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

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