Essay: Briony Neilsonon Julien de Sanary

Wolla Meranda and Julien de Sanary

Late one afternoon in May 1920 a French steamship, the Pacifique, pulled in at Circular Quay and discharged its passengers after a four-day passage across the Coral Sea from Nouméa. Among the usual contingents of businessmen and carefully-dressed women returning from holiday in the Pacific, one passenger stood out: an old Frenchman by the name of Marius Adolphe Jullien (also known as Julien de Sanary). Though nobody on the ship or at the port would have had reason to know it, the 60-year-old had arrived in Sydney after spending almost forty years of his life incarcerated in France’s penal colony (bagne) in New Caledonia.

Sanary’s arrival in Australia marked a dramatic change in his fortunes. After decades of suffering and despair the Frenchman had been extended a lifeline by an Australian woman he had never met, but who had been profoundly moved both by poems he wrote clandestinely in the bagne and by the injustice of his situation, incarcerated for life in the French colony despite having served his full sentence. The woman was ‘Wolla Meranda’, the pseudonym of Gertrude Poyitt, an Australian poet, novelist and sometime-painter. What particularly attracted Meranda to Sanary’s case was their shared love of poetry.

All stories that any society tells about its past entail a process of selective adoption and discarding of detail. In his famous 1882 lecture ‘What is a Nation?’, French scholar Ernest Renan observed that ‘Forgetting is a crucial factor in the creation of a nation.’ In the writing of history and the formation of collective memory, it is important to reflect not only on the stories that are told, but also on those that are downplayed or entirely elided. One such forgotten story is that of Meranda and Sanary.

The basic contours of their relationship came to my attention a couple of years ago thanks to a historian colleague in France as part of my research into the history of the New Caledonian penal colony (the bagne) and its connections to the legacy of Australian penal colonialism. No doubt part of the reason why the story of Meranda and Sanary has fallen into oblivion is that Sanary wrote his poems in French and they never appeared in translation – I am the first to offer English translations of them and an extended analysis.

But even in the French-speaking world Sanary’s work remains little known. In the early 1930s Meranda published two edited volumes of Sanary’s poems in Sydney. Since then those books have lain dormant in the collections of a handful of libraries around the world, including the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, the British Library, the National Library of Australia and Sydney’s Mitchell Library. A few years ago a manuscript of Sanary’s poems was unearthed by the grandson of a French military doctor who had passed through New Caledonia in 1910. That manuscript has now been digitised and made available on Criminocorpus, the open access platform managed by the Centre for the Digital Humanities and the History of Justice in Paris. Fascinating in its own right as a literary monument of French convictism, the obscure story of Meranda and Sanary is a fragment of a much larger, forgotten history of New Caledonian-Australian relations, where settler colonialism and penal colonisation are centre stage.

By the interwar period cruise companies were regularly encouraging well-to-do Australians to take holidays in New Caledonia and travel journalists touted the French colony’s attractions. In addition to the obvious beauty of the archipelago’s natural surroundings, Nouméa’s other attractions were its cathedral, the colony’s largest nickel mine, and, for those seeking an extra thrill, the remnants of the bagne, which by the 1920s was in the final years of operation. Just like the Port Arthur penal settlement after its closure in the 1870s, New Caledonia’s penal sites became a drawcard for curious sightseers. Visitors from nearby Australia would peer through the grills of the prison cells and pose for photographs on the spot where the guillotine had once stood (it had since been relocated to the main island).

It seems that Meranda visited Nouméa in 1919. During her visit she paid a special trip to the nearby Ile Nou, the main site of detention for transported convicts. There, Meranda was said to have received ‘in secret, by mysterious means, a manuscript in French verse’ by a certain ‘Julien de Sanary’ (Marius Jullien’s penname). The manuscript included Sanary’s longest poem, entitled ‘Le Camp Brun’, a damning portrait of the toughest section of the bagne – popularly referred to as ‘the abattoir’ – a site of secondary punishment for transported convicts who committed a further offence in the colony.

Camp Brun was to New Caledonia what Norfolk Island had been to the Colony of New South Wales. Sanary’s poem tells of prisoners tied up and shackled in cells, their throats regularly slit by the brutal guards. There was no rule of law – terror and force reign supreme. Tens of thousands of kilometres distant from the French metropole, the camp’s director exercises total and entirely arbitrary authority, overseeing guards who engage in entirely gratuitous violence, deploying the full range of disciplinary measures to maintain control and prevent escapes – they hang the convicts from their arms and legs, they stand by and watch as prisoners froth at the mouth. At the end of an excruciating chronicle of horrors, the poem concludes with a conversation between the speaker and an imagined reader who says with incredulity: ‘It’s quite exaggerated, this poem, isn’t it, Julien [sic]?’ To which the speaker replies, ‘No… there were many things too horrible to be written of at all.’

On his migration to Australia in 1920, Sanary lived with Meranda on her property in the silver-mining town of Sunny Corner, west of the Blue Mountains. Together they spent their days writing. In 1929 Sanary passed away and the following year, as a final tribute to him, Meranda collected and published his poems (in French) in a bound volume. A couple of years later, she published a second volume. In publishing his poems, Meranda wished no doubt for his talent be recognised and for his life not to be forgotten. Today, these books of poems offer us invaluable insights, not only into the effects of long-term detention, but also into the dynamics of the relationship between these European settler societies, both of which (at different times) employed convict labour.

Sanary’s poems traced in damning detail the incessant cruelties inflicted on the convicts detained in the bagne: the everyday humiliations, the loneliness and despair, the physical exhaustion of forced labour (often pushed to the point of death). While other transported convicts fashioned wooden boxes and carved shells, for which there was a ready market in Nouméa, Sanary spent his spare moments penning lines of poetry which he would then transcribe multiple times into notebooks, distributing them to interested readers (presumably for payment).

In his poems, death and decay are major preoccupations. Many are memorials to deceased inhabitants of the colony. In ‘A Dawn of Spring’, Sanary refers to himself as the ‘bard of sorrow’. ‘Soil of Misfortunes,’ itemises the various apparently innocuous features of the colony which, in the eyes of the convict, have become overlain with gruesome significance. It is impossible to look on the view of a lovely tree without recalling the sight of executed convicts hanging from its branches. A gust of air rustles the leaves of the tree and the poet believes he hears a voice exalting the archipelago’s departed souls and its living ones – here, death and the living death that exile and incarceration produces are interchangeable. The New Caledonian bagne is a world of horrors, where sentient beings are drained of their vitality. The convicts are reduced to empty shells, their guards brutal tormentors. Hovering amongst it all is the penal colony’s resident executioner. In writing, Sanary sought to share the story of his plight and that of the thousands others incarcerated in France’s overseas penal colonies. Writing poetry provided him with solace. But he surely did not imagine that his poems would prompt a total stranger – Wolla Meranda – to personally intervene on his behalf and provide him with his ticket to freedom.

As a writer herself, it is not hard to see why Meranda would have been moved by the French convict poet’s plight. The sense of pathos was likely further heightened by tragic events in the woman’s own past that tied her closely to New Caledonia – in 1904 her Australian husband had been killed in an explosion at a nickel mine where he, like many Australian miners in search of work at the time, was employed as a manager. For Meranda, too, the archipelago was personally associated with death. Meranda would later reveal that it was on reading one poem in particular, ‘Liberation’, that she resolved to act on Sanary’s behalf, petitioning the French president for the convict to be allowed to live permanently with her in Australia. ‘Liberation’ describes a convict’s day of release in New Caledonia, after more than three decades in detention in the penal colony. Instead of opening a positive chapter, release proves only to bring yet more, even greater hardship. With no support he leads a fruitless search for work – his body, devastated by decades spent in hard labour, is useless for work in a mine, and he is shunned by civil society because of his criminal background. Release is a living death.

Meranda was shocked by the cruelty of this system, which was not only brutal but also in contradiction to its professed aim of not only punishing, but also rehabilitating prisoners. For Meranda, the biggest and cruellest contradiction of the system was the permanent exile that attached to transportation in the French system. Under the terms of French law, anyone sentenced to transportation was absolutely denied the right to ever return to France (a condition known as ‘interdiction de séjour’) and denied the right to leave New Caledonia except with the permission of the highest statesman in France, the president himself (‘obligation de résidence’). Made aware of Sanary’s helplessness and hopelessness – a convict who had served his time and earned his release, and yet was nonetheless trapped permanently in a society that oppressed him – Meranda felt compelled to act. And in January 1920 Sanary received word that the application for his release and departure to Australia had been approved.

After decades of suffering and hopelessness detained in the colony Sanary suddenly found himself facing a real future. Where New Caledonia was a place of constraint, Australia was a land of freedom. On the eve of his departure he writes of feeling like he is ‘20 years old; it’s like my feet don’t touch the ground, so joyful and happy are my soul and heart’. As the boat carries him away he says a final farewell: ‘Rock, ground of exile, where I dragged my irons! Farewell, depthless bagnes, hideous, terrible, cells and prisons, dark and cold cells, the complaints and cries, the sighs, the sobs!’ Crossing the Coral Sea, Sanary reaches a state of elation. In ‘The arrival’ he writes: ‘God be praised!… I’ve reached the promised land!’. A few days later, on a station platform west of Sydney, he meets his benefactress for the first time. Described in ‘Departure from Sydney’, he writes:

Finally the train stops, and, taking my suitcase,
Anxious and troubled I get out of the carriage;
At that moment, an elegant and well turned out woman
Extends a gloved hand saying my name.

And I think to myself quietly: ‘Is she of this world
Where everything is but selfishness and inhumanity?’
In her glance clear and deep as a wave
I think I can read these words: ‘Love and Charity’.

Meranda is his saviour and Australia his refuge. In ‘In Paradise’, written shortly after his arrival at Meranda’s home in Sunny Corner, Sanary describes feeling as though he has been transported to an earthly paradise:

I am in the paradise of angels,
I smile at this new time
Where I am wrapped up in swaddling clothes
Like a baby in its cradle….

Tragically, however, Sanary is unable to enjoy his paradisiac refuge. The emotional, psychological and physical injury caused by decades incarcerated in the penal colony cannot be wiped away simply through physical removal. In Australia he may be free of the taint of infamy that came with being a transported convict, but he is nevertheless marked by decades of mistreatment. He is constantly haunted by memories of the bagne. He writes that he feels like ‘the prince of Warragulla’ – a reference to the name of Meranda’s property – and yet, paradoxically, the comfort in which he now lives simply accentuates his suffering. In ‘I Will Live for You Alone’, he writes of how life in the penal colony had no meaning – “It was for me nothing but a dark hell, a pit” – but Meranda’s interventions gave it some. Nevertheless the pain of incarceration indelibly marks him so that he cannot transcend his past. In ‘My Lost Youth’ he writes of how even in the peace and comfort of Australia he is haunted by his experiences in the bagne:

I seem still to be in the dark places
Of that cursed hell, where I dragged my irons;
A bell rings sometimes, slow and funereal strokes
In my ear.  

Compounding that pain is his sense that his suffering is the poorest tribute he can pay to his saviour:

When you extended your aiding hand,
I ought to have refused your help and your support;
By accepting it, I believe I made myself guilty

But he would never confess to Meranda his suffering as he knows it would upset her.

Being recipient to Meranda’s kindness and charity causes Sanary great embarrassment. He is intensely humbled before her generosity:

Oh Madam, forgive me, if before your good deeds,
Sadly, I lower my head!
My poverty blushes to always be receiving…

His distress increases, for he feels ashamed that not even her kindness will ever be enough to erase the effects of decades of incarceration. The very comfort he enjoys in Sunny Corner drives home to him his inadequacies. In ‘I Reach the Harbour’, he describes his unsettled state of mind during a bout of illness, plagued by anxiety of what he believes is his imminent death. He has found refuge in Australia and yet continues to be dogged by suffering.

I am dressed, fed, better than any could be,
Cared for like a child, and I have no master,
I am free and independent.
What could make me so worried and morose?

Sanary and Meranda’s story can be seen as more than a simple tale of altruism, it is a reminder of the close links that have bound New Caledonia and Australia together and which today have been largely forgotten. The circumstances of the friendship of these two and the dynamics of their relationship dovetail with the broader connection that existed between New Caledonia and Australia, both European settler colonies, which – though, importantly, at different times – acted as depots for transported convicts who were expected to regenerate both themselves and the colonised land. The story of the helpless French convict rescued by the resourceful Australian conformed to a standard perception of the dysfunction and inferiority of France’s colonising efforts in New Caledonia, helping to obscure the violence of Australian settler colonialism, towards both convicts and, far more seriously, towards Aboriginal people, and draw a line under the continent’s own convict past.

Outside of New Caledonia, the history of its penal settlement is not widely known. Given the French colony’s geographical proximity to Australia, this is particularly striking. Few Australians today would be aware that the French colony was explicitly modeled on Britain’s convict settlement in Australia. While France’s other penal colony in French Guiana in South America would no doubt still ignite some flicker of recognition, thanks largely to Henri Charrière’s tale of dramatic escape described in his semi-autobiographical novel Papillon, the story of France’s penal colony in New Caledonia is today not well known.

Australian ignorance today stands in strong contrast to the veritable obsession here 150 years ago about the dangers of France’s nearby penal settlement peddled by the Australian colonial press. From the very moment France claimed possession of New Caledonia in 1853, newspapers regularly carried stories about the dangers posed to Australia by French transported criminals and political prisoners incarcerated in the penal colony across the Coral Sea. The obsession started to dissipate from 1897, when transportation to New Caledonia was temporarily suspended (in the belief that this would encourage swathes more free settlers to the French colony – it didn’t), and were further relaxed following the signing of the Entente between France and Britain in 1904. With the First World War came a new chapter – the one that commemorative services each year and costly museums in northern France draw our attention to. The sacrificial service of Australian soldiers on the battlefields of France is today the most prominent narrative stream in the story of French-Australian relations. The history and ongoing legacy of relations between Australia and New Caledonia, meanwhile, have been almost entirely forgotten. And yet the histories of these two European settler colonies are strongly intertwined, not least because of their shared pasts as settlements for transported convicts.

Today, Sanary’s story and poetry have been all but forgotten. Meranda’s contributions as a poet in her own right, meanwhile, have enjoyed some recognition through inclusion in reference texts such as The Oxford Companion to Australian Literature. In the late 1980s one of her descendants, Christine Karlsen, published a short biography of her, which included brief references to Sanary and New Caledonia. Significantly, however, it is Meranda’s poems about the First World War that continue to find widest currency; lines from one poem, first published in a collected volume of war poetry in 1916, were recited at an Anzac Day ceremony at Villers-Bretonneux in 2012:

They will never come back, our stalwart men!
They will never come back, our splendid men!
And Beauty weeps in the Land of the Morn
For the flowers of love that will never be born.

It is of course not hard to understand why Australia would choose to foreground its shared history with France in the First World War. Nor is it hard to fathom why Australia might choose not to highlight its shared history with New Caledonia, the settler colonial society built partly in its own image. Throughout the nineteenth century and into the twentieth, New Caledonia – a proximate French colony with a convict population – loomed large in the Australian imagination and impacted on various policies relating to policing, border control, and migration. Only rarely did commentators acknowledge the fundamental similarities between these two settler colonial societies. New Caledonia also served a powerful symbolic and discursive function, enabling Australians to assert their own relative moral superiority over their captive neighbours and to disassociate themselves from their own convict past. The rich shared history of Australia and New Caledonia as settler colonies with convict histories merits greater scrutiny, as it holds the potential to increase our understanding of the ways in which narratives of European settlement in these places have been constructed.

Works cited and further reading

Collin, Philippe, ‘Poètes au bagne de Nouvelle-Calédonie: Vies et écrits de Julien Lespès et Julien de Sanary… ou comment survivre par l’écriture,’ Criminocorpus (11 April 2015), (accessed 30 October 2019).

Collin, Léon, Des hommes et des bagnes. Guyane et Nouvelle-Calédonie un médecin au bagne 1906–1913 (Paris: Libertalia, 2015).

Karlsen, Christine, Gert, a Lady Ahead of Her Time (Brewongle: Descendants of the Poyitt Family, 1989).

Meranda, Wolla (ed.), Poésies de Julien de Sanary, 2 vols (Sydney: W. Pitt, 1931).

Neilson, Briony, “Convict Suffering and Salvation in New Caledonia and Australia: The Life and Writing of French Bagnard-Poet Julien de Sanary,” The French Australian Review, vol. 65 (2019), pp. 23–47.

Neilson, Briony, “Settling Scores in New Caledonia and Australia: French Convictism and Settler Legitimacy,” Australian Journal of Politics and History, vol. 64, no. 3 (September 2018), pp. 391–406.

Neilson, Briony, ‘“Moral Rubbish in Close Proximity”: Strategies of Distance in New Caledonia and Australia, c. 1853–1897,’ International Review of Social History (December 2019).

Sanary, Julien de, ‘La Satire. Recueil de poèmes,’ 1910, Collection Léon Collin, Criminocorpus, 952/, accessed 30 October 2019.

Snowdon, Warren, MP, ‘Anzac Day Dawn Service Speech’, Australian National Memorial, Villers-Bretonneux, France, 25 April 2012, (accessed 30 October 2019).

Stephens, A.G., ‘The Grief and glory of Gallipoli: Anzac Poetry,’ Brisbane Courier, 27 April 1929.