- Exile to Paradise: Savagery & Civilization in Paris & the South Pacific, 1790–1900
Beginning in 1872, nearly 4000 prisoners condemned for their participation in the Paris Commune of 1871 arrived on the Pacific island of New Caledonia, the only territory in France’s “second” (post-1815) overseas empire other than Algeria destined for substantial colonial settlement. Although the island’s history as a penal colony neither began nor ended with the Communards, and their stay lasted less than a decade, they have, as the historian Isabelle Merle observed (Expériences coloniales: La Nouvelle-Calédonie 1853–1920, Paris: Belin, 1995), always received disproportionate attention in the history of New Caledonia. Even in the context of the more culturalist colonial history of the past decade, heavily influenced by the work of Michel Foucault, Alice Bullard is not the first to focus on this remarkable confluence of colonialism, political revolution, and the disciplinary apparatus of the nineteenth century; Matt Matsuda has a suggestive chapter on the topic in his The Memory of the Modern (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996). But no one has hitherto devoted an entire book to that conjuncture, and Bullard’s quirky, often illuminating study offers scholars much to ponder, even if her approach ultimately proves less than satisfactory.
As her subtitle makes clear, Bullard’s primary interest lies in the discursive binary that structured the confrontations between the French state, on the one hand, and the Communards and the indigenous inhabitants of New Caledonia, the Kanak, on the other. By labeling both their political opponents and certain of their colonial subjects “savages,” while claiming to incarnate the intangible but clearly delineating qualities of “civilization,” France’s leaders managed to convince themselves that they had morality, whether Christian or, in the Republican context, secular, on their side. With special acuity, Bullard shows how the very notion of “savagery” conditioned French responses to everything the Kanaks did. Thus colonial officials interpreted the Kanak insurrection of 1878 as simply a manifestation of this savagery, rather than as a response to the French expropriation of native lands; similarly, the forces of the Versailles government refused to admit the political motivations for Communard violence. The label of savage in itself vitiated, effectively rendering invisible, all enemy claims to civilized status, for example the weapons technology and tactical skill of the indigenous allies on whom the French relied to defeat the Kanak rebels. Bullard also tries to show that the diagnosis of “savagery” had much to do with French judgments of their opponents’ capacity for affective relations with their fellows: thus, for example, the widespread if doubtful view that the Kanaks were cannibals signified a fatal lack of affect that disqualified them as property owners.
By the time the first Communards began to return to metropolitan France in late 1879, widespread reports of torture and other abuses had aroused indignation among French Republicans; Bullard notes the irony in the deployment of a native Kanak police force to brutalize both Communards and other deportees. Yet with a few notable exceptions, such as Louise Michel or the anarcho-socialist Jean Allemane, the former Communards were too preoccupied with their own homesickness, or, in nineteenth-century etiology, their “nostalgia,” to concern themselves with the regime of violence systematically meted out to the Kanak. Bullard too is less interested in the fate of the Kanak, whose refusal to accept inferior status has roiled the French polity as recently as the past decade, than in French notions of the other in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The book culminates in a genealogy of the social theories of Émile Durkheim and his disciples, especially Lucien Lévy-Bruhl, which Bullard traces back to the contradictions of Republican humanitarianism and its arguments on behalf of the humanity of colonial subjects.
Both the virtue and the signal failing of Exile to Paradise lie in the author’s commitment to explicating the textuality of her sources, which range from parliamentary reports, letters, and memoirs to obscure serial novels about the colonial encounter in New Caledonia. Bullard offers...