As 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 dark/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.
Through 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.
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.
Baudoux 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 Kanaks, 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 colonial 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.
Whether 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.
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: email@example.com ). 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.
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
A number of years ago now, I had the pleasure of translating a book of short stories, Half-Moon Lands, by New Caledonian writer Hélène Savoie. I wrote a fairly extensive introduction to the book, which you can read here.
Hélène Savoie takes the reader of Half-Moon Lands on a poetic, poignant and often fantastic journey of self-discovery as her stories traverse eras and spaces from the colonial to the postcolonial, from the New Caledonian and Hebridean bush to Noumea to Sydney, from dream to reality, from the land of the living to the land of the dead through heaven, hell and purgatory.
She uses the frameworks of both Kanak and European myth and legend and draws on personal and collective memories to highlight the great hybridity of the Oceanic spaces she inhabitants. She also traces the development of a local, yet transnational, identity among the descendants of European immigrants (both free and forced) in New Caledonia.
My introduction to and translation of Half-Moon Lands brings this francophone voice from the Pacific to the attention of English-speaking readers. My translation approach upholds the otherness of the stories by privileging their difference and local singularity, preserving the interplay between the inclusive and exclusive elements of the French text, thus putting readers from the so-called Pacific periphery at the centre.
The book is divided into two parts: “Half-Moon Lands (New Caledonia and the New Hebrides)” and “Pacific Sky (Australia)”. I have chosen two stories from the second half of the book to share here as they demonstrate quite nicely the transnational element of Hélène’s writing. The urban hell of Sydney in the 1980s that she evokes in “Pacific Sky” stands in sharp contrast to, yet also blends with, the paradisiacal natural landscapes of her island home that she describes in the first half of the book. Yet, perhaps because I am currently living in Sydney (and was a child of the 1980s), I find this section, full of junkies, prostitutes, dirt, rubbish, rotten smells, dark alleys, smoky bars, sterile man-made fountains and ugly buildings, quite striking. I hope you enjoy “Merlin Court” and “Eucalyptus Steam Bath”…
Let me see your beauty broken down like you would do for one you love.
This discrete hotel is lost down a quiet alley behind the Cross, the centre for night owls, and the place where drugs and prostitution are King. Near an Indian bazaar and a joke shop, where larger than life rattlesnakes slither among the demon, Chimera and witch masks, the white façade of a building rises above its neighbours. According to the sign outside, it is called “Merlin”, the magician of the famous Arthur Pendragon, the king who founded the English dynasty.
The hotel is lost in an exotic Forest of Brocéliande whose sweet scent, given off by the tiaré flowers, bewitches the few people who pass by.
In her room that night, she listened to the tinkle of the little bells shaped like pagodas, good luck charms that she had bought that very day in a Chinatown emporium as, according to the Chinese, they have the power to ward off evil spirits.
Darkness slowly descended upon the room, taking it over completely as she stood still, contemplating Sydney Harbour lit up by the incessant traffic of ferries and the cars crossing the Harbour Bridge.
She was overtaken by an insidious torpor as she recalled the one who had disappeared. Is not death but an appearance?
The fragrance of the tiaré picked that morning was as strong as a narcotic. A presence began to take shape in the shadows. She was alive, but the question was whether he was willing to come back to this side of the river to rediscover the smell of life’s perfumes? In an instant, she believed that she had caught a glimpse of the shadow of his fleeting silhouette against the crepuscular sky, but everything faded away.
The next day, the plane trees in the street captured the bright daylight in their multitudinous leaves, reflecting it in shades of emerald. As usual, she sat at one of the tables outside “Geoffrey’s Café” when a gust of wind swept down the street, whipping up a cloud of white dust that danced for a long while in the sun before finally settling.
A thought suddenly popped into her head – he was there, somewhere, a prisoner in a wretched, squalid King’s Cross flat and they had faked his death to protect his new identity. Who had attended his funeral?
Often she thought that he had been laid to rest in the Brontë Cemetery overlooking the Pacific Ocean from its high cliff top that was constantly battered by the winds coming from the open sea. A strange cemetery shaded by palm trees, whose old graves are watched over by marble angels with open wings, evoking even more so the dark Wuthering Heights than Paul Valéry’s Cimetière marin. She liked to walk in this place of silence and tranquillity.
It was in “Geoffrey’s Café” that she wrote the first pages of her story, and that of Merlin the Enchanter, victim of an evil spell, who was imprisoned forever in this Brocéliande Forest of the antipodes:
Once upon a time there was a discrete but luxurious hotel in an alley in the Cross, near an Indian bazaar… at its windows, little Chinese bells quietly tinkled. Merlin, the prisoner, was dreaming there, inebriated by the perfume of the tiaré flowers that was wafting up to his balcony.
But do we really know what effect fiction has on reality? Perhaps I am myself a variant of the fairy that keeps you here, a sad prisoner in this faraway land, after having stolen the secrets of your magic?
I sometimes seem to hear your sigh of defeat and sometimes, on the contrary, I hear the very far off echo of your joyless laughter, as if you were still mocking the futility of it all.
© Karin Speedy and Hélène Savoie, 2010
Eucalyptus Steam Bath
I walk alone in its wake. Night is wrapped around this city of shadows and desire, and its silence is shattered by police car sirens.
I am there, watchful of what is hiding in the dark, walking on the asphalt footpath that is still warm from the now faded heat of the day. I am walking towards the twinkling stars of this cruel southern city. Misery lets out its groan in one heavy breath in this almost deserted street, turned over to its night time residents, in a stench of rubbish and of lingering odours of nauseating, stagnant, greasy fat.
The Boulevard Hotel: how many times have I looked at this foggy red sign? The steam baths are on the 28th floor: a Chinese woman with a frozen face reigns over them. With her mummy-like smile that is more of a grimace, she welcomes me, along with other single men and elderly English couples, into the parlour.
“Eucalyptus steam baths”, said the ad in a brochure picked up in a hotel room, lost among the addresses of brothels and call-girl clubs. The slap slap of flesh being pummelled resonates sinisterly from the otherwise silent booths: this is where sex-starved oldies come to regain their vitality through some expert bottom smacking on the part of the masseuses.
Just as dark is the sauna bath in a thick fog of odorous steam. Here men and women slyly eye each other up in the half-light, like old injured animals ready to tear each other to pieces.
I flee this place, overcome with uneasiness and disgust, feeling tainted, soiled by mere association with these people, sick of body and soul, searching for their lost youth, their wilted beauty and the all-too-quickly exhausted pleasures of their flesh, now withered by the wear and tear brought on by time and all their vices.
I make my way up the last of the empty levels of the thirty-floor building: piano music is floating out of the restaurant overlooking the Harbour and the Bridge. The shopping arcades are all closed at this hour of the night. The twelve strokes of midnight of some imaginary belfry resonate through my body, and I find myself a prisoner in a waking dream, like a stranger wandering aimlessly though a pathetic comic version of a fairytale, where some fallen prince has replaced Cinderella.
A captive of my own despair and solitude, of my still unfulfilled desire to leave or to finish with it all, it appears more and more obvious that Fate has been toying with me. Sometimes I turn around quickly and look back towards the sumptuous lobby with wall to wall red velvet where my steps disappear, inaudible, muffled by the thick carpet, hoping that this abrupt movement will make she who has injected me with the poison of this incurable melancholy suddenly appear from the lift.
Who is she ? How do I know her? How did I meet her? I have no recollection whatsoever. I still don’t know what she looks like, I simply sense that she is there, near me, present on the other side of reality, so close and yet so far away, her mere apparition, it seems to me, would be enough to save me from myself.
She remains mysterious and hides, like Isis, behind the seven opaque veils from the invisible, where I drift in a maze of empty and incoherent images, as if this world had become a stranger to me.
So, like a man demented, I throw myself back into the heart of the damp darkness of the avenue, this river of lights with a violent backwash, I go up it until I reach the intersection of the Cross so that I can drown my senses in the dives and sleazy bars in this modern Babylon, certain that I will walk there alone until the end.
In her wake, only perceptible to me, sometimes floated the blended fragrance of a vanilla and ylang-ylang perfume whose trail I followed, in a hurry to burn the last years of an existence that had driven a wall between us. I was longing to escape from the imprisonment of the cloister of my life to find her on the other side of the mirror of appearances, where she has been waiting for me for such a long time.
© Karin Speedy and Hélène Savoie, 2010
Speedy, Karin and Savoie, Hélène. Les Terres de la demi-lune / Half-Moon Lands. Bilingual edition, Translated and with a Critical Introduction by Karin Speedy. ISBN: 978 2 296 11771 6. L’Harmattan: Paris, 2010. (280 pages)