of New Caledonian society into free settlers, convicts, indentured labourers and indigenous people (free, unfree, and indigenous)allowed all Reunionesesomewhat serendipitously, as French citizens, to enjoy their social status as part of the white settler population. In New Caledonia, the blacks were the indigenous Kanak. They were assigned inferior social status and were subject to extreme prejudice born of 19th-century  scientific racism and the exigencies of settler colonialism. In this climate, the tradition of the non-dit (the unsaid) in New Caledonia assisted the Reunionese to negotiate their new settler whiteness while enabling the colonial administration to populate/occupy the land with French citizens; the silence and silencing allowing for the emergence of settler colonial narrative centring on the white settler/black Indigenous binary.

Despite the deliberate masking of the past, cultural practices, family stories and artefacts were passed on even if this was done behind closed doors. This poem imagines the journeys of those who transitioned from the oppressed in one colonial space to a position more akin to oppressor in a new one.

 

 

#FantasyLives

Fascinating
fabricated
family histories
that create
a certain coziness
in inhospitable
social climes 

Transformative journeys
west to east
north to south
black to almost
white
or French
at least 

Camouflaging
marks
still fresh
still raw
in shackled flesh
concealed beneath
the frothy skirts
of settler society 

Hiding pasts
still manifest
in the
rougail
served with kari
consumed
with relish
but never
questioned 

A new beginning
a second chance 

Hush
don’t ask
stick together
the seamstresses
will stitch
a new family
tapestry

© Karin Speedy 2016

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

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

map nc

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]

51g2jtN79dL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_

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.

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

nla.news-page000001282939-nla.news-article15450939-L3-c9abdc82403fe9e6b8f31e2876cb9b75-0001

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?

Algériens_déportés_en_Nouvelle-Calédonie.jpg

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”.

immigration-javanaise

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