This post was first published on The Coastal History Blog, blog 34.
Georges Baudoux’s Jean M’Baraï the Trepang Fisherman, is a masterful, ambiguous, semi-fictional novella that relates the brutal history of the Kanaka trade and highlights 19th century imperial connections between the French and British Pacific. First published in 1919, based on the real lives of three métis or “half-castes” of the New Caledonian bush and on the oral histories of the author’s New Hebridean mining employees, themselves former Queensland Kanaka workers, Georges Baudoux’s Jean M’Baraï the Trepang Fisherman describes a time when anglophone, francophone and Pacific peoples interacted, exchanged, and moved in and out of each other’s lives perhaps more frequently than today. The immense interest of this book for historians is its detailed account of all aspects of blackbirding in the Pacific, a history written on the basis of eye-witness accounts.
Georges Baudoux (1870-1949), New Caledonia’s first writer, arrived as a four year old in the French penal colony aboard the Virginie, a convict ship transporting prisoners from the Paris Commune. After a brief stint working for the local newspaper, at eighteen Baudoux became a man of the bush, eking out a living (like his protagonist Jean M’Baraï) as a trepang fisherman, then a stockman and miner. Making his fortune in mining, he purchased his own mines, employing both freed and runaway convicts, ex-sailors and drifters as well as Melanesians from the New Hebrides (Vanuatu). An astute observer and listener, Baudoux collected the stories of many of the characters he met in the bush, filing them away for use in the stories he would write in later life. He is celebrated in New Caledonia for the documentary quality of his texts and the “authenticity” in his reproduction of real-life characters, voices and events. His writings, while not untainted by paternalism and colonial stereotypes, are unusually subversive for the time in their unflinching critique of the destructive nature of the colonial project and their vision of a universal inhumanity that traverses all racial and linguistic boundaries.
Aside from Ben Boyd’s disastrous attempt to introduce Pacific labourers into New South Wales in 1847, the first organised blackbirding of Pacific Islanders was in 1857, when 65 Gilbert and Solomon Islanders were sold into indenture on Reunion Island. From 1862-3, the notorious Peruvian Slave Trade saw Joseph Byrne’s ships plying the Pacific for human cargo, and from 1863 to 1904 over 62,000 Kanakas from Vanuatu, the Solomon Islands, New Caledonia, the Gilbert Islands, Fiji and parts of Papua New Guinea were contracted to work on the Queensland sugar plantations. Between 1865 and 1930, around 14,000 Melanesians (mostly New Hebrideans or ni-Vanuatu as they are known today) were imported into the French colony of New Caledonia to work, initially, on the sugar plantations and later in the mines. Blackbirded labourers were also taken to work on the plantations of Fiji, Samoa and Tahiti and were used as pearl divers in the Torres Strait. French and English “recruiters” (or “slavers”) soon became fierce competitors (and sometime collaborators) in the Melanesian archipelagos.
Kanakas destined for the Queensland sugar industry were usually signed up for three year contracts, a thumb print sufficing for agreement (whether or not the contract was understood). They were disembarked at numerous ports along the Queensland coast stretching from Brisbane in the south up to Cairns in the far north. Assigned a number and a European name, the Pacific Islanders were not allowed to mingle with white society, living in encampments on their employer’s property, and were required to work very long hours clearing the land and planting, cutting and preparing sugar cane for processing. Bound to their employer, their lives were highly regulated, they were often subject to mistreatment and overwork, they suffered high mortality rates and their meagre salary (£6 for the entire 3 years of labour – minus any fines that were owing) was only paid to them at the end of their contract (if they were lucky).
By Karin Speedy
Georges Baudoux’s Jean M’Baraï the Trepang Fisherman is available as an Open Access free ebook and can be downloaded here: http://epress.lib.uts.edu.au/books/georges-baudouxs-jean-mbarai-trepang-fisherman A print on demand option for those who prefer to turn real pages is also available (details on the same web page).
 Karin Speedy, Georges Baudoux’s Jean M’Baraï the trepang fisherman, (Sydney: UTS ePress, 2015).
 Kanaka is a Polynesian word that travelled around the Pacific with the whaling fleets. It means ‘human being” in Hawaiian but came to refer to the Melanesians/South Sea Islanders who were taken as labourers in Queensland.
 Karin Speedy, “Translating Socrates’ ‘Creole’ in Georges Baudoux’s Sauvages et Civilisés,” Metamorphoses. Special Issue on Francophone Literature, 11, no.1 (2003), 120-132.
 Karin Speedy, Colons, créoles et coolies: l’immigration réunionnaise en Nouvelle-Calédonie (XIXe siècle) et le tayo de Saint-Louis, (Paris: L’Harmattan, 2007).
 Dorothy Shineberg, They came for sandalwood: a study of the sandalwood trade in the south-west Pacific, 1830-1865, (London, New York: Melbourne University Press, Cambridge University Press, 1967).
 Marion Diamond, The Sea Horse and the Wanderer: Ben Boyd in Australia, (Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 1988).
 Henry Evans Maude, Slavers in Paradise. The Peruvian Slave Trade in Polynesia, 1862-1864, (Canberra: Australian National University Press, 1981).
 Doug Munro, “The labor trade in Melanesians to Queensland: an historiographic essay”, Journal of Social History, vol. 28, no. 3, (1995), 609-627.
 Dorothy Shineberg, “‘The New Hebridean is everywhere’: the Oceanian labor trade to New Caledonia, 1865-1930”, Pacific Studies, vol. 18, no. 2, (1995), 1-22.
 Alexandre François, “The dynamics of linguistic diversity: Egalitarian multilingualism and power imbalance among northern Vanuatu languages”, International Journal of the Sociology of Language, no. 214, (2012), 85–110.
 Clive Moore, “Revising the revisionists: the historiography of immigrant Melanesians in Australia”, Pacific Studies, vol.15, no.2, (1992), 61–86.
 Doug Hunt and K.H. Kennedy, “Bye bye blackbirder: the death of Ross Lewin”, Journal of the Royal Historical Society of Queensland, vol. 19. no.5, (2006), 805-823.
 Reid Mortensen, “Slaving in Australian courts: blackbirding cases, 1869-1871”, Journal of South Pacific Law no. 4 (2000), http://www.paclii.org/journals/fJSPL/vol04/7.shtml
 Sugar Slaves, (1995). A film made by Film Australia and the ABC, executive producer Sharon Connolly, director/co-producer Trevor Graham, producer, Penny Robins. Available on DVD. Blackbird had its first screenings in December 2015. See the Facebook page for the project here: https://www.facebook.com/blackbirdfilmproject Oral histories are also, of course, used in academic research.
 Tracey Banivanua-Mar, Violence and Colonial Dialogue: The Australian-Pacific Indentured Labor Trade. (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2007).
 The Pacific Island Labourers Act of 1901 was one of a suite of laws passed from 1901 designed to exclude non-white workers and immigrants from staying in or entering Australia.
 Nic Maclellan, “South Sea Islanders unite in Australia”, Inside Story, 24 August 2012. http://insidestory.org.au/south-sea-islanders-unite-in-Australia