Numea, 3 June 1893

For today there was a full program planned. In the morning at 8 o’clock the governor fetched me in his boat to visit the prison which was to be constructed on the island of Nu on the spot where the first penal depot had been built in 1864. Here the hard criminals as well as those who committed crimes during their time of detention which results in harder conditions or a prolongation of the sentence were to be kept. Furthermore the prisoners coming newly from France or from the colonies are to stay there until they can be distributed to the various places on the island.

After half an hour we landed at a garden which is assigned to the director of the establishment. It consists of a large number of large widely dispersed locations which we visited guided by the director. We started at a small barracks where a detachment of about 100 men of marine infantry under the command of a captain was staying. Then we had a look at various workshops where the prisoners performed various crafts such as a bakery, locksmithery, carpentry etc. In this prison too the prisoners are housed during the night in long rows of houses side by side like in Montravel. Only here the houses are surrounded by high walls. The middle of the housing complex was a place of execution where on occasion the guillotine is set up; all prisoners have to attend the executions on their knees while behind them the soldiers take up position with loaded rifles.

Above the prisoner houses rises a mighty building without windows in which small cells intended for the hardest criminals and namely the recidivists. These contain wooden beds with a blanket each to which the prisoner can be shackled with iron bars. To my surprise I found books in some of the prisoner’s cells. The director of the prison intends to house the hardest criminals in other locations without beds where the prisoner has to sleep on the naked ground and has no benefits at all.

The first cell whose iron door was opened for me held a six-times murderer whose fate rested on the outstanding decision of the president of the republic. When the governor directed a few questions to the prisoner condemned to death, he showed his bad behavior and answered quite impertinently. The criminal was shackled on one foot. The other leg which had been wounded by a revolver shot when he had attacked one of the guards was bandaged. A still young man of a strong almost Herculean build, the deported had started his criminal career by murdering his lover.

I had almost all the cells in the building opened and made the impression that the inmates showed without exception impertinent behavior which was evident in their answers. True criminal physiognomies that indicated crime and vice and made us realize that we faced the scum of the earth.

A part of the inhabitants of these houses  is awaiting their turn at the guillotine which was shown next. I had this earnest instrument of justice never seen before and could not resist an awkward feeling, due not in the least to the the cruelties of the large revolution which passed through my mind. The executioner, a former prisoner, a truly vile guy demonstrated how a criminal is tied to the horrible board and explained the mechanism of the machine. Finally he let the blade crash down on a reed bundle which was cut through by the impact of the falling executioner’s sword. This was accompanied by the vile man’s cynical jokes and smiling, he finally presented me with his photograph which had his name and the following words: „Executeur des hautes oeuvres“.

We visited also the magazine with all supplies and tools for road construction and then walked some kilometers to the hospital which was under the care of merciful sisters and held about 150 sick persons and is situated in a beautiful, healthy location at the edge of the sea. It was exemplary well run, especially concerning cleanliness and order.

Next to the hospital was an institution for the mentally ill with a large garden where these unfortunate humans seemed to be as well cared for as was possible. During my visit there were scenes similar to those in other mental homes. As all the poor ill persons approached us and gave speeches, presented themselves as kings of Spain and other countries, declared to be kept here illegally as mentally ill persons and uttered many words of sad mental state. One man who suffered from rage attacks of such an intensity that he could break iron bars that were as thick as a thumb showed me a nice blanket he had woven.

Leaving this dark place we drove in the barge and then with the wagon to the country retreat of the governor which was half an hour outside of Numea to attend here a Pilu-Pilu, that is a music and choreographic and warlike performance of the natives, in the honor of M. Gallet, the official in charge of native affairs. Under a tent that is usually set up on a place for lawn tennis games we enjoyed this strange but exciting spectacle.

Two groups of about fifty natives each from Montfaue and Huailu performed a funeral dance together accompanied by song. These groups alternated in the performance of a number of dances and then made room for the natives from Bai who also excelled in dance and song. The natives of Montfaue then sang a song that told about episodes and memories of the uprising of 1878, the year of uprising and war. In these fights the tribe of Unua fought on the French side. One of that tribe, a chief called Dui won fame by his audacity in the fight against the rebellious natives.

The members of each tribe distinguish themselves by their appearance from other tribes only in details. Their dances and songs are also similar. All actors, tall beautifully grown men, wore full war costumes with long spears and heavy clubs while the chiefs wearing many centimeters more of clothing than during the hunt yesterday were also armed with axes made out of serpentine stones. White cock feathers as well as combs stuck into the thick curly hair served as headdress.

The dances which were executed with a precision that would make any well drilled corps de ballet proud were accompanied by wild but at least rhythmic songs which included the singers convincingly imitating animal voices and sounds of nature. The choreographic productions — every single movement was executed by all dancers in sync — were partly funeral dances, that is religious ceremonial, partly war dances partly the illustration of emotions, actions, customs, machines etc. Thus one could see in an audacious step and movement: fruit bats, cattle, love, war canoes, a taro harvest feast, hunting, fishing, a free horse, the turning of a ship screw, a European threatening with his finger, a man with crippled arms, even the signals of a semaphore and surveying the land — for a ballet master a true treasure chest of surprising new effects.

In their songs these wild artists express partly harmless views and exhortations partly energetic inimical and bellicose thoughts and even examples of anthropophagous poetry. The latter was namely also the case in the sung episodes about the year 1878 of the Montfaue. Whatever the individual truth behind the content of these tales they were taken in their whole originality from the points of view of a primitive people and formed in a most naive way: „Prepare for the dance (Nipagüeü-nipagüeü)! — You are numerous, all begin! Dance the Nequipin! — Put a canoe in the river! — Have persons thin due to the inundation and his ship be carried away! — Prepare for battle! — Shout the war cry! — We want to kill chief Dui! — I will cut his brother Meino in two pieces! —“ etc.

The spectacle received great interest not only because it permitted insight into the importance of dance and song for these primitive humans as a means to express their desires, moods and feelings but also because these spectacles showed an excellent powers of observation and real talent to perform the noticed. They thus confirm the above average intelligence of the wild artists. Most remarkable was the endurance and the effort with which they danced and sang as well the rage that flashed in the physiognomies of the dancers.

The following spear throwing of the natives offered nothing exceptional as they were probably exhausted and excited from the dance so that many spears missed their target. The slinging of stones however was very original. The islanders put hard stones that they had sharpened at both ends into conical points into a twisted slip knot made out of fibers which they swung around in circles so that the stone escapes with speed and flies toward the distant target with force. The projectile flies hurling through the sky and penetrates even fairly think planks. These slings were once used as dangerous weapons in the never-ending fights between the different tribes.

This production was followed by a Pilu-Pilu native from Lifu, the largest of the Loyalty islands. The facial characteristics of these islanders who also have Polynesian blood mixed in are more beautiful than those of the natives of New Caledonia. They are also said to be more intelligent and more open to trade with Europeans than the latter. In contrast to the New Caledonians the  Lifuese were painted in the most flashy colors mostly vermilion and sky-blue. Even their faces had been fully covered and individual artists wore grotesque face masks. The Lifu islanders acted in two groups one of which performed a dance of the warriors accompanied by song. The other produced an episode of the family history of an old demon again with song and dance. The latter production starting with monotonous singing suddenly turned into wild pantomimic movements that however were executed only by a few artists while the others crouched or clapped hands and shouted.

This performance had an erotic character as it treated the kidnapping of the wife of an old demon by multiple young devils. These appear and try to lure the wife away from the old demon with all kinds of inciting tales. The old demon’s warning voice dies away in vain. „Come with us, our land is beautiful, and the paths that led there fine“ sing the young demons. After the fearful old demon’s „Don’t listen to them“ the flighty wife sings „I will follow you“, so that the old demon left alone can only ask the empty question „Where is my wife?“ and sadly answer in resignation „I have lost her..!“ The show would not have been suitable for ladies as the wild artists enjoyed their exuberant even unrestrained fantasies and many alternating songs especially that between the wife and the young devils left out nothing of comic and drastic matter.

Thus the program of the morning was complete. I then returned on board while my gentlemen ambled through the town and there made a number of purchases of ethnographic objects for me.

In the government building illuminated brightly as daylight by lampions and gas flames and whose entrance was a glittering triumphal arch, the governor hosted a gala dinner attended by about thirty dignitaries of Numea among them the bishop, the president of the council, the ship commander, the colonel of the infantry regiment, various councillers and other officials. In full concordance with the long duration of the hunting breakfast, the dinner lasted considerable time too so that after two hours no end was in sight. When the champaign was opened, the governor rose to offer a long but good and well received toast to His Majesty and me to which I replied with a few words. The dinner music was provided by a band composed of prisoners. As waiters too deported persons were used who probably had only been sentenced for small crimes and who wore immaculate livery appropriate to the occasion instead of prisoner clothing.

After the dinner which we left only at a late night hour, M. Picquie led me into a side room where he presented me a displayed collection of Kanak weapons and fetishes and to my pleasant surprise, to offer it, a kind act for which I am all the more thankful to the governor as this collection contains some pieces that are valuable due to their rarity and thus are a valuable enrichment to my prior acquisitions.

In the brightly illuminated garden a dance number by the Loyalty islanders was seen by a large audience as the governor had invited also the staff of Elisabeth“ and those of the French warships. The show resembled those in the morning only the wild men accompanied  their dances with sounds of somewhat primitive musical instruments, a kind of drum made out of leaves and plant fibers.

Then we said good-bye to the governor, assured him our vivid thanks for the most obliging and even cordial reception he gave us as well for his successful efforts to make our short stay on New Caledonia as agreeable and as educating as possible and repeated our large interest for this island.

Links

  • Location: Numea, New Caledonia
  • ANNO – on  03.06.1893 in Austria’s newspapers.
  • The k.u.k. Hof-Burgtheater is playing „Der letzte Brief“. The k.u.k. Hof-Operntheater is closed from 1 June to 19 July.

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