Monday, November 19, 2012

Louise Michel, "Old Abraël" (1888)


[from The Crimes of the Era]

The twentieth century was going to end.
The nations, cramped in cold Europe, had spread widely across the globe.
Everywhere new cities were raised, young peoples grew up and reabsorbed the old races.
The émigrés on the warm continents had recovered, with a climate without winter, the energy of their origin. There was no longer room for the desert.
In Africa, the sands had been replaced by a vast sea, artificially turned back into its original bed, which refreshed the air, and filled with life, instead of spreading drying winds; some canals joined it to the great Ocean.
The isthmus of Panama opened, like the isthmus of Suez, the passage to flights of vessels; the seas were nearly as populated as the land; no island was without inhabitants.
In the Caledonian solitudes, some cities, some villages, raised since the end of the nineteenth century, sent up the sounds of life.
The deep gorges of the mountains sheltered great crops.
The plains overflow with indigenous vegetables, mixed with those that were imported from the south of Europe, Africa, and the warm regions of Asia and the Americas.
The heights were whitened with a snow of cotton, in gaping bolls.
The bunches of rice sway in the marshes.
The castor oil plant spreads its wide leaves and red crests on nearly bare rocks.
Roads opened in the forests for the workers in wood; homes cut into the wilderness; on the banks of the Dumbea some steam-powered mills. Everywhere attempts at machines drive by electricity, in order to give more time and less fatigue.
This was all still primitive, for the beginnings barely dated back a century, not even a drop of water in the ocean of the ages.
In the villages, the popinées[1] still spun at the spindle the cotton from which they have separated the seeds with the aid of two parallel sticks, and which they then handed over to some simple cards.
Those cottons were those that the rural weavers worked for the sturdy materials, destined for the workers in the field. but the largest part was given over to commerce, being of that magnificent quality, long-fibered, delicate and even, superior even to the cotton yellowish of Georgia.
An old man, knowing the indolence that the hot sun brings, the previous century, spread the easy cultivation of the great cotton plant.
Some seeds being received by him from Bordeaux where one had made the attempt with them, he planted them, studied them and made them an element of prosperity for the colony, then almost entirely uncultivated.
He taught the natives how to sow these seeds at a distance of one meter from each other. Having cut a stick of that length, he drew a square with one hundred meters on each side, made them count in this square the ten thousand seeds by recounting as many times as they needed to their highest numbers; explained to them that the tree came without cultivation and was never attacked by grasshoppers.
Soon the driest sites were covered with a green mantle, strewn three times each year with the white snowflakes of the harvest
The old man had also developed the cultivation of castor-old plants; from this a well-being previously unknown to the natives.
Now the small tribes, mixed in great numbers unions with the whites, presented a splendid population, having the height and upright stature of the savage, the easy-going intelligence of the European.
For a long time, no new condemned had arrived from the countries of the whites, ignorance having disappeared everywhere, evil was only committed as an accident and tended to become freakish. Europe had evolved.
Old Abraël, with his head all gray, was still not satisfied: he dreamed of rapid progress. The stories from Europe made him dizzy and the tribes seemed far behind.
He was right, Europe went rapidly, always dragging behind it the late-flowering peoples, with its avant-garde of progress sent out in front.
Abraël was seated before his door at sunset; he told his great-grandson, how, in the last century, they were still primitive in Oceania; how the Caledonian beaches were uncultivated, the tribes ignorant.
Then, after the last racial war, understanding that they could never triumph over the whites, nor get back their liberty until they knew how to manipulate the elements, they were seized with a great sadness and, before the destroyed villages, they sat down on the ground and began to cry.
It is then that great events occurred in Europe; all men became free and the earth belonged to them freely. Each, according to what he could and knew how to do, worked in the common interest and used for his work and his life everything that he needed. Everyone produced more; no one was any longer the pit into which the lives of others fell.
The arts, the sciences belonged to all and as they could take human pleasures, those of the beasts no longer pertained to man. Drunkenness was a tradition more foul and [no?] less cruel that those of the ogres.
That was all.
Huge choruses sang on the beaches, in the basins of the mountains, leaving far behind them the old operas of Europe.
No labor was tiresome; the black, like the whites, made use of the forces of nature, as we use tools.
Electricity, magnetism, all that was used as generally in the world as fire is in our era.
The sun had long since disappeared behind the Pic des Morts[2] but Abraël still spoke.
Already Nahou, the mother of his great-grandsons had called them to put them in their little beds of cotton stuffing, soft as the nests of birds; but they still had many questions to ask him.
“Grandfather, what then was the name of the ancestor who waged the great war for liberty?”
“He was named Ataï,”[3] said Abraël with pride.

[1] Women.
[2] Peak of the Dead, a mountain in New Caledonia.
[3] A leader in the Kanak rebellion.

[Working translation by Shawn P. Wilbur]

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