Monday, January 05, 2015

Mi go long skul Bislama

Here's the cover of Terry Crowley's Bislama Dictionary, which my parents-in-law very kindly gave me for Christmas. Bislama is a creole that was invented by ni-Vanuatu labourers who were put to work on Queensland sugar plantations in the nineteenth century; today it is used as a sort of lingua franca in Vanuatu, a nation whose quarter of a million inhabitants speak at least one hundred and ten different autochthonous languages. 

Most of the vocabulary of Bislama comes from the English that was spoken in the Queensland bush and on sailing ships - 'savvy', which was a favourite word of the Carribean pirate and Johnny Depp lookalike Jack Sparrow, has found its way in - but the language's grammar is, linguists say, distinctively Melanesian. Words are spelt as they are pronounced, so that, for instance, Queensland becomes Kwinslan, and intricate metaphors are common - 'basket blong pikanini' (basket belonging to a child), for instance, is Bislama for womb. 'Mi go long skul!' means I'm going to study!
I'm going to study Bislama because I want to visit Vanuatu later this year, and meet some of the descendants of the ni-Vanuatu who were taken to New Zealand as indentured labourers in 1870. With help from the marvellous genealogist Christine Liava'a, I've been tracking these men through the newspapers and government archives of colonial New Zealand, and hope to include them in the book about blackbirding that I'll be writing this year.

Thanks to the erratic magic of the internet, it is now possible to visit even some of the fustiest documents of the nineteenth century from the comfort of a living room couch. While my older son has watched cartoons and recovered from his Christmas chocolate binge, I've been diving into newspaper archives like Papers Past and Trove, and pursuing leaky schooners and febrile, rum and blood-stained planters and traders across the Pacific of the 1870s.

There are uncanny parallels and contrasts between the piece of history I've been exploring and the present I inhabit. I look up from an account of the kidnapping and killing spree of Bully Hayes, the Pacific's most notorious pirate, to find my son watching a cartoon about a loveable old mariner with an eyepatch and a parrot on his shoulder. I read about the Melanesians found naked and dying in the locked and waterlogged hold of an Auckland schooner abandoned in the Gulf of Carpenteria, then check a news site and see photographs of scores of Africans adrift on a glorified lifeboat in the Mediterranean.

As William Morris said, the past is not even past.

[Posted by Scott Hamilton]


OpenID percutio said...

Good luck with the Bislama. Indeed the present is a historical nightmare.

3:23 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

10:05 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


12:15 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

What's wrong with poor old WM?

2:28 pm  

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