Vale Greg Denning

Australian historian Greg Denning passed away last week. Last month he was an active participant in the conference Aesopic Voices, when he gave a presentation ‘dancing on the beach’.


Denning’s book Mr Bligh’s Bad Language describes the beach as a space for cultural exchange, where English and Tahitians could encounter each other on a reciprocal basis:

Living in Tahiti, Peter Heywood had made a discovery of native virtue. His was not a discovery of the Noble Savage or of the Primitive. It was much more simple and less a culturally centre image than that. It was a realisation that their hospitality and generosity were genuine, that he could not find the limits of them, that the greatest gift he could give them in return was to let them make him like themselves — to endure the pain of the tattoos, to speak their language, to know the subtleties of their thinking. It was a beachcomber’s discovery that there was more joy in being possessed than possessing. It was a sense of cultural relativism that not many could share from a ship. The beach was the only proper spot for such exchange.
Greg Dening Mr Bligh’s Bad Language: Passion, Power and Theatre on Bounty Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992, p. 258

The beach as a space seems one of the unique components of the idea of South. It reflects the idyllic nature of the South as a region free of social hierarchies and far removed from the structures that confine the human spirit. Of course, turn this postcard over and you find the other side of the story: the abandonment of northern explorers left marooned on a savage shore.

But this idea of the beach limited to a northern point of view? It is interesting to visit the islands of the Maldives like Kulhudhufushi which have no tourist resorts. Despite surrounded by crystal aqua waters, the beach is completely ignored by native Maldivians. Their focus is only on boats, fishing and the social life on the land. This is a reminder than any idea of South needs to have attached the coordinates of its origin.

Poem(a)s South-Sur


In 1997, a bi-lingual book was published that featured the poetry of Ramón Cuelho, Silvia Cuevas, Judith Rodriguez and Jennifer Strauss. This collection was introduced by Alba Romano, a lecturer in classics from Argentina who had a position at Monash University. Her introduction expresses a powerful South theme about neighbours yet to discover each other.

The South has always looked North. From there came the foreigner who imposed his language, culture and religion. The owners of the land lost their land and their names. The peoples of the South awoke, leisurely, to their oppression and they became sovereign nations. But still they look to change orientation and to look sideways, not upwards. Australia and South America share seas, parallels, and constellations and they also share cries of indigenous peoples who claim their breathing space and the migrants who, driven by hope and necessity, try to create impossible paradises in a new country.

El sur siempre miró al norte. De allí vino el extranjero que impuso lengua, cultura y religión. Los dueños de la tierra se quedaron sin tierra y sin nombre. Los pueblos del sur despertaron más o menos perezosamente de su opresión y se constituyeron en naciones. Pero siguieron mirando al norte, para imitarlo, rechazarlo, odiarlo o quererlo. Es muy hora de cambia de orientación y de mirar al costado y no hacia arriba. Australia y Sudamérica comparten mares, paralelos y constelaciones y también comparten el clamor inmigrantes que, impulsados por esparanzas o por necesidad, trataron de crear en el nuevo país paraísos imposibles.

Poem(a)s South-Sur Melbourne: Aconcagua Publishing, 1997.

Mauritius – is the South a mistake?

We began the journey way up in great Arctic landmass of Canada, where the idea of North frames a direction away from the dominant power—a loneliness that brings people together. Now we descend to the opposite end of the world, a little island in the Indian Ocean.

Early ideas of South speculated about an Antipodes that counterbalanced the known world. In this anti-world, the natural order of things would be reversed—day would be night and people would have feet on their heads.

Mauritius has several claims to fame. These are not the usual proud achievements—Nobel Prize winning novelists, the biggest of its kind in the Southern hemisphere, etc. Mauritius’ singular contribution to world history appears to be in its capacity to make mistakes.

The founding myth of philately is the Blue Penny stamp. On 20 September, 1847, a half-blind Mauritian watchmaker Joseph Barnard was charged with engraving plates for the first stamps to be produced outside the British Empire. After a visit to his friend the postmaster, Barnard mistakenly printed ‘Post Office’ rather than ‘Post Paid’. With this moment of absent-mindedness, Barnard had destined this penny stamp to acquire the current value of approximately €1 million Euros. Why should such a mistake be now so valuable? We tend to notice mistakes more than we do clockwork order. To what extend does our confidence in the bureaucratic systems of the north depend on the existence of their exception in the South?

The second claim is the Dodo. Portuguese for ‘simpleton’, the Dodo is a universal figure of ridicule. Though related to the pigeons of Southeast Asia, the Dodo abandoned the power of flight for a lazy life on an island secure from predators. For biologists like David Quammen, the Dodo is a classic moral tale of extinction through isolation: ‘that insular evolution, for all its wondrousness, tends to be a one-way tunnel toward doom.’ To ‘go the way of the Dodo’ is to stupidly cling to weak provincial tradition in the face of a stronger global force. To what extent has colonisation been assisted by the ghosts of South’s flightless birds?

Behind these two clichés of Mauritian errantry lies a complex country. This Francophone island is populated largely by those of Indian descent. Though French speaking, for the past two centuries Mauritius has been a proud member of the British Commonwealth. There is a significant population of Creoles, descended from African slaves. Marginalised from official life, Creole culture developed a rich oral and musical tradition. The Sega is a national dance of Mauritius, which combines European polka with African rhythm. In the 1980s, this evolved into Seggae, by a Mauritian Bob Marley called Kaya, who was allegedly murdered while in police custody.

Today, Creole plays a prominent role in Mauritian culture. The publishing house Lalit (‘struggle’ in Creole) produces bi-lingual editions. This includes a collection of Creole folk tales such as the ‘Foor Bells’ which explains why diamonds became rare. It has also published the story of Le Morne, about Creole slaves who escaped into the mountains where they lived isolated from colonial settlements. When troops finally appeared, the population collectively leapt from the precipice rather than submit to slavery again. They were wrong. The British soldiers had come to inform them of the abolition of slavery.

As indentured labourers, the original Indians were illiterate, thus had no way of maintaining contact with home. They were predominantly from Bihari, where the river Ganges plays a critical role in cultural calendar. In 1897, a Hindu priest had a vision of a spring containing water from the Ganges. From this grew a legend that Shiva had spilt some drops of the Ganges over the island while on his way to deposit it in India. This lake Ganga Talao is now the site of the biggest annual pilgrimage of Indians outside India. It is home to paris, or nymphs of heaven whose beauty cannot be matched.

Mauritius is a treasury of mistakes. They constitute a wealth of possibility.

Lewis Dick and Jennifer Bartholemew at their collaborative residency as part of Common Goods in 2006

Jean-Lewis Dick, the carver was the seventeenth child of a Creole family, born on leap day, like today, 29th February. His mother died in childbirth. For all intents and purposes, he was a mistake. Louis has since used his marginality and built a culture for his Creole neighbours, using whatever resources he has to establish a sculpture school and gallery. Strange how something of great value can emerge from what seems at the time to be a terrible mistake.

Might the same be of the South. Used as a theatre of ridicule to show up the civilised and orderly North, perhaps these mistakes form a treasury of meaning yet to be unpacked.

  • Sarita Boodhoo ‘Religious and cultural traditions of Biharis in Mauritius’, in (ed. Marina Carter) The Bihari Presence in Mauritius Port Louis: Centre for Research on Indian Ocean Studies, 2000, p. 134
  • Roger Moss Le Morne (trans. Lindsey Collen) Port Louis: Ledikasyon pu Traveyer , 2000
  • David Quammen The Song of the Dodo: Island Biogeography In The Age Of Extinctions London: Hutchison, 1996, p. 147
  • Sirandann Sanpek: Zistwar an Kreol (Baissac’s 1888 collection) Louis: Ledikasyon pu Traveyer, 1997
  • Lalit (see particularly Lindsey Collen’s articles on the political issues such as Diego Garcia)
  • Mahatma Gandhi Institute the island’s only art school and gallery
  • Littératures de l’Océan Indien

The fall of South

‘Perhaps universal history is but the history of several metaphors.’ Jorge Luis Borges 

If you’re in Pretoria, you go ‘down’ to Johannesburg. Melbournians travel ‘up’ to Sydney. Cariocas in Rio pop ‘down’ to São Paulo. The expression ‘up’ or ‘down’ has nothing to do with any incline in the journey. Then why do we use a vertical dimension when talking about horizontal travel?

The association of ‘south’ with ‘down’ seems deeply embedded. If ‘language is the house of being’, then the blueprint for this arrangement lies in the Oxford English Dictionary. Open the OED and the first definition of ‘south’ is ‘directly opposite to the north’. So, it would be reasonable to assume that when you ‘north’ you find it defined as ‘directly opposite the south’? No, ‘north’ is defined as ‘the direction of the part of the horizon on the left-hand side of a person facing the rising sun’. So why isn’t ‘south’ the ‘right-hand side…’? Why does our reckoning start only with the north?

History is not kind to ‘south’. Most established references for ‘south’ in the OED are self-evident. However, in recent times it has developed a negative idiomatic use. The term ‘global south’ is first cited in an Economist article from 1975. At the very same time, the direction ‘south’ becomes associated with economic decline. A 1975 article in Business Week included the phrase, ‘If the market is headed South… there is a point beyond which information and growth prospects are meaningless.’ Recently, ‘south’ has been used idiomatically for any downturn, including marriage going ‘south’ (R. B. Parker, 2003) and a night scene that is ‘south of anemic’ (N.Y. Times, 2006).

It may seem a minor conceit. This use of ‘south’ is metonymically related to the downward trajectory of financial graphs at times of economic decline. But it is clearly a powerful idiom given its generalisation to all situations of decline.

This use of ‘south’ has particular power in the USA. The phrase ‘going south’ also refers to someone who absconds with money gained illicitly at a poker game. The allusion is to someone who has escaped to Mexico, beyond the reach of the law.

Given this geographic locus, it would be interesting to know if this pejorative use of ‘south’ is limited to English. We can perform a simple test. When you type the phrase ‘market is going south’ into Google, you receive 5,150 hits. Whereas if you enter the same phrase in Spanish (‘mercado va sur’), you draw a blank. This Anglo usage of ‘south’ prompts a question. Is the ‘verticalisation’ of ‘south’ one of those turns of language designed to service a specific power structure? Imagine the Board meeting of a New York-based financial organisation determining whether to relocate to Buenos Aires—‘Why would we want to move down there’?

The subtle operations of power in language have been noted before. In Violence and Metaphysics, Derrida described the ‘heliological’ metaphor of the Enlightenment as ‘providing an alibi for the historical violence of light’. The identification of light with knowledge was complicit with the operations of slavery and exploration that serviced colonial power. Derrida illuminated the dark motives at play in the gloomy minds of blackened characters.

But we shouldn’t be too downbeat about the idea of South. By following its path through history and space, we might have a better understanding of how it has been constructed.

So why is South left scraping the bottom of the barrel? Let’s see what we can discover from the different ideas of South.

Is Canada south?

In 1964, the Canadian pianist Glenn Gould took the Muskeg Express, a train that travels north more than 1,000 kilometres from Winnipeg to Churchill, in the upper reaches of Manitoba. At breakfast, he struck up a conversation with a surveyor Wally McLean and was impressed to learn about his ‘craft’ which was ‘to find in the most minute measurement, a suggestion of the infinite’.

Gould subsequently invited Wally to be the narrator for a radio documentary called the Idea of North. The one hour program included five voices in a contrapuntal structure that interwove varying strains of romanticism, cynicism and reflection. The nurse Marianne Schroeder describes her initial fears about the monotony of the North and how she began to identify with its innocent beauty. Frank Vallee criticises attempts at ‘northmanship’ where one seeks to outdo the other in experiences of remoteness.

Gould was notorious for eschewing the concert hall and retiring to the privacy of the recording studio. Accordingly, what interested Gould in the North was the experience of solitude. He identified with austere Nordic composers such as Sibelius, Bach, and Schoenberg.

Out of this isolation emerges a nation. Fellow Canadian composer R. Murrary Schafer stated that ‘All the energy of the world radiates from the Magnetic North Pole.’ One of the prophets of Canada’s north was Vilhjalmur Stefansson, an Arctic explorer of Icelandic descent. In 1922 he wrote ‘There is no northern boundary beyond which productive enterprise cannot go until North meets North on the opposite shore of the Arctic Ocean.’ This North is Canada’s frontier.

For Jim Lotz, Canada is founded on those parts of the North American continent that few others wanted. The North thus becomes a secret appreciated only by Canadians. Kevin McMahon describes the Arctic as Canada’s own mythological territory, defining nationhood in the same way that the Wild West defined the USA and the open seas defined England.

There have been attempts to broaden this idea of North beyond Canada. In Peter Davidson’s Idea of North, he notes the visit to St Petersburg in 2003 by the Canadian Governor General Adrienne Clarkson. She proposed to the Russians a ‘new humanism of the North’ shared to reverse the southern perspective that sees the far North only as a region to be exploited for its natural resources.

Canadian identity is grounded in the North. In her Canada and the Idea of North, Sherrill Grace quotes Henry Beissel’s Cantos North (1982) that the north ‘discovered us / fell upon our vanity / with tomahawks of ice’. Grace describes the Canadian idea of North as a habitus— a deep-seated phenomenological orientation that informs the Canadian sense of self.

It’s an interesting challenge with which to begin a journey to the idea of South. To what extent might the idea of South that we are exploring here be a version of the Canadian idea of North? Both might entail concern for a region that needs protecting from the rest of the world. A sense of inferiority becomes a noble mission.

And on the other hand, is Canada south? If you take colonisation as the common element linking countries of the South, then Canada shares much in common with settler nations like Australia and South Africa. A recent book by Joan Fairweather identifies the common cause shared between Canada and South Africa in the land claims of their Indigenous peoples.

So why couldn’t Canada be South? This question brings into relief the physical sense of South, evident in the weather, the skies and the nature. It points to a problem that an idea of South must resolve: how to reconcile the historical trajectory of the South with its physical reality. Canada puts that question on our agenda.

It also raises the possibility that the division between North and South may not be binary. If South is defined in opposition to a dominant North, then North eventually becomes South when its power wanes with distance in whatever direction. This is the idea of South as periphery. And if for Europeans the South is the realm of sunshine, then in countries like Australia, the northern state of Queensland is more south than Victoria below it.

These complexities prompt a dynamic concept of space. But how elastic can an idea of South be before it loses its meaning? Where does South end? What is the limit of South?


Listen to the start of Glenn Gould’s Idea of North

  • Peter Davidson The Idea of North London: Reaktion, 2005
  • Joan G. Fairweather A Common Hunger: Land Rights In Canada And South Africa Calgary: University of Calgary Press, 2006
  • Sherrill Grace Canada and the Idea of North McGill-Queen’s Press – MQUP, 2002
  • Jim Lotz Northern Realities: The Future of Northern Development in Canada Toronto: New Press, 1970

A Journey through the Souths of the World