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

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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

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.