The Night Before Waitangi Day

I wrote this poem when living in Sydney. I always felt like I was living in exile there. It was February 5, 2015, the night before my birthday, the night before Waitangi Day. I was feeling nostalgic, thinking of home and the Treaty (Te Tiriti o Waitangi) and what it means in different places and to different people. Also imagining the links and disconnect between the two settler colonies of New Zealand and Australia. It seems an appropriate poem for National Poetry Day in Aotearoa.
______________________________
The Night Before Waitangi Day
 
Birthday Eve
In Poihakena
No holiday tomorrow
This country does not stop to reflect
Upon what has been
And what might have been
And what could be
Written between the lines
Inscribed in blood
Across the way
In Aotearoa
 
No time off to
Contemplate what was
Translated
Creatively?
Faithfully?
Culturally?
No,
Erroneously.
Dangerously.
Colonially.
 
All a bit slapdash
Really.
Never mind
Not important
The power in the hands
Of those writing
The history
And all that.
Fudge it
A bit
The natives will never notice.
Besides
They won’t be here long
To relate their version
Their history
To question
To protest
To speak
Even.
 
Absence
Silence
Extinction
Progress
Taming
Homogenising
Nation building
Or some such
Developmental bullshit.
Wasn’t that
The plan?
 
Not so different here.
No treaty though
No celebration
No day off work
No discussion
No critique
A non-event
Almost.
 
Birthday Eve
In Sydney
Time to remember.
(c) Karin Speedy 2015
First published in “Piercing the White Space”, Blackmail Press 41, November 2015,
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À la mode in Hunters Hill

Louis Joubert

Louise Joubert, Joubert folder, Hunters Hill Museum

One of the characters who features quite regularly in this blog is Didier-Numa Joubert, a Franco-Australian merchant who made his fortune in the mid-1800s through trade of all types (legal and not-so-legal). This poem imagines a conversation between his daughter Louise, whose portrait I saw in the archives of the Hunters Hill museum, and a friend at the Joubert house in Hunters Hill. It reflects on the material trappings and lifestyle afforded certain sectors of white colonial society and how this was enjoyed at the great expense of others.

 

À la mode in Hunters Hill

Is it silk?

Incredulous look

Mais naturellement!

Hand stitched

delicate detail

embroidered yoke

ample sleeve

teasing flounce

rustling skirts

gently graze

the ankles of

la belle

Mademoiselle

Louise

 

Tortoiseshell buttons

left unfastened

reflecting amber light

tracking

mapping

tacking down

to snake around

her bourgeois breasts

showing

a rather daring

swathe

of luminescent

white

 

Beautiful dress

my dear

a stand out

in this English

colony

it’s French….

n’est-ce pas?

Mais oui!

No one sews

such sophistication

in the

antipodes!

 

A trunk

brimming

on Papa’s order

arrived

last week

in Sydney town

full of hats

and gloves

and undergarments

and the most exquisite

Parisian gowns

 

Taking in

the sumptuous vista

sun caressing

sparkling waters

crisscrossed

by the foliage

of a flourishing

flame tree

the two ladies

on the colonial verandah

slowly sip

their China

tea

 

Coconut palms

perform

a wilted waltz

in the stifling

breeze

while bent

brown backs

toil

under

the oppressive

summer

heat

 

What brings them here

these bronzed youths

from their homes

in the South Seas?

They are

the exploited workers

the unpaid builders

of Papa’s Paradise

a sandstone

Sydney suburb

founded on

trade

tenacity

luck

and plunder

and a slice of

slavery

 

© Karin Speedy 2016

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Flame tree in Hunters Hill, photo credit: Karin Speedy

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

Pacific Island Labour in mid-19th Century Sydney

Hunters 1

When examining the shipping records for goods that were being brought into Sydney by Franco-Australian merchant Didier-Numa Joubert, I was struck by how many “Pacific Islanders” were coming and going on his ships, often accompanied by Marist priests. The first arrivals were fourteen young Melanesian evacuees from New Caledonia who fled with the missionaries in 1847 after the mission post had come under attack by local Kanak. From the early 1850s, groups of Pacific Island converts who were brought to Sydney by the Marists, ostensibly for religious instruction, often found themselves labouring for the Marists and their friends. Joubert had Pacific Islanders gardening at his Hunters Hill residence, for instance. One of the main occupations of the Islanders was to quarry rock for the churches that they would build back in their respective islands. (You can read about the Pyrmont quarry here). These young men served as free labour for the Marists and it is thanks to their hard work that the second Villa Maria, on the shore of Tarban Creek, was built in Hunters Hill.*

Interestingly, as you can see in the image above, a reminder of this early Pacific presence is recorded in the palm trees planted along the side of Villa Maria. There are pockets of palm trees or coconut palms around Hunters Hill, notably on former Joubert properties and they seem to me natural memorials to the neophytes from the Pacific who traveled to and toiled in Sydney.

Last year, I published a poem, “Rites of Passage”, in Snorkel magazine in which I reflect upon the largely hidden history of these early Pacific Island (unpaid, slave?) workers in Sydney.

Rites of Passage

Port Jackson at last
months of seasickness
some schooling in Wallis
a local temptress
bless me Father
you mumbled
almost sincerely
in the stranger’s tongue
and now Sydney town
and the mission house
promises of scriptural instruction
French perfection
a lesson in civilisation
in the Australian haven
of the Marist order

With ecclesiastic fanfare
you, newly baptised Polynesians
future catechists
soon-to-be spreaders of the Word
receive first communion
at Saint Mary’s cathedral
and you wonder why
there are so many spectators
to mark the occasion
with curious gaze
suffocated white glove giggles
and whispers of cannibal taming
under the holy roof

While cutting, hewing, lugging
Pyrmont yellow block
with its smooth texture
and sensuous ripple lines
left by the flow of an ancient river
you also ponder
exactly what biblical enlightenment
the Marists are bestowing upon you
in this quarry
as you toil and sweat
in Saunders’ Purgatory
Hellhole best avoided
Paradise if you are lucky
harvesting God quality stone
for the churches
you will build
back in Wallis and Samoa

The scraps of learning
imparted by candlelight
as you fuel your shattered bodies
with morsels of bread and miserly broth
will have to suffice
for now
the schooner
heavy in the water
packed with the sacred rock
a few bibles, robes, Catholic paraphernalia
and worldly provisions
is ready to sail
for the Islands

And you, newly confirmed Polynesians
catechists in training
a few with silicosis cough
will return
to labour
for free
some to preach
forever in indenture
to the cloth
others just until
the pull
of your cosmos
prevails

©Karin Speedy 2016

* John Hosie has written at length on the Marists in Australia in Hosie, John. 1987. Challenge: The Marists in Colonial Australia. Sydney: Allen & Unwin.

Speedy, Karin. 2016. “Rites of Passage” original poem first published in Snorkel literary magazine, issue 23, http://snorkel.org.au/023/speedy.html

Hunters 3

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.

A Taste of Transnational Writing from the Pacific Region

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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”…

Merlin CourtTiaré_tahiti

Let me see your beauty broken down like you would do for one you love.

Leonard Cohen

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 Bath1024px-Kings_Cross_at_night

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

Reference

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)