Charles Malato’s Tales of New Caledonia


At the age of seventeen, Charles Malato, the son of Paris communards, was exiled to New Caledonia with his parents. That’s perhaps a natural start for a life that would be largely dedicated to anarchism. Malato was an activist and a prolific writer, producing journalism, autobiography, anarchist theory, drama and fiction for both adults and children. It’s probably no surprise that New Caledonia features in a number of his writings, or that those writings bear the mark of a youth in the region.

I’ve started to collect and translate some of Malato’s writings on New Caledonia, beginning with an odd little book for young people, the 1897 New Caledonian Tales, written under the pen-name “Talamo.” Knowing Malato’s history and politics, readers may find some of the details of that text curious, and they are perhaps even more so when compared with the section from the autobiographical From the Commune to Anarchy (1894), reproduced below.

There are more New Caledonian tales to come. Malato contributed one more Kanak tale to Louise Michel’s collection of local stories, wrote a serial novel about young lovers among the exiles, and contributed a serialized collection of “Memories of New Caledonia” to L’Aurore in 1901. And that last serial includes another long account of the life of the indigenous chief Damé.

The last great chief of the Nouméas was Damé, whose story, which strangely resembles that of the pious Æneas, can be told in less than twelve songs. The son, not of Anchises, but of Sésagni, — a civil state as honorable, — Damé was a great hunter and eater of men who, by exerting his terrible appetite on his neighbors, compelled them to take some protective measures. One evening, while his tribe celebrated a solemn pilou at Watchio-Kouéta, the Kamb’was a vindictive tribe, led by the fierce Ouaton’, fell upon them and massacred three quarters of them. Dame, escaped, not without difficulty, with Sésagni and his son Capéia who, just like Ascanius, promised to walk in his father’s footsteps. He wandered for a few days in the mountains of the south, feeding there not on good human steaks, but on roots nearly as wild as himself. That diet would perhaps have suited a vegetarian, but Dame was not that. Very fortunately, old Sésagni recalled that among his numerous wives, one, the mother of Damé, belonged to the powerful tribe of the Touaourous and he enlisted his offspring to go ask for hospitality from that brave people. This was an excellent idea, and Damé hastened to execute it. In that era, the Touaourous had for their unconstitutional monarch one named Kaâté who welcomed the fugitives not with his stomach, but with open arms and made the neighboring chiefs grant them land. The son of Sésagni was not a man of straw: he built up a new tribe, soon augmented by marriages and by the constant arrival of Nouméas escaped from their vanquishers. Soon the exiles could taste, with the sweetness of vengeance, the tibias of their enemies, an eminently national dish, — for, from time to time, they would cross the central mountain chain to fall on the unsuspecting Kamb’was.

Damé recovered to such an extent that eventually he inspired serious misgivings among its neighbors, with regard to whom, however, he had always behaved with great honesty. Two small tribes, the Tyas and the Dodgis, combined against him, and one night they fell on new Nouméa villages, killing and burning everywhere. Damé, who in the midst of his adversity, certainly enjoyed good fortune, was awakened just in time by one of his own who shouted: “N’gon tôté, oushiot dé Dodgi iêt ghé!” a melodious sentence which means in the pure Touaourou dialect “You, sir, get up!” the Dodgis strike us!” The great chief hastily gathered some of his own, among them Capéia—-Sésagni had long since been eating the taros by the root—-and went to the forest of Goronourou. The next day, before dawn, Kaâté, informed without delay, as the telegraph did not exist, rushed with his warriors to the aid of his friend and Damé took overall command uttering these memorable words: “They struck us at night and by surprise: we will strike them by day and face to face.” In two battles, the traitors were exterminated: the survivors fled in their canoes, the Dodgis to the Ile Ouen, the Tyas to Kunié.

We could stop the story of Damé there, but it has a very Kanak epilogue: to treachery, treachery-and-a-half. The Dodgis, decimated in their exile by privations and nostalgia, eventually enlisted two of their number to go and beg the victor for permission to return. Damé, persuaded, as an Oceanian gastronome, that revenge is a dish that is best savored cold, pretended to give pardon and even accepted the little gifts offered by his repentant enemies. Those, numbering forty-eight, were gathered unsuspecting in the palisade surrounding the hut of the great chief; squatting on mats, they already chewed on bananas or sugar cane brought by the women of the Nouméas. Suddenly, Damé wrinkled his brows: at that Jupiterian sign, forty-eight war-clubs struck down the Dodgis, who didn’t even have time to protest against that singular manner of understanding amnesty. Some time later, the Tyas, pushed traitorously by the chief of the Kunié, who wanted to be rid of them, left for their country without first asking permission. They thought themselves invincible, having paid some European traders very dearly for a whole stock of old rifles; but, when they wanted to use them on landing, — for Damé was there awaiting them, — they could not make a single one fire and were exterminated to the last man.

These acts, as “heroic” as roguish, have been set down in legends that the natives tell in the evenings and that were taught to me, four years later, by a young Frenchman raised among the Touaourous. For the moment, the brave Simonin, proud to spread before me his encyclopedic knowledge, gave me some vague notions about the New Caledonian tribes, which he alternated with the tale of his campaigns in Mexico. When, on the second day, in the afternoon, we moored before Canala, he began again, for the tenth time, the story of the “battle” of Tampico.

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About Shawn P. Wilbur 2701 Articles
Independent scholar, translator and archivist.