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Colonial literature today : where are Indigenous peoples ?" | Martin Préaud - 23 mai 2012

About "Ce qu’il advint du sauvage blanc" a novel by François Garde, (Gallimard, 2012)

A book by François Garde entitled "Ce qu’il advint du sauvage blanc" (“What became of the white savage”) has recently been awarded the prestigious Goncourt prize for first novel, the French press being unanimous in praising its merits. This novel alternates two narrative forms : firstly, it tells the story of Narcisse Pelletier, a French sailor who finds himself abandoned on the coast of Australia and is subsequently welcomed by an Aboriginal « tribe » in 1858. Another narrative stream is made of the letters sent by Octave de Vallombrum - a well to do man with a passion for science - to the President of the Paris Geographical Society, in which he provides meticulous details about the circumstances of his meeting Narcisse in Sydney in 1875, and bringing him back to France and his native French language.

Garde’s book raises two specific concerns : the first lies with the ambiguous links woven between historical truth, memory and fiction in the novel. The words used here to describe the Aboriginal “tribe” and the “savage” state of Narcisse after 18 years spent in its midst are blatantly colonialist, embracing all the stereotypes historically used to assert British domination over the Indigenous nations and peoples of Australia. No signs of critical distance, elements of contextualization or irony can be found in the narrative, thus raising particularly alarming ethical issues as the historical and ethnographic documents existing on the « tribe » are numerous and the author made clear he purposely researched none of these.

Another major concern lies with the total absence of reactions from French literary critics on the aforementioned issues. It raises questions over the apparent acceptance of a colonialist ideology within spaces and memories not directly linked to France and its Empire. Would we have experienced a similar scenario, had the action been based in New Caledonia, where François Garde, a high profile public servant had previously been working ? Have French critics ever heard of a postcolonial literary and historical critic ? How should we interpret that the political issues surrounding indigenous memory (and the ways the construction of such a memory impacts the fulfilment of their rights) have received so little interest in France ?

An Australian researcher, Stephanie Anderson - who has translated the original story and experiences of Narcisse Pelletier living among the Uutaalnganu as related by Constant Morland (published in 1876) - has alerted her French colleagues over these issues. We publish here one of her critical responses that restores the historical and ethnographic space where François Garde’s imagination unfolds.


The text below is by researcher Stephanie Anderson :

Recently in France the prestigious Prix Goncourt du Premier Roman was awarded to François Garde for his novel Ce qu’il advint du sauvage blanc [What became of the white savage] (1). The book has received unanimous praise from French critics. The publication of the novel by Gallimard, its critical reception and now this prize show that the old stereotyping of Australian Indigenous people is alive and well in the French literary world. I have already published a response to this novel and the serious concerns it raises on several websites (2). Garde’s novel was “inspired by the true story” of the French sailor Narcisse Pelletier. I read it because I had spent considerable time researching his story in order to provide an annotated translation into English of Pelletier’s account of his experiences (3). Here I would like briefly to set the record straight in terms of present knowledge about Pelletier and about the indigenous people the novel exploits and unjustly and unjustifiably misrepresents in its fictional depiction of the simplistic, sometimes brutal, sexually uninhibited “tribe” the novelist places in the north east of Australia where the real Narcisse Pelletier came to live after a shipwreck, and where the Sandbeach People of Cape York, and other Aboriginal groups, still live today.

Pelletier was shipwrecked in New Guinea and then abandoned near Cape Direction towards the tip of Cape York Peninsula in tropical Queensland in 1858. An Aboriginal family of the Uutaalnganu, one of the linguistic groups of the Pama Malngkana, or Sandbeach People, saved the boy’s life – he was then only 14 – and integrated him into their estate group, or clan. He remained with them for 17 years until the crew of a bêche-de-mer lugger, one of the first in the area, discovered him during a landing party and inveigled him into leaving with them. He was taken to the settlement of Somerset on the tip of Cape York where he started to regain his French and revealed his former identity, and then sent to Sydney where the French consul took him under his charge and arranged for his repatriation to France. After his return he found employment first as a lighthouse keeper and later as a clerk at the port of Saint-Nazaire. He died there at the age of 50 in 1896.

Pelletier told his story to a doctor and scholar in Nantes, Constant Merland, who recorded the narrative and published it, arranged by chapters dealing with aspects of Aboriginal life in Pelletier’s clan, in 1876 (4). The book, now rare, was republished in a new edition in 2002. The new edition is not complete and has been given a sensationalising title. Added to it is an appendix of no relevance to the account, taken from the controversial figure Carl Lumholz’s unsubstantiated comments about cannibalism in another part of Queensland (5).

François Garde’s novel takes Pelletier as one of its two main characters, gives him his Aboriginal name as recorded by Merland, provides other factual details from the story such as the name of the ships involved, and locates him on the north-east coast of Australia where he is adopted by a “tribe”. But then sheer fabrication takes over from fact. The “tribe” he invents bears no resemblance to any Aboriginal group on Cape York or elsewhere, apart from their subsistence mode being that of hunter-gatherers. Though Garde is at pains in interviews to emphasise in interviews that his “tribe” is fictional, he nonetheless situates it where Aboriginal communities of course live today. The novelist has said that did not to inform himself about the Aboriginal populations concerned, and that anyway the people seem to have disappeared. He hoped nonetheless that the depiction of “my savages” was “plausible” (6). Let me then provide some details about what is really known about Pelletier’s experiences and about the Uutaalnganu people he came to identify with so strongly for, as Merland says, by the time Pelletier was recovered in 1875, “he was no longer a Frenchman, he was an Australian” (meaning an Aboriginal man) (7).

While Merland’s book now stands as the earliest ethnographic account from this area, much research has been carried out with the Pama Malngkana by professional anthropologists and linguists starting in the late 1920s. Donald Thomson produced a number of articles about the Sandbeach People in the 1930s. Since the 1970s the anthropologist Athol Chase has worked with the community in and around Lockhart River, the Lockhart River Aboriginal Community now being situated about 60 km north of where Pelletier spent his time. Chase has provided an ethnographic commentary to accompany my translation (8). References to the considerable amount of anthropological and linguistic work relating to the Sandbeach groups can be found in Pelletier (9).

A key dimension of life for Sandbeach People has been dugong hunting, a dangerous, skilful and highly valued activity. Dugong hunting, in the time Pelletier lived there, was practised in double outrigger canoes using harpoons and long ropes. Three men usually hunted at sea together. The rich meat of the dugong was and is shared out according to an established pattern along family lines extending from near to distant kin relations. The classificatory kinship system extends widely in terms of kin and affinal relationships, with many corresponding kin terms, and appropriate behaviours that apply to these named relationships. Sandbeach People had and have a deep connection with their land, that of their estate group, their “heartland”, which is their spiritual focus and contains their mythic sites or “story places”. Pelletier’s estate group has been identified as that of the Wanthaala (this is given as Ohantaala in Merland’s book). A salient aspect of social organisation is the patrilineal moiety system, the two moieties being kuyan and kaapay. Pelletier belonged to the kuyan moiety (cayen in Merland). Pelletier does not say whether he was initiated but undoubtedly he was, given his integration into his clan and the importance of male initiation in this society. Important rituals were likewise associated with birth, marriage and death.

Contact history in this area dates from the 1860s with the operation of pearling and bêche-de-mer ships based in Torres Strait. Joseph Frazer, the captain of the John Bell whose crew found Pelletier in April 1875, had set up a station at Night Island, the earliest in that area. Frazer had made contacts with the Sandbeach People on the mainland but after Pelletier was taken away he reports that these ceased completely. But it would not be long before marine industries began in earnest in the area and incursion overland by Europeans exploiting resources such as sandalwood and minerals began as well in the years after Pelletier left. However permanent settlement by Europeans did not occur in the area in the same way as elsewhere in Australia. This, and remoteness, afforded Sandbeach groups some protection in terms of their long-term survival as groups with distinct cultural and linguistic identity but they were not immune from the effects of European incursion in terms of disease, reprisal killings, labour and sexual exploitation and forced removal of children from their families (the suffering of the Stolen Generations). The first Lockhart River Mission was established in 1924 (10). From 1925 it was situated at Bare Hill in the middle of Uutaalnganu lands, which helped maintain Uutaalnganu social identity, and cultural knowledge, both sacred and secular, especially in relation to land and seascape. It was also very close to Night Island, where the longboat carrying Pelletier first landed, and from where he was removed 17 years later, and immediately adjacent to Pelletier’s “heartland”, his Wanthaala country. Control of the community by the mission was taken over by the State Government in 1967, which “ushered in a period of harsh administration by government officials…dominated by the repressive and discriminatory regime imposed on Queensland Aboriginal communities by the National Party Government of Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen” (11). Today, subsequent to the passing of a State Aboriginal Land Rights Act in 1991 and the Federal Native Title Act in 1993, groups of the Sandbeach People have been successfully pursuing land claims to their traditional territories. In 2009 native title rights of the Kuuku Ya’u, one of the linguistic groups of the Lockhart River community, to an area of almost 2000 sq km of land and sea was recognised by the Federal Court (12).

One aspect of life in the community today that has attracted attention both at home and overseas is the work of the Lockhart River Art Gang. The young painters, and increasingly senior members of the community, are producing distinctive canvases, sculptures and weaving. Some of them have exhibited internationally (13).

In conclusion these points need to be made about the cultural world of the Sandbeach People to show that it bears no resemblance at all to that of Garde’s fictitious “tribe” :

• Sexual behaviour is not conducted in the open and watched by others. Strict rules apply to socially permitted marriage relationships. Rape is not condoned let alone watched publicly.
• The idea that any language is unable to convey the notion of future is ludicrous as the most elementary linguistic knowledge would show.
• The mortuary rites of the Uutaalnganu are complex not non-existent.
• The naming of individuals is complex, not a matter of giving a name to an individual in a one-to-one correspondence with some phenomenon. Pelletier’s Aboriginal name “Amglo” (or “Anco” in the Australian accounts) does not mean “Sun” in the Sandbeach languages.
• The Sandbeach People have a spiritual life involving mythical accounts and ritual practices relating to the totemic ancestral beings who formed the land and its features, and associating individuals and groups with particular tracts of land.
• There are men of renown in the Sandbeach societies and those with ritual expertise and knowledge but there are no figures who could be described as “Chief”.
• The notion of private property is not absent in Sandbeach culture.
• Tattooing is not practised by the Uutaalnganu or any other Australian Aboriginal group.
• The environment is tropical and rich in resources, the subsistence activity is based on marine and coastal hunting and gathering.

To end on a positive note : French anthropologists have made and continue to make a significant contribution to research and advocacy in Indigenous affairs in Australia (14) which, unlike Garde’s unworthy novel, deserves to be known more widely.

Stephanie Anderson
Adelaide, 6 May 2012

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