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?
the ankles of
reflecting amber light
to snake around
her bourgeois breasts
a rather daring
a stand out
in this English
No one sews
on Papa’s order
in Sydney town
full of hats
and the most exquisite
the sumptuous vista
by the foliage
of a flourishing
the two ladies
on the colonial verandah
a wilted waltz
in the stifling
What brings them here
these bronzed youths
from their homes
in the South Seas?
the exploited workers
the unpaid builders
of Papa’s Paradise
and a slice of
© Karin Speedy 2016
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.
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.
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
No sleep for you
lying prone on lice straw mattress
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
you thrash and whimper
Pilgrimage aboard a saintly vessel
port, then town, then hermitage
sweet solid walled tranquillity
healing holy scarification
relocating your vocation
to another Oceanic destiny
©Karin Speedy 2016
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
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
in the stranger’s tongue
and now Sydney town
and the mission house
promises of scriptural instruction
a lesson in civilisation
in the Australian haven
of the Marist order
With ecclesiastic fanfare
you, newly baptised Polynesians
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
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
some to preach
forever in indenture
to the cloth
others just until
of your cosmos
©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
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…
serious, rather dour
that you sat for
eyes averted and comfortably bourgeois
or the stouter
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 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)