Civilising the Pacific in Louise Michel’s ‘Kanak Play’

The French Australian Review 74 (Australian Winter 2023): 45–65.

Abstract: Among the more than 4000 communards deported to New Caledonia in the 1870s were many who had professional, literary and publishing experience. Despite the harshness of the conditions of detention, that varied according to the punishment imposed: déportation simple, dans une enceinte fortifiée etc, many contrived to exercise their talents in this unlikely setting and many more discovered an aptitude for cultural pursuits, transforming the life of the colony. Amongst the most challenging, perhaps, of their cultural endeavours—because of the considerable material that had to be sourced—was the performance of plays in ‘bush’ theatres and in Noumea itself. This paper briefly explores the role the deportees played in setting up theatres in Noumea and outside, and then examines a previously unpublished play by Louise Michel, set in New Caledonia and probably written while she was imprisoned there: Civilisation [Scènes de la vie des primitifs au vingtième siècle]. It presents the themes of the play as a commentary on the multi-faceted forms of exploitation that Michel witnessed or presciently recognised to be developing across the region in the context of British/Australian and French colonisation.

Keywords: Louise Michel, theatre on New Caledonia, Communard deportees, European civilisation, Kanaks.

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