Category Archives: Australia

When children grow up in the Kingdom of Bellavista

imageIn the Kingdom of Bellavista there lived two peoples. For centuries they had lived in perfect harmony, but lately there had been troubles.

High on the hill, there lived the refined nobles, who cultivated highly sophisticated sciences and arts. With great care and kindness they managed the affairs of the realm, particularly those they fondly called their ‘children’, the peasants living below in the valley.

For many years the kingdom was happy and prosperous, but then a visitor came from a far away land. He was a travelling minstrel who liked to stir trouble. When he heard the peasants referred to as children he sung, ‘But don’t you find that a bitter pill? Are you not adults just the same those on the hill?’ The minstrel sowed dissent in the peaceful kingdom. Soon other minstrels emerged from within the kingdom with songs like ‘No kidding’, ‘Not younger anymore’.

They started to ask questions: What shall we call ourselves that has more dignity than ‘children’? Eventually they determined that they simply wanted to be known as the ‘people of the valley’. They sent a deputation up the hill and demanded recognition of their new status.

To their surprise, they found that the nobles above were most understanding of their concerns and even begged forgiveness for their insensitivity. But more than that, they even proposed to establish a Centre for the Study of Valley People.

The peasants returned home vindicated. They felt proud that they were no longer children to be looked down on, but ‘people of the valley’ with their own distinct experiences and values.

But in the valley, there was particular group of people who were confused by the new arrangement. Down in the valley lived a small community of nobles, descended from those on the hill, whose function was to manage customs on the river port. They were accustomed to their privileged status as ‘adults’ living down among the ‘children’. But now they witnessed what were previously known as ‘children’ proudly identifying themselves as ‘people of the valley’. And these mere children seemed to win the approval of those from above.

So the river nobles decided they needed to change their story. They began to describe themselves as ‘people of the valley’ too. But not everyone was convinced of this, particularly from outside. Their peasant neighbours still saw them as patronising hill people, not genuine valley people like themselves. And their noble ancestors above viewed them as remnants of a older less enlightened time.

Looked down above, excluded from below, the valley nobles felt lost and abandoned. They held a meeting to discuss their plight. Amid the despair and confusion, a voice rose above the crowd. It was Tandurrum, an elder of the native river people wrapped in a traditional fur cloak. She generously offered to assist the river nobles: ‘As an original inhabitant of the valley, let me help you to change your ways so that you will feel more at home in the valley. Let me help you change from ladies and gentlemen to sisters and brothers…’ As she continued to explain how the river nobles could become people of the valley, their mood lifted and they could see a way forward.

So, would the river nobles take the advice of the original inhabitants, forsaking their historic privileges? Or would they continue to uphold the ideals of the hill, and become the overlooked in the Kingdom of Bellavista?

To be continued…

Dumont d’Urville’s epic tale of the noble New Zealander

imageInspired by Bougainville’s accounts of Tahiti, Jules Sébastien César Dumont d’Urville sought out a mission to explore the south. His first commission was in the Aegean, where he ‘discovered’ the Venus de Milo. In 1822 he was part of an expedition south, when it was still considered possible that France might recover some its recent losses with the acquisition of New South Wales. In his second voyage south, 1826-9, he studied the Pacific peoples and developed the distinction between Micronesia and Melanesia. Finally, in 1837 he was charged with the mission of reaching the magnetic south pole.

Dumont d’Urville was a keen scholar of Pacific cultures. He added Polynesian dialects to his wide range of languages, including Latin and Greek, English, German, Italian, Russian, Chinese and Hebrew. He died in a tragic train disaster with his family in 1842. After this death, a manuscript was discovered titled Les Zélandais: Histoire Australienne. He had decided against publishing this semi-fictional account of Maori life during his lifetime in case it threw doubt on his scientific writings.

Les Zélandais tells the story of the enlightened chief Moudi, who had been civilised by the influence of a virtuous Pakeha. Moudi’s rival, the barbarous chief Chongui, craves the Pakeha’s beautiful daughter Kadima and eventually forces her to marry him. They have a son, Taniwa, who resists his father’s brutal ways. Chongui sends Taniwa to Sydney in order to obtain fire arms. On his way back, Taniwa is shipwrecked, and eventually brought into Moudi’s kingdom as a captured slave, called Koroké. He soon proves his worth as a warrior and then falls in love with Moudi’s daughter Marama. Moudi eventually acknowledges Koroké’s virtue as a son-in-law, but is puzzled at the lack of knowledge of his family. Eventually Chongui wages successful campaign and takes Taniwa and Marama as captives. But Taniwa escapes and joins Moudi in a final battle against Chongui, at the climax of which the missionaries appear to instill peace and Taniwa is united with Marama.

The novel is based on the understanding that civilisation is not exclusive to Europeans. Even in the most savage cultures, such as Maori, it is possible to find individuals able to recognise the higher values of reason, godliness and charity. While seemingly favourable to the Maori as a redeemable people, Dumont is opposed to the concept of ‘noble savage’. Dumont subscribes to a more Hobbesian view of nature:

O happy Civilisation, fruit of the spirit’s meditations, fecund mother of enjoyment and bliss. Through you alone, roaming man of long ago, at the mercy of his passions, left his forests, gathered in groups and founded those superb cities which are evidence of his power and superiority among the beings of creation… In vain, a few jaundiced philosophes, a few morose critics have tried to deny your excellence and to defend an alleged state of nature which existed only in their disturbed minds. That state of nature is, in reality, only a state of debasement in which man is barely distinguishable from the beasts which surround him, and these same melancholy reformers would themselves blush at being taken back to that state. (p.84)

imageDumont’s elevation of the Maori is made possible partly by the denigration of the Australian Aborigine. While in Sydney, Taniwa hears of the hopeless state of native Australians:

‘this, my dear Taniwa, no more than thirty years ago was nothing but a vast, wild desert. Its inhabitants amounted to the birds in the air, the animals of the forests and a handful of those pathetic human beings whom you see going along our streets sometimes, almost naked, hideous and incapable of applying themselves to any kind of work or any kind of trade.’ (p. 127)

But in taking Maoris as his central characters, Dumont can’t seem to help using their position to pose questions about European culture. Taniwa is puzzled by the spiritless life of the people he observes in London:

‘I would never finish if I tried to report all their stupid customs, all their absurd practices which I have witnessed in quarters which pride themselves on being so enlightened. In short, where those people are concerned, their time is to contrived that every moment of their lives is devoted to imaginary duties and puerile offices, and it leaves them no time to devote to noble reflections of the spirit and to sublime and profound meditations.’ (p. 126)

Dumont’s more conservative position sees the South as a confirmation of European ideals. The benefits of civilisation among the Maori demonstrates the power of Western morality. To achieve civilisation, barbaric traditions have to be disowned. Yet, there is still something remaining in the Maori life that has a spiritual force often missing from the business of empire (particularly British).

Quotes taken from J.S.C. Dumont d’Urville The New Zealanders: A Story Of Austral Lands; (trans. Carol Legge) Wellington: Victoria University Press, 1992

Southern Perspectives website


In many ways, it is shaping to be a grim year. But as the Indian saying goes, ‘The season of failure is the best time for sowing the seeds of success.’ For once, we have a US President whose southern roots go beyond the Mississippi and extend to Hawaii, Indonesia and Kenya. It seems a good time for fresh look at the world.

Australia is often the odd country out in the South. Though located at the bottom of the world, its culture is still largely beholden to Northern interests. However, there is a growing number attempting to develop more independent ways of thinking. There are many conversations yet to be had with countries that have shared paths of colonisation and face similar challenges of distance.

A platform has been developed by a group of scholars to reflect the growing interest in south-south dialogue of ideas. It profiles individuals and organisations that explore a southern perspective on a broad range of disciplines, including creative arts, humanities, professions, social and physical sciences.

It is designed particularly to reflect on the position of Australia and New Zealand in the emerging south-south vectors of knowledge. At the same time, the site should be useful to those coming from all directions— north, south, east and west—who are interested in forms of knowledge that question hegemonic modes of understanding.

This year, the site will feature an ‘amnesty of ideas’—concepts that emerge outside Western centres yet have bearing on mainstream disciplines, including sociology, law, history, architecture and physical sciences. This is an exploratory phase that will help critically examine what appear to be outlying concepts and practices. This will help ground future activities, including a conference. also contains information about related south-south activities:

  • Conferences
  • Publications
  • Online texts
  • Journals
  • Academic Centres
  • Organisations

To stay in touch with these developments, you can:

To contribute to the site, you can:

  • Leave a comment to posts (or a general comment about the overall direction here)
  • Submit posts about relevant ideas, projects, publications or events

The idea of South: Australia’s global positioning

Issue 44 of Australian Humanities Review contains a number of important contributions to debate about Australia’s uncertain position in the South.

Margaret Jolly reflects on Raewyn Connell’s Southern Theory. She contests the use of South as a theoretical position:

In my view, use of the language of the cardinal points of cartography to describe inequalities between nations or peoples tends to naturalise and dehistoricise difference, to associate the points of the compass with the body habitus of up and down, left and right. Clearly this is at odds with Connell’s avowed aim to stress relationality between peoples and the changing contexts of power and knowledge across time and place.

Jolly proceeds to identify regional identifications that seem to be independent of hierarchy, such as the space of the Oceanic.

Her criticism opens up an important issue about the idea of South. Cartography has a tentative relation to experience. There is nothing in our immediate world that is necessarily ‘north’ or ‘south’. But that hasn’t prevented these directions taking on direct meaning. Through this axis the world is aligned along other vertical dimensions such as head and body.

Accepting that this has happened as part of colonisation does not necessarily lead to resignation. To contest verticalism it is important to understand the symbolic operation of world-making, and its contingent nature.

The existence of autonomous creative zones like Oceania is in danger of being subsumed even more easily into the North-South axis. It can conform readily to exotic view of the South as a place of collective spirit where society evolves in organic fashion.

If you don’t take a global view, someone will take it on your behalf.