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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Shouting through the Silence

DN Joubert

From Hunter’s Hill Museum Archives, Sydney

As any readers of this blog have gathered, I have a bit of a thing for archives, particularly the colonial archive. Archives house myriad, if mediated, stories of much of our past. Yet, as a mirror of the societies they recorded, they are notorious for their selective exclusions and tendency to allow the voices of the privileged and powerful to resonate through the centuries. This is not to say that others are not there. They are. It’s just that they are not as loud, not as visible and the historian has to work harder to find them.

The exclusion of other/Indigenous/non-white voices was always part and parcel of the colonial project, an epistemic continuation of the everyday violence ‘subaltern’ people experienced during their lifetimes. Rereading the colonial archive through a postcolonial lens often enables recovery of the lost narratives and a retelling of colonial history that highlights Indigenous or subaltern agency and resistance. Historians, particularly those working on slave, convict and indentured labourers and other marginalised groups, engage with fragmented archival material in order to piece together the stories of those who have been excluded from the colonial archive and, until recently, colonial history.

Charroi-Beaufonds-Georgi

Beaufonds sugar factory (near st Benoit, Reunion) at the end of the 19th century, Henri Georgi, Centre des archives d’outre-mer, Wikipedia

In an article that has just been published called “Constructing Subaltern Silence in the Colonial Archive: An Australian Case Study”, I deconstruct an 1857 instance of kidnapping in the Pacific by a Sydney-based consortium of well-connected merchants and sea captains, headed by Didier-Numa Joubert. The Gilbert (I-Kiribati) and Solomon Islanders they ‘recruited’ were taken on board an old whaling ship, the Sutton, to Reunion Island in the Indian Ocean and sold into indenture. In the article, instead of attempting to recover the voices of the Pacific Islanders, I focus on the methods by which their voices were silenced. A close reading of the archival documents available in the colonial archive (in London and Paris) allows me to describe the very deliberate production of subaltern silence and show how particular agents of empire, men with trans-imperial connections, were able to draw on these interconnections, knowledge and experience to create and exploit it.

Map_OC-Oceania

Despite the thorough, cynical and ruthless efforts to obfuscate the voices of the Pacific Islanders on the part of the men holding the power in this ‘transaction’, the gaps left by so many untruths speak volumes. The ghosts reposing in the interstices of the archive can, indeed, speak. While I was writing my academic article, concentrating on teasing out a recipe for the construction of subaltern silence, I was also listening to these ghostly revelations. As I am apt to do, I turned to creative writing to express them, writing a longish poem that experiments with polyphonous voices. It expresses what I understand to be the most likely version of events. And here it is.

Secrets of the Sutton

Her whaling days over
leaky, saggy, weighed down
with blubbery death stench
the Sutton
a Baltimore clipper-built barque
18th century relic
unseaworthy really
receives a cheap lick and spit

She’ll be good
for one more
South Sea
adventure

Villainous voyage
quick fire trickery
fast money plunder
for her slick talking owner
and duplicitous
filibuster crew

Marist collusion
or cynical suggestion
of non-existent missionary middle-men
coconut-oil tales of
short sojourns
on a neighbouring isle
a pound of tobacco
in return
for copra dreams

A pair of Judas beachcombers
fair weather interpreters
embark to aid
the kidnapping mariners

Come hither
strapping young men of the Gilberts
your brown bodies our bread
your muscles our meat
inspect below decks
mind the swivel guns
no we’re not slavers
but we’ll lock the hold
as we haul anchor
and head out to sea

Solomon Islands
ideal dumping ground
for mutinous Micronesians
knife-wielding prospective assassins
according to sailor testimony
one on New Georgia
the other one…

where was it again?
no one can quite recall

tossed out trussed up
no food or water
life expectancy measured
in hours not days

Fourteen Solomons bondsmen
traded for shiny glass trinkets
join fifty-one Gilbertese captives
packed in tight down below
sixty-six days
of suffering and gagging
on putrid dank air
whale flesh planks
unwashed bodies
fear
vomit
human excreta
bilge water slops underfoot

In the cabin are
muskets and pistols
cutlasses and axes
gunpowder and canisters
an arsenal to save us
from native rebellion
to keep us safe from
the savages down there

Disembark the cargo
on the Isle of Bourbon
France’s sugar bowl
in the Indian Ocean
1848 emancipation
leaving a desperate craving
for slave replacements
on boom production plantations

Top price fetched
for fresh strong flesh
Pacific Islanders snatched up by planters
on five-year French indentures
for forty pounds sterling a head
Coconut and tobacco promises
exposed as nowt
but fraudulences…
the seamen decamp
to British Mauritius
where petty jealousies play out
on the imperial stage

Those bloody Frogs!

Governor Stevenson sniffs slavery
statements solicited
but not from the Islanders
muted and left to their cane-cutting fates
yarns spun criss-crossing
fact with fanciful fiction
flurry of indignant diplomatic dispatches

What, they’re not our natives?
Nevermind
Nothing more we can do

Sham enquiry over
scandal hits Sydney
headlines scream high sea irregularities
kidnapping
privateering
slaving
these dastardly acts
damaging money-making prospects
with South Sea cannibals
so ripe for exploiting
furious merchants
pen letters to the editor
their ocean-going
capitalist
dreams
at stake

The captain should swing!

Ship owner Joubert
backed by French consul
deftly dismisses attacks on his honour

Outrageous accusations!
Nothing untoward
occurred on board
a French sanctioned delegate was present
no laws were broken
no harm was done
no persuasion needed
the natives were more than willing
why, they were happy ship helpers
of course they knew what they were signing
those beachcomber interpreters
double-dealing scoundrels trying to scam us
pay them no heed

Lie, defy, deny
expert extrication
establishment players emerge from the mêlée
rich man reputations intact
no charges laid

It was all above board
a legal business transaction

Newspapers fall quiet
blackbirding implicitly sanctioned
Queensland’s future assured

What of the abductees from the Islands?
How did they fare on faraway fields?
Did they find their way back to the Pacific?
Or were they buried an ocean away?

No news of the men
caught in this nefarious traffic
nothing to report
no update
no footnote
the colonial conspiracy
to banish their voices
to hide their stories
to silence the archive
creates
an echoing void of indifference
that violently shouts
the truth
from the page

©Karin Speedy 2016

For further details on this incident see:

Speedy, Karin. 2015. “The Sutton Case: the First Franco-Australian Foray into Blackbirding,” The Journal of Pacific History, 50, no. 3, 344-364.
DOI:  dx.doi.org/ (for those with institutional access).

Speedy, Karin. 2015. “Sydney’s Global Slavery Scandal of 1857”, Imperial & Global Forum, imperialglobalexeter.com/2015/ (free access to this blog post).

Speedy, Karin. 2016. “Constructing subaltern silence in the colonial archive: An Australian case study”, Journal of Australian Colonial History, Vol. 18, Jul 2016: 95-114.

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”.

GE DIGITAL CAMERA

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

 

Sydney’s Global Slavery Scandal of 1857

Imperial & Global Forum

Sugarcane harvesters, Reunion Island c.1885 Sugarcane harvesters, Reunion Island

Karin Speedy
Macquarie University, Sydney
Follow on Twitter @KarinESpeedy

In 1857, 51 Gilbertese (I-Kiribati) and 14 Solomon Islanders were spirited away from their homes. They were transported on the Sydney-based barque Sutton, and then sold as indentured sugar labourers on the French-owned island of Reunion in the Indian Ocean. When the scandal hit the shores of Sydney, the incident  shifted from a global diplomatic dispute between the British and French empires to a local story, revealing the complexity of the colonial space where culpability was tied to local politics, class, and notions of nationality.[1]

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