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Civilization vs Solidarity: Louise Michel and the Kanaks

by | May 22, 2017

In 1871, the French military slaughtered approximately 25,000 people in the streets of Paris. Ferociously repressing the 72-day long revolutionary civil war known as the Paris Commune, the French government intended to obliterate and make examples of the socialist, anarchist, and feminist movements that sparked and sustained the insurrection. Of those escaping the massacre, over 35,000 were arrested, approximately one-third of whom were condemned by court martial. To ensure the eradication of the revolutionary stain, France deported nearly 4,500 of the insurgents to New Caledonia, its South Pacific penal colony one thousand miles off the Australian coast, confining the convicts to cages during the four-month sea voyage. Once in the archipelago, the Communards experienced harsh living conditions, pitiless guards, physical deprivation, psychological and emotional isolation, and intense boredom. Most lived in a “prison without walls” on the arid Ducos Peninsula, exiled by their government to an unforgiving carceral world more than 10,000 miles from their homes.

Five years into these former revolutionaries’ internment, allied tribes of New Caledonia’s indigenous Kanak population rose up against the French colonial authority. Nearly every Communard sided with France and against the Kanak. Dozens of deportees voluntarily took up arms to defend the same government that had slaughtered their comrades, crushed their revolution, flattened their neighborhoods, demonized their communities, and sent them into exile. The vast majority of the others stayed silent or expressed support for France. Abandoning the radical politics for which they had risked everything and sacrificed their freedom in 1871, these deportees instead prioritized whiteness, Frenchness, and the idea of civilization. Embracing a racialized nationalism and imperialism, these condemned revolutionaries now defended the conservative, monarchist-led French government and its brutal colonial policies and actions.

Louise Michel did not. The notorious, celebrated anarchist feminist veteran of the Commune supported the Kanak. Famously, she tore in half the red Commune scarf that she had managed to hide through her arrest, imprisonment, trial, and deportation, and gave one piece to two Kanak as they headed to battle. Writing later of her fellow French exiles, Michel explained that she “had the greatest esteem for them, but at that point, they disgusted me.”

Michel stood in bold relief against the rest of her comrades, taking a stance that today seems logical and politically consistent. Yet she emerged from the same intellectually and politically intense milieu of late 1860s-early 1870s Paris. She and the other Commune participants had been shaped by France’s collapsing Second Empire; the disastrous Franco-Prussian war, including a four-month siege of Paris; the temporarily triumphant Paris Commune, in which leftist intellectuals and workers rose up and claimed the city of Paris in history’s first essentially socialist revolution; and the state-sponsored blood bath that spectacularly quashed the revolt. All the deported Communards had embraced similar liberatory ideologies, had similar contempt for the extant government, and followed similar paths into revolutionary engagement. And yet with Michel as virtually the only exception, they defended the French state in 1878.

The revolt began when an alliance of Kanak tribes attacked colonial settlements. In two days they killed a hundred people, slaughtered livestock, and burned crops. The surprise assault was consistent with the Kanak guerilla war culture of quick incursions, but was considered evidence of Kanak savagery by the French. The French responded with escalation and months of retaliation. Seeing an opportunity to strike their traditional enemies, other Kanak tribes joined the French. Like the dozens of Communard exiles, nearly half of the Algerian Kabyle, who were also deported to New Caledonia after the French crushed their anti-imperial insurrection in 1871, allied with that same French colonial power in 1878, fighting to crush the Kanak’s uprising. On September first, Ataï, the renowned Kanak chief from the La Foa region, was ambushed and beheaded by members of the longtime rival Canala tribe; Louise Michel later explained in her Memoires, “Ataï was struck down by a traitor.” The colonial governor sent Ataï’s head to Paris, where it was studied, dissected, displayed, and only finally returned home to New Caledonia in 2014. By the end of 1878, the insurgency lay dead.

Ataï and his allies had risen to drive the colonizers out of their archipelago, to reclaim their stolen land, to eradicate the European-introduced livestock that destroyed their crops, and to rescue their culture and the texture of their lives. France “took possession” of New Caledonia in 1853, about sixty years after initial European contact, an encounter that resulted in the French sailors denigrating the Kanak for their unwillingness to trade, their “ugliness,” and Kanak women’s sexual unavailability. (Indeed, they accused the indigenous women of immorality because of their chastity.) During this period, the French constructed a racialized dichotomy among South Pacific Islanders, creating the idea of two distinct regions and peoples: Polynesians and Melanesians. The French labeled Polynesians “white,” and thus superior, and Melanisians “black,” and therefore inferior (a racialized distinction that persists today). Ranking the Kanak among the lowest of their colonized peoples, and, having fashioned them savages, as the historian Alice Bullard has argued, the French justified a brutal and repressive colonization.

So when the Kanak rose against the colonial power, it made sense both that that power would respond thunderously, and that the relatively few free European colonists would join it in arms to defend “their” property – from those from whom they had expropriated it. The rival Kanak tribes sided with the French for complex, still-debated, internecine reasons, as did the Kabyle deportees. But the alliance of the Communards with the French state seems incomprehensible. Yet they did ally, to varying degrees. Isolated, deprived, homesick, unsure when or if they would return to France, the violent cleavage pushed the exiled Communards to pick a side. It forced them to identify with either the French or the Kanak. And so they eschewed political solidarity with their fellow subjects of French oppression, because it would have meant turning their backs on being French and joining the savages. It would have meant abandoning whiteness in favor of blackness. After five brutal years of struggling to remain Parisian in a rural tropical archipelago, virtually none of them could do it.

Except Louise Michel. But why did she champion the Kanak? Why was she the only Communard to unambiguously express support for the colonized indigenous people?

A number of Communards had formed acquaintanceships and, a few, friendships with some Kanak in the years before the uprising, but only Michel attempted to understand and engage with their world. Particularly fascinated by Kanak languages, lore, and cosmology, she met a Westernized, French-speaking Kanak man named Daoumi who became her primary connection. In her Memoires, Michel wrote of their relationship, “He told me tribal legends and taught me his vocabulary, and I tried to reciprocate by telling him things that I believed were the most necessary for him to know.” More than two individuals exchanging cultural knowledge, for Michel, this sort of association exemplified how Europeans and Kanak could develop mutually beneficial relationships.

Disillusioned by the factionalized leadership and devastation of the Commune, Michel had become an anarchist on the prison ship Virginie during the voyage to New Caledonia. She abandoned her top-down, conspiratorial socialism. In its place, she embraced a radically egalitarian, anti-individualist, anti-hierarchical politics that advocated eradicating barriers of state, religion, race, class, and sex. Her New Caledonian experience wrought these ideas into an anti-imperialist, revolutionary anarchist feminist politics. She literally devoted her life to these goals: agitating by writing political essays, novels, and poetry; drawing huge crowds as a speaker in Europe and Algeria; practicing radical pedagogy in schools in France, New Caledonia, and England; and theorizing paths to anarchism. Michel worked closely with anarchists, feminists, and socialists throughout her life, but never fully affiliated with a particular group. Frequently imprisoned, shot while speaking, pilloried by the right, venerated by the radical left, and acclaimed in poems by both Paul Verlaine and Victor Hugo, she became a living legend.

Long interested in philological and poetic forms and politics, Michel was particularly intrigued by New Caledonian languages and legends. The Kanak, to this day, have 28 languages, distinct tongues that developed and remain historically and spiritually linked to particular islands within the archipelago and regions of the mountainous main island, the Grand Terre. Language forms a core element of Kanak identity. To communicate with traders and cross-tribally, the Kanak used bichelamar, a pidgin composed of English, French, Portuguese, and Polynesian and Southeast Asian dialects, as well as Kanak languages. Bichelamar (“bislama” in English) emerged prior to colonization, and remained in use into the twentieth century. As a primarily oral language, its origins remain unclear. The name bichelamar comes either from the Portuguese “bicho de mar” (literally sea creature, but also sea cucumber, or sea slug, found in New Caledonian waters and valued as an aphrodisiac in China) or from a combination of the English word “beach” and the Portugese word for sea, “mar.” Other Oceanic pidgins use or have used the name bichelamar, so it was not unique to New Caledonia.

To Michel, bichelamar was a living universal language, the praxis of the era’s developing theorization that a global tongue could surmount national divides and facilitate world peace. Less than a decade after the 1869 introduction of Universalglot, the first such constructed international vernacular – a precursor to not only Esperanto, but also others including Volapük, Spokil, and Bollak – Michel touted bichelamar as vital, functional, and thus preferable. The pidgin effectively facilitated internal and external trade, while preserving local languages and identities. Michel pointed to the Kanak’s development and utilization of bichelamar as a realm in which the New Caledonian people had surpassed the Europeans.

In fact, it became a model for political peace. Anarchists and educators, of which Michel was both, posited language as a barrier to international unity. French anarchist Elisée Reclus, in L’homme et la terre, stressed that Esperanto’s proponents had no interest in replacing existing languages, “with their long and beautiful literary and philosophical pasts,” but rather intended to introduce a universal idiom as an auxiliary means of communication to facilitate understanding between nations. He contended that “a revolution as fundamental as the adoption of a universal language could not occur without bringing peace and a conscious accord to the life of nations.” Michel had also long viewed linguistic divisions as detrimental barriers to global alliance. Among her voluminous papers are the unpublished drafts of a never-completed encyclopedia project, including entries on mathematics, astronomy, geography, history, and music. Planning to work on the linguistics section in the penal colony, she had arranged to have a Breton dictionary and Russian and Polish grammars sent to her. (She continually had books shipped to her throughout her exile.) Michel was already searching for an original language, a proof of common human descent that would bolster her internationalist, egalitarian world view. Studying, for example, the Ural-Altaic group, Michel looked at Mongolic, Tungusic, Koreanic, Japonic, and Turkic languages, listing “vocabulary fragments” from Ostyak, Mongol, Samoyed, Magyar, Mordvine, and “Greenland Eskimo” dialects. Underscoring their global connections, she noted that these were spoken “in remote parts of Asia, Arctic polar regions, America, Africa, and the South Pacific Islands.” Filling notebooks with lexical lists from an enormous number of languages, she looked both for connections among contemporary vernaculars and for the linguistic origins of those tongues, even tying Native American dialects to Sanskrit.

Anthropologists and linguists of the era widely considered Native Americans, much like the Kanak, to be a dying race, fated to disappear due to their inability to adapt/compete with civilization. Linguistic inferiority played a role in their evolutionary deficiency. Engaging the era’s comparative linguistic debates linking race and language, Michel challenged these contentions of fixed linguistic and racial hierarchies. Rejecting France’s derision of Kanak languages and acclaiming bichelamar, Michel utilized philology to undermine European claims of civilizational superiority.

In her memoir, Souvenirs de Calédonie, Michel used bichelamar to compare Europe’s fragmentation with Kanak cohesion, explaining,

Right now in New Caledonia, they have taken the first step toward peace between peoples, the universal language, composed simply of common terms from each nation…Who knows what strange and rich constructions will naturally form from these diverse elements. The civilized nations should be able to follow the example of the savages.

Michel emphasized the “natural” development of bichelamar, in contrast to awkward European efforts to construct new vernaculars. (Gramsci, too, later condemned Esperanto’s artificiality.) From her perspective, the organic success of bichelamar underscored the absurdity of Europe calling itself “civilized” and the Kanak “savage.” To Michel the civilized, ironically, had much to learn from the savage.

Although she rejected the civilized/savage dichotomy, Michel did accept the era’s dominant anthropological conceptualization of civilization as evolutionary, one that ranked races historically and developmentally. More “progressive” than earlier theorizations of races as ahistorical and unchanging, the evolutionary model posited that “uncivilized” groups could move up the civilizational hierarchy if aided by a more advanced race.

Consistent with Michel’s understanding of societal development or evolution, she spoke of the Kanak as both child-like and living in an earlier, less advanced historical era. Neither necessarily meant intrinsic inferiority, but rather implied youth, the potential for learning and growth, as well as the natural possibilities of an unspoiled Rousseauian state – something from which Europe could learn.

Michel did not distance herself from this temporal displacement. In the introduction to the second edition (1885) of her translation and transcription of Kanak tales, she articulated this historical slippage in relation to bichelamar. “Your philosophers discuss the possibility of a universal language chosen from among the dead languages, our people of the stone age use and live this language…” She subtly mocked European philosophers’ inaction, which she juxtaposed with the Kanak’s vital relationship to bichelamar. Mixing synchronies, contemporary philosophers reached back for ancient vernaculars, while the stone age Kanak employed a thriving idiom. Michel placed herself in and with the Kanak, “our people,” in distinct contrast to “your philosophers.” Her alliance is clear. And yet the implications of terming a people “stone age” are not negligible.

In another introductory piece in the 1885 edition of Kanak tales, Michel separated the temporality of quotidian Kanak life and that of their culture. Confirming their prehistoric milieu, she wrote “One is more than a little surprised to find, in the midst of the Stone Age, customs and manners of the Middle Ages…the fortunes told, spells cast in cemeteries, are like those seen in France at the time of Urbain Grandier.” This essay, titled “Customs of the Middle Ages in Calédonie,” likens the contemporary Kanak to the time of an early 15th-century practitioner of magic. Kanak culture, from this perspective, was shadowing French culture. The comparison integrated the Kanak into world history on a plane with Europe. And by situating Kanak culture millennia ahead of their material realm, Michel suggested their impressively rapid development, leaping over evolutionary historical steps.

As part of her understanding of the Kanak as temporally behind Europe, Michel viewed them as less intellectually developed. But she also intensely criticized Europe, vociferously censuring its economic, political, and social forms and hierarchies, and terming it in her memoirs a “poor, narrow civilization.” She believed that each society could learn from the other, like her exchanges with her Kanak informant Daoumi. Michel established a Kanak adult Sunday school that employed radical pedagogical methods, something she had done earlier with children in Paris, and would do later in London. Simultaneously, she worked to bring Kanak knowledge and history to Europeans, primarily through the translation, transcription, and publication of Kanak tales.

The Kanak’s oral culture intrigued Michel, particularly its narratives, which were passed down and performed, holding, shaping, and relating their histories. Working with Daoumi, Michel selected and translated stories, which she later adapted and published. In the second edition of the collection, Légendes et chants de gestes canaque, she explained,

The Kanak storyteller, if he is in high spirits, if he is not hungry, and if the night is beautiful, adds to a tale, and others add more after him, and the same legend passes through various mouths and various tribes, sometimes becoming something completely different from what it was at first.

These variables influencing a tale’s traditional transmission echoed Michel’s own process of choosing, translating, writing, and publishing Kanak tales. Like the Kanak storyteller, Michel modified the accounts. While her ostensible reason for recording the narratives was to prevent the colonial erasure of Kanak oral culture, she also wanted to positively re-present the Kanak to Europeans, intending to alter their conception of these indigenous people as savage and acultural, and (not incidentally) to advance her own political aims.

Introducing the tales “To European Friends,” Michel again linked the Kanak to Europe’s past, pointing out the similar linguistic approaches employed in Kanak tales and Medieval legends. While undoubtedly not identical, she wrote, their similarities rested in “their ability to frequently materialize the spoken word into symbols.” Expanding their purview, she explained that “These are the tales and songs that cradle all humanity in its infancy.” As with her search for an originary human language, here Michel posited a universal path to human development, one supportive of her theory of elemental human coherence.

Her appeal “To European Friends” emphasized intercultural and intertemporal links with the New Caledonians. Addressing the unavoidable topic of cannibalism, inextricably interwoven into the European idea of Kanak, Michel explained that while it was, indeed, a part of Kanak history, it had all but disappeared, “except in some cases of revenge.” She did publish stories that involved cannibalism. But she avoided scatological and sexual tales, considering them contrary to the reconceived Kanak image she hoped to convey. Engaging the overblown place of cannibalism in the European South Pacific imaginary, she instead pointed to Europe’s own cannibalistic behaviors – specifically the horrific repression of the Commune. Referring, in her memoirs, to the colonial government’s ongoing efforts to block her pedagogical projects, citing the “pernicious doctrines” to which she might expose the Kanak, she retorted, “What a shame that they did not send Galliffet to give them cannibalism lessons!” General Gaston de Galliffet played a central role in the brutal slaughter of thousands of Communards during the war’s final “Bloody Week,” making him, in Michel’s eyes, the true cannibal who ferociously “devoured” other humans. Michel made clear, “The Kanak race is better than we think.”

Michel’s connection with the Kanak was intensified by her strong connection to oral culture, which reached back to her provincial youth. Although raised among elites, she spent significant time with local peasants, whose social world she valued, especially the trans-generational, female-centered nature of its spoken culture. Orality held profound meaning for her as art, as politics, and as history. She often articulated a sense of holding aspects of the past within herself, and of the beauty and power of transmitting them through narratives. “There, at the very root of my life,” she recounted in her memoirs, “are legendary stories, dead with those who told them to me. But today I still see these phantoms.” She considered herself a conduit, embracing the oral traditions in their social, historical, political, sensorial, and mystical aspects.

The majority of the stories Michel selected for translation and transcription involved powerful, central female characters. Publishing tales of incorruptible, brave, heroic women – both human and mythical – she proffered an image of a culture that acclaimed women as much as men, a culture rooted in a tradition of gender equity. Undoubtedly a political decision, she intended the metropolitan and colonial French audience to recognize the implicit derision of French gender inequality. In her memoirs, Michel readily acknowledged the intensely patriarchal reality of Kanak life, critiquing their marriage practices and Kanak women’s marginalized status. In the legends, however, Michel centered peripheral female characters, elevated the importance of female roles, and increased the power of women and girls: women reject marriage – a female Faustian character in “La Génie Ondoué,” and a winged “daughter of the cemetery” in “Le lit des aïeux” (“The Bed of the Ancestors”); women protect children from a massively cataclysmic storm – in the origin myth “Déluge canaque”; women fight against the “pale men” and then give voice to the Kanak people themselves, lamenting that the whites “took everything that we had” – in “Idara la prophetess.”

Through her selection of particular narratives, and the decisions she made regarding their translation and modification, Michel depicted a distinct version of the Kanak world. She crafted a hybrid literature, taking oral tales, conserving the stories, maintaining their orality, and infusing them with an egalitarian, and in some cases feminist, sensibility. Their publication was meant to enhance the Kanak’s global standing and to bring them into the European historical narrative, re-introducing them as an alternative, recognized culture.

Michel’s commitment to the Kanak far outstripped that of even the few other Communards who sympathized with their plight. The intersections of her interests, her politics, her allegiances, and the circumstances of the 1878 Kanak insurrection against French colonization, meant that she, alone among the French, stood with them. For the other Communard exiles, the anti-capitalism for which they risked their lives and lost their freedom did not translate to anti-imperialism in the context of the penal colony. Their solidarity against the oppressive French state did not carry into empire, and it did not cross racial, or perceived civilizational lines.

The Kanak uprising resulted in enormous repression, including summary executions, mass deportations, and a rapid increase in property expropriation. France expanded the reservation system, which it had initiated in 1867, confiscating Kanak ancestral lands and moving people to “reservations.” Massive social dislocation, the destruction of customary structures, and intense immiseration took a profound toll on the population, which quickly plummeted. In the 1880s, France imposed the Code de l’indigènat, the indigenous law code, that – while making the New Caledonians “subjects of France” – simultaneously denied them civil rights, subjected them to “special” taxation, and prohibited multiple religious and cultural practices. The Kanak again rose against the French in 1917, and then again in 1984. In a horrible parallel with the 1878 murder of the chief Ataï, Jean-Marie Tjibaou, the head of the Kanak independence movement, and the former president of the revolutionary “Provisional Government of Kanaky” during the 1984 insurgency, was murdered by a fellow Kanak.

Today, many in New Caledonia consider Louise Michel a hero for supporting the 1878 rising. She has also garnered notable respect for her translation and transcription of Kanak tales, for the way she preserved the sound and rhythm of the stories and recognized them as an oral literature. Marie-Claude Tjibaou, the contemporary Kanak activist, politician, and widow of slain independence leader Jean-Marie Tjibaou, wrote in 2006 that Michel, “has captured the music of our languages, creating a kind of symphony which, if it does not constitute a formal linguistic work, nonetheless represents a beautiful homage to our language.” Tjibaou wrote this in the introduction to a re-edition of Michel’s translated Kanak tales, underscoring the honor awarded Michel by one of the most prominent Kanak. And on the one hundredth anniversary of Michel’s death, in 2005, the Tjibaou Cultural Center, the vital heart of Noumean cultural life and history, held an exhibit on the exiled Communards, giving special recognition to Michel.

The Kanak valorization of Michel reflects a transtemporal understanding of political solidarity and allegiance. Rising above her vocabulary linking them to the stone age and Medieval Europe (historically specific language undoubtedly denigrating and offensive), contemporary Kanak have demonstrated a willingness to view Michel – a historical figure – historically. Just as she analogized Kanak life to past eras, seeking to better present the New Caledonians to the European world, many 21st-century Kanak have recognized the historical specificity of Michel’s language, reading through it to find its radical and liberatory intent.

Carolyn J. Eichner is a feminist historian of modern France and empire. She is Chair of Women’s & Gender Studies at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, where she also teaches history. Her publications include Surmounting the Barricades: Women in the Paris Commune (2004), the forthcoming Feminism’s Empire, and recent articles on imperialism, the gendered prison colony, and feminist opposition to the patronym.